Monkees Vs. Macheen: “Monkees Chow Mein”

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“If you’re going to steal, steal from yourself”

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Similar to “The Spy Who Came in From the Cool”, “Monkees Chow Mein” compels the Monkees to help out the CIS (a quasi-CIA) against our nation’s cold war enemies. The title indicates that this time the villains are from China rather than Russia. James Frawley directed and Gerald Gardner and Dee Caruso wrote this episode, which aired March 13, 1967. Gardner and Caruso borrowed heavily from one of their other writing gigs, Get Smart, for this one.

The Monkees are eating in a Chinese restaurant, and Peter is packing many leftovers. In the back-room of the restaurant, the villains, Dragonman and his assistants, Toto and Chang, discuss their nefarious plans. They’re putting a “secret formula” into fortune cookies; each cookie will contain a different part of the formula to be put together. Spies will sneak the cookies out of the country and give them to their “Asian Masters.”

Joey Forman, who played the title character in “Captain Crocodile,” plays the Dragonman in this one. As far as I know, Forman isn’t Asian, so they’ve got a heavy makeup job on him for the part. Dragonman is a parody of pulp fiction super-villian Fu Manchu, created by British author Sax Rohmer. There was a series of Fu Manchu films produced around this time, from 1965-69, starring British actor Christopher Lee. [Don’t forget the Peter Sellers parody! – Editor]  Casting Forman enhances the parody by keeping the tradition of casting a non-Asian actor to play the character.

Forman underwent a similar makeup process when he played Chinese-Hawaiian detective Harry Hoo, on two episodes of Get Smart, “The Amazing Harry Hoo” (1966) and “Hoo Done It” (1966). Both episodes were written by Gardner and Caruso. Harry Hoo is also a parody of another pulp fiction character, detective Charlie Chan. The villain in “The Amazing Harry Hoo” was another Fu Manchu analog, known as The Claw. In that episode, he has a very similar scheme to the one here in “Chow Mein”: The Claw was sneaking out parts of a secret formula in dry-cleaned shirts.

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Back to the Monkees: Peter (of course) accidentally grabs one of the fortune cookies containing the formula. The restaurant staff and other customers detain him. Peter calls Mike for help and the Monkees manage to get out onto the street, where they hide from their pursuers behind a newspaper. After the spies pass, Peter says, “Boy, those Chinese were sore at us.” Micky responds, “Maybe they thought we were Russians” in an allusion to “The Spy Who Came in from the Cool.”

Davy wonders what they wanted. Mike offers, “You never can tell. Orientals are a curious people.” Agent Modell (Mike Farrell from M*A*S*H) approaches and forces them all into a car at gunpoint. Davy wonders what they want, and Mike points out, “I don’t know. Occidentals are a curious people.” Aside from poking fun at the possible cultural insensitivity of Mike’s previous line, it also evens things up. People from the western or eastern parts of the globe are hard to understand. In other words, all people are mystifying.

At the CIS office, Agent Modell shines a light on the terrified Mike, and Micky and Davy who cling to Mike’s arms. Modell explains they haven’t been kidnapped; they’ve been taken into custody by the CIS for picking up stolen security information [Sure looks like a kidnapping. – Editor]. He’s tough and no-nonsense, in contrast to their cartoon-y panic. Modell, “You’re frightened, aren’t you? Mike, “Oh, you’re very perceptive.”

Inspector Blount comes in with Peter and clears them, “They’re in a rock n’ roll band!” Blount pulls Modell away to tell them he’s found one fourth of the formula for the Doomsday Bug. There’s a funny sight gag as the Monkees celebrate their freedom behind the two agents. Davy asks about the Doomsday bug. (Davy is a “curious people.”)

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Blount tells the Monkees that Dragonman is a “weirdo” with long hair and strange clothes, inadvertently insulting the Monkees. Embarrassed, he concedes that maybe Dragonman is not that weird. There’s a theme of insults that runs throughout this episode. The Monkees don’t want to help the CIS. As they leave, they back into the intimidating Agent Modell and scare themselves. The stern Modell and daffy Blount seem to be a reverse of the solemn Chief and bumbling Honeywell characters from “The Spy Who Came in from the Cool.”

Back at the Monkee’s house, Mike speculates that the inspector was just trying to scare them into helping. Micky is not so sure.

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The joke in the graphic above was borrowed from the Get Smart episode, “The Diplomat’s Daughter” (1965), written by Gardner and Caruso. Agent Smart and the Chief have the following exchange: Agent Smart: “We just came from the Smithsonian Institute, and we saw the plane, The Spirit of St. Louis.” Chief: “So?” Agent Smart: “Chief, Was Charles Lindbergh Chinese?” Chief: “Of course not!” Agent Smart: “Then, I think we’re being followed.”

Right after the Monkees go to bed, Chang and Toto sneak in to kidnap Peter. They take Mr. Schneider instead, indirectly insulting Peter by mistaking him for a wooden dummy. (And repeating a joke from “Your Friendly Neighborhood Kidnappers.”) After Dragonman scolds them, they return to the Monkees pad and nab Micky. Toto’s in trouble for bringing the wrong one yet again. Toto, “Forgive me master, but all Americans look alike to me.” This punch line was also used in “The Diplomat’s Daughter” when the villain, The Claw, explains to Smart why they kidnapped many blonde women, not just the Princess they wanted, “Unfortunately, Mr. Smart, all Americans look alike to us.” A joke deriving humor from the reversal of the usual stereotype.

Mike, Peter, and Davy go to the CIS to get help. Blount is comically inept at security in this scene. He takes a phone call and fills the caller in on the situation. Mike asks, “Who was that?” Blount enthusiastically replies, “I don’t know!” Blount assures them that they’re in secret headquarters and the enemy has no idea of their location. Yet, he shows no alarm or suspicion when a little boy comes in, takes their picture and runs off. Blount tells them to go home and “put their faith in the CIS.” I really enjoy the actor playing Blount with his energetically goofy performance.

Dragonman and Toto have Micky tied up in their backroom. Dragonman wants Toto to “find the Monkeee, get the cookie and bring the Monkee and the cookie to him.” Toto can’t get it right and Micky further confuses him by repeating it as, “you monk the cookie, cook the Monkee then find the cookie.” It’s similar to the “good and the hoods” bit from “Alias Micky Dolenz.” Toto is played by Gene Dynarski and was also in “Son of a Gypsy” as Zeppo. I know there’s concern about the characters in this episode that are played by non-Asian actors. I want to point out that Chang is played by Kay Shimatsu, who does appear to me to be Asian.

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Chang comes into the restaurant backroom to tell Dragonman that Peter is there. Micky rolls his eyes so hard it must have hurt. Dragonman says: “So, he has fallen into my crutches!” Micky: “You’re crutches?” The Dragonman: “Not my crutches, my crutches!”

This joke was recycled from (you guessed it) “The Diplomat’s Daughter” when The Claw introduces himself to Smart: Claw: “My name is the Craw.” Smart: “The Craw?” Claw: “No, not the Craw, the Craw!” (Here’s a little info on this myth about East Asian people and the r/l pronunciation.)

Back in the restaurant, Peter tries to order food but instead gets a mallet to the head from Toto. Peter cracks me up by stating gravely before he passes out, “No, I don’t think I care for that a bit.”

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Toto proudly drags Peter into Dragonman’s office, now that he’s got the right one. Micky sarcastically says, “Thank heavens, you’ve come!” Micky’s attitude toward Peter, with this and the earlier eye roll, is an insult. He knows Peter didn’t mean to do this, but he’s openly annoyed with him anyway.

Dragonman and his minions resort to torture to get info from Peter and Micky. Toto starts describing red ant torture. Dragonman says, “Stop! I thank you to do your fiendish work. But don’t tell me about it.” Yet another instance of repurposing “The Diplomat’s Daughter” as The Claw says the very same thing to his henchman, Bobo. The line is verbatim so I won’t retype it. (Bobo was played by Lee Kolima who was in two Monkees episodes, “The Spy Who Came in from the Cool” and “The Devil and Peter Tork.”)

Meanwhile, outside the restaurant, Davy and Mike attempt to rescue their pals. They wear lab coats and pose as inspectors from “The Pure Food and Drug Administration.” The boys try and push their way in to “inspect the kitchen” but Chang pushes them back out.

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Dragonman wants to move up to Chinese ice torture. Micky and Peter are frightened, “Chinese ice torture!” But then they ask, “What is Chinese Ice Torture?” They’re afraid of something they don’t even understand. Misunderstanding is the source of much of the xenophobia they satirize in this episode. Brilliant.

Davy and Mike return to the restaurant to engage in a different ethnic cliché: they pose as Italians wanting pizza, complete with accents and curled mustaches. Chang tells them they don’t make pizza there, so Davy and Mike aim for the kitchen to fix it themselves. Once again, Chang blocks them. I truly enjoy Mike and Davy working together in all these bits.

As Toto conducts the Chinese Ice Torture, Micky breaks down and admits they don’t know anything. They’re a singing group, which they demonstrate with an off-key rendition of “Last Train to Clarksville.” Dragonman is skeptical, “You expect me to believe you make money singing like that?” Micky clarifies, “I didn’t say we made money, I said we sing.”

Outside, Mike and Davy go into a phone booth to change into Monkeemen. The transformation includes putting on, instead of removing, Clark Kent-style glasses. It’s wonderful to see the Monkeemen again.

Dragonman decides to kill Peter and Micky if they have nothing to tell him. But, he offers them a Let’s Make a Deal-style choice to save their lives, There’s four doors, three will reveal sudden death, but the fourth leads to freedom. All they have to do is pick the right door. The bad guys leave them to it. Door one, we don’t see but hear an animal roar. The second door contains our old friend Reptilicus from “I Was a Teenage Monster.” The third reveals a cannon. The fourth door should be a way out, but instead the spies enter and menace Peter and Micky with weapons.

Just in time, the Monkeemen break down the door. An incredulous Dragonman shouts, “The door was open!” Peter and Micky declare, “We’re saved!” The Monkeemen prepare to fight Dragonman and his minions with insults, or as they call it, “psychological warfare.” Davy and Toto circle around each other and do faux martial arts moves.

Davy to Toto: “You’re a nail biter. You’re a nail biter and your mother never, ever loved you.” Toto to Davy: “You are too short. You are too short and you have no ear for music.”

Davy takes this hard, and turns to Mike for help with Toto.

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Toto is wounded, but Dragonman has had enough. He orders Toto to get the formula for the Doomsday bug. Mike fakes them out by holding a pretend bug. Davy “takes it” and flings it at them. This brand of psychological warfare works on Toto and Chang. Dragonman orders his men to “get them”. A waiter with a gun prevents the Monkees from escaping.

Time for a romp to “Auntie Grizelda” (Hildebrand/Keller). Lyrically, this is a good one for this episode, since it’s about an unpleasant aunt who dislikes the song’s narrator. The romp makes use of the doors with the Monkees and the spies running in and out of them. Peter, Mike, and Micky carrying some girls through the doors, and a man in a gorilla suit carries Davy. The chase ends up in the restaurant where the Monkees put in earplugs and use the giant gong to stun the bad guys. The CIS agents come in and arrest the spies, who are quivering from the gong.

Tag sequence where the Monkees are hungry and eat more Chinese food in the restaurant. Mike notes, “Gee, I didn’t realize you could get so hungry saving your country” and Davy points out, “I come from England, and I’m hungry.”

Obviously, there was a recycling of dialogue from Get Smart to The Monkees. Interesting that the jokes they chose to repeat were those that satire Hollywood and literary stereotypes of Asian culture. The comedy is subversive and reflects back on US and British paranoia toward other ethnicities, which had been going on since the 19th century and termed “Yellow Peril.”

I do see a notable difference between the two shows. On Get Smart everyone is a straight man for Don Adams and the story follows a standard spy plot. There’s more flexibility on The Monkees and more opportunity to make a statement about relations between different cultures. Possibly even an anti-war statement, given that this was during the Vietnam War, and China was backing North Vietnam. In “Monkees Chow Mein,” there is a parallel between the way the CIS suits view the “long-haired weirdo” counterculture Monkees and the Asian spies, the fear and the distrust. At the end of the day, it’s the “long-haired weirdos” who save the day, not the g-men.

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by Bronwyn Knox

Every couple of weeks, “Monkees vs. Macheen” examines the crazy, spirited, Ben Franks-type world of the Pre-Fab Four: David Jones, Micky Dolenz, Michael Nesmith, and Peter Tork alias The Monkees.

 

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Monkees vs. Macheen: “The Spy Who Came in from the Cool”

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“The Cool War”

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“The Spy Who Came in from the Cool” was the first episode written by the team of Gerald Gardner and Dee Caruso, who wrote a total of 22 Monkees episodes. It was directed by Robert Rafelson and originally aired October 10, 1966. I also want to point out the episode’s cinematographer Irving Lippman and editor Donald W. Starling. I can’t say enough about the behind-the-scenes team that made The Monkees, the director, writers, cinematographer, editors, and all the crew created one entertaining episode after another. I noticed some especially fun post-production techniques in this one, so I wanted to point that out.

The Monkees are driving the Monkeemobile within the actual episode. They get out and park while Davy begs the others to let him buy a new pair of maracas. Inside a music store, the big, Russian-accented Boris is stuffing microfilm into a pair of red maracas. Madame Olinsky tells him their plans: He’s to sell the maracas to a “very short man” who will want them in red and say he can only pay him 50 cents. I think we all see where this is going.

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Outside, Davy notes that there’s a man talking to a Popsicle, but this only interests Mike if the Popsicle talks back. The Monkees enter the store and Davy requests the red maracas, accidentally saying the spies’ code phrase. Boris tells him he is “very short.” Davy is too cool to look half as annoyed as I would. They send Davy and the other three out through the “secret exit” in the harp case. Then, the actual short Russian spy enters and asks for the maracas. Poor Boris realizes he’s screwed up.

The Monkees play “The Kind of Girl I Could Love” (Michael Nesmith) at the Vincent Van Gogh-Gogh, and we can see Valerie Kairys dancing in the crowd. This is the first episode featuring one of Michael Nesmith’s songs. Davy hears an extra rattle in his maracas and pulls out the microfilm, which he stuffs in his waistband. There’s no room for pockets in those tight pants. Boris and Madame Olinsky enter dressed as teenagers. Although Madame does look hot in these clothes, the couple looks hilariously out of place, and like Vic Tayback in the previous episode, they try to fit in by “dancing.” We have adults trying to infiltrate the teenage world by dressing and behaving like them, and failing.  Boris makes the subtle (and subversive for the time I think) suggestion that a teenage boy has hit on him.

The song finishes and the spies threaten the band on the stage with a gun, demanding the film. Peter bursts into tears. Mike gets them out of it by announcing the spies as folk-singing duo “Honey and the Bear,” which suits their appearance very well. Mike forces them on the stage where they are paralyzed with fear at having to face the teenage crowd. The nervous spies sing an anthem called “Blow up the Senate.” Micky starts the crowd booing as well as flinging pillows at them, setting off the theme of kids “following the crowd” in this episode. The Monkees use the distraction to make their exit.

At CIS headquarters (TV version of the CIA), Honeywell (the Popsicle-talker) and the Chief discuss the Monkees possession of the microfilm. Honeywell has been ineptly spying on them. (We wouldn’t need Snowden if the government were this obvious when recording citizens.) Honeywell shows the Chief the film he made of the Monkees. On the film, Honeywell asks political questions of Mike and Peter, who answer in a comically irrelevant way. The more “show-biz” characters, Micky and Davy, also don’t get it and respond with self-interest: Micky pulls out a larger than life head-shot of himself for Honeywell, and Davy breaks into a soft shoe dance performance of “Old Folks at Home” (Stephen Foster), knowing that a camera is on him. This is a very “Davy” moment that I love.

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Chief brings the boys into the CIS headquarters and asks for their help. They’re none too enthusiastic about the danger. Micky does a little Don Adams impression as he picks up the phone and asks for “Schwartz, Harold B.” to catch the spies instead of them. Chief says he can save at least three of them, leading to a chair scramble for the three chairs which Peter loses completely. The Monkees reluctantly agree to help.

Back at the pad, they unicycle around the room, with the cameras giving a little fake jolt as they crash into each other. Mike is skeptical and wants to back out, but Micky goes into a spy fantasy, different from the previous costume fantasies where they pull costumes out of nowhere. Here we get a camera dissolve to set up the daydream. This is my favorite bit of the episode, where Micky plays a “Q” from James Bond role and explains equipment and weapons to the other Monkees. He takes them outside to the same park we saw in “Kidnappers” for a fighting demonstration with the very large Yakimoto, who destroys Micky’s gun display. This is also an unusual case where Micky is playing the straight man to the other characters who make all the jokes.

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The Monkees meet Honeywell at the Vincent Van Gogh-Gogh where he sets them up with an obvious microphone in a table lamp. Their task is to finagle a confession from the spies, and then Honeywell will pop out and arrest them. Davy disturbs the lamp as they walk out and a fake “Genie” dressed in an I Dream of Jeannie costume appears. Davy makes one of television’s first meta-references: “Imagine that, wrong show.”

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The band plays “I’m Not Your Stepping Stone” (Tommy Boyce/Bobby Hart) on the little stage while Boris and Madame enter. Madame mocks the kid’s western decadence, especially for their lack of individuality or originality in their dancing: “Sheep. They all follow one another.” (The kids are also all wearing the same clothes from the earlier disco scene.) This theme of “following” was seen in the previous episode where the young people all follow each other to rush into the Monkees house, and then rush out again when the music changes.

The spies sit down with the Monkees, and Davy obviously tries to get their confession. When asked if they are really foreign spies, Boris supplies him with a nod. Davy rushes back to check with Honeywell, who rightly points out he can’t hear a nod. On his way back Davy (who is maintaining his cooler, hipper personality from the previous episode) inadvertently kicks the cord out.

Mike stalls by counting the money the spies brought to buy the film. Davy pushes the lamp in front of them but Honeywell isn’t getting anything since it’s unplugged. Madame finally gets tired of these delay tactics, and we’re treated to a Marx Brothers moment from Peter:

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Honeywell gets the confession, but Madame pulls out her gun and threatens the boys to give up the film already. Mike bravely taunts her to come get it and throws her out onto the dance floor where she has to dance in order to not make a scene. Davy and Micky desperately try to call Honeywell while Mike fights off Madame. Boris is pulled into the dance by a girl from the crowd. Micky and Peter stand up to subdue Boris, but he effortlessly tosses them to the walls.

Everyone in this scene is dancing to “All the Kings Horses” (Michael Nesmith). This is one of my favorite songs on the show. I love the guitar break and the harmony with Mike and Micky. This song is not listed in the end credits but “Last Train to Clarksville,” which we don’t hear, is listed.

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Madame karate chops Mike, who falls and we get the payoff to the earlier line about copying dance steps. The editors give a little help by winding the film back so we see the chop twice. The girls all start karate chopping and the boys all fall to the ground. Last episode, we have the “Kidnap” and now we have the “Karate Chop.” Madame takes the film from Mike’s pants and escapes. Davy bravely jumps on Boris’ back and somehow the three standing Monkees stop the big man from leaving. Honeywell finally comes out and tells Boris he’s going to Leavenworth. Peter sweetly comforts the disappointed Boris who won’t be meeting Madame in Argentina. Aww..Peter.

“Somewhere in China,” Madame tells a room full of men in suits that she has a film of America’s greatest secret weapon. And that weapon is the Monkees fooling around on the beach in their red bathing suits to “Saturday’s Child” (David Gates). Back at the disco, Mike awkwardly dances with Honeywell. Also in this footage is the bit I love from the opening credits with Peter in the bathtub being rolled down the street by the other Monkees, among other fun shots. The Monkees show up at the end of the song in trench coats, hats, and guitar cases that they pretend are weapons and find Madame tied up in the chair.

The episode title is obviously a parody of the John le Carré novel The Spy Who Came in from the Cold. The movie of the same name came out the year before this episode. Spy stories were popular at the time. Other notable ’60’s spy series and films included: I Spy, James Bond, Man from U.N.C.L.E., and Get Smart. The writers, Gerald Gardner and Dee Caruso, wrote eleven episodes of Get Smart so they were experienced at writing spy/comedy material. The cold war would have been on everyone’s mind at the time with the US having entered the Vietnam War in 1965, but I don’t think that The Monkees writers/producers were especially interested in topical humor. The ‘bad guys” could be anyone and it would be understood just as easily if this episode were made today, substituting “terrorists” (or whatever conspiracy the media comes up with next) for “Russian Spies.”

The way the Cold war plays here, the teenagers are detached from it all. They’re into their music, fun, their self-expression. Tension with Russia and China is a grown-up problem. It’s not their fault or their concern but they are expected to fight the war. The Monkees only help when directly confronted by the CIS. The other young people in the episode have no interest or even clue what’s happening around them in the disco scenes. The main source of the comedy in this episode is the cultural divide between the adults and the teens.

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by Bronwyn Knox

Every couple of weeks, “Monkees vs. Macheen” examines the crazy, spirited, Ben Franks-type world of the Pre-Fab Four: David Jones, Micky Dolenz, Michael Nesmith, and Peter Tork alias The Monkees.