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