Tuesday, July 10, 2012

Cult Club: "Batman" (1966 - 1968)

In this new feature, Psychobabble looks at classic cult items beyond Horror and Rock & Roll.

When The Dark Knight Rises opens next week, you can bet your cowl that the punches won't be punctuated with cartoon Pows, there will be a distinct lack of villainous canted angles, and at Christian Bale's personal request, Robin won't be invited to the grand finale. Not a "Holy this!" or a "Holy that!" to be heard. Even more so than Tim Burton's Batman movies of yore, Chris Nolan and friends have distanced themselves from William Dozier's campy sixties super sitcom as assuredly as possible. With several decades of dark, dark Dark Knights by way of graphic novels such as Alan Moore's The Killing Joke, in which The Joker severs Batgirl’s spine, and hate-fueled Frank Miller's Year One, in which Catwoman is given a fun new back story as a prostitute, Batman had basically cleansed himself of his goofy past with a Brillo pad dipped in lye. The Bat fans who groaned every time Neal Hefti's theme tune started pumping welcomed this return to the superhero’s supposed grizzly, gritty essence.

Those of us who don't feel that ample doses of nihilism and streetwalking are necessary to justify our comic reading may be amenable to the existence of several Batmans. The black armor-clad Dark Knight has his intriguing place as a noir-ish tortured hero/anti-hero willing to cause zillions of dollars in urban damage to bring the baddies to justice and give us our daily dose of existential angst. But so does that milk-drinking square in the grey leotard who always cautions Robin about driving safety and pows us into guffaws whenever he batclimbs up a skyscraper or breaks into an impromptu Batusi.

Even in the sixties, there were Batfans who squirmed at the series that debuted on ABC in January of 1966. Longtime fan and former D.C. Comics editorial director Mike Gold dismissed TV’s Batman as “regrettable” in his introduction to The Greatest Batman Stories Ever Told. In his afterward to the Batman: Year One graphic novel, Miller grumbled about “Adam West and Burt Ward exchanging camped-out quips while clobbering slumming guest stars like Vincent Price and Cesar Romero… For me, Batman was never funny.” He goes on to recall picking up his first Batman comic at the age of eight and marveling over Gotham City’s “cold shafts of concrete lit by cold moonlight, windswept and bottomless.” Now there was a fun kid.

Of course, in the sixties, comic books were for kids, and a vocal adult fanbase of the medium would not emerge for a decade or two. The Batman series, however, was embraced by all ages because it was comic booky and TV’s first direct link to the burgeoning pop art movement. A single episode of Dozier’s series was worth its weight in an endcap of Warhol soup cans. There was much for kids to enjoy at face value, with its colorful villains and action-packed punch ups. For adults, Batman was an unprecedented exercise in irony. No weekly series was so self-aware and so funny. Standards for humor change, which is why it isn’t likely many modern viewers will find much to giggle about when Dick Van Dyke flops over his ottoman for the zillionth time. Batman holds up because its humor was so far ahead of its time, seemingly responding to viewer criticisms in the same way current shows often do in the wake of Internet outcry. Batman acknowledged the ridiculousness of Commissioner Gordon not recognizing that the voice of Bruce Wayne’s butler Alfred was the same one he heard at the end of the Batphone, the fact that Wayne and Batman never appear in the same place at the same time, and how Batman and Robin managed to escape seemingly inescapable death week after week. Though the series’ formulaic structure would cause it to wear out its welcome before finishing its three-season run of 120 episodes (for its first two seasons, the show ran twice a week),  it largely excused its clichés by acknowledging and poking fun at them.

Batman could be knowing, but its humor was equally dependent on the brilliantly broad comic performances of its cast. West’s humor was almost solely derived from his nearly comatose even-temper in the most ludicrous situations, while his friends and foils contrasted his hurricane eye with whirling lunacy. Stand up comic Frank Gorshin transformed the minor comic book villain The Riddler into one of Batman’s arch and most manic nemeses. As the best of three Catwoman portrayers, Julie Newmar was a master of drawing out the double-meanings in her sexually suggestive, often sadistic (to a captive dynamic duo: “Your eardrums will shatter and your brains will turn into yeccchh”) dialogue. Victor Buono channeled W.C. Fields for his King Tut. On the side of justice, Burt Ward bordered brilliance when lapsing into randy delinquent mode after Catwoman’s assistant slipped him a Mickey in the “That Darn Catwoman”/”Scat Darn Catwoman”, the series’ funniest arc. A great deal of the fun of Batman is watching its great cast have fun.
Batman’s humor—both clownish and ironic—and vivid imagery (the characters and blatantly artificial sets were painted in a primary palette pulled right from the comics) made it a sensation among the psychedelic crowd. The year it debuted, both The Kinks and pop-art champions The Who aligned themselves with the series by covering Hefti’s theme in concert and on disc. The producers did their best to cash in on the Rock-and-Batman connection by enlisting a few agreeable pop stars like Leslie Gore, Paul Revere and the Raiders, and Chad and Jeremy to guest star. The older generation got in on the hipness when Sammy Davis, Jr., Edward G. Robinson, and Art Linkletter appeared in the iconic Batclimb gag (while Batman and Robin were taking their sexually suggestive scale up the building of the week, a celebrity would open a window, whom the Dynamic Duo would engage in an awkward, action-halting interview). Some respected sources, such as Variety (which noted the “action, clever sight gags, interesting complications and … all out … batmania” of 1966’s feature-length Batman), got the joke.
The very perks that endeared Batman to its generation of viewers were those that made it a thing of derision among later-day Dark Knight fans. But if we look back on the comics, they were ripe with what we now call camp from the days when Bill Finger and Bob Kane first hatched the Caped Crusader. 1946’s “1001 Umbrellas of the Penguin” finds our fine-feathered fink feigning partnership with the Dynamic Duo to convince his auntie she’d raised him right. In 1952’s “The Joker’s Utility Belt”, the clown prince of crime harrumphs at not being inducted into Gotham Museum’s Comedian Hall of Fame. That latter story was way-out enough to pull the rare feat of directly inspiring an episode of the series (Cesar Romero’s coming out “The Joker Is Wild”). In the years immediately preceding the series, Batman and Robin had taken to time traveling and battling space dinosaurs in the comic, leaving the series looking positively sober in comparison.

Much like The Monkees (which I gave a more thorough once over here on Psychobabble last year), Batman is a series that skews hopelessly dated and corny in hindsight. Also like The Monkees, its wit and innovation is unmissable when actually reviewing the series. Something to be remembered, not swept under the Batcape.
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