By Les Chappell, Noel Kirkpatrick, Heather McLendon, Anthony Strand, J. Walker, and Cameron White
Season 1, Episodes 11 and 17: “Too Many Chiefs” and “Kisses for KAOS”
Original airdates: November 27, 1965 and January 15, 1966
Anthony: When I was a kid, I didn’t watch much spy stuff. See, I was a comedy guy, and I spent every possible minute watching sitcoms from before I was born. I especially loved 1960s gimmick sitcoms, although I didn’t know to call them that at the time. There was just something comforting about the look of those big bright soundstages, the sound of that canned laughter, and the idea of a marriage between a witch and a goofball, or a family where the dad is a comedy Frankenstein, or a spy organization whose top agent sounds and acts like Inspector Gadget.
All of which is a roundabout way of saying that Get Smart is the only show in this lineup that I have much familiarity with. The show—created by Mel Brooks and Buck Henry, although Brooks’s involvement was limited to the pilot—stars Don Adams as Maxwell Smart, skilled-but-bumbling Agent 86 for the top-secret spy organization CONTROL. With his level-headed partner 99 (Barbara Feldon), Smart foils all manner of dastardly plots hatched by the evil KAOS.
It was a favorite of mine growing up, but I hadn’t really watched it since it was rerun on Nick-at-Nite in the early 1990s. Watching these two episodes, I was delighted to see that it holds up really well. This was evident from the opening scene of “Too Many Chiefs,” where a five-way stand-off ends in a hilarious five-way death scene (I will admit that the similar gag in “Kisses for KAOS”—involving a bomb exploding at a consulate—made me extremely uncomfortable in light of the recent events in Boston).
Overall, I’m really impressed by how well Get Smart balances its silly tone with the serious business of spy work. It’s always a light-hearted show, but the stakes feel very real. When Max and 99 try in vein to take Savage’s photo and fingerprints in “Kisses for KAOS,” it’s played as pure farce. But the previous scene between Savage and his right-hand man stresses that these men are planning to bomb the Pentagon, and that informs how the rest of the episode plays out. The same is true for “Too Many Chiefs,” where the mistaken-identity shenanigans conceal an attempt to assassinate a defector.
The performances of the three main actors help tremendously. Edward Platt plays the Chief exactly like Bernard Lee played M in the James Bond movies of the era. He’s just a spy boss, giving out actual orders on matters of national security. Platt gets some funny scenes in these episodes (notably his narration of the slides show Sebastian’s various disguises), but he plays both of his two roles the same way. He’s a real-life authority figure in a cartoon world. Barbara Feldon gets stuck with a lot of exposition—and some silly “Max, don’t you notice that I’m a woman too?” business—but she really makes it sing. 99 carries herself with such confidence that it’s easy to buy her as a spy, even when she’s doing silly things like trying to get Savage to take his gloves off.
But Max is the main character, and I’m convinced the show absolutely wouldn’t work if Max didn’t sound like Don Adams. Except for that absurd voice, Adams played the role pretty straight, allowing us to see that Max takes his job seriously. He has the skills to be a top-notch spy, even if he does use them to accidentally knock out his insurance agent. With a more deapan, Leslie-Nielsen-type leading man, Get Smart would just seem like a poorly made spy series. Adams’s performance signals that it’s a spoof through and through.
I could talk about a lot of other things—the presence of Agent K-13, the beauty of some of the sight gags, the sad lack of Ricardo Montalban—but I’ll leave something for others to discuss. How did everyone like these episodes? How well-versed were you in the show before now?
Noel: Get Smart is the first show we’ve discussed in any capacity that I have childhood memories of, vague though they may be. Sure, I knew Blackadder but that had been watched sometime in my late teens. Like I Love Lucy, Get Smart was a Nick At Nite staple of mine, normally an episode before bed. (Amusingly, things don’t change very much. My mother often wondered why I cracked up as a kid when watching Get Smart, and now as an adult, she wonders why I find 30 Rock amusing.)
Watching it again for the first time in who knows how many years, I think I may know why I liked it so much: it’s a live-action cartoon. We see that phrase tossed about these days in a derogatory way (never by me) to imply that the show is somehow lesser or is lacking in meaningful stakes. Certainly Get Smart isn’t exactly the most high-stakes show, but I hardly matters because everything is played pretty straight — particularly Platt, as you noted, Anthony — that you believe these people are engaged in a high-wire espionage games.
The cartoon thought occurred to me in the opening of “Too Many Chiefs” (by far the funnier of the two we watched for this roundtable, for me anyway; the gadget-centric humor of “Kisses of KAOS” didn’t tickle me) as all those agents killed each other off screen because one of wise guy who doesn’t respect the rules of a stand off. It’s not dark or played for tragedy, and like when Daffy Duck gets shot, you wouldn’t be surprised if those poor agents just got back up and were right as rain. Then the episode just kept this cartoon-level farce running with the double chiefs, and the wonderful lampshading of the ridiculousness of ciphers (which needs to be quoted in full here to be fully appreciated):
The first vowel after every second consonant is superimposed on the vowel immediately preceding it in the alphabet. The first word after every proposition, if it is not introduced by an article or a personal pronoun, is inverted. The letter T stands for F, except after E it counts for double. The first number after every second adverb is the third digit after a multiplying adjective. Proper names and countries equal the word ‘marmalade.’
Anthony, I’m with you regarding Don Adams. He’s just pitch perfect. I don’t know what else we could say about it…
Except that, in the spirit of full disclosure, I liked the 2008 Get Smart movie, too.
Cameron: You guys had weird childhoods. (I’m joking. Sort of.) The only context beyond the 2008 movie that I’ve ever heard Get Smart in is comparisons to Chuck, and having now watched these two episodes, I think even that’s a stretch. They’re both spy comedies, but Get Smart is clearly built on the escalation of jokes, whereas Chuck struck a balance between comedy and drama, seeking true dramatic stakes in a very Shakespearean way (namely, so that the merriment never ends, even though it kinda did in the end).
But I loved these two episodes of Get Smart for a couple of reasons. First, the escalation of comedic errors and trials in both episodes is simply divine. The show made full use of its set for some masterful comedic set pieces. In particular, the painting scene in “Kisses for KAOS” was a particularly hilarious way of showcasing in short form how human beings construct meaning out of meaninglessness. (The black dot was a fly, because of course it was.) The standoff scene that kicks off “Too Many Chiefs” had me doubling over while wondering if I really should be laughing, though it was a perfect reversal of expectations. But that’s nothing compared to the climax of “Too Many Chiefs,” with two Chiefs running around and two clueless spies wondering why their chief is acting so strange without questioning the logic of the situation.
Though I should give my due to 99, because she was the other big reason I loved these two episodes. The character dynamic between 86 and 99 shines through in every scene they have together and somehow heightens the romantic hilarity of “Too Many Chiefs.” Barbara Feldon is an excellent straight (wo)man to Don Adams, the latter often playing bumbling, almost a parody of other spy shows that will come later (or perhaps of THE big-screen spy, James Bond 007). The Chief plays important roles within the episodes, but it’s the two-hander between Feldon and Adams that carries the show, and the two are more than up to the task.
There’s at least one comedy still on my DVR that I’m finding difficult to like, let alone love, and these days I often find it difficult to justify littering my box with mediocre sitcoms or sitcoms I haven’t stuck with for a long time (looking at you, How I Met Your Mother). A big part of that is how exhausting it is to watch shows try and spin new takes on classic sitcom tropes, or else attempt to build new ones out of thin air. Get Smart relies on a solid mix of good-natured wordplay and energetic performances. I can dig it.
Les: In our first entry, I mentioned that spy shows have been enjoying a surge of popularity in recent years, but one that I failed to cite was FX’s Archer. In addition to the many, many things Archer does well, one of its best ideas is to point out the fact that the James Bond archetype is really a colossal asshole when you get down to it, an alcoholic misogynist whose behavior is as likely to end the world as it is save the day. Similarly, Get Smart works so well because it pokes fun at the tropes of espionage fiction, even though it’s a far more good-natured show than Archer is. Its stock in trade is to illustrate the lighter side of spying, and point out that so many of these elaborate and complicated plans and devices that the spy genre idealizes, in a different light, are outright silly.
Noel, you said you weren’t too amused by the gadget-based humor, but I thought that the range of things they rolled out were delightful. There’s the traditional phone/gun and shoe/phone, but there’s also Max’s insistence on using the Cone of Silence* to keep things quiet (and then destroy the Chief’s desk), the dinner (literally) engineered for the purposes of getting Savage’s fingerprints, the car phone that happens to be the car itself (“Every time I turn the corner, I dial the operator”), and the top secret relay rock used for CONTROL communications. After a while, they all turn into Chekovian devices—of course the gun hidden in the phone is going to go off without warning, and if there’s three types of explosive paint you know they’re all going to be deployed at some point. By the closing scene of “Kisses for KAOS” I knew immediately that the pressure-activated paint was going to come into play, for simple virtue of the fact that they hadn’t used that joke before.
*I’ve watched a few other episodes in addition to these, and the Cone of Silence makes for an amusing running gag as it’s continuously defective or unnecessary, to Chief’s great frustrations:
Chief: You know this thing doesn’t work, why do you always insist on using it?!
Max: Well for one thing, it’s 20 degrees cooler inside.
I’m in the same boat as Cameron as I don’t have much experience with Get Smart prior to this discussion, but I was hooked fairly early on watching these two episodes. What I liked best about them was that they took standard espionage plots (protecting a key defector, seducing a suspected enemy agent) and found ways to intertwine both with some classic scenarios (a case of mistaken identity, faking a romantic relationship for another purpose). The interplay between Smart and 99 is also key to the show’s easy sitcom rhythm, as he clearly believes himself the superior agent but isn’t assertive about it, and she’s mostly bemused by him while at the same time respecting his skills. And beyond their working relationship there’s a subdued romantic tension, as when 99 gets annoyed at Smart’s flirtation with Tanya and Smart takes exception to how close she has to get to Savage, that I expect comes into play more as the series goes on.
Anthony, you mentioned Leslie Nielsen earlier, and while watching these I found myself comparing it to that other iconic television spoof, Police Squad! (In Color). Police Squad! employs a more subtle brand of humor, deploying a straightforward case in a world of unacknowledged absurd occurrences, relying on Nielsen’s deadpan performance to deliver unintentional jokes and play straight man while loopy sight gags happen around him. Get Smart, on the other hand, exists in a world where the seriousness and humor are more closely blended: In this world you can entirely believe that Maxwell Smart would be a top agent, because his incompetence operates at the same level as everything else CONTROL and KAOS are involved in. Both series are timelessly funny, but I can see why this got 138 episodes to the six of Police Squad!—it’s easier to keep a joke going when everyone’s in on it.
And yes, I was very disappointed Ricardo Montalban never appeared on the show and we had to break the streak. He would have made a great Rex Savage.
Heather: I’m going to start with a tangent. A couple years ago I had a particularly virulent stomach virus, and I found myself awake and miserable at 4am. Not being able to sleep, I flipped through a few channels and came across old episodes of Murder, She Wrote. It was perfection. Oddly comforting, kitsch, and charming in its own way. You’d never catch Jessica Fletcher during primetime (obviously) but the bizarre 4 o’clock hour was exactly right. (As is the current 10pm time slot of She-Ra re-runs on Qubo. Sigh.)
Get Smart feels much the same to me: nostalgic, soothing, entertaining. I totally understand why reruns of Get Smart were aired on Nick-at-Night in the 90s. It’s one of those mindlessly fun programs that’s sheer enjoyment to watch. Several elements reminded me of the physical humor within theatrical farce, like Noises Off and Molière’s works. The end of “Too Many Chiefs,” with the two Chiefs running around the apartment, is a throwback to classic, comedic tropes of the stage.
I thoroughly enjoyed Feldon’s performance as Agent 99. And I coveted nearly all of her outfits. (So fetch!) Would I go out of my way to watch Get Smart? Probably not. Would I watch it if it came on TV super late at night, and I needed something mindless and relaxing? Absolutely.
J.: Ah, yes, that’s the word I’d use to describe watching Get Smart: comforting. I, too, have some recollection of watching it as a kid, and it’s wonderful to see that it’s just as funny as I remember. Seeing these episodes again felt like slipping on an old pair of shoes.
Les, I think you’re right on the money with how good-natured Get Smart is, especially compared to more contemporary fare like Archer. The humor here is sharp, but it’s a very classic, Mel Brooks/vaudeville sensibility. The moment the desk clerk pulls the gun in the opening of “Too Many Chiefs,” you know where the joke is going right down to the punchline, but that doesn’t dull its impact. It’s delightfully old-fashioned in the very best way. I also enjoyed that, while the agents all seemed to take the stakes very seriously, CONTROL and KAOS seem to exist for no reason other than to oppose each other. (Also, KAOS knows Max’s name and home address. And, related gag while I’m in this parenthetical: Max wears a t-shirt with his code name on it. I don’t know why that tickled me as much as it did.)
Watching Get Smart did make me wonder, though: why aren’t we doing Inspector Gadget?
As a reminder, we’ll be sampling a different series every week for the next few weeks:
05/02: Mission: Impossible, “The Heir Apparent” (Season 3, episode 1); available through Netflix Instant.
05/09: The Avengers, “You Have Just Been Murdered” (season 5, episode 22).
05/16: Airwolf, “Fallen Angel” (season 2, episode 7); available through Hulu and Netflix Instant.
05/23: Scarecrow and Mrs. King, “Welcome to America, Mr. Brand” (season 3, episode 5); available through Amazon Instant Video.
05/30: Alias, “Truth Be Told,” (season 1, episode 1); available through Netflix Instant.