In “Mr. Big,” the debut episode of Get Smart (1965-1970), there’s an opening shot of the US Capitol as a deep monotone voice-over melodramatically states:
This is Washington, DC. Somewhere in this city is the headquarters of a top secret organization known as CONTROL. Its business is counter-espionage.
The scene switches to an audience enjoying an orchestra. The narration continues:
This is Symphony Hall in Washington. Somewhere in this audience is one of CONTROL’s top employees, a man who lives a life of danger and intrigue. A man who has been carefully trained to never disclose the fact that he is a secret agent.
Up to this point, that speaker could have been introducing any serious crime or spy drama along the lines of Dragnet. But then a phone begins ringing somewhere on the person of one man seated deep in the theater. Cue the intrusive 1960s laugh track to let us know that this is a comedy (it would take another decade or so for myopic television execs to understand that the audience doesn’t need to be told when something is funny because the sight of the not-so-secret agent looking distressed is a hoot). The audience members around him shift uncomfortably, staring at him until he gets up and exits—ringing the whole way out.
The beginning is curious to watch on its golden anniversary what with all the prevalent cell phone ring tones annoying movie and theater goers on a regular basis—but we still laugh. The combination of Don Adams’s dead pan ‘Who me?’ look and his quick bumbling shuffle into an empty closet to answer not just any phone but his shoe phone still draws chuckles. Adams would garner three consecutive (1967-69), well-deserved Emmy Awards for his portrayal of Maxwell Smart.
Show creators Mel Brooks (Blazing Saddles, Young Frankenstein) and Buck Henry (Heaven Can Wait) throw every joke against the wall in such rapid fire succession that it would give even The Marx Brothers in their heyday a challenge keeping up. Some humor works, some were dated even then making you groan, but the batting average remains quite high. Examples: A fellow CONTROL agent hidden in a tiny bus terminal locker providing in-the-field backup, passwords demanded at the most impromptu times, spies punching time cards like they are factory workers including a K-9 dog, and a tiny-tiny cigarette worth only one puff. My personal favorite is The Cone of Silence, a worthless tech device made of transparent sound-proof hard plastic that is lowered over CONTROL agent’s head’s so no outside source can hear their top secret conversations though the users inside the cone can’t hear each other either. It always causes more confusion than it is worth but Smart, over the course of the series, always demands using it. His superior, The Chief (played by the indispensable Edward Platt), usually becomes frustrated and has the contraption raised to which Smart, in the first episode, suggests “perhaps we could just talk softly, sir.”
In “Mr. Big,” an evil genius (Michael Dunn of The Wild Wild West fame) who works for CONTROL’s main foe, KAOS, has a state-of-the-art weapon that can evaporate entire structures and unless he gets $100,000,000 he will use it against American cities. Smart and his partner, Agent 99 (Barbara Feldon), go in search of Mr. Big. Feldon is a joy as 99. She's smart (though that might not be saying much with this dim-witted bunch), classy, and fights the baddies right alongside Smart without missing a beat. Her actual name is never given and when in Season 4 they marry, even in privacy, he hysterically still refers to her by her designated code name—which must make for some amusing bedroom talk.
To further scrutinize the plot of “Mr. Big” or any other adventure would be an exercise in futility because you know the ending after seeing this storyline duplicated time and time again—the mastermind ransoming the world—either seriously (the entire James Bond series) or for laughs (Austin Powers). The show lives almost solely for a series of sight gags and one-liners—one can’t mention Get Smart without his lingo that became 1960’s hip talk with catch phrases like “Sorry about that, Chief,” “Missed it by that much!,” “And … loving it,” “I asked you not to tell me that!,” “Would you believe…” and many more.
You don’t have to look far to see the show’s lasting influence in shows like Archer featuring another secret agent bumbling through the cloak and dagger world, wreaking havoc. But Get Smart made us laugh at the pretentious first and, at fifty, remains a shrewd satire.
Read all of Edward A. Grainger's posts for Criminal Element.