Get Smart at 50: Shrewd and Still Intelligent

Get Smart Shoe Phone

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.”

One of the many versions of the Cone of Silence.
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.

Edward A. Grainger aka David Cranmer is the editor/publisher of theBEAT to a PULP webzine and books and the recent Western novella, Hell Town Shootout.

Read all of Edward A. Grainger's posts for Criminal Element.


  1. Prashant C. Trikannad

    David, I have read a couple of GET SMART comics by Dell (part of my collection). I have not seen the television series. Ditto for THE MAN FROM U.N.C.L.E. I intend to catch some episodes of both on YouTube, hopefully.

  2. David Cranmer

    Wow! You certainly have a lot of entertainment ahead of you, Prashant. Enjoy!

  3. Oscar Case

    That was a funny series then and continues to be, similar to the old Abbott and Costello stuff.

  4. David Cranmer

    Oscar, Abboot and Costello still crack me up.

  5. Ken

    Best TV show ever. Brilliantly done. Not so much the movie.

  6. Dan Luft

    There were two movies. The theatrical movie The Nude Bomb was awful with no original actors except Don Adams as Smart. But there was a made-for-TV movie in the late 80s that was quite funny. Both Bernie Koppel as Siegfried and Barbara Feldon as 99 were in that one, if I remember correctly. I think Brooks or Henry might’ve been involved.

  7. Albert Tucher

    I think that was GET SMART AGAIN, Dan. It was a very, uh, smart update. Kaos has become the victim of a hostile takeover, and Siegried is sweating it out until retirement. Max and 99 have bought the obsolete Cone of Silence for a few bucks and installed it in their bedroom.

  8. David Cranmer

    I saw The Nude Bomb (1980) before seeing the classic TV show and remembering thinking what was all the fuss. Didn’t see the Get Smart Again, that Al mentions, but that does sound like they finally got it right but maybe by then they had waited too long.

  9. Teddy P

    My first childhood crush was Agent 99.

  10. Laurence Coven

    The show was excellent–of course it was being developed by Mel Brooks. I saw the Steve Carrel (sic) movie and was somewhat disappointed. But they won me back in the end credits when they dedicated it to the memory of both Don Adams and Edward Platt.

    Does any know if the U.N.C.L.E. movie has cameo roles for any of the original stars. I know Leo G. Carroll is gone, but not sure about Vaughn or David McCallum. If anyone knows, please let me know. Thanks.

  11. David Cranmer

    [b]Teddy[/b], Do you happen to remember an episode of Cheers where Feldon played Sam Malone’s yearly squeeze? Funny episode and Feldon looked great after all those years.

    [b]Holmes, [/b]McCallum and Vaughn are both saying no to cameos but they would say that, right? So far no images from the production have been leaked that I can find.

    And the Steve Carell version I liked for Anne Hathaway but didn’t find the main character of Maxwell Smart funny.

  12. sparkplug54

    Agent 99 was memorialized in song by TOTO. Yep, “99” is an ode to the lovely seret agent.

  13. Laurence Coven

    Edward, thanks for the info. I’m not sure why they wouldn’t do a cameo. It would be neat if one of them played the Leo G. Carrol part. I believe Kevin McCarthy had a cameo in the remake of The Bodysnatchers.

  14. Teddy P

    [b]EdwardAGrainger[/b], no but I will have to look it up!

  15. David Cranmer

    Holmes, yeah, they have everything to gain especially if the movie is good which this one seems to be.

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