Lancelot Link: Secret Chimp
USA, 1970-72, Image Entertainment
by Nick Pinkerton
The spy genreâ€”at least that variation which concerns cool-headed, gadget-proficient bachelor agents, exemplified by the Bond films and their various Sixties knock-offs (Our Man Flint, the very-enjoyable Deadlier than the Male, etc.)â€”may have already reached the point where itâ€™s spawned enough spoofs to outweigh its straight-ahead franchises; Iâ€™ll cite Casino Royale, â€śGet Smart,â€ť Austin Powers, Spy Hard, The Man Who Knew Too Little, and Johnny English, and thatâ€™s just off the top of my head. But thereâ€™s one espionage send-up that, in its utter idiosyncrasy, is a shoo-in for the genreâ€™s most bizarre reimaginationâ€”its free-associative lowbrow high-concept puts it in the same relationship to the spy movie that, say, Terror of Tinytown has to the Western.
Of course I am talking about Lancelot Link: Secret Chimp, the all-chimpanzee-cast spy serial/ studio-hack psychedelic bandstand/ Laugh-In-style variety show, which ranâ€”initially as a hour-long (!) Saturday afternoon block (mixed-in with Warner Bros. cartoons), then as a half-hour, Link-only distillation, on ABC-TV from 1970-1972. The program, whose entire runâ€”it was inevitable, I supposeâ€”has now been compiled onto disc by Image Entertainment, followed the career of the titular Lancelot (chimp Tonga, voiced, with a side-of-the-mouth, sometimes-Bogart, sometimes-Walter Matthau delivery, by veteran voiceover man Dayton Allen), agent of A.P.E. (Agency to Prevent Evil), and his blonde bimbette partner, Mata Hairi (Debbie, voiced by Joan Gerber, whose Queens-inflected screech-for-helpâ€”â€śLaaaanthalot!â€ťâ€”is as close as the series has to a catchphrase), as they foiled fiendish plots set into motion by C.H.U.M.P. (yeah, it stands for something too), whose operatives include scheming Sax Rohmer-style simians like Wang Fu and Dragon Lady (â€śLovely but sheâ€™s wicked all the same,â€ť warns the raucous opening themeâ€”probably the seriesâ€™ most consistently funny gag is its straight-faced emphasis of female chimpanzeesâ€™ alleged allure). This â€śAh-soâ€ť Yellow Peril villainy (not to speak of the cowl-wearing sheik, Ali Assa Seen) could probably be construed as offensive, but considering that the showâ€™s casting disarms one of the chief tools of racial caricatureâ€”making the Other seem less evolvedâ€”by making monkeys of everyone, I canâ€™t imagine anyone taking too much umbrage.
This cannot be emphasized enough: every character in this series, all of them, are played by clothed chimpanzeesâ€”the sole exceptions are the reluctant robot of â€śThe Reluctant Robot,â€ť and a remarkably sanguine orangutan who seems to show up in the periphery of many an episodeâ€¦ always wearing the same checkered polyester blazer, at that! You will see chimpanzees driving miniature sports cars, be-sweatered chimpanzees fumbling through the powder on skis, chimpanzees riding Shetland ponies, chimpanzees atop camels, chimpanzees tobogganing, chimpanzees traversing the desert, chimpanzees kicking back in their mod apartments, chimpanzees chowing down in dockside divesâ€”and, yes, chimpanzees rocking out! Lance goes undercover in a bubblegum psych four-piece in his spare time, The Evolution Revolution (their Doors-esque line-up includes Tonga fondling the frets of a guitar, backed by tambourine, drums, and keyboardâ€”though the tunes always somehow seem to feature prominent bass lines), who, diced up by kaleidoscopic cutaways, perform hits with titles like â€śRollinâ€™ in the Cloverâ€ť and â€śWild Dreams (Jelly Beans),â€ť music courtesy of commercial arranger Bob Emengger. This fare made Link an ideal lead-in for The Monkees when Nickelodeon revived both shows in the mid-Eightiesâ€”Lancelot would again re-emerge on Comedy Central in the formative years when the networkâ€™s schedule was built around McHaleâ€™s Navy and CPO Sharkey reruns.
Lancelot was the brainchild of Stan Burns and Mike Marmer, alumni of the showâ€™s nearest precursor, CBSâ€™ Get Smart (just off-the-air in 1970)â€”and itâ€™s not difficult to imagine that Lancelot, with Link filling in for Don Adamsâ€™s Maxwell Smart and Mata Hairi as Agent 99, was created as a dumping ground for the teamâ€™s unused Smart gags. So, is it funny? The answer is a resounding â€śYeah, butâ€¦â€ť; I canâ€™t think of a documented era in American popular comedy thatâ€™s aged into quite the fine pungency that the Sixties and early Seventies have, and Lancelot is no exception. Burns and Marmerâ€™s first credited gig was with The Ernie Kovacs Show (a program that never shied away from breaking out the monkey mask), and they went on to pull pay from seemingly every major TV variety hour of the following decade-and-a-half, including The Steve Allen Show, The Dean Martin Show, and The Smothers Brothers Comedy Hour. The result is a knack for dialogue with the straining-for-yuks quality of a monologue throw-away, (â€śC.H.U.M.P. will control the take-home chicken industryâ€ť â€śOh, thatâ€™s terrible!â€ť â€śIt sure isâ€”now housewives will be forced to cook dinner.â€ť); the surrealist pizzazz of Kovacs takes hold only through the inherent insanity of the showâ€™s conception.
Most of whatâ€™s really laugh-out-loud here results from the necessary limitations of that strange, strange conception: The funniest aspect of any given episode tends to be the contrast of the adjective-heavy narration and the general torpor with which the monkeys hit their marks, trotting along gamely, if ungracefully, in their constricting costumes (there is something singularly disturbing about how a chimpetteâ€™s gams look in tights), and looking anything but â€śrelentlessâ€ť; also enjoyable are the voiceover actors dragging out their enunciation to match up with the lips of the gum-chewing apesâ€”most rely on crutch noises to fill in gaps, like Mataâ€™s gruesome bleat of a laugh or the frequent â€śBwahâ€ťs of tweedy A.P.E. overboss Darwin. Oh, and did I mention there are lots of monkeys here, in the most precious little outfits?â€”watch a full 281 minutes of them, and I guarantee this concept will strike you as funny on levels youâ€™d never imagined possible.
Those whose appetites for all things Link arenâ€™t sated by two discs brimming with clothed primates will be disappointed by Imageâ€™s release, whose only â€śSpecial Featureâ€ť provides the less-than-alluring option of watching all the Evolution Revolutionâ€™s rave-ups back-to-back. For them, I would suggest a viewing of Washington DC-based cult-filmmaker and pop-culture ethnographer Jeff Krulikâ€™s bemused 1999 documentary short I Created Lancelot Link (co-directed with Diane Bernard), available for free viewing at the filmmakerâ€™s website, www.planetkrulik.com. The featurette follows the reunion, after ten-plus years apart, of series creators Burns and Marmer (both of who died in 2002); you can enjoy SPCA-rankling anecdotage (including a chuckle about the snipping of all the male cast membersâ€™ members just days before the shoot), marvel at the showâ€™s $1,000,000 budget, and then watch the two somewhat hazily try to recall why exactly they supposed making an all-monkey spy spoof was an idea whose time had come.