Lancelot Link: Secret Chimp
USA, 1970-72, Image Entertainment
by Nick Pinkerton
The spy genre—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.)—may have already reached the point where it’s spawned enough spoofs to outweigh its straight-ahead franchises; I’ll cite Casino Royale, “Get Smart,” Austin Powers, Spy Hard, The Man Who Knew Too Little, and Johnny English, and that’s just off the top of my head. But there’s one espionage send-up that, in its utter idiosyncrasy, is a shoo-in for the genre’s most bizarre reimagination—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 ran—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 run—it was inevitable, I suppose—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-help—“Laaaanthalot!”—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 (“Lovely but she’s wicked all the same,” warns the raucous opening theme—probably the series’ most consistently funny gag is its straight-faced emphasis of female chimpanzees’ alleged allure). This “Ah-so” Yellow Peril villainy (not to speak of the cowl-wearing sheik, Ali Assa Seen) could probably be construed as offensive, but considering that the show’s casting disarms one of the chief tools of racial caricature—making the Other seem less evolved—by making monkeys of everyone, I can’t imagine anyone taking too much umbrage.
This cannot be emphasized enough: every character in this series, all of them, are played by clothed chimpanzees—the sole exceptions are the reluctant robot of “The Reluctant Robot,” and a remarkably sanguine orangutan who seems to show up in the periphery of many an episode… 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 dives—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 keyboard—though the tunes always somehow seem to feature prominent bass lines), who, diced up by kaleidoscopic cutaways, perform hits with titles like “Rollin’ in the Clover” and “Wild Dreams (Jelly Beans),” 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-Eighties—Lancelot would again re-emerge on Comedy Central in the formative years when the network’s schedule was built around McHale’s Navy and CPO Sharkey reruns.
Lancelot was the brainchild of Stan Burns and Mike Marmer, alumni of the show’s nearest precursor, CBS’ Get Smart (just off-the-air in 1970)—and it’s not difficult to imagine that Lancelot, with Link filling in for Don Adams’s Maxwell Smart and Mata Hairi as Agent 99, was created as a dumping ground for the team’s unused Smart gags. So, is it funny? The answer is a resounding “Yeah, but…”; I can’t think of a documented era in American popular comedy that’s aged into quite the fine pungency that the Sixties and early Seventies have, and Lancelot is no exception. Burns and Marmer’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, (“C.H.U.M.P. will control the take-home chicken industry” “Oh, that’s terrible!” “It sure is—now housewives will be forced to cook dinner.”); the surrealist pizzazz of Kovacs takes hold only through the inherent insanity of the show’s conception.
Most of what’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 chimpette’s gams look in tights), and looking anything but “relentless”; also enjoyable are the voiceover actors dragging out their enunciation to match up with the lips of the gum-chewing apes—most rely on crutch noises to fill in gaps, like Mata’s gruesome bleat of a laugh or the frequent “Bwah”s of tweedy A.P.E. overboss Darwin. Oh, and did I mention there are lots of monkeys here, in the most precious little outfits?—watch a full 281 minutes of them, and I guarantee this concept will strike you as funny on levels you’d never imagined possible.
Those whose appetites for all things Link aren’t sated by two discs brimming with clothed primates will be disappointed by Image’s release, whose only “Special Feature” provides the less-than-alluring option of watching all the Evolution Revolution’s rave-ups back-to-back. For them, I would suggest a viewing of Washington DC-based cult-filmmaker and pop-culture ethnographer Jeff Krulik’s bemused 1999 documentary short I Created Lancelot Link (co-directed with Diane Bernard), available for free viewing at the filmmaker’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 members’ members just days before the shoot), marvel at the show’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.