This month’s series is “Living in the Past: Timeless Comedies.” For our first blog, we travel back to the 12th century to Sherwood Forest to a time When Things Were Rotten. After viewing one episode of this show, you knew it could only have been created by the comic legend Mel Brooks. In this case, he had the help of John Boni and Norman Stiles.
Debuting in 1975 on ABC, Brooks considered what life would have been truly like if the legend was just hype, and Robin and his Merry Men were just a bunch of buffoons. The series has many of the traits found in Brooks’ Blazing Saddles or Monty Python episodes.
Reading the list of brilliant cast members, this show seems like one that should have been a huge hit, but in reality, it only lasted for thirteen episodes. Based on its brief airing, perhaps Robert Klein was wise to turn down the role of Robin. Dick Gautier, who worked with Brooks on Get Smart, agreed to take on the role of the heroic leader. Henry Polic II played the Sheriff of Nottingham who always got taken in by the gang. Ron Rifkin is Prince John. Misty Rowe, known best for her Hee-Haw performances, is Maid Marian. The Merry Men were indeed merry, being made up of Bernie Kopell, Dick Van Patten, Richard Dimitri (who had a dual role as identical twin brothers), and David Sabin.
Of course, in this parody, slapstick is involved in every episode. The sight gags were always described as hilarious, and every script was full of great one-liners. It was definitely not everyone’s cup of tea. For example, at times the sheriff was said to be barking mad and he would literally bark. In one episode, the “barking” sheriff asks Bertram to hang up some banners and a cutaway scene shows a husband, wife and two children on a wall saying, “Hi, we’re the Banners.” Another example is Richard the-Lion-Hearted coming ashore after the Crusades to be met by an umpire, yelling “Safe,” at which point the sheriff shouts, “Kill the umpire.” The humor came fast and furious at a rapid-fire pace. Brooks described the construction of the show by saying: “We took great liberties, and the writing was very crazy and funny.”
Unlike some parodies, the production of the show was high quality with lavish costumes and sets. Every episode featured a well-known guest star. Dudley Moore appeared as a piano-playing sheik named Achmed Muhammad Ben Gazzara. Other stars included Carl Ballantine, John Byner, Sid Caesar, Paul Williams, and Mel Brooks himself. Brooks said his favorite episode was “The French Disconnection” starring Caesar as a French ambassador.
The theme song was written by Lee Adams and Charles Strouse who had done the well-known theme for All in the Family as well as many composing for many popular musicals. The lyrics were:
“Once upon a time when things were rotten,
Not just food, but also kings were rotten.
Everybody kicked the peasants,
Things were bad and that ain’t good,
Then came Robin Hood (Ba-bahh!)
“Soon a band of merry men he’d gotten,
They wore outfits made of plain green cotton,
Helping victims was their business.
Boy oh boy was business good —
Good for Robin Hood!
“They laughed, they loved, they fought, they drank,
They jumped a lot of fences.
They robbed the rich, gave to the poor —
Except what they kept for expenses!
“So when other legends are forgotten
We’ll remember back when things were rotten.
Yay for Robin Hood!”
When Things Were Rotten was definitely a product of its time. Like Laugh-In or even Sesame Street, viewers had no time to reflect on a comment. Things moved at a frenetic pace. One of the New York Times critics, John O’Connor, timed the gags and noted there was a new one every fifteen seconds.
The critics gave the series great reviews and mentioned its inventiveness and quick humor. The ratings never backed up the praise however. Brooks had a different perspective. In an interview with Frank DeCaro in the New York Times (7-19-2013), Brooks discussed the show’s ending. “The show was canceled, Mr. Brooks said, not because it failed to find an audience — ‘The ratings weren’t bad,’ he insisted — but because, as a one-camera show, shot like a film, it just cost too much to produce. ‘I was very happy with When Things Were Rotten,’ he said. “We were on our way to doing 36 episodes, and then someone at Paramount called and said, ‘Mel, could you do it as a three-camera show?’ I said, ‘You mean like “I Love Lucy”? Are you crazy?’” When the network pulled the plug, Mr. Brooks remembers, friends offered their condolences. ‘Everybody said, ‘I’m sorry it didn’t work.’ I said: ‘It did work. It was just too expensive.’”
The same reason many viewers might still appreciate the show today is also one of the factors of its demise. The show depended on fans knowing a lot of pop culture knowledge. People who love cultural history would have a blast watching the show, but the younger generations whom don’t have that database in the brain might feel disconnected.
Of course, the television schedule always has a lot of sway about whether a show is a hit or a flop. This show was on Wednesday nights. Its competition was Tony Orlando and Dawn and Little House on the Prairie. While Tony Orlando and Dawn was on its last legs and would not return in 1976, Little House on the Prairie was very popular. This was the second season for the show which had a huge audience; the show would continue until 1983.
The show might have ended, but Brooks could not let the concept go. In 1993, his film, Robin Hood: Men in Tights would continue the concept. In this version, Cary Elwes as Robin leads his men, but if you look closely, you might think The Abbot (Dick Van Patten) resembles Friar Tuck in When Things Were Rotten.
One interesting technological advancement is that a show like this typically would never have been released on DVD because of its short run. Now, however, manufactured-on-demand makes the show available on Amazon. It’s the perfect length for a week-end marathon. You might realize that When Things Were Rotten, they were also pretty good and funny.