We are continuing our Oddly Wonderful series and today’s show captures the theme perfectly.
There were quite a few shows from the 1960s that just can’t be viewed outside that decade because they were such an anchor to the psychedelic flower power times of that era—Laugh-In, Batman, Lost in Space, and The Banana Splits were some of those series. The Monkees was another one of those shows.
Recently I watched a couple of episodes, both about Davey’s love life. The shows always had a plot, but sometimes you had to search long and hard for it. It was even more bizarre than I remembered. It was like a creepy bug. You weren’t sure it was safe, but you couldn’t turn away from it either.
The show was put on the fall schedule of 1966 on Mondays. It is quite memorable to most viewers from that time, yet it was only on the air a year and a half, producing 58 episodes.
Riding on the coat-tails of the Beatles, the show featured a four-member band. The only thing in common about each episode was that it featured one of their songs. Many of the shows were surreal and featured bizarre encounters.
Filmmakers Bob Rafelson and Bert Schneider who created Raybert Productions were inspired by the film A Hard Day’s Night starring the Beatles. They decided to develop a television show with a similar vibe. Screen Gems agreed to it, and they asked Paul Mazursky and Larry Tucker to write a script for the pilot.
Sponsors were secured. Yardley of London and Kellogg’s Cereals alternated weeks. Yardley sold a variety of beauty products.
Originally, Screen Gems thought about using a real band including The Dave Clarke Five or The Lovin’ Spoonful, which both turned them down, so they decided to go with four unknowns. The production company ran ads seeking musicians for an audition. Apparently about 400 people showed up, including Paul Williams and Stephen Stills. (Stills suggested his roommate Peter Tork because he did not want to give up his song publishing rights which the company demanded.) Fourteen actors were asked back for screen tests.
Micky Dolenz, whose father was actor George Dolenz, was in Circus Boy at age ten (under the name Mickey Braddock). Micky’s daughter Ami has also become a well-known actress. His agent sent him to the audition. Micky became the drummer and also played guitar at times.
Davy Jones had appeared on stage in “Oliver!” and on the Ed Sullivan Show. He was cast in some Columbia Pictures productions and he was identified before the ad went out as an actor who would be on the show. Davy played the tambourine and maracas but was the primary singer.
Michael Nesmith had been in the US Air Force. He had done some recording for Colpix, as had Jones. When he showed up at the audition, he had on a wool hat that kept his hair out of his eyes when he rode his motorcycle. It looked so well on him that he wore it for every show. Nesmith’s mom Betty was the inventor of Liquid Paper. Nesmith played guitar.
Peter Tork was Stephen Stills’ roommate. He had been performing regularly in Greenwich Village clubs but had recently moved to California and was working as a busboy. Peter was the busiest of the band members; he played guitar, keyboards, and sometimes banjo.
The main characters were only paid $450 per episode for the first year. The second season, they received a raise of $750. As a comparison, Dick Van Dyke made about $1500 per episode for his show. A decade later Valerie Bertinelli would earn about $20,000 an episode on One Day at a Time. Although they have made the show a hit, the top stars on The Big Bang Theory are making about $900,000 an episode. But that’s another blog! While they did receive standard royalties for their recordings, they received nothing from all the merchandising.
Rafelson and Schneider hired director James Frawley to work with the quartet on improvisational comedy. The characters were stereotyped with Dolenz the funny guy, Jones the heart throb, Nesmith the smart one, and Tork the gullible one. Most people described the personalities as fitting for each of them except Tork. He was always painted as quiet and intellectual. The improv training helped because a lot of new film techniques were employed for the show including quick cuts, jump cuts, breaking the fourth wall, and rambling scenes that didn’t really fit into the theme of the show. When the show was short on time, bizarre additions included interviews with the boys about life or their views on current events. In one of the episodes I recently watched, they added Nesmith’s audition tape to the end of the show.
The pilot was filmed in San Diego and LA. Like earlier shows from the 1950s, the cast members often wore their own clothing. The final version received such high ratings that the show was given a two-year contract.
Of course, the music was central to the show. The theme song was “(Theme From) The Monkees” written by Tommy Boyce and Bobby Hart. Part of the lyrics included, “We’re the young generation, and we’ve got something to say.” This captured the entire theme of the show. Some of the hit songs were “I’m A Believer”, “Daydream Believer”, “Last Train to Clarksville”, and “Pleasant Valley Sunday”.
Everyone one the show was a musician and could play a variety of instruments, but The Monkees did not actually play instruments for their songs. The public did not realize that the band did not really write or perform most of their music. Like the Partridge Family which debuted a few years later, they only provided the vocals. When this came out, viewers were unhappy. For the second season, the quartet began to write their own music and wore more hippy attire. Unfortunately, the damage was done, and the show never recovered its higher ratings.
While traveling around, the Monkees often ran into rival bands. The three who showed up most often were the Jolly Green Giants, The Four Martians, and The Foreign Agents.
Rose Marie, best known as Sally on The Dick Van Dyke Show, made two guest appearances on the show during the first season.
The band lived in a two-story house on the beach. The first floor contained the living room, dining room, and kitchen. A bathroom was off one part of the kitchen and Davy and Peter’s bedroom was off the other end of the kitchen. The Monkees kept their instruments in the back alcove. A spiral staircase headed to the second floor where Mike and Micky had a bedroom. There were a lot of kitschy signs on the walls. There was also a mannequin named Mr. Schneider (he’s in the above photo behind Rose Marie) that would spout advice when his cord was pulled. Their landlord was Mr. Babbit who chastised them for breaking rules and not paying rent. Sometimes the Monkees pulled Babbit into their plots.
Another character on the show was the Monkeemobile. The car was a modified 1966 GTO. A third seat was added where the trunk had been. A fiberglass grille was added to the front of the car and exhaust pipes were on the back wheels. In all, three cars would be used for the tapings.
When the first season ended, Davy Jones was no where to be found. While many rumors were flying, the real story was that he had received a draft notice. He fasted for a few weeks in order to fail his physical, which he did.
For the second season, the stars wanted to switch from half hour to an hour variety show with new artists appearing. NBC gave them an ultimatum to stick to the original idea or be cancelled. The group continued to push the new concept and in March of 1968, the show was cancelled.
The series won two Emmys during its short time on the air—Directorial Achievement in Comedy and Outstanding Comedy Series. This win surprised me. The other nominees that year were The Andy Griffith Show, Bewitched, Get Smart, and Hogan’s Heroes.
It was seen on Saturday mornings in syndication from 1972-1973 which is when I remember watching it.
In 1986, MTV began airing the old shows, and many other networks put it on their schedules. Columbia Pictures decided to create a reboot of the show in 1987 called the New Monkees, but it flopped and lasted half a season. No surprise; of course it did. How could you recapture the same look and feel of the original 1960s show?
The DVDs came out in 2001, and in 2016 Blu-rays were introduced for their fiftieth anniversary.
I was never able to take this show as seriously as the industry did. To me, it seemed a bit too wacky and exaggeratedly fast-paced. The plots were off the wall and hard to follow. I think part of it was my age. I was only five when the show was originally on. I do remember watching Batman live, but I think I was too young to follow the action in The Monkees and not quite the age where the music spoke to me. Perhaps I should give it another try; then again, perhaps it’s a show best kept in the memory of that time period. After watching several episodes, I must admit that I think it’s amazing that so many of us from the 1960s turned out as good as we did!
A few day after I wrote this blog, Peter Tork passed away. RIP Peter. Thank you for the memories and music.