I sort of picture Sid and Marty Krofft meeting in the office one afternoon trying to figure out what to do since one of ’em sold ABC on a “lost in space” comedy that morning, at the same time that the other sold CBS on a “lost in space” comedy. They had to come up with two different enough programs so as not to confuse the public. I can’t swear that they did, because people constantly confuse The Lost Saucer with the much, much funnier Far Out Space Nuts, but I really think the shows are very different.
Space Nuts is pretty much the same show every week, enlivened by the genuinely hilarious antics of Chuck McCann and Bob Denver. Every episode, it’s a different villain with some scheme that involves one or both characters. The Lost Saucer isn’t about villains. It’s usually about weird cultures and odd sci-fi ideas taken to extremes, like a planet where nobody has a name or individual identity, or one where everybody must smile, and the conflict comes down to bureaucracy. These “lost in space” travelers refuse to fit in! Of course, the one on Rhino’s World of Sid and Marty Krofft DVD set is one of two that don’t have a weird future city and isn’t a decent sample of the show at all.
The problem, once you watch a couple of episodes of each series, is that Space Nuts could easily repurpose the same barren desert set as a dozen different planets, and redress the villain base a few different ways. The Lost Saucer had to create the illusion of larger worlds and populations, and it seemed like all the money went into the downright impressive flying saucer exterior and interior. With the moths escaping from the wallet, what was left behind for set design and costuming for the sixteen episodes was nowhere near enough. The Kroffts were always mocked – really unjustly – for bargain-basement costumes and special effects even as their shows were running, but not even I can defend the woeful props and robots on offer in this program. The suit in “My Fair Robot” is frankly the worst robot costume I’ve ever seen on television.
And of course they didn’t want to waste money on sets when they had good actors to pay. Everybody on this show is better than the material and the production. Guest stars included Billy Barty, Johnny Brown, Gordon Jump, Marvin Kaplan, Joe E. Ross, and Vito Scotti. They’re backing up the headliners Jim Nabors and Ruth Buzzi as the androids Fum and Fi, and they get to talk real slow when their batteries wind down, and slap each other in the back when they start repeating words. That kind of comedy. Lost in space and time with them: ten year-old Jarrod Johnson, who was the first person of color to get transported from our world into one of the Kroffts’ weird fantasy lands, and Alice Playten, who played his babysitter. They usually get to bring along the perspective that hey, the 20th Century may not have the technology of the future, but we knew how to treat each other respectfully.
But I was talking about the lack of money, and nowhere is that more evident than in the two chickaphant stories, the second of which was included in Rhino’s collection that we’ve resumed watching. Having made the modest investment into this goofy puppet, they decided to use it again in another episode, prolonging the audience’s misery. They saved a little more of the budget by taping these two on the Land of the Lost jungle set at General Service, while the crew put together a new city plaza/apartment set to use in the next couple of episodes.
Our son mostly enjoyed it, but there’s a bit where two cavemen start fighting that actually had him worried and unhappy. On the other hand, the bit where one of the cavemen chases Ruth Buzzi around a cave had him roaring with laughter. (I can actually hear them putting this show together as I type… “We’ve got a bit where a caveman chases an android woman around a cave and she’s running out of power. We need Ruth Buzzi for this part.”) And somehow, through the eyes of a five year-old, the giant and hopelessly phony chickaphant has a surprisingly potent ability to shock and startle.
We have five other Krofft shows to sample. It’s going to get a whole lot better, but not immediately.