The Lost Saucer 1.10 – Return to the Valley of the Chickaphants

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.

Legends of the Superheroes 1.2 – The Roast

The other episode of Legends of the Superheroes is one of those things you hadda been there for, and you hadda been under the age of nine. It still amused Daniel today, quite a lot actually, but to have seen this as a child in the era of celebrity roasts was to love this on a totally different level. As kids, we were all aware enough of the Dean Martin Celebrity Roasts to understand what this was making fun of. But the very intoxicated Dean Martin and all of his incredibly drunk friends – seriously, the only reason that Match Game bettered the Martin roasts in the “Inebriated Seventies Celebrities” stakes was that Match Game was on at least five days a week – weren’t for kids. This was, and it was magical.

But kids today, they have no idea what a roast is. And Daniel’s a little small to catch all the “grown up” gags about the Budweiser Clydesdales, Arnold Schwarzenegger, and Idi Amin. This just has dumb slapstick to appeal to him, and it succeeded mightily in that. Even if the entire business with the “regional” superhero Ghetto Man went completely over his head.

There’s also the cute innuendo about how the hot new couple, Atom and Giganta, might have children. That also went over his head. Frank Gorshin’s not in this episode, but Ruth Buzzi is, as Aunt Minerva, and all the gags about her finding the right man also confused him. In what might be the strangest thing Daniel’s ever seen, Aunt Minerva – who, if you remember your comics lore, is a loony old lady, meaning Ruth Buzzi was just about the perfect casting choice – kisses Captain Marvel, shouts “Shazam!” and is transformed into a gorgeous young blonde, at which point all the superheroes who have been desperately trying to avoid her want her telephone number. “Who is she?” asked Daniel, not getting it. And he certainly didn’t get the climax, in which Mordru sings a version of “That’s Entertainment” that lists all the naughty things that supervillains enjoy.

Things that he did like: there’s a bit where Adam West and Burt Ward play charades in order for Robin to explain that he’s totaled the Batmobile, and a bit where William Schallert, who passed away last week, plays that “old, doddering fellow” he always played in the sixties and seventies – a bit like Ruth Buzzi, I suddenly realize – and, of course, the greatest and only actually funny moment of either special: Ed McMahon battling Solomon Grundy.

Fact: the day after this show aired, every single boy in my class reenacted and recited this bit ALL DAY LONG, and we kept doing it for weeks. It remains stupendously silly, stupid, and lovable. Ed McMahon somehow manages to repeatedly offend Solomon Grundy by either mentioning the word “swamp” or another word which Grundy can connect to a swamp, at which point Grundy shouts “HATE SWAMP!” and pounds McMahon. It’s a stupid shtick as ancient as, I dunno, Niagara Falls, but it works brilliantly for its target audience.

We’ve been hollering “HATE SWAMP!” at each other for the last ten minutes, actually.

Well, mercifully, they only made these two specials. After this, West and Ward put away their capes and cowls, and most of the other actors who played the superheroes (or, in deference to the ladies, super persons) left their very brief time in the Hollywood spotlight.

Freaky Friday (1976)

Wow, is this movie ever dated! Smoking moms, electric typewriter class, male chauvinist pigs… was this really made forty years ago, or four hundred and forty? It’s really entertaining, but is it ever a time capsule, and not just in society’s attitudes toward women, but back to those days when men’s careers in TV and movie entertainment were forever on the brink of disaster for fear of blustery, easily-displeased clients and bosses. You recall how every single episode of Bewitched featured Derwin – I mean, Darrin – perpetually skating between a successful sale and Larry Tate spontaneously combusting? The dad in this movie, played by John Astin, is similarly between the Scylla and Charybdis.

And with that world of crazy white-collar suburbia comes the life where Dad needs a new freshly-pressed suit for three important gigs a day and Mom is scrambling between catering for two dozen at no notice, pressing silk shirts (with Jon Pertwee-frilled fronts), and seeing that the drapes and curtains are regularly cleaned by professionals. The oil change and detailing place does to-your-garage delivery for $14.50 (about $63 in today’s currency, but this was California, after all), but at least you don’t have to drive your thirteen year-old daughter to the orthodontist, because she goes there herself on the city bus.

And looking back, yes, I do kind of recall the 1970s being kind of like that for my parents. Mom’s days included constant trips to the dry cleaners because men wore three-piece suits in every profession the other side of soda jerk, and I swear we must have had an expense account at the package store for all the evening entertaining they did. So yeah, once she got done ironing blouses and shirts, and having conferences at the school, she’d enjoy a quick break with Days of Our Lives before heading to the cleaners and the salon and probably the package store before taking my brother and me to the pediatrician or the dentist or the barber shop, and really only somebody as naive as a thirteen year-old could possibly want to swap places with a “stay-at-home mom” in the 1970s.

As a teenaged actress, Jodie Foster was omnipresent in the 1970s. This was the first of two Disney live-action films that she made, and far better-remembered than Candleshoe, which is also really entertaining. Astonishingly, she made Freaky Friday the same year that she made Taxi Driver, which I expect the PR people at Buena Vista did not mention. She’s fun as Annabel, but she doesn’t seem to be having half the fun that Barbara Harris, who plays her mother Ellen, does. Harris gets to chew gum and skateboard and dance and own the neighborhood baseball diamond and throw boomerangs while making goo-goo eyes at teenaged neighbors.

The water skiing stuff is all stunt doubles and rear-screen projection, of course, but the fun comedy of errors, which mainly involves lots of slow-burns in the classroom as Mom-in-Jodie Foster’s-body has no idea how to fit in, slowly gives way to more slapstick and a car chase happening at the same time as the water skiing tomfoolery.

Daniel was kind of restless during the movie, but did he ever come alive at the climax. It’s really entertaining, with Harris’s stunt double creating all kinds of skiing chaos while Foster leads police on a wild chase across Los Angeles landmarks. I’m almost positive they take the family’s red VW bug down the same staircase that David Janssen’s stunt double went down on a motorcycle in the Harry O pilot a couple of years earlier. Then they invariably end up in the concrete-channeled Los Angeles River, where they successfully avoid running into any model shoots or giant ants and the funniest thing that Daniel has ever seen happens: one of the police cars gets squashed triangular by one of the tunnels.

Almost immediately, this gag became the second-funniest thing he’d ever seen, because the final remaining police car gets cleaved in half when it runs into a concrete fork in the river, the driver’s side running up the left channel, and the passenger side running up the right. I have never heard this kid laugh so hard. When he’s old enough for me to let him hear Jackie Gleason swearing for a hundred minutes, he is going to die laughing over Smokey & the Bandit.

Perhaps it’s a bit wrong for Foster, Harris, and Astin – never mind a pretty deep bench of recognizable supporting players including Ruth Buzzi, Sorrell Booke, Marc McClure, Dick Van Patten, Alan Oppenheimer, and Al Molinaro – to get totally upstaged by stunt drivers and gimmick cars, but he is only four, dear readers!