Get Smart: Mr. Big (1965)

Directed by Howard Morris
Don Adams, Barbara Feldon, Edward Platt, Michael Dunn, Vito Scotti

Get Smart, although a comedy series, is iconic television. On this site you’ll stumble on a great many spy comedies. As you read these reviews, you’ll also realise that many of these films are absolutely dreadful. I have surmised that this is because a great number of the so-called ‘straight spy’ films already have a healthy dollup of humour in them. To make a parody of something that is already humorous requires going off at the deep end to get even greater laughs. And no doubt there is an element of ‘going off at the deep end’ in Get Smart. But Get Smart is layered like a fine homestyle lasagna. There are many comedy styles displayed over the length of an average episode. There is broad slapstick farce, parody and satire. And it’s the last of these, ‘satire’ where the real comedy gold comes from. The best laughs come from not going ‘out there’, but rather going ‘in there’. They look at the minutiae of work for a bureaucratic body. Many of the laughs do not come from the absurdity of a mission – they stem from the apparatus in place to send an agent on their mission. This is exemplified by the ‘cone of silence’ that Maxwell Smart, Secret Agent 86 (Don Adams) always insists upon when receiving a mission briefing from the ‘Chief’ (Edward Platt). But before we go any further, maybe it’s best that we have a brief look at the ‘Get Smart’ universe.

In the television series Get Smart, there are two spy organizations. The first is ‘Control’ which represents ‘good’ and ‘niceness’. The second is ‘KAOS’ which represents ‘evil’ and ‘badness’. Control’s two gun agents are Maxwell Smart and his partner Agent 99 (Barbara Feldon). KAOS, on the other hand has an ever-changing cadre of evil-doers intent of subjugating the world. Some of the villain’s names may even sound vaguely familiar to you – there’s Bronze Finger and Dr. Yes. That’s right, get Smart is a parody of the Bondian universe, but added to this, Smart’s continual ineptitude puts him on par with another mid-sixties comedy icon, Inspector Clouseau – as portrayed by Peter Sellers in The Pink Panther films. Maybe it’s no co-incidence, after the success of Get Smart, that Peter Sellers would actually play James Bond later in the decade, in the abhorrent comedy spoof, Casino Royale.

Although Maxwell Smart may be the bastard son of Bond and Clouseau, he has spawned his own progeny in the form of Austin Powers, Johnny English, and in the recent revision of OSS 117 portrayed by Jean Dujardin. Get Smart proved that a well-written spy comedy could work, and over the years there have been many attempts revive the formula.

A wise man once said, ‘there’s no such thing as an old joke if you haven’t heard it before’. For me, growing up in an outback town, where television was an endless rotation of re-runs, you were bound to hear jokes time and time again. They were all old jokes. For some shows, this meant that they quickly overstayed their welcome. However, Get Smart was a shining beacon in such an environment. The running gags – the old jokes – actually got better with age. ‘Sorry about that, Chief’, ‘Missed it by that much’, ‘Would you believe…’ are lines that are indelibly burnt into the subconscious mind of any regular Get Smart viewer. These catchphrases, even through repeated episode after episode, season after season, took on a life of their own. When watching an episode, there was a perceptible tingling of anticipation, while you waited for Smart to deliver one of these signature lines. Usually the set-ups were so transparent, it was easy for the viewer to join in (not that I am one to talk to my television).

Of course, the main reason for the show’s success was the casting of Don Adams as Maxwell Smart, and Barbara Feldon as 99. Naturally these two were provided with quality scripts written by the likes of Mel brooks and Buck Henry, but what’s sewerage to a magistrate is caviar to a psychopath – or in English, in the hands of different leads, the show would have appeared quite different. This is born out in the Get Smart movie, The Nude Bomb, which didn’t feature Barbara Feldon – and basically was crap! The magic wasn’t there.

Mr. Big was the first episode in the Get Smart series and was the only one made in black and white. As such, when the program was shown in repeats, quite often this episode was left out. But from the very beginning most of the familiar Get Smart trademark lines and situations were already in place.

The episode opens in a theatre in Washington DC. A symphony orchestra is playing to a sell out crowd, and seated in the audience is Maxwell Smart, Secret Agent 86 for Control. During the show, much to the chagrin of those seated around him, Smart’s shoe phone rings. In this day and age with mobile phones and almost instant communication, a portable phone may not seem like the world’s coolest gadget, but back in 1965 this was cutting edge technology and ferociously funny.

On the phone is the Chief of Control. It appears that the evil organization KAOS are up to their usual tricks and the Chief wants to brief Smart for the new mission. Control has a rotation policy when assigning agents to missions, and unfortunately, it is Smart’s turn once again. Max rushes to headquarters.

During the briefing it is explained that Professor Hugo Dante (Vito Scotti) has been kidnapped by KAOS. Along with the Professor they have taken his latest invention called the ‘Inthermo’ – yes, it is Dante’s Inthermo – groan! The Inthermo is a laser weapon that can convert heat into immense destructive power. Control know that KAOS is being the kidnapping because, Mr. Big (Michael Dunn) has radioed in a ransom demand for one hundred million dollars.

Smart is assigned to find and destroy KAOS and Mr. Big, and then find the Professor and return the Inthermo. To assist him on his mission, he is to be teamed up with a new partner, Agent 99, who is to meet him at the airport.

There is not too much point outlining much of the plot as each episode only runs for half an hour (even less if you count the time set aside for adverts). Mr. Big is a fine introduction to the Get Smart series. Some of the bumbling that would become inherent in later episodes in the series is slightly missing in this pilot episode. There is a fight scene towards the end of the show, where Smart actually looks like a competent agent and handles himself admirably.

Get Smart was quality comedy television, made at a time when most shows of it’s type were family based sitcoms. Get Smart broke that formula and came up with something quite new in television entertainment. Forty years down the track, and the shows freshness may have been diminished by the countless imitators and followers, but the show was groundbreaking in it’s day and deserves to be looked upon as one of the classics of the spy genre.

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