Brilliant TV minds were behind 'Lancelot Link: Secret Chimp,' one of the silliest, strangest shows in history
This Saturday morning show was million-dollar monkey business.
Image: CBS Television Distribution
The Pantages Theatre sits on the corner of Hollywood and Vine in Hollywood. On May 6, 1972, its Art Deco facade sparkled under spotlights. Limousines pulled up and coughed out television bigwigs for the 24th Primetime Emmy Awards. It would end up being a notable ceremony for a few reasons. There was a tie! Valerie Harper and Sally Struthers tied for an award. Both sitcom stars took the podium to accept trophies for Actress in a Supporting Role in a Comedy. Meanwhile, All in the Family and Columbo owned the night. Both shows received every nomination in their respective Writing categories — Outstanding Writing Achievement in Comedy and Outstanding Writing Achievement in Drama. Yep, those were the only two television shows nominated.
Outstanding Writing Achievement in Variety or Music was another matter. The Carol Burnett Show bested Flip Wilson and Sonny and Cher in that field. Ten writers in total took the stage to accept the Burnett Emmy, which was specifically awarded for a fifth-season episode featuring Tim Conway and Ray Charles.
In the throng of winners crowded around the podium stood writers Stan Burns and Mike Marmer. The comedy writing duo were no newcomers. The two had recently wrapped up production on a decidedly not-Emmy-Award-winning show. A series for children — and quirky adults. A series starring chimpanzees.
Even in a decade crowded with surreal children's television — from the flapping lips of Clutch Cargo to the psychedelic puppetry of Sid and Marty Krofft — Lancelot Link: Secret Chimp stood out. The spy spoof featured no big names (unless you are a true simian connoisseur and consider Tongo and Judy the Chimpanzee celebrities). Instead of plain ol' human actor, apes dressed as people, with their chewing mouths overdubbed with voice actors. The hidden human cast included Dayton Allen, a comedian and impression expert who had popularized the catchphrase "Why not, Bubbe?" on The Steve Allen Show, and Bernie Kopell, who most MeTV viewers will know as unlikely ladies man "Doc" on The Love Boat.
It was no secret that Get Smart (1965–70) heavily influenced Lancelot Link. It was the rare spoof-of-a-spoof. For example, Lancelot Link worked for APE (Agency to Prevent Evil) and fought against the wicked CHUMP (Criminal Headquarters for the Underworld's Master Plan). Maxwell Smart, a CONTROL agent, had battled the evil CHAOS. Where the savvy Agent 99 helped Max, Lancelot teamed with his love interest, Mata Hairi.
The similarities were not a coincidence. Burns and Marmer had previously written for Get Smart. The twosome has also contributed scripts and stories to F Troop and Gilligan's Island, which should give you a good sense of their knack for inspired, high-concept, dopey-clever silliness. Take for example "Quick Before It Sinks," their Gilligan's Island episode, where the Professor believe the isle is sinking into the ocean, leading Gilligan to walk around on stilts.
The plots of Lancelot Link: Secret Chimp, beyond basic stop-the-bad-guy-from-conquering-the-world stuff, held together about as well as one of Gilligan and the Skipper's bamboo escape rafts. Honestly, the episodes were essentially an excuse to dress chimpanzees in wigs and have them perform stunts in surprisingly elaborate settings. Animal trainer Frank Inn taught the chimps to do all kinds of maneuvers. The apes would ride motorcycles and crawl through secret hatches hidden under sofa cushions. Inn was responsible for most of the lovable animals you saw on the small screen. He trained Tramp the dog on My Three Sons, Arnold the pig on Green Acres, most of Elly May's animals on The Beverly Hillbillies, and Higgins, the cut brown mutt from Petticoat Junction who would go on to become Benji.
The sets, scaled to the size of the chimpanzee performers, could pass for another other James Bond clone of the era. With good reason.
The studio gave Burns and Marmer a more than a million bucks to produce 13 episodes of Lancelot Link. Yes, seven figures. Of dollars. American dollars. And this 1970 kiddie show squeezed every penny from a seven-figure budget. Not only was it the most expensive children's show at the time, it was perhaps one of the most expensive shows on television, period.
Lancelot Link offered more than simian spy action. Lancelot's all-ape band, the Evolution Revolution, played psychedelic bubblegum pop music between segments. Typically, Ed Simian, a riff on Ed Sullivan, would introduce the hairy rockers. In an era when the cartoon band the Archies could go number one, the Evolution Revolution managed to become honest-to-goodness recording stars. Alongside Lance and Mata were keyboardist Sweetwater Gibbons and drummer Bananas Marmoset, an avowed fan of Three Dog Night. Well, spoiler alert: these chimps were not playing their instruments. Nor was it the Monkees behind the scenes.
The session musicians behind the tunes were commercial pros. Los Angeles musician Steve Hoffman wrote much of the music. Hoffman's main gig was fronting the Mystic Astrologic Crystal Band, an in-the-flesh California psych-pop band that somehow sounded more cartoonish than "The Evolution Revolution." The Revolution had one minor hit single, "Sha-La Love You," a number that was originally intended for the Grass Roots.
Despite all this talent and money — or perhaps because of it — Lancelot Link lasted a mere season. Stan Burns would go on to write for The Mary Tyler Moore Show. Mike Marmer penned segments for The Love Boat, reteaming him with Bernie Kopell.
We like to imagine the two kicking back on the deck of the Pacific Princess, reminiscing about the time they had an evil chimp named Baron von Butcher try to infect the world with a virus called the Dreaded Hong Kong Sneeze.