Forty five years ago, in 1966, one of the more unusual experiments in American popular culture took place. Producer William Dozier took an almighty gamble by introducing Batman to the TV screen via America’s ABC network. The caped crime-fighter originally created by Bob Kane had certainly built up a fan base in DC Comics since 1939, but he had never been portrayed the way Dozier presented him. Dispensing with every aspect of the Dark Knight’s dark comic book existence, Dozier offered America a laughably gentle Batman who even winced at the bad language used by criminals, such were his outrageously high moral standards. The Batman TV show thus became a depiction of pop art utopia, where bright colors forever defeated darkness, where creativity forever defeated logic, and where Good forever triumphed over Evil.
The actor chosen to play Dozier’s Batman, a rather dashing six-foot-two inch Adam West, accepted the role because, in his own words, he found the script “excruciatingly funny.” Indeed, the dead pan delivery of ridiculous lines, revolutionary for its time, made Batman a comedy classic. Only on this show could a criminal be described as a “pompous, waddling master of a million criminal umbrellas” in the normal flow of conversation. Equally hilarious was the irony behind some of the lines as illustrated by the absurd situation when Batman enters a library. While wearing a cape, a bat logo, pants outside his trousers and a bat-shaped mask with eyebrows inexplicably carved into it, he says to a librarian: “Have you seen any unusual looking people around here?” She replies, in all earnestness: “No, but then I see so many people during the course of the day.”
While the characters of Batman and teenage sidekick Robin were amusingly gentle, the villains were amusingly insane. The Riddler, expertly played by impressionist Frank Gorshin, was depicted as a complete maniac, forever shouting his plans to the rooftops and squealing with crazed laughter. The Joker, played by Latin legend Cesar Romero, also laughed crazily, sported outrageous hair, and had white facial paint daubed over his moustache (which he apparently refused to shave for the role). A nod to girl power was made in the form of Catwoman, a highly sexualized villainess with skin-tight leathers who urged a henchman to “tickle my pussy feathers.” Although she was clearly referring to nearby flowers of that name, it is astonishing that such a line would escape the censors’ wrath!
Extra villains without a comic-book past were created especially for the TV show, the most memorable being Victor Buono’s King Tut, an obese, goatee-bearded Yale University professor who started believing he was an ancient King of the Nile every time he was struck on the head. Another impressive character was the Bookworm, played by Roddy MacDowell, whose writing career had failed due to his lack of originality but who was capable of devising all manner of crimes from books he had read. Bookworm’s episodes, aired during national reading week, were actually designed to highlight the importance of reading to the show’s younger viewers. It was one of many “good upbringing” messages included in Batman, with the superhero himself often stressing the importance of fresh fruit, education, and safe driving.
Part of Batman’s charm was that it drew unmistakably clear distinctions between Right and Wrong. The forces of Law and Order were simply whiter than white, with Batman even explaining to Robin that the reason they consistently escaped the villains’ traps was that their “hearts were pure.” They were joined by the equally pure-hearted Police Commissioner Gordon and the slightly dim-witted Chief O’Hara, two figures who would never even fiddle with an expenses claim. The villains, on the other hand, despite wearing colorful costumes and appearing cuddlier than their comic book counterparts, were portrayed as unspeakably evil and selfish, only ever thinking about crimes to commit. Good always defeats Evil in the end, though, usually via a daft fight scene with large words splurged over the screen, trumpet sounds to mark every punch, and a brilliant atonal musical score put together by Nelson Riddle. The fact that Batman’s alter-ego, Bruce Wayne, is a millionaire whereas the villains scrape together an existence in abandoned warehouses with malnourished henchmen is the starkest illustration that crime doesn’t pay.
Batman was far more than just an adventure story. It took itself seriously as a social commentator and certainly pulled no pow!-style punches when analyzing popular trends of the day. The electoral system suffered an almighty bashing when arch villain the Penguin ran for Mayor of Gotham City, in an episode aired during the 1966 mid-terms. “I should have been a politician years ago!” croaks the umbrella-wielding, cigar smoking Penguin – expertly played by Burgess Meredith. “I can use all my dirty, slurpiest tricks, and now they’re legal!” Symbolizing everything the public love to hate about politicians, Penguin also tells a campaign rally that voters love “bands and girls and balloons and hoopla! But remember: no politics! Issues confuse people.” In this episode, police and local politicians decide that the only way to defeat Penguin’s highly slick PR campaign is to offer Batman as a rival mayoral candidate. Batman’s subsequent election win, while hailed as a triumph for clean politics over skulduggery, may in fact be taken as a further slight against an electorate willing to vote in a man whose face they have never seen!
It is, in some ways, a miracle that the show became a pop art phenomenon. After all, much of the script suggests that the writers were incredibly dismissive of the young social movements taking place around them, coming as they did from an older generation. Pop art itself certainly takes a pounding in the episode which sees super criminal Joker perfectly cast in the role of pop artist, winning a competition by painting nothing on his canvas and then declaring a smashed table to be his latest masterpiece. The writers’ disdain is expressed further when Joker teaches a pop art master class, in which it is impossible to tell what the sculptures resemble. Bruce Wayne, who has entered the class, assesses Joker’s art as “about the level of a three year old.”
The hippie movement also comes in for criticism, with the young people in question portrayed as ignorant and naïve. A flower-power criminal named Louis the Lilac, played by Milton Berle, was created to illustrate this point, expressing the belief that hippies could be easily controlled and manipulated to serve his own nefarious ends. The movement was also scorned when 65-year-old Alan Napier, who plays Batman’s butler Alfred, disguised himself as “the world’s oldest hippie.” The writers were equally mocking in their treatment of beach surfers, portraying them as clueless youths whose every conversation included surfing terms as “down cold!” and “reverse it!” The contemptuous treatment is extended when a 69-year-old Commissioner Gordon dresses up in beach shorts to go undercover, and explains to a similarly-clad Chief O’Hara that “most true surfers are known as Duke, Skip, Rabbit or Buzzy.” The resultant comedy, though, which sees Batman also don beach shorts over his bat suit to defeat Joker in a surfing contest, is highly enjoyable.
Joker, incidentally, only gained his surfing knowhow by stealing it from champion Skip Parker via “a Surfing Experience and Ability Transferometer.” The proliferation of such zany devices not only illustrates the script writers’ scant regard for scientific fact but represents a biting commentary on the fears and anxieties surrounding technology. The Batcave illustrates that when technology is placed in the right hands it is an overwhelming force for good, especially when fighting crime. The villains, meanwhile, illustrate that when technology falls into the wrong hands havoc can be wreaked. Nuclear energy also comes under the spotlight, hailed as a wonderful source of power for the Batmobile but having its danger exposed when it claims the life of villainess Jill St John.
Largely due to the sheer speed at which episodes needed to be turned around, the Batman concept completely ran out of steam and the show was cancelled in March 1968. The final episode thus took the form of a tirade from bitter Batman producers against the executives who pulled the plug. Producers Dozier and Howie Horwitz both appeared in cameos, the latter explaining to a masseuse that he became rich by: “never hiring method actors and always ignoring network executives.” Caring no more for quality, Dozier and Horowitz set themselves a simple goal for the finale: to include every single Batman cliché imaginable, even ridiculing their own overused plot-devices. It is a doubtful if a show has ever been so self-deprecating but the result was certainly positive: a classic encapsulation of an American pop art phenomenon. Most memorable is the mockery of Batman’s ability to produce any tool imaginable from his utility belt. When asked by Commissioner Gordon: “How could you open a safe to which you did not know the combination in three seconds flat?” the caped crusader coolly replies: “With my Three-Second-Flat Bat-vault Combination Unscrambler commissioner.”
Batman set out to challenge the established wisdom over how television programs should be produced, but the approach actually sowed the seeds of its own destruction. TV’s regular stars were so impressed that they queued up in droves to take part in the project. Sammy Davis Jr., Liberace, Joan Collins, and Zsa Zsa Gabor were just some of the names who either guest starred or cameod. Scripts and viewing figures suddenly became dependent on the guest star, and the show’s quality suffered immensely. Despite this, the show made an immense impact on American popular culture in a relatively short time. It challenged people to aspire to a world where right and wrong were easily distinguishable. And it spawned a vast counter-revolution in future representations of Batman, with movie directors from the 1980s to the present obsessed with returning the character to his darker, more sinister, past.
From guest contributor Chris Gould