Get Smart, Get Barbara! Ms. Feldon Purred

By the mid-60’s, the standard that had been established for sitcoms in the previous decade—portraits of nuclear-family coziness—had largely given

By the mid-60’s, the standard that had been established for sitcoms in the previous decade—portraits of nuclear-family coziness—had largely given way to gimmickry and weirdness. The shows were about hillbillies transplanted to L.A., a Martian posing as a bachelor’s uncle, a talking horse, a genie in a bottle and a man whose mother is reincarnated as a 1928 convertible. Even a suburban-marriage comedy featured a housewife who was really a witch.

What hadn’t changed was the fairly sexless notion of marriage. Even as grounded a couple as Rob and Laura Petrie slept in separate beds. Without a doubt, the most amorous couple on television was Gomez and Morticia Addams (those sublime canoodlers, John Astin and Carolyn Jones). The makers of that underrated sitcom (whose first season has just come out on DVD) seemed to realize that, in the context of the TV of its time, the fact that Gomez and Morticia were a married couple still turned on by one another was considered as freaky as the rest of their home sweet horror show.

You had to take romance where you got it in 60’s TV. The Diana Rigg–Patrick Macnee seasons of The Avengers were one long duet of sophisticated sublimation. But for the whole megillah—love at first sight to making whoopee to washing dishes and baby clothes—you have to turn to Get Smart.

Luckily, you can turn to it in an absolutely gorgeous new DVD set that collects all five seasons, from 1965 to 1970, on 25 discs. The set is available only from the Time-Life Web site until next fall, when it will be available in retail. At nearly 200 bucks, it’s an investment. It’s also a model of how to do a reissue. A Get Smart collection should feel like a sleek gadget, and the handsome presentation, bounteous extras and crisp remastering accomplish just that.

Created by Mel Brooks and Buck Henry, Get Smart was a parody of the spy craze generated by the James Bond movies and the TV show The Man from U.N.C.L.E. On Get Smart, the suaveness of spies was filtered through Mad magazine parody and borscht-belt shtick. Its hero is Maxwell Smart, Control Agent 86 (the peerless Don Adams), an everyputz trying to be the hero we all fantasize being. Manny Farber memorably wrote that Adams’ performance was “at once lower (the voice of a canary spieler), faster (the razzing one-liner of the night-clubs), and higher (originally geared to fewer people) than anything except the more inspired ad-libs of the Allen-Paar-Carson-Griffin variety shows.” It’s no wonder that Adams’ overly articulated, pinging nasality spawned more catchphrases than perhaps any other show of its era.

Part of the genius of Get Smart was that the spy biz was just as quotidian as any other 9-to-5 job. The good-guy (read: U.S.) spy organization Control is a world of time clocks, insurance plans, even a lame orchestra that plays company do’s. And Max’s co-workers are played by an ingratiating group of second bananas—Dave Ketchum, his head popping out of sofas and lockers, as Agent 13; Robert Karvelas as the glum-faced schlep Larabee. The blandness of these nut-brain wage slaves is its own form of eccentricity. Even the most unusual among them, Dick Gautier’s Hymie the Robot, is really just a nice Jewish cyber-sapien. And presiding over them all was Ed Platt’s weary Chief, a baggy-eyed bloodhound of a boss who looks like he could do with equal doses of Geritol and Tums.

But beyond a crew that makes you suspect Langley has become part of the Catskills, beyond the villains with groaningly hilarious names like Abe Fu Yung, beyond the catchphrases and gadgets, like Max’s shoe phone and the Cone of Silence, the five seasons of Get Smart are the extended story of Max’s wooing, winning and marrying Barbara Feldon’s 99.

There are no accurate numbers for how many American men fell in love with Barbara Feldon watching Get Smart (a blissful epidemic memorably spoofed on an episode of Mad About You). And those of us who are crazy for her find her appeal so self-evident that it’s likely never been articulated.

Of course, with those big, bashful eyes and ripe, rounded cheekbones, Ms. Feldon was gorgeous (still is, as you can see from Don Adams’ 2005 memorial service, included here). She’s one of those rare performers who is at her funniest when she is at her most beautiful. Ms. Feldon’s purr marks her as an American cousin to Joan Greenwood. But where Greenwood’s voice betrayed every scheme she was hatching, Ms. Feldon’s tones are that of an eager innocent: 99 sees Max’s every bit of bonehead confidence, every instance of his bumbling, and still adores him.

We have gotten so used to hearing about the male gaze that we have neglected the power of the female gaze. Over the five seasons of the show, Ms. Feldon’s gaze told a story of someone who looks at her mate and loves him for what he is, and who is also able to let him look at her and see himself loved as the man he wants to be. (And when he comes close to losing her, Adams reveals just how much he needs her gaze.) No one has ever made adoration funny and sweet in the way that Ms. Feldon did. She recorded voice introductions for every single episode on this set, every extra. And what you hear is the gratitude of someone who was part of something that has made so many people think of her so fondly. It’s we who should be grateful to her. Get Smart, Get Barbara!  Ms. Feldon Purred