The Bat-signal: The first season of Batman was the hottest thing since sliced bread, and prompted both a feature film and half of Hollywood wanting to get in on the fun. However, as the second season plodded onward, the novelty had worn off and the audience had moved on to other things. Folks like Vincent Price and Otto Preminger and the like all came in to jump on the bandwagon, but by the time they arrived, the wagon had left town.
By the third season, the producers at once took steps to try to shore up what audience remained, yet also made it clear that they had stopped giving a horse’s patoot. The former was addressed by adding Yvonne Craig’s Batgirl to the main cast; the latter, sadly, sabotaged Craig’s presence, as the budget was razed, presenting a show that was very obviously being done on the cheap and by producers who had stopped caring.
However, the show’s influence and staying power was impressive. Like that other show I’m rewatching, the show continued to have a powerful life in syndicated reruns. (That was how your humble rewatcher first encountered it.) For decades afterward, Batman ‘66 was everyone’s touchstone for how to talk about comics, specifically the iconic sound effects used when fisticuffs ensued. (Pretty much every article about how “comics aren’t for kids anymore” written between 1980 and 2000 used “Pow! Zap!” or some such in the article’s title. It grew tiresome.)
Adam West and Burt Ward suffered considerable typecasting, as they became inextricably linked with the iconic roles. They would find themselves in the following decade returning to those roles twice.
The first time was on The New Adventures of Batman, a 16-episode Filmation-produced series. The stories were all run-of-the-mill bad guy stuff that was straight out of the Silver Age comics—and other Saturday morning cartoons of the era. They even had a doofy sidekick in the interdimensional imp Bat-Mite, a powerful-yet-dim creature who kept trying to help and making things worse. Batgirl was also present, though veteran voiceover actor Melendy Britt voiced her rather than Craig. Britt in fact did all the female voices, with most of the other male voices being provided by Filmation vet Lennie Weinrib, including almost all the male villains. Each was given some kind of vocal tick to differentiate them, the most extreme being Professor Bubbles who sounded like Mush Mouth from Fat Albert. (The one exception was Boyd Baxter, a TV newscaster voiced by Larry Storch.) Producer Lou Scheimer provided the voices of Bat-Mite and the Bat-computer.
Each episode followed a standard formula, with the villain plotting to take over Gotham or the world or whatever, and our heroes stopping them, even with Bat-Mite slowing them down with his idiocy. The show was a mix of elements from the TV series (Robin’s copious use of “Holy ____!” as well as the spectacular incompetence of Gordon and the GCPD) and the comics (the design of the Batcave is closer to the comics, and Batman fights super-powered beings and aliens and such). The design is an interesting mix of Dick Sprang and Neal Adams, and of course Batman and Robin are far more athletic here than they are in live-action. We get some new bat-gadgets, most notably the seats of the Batmobile that eject and become autogyros, and now the Bat-computer talks—and has something of an attitude, too.
And, this being Filmation, they ended each episode with a “Bat-message,” with Batman and Robin delivering the moral of the story while Bat-Mite does something wacky and annoying.
This was hardly the first foray of Batman and Robin in animation—they were part of the Batman/Superman Hour, which was contemporary with the TV series, with Olan Soule and Casey Kasem voicing Batman and Robin, respectively. Soule and Kasem would reprise the roles on the various Super Friends cartoons, though Soule was later replaced by West as Batman, with Kasem continuing as Robin. (Soule’s consolation was to do the voice of Martin Stein, half of Firestorm.)
West and Ward also stepped in front of the camera to reprise their roles as Batman and Robin for the ill-advised 1979 specials Legends of the Super Heroes, an appalling mix of superhero story and variety show that didn’t work on any possible level. Both West and Ward were phoning it in—and looked even more ridiculous in the outfits a decade later. Ed McMahon hosted and actually did the best he could—he at least faked taking it seriously—but the shows fall into the same what-the-hell-were-they-smoking-in-the-1970s-anyhow category as The Star Wars Holiday Special.
And of course, West and Ward got back into the Bat-game in 2016 for the 50th anniversary in The Return of the Caped Crusaders, as well as its upcoming sequel…
Favorite Fetch the Bat-shark-repellant! I think my favorite Bat-device still has to be the Bat-shield, just because it’s so unutterably ridiculous.
Favorite Holy #@!%$, Batman! I gotta say that after a year and a half of chronicling them, the vast majority of Robin’s religious utterances leave me cold, and it could get pretty ridiculous. Still, I liked it when it looked like some thought went into it, like “Holy Wernher von Braun!” in “The Greatest Mother of Them All” / “Ma Parker” and the cleverer ones in the film like “Holy Bikini” and “Holy Polaris.”
Favorite Gotham City’s finest. A tie between “The Sandman Cometh” / “The Catwoman Goeth“—where Mooney, Hogan, and Dietrich, are actually competent and skilled and stuff—and “The Joker Goes to School” / “He Meets His Match, the Grisly Ghoul” where the cops (aided by a convenient blackout) are actually the ones who rescue Batman and Robin from that week’s deathtrap.
Favorite No sex, please, we’re superheroes. Definitely “King Tut’s Coup” / “Batman’s Waterloo,” where “milk and cookies” is the best euphemism ever!
Favorite Special Guest Villain. With all due respect to Burgess Meredith, Julie Newmar, and Cesar Romero, who justifiably became icons, and equal respect to Anne Baxter, Victor Buono, Eartha Kitt, Roddy McDowall, Vincent Price, and Cliff Robertson, who were all magnificent, the best villain in the Bat-pantheon has to be Frank Gorshin, who simply owned the character of the Riddler. The others all had aspects that worked—Gorshin, though, fired on all cylinders, creating a complex, layered villain with scripts that didn’t actually require that. Amazing stuff.
Favorite Na-na na-na na-na na-na na. So many great lines, but this one from “The Unkindest Tut of All” remains my favorite, as it’s hilarious Bat-alliteration followed by a line Buono was born to read:
“Come off it, Tut. Your predictions are nothing but phony fatuous flimflam.”
“Who dares impugn the veracity of Tut—nabob of the Nile, moon god of Thoth, and stuff like that? By the instep of Ramses, I’ll have his head!”
Pow! Biff! Zowie! “Same bat-time, same bat-channel!” And so we come to the end of the Bat-rewatch. It’s a show that tapped into the zeitgeist of the time in which it was created, melding Silver Age goofiness with Pop Art zaniness and a technicolor palette to give us a perfect storm of campy hilarity.
Still, the show was in many ways a victim of its success. By becoming the it-show, as it were, the producers became more self-conscious and emphasized the goofier aspects, as well as the cameos and guest appearances. So many comedians making uncredited cameos, so many celebrities opening the window on a bat-climb, so many actors showing up as villains, not always to good effect (yes, Art Carney and Van Johnson, I’m looking at you).
Yet the show continued to thrive long after it was cancelled. It even had a kind of reverse-positive effect on the comics, as backlash against the overwhelming silliness of the TV show—which had been the norm in the Batman comics pretty much since the Comics Code Authority defanged mainstream comics in the 1950s—led to the character becoming darker and more serious in the 1970s, closer to the more hard-bitten character originally portrayed by Bill Finger and Bob Kane.
Ultimately, though, the show itself was tremendous fun to watch. At its best, it was a vehicle for brilliant satire (“Hizzoner the Penguin” / “Dizzoner the Penguin,” “Pop Goes the Joker” / “Flop Goes the Joker“) and high comedy (“Death in Slow Motion” / “The Riddler’s False Notion,” “An Egg Grows in Gotham” / “The Yegg Foes in Gotham“). And even at its worst, it gave us a weekly dose of the triumph of good over evil, which is never a bad thing to see on your television screen.
Keith R.A. DeCandido will miss doing this every week, but won’t miss tallying up all Robin’s “Holy” utterances. Be on the lookout for his overview of the 1970s Wonder Woman TV show some time between now and the release of the Gal Gadot film.