"35. Lancelot Link, Secret Chimp."
~ "49 Things That Frightened and Disturbed Me When I was a Kid", Matt Groening (Bart Simpson's Treehouse of Horror #1, 1995)
I'd like to think that, as a species, we've progressed beyond the stage where we're comfortable with seeing primates dressed up in people clothes and paraded around for our own entertainment. At first glance, a show like Lancelot Link, Secret Chimp (an early 1970s spy spoof in which all of the roles are "acted" by chimpanzees in coats and silly wigs) feels like a relic of a bygone era, the kind of grotesque sideshow attraction that would not appeal to modern sensibilities. But then again, it doesn't seem so long ago that TBS attempted something very similar with Monkey-ed Movies, a collection of skits from 1998 in which costumed chimps performed spoofs of contemporary feature films, and which was later expanded into the short-lived series The Chimp Channel in 1999. Clearly, our fascination with self-parody achieved through molding our hairy cousins in our own image lies more deeply ingrained in our culture than we might like to think. It took the UK a long amount of time to fall out of love with the legacy of the "Chimpanzee Tea Party", the long-running public show first hosted by London Zoo in 1926, in which chimpanzees were dressed up and encouraged to drink tea for the amusement of zoo patrons. Although discontinued by London Zoo in 1972, the concept lived on in a popular - and controversial - series of TV ads for PG Tips which ran on until the early 00s (when they were replaced by the T-Birds, a cast of claymation birds brought to life by Aardman Animations).
It's because chimpanzees are so intelligent, and so like us, that seeing them embrace the full catalogue of human behaviour resonates so strongly with us. It tickles our funny bone, but there's undoubtedly an element of the uncanny in it too - the grotesqueness of these "manpanzees" coming as uneasy reminders of both our own fundamental animal nature and the freakish absurdities of our civilised rituals. The suited chimp bridges the gap between human and animal, making us realise what wildly distorted and eccentric beasts we really are. But then, it's because chimpanzees are so intelligent, and so like us, that there are so many additional ethical considerations to be taken into account when making them perform for our own amusement. Having ANY animal perform purely for spectacle's sake raises important questions, of course, but it gets particularly problematic when it comes to our closest relations. A "no animals were harmed in the making" disclaimer might not be enough, in their case. Above all, chimpanzees are social creatures, with their own complex hierarchies and behaviours. Even if the chimps receive a high standard of welfare during production (as I understand the chimps used in Monkey-ed Movies and the PG Tips ads did), too much time spent forcing a chimp to behave like a human can seriously damage that chimp's ability to fit in with and interact with other chimps. In our pursuit of cheap giggles, we risk stranding the unfortunate simian in a kind of no man's (or ape's) land, unable to function as a member of its own species and, due to the dangerously aggressive tendencies of adult chimps, not at all suited to a life among people.
Thus, it's with some trepidation that I approach the next item in STSMG. Speaking as someone who would prefer to see an end to the use of chimpanzees in entertainment altogether, I knew that Lancelot Link, Secret Chimp was not going to sit easily with me. Even my enormous love of 1970s kitsch was unlikely to move me beyond that unease. For now, though, I will try to suspend my stance on performing chimps and attempt to judge the series on its entertainment merits and, above all, its ability to unnerve young children.
Lancelot Link, Secret Chimp was a TV series created by Sandler-Burns-Marmers Productions that aired on ABC between September 1970 and January 1971. It was essentially a reworking of Get Smart, the affectionate secret agent parody created by Mel Brooks and Buck Henry in 1965 (two of the creators of Lancelot Link, Stan Burns and Mike Marmer, had served as writers on Get Smart), with the twist that all of the characters were chimpanzees. Sounds cute, huh? The chimpanzee cast was trained by Frank Inn (who went on to work with Benjean the dog, better known as Benji, and had a minor onscreen role in one of our all-time favourites here at The Spirochaete Trail, Benji The Hunted), and their chattering mouth movements were synced with dialogue provided by three voice actors - Dayton Allen, Joan Gerber and Bernie Kopell - with Malachi Throne supplying narration. Lancelot Link originally followed a variety show format, in which the spy segments were combined with bloopers, Laugh-In style interstitials and Warner Bros cartoons, although the series was later edited into a more straightforward format for syndication, with the cartoons removed. The show's Wikipedia page makes the (as of now, uncited) claim that, in its original incarnation, it was also broadcast with a laugh track that was taken out of the syndicated version. All I know is that the episode of Lancelot Link I watched on YouTube did not come with a laugh track, and that disappointed me so - if you know about my own love/hate relationship with the sitcom laugh track, and of its roots in one of my earliest childhood phobias, you'll know that there could be no surefire way to make the experience any more freakishly surreal for me.
Like Get Smart, Lancelot Link revolved around the ongoing battle between two agencies, one a force for good, the other for evil. Our CONTROL equivalent was A.P.E. (Agency to Prevent Evil), for whom the titular Link worked as a top agent, alongside his partner, Mata Hairi, and under the leadership of big boss Commander Darwin (in a predictable but still charming running gag, Link would routinely greet Darwin with the catchphrase, "What's your theory, Darwin?"). Standing in for KAOS were C.H.U.M.P. (Criminal Headquarters for the Underworld's Master Plan), led by the nefarious Baron von Butcher (a pastiche of Ludwig von Siegfried from Get Smart - appropriately, Kopell, who played Siegfried in the aforementioned series, provided vocals for his chimp counterpart) and comprising a broad range of ethnic/national stereotypes, including Wang Fu, Ali Assa Seen (see what they did there?) and Dr. Strangemind. There are tertiary characters, like the host of Link's favourite TV show, Ed Simian, who was obviously a pastiche on Ed Sullivan (check out how the chimpanzee in question accentuates its jaw movements during his "really big shew" bit). Lancelot Link was a product of its time in many ways, although certainly none were more telling than its incorporation of a bubblegum pop band, The Evolution Revolution (actually the alter egos of Link and Hairi, with two additional band mates, Bananas Marmoset and Sweetwater Gibbons), who were shoehorned in to provide psychedelic musical interludes and some handy merchandising revenue on the side. In the style of The Archies, The Banana Splits, etc, the fictitious Evolution Revolution landed their own tie-in LP, Lancelot Link and The Evolution Revolution, released by ABC Records in 1970.
Looking through Matt's list, one can identify a running theme in which he was frightened and disturbed by media in which animal mouth movements were synced with dialogue to give off the impression they were talking (he gives two other examples, which I'll explore in due course). It must be said of Lancelot Link that all the suspension of disbelief in the world won't have you buying into the notion that any of the dialogue is actually coming from the chimps in question, even within the reality of the show. The primitive lip-syncing, while playful, rarely convinces on any substantive level, resulting in a jarring dissonance between what the viewer sees and what they hear. In that sense, Lancelot Link feels strangely reminiscent of the Woody Allen film, What's Up, Tiger Lily?, in that it has it the aura of an assortment of found footage (albeit very peculiar found footage, involving chimps dressed up as people) taken out of context and redubbed for comic effect (in actuality, the dialogue was ad-libbed exhaustively on set in an effort to keep up with the primates' unpredictable chattering). It makes for extremely bizarre viewing, although one certainly cannot deny the talent of the chimps involved. For the purposes of this entry, I watched one episode, entitled "No Business Like Snow Business", in which Link and Hairi go undercover as ski instructors in order to retrieve a stolen diamond from C.H.U.M.P., and not only do they waddle around on skis but for the story's climax they even engage in a toboggan chase. I've made it clear that I am no fan of seeing chimpanzees used in this manner, but there's no doubt that, for better or for worse, what Inn managed to get from this cast was nothing short of eye-popping.
Lancelot Link takes itself about seriously as you would expect from a series about chimpanzee espionage, and there's an evident improvisational streak whereby numerous gags were shaped and dictated by the antics of the cast, leading to some weirdly convoluted dialogue exchanges and odd plot digressions in which the chimps struggle with props and to put on clothing (the aforementioned "No Business Like Snow Business" has a moment where the plot is put on hold in order to milk as much mileage as possible from Link putting on a ski hat incorrectly). Random coughs, sneezes and even singing are also common tactics for covering additional mouth movements. Needless to say, the actual story hangs together rather haphazardly in all of this, but then I doubt that anyone who watched Lancelot Link did so because they anticipated a riveting narrative.
Lancelot Link inspired a range of tie-in merchandise, including a series of comic books, although the show itself had only a short lifespan. I've no idea how well it performed on the ratings front, but I suspect that it was ultimately sunk by the expense and sheer complexities of the production (trained chimps don't come cheap, and when your entire cast consists of trained chimps you're going to require a generous budget), which would have made any additional seasons too laborious to be worth the effort. It was a wild burst of inanity, but probably never destined to last.
Does it frighten and disturb ME?
All in all, I could see people enjoying Lancelot Link, Secret Chimp as a mindless bit of 1970s fluff - the chimps are cute, the corny dialogue and non-stop ape puns do raise the occasional smile and the production is bright, colourful and most importantly, surreal as sin. What also sticks out is that this was blatantly a labour of love. Somebody cared enough to bring this incredibly complicated (from a production standpoint) chimpanzee spy pastiche into the world. Ultimately though, there's no getting around the problem that all this effort and expenditure was in aid of what is essentially an elaborate circus sideshow, of the kind that I personally would prefer to see consigned to the history bin. Lancelot Link doesn't exactly creep me out but, owing to the nature of the series, there is something about it that I find inherently unsettling.