It's spy week here at io9, and every night we'll be highlighting a particularly stellar example of spy fiction. Tonight: parody and humor. And the king of it all, Get Smart. (Don't worry, you'll get the chance to tell me how wrong I am.)
There are a lot of spy comedies out there. In movies, there's Austin Powers, Top Secret!, and the first Casino Royale. In TV, there's Archer, Britain's Spy, and Inspector Gadget, Don Adams' other show. But, for my money, spy comedy reached its apex with Get Smart. Not the 2008 movie with Steve Carell and Anne Hathaway, but the original 1960s show starring Barbara Feldon and Don Adams.
Parody can be very specific — to the point of forcing a reboot of a single franchise— or it can be a broad commentary on an entire genre. Get Smart was absolutely the latter. It was funny as a whole, not as a sketch. Even knowing that it was inspired by The Man from UNCLE does nothing to diminish how perfectly the show encapsulated all of the tropes that 60s spy fiction had in abundance. A secret base? Check. With the phone both entrance. An alphabet soup of acronyms? Check. CONTROL and KAOS, two names that do not seem that much weirder than UNCLE and THRUSH. Gadgets? Check. Shoe phone.
Maybe it was because Get Smart was a TV show and not a movie, but it had actual plots, characters, and relationships. They weren't the most developed things on the planet, but they were there in a way that wasn't just for the sake of the joke. Even though Max and 99's relationship was very typical of sitcoms — befuddled man and the woman who pulls their fat out of the fryer — it worked very well. There was real chemistry and affection between the two, even if Max never actually learned her name.
And the parody, while heavy on the jokes, wasn't so far out there as to be completely completely untethered from reality. The opening credits is a masterclass in both theme music and punctuating a joke:
It's already funny in the sheer number of security doors between the street and the secret spy base. But the end, where behind the doors are the requisite camouflaged entrance, hits the insanity just right. Any more absurd and it wouldn't draw the eye to how absurd the trope is when used seriously.
For every plot that Get Smart takes to its less-logical, but more hilarious, conclusion, you can point to the exact same plot in a series spy tale. There are honey traps, fake defectors, moles, and every other trope on the planet. And each time, the show pointed out how just a little pushing makes those stories fall apart.
Get Smart also had gadgets and machines that hit that note, too. The infamous shoe phone is iconic for a reason. Hidden radios and phones are a spy staple. And we always wear shoes. It's the image of holding one up to your face that makes it clear that the cool factor isn't always an excuse. Same deal with the cone of silence, which malfunctions in different ways every single time Max insists on using it. Of course an agency with this many gadgets would produce something that just doesn't work. Bond's Q and Alias' Marshall Flinkman seem to hit it out of the park every time, but this? This seems more like the government agency competence we all know and love.
The smaller jokes, which aren't spy-related, are also fabulous. It was Don Adams who insisted on giving his character so many catchphrases. Which seem so played out now, but the joke inside the show is Max's determination to hold on to his awful, awful lies. Even in the face of years of proof that they never work. "Would you believe?" every time he has to de-escalate a lie into believability underscores just how bad a spy he is. And "That's the second biggest very specific thing I've ever seen!" leaves you wondering how on Earth that can be true. And if he is telling the truth, then he's had more ridiculous missions then we've gotten to see. In "The Little Black Book Part 2," Max says it as the villains bolt a silencer onto a cannon. Which is both a sight gag and leads to the inevitable question of what it would like on, say, a rocket.
The situations were absurd and Max was an idiot, but everyone else was playing it very straight. Agent 99 is fighting valiantly to rescue these missions. The poor Chief — given, as is always the case for spymasters in this kind of show, no other name — is equally committed to these absurd situations. They don't really wink at the audience or become so referential that the show stops having a plot and becomes a mere vehicle for sketches.
If anything, you feel for Siegfried. A villain with a very thick accent but who seems so much more competent than the hero he keeps losing to. He's as surrounded by idiots as everyone else.
As we head into the year of the spy, the show should act as a reminder to everyone contemplating their spy stories to remember just how little it takes to make their dramas into brilliant comedy. Archer owes a lot to Get Smart, drawing the same line under our spy fixation: maybe the good guys aren't so much great spies as they are very lucky.