Mel Brooks may not be best known for his television career, but without it we probably wouldn’t have a Mel Brooks. He began as a writer on Sid Caesar’s Admiral Broadway Review, jumped around on a few different projects, created Get Smart with Buck Henry, made a bunch of hit movies, and then at the height of his career in 1975, created his first Robin Hood parody, a TV show called When Things Were Rotten. This is excluding a myriad of appearances on variety shows alongside Carl Reiner, occasional sketches, and performances that dotted the years (and continues to do so). Today we look back at one of the Mel Brooks TV projects that never took off: the pilot for a TV show called Inside Danny Baker.
Made in 1963 and based on a cartoon strip by William Steig, the creator of Shrek, called “Dreams of Glory,” Inside Danny Baker tells the story of Roger Mobley, a young boy who escapes into flights of fancy. It’s like Walter in The Secret Life of Walter Mitty or Andy Richter in Andy Richter Controls the Universe. Or at least that’s how I imagine it was pitched. In reality, Danny doesn’t actually go into one of these fantasy sequences until 18 minutes into the 21 minute pilot. The show basically feels like Leave it To Beaver with a dream sequence.
And there is perhaps the most notable thing about this Mel Brooks penned pilot: it might be the least Mel Brooks-y thing he ever wrote.
In the first three minutes we are introduced to Danny, played by Roger Mobley, a child actor who appeared in a number of Disney productions in the 50s and 60s, and his geeky friend Eric who decide they need to get a boat if they’re going to catch fish. They hop into a docked boat, pretend to be sailors, learn how to haggle and commit to buying the boat for $35. It moves at a breakneck pace.
Danny barges in on his father, at work, who is working as a dentist on a patient’s tooth and asks him for the money. Danny’s dad sits him down on the stairs and launches into the classic sitcom dad speech: “Now you may find this hard to believe, but I remember when I was twelve once…” But dad’s moving words are cut off by Danny’s sighs, who points out that his father has already given this speech, last year, when his dad remembered what it was like to be 11. After a little debate, dad gets to his point: if Danny wants $35, he needs to go find his own $35.
While walking the streets of Manhattan, Danny and Eric take a look in a gallery that is selling some modern art paintings at some exorbitant prices, which gives them a little bit of inspiration. Before you know it, Danny and Eric are mixing housepaints (“You can’t mix enamels and dulls!” “We’re artists!”) and using the biggest canvas they can find (the ping pong table) to create their masterwork. Consulting their manual, they learn that many artists are trying some fascinating new mediums with their artwork including splash painting. In the other room, Danny’s mom attempts to convince dad to advance Danny the money, but when he stands firm on his refusal, she asks him to at least go into the playroom and cheer Danny up. The savvy sitcom viewers out there may have already put together what’s coming, for dad walks into the room just as Danny and Eric are beginning their foray into splash painting and ends up with a fresh coat.
Dad gives them ten minutes to restore his ping pong table back to it’s former natural beauty. “You don’t want us to erase ‘Harry,’ [the name of their masterpiece] do ya?” Dad gets an evil look in his eye: “Kill… I want you to kill ‘Harry.’ ‘Harry’ is to be turpentined to death!”
Left alone with his painting, Danny goes into fantasy mode and begins to imagine what his life would be like as a starving artist. He has sold his shoes for money as he continues working on his latest piece. With a last few dots he pronounces his work complete and the camera pans back to reveal a billboard sized painting which quickly gathers a crowd of adoring fans. He’s happy to see them, but is sad to announce that it’s his last painting before falling down, stricken. His father approaches, asking for forgiveness, which he’s given, when they’re interrupted by then Yankee pitcher, Whitey Ford who comes to pay his respect and to ask the great artist to sign his baseball, which Danny does before dying.
Inspired by this fantasy, Danny decides to attempt to sell the painting. What have they got to lose? If the gallery says no, they can erase it. In one of the quickest cuts I’ve seen in a show from this era, we immediately cut to the painting being thrown out of the gallery, and a snooty man in a suit yelling, “if you dare paint again, I’ll have you thrown into Juvenile Court!”
Lucky for them, the boat owner, Mr. Johansen, is very interested in owning ‘Harry.’ He offers the boat in trade, though when the boys bring Danny’s dad out to see the boat, he learns there’s a bit more to the deal. They boys have also agreed to work 3 hours a day for him until 1970.
Eric and Danny stop over at Mr. Johansen’s office to show Danny’s parents ‘Harry’ only to discover Mr. Johansen using it as a ping pong table. He gets over his embarrassment pretty quickly and allows the boys to use their painting for a quick game as we fade to black.
Inside Danny Baker is good enough, heartwarming stuff, but definitely lacking the satirical bite of Mel’s usual work. There are glimpses, such as Danny explaining to his dad that he’s gotten the typical sitcom speech dozens of times, or the aforementioned comedy editing, but outside of that, the show is pretty toothless. In an alternate universe, Baker gets picked up as a series, and Mel Brooks becomes the next producer of sitcom schlock throughout the rest of the 60s. Lucky for us, we’re in the good universe where we get The Producers, Blazing Saddles, and Young Frankenstein.
Thank your lucky stars too, because in that other one, Inside Danny Baker ran for 17 seasons…