The Paley Center for Media, which has locations in both New York and LA, dedicates itself to the preservation of television and radio history. Inside their vast archives of more than 150,000 television shows, commercials, and radio programs, there are thousands of important and funny programs waiting to be rediscovered by comedy nerds like you and me. Each week, this column will highlight a new gem waiting for you at the Paley Library to quietly laugh at. (Seriously, it’s a library, so keep it down.)
It’s practically a function of autocorrect at this point: you type “Mel Brooks,” the word “legend” pops up automatically. You don’t need me to tell you about his storied career spanning decades and covering such diverse media as the most successful live television show of its day, Your Show of Shows, successful film after film, records with partner Carl Reiner, the single-camera sitcom, the smash Broadway hit The Producers, and on and on. So, I’m not going to. He’s funny. You already know him. We’re done with that part. Let’s get to the fun part.
Today we’re looking at Mel’s second attempt at a sitcom. His first was Get Smart, which he co-created with the similarly legendary Buck Henry, and, true to form, was wildly successful. It went on for 138 episodes over 5 seasons, launched a number of catchphrases, and expertly satirized sixties spy culture. Mel, however, didn’t have an awful lot to do with the show after its formation. He launched the boat, and then happily waved from shore. He then went on to a streak of hits, directing and either writing or co-writing The Producers, Blazing Saddles, and Young Frankenstein, before deciding to dip his toe back into television where he got his start.
The show was called When Things Were Rotten, and was Brooks’ first journey to a well that he would travel to again a few decades later. Running for only 13 episodes in 1975, the show was a parody of the legend of Robin Hood, and is simply dripping with Mel Brooks’s flair. Sight gags, one-liners, and jokes playing on anachronisms are constantly flying at the audience at a breakneck pace unlike anything else on TV at the time. The show launches into a very Brooksian theme song which exclaims, “”They laughed, they loved, they fought, they drank / They jumped a lot of fences / They robbed the rich, gave to the poor / Except what they kept for expenses!”
The pilot episode, which was written by Mel, along with John Boni and Norman Stiles, introduces a lot of characters and tells the story you would expect to find in the first episode of a show about Robin Hood: The Sheriff of Nottingham sets an archery contest as a trap to catch Robin, Robin is told this by the Maid Marian, enters anyway, then fights his way out of the dungeon. It’s the silly way in which these things happen that makes it fun.
The first thing I need to tell you about the acting in this show is that it’s big. It is very big. The first character we meet is the tax collector, Bertram, played by Richard Dimitri. Bertram speaks in the cartooniest fop voice you’ve ever heard, rolling every “r” possible, and punctuating every statement with a wild gesticulation. He is informing the townspeople that the King will be selling land in a few days. “Who’s land?” the assembled peasants ask, in unison. “Yours,” he replies. “Wow!” they exclaim, holding their hands to their faces, again in unison. And as such, the tone is set.
Mel’s later retelling of this legend, Robin Hood: Men in Tights, serves as an origin story for that version of Robin Hood as we see him assemble his Merry Men. In When Things Are Rotten, the gang is already together. Obviously, this is much more efficient since you’re able to cut to the chase, rather than introduce a bunch of characters. But, on the other hand, in this way, each character has a limited amount of time to shine. Dick Van Patten as Friar Lawrence has only a couple of lines, and I’m not completely sure what the “game” of his character is unless it’s the fact that he eats a lot. Also in the group is Bertram’s twin brother, Ronaldo, who does not share his brother’s dignified speech and instead speaks like a modern Latin tough guy. Also in the group is Alan-a-Dale who is traditionally Robin’s minstrel, but in this version, played by Bernie Kopell, later of The Love Boat, Alan is updated to speak with the pomposity and cadence of a sports announcer. I couldn’t help but feel as though I was missing a joke with this character due to a generation gap of some kind, although there is the possibility that the joke was just one-note. Robin, played by Dick Gautier, a Get Smart alum, is very similar to the Cary Elwes version in Men in Tights, minus the authentic British accent: he’s brave, bold, dashing and the joke seems to come from the fact that he so consistently and powerfully exhibits these qualities. He is the ultimate hero to the highest degree and for it he is beloved by the people of Sherwood Forest, and hopefully the audience as well.
Jumping forward a bit, Marian, played by Misty Rowe, who would later become one of the Hee Haw honeys, overhears the plot to kill Robin and rides to warn him. The imposing Little John, played by David Sabin, stops her and demands, “Who goes there? Friend or foe?” She tells him that she is a friend, to which he replies, “What about the horse?” Robin scoffs at the idea of the archery contest, disbelieving that the King would think that he would fall victim to his own vanity in such a way. He then announces that he’s definitely going to join, with the intention of stealing the royal gold, once taken to the royal dungeon.
At the archery contest, the other combatants are quiet adept, including Sir Ronald of Lord McDonald’s Golden Archers, and the Sheriff of Nottingham, who manages to split the arrow in two. Robin, in disguise, is able to top that trick, however, by firing his arrow at a 90 degree angle away from the target, which then flies around the forest, eventually hitting the target from the back, coming through the bull’s eye from the opposite direction. Robin’s trick shooting exposes him and, according to plan, he is placed in the dungeon where he is told that he will have the honor of being the first to die after the fancy ball the king is throwing has ended.
We then cut to a rather lifeless ball that is crashed by the Merry Men, who stealthily sneak in. Reaching around the corner, Little John wraps his arm around one guard whose face mask flies open, revealing a cameo from Mel Brooks. “The party’s over!” he cries in pain. John flips the face mask back down and Brooks lets out a woozy “Thank you.” Little John gives the command to tip toe, and they do so while providing their own pizzicato string soundtrack of “dink dink dink dink dink!”
The Merry Men dispatch of the paltry fife-based band performing for the ball and launch into a spicy salsa number, led by Roberto on drums. A fight ensues, and Robin Hood enters (somehow) to fight. He calls for a sword, and ten or so are thrown at him, and battles the Sheriff, whom he finally defeats by firing several arrows at once, pinning him to the wall. The Merry Men get the gold, give it to the peasants, and they all live to fight another day. Robin and Marian take the opportunity to embrace, but the mood is spoiled when the rest of the Merry Men flank them and provide a romantic soundtrack.
So, unfortunately the lesson here might be that television wasn’t the right place for Mel Brooks during this time. Going from the boundary-pushing freedom of Blazing Saddles into the restrictive world of 1970s TV may have hampered his creativity. While it may not be his funniest work, it is impressively elaborate. A television period piece of this nature is going to require a substantial budget. According to an interview with co-writer Norman Stiles, Paramount built “a large forest set, as well as a castle for the show,” and that’s to say nothing about the number of peasants in costumes running around. In December, after the show’s 13 episodes had aired, When Things Were Rotten was replaced by The Six-Million Dollar Man spin-off, The Bionic Woman. If the show hadn’t already been dead, the success of its replacement was the final nail in the coffin.
But I’m comfortable writing “Mel Brooks: legend,” so clearly it didn’t damage the legacy.