Saturday, July 14, 2012

Nostalgia Theater: Holy Flashback, Batman!

The Dark Knight Rises is all set to destroy a few box office records this coming week, so I wanted to use this week's Nostalgia Theater to cast our minds back to a time when Batman's pop culture ubiquity came not from how dark of a knight he was, but rather the exact opposite. For many people of my vintage and older, our first conception of who Batman was and how he operated came about almost exclusively from daily exposure to syndicated reruns of Batman, the 1966-1968 series that aired on ABC and near-singlehandedly made the term "camp" a part of our collective vernacular.

Thanks to the distinctive theme song by Neal Hefti, as well as its day-glo color scheme and regular deployment of "Biff!" "Pow" "Bam!" sound effects cards, the '60s Batman was then and probably remains today the most literal translation of the comic book medium ever committed to the screen. Starring a deliciously deadpan Adam West as Bruce Wayne/Batman and an excitable Burt Ward as Dick Grayson/Robin (and Yvonne Craig as Batgirl in year three), the show boasted regular appearances by a variety of famous faces to serve villain duty. Cesar Romero as the Joker, Frank Gorshin as the Riddler, Burgess Meredith as the Penguin, etc.

Every week, the surprisingly celibate millionaire playboy and his *ahem* "youthful ward" would answer the Batphone, then suit up in their tights as they slid down the Batpole into the Batcave on their way to the Batmobile. Ah yes, the show that launched a thousand double entendres. I never really gave much thought to why a grim vigilante motivated by the tragic death of his parents would lead such a fun, carefree existence, because for me it was just fun. Give this a watch and tell me you don't feel yourself getting pulled back in time:

For a brief moment, Batman was a bona fide phenomeon, spawning a surge of campy superhero shows that tried (and failed) to capitalize on it (including the famous Green Hornet series from the same producers). It even led to a theatrical feature film between seasons. By season three, the white hot Batman fad burnt out, but thanks to the conceit during its first two seasons, inspired by old-timey serials, of airing cliffhangers over consecutive nights, they ended up with four years worth of episodes in two. Thus, by the time the show was cancelled due to stagnating ratings, it racked up 120 episodes -- more than enough to keep in syndication for...well, forever!

There's no doubt, though, that West, who had until recently held the record for most times playing Batman (both onscreen and via voiceover in a variety of animated series that followed), made an indelible mark in the role. That distance record has since been broken, I believe, by voice actor Kevin Conroy of Batman: The Animated Series (more about that in a few months), but West's canny take on the character, with his absolutely earnest delivery of outrageous dialogue, was inarguably the crucial ingredient in pulling off the delicate balancing act by producer William Dozier (who was also the narrator) between high camp for the adults and high adventure for the kiddies.

And then, of course, there was Robin. Ah, Robin. I loved Robin. And so did my dad. Each time Burt Ward would let fly another "Holy ______, Batman!" my dad would bust out laughing. I never understood what precisely he thought was so funny. This was serious business! There was one episode, and I don't remember which one, where the mid-week cliffhanger involved Batman and Robin being threatened by a giant clam or Venus Flytrap or something, which promptly devours Robin as he pleads for Batman's help. I was horrified. What was going to happen to Robin?? Meanwhile, I don't think I'd ever heard my dad laugh so hard in all my life...

Now that I'm able to watch Batman reruns with my own kids, I finally get that. I sometimes have to stifle my giggles lest I shatter their carefully-constructed reality, but if their reactions are anything to go by, the show works today just as well as it did back then, proving the unbreakable elasticity of the Batman myth, with room for a vast array of differing interpretations that can comfortably stand shoulder-to-shoulder with one another. While the current Bat-zeitgeist may have (temporarily?) moved away from it, I'm glad there's still room for a version of Batman where two grown men in leotards and capes can drive around in broad daylight and be treated as deputized law enforcement.

Sadly, due to a legal impasse between show owners Twentieth Century Fox, producer William Dozier's estate, and rights-holders Warner Bros., Batman has frustratingly eluded a DVD release for far, far too long now. I came into a possession of the series a few years ago, and it's given tremendous enjoyment to my kids, but I'd still love to own a legitimate, official release. While all involved no doubt smell the money they're liable to make, no one's making anything by the show just sitting there, so I hope they eventually get things figured out. Meanwhile, the new Hub channel has been airing the show nightly, and that alone makes it worth upgrading your cable package.

In case you've never had the pleasure, check out the entire two-part first episode below:

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