GET SMART – “The Groovy Guru”

SHOW: Get Smart
“The Groovy Guru”
Jan. 13, 1968

The opening scene of “The Groovy Guru” finds our hero Maxwell Smart sporting an unfortunate mushroom coif and color-clashed getup that makes him look like a Monkee caught in a thrift store explosion.  He meets up with an agent undercover as a hippie chick who spouts fresh-off-the-shelf slang that all the kids are using these days: “Enough here for the fuzz to peel and freeze.”  Quoth Agent 86 in response: “Huh?”

It shouldn’t take long for a viewer even dimmer than Max to realize that this is going to be a Let’s-Make-Fun-of-Youth-Culture episode.  Get Smart, one of the looniest live-action cartoons to ever bombard television, was a veritable funhouse of slapstick and satire, designed to poke fun at the Cold War, foreign policy, xenophobia, the spy genre itself, and anything else that heated up the pop cultural and current event thermometers between 1965 and 1970.  Its roundhouse punchlines and absurd sight gags amounted to that double helix of “dumb humor + smart satire” alive and well in modern fare likeSouth Park, Arrested Development, or Childrens Hospital.As a television show knee-deep in the 1960s, an episode skewing the hippie movement was almost as obligatory as having opening titles.  Each episode of Get Smart had a plot, but in the grand tradition of genre parody, the story only served as a clothesline for whatever jokes and bits the writers’ had up their sleeves. The comic-strip plot of “The Groovy Guru” has Control concerned for America’s children (somebody please think of them!) when teenagers start falling into a mindless dance trance. They’re hooked on radio broadcasts courtesy of the eponymous villain of the week, a DJ and faux revolutionary who plans to take over the world via mind control.

Before delving into some recon on the Groovy Guru’s headquarters, Max and his partner 99 arm themselves with pills that inhibit one’s ability to tell the truth. Of course, Max accidentally swallows one of the pills ahead of time and in a digressive extended joke typical of the show, he spends much of the first act spouting fabrications like, “My name is Fred.” Soon after, Max and 99’s infiltration of the Groovy Guru’s lair works a little too well – the hip-talking would-be cult leader ends up holding them prisoner. In an expositional dump worthy of any self-respecting villain, he explains that he’s going to televise a performance by The Sacred Cows, a popular rock band of the Groovy Guru’s own making.  Once the kids hear the Cows’ song laden with subliminal mind control lyrics, the Groovy Guru will command his throngs of followers to… kill everyone in sight!  Alas, Max renders the Groovy Guru unconscious and 99 pulls the plug on the broadcast, keeping the nation’s youth safe from pop music and phony anti-authoritarian figureheads if for just another day.  It’s usually uncomfortable to watch television writers go through the motions of writing episodes that poke fun at youth culture.   Whether it’s a sitcom about a harried dad or a crime drama where the lovelorn drug-addict teen is the suspect on the witness stand, the plots too often rest on the same crutches: “They’re all hipsters! All they do is text!  And they’re all driving drunk to sex parties!”  Somehow, once a TV writer is tasked with writing about teenagers, viewers are forced to sit through a story that amounts to little more than a Ray Romano rant of an old geezer befuddled by anyone too young to know who [insert legendary musician] is.

Certainly, “The Groovy Guru” is stocked with these sorts of jokes.  “Do you have any idea the damage that 10 million teenagers can do to this country?” asks the Chief. “I’d thought they’d already done it!” says an incredulous Max.

What makes “The Groovy Guru” work as effective satire is the reason that Get Smartworked as a franchise: everyone in the land of Kaos and Control is clueless. Max was known as the primary dolt, but even Chief and 99 display grave lapses in logic, the foremost one being how on earth they not only keep Max employed but consider him the country’s top spy.

By the same token, each character takes turns being the straight man forced to reckon with the dope in the room… funnily enough, even Max slipped into the role every once in a while.   The writers’ tactic of equal opportunity lunacy meant that there was no Michael Bluth or Tim Canterbury here – no one whose function was to be Above It All.

As a result, when Get Smart makes fun of international diplomacy, the excesses of government spending, or in “The Groovy Guru,” those damn hippies, they’re merely folding the satirical object into their grander picture of a madhouse where no one knows anything.  Five seasons of Control and Kaos, America and its enemies, Us and Them endlessly battling for world domination had the same winking if fatalistic viewpoint ofDr. Strangelove, the ultimate political satire.

Not to say that the youth-specific jokes served up by “The Groovy Guru” are invalid.  On the contrary, they were hilariously prescient.   When two teenagers in that mindless trance are brought into Control headquarters, their jerky dance moves driven by music pumping from earbuds connected to handheld devices are eerie dead ringers for those iconic iPod commercials of the 2000s.   Later, when the Groovy Guru unveils the Sacred Cows, their nefarious mind control lyrics – “Thrill, Thrill, Thrill! Kill, Kill, Kill!” – are not only one of the series’ best jokes, they also unfortunately presage the blunt repetitiveness driving much of today’s popular music. (“Baby, baby, baby – oh!”)

“The Groovy Guru” exemplifies Get Smart’s lasting ability to avoid an expiration date.  TV comedies have a way of prioritizing timeliness at the expense of timelessness.  But as long as there are forces in the world like developed nations, fearful government agencies, or just plain grown-ups trying to do something as absurd as control the chaos, there will always be room at the satirical table for Get Smart.

~ C.J. Arellano

About the Art: Get Smart was a parody of the ’60s spy genre. This episode had a thinly if at all veiled message about rock and roll corrupting the teenagers of its time, but thewriters still had fun with it. I decided to do the same and pay homage to one of the best secret agents in the biz with an era-specific rock/movie poster approach. I loved thepsychedelic set during the episode’s third act where Max and 99 get stuck in an elaborate death chamber of groovy torture. I knew I wanted to incorporate that set background into this week’s art. Since the episode included brain-washing music that placed America’s youth in a trance, I focused on the poster having a similar effect to the eyes with the use of crazy-bright color and pattern. ~ Aireen Arellano

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