Monkeying around with Lancelot Link, Secret Chimp

This is what happens when I start reminiscing about my childhood and my affection for classic Saturday morning cartoon fare.

One of the shows from those halcyon days – a show I watched a few times, but never really got hooked on – was Lancelot Link, Secret Chimp.  It was a live-action series – a Saturday morning show with comedic spy intones.  Spy shows were all the rage in the late 1960’s / early 1970’s, with programs like The Man from U.N.C.L.E. and Get Smart and Danger Man and Coronet Blue on the airwaves.  And if you went to the local cinema, you had your choice of James Bond films or maybe an “Our Man Flint” picture.

So naturally, it’s time for a spy show to join the Saturday morning lineup …. right?

Oh yeah, did I happen to mention that all the characters were played by trained performing chimpanzees?

Oh, I didn’t mention that part?

Take a look at this opening credits scene.  You’ll see what I mean.

Yeah.  Trained chimpanzees in costumes and props.  Filmed on sets that were specifically built to scale.

A recent documentary on the series reported that, at the time, it was the most expensive Saturday morning program ever filmed to that date, with a budget of over $1.5 million for the season.  And that’s no small banana, let me tell you.

Each episode had to be filmed first, then the voices and sound effects were added afterward – with the voice artists attempting to match up their voices to the mouth movements of the monkeys.

And I can tell you – this show has aged poorly.  This is a show with cringe-worthy stereotypes, characters using ugh-inducing dialects – don’t even get me started on why every female character on the show has to sound like the stereotypical 1970’s-era Jewish mother-in-law – and I’m still not sure the ASPCA would have approved of the handling and training of the animals on the show.

In a documentary on the series, two of the producers – former writers who worked on shows like Get Smart and The Carol Burnett Show – revealed that two days before the first day of filming, nearly all of the male chimpanzees were castrated to dull their natural urge to mate with the female chimpanzees during filming.  That, and there was an incident where one of the chimpanzees, Tongo (who played Lancelot Link) actually attacked his veterinarian in the middle of filming.  Yikes.

Lancelot Link, Secret Chimp aired for two seasons on ABC’s lineup – the first 13-episode season was an hour-long affair at 9:00 a.m., with two short stories interspersed with old Warner Bros. cartoons and a couple of musical interludes.  The show returned in 1971, but was shoved into a 12:30 p.m. timeslot, edited down to half an hour and and the Warner Bros. cartoons were removed from the program.

Honestly, about the only redeeming feature of this series were the musical interludes, where somehow the producers convinced several decent studio musicians to craft some decent bubblegum rock songs – which the chimpanzees “performed,” thanks to some camera tricks and film editing magic.  Yeah, if you close your eyes, you can enjoy the music without watching the chimpanzees perform what for them must have been uncomfortable and unnatural movements.

Look, I get it.  Trained animal acts are, in many cases, cute and entertaining.  That is, so long as you have no idea how those animals were trained to do those movements.  This is why trained elephants are the circus are so cute – until you see the behind-the-scenes footage where the elephants suffer under the cruel use of bullhooks.

And as you can see from this sample episode, the chimpanzees were trained to walk upright – and to wear shoes and clothing and jewelry – actions that are not natural for chimpanzees.

Yeah.  No.

I watched maybe three episodes of this back in the day, then switched over to NBC so I could watch The Bugaloos instead.  Better visuals and much better music.  Besides, I had a massive crush on Joy the Bugaloo, so there’s that.

So why am I bringing this show back for a review on my blog?

I dunno … maybe it’s just to show that sometimes, when people talk about how great Saturday morning cartoons were back in the day …

I have to dust off rotten chestnuts like this one and say, “This was a reason for us to turn off the television and go outside and get some fresh air.”