Short-Lived Shows: The Monkees
On September 12th, 1966 a debate ignited that continues even to this day. It wasn't on whether or not we should stay in Vietnam, or if there was a second shooter on the grassy knoll, or who was the cutest Beatle. No, the age old debate begun on this date was: did the Monkees actually play their own instruments?
Well, they did, but that doesn't matter right now. What does matter is that the debate was initiated this particular evening because it was the night that The Monkees television show premiered on the NBC fall schedule. For the next two seasons, fifty-eight episodes, nine albums, one television special, and one major motion picture, Monkeemania swept America and the world.
Inspired by the Beatles' movies A Hard Day's Night and Help!, The Monkees featured the not-so everyday adventures of four musicians living in a groovy, California beach house. Mike (Nesmith), was the leader of the pop-music quartet and was known for wearing a wool cap no matter where he went. Micky (Dolenz) was the drummer with the rubber face and James Cagney impressions. Davy (Jones) was the short, British singer with the Beatle mop-top who was loved by all the women. Finally, Peter (Tork) was the quiet, spiritual, naive guitar player who always seemed to be in the wrong place at the wrong time. In reality, Davy and Micky already had established careers . . . Micky in the syndicated television drama Circus Boy and Davy on Broadway in Oliver! . . . while Mike and Peter were professional signers who came from the folk music scene in New York City's Greenwich Village. These four were selected from a group of 437 to become The Monkees.
The show itself was not your typical 1960's comedy. There were jump cuts, fantasy sequences, satires of movies and other television shows, and frequent dismantling of the fourth wall to talk to the audience or members of the studio staff. And, of course, there was music. In fact, The Monkees was probably the first show on television to feature what we would eventually call 'music videos.' Back then, the vignettes were called 'musical romps' that would either relate to the plot of the episode or would actually be separate from the goings-on. No matter what you call it, they were used to promote songs that appeared on The Monkees albums.
The show was a huge success. It spurned more albums, additional products with The Monkees logo, a concert tour, and weekly appearances on such magazines as Tiger Beat and Seventeen. It even won two Emmys in 1967; one for Outstanding Comedy Series and one for Outstanding Directorial Achievement in Comedy.
Alas, as the second season progressed, egos began to get in the way. The 'Prefab Four' began to get tired of the same format week after week and they threw away the scripts in favor of more improvisation. A few band members even proposed switching the format over to a variety show, which would feature musical guests and live performances. However, the network wasn't keen on changing the format. So, with the refusal by the network, and the waining interest in the show by the four band members, The Monkees was canceled in 1968.
The band attempted to keep the momentum going, despite the loss of an outlet to promote their new songs. They starred in their own movie, simply titled Head, which was co-produced and written by a little-known actor named Jack Nicholson. It flopped at the theaters due to a poorly designed promotional campaign (a one minute close-up of a man's head) and the confusing plot of the psychedelic film. They returned to television in 1969 with 33⅓ Revolutions Per Monkee, an extremely weird special which also faltered in the ratings. With tensions high and their popularity faltering, band members began to leave. First Peter Tork in 1969 and then Mike Nesmith (who went on to have a very good post-Monkee career) one year later. Micky and Davy, the two remaining members of the band, released one more album in 1970, and then called it quits.
However, that was not the end of the show or the band. The original 58 episodes found a home on Saturday mornings, airing from 1969 to 1973 on first CBS then ABC. In 1986, a very young MTV aired a Monkees marathon on their network. This, paired with the fact that the band was celebrating its 20th anniversary, put The Monkees back into the spotlight. The resurgence was so strong that it resulted in a new album and tour schedule. One more television special, Hey, Hey It's The Monkees aired on ABC in 1997, on the heels of the bands last studio album.
The Monkees was one of those shows you either loved or hated; there was no middle ground. Whatever way you felt, there can be no doubt that the show paved the ground for music video networks like MTV and shows like Scrubs, which utilizes fantasy sequences and breaks in the fourth wall on a regular basis. So, on the 40th anniversary of the show's first episode, we raise a glass to The Monkees in appreciation.