The Campy, Absurdist Brilliance of TV's 'Batman'
MADELEINE BRAND, host:
Forty years ago today, the ABC television network was struggling for survival. An improbably prime-time program came to the rescue. To the surprise of most network executives, it would become a pop culture sensation, and for commentator David Brown, "Batman" was even more than that.
Maybe as a kid you fought crime by leaping out of tree limbs onto unsuspecting dogs. Perhaps you spent your formative years wearing a beach towel for a cape. Quite possibly, that cape got tangled in a bike chain, leading to a mild collision with an azalea bush. And maybe, just maybe, when a worried neighbor scooped you up and asked your name, you had an instinctive reply: `I'm Batman.'
(Soundbite of "Batman" theme)
BROWN: If you're a guy born between the years, oh, 1958 and 1964, you know what I'm talking about. Every Wednesday and Thursday night, same Bat-time, same Bat-channel. I liked it that my folks sat down with us to watch. The Dynamic Duo might be dangling from a hook, slowing descending into a vat of wax. `Holy paraffin, Batman, this is going to be a close one.' `Robin, prepare yourself for a shock.' Then Batman wriggles his body to catch a ray of sunlight which bounces off his utility belt and bam! The vat of candle-making chemicals explodes and miraculously, Batman and Robin fall cleanly to the floor. `I don't know how you do it, Batman.' `No time for that now, Robin.'
(Soundbite of "Batman")
Mr. ADAM WEST: (As Batman) To the Batmobile. Let's go!
BROWN: Me? Oh, was probably sitting on the floor in front of the TV sucking on my cape in suspense. My parents, on the other hand, were almost certainly in hysterics.
As `Batmania' gripped the country in 1966, The Saturday Evening Post described this domestic dilemma as the daddy-stop-laughing problem, a disconnect between Bat fans of my generation and the adults the show was really designed to appeal to. See, for them, it was more than just sit-com funny. It was actually pretty clever. That's because the underlying philosophy was unusually subversive for its time. As social watchdogs warned of television as a kind of mental junk food, "Batman," the TV show, embraced it almost as a kind of pop art experiment along the lines of Warhol's soup cans. This might be a kiddie show about superheroes in tights, then again, maybe an absurdist romp. Wooden dialogue? Roy Lichtenstein bang, biff, pow graphics? Plot lines pockmarked with preposterous inconsistencies? Not just bad TV, beyond bad TV.
And it worked. It was a hit. But no one expected the pop culture whirlwind that followed. The program made the front page of nearly every serious news magazine. Stars from Frank Sinatra to Edward G. Robinson demanded cameo appearances. The Watusi became the Batusi. Topless bars advertised their own dancing Batgirls. In its first year on the air, sales of anything with a bat logo were estimated in excess of $100 million, 1966 dollars. Even now, hipsters show off their reproduction "Batman" TV lunch boxes, just to make sure everyone knows they're in on the joke, too.
And I'll be honest. That bugs me a little bit because for some of us, those of a certain generation, "Batman" stands for an idea that's way more innocent than irony, more enduring than three years of prime time plus syndication. We don't talk about it much because that wouldn't be cool, but 40 years later some of us can still hear that theme song and we're back on our bikes racing down the driveway with a beach towel cape flapping in the wind, invincible all over again.
(Soundbite of "Batman" theme music)
Unidentified Group: (Singing) Batman.
BRAND: David Brown reports on Texas music and culture for the member station KUT in Austin.
(Soundbite of "Batman" theme music)
Unidentified Group: (Singing) Batman, Batman, Batman, Batman. Batman, Batman, Batman. Da-da-da-da-da-da-da-da Batman.
BRAND: More to come on DAY TO DAY from NPR News.
(Soundbite of music)