It is an inexorable, if lamentable rite of passage to revisit cultural mementos from one’s childhood and discover that, to an adult’s eyes, they are lacking.
But then, “putting away childish things” is one of the ways we avoid arrested development, a condition that impairs critical faculties, stymies meaningful relationships and makes one susceptible to things like libertarianism. (If, for instance, you re-read Ayn Rand and her porcine-fisted prose and sophomoric metaphysics still seem eloquent, you’ve got some growing up to do; if you encounter her pulp for the first time as an adult and are inexplicably smitten, you are, unfortunately, a lost cause, both morally and intellectually.)
When I was a child, you would have had to pry my bowl of Boo Berry from my cold, dead hand; now I understand my teeth would rot on contact, even if I were able to score a box online (apparently this is possible; this is America). I used to think a Big Mac (washed down with that non-carbonated orange drink, obviously) was the height of culinary bliss, a sort of pre-adolescent ambrosia. I thought scary movies were, well, scary. In other words, I thought a lot of things. I was even correct about one or two of them.
I thought, for instance, that the Batman TV series was amazing. It turns out I was wrong. It’s not amazing; it’s better.
Bear with me. When’s the last time you saw (when’s the last time you thought about) Batman and imagined Adam West instead of, say, Christian Bale or Heath Ledger or Jack Nicholson, etc.?
It probably has been a while because, apparently, the old episodes are currently unavailable via Netflix or even to purchase. (Wow, this has been a controversial dilemma for some time apparently; there is a whole section of the Wikipedia page dedicated to it…one shudders to think of all the hardcore comic book collectors who are –and have been– incensed about this.) The show does still get airplay on certain TV channels. I know this because I have friends who have kids. Quite serendipitously, I was babysitting one of these little cherubs and per her request (!) we caught a couple of old school episodes. I am here to tell you, without shame and with inexplicable enthusiasm, it was something of a revelation.
There are several angles I could take here, but my rekindled interest (bordering on infatuation?) can be reduced to two words: Cesar Romero. The “O.J.” (as in, Original Joker).
Folks, anyone born after 1980-ish probably can’t appreciate this, but for people of my generation, Cesar Romero was The Joker. I sort of recall reading the occasional comic book but don’t have any lingering memories of how he translated on the page. I do have memories of the laugh, the green hair, the purple suit and the maniacal, unhinged hilarity that managed to be hilarious and horrifying. What I did not recall, since I was a kid at the time, was how iredeemably, magnificently campy the show was. I certainly recall that the original Superman never resonated with me, in part because that show was not old school, it was antediluvian school. Plus, the George Reeves incarnation was always a tad too fascistic for my delicate sensibilities (holy shit, did anyone know George Reeves died by a bullet wound that may have been suicide? Holy irony, Batman.) Then again, I’ve never been much of a Superman guy; in my formative years it was always Batman and Spiderman, both of whom were (by turns) funnier, darker and more human.
Anyway, back to The Joker. Obviously Jack Nicholson was tapping into that campy vibe, but his role, however amusing, was over-the-top in ways that don’t age particularly well (kind of like the first movie). Not many people would argue that Heath Ledger’s pitch-black (though still sardonic) take was not a huge improvement. Nevertheless, before we crown Ledger’s uncanny performance the final word on the subject, we are obliged to return to the beginning. Have you forgotten how unbelievably perfect Cesar Romero was? Check it out, courtesy of YouTube:
Maybe it’s the fact that he was a bit older, and of Cuban/Italian descent that gave him that subtly exotic, almost indescribably outre edge. This is The Joker I grew up with, and it’s the only arch villain I can imagine actually rooting for –as a child or an adult. Just reading about Romero makes me happy. Check this out. The fact that he refused to shave his mustache (his decades-old trademark) is so genius I can scarcely convey my joy and admiration. How perfect is that? The most incorrigible fiend played by an incorrigible, image-conscious movie star with prima donna tendencies? Bliss. (And extra marks: if you look at photos or, if you’re smart, find some clips online, you can totally see the impossible-to-conceal ‘stache in each episode.) Truth is always odder and better than even the best fiction.
And let’s do a quick sidebar for how great the other bad guys were. Burgess Meredith as The Penguin, anyone? Yes, please. And don’t sleep on Frank Gorshin as The Riddler. That is an untouchable criminal triptych that could not possibly be improved upon. (For irrefutable evidence of this claim, please appreciate this clip from the movie, wherein we have Penguin fencing with Batman (making appropriate Penguin noises), Romero’s brown hair obvious under the wig and The Riddler doing some bad ballet on board a boat –skip to the three minute mark for the most epic fight scene that ever includes the words “Bon voyage Pussy”):
And lest we forget (how could we forget?) there is Catwoman. Can I get an Amen? I’m a rather huge fan of Lee Meriwether (in clip above, from film) and everyone has to appreciate the incomparable Eartha Kitt (from Season Three). But let’s not kid ourselves here: it’s all about Julie Newmar.
While I offer serious props to the benevolent citizen who put the Joker clips together, I’m incredibly disappointed that some turbo nerd has not compiled a Catwoman montage: get on that Internets!
And don’t think I’m sleeping on Adam West. I won’t (can’t?) compare him to the subsequent Batmen played in the various movies, but kind of like with The Joker, he did it first and he did it best. He is Batman. A gentleman, a humanitarian, a…dork. His (West’s) goofiness can’t be overstated, and that humanity gives the character a distinct vulnerability. How can you not love this guy?
So in addition to everything else, it’s possible that Batman was the first series to jump the shark (or at least repel the shark). Consider the clip, below: obviously the series was straining to keep its edge (or appeal, or whatever) and by season three the producers/writers seemed to understand that what may have worked in 1965 was not registering in 1967. The world, of course, was changing. Hence, we have the most campy (and sublime) few moments of TV I can ever recall watching: Batman and Joker surfing. In shark-infested waters, obviously. With real surfers cheering from shore. With bathing suits over their costumes. This is a line in the sand: you are either with me or against me. I defy you to watch this clip and not join the party.
Wow, one never knows what is available on the Internet. Check this out! (Yes, he raises his hand and says “Peace” at the end. Thank you Mr. West.)
Summer may be winding down and all of us are getting older every second, but retaining a child-like joy for certain things is still the best way to keep age and cynicism at bay.
Bonus footage (to make up for the YouTube removal of the epic Joker montage, above):