People think Appellate Judge Mike Pinsky owns his own gorilla suit, but he's just really hairy.
"With us on the job, troubles will fade! The Ghost Busters do it agaaaaaaain!"—Theme Song
Children's popular culture is littered with the carcasses of long-forgotten shows. Tastes change, kids grow up, and what worked for one generation doesn't work so well for the next. One mainstay of popular entertainment for half a century was the "spook show comedy." Gothic clichés—crusty castles, mist-covered graveyards, moldy monsters—would be visited by comedians who would panic in silly, exaggerated ways while the spooks ran wild. Grown-ups and their children could share the experience of going to a "horror movie," because the spook show wasn't really scary. Sometimes you'd get startled by something going boo, but that was quickly offset by the laughter.
Most people come at Filmation's live-action The Ghost Busters backwards. They always want to talk about whether it inspired (or was ripped off by) that other Ghostbusters. You know the one I'm talking about. But that was not how I first experienced the show. I watched it back on Saturday mornings in 1975. I admit that I don't remember it well, but I knew it was full of comic actors I recognized. And I knew that there was something very old about its approach to comedy (by "very," I of course mean anything older than I was).
The premise of the show, which ran for only fifteen episodes, is basically explained by the show's title. They bust ghosts. More precisely, the three of them bust ghosts. Kong (Forrest Tucker) is the leader. He dresses like a slob, but he appears to be the smart and serious one. Spenser (Larry Storch) is a snappy dresser (for 1940, maybe), but he is cowardly, vain, and not too bright. The smartest one on the team is probably Tracy, a gorilla ("trained" by Bob Burns, who turns up these days in every fandom documentary as one of Hollywood's best memorabilia collectors). Their office is run-down; they drive a belching 1920s jalopy that occasionally needs an anchor to stop. They receive their assignments from "Zero," who transmits recordings via fish, rubber chicken, and other silly items that (in a nod to Mission Impossible) always explode in Tracy's face in five seconds.
Their assignments? Here they are:
• "The Maltese Monkey": The ghost of "Big Al" is conjured by the Fat Man (Johnny Brown) and the Rabbit (Billy Barty). Of course, when Big Al turns out to look exactly like Spenser (and sounds like Rich Little impersonating Marlon Brando playing Carmine Sabatini in The Freshman impersonating Don Corleone), everybody gets mixed up.
• "Dr. Whatshisname": Bernie Kopell, Doc from The Love Boat, practices a stranger brand of medicine as Dr. Frankenstein, looking to steal the dumbest brain he can find to put in his monster. Think there will be more jokes at Spenser's expense?
• "The Canterville Ghost": Ted Knight plays the famous cowardly specter, who must perform a brave deed in order to rest. A gangster is lurking around the castle, too, so ghostly Simon should get his chance—if only the Ghost Busters don't get in the way.
• "Who's Afraid of the Big Bad Wolf?": You might think that the real threat here would be Disney's lawyers (because of the episode's title), but it's a werewolf (Lenny Weinrib).
• "The Flying Dutchman": A seafaring ghost (Stanley Adams impersonating Charles Laughton as Captain Bligh) and his first mate (Philip Bruns) take up residence in the same spooky castle that appears in every episode. Apparently, they couldn't afford to bring a ship over from the afterlife. They need to recruit somebody "empty-headed" to join their crew. Guess who?
• "The Dummy's Revenge": Given the show's vaudeville roots, it seems obvious to do a show about "The Phantom of Vaudeville" (Tim Herbert) and his mistaking the Ghost Busters for a vaudeville team from days gone by. This is the show's open acknowledgement of its comedy roots.
• "A Worthless Gauze": In case you haven't picked up on it, this show basically had three plots. One: the audience knows who the villain is (because Zero's message is garbled), but the Ghost Busters don't and must blunder around trying to find out. (They don't do this story very often.) Two: the villain mistakes one or more members of the team for somebody he or she knew and has a grudge against. Three: the villain needs the "dumbest" or "most gullible" man in the world—and it is always Spenser. Wacky hijinks ensue, then Kong shows up with the dematerializer and gets rid of the ghosts. Fifteen episodes, three sets (the office, the graveyard, and the castle), and three plots. This episode is Plot Two: an Egyptian sorceress (Barbara Rhoades) and her mummy (Richard Balin) think Tracy and Spenser are wizards.
• "Which Witch Is Which?": Huntz Hall, one of the apparent inspirations for the Spenser character on the show, makes the first of two appearances as evil henchman Gronk. His mistress is a witch (Ann Morgan Guilbert) in full Margaret Hamilton mode looking for revenge against Spenser for his witch-hunting ancestor. Plot Three: Spenser is duped when the witch turns into hottie Leigh Christian), while she casts spells to make him stupider than usual.
• "They Went Thataway": Billy the Kid (Marty Ingels) and Belle Starr (Brooke Tucker, Forrest's daughter) mistake Kong and Spenser for cattle rustlers. Pity Kong and Spenser can't call up F-Troop for help.
• "The Vampire's Apprentice": Dracula and his wife (Billy Holms, more Grandpa Munster than Bela Lugosi, and Dena Dietrich) need an "unsuspecting donor" and "absolute dupe." Plot Three: Spenser will be conned into their trap. In a nice twist on the usual formula, Spenser actually does get turned into a vampire. No wonder this was one of Lou Scheimer's favorite episodes.
• "Jekyll & Hyde—Together, For the First Time": Dr. Jekyll (Severn Darden) needs a complete dolt so that he can channel his caveman-clad bad side (Joe E. Ross) into another body and be rid of it forever. Yeah, Spenser again. No wonder Marc Richards could crank out these scripts in a day.
• "Only Ghosts Have Wings": The Red Baron (veteran voice actor Howard Morris, borrowing Arte Johnson's German officer bit) mistakes Spenser and Tracy for his old adversaries.
• "The Vikings Have Landed": Jim Backus (Mr. Magoo himself!) and Lisa Todd play Vikings intent on claiming America for their own before Lothar the Hun shows up. They also think Tracy is Lothar the Hun. Mark this one as Plot Two.
• "Merlin the Magician": Merlin (Carl Ballantine, still doing great comedy stage magic in his 80s) battles Morgan Le Fay (Ina Balin). Huntz Hall is back as Gronk. Merlin and Gronk actually team up with the Ghost Busters, which allows Ballantine and Hall to steal the show. Since Merlin waits until the third act to tell our heroes that Morgan is the real villain, we'll count this as Plot One.
• "The Abominable Snowman": A mad scientist (Ronny Graham, in the second worst blue makeup job, after the Governator in Batman and Robin) needs a warm heart to transplant into his pet Yeti (Richard Balin again). Plot Three: it's Spenser who is tricked into lying down on the operating table.
All the episodes appear on three sides of a set of two double-sided discs. Extras for the set are all relegated to the b-side of the second disc. We get two sets of show bumpers to lead into commercials. There are two friendly interviews as well. Producer (and voice of Zero) Lou Scheimer admits that his initial idea for the show was to create a comedy show that would play on both Saturday morning but also please the grown-ups (and maybe even play in a nighttime slot). Larry Storch and Forrest Tucker jumped aboard quickly, and Bob Burns was hired mostly because he already owned the gorilla suit, even though he had virtually no acting experience. Scheimer still seems surprised that writer Marc Richards could crank out scripts so quickly, but the repetitive nature of the show should make it easy to understand how he did it. (His memory is also a little hazy on certain details: he only recalls doing thirteen shows and can't even remember the name of the character he played.) Bob Burns also gives a short interview, sans gorilla suit. This is the first time I've seen Burns show up on a DVD featurette talking about his own experience, rather than providing exposition or showing off collectables from somebody else's movie or show. And no surprise—he does take the opportunity to plug Peter Jackson's King Kong remake once again.
A DVD-ROM feature provides scripts for all fifteen episodes. Of particular note here is the fact that Marc Richard's scripts always refer to Storch and Tucker by their real names instead of their characters, but Tracy the Gorilla is just referred to as "Gorilla."
Rounding out the extras: an episode of the animated "original" Ghostbusters television series that Filmation spun off the live-action show when the more famous Ivan Reitman comedy came out. You've probably heard the story a million times by now: how Filmation sued Reitman's film, then ended up bringing a competing cartoon to air, resulting in a Real Ghostbusters and Original Ghostbusters, which didn't confuse kids for a minute. Anyway, the episode here is "I'll Be the Son of a Ghostbuster," the pilot episode in which Spenser and Kong (looking and sounding nothing like Storch and Tucker) pass the ghost busting business on to their sons. Their adversary in every episode was "Prime Evil," a robot ghost from the future. This particular episode ends in a cliffhanger, but you probably won't be eager to rush out and see the rest.
An example of the sort of humor you get in The Ghost Busters: Spenser and Tracy are waiting around in the dark. Spenser whines that they might "run into a demon, or a goblin, or a vampire"—and what would they do without a stake? So Tracy holds up a T-bone steak. Spenser says that it won't do any good if it isn't a wooden stake, and that if that is a wooden steak, he'll shine Tracy's feet. So Tracy taps the steak, which sounds exactly like it is made—you guessed it—of wood. Spenser shrugs in defeat and Tracy brings out a shoeshine box. Very, very vaudeville. Puns galore, cream pies and seltzer in the face, "walk this way" bits, and characters pulling crazy props from nowhere. The Ghost Busters is so old school, you sometimes have to blow dust off the jokes.
The sets look cheaper than an Ed Wood picture; the performances are goofy and exaggerated. The music, apart from liberal use of the Theremin for "spooky" effects, fits the circus atmosphere. Shot on video, the production has flat lighting that—well, I don't suppose a Saturday morning kiddie show probably wants to actually look scary. Yep, this is definitely a kid's show from the '70s. Of course, nowadays, producers would recast all the parts with adorable young people in order to capture the tween market. The trend in the '70s, though, was to use middle-aged actors whose hit shows were popular with the previous generation. Here, we have two actors who hit it big with F-Troop. Saturday morning stalwarts like Bob Denver, Ruth Buzzi, Jim Nabors—these were the sort of comic actors who had their biggest hits in the '50s and '60s, but were known to kids primarily through reruns on the local UHF station.
The entire series is really a throwback to the wacky spook shows of old. Many of Storch and Tucker's mannerisms and facial expressions are lifted right out of Bowery Boys and Abbott and Costello films. The very idea of throwing a guy in a gorilla suit into the mix comes right out of the '30s and '40s, even if the gorilla is on the good side here. The plots often reference films from when the audience's parents were young: The Maltese Falcon, The Canterville Ghost, Mutiny on the Bounty, and so forth. The trio drives a jalopy and their clothes (especially all the hats) went out of fashion a generation before. One partner is serious, stable, and frustrated by the fact that the other partner is a dimwitted, cowardly clod. Even the theme song has a vaudeville-style kick at the end. The only contemporary gag is the Mission: Impossible bit that opens each case. Kids today might recognize the secret doors, chase scenes, and mistaken identity gags familiar from old Scooby Doo episodes, but Hanna Barbera and Filmation both were stealing from the whole spook show genre. Goofy, mugging comic heroes run around low-budget gothic castles while mad scientists and monsters pop out of hidden passages and go boo. The Ghost Busters is the last of the great old spook shows. If you (or your grandparents) like that sort of wacky fun, this show delivers the goods.
But, as I said, it really is the last of its kind. By the time Harold Ramis and Dan Ackroyd recycled the ghost-catching premise a few years later, they would jettison all references to the Bowery Boys/Abbott and Costello tradition. Their ghost busters don't make scaredy-cat faces for the camera, scamper away from classic monsters like wolf-men or gangster ghosts, or raid the prop department for retro clothes and cars. Filmation's show is the culmination of half a century of b-movie shtick—and probably the end of the line for that style of comedy. If there is one ghost that The Ghost Busters really did manage to dematerialize, it is the ghost of the classic spook show.
This puts a peculiar obstacle between audiences of this show in 1975 (kids whose parents would catch the artistic origins of the show) and audiences today. Of course, BCI is going to sell most copies of this show to grown-ups who watched this as kids and are hoping for a burst of nostalgia. Ironic, isn't it? The show is a nostalgic intertextual game that references pre-war horror comedies, now embraced by grown-ups who appreciated the show on its own merits and only may have caught snippets on television of the films the show referenced. One nostalgia game gives way to another. Now those same grown-ups will show The Ghost Busters to their own kids. "Here, little Billy, this is a show I loved as a kid. What do you think?"
I showed a couple of episodes to my own daughter, curious how she would react to the show's older brand of humor. She thought it was mildly amusing and described it as "silly." She didn't laugh at the jokes (in spite of the helpful laugh track telling her when she should), and she even asked me to explain what was going on with the gorilla (we actually had a long discussion about whether it was real). She liked it well enough, but when she was done, she forgot all about the show and wanted to watch one of her usual favorites. I don't think this means that my daughter doesn't like shows from my own childhood: she asks to watch the 1966 Batman movie periodically, and she loves classic Disney cartoons and Schoolhouse Rock. However, I had to spend a lot of time explaining this show to her, which I suspect made it not worth her while. Why was the gorilla wearing a propeller beanie? Who is their boss and why do his messages blow up? Why do they keep throwing pies?
And that is probably the whole business in a nutshell: The Ghost Busters is still funny for very little kids because of its slapstick, and still interesting for its adherence to an older comic tradition. But those two things do not always mesh easily, and you may find yourself explaining this show to your children more than you'd rather. Which means you may end up watching it alone, pondering the ghosts of your childhood…
Give us your feedback!
Scales of Justice
Studio: BCI Eclipse
• Interview with Lou Scheimer
Review content copyright © 2007 Mike Pinsky; Site design and review layout copyright © 2015 Verdict Partners LLC. All rights reserved.