1 The Muppet Mindset: Muppet Maestros: The Monkees

Mar 17, 2012

Muppet Maestros: The Monkees

Hilarie Mukavitz - My very first rock concert was the Monkees in 1987. My very tolerant father took my best friend and I. My most vivid memory, besides jumping up and down all night and screaming my little 9 year old head off, is Davy Jones shouting out "This is 1987!!" It doesn't seem like much, but it delighted me without measure that this group of people, that seemed to be permanently locked in the 60's... were now sharing the same time and space as me. There is a special place in our hearts for the people who affected us in our childhood. When I found out about Davy Jones's recent passing I realized I was mourning him the way I've mourned no other famous person since the death of Jim Henson. However, I was delighted to find out there is a connection between these two great loves of my childhood.

In the middle of the 1960's many people were trying to find a way to profit off of the success of the Beatles. Producers Bob Rafaelson and Bert Schneider wanted to create a TV show based on the Beatles movie "A Hard Day's Night." The premise was going to be a struggling band in California, with a similar style of Hard Day's Night style humor... except they would also have the group sing songs on the show. They had auditions to try and find four guys that would fit the bill.

One of the thousands of auditions to be rejected was Paul Williams. Another rejectee was Stephen Stills. Stills had bad teeth and was balding, and the producers didn't have the money to fix that. So Stills recommended a friend of his, folk singer Peter Tork. Besides being the strongest instrumentalist in the band, Tork would also compose "For Pete's Sake" which would become the closing theme song in the 2nd season. Manchester native Davy Jones came to the Monkees by way of Broadway. He'd been nominated for a Tony for his work as the Artful Dodger in "Oliver." He sang a song from the show on The Ed Sullivan Show in February 9, 1964... the same night that the Beatles first appeared on the show. Micky Dolenz had already had some success on TV as a child actor. In the 1950's, under the name "Mickey Braddock," he played the leading role in "Circus Boy." Texan Michael Nesmith had already worked in a variety of genres including rock, folk and country. He was the most prolific song-writer of the Monkees. He wrote Linda Ronstadt's first hit, "Different Drum." He also wrote multiple songs for the Monkees including: "Papa Gene's Blues," "Sunny Girlfriend," "The Girl That I Knew Somewhere," and "Nine Times Blue."

Because of the Beatles, by 1965 and 1966 the majority of bands were trying to use songs that they had written themselves. This left a plethora of studio songwriters with very little to do. This meant there were some incredibly talented songwriters available for the project. A partial list of the songwriters and their songs include Gerry Goffin and Carole King with "Pleasant Valley Sunday" and "Porpoise Song," Neil Diamond wrote "I'm a Believer" and "A Little Bit Me A Little Bit You," Tommy Boyce and Bobby Hart penned "The Monkees Theme Song" and "Valleri," and Harry Nilsson wrote "Cuddly Toy."  

The four Monkees had a clear on-camera chemistry. However, Schneider and Rafaelson knew for the comedic style they wanted, the Monkees would need some additional training. They hired James Frawley to provide improv training. Frawley would direct 28 of the 58 Monkees episodes. He made a couple of onscreen cameos and also did a lot of voiceover work for the show.

The combination of the improvisational acting, and the quick edits (which were very innovative at the time) made for great comedy. The first season of the show won an Emmy. In multiple interviews I've heard about the Monkees the term "capturing lightning in a bottle" keeps coming up. The humor was anarchic, but the show at its core also had a lot of heart and a very innocent quality. The characters, between the famous "Monkee romps," always had each others best interest at heart. Probably the best example of this would be the Frawley-directed episode "The Devil and Peter Tork" which can be seen on YouTube. The Monkees TV show went off the air in 1968. That same year they released the movie "Head" which was pretty much designed to destroy what was left of the Monkees. It's nothing like the TV show. It's a pretty trippy movie that tries to deconstruct the Monkees image. In other words, it's a movie that only could have happened in the 1960's.  

Davy Jones found a variety of stage, TV and musical ways to perform, most famously being featured in an episode of the Brady Bunch. Micky Dolenz also found a variety of work including quite a bit of directing for television and cartoon voice work. Peter Tork and Michael Nesmith both continued with music. Jones, Dolenz, and Tork all would periodically reunite over the years for reunion concerts. All four Monkees reunited in 1997 to create the album "Justus."

However, for you Muppet maniacs, the most interesting player in this story is James Frawley. In the late 1970's he was approached by Jim Henson. Henson wanted to create the first Muppet movie, and was looking for someone to help with the transition. This would be the first time that the Muppets had been filmed outside instead of in a TV studio. Henson enjoyed Frawley's work with "The Monkees" and also thought that his background with improvisational comedy would be useful. Thus, Jim Frawley became the director of The Muppet Movie and can be seen in a cameo as a waiter in the El Sleezo Cafe.

20 years later, a couple of other Monkees connections would be made on Muppets Tonight. There were the "Benedictine Monkees," Micky Dolenz making a cameo and singing "I'm a Believer" with Bobo. Pretty appropriate as, out of all the Monkees, Micky seems to actually have some Muppet DNA.

And to wrap this up... just imagine me doing a Micky Dolenz DJ voice. This is Muppet and Monkee maniac Miss Mukavitz signing off another Muppet Maestros!

The Muppet Mindset by Ryan Dosier, muppetmindset@gmail.com

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