There are two ways to look at the ’60s television series incarnation of Batman: as a successful attempt to turn dark material into lighter fare, or as a gaudy and shallow mess that sullies the serious reputation of an iconic character. From a modern perspective—and with the three super-serious Christopher Nolan films fresh in the mind—it is difficult to view the series objectively.
Series producer William Dozier supposedly hated comic books, so his approach was to turn Batman into a campy comedy, with oversized villain performances, outlandish gadgetry, and two playful lead performances from Adam West as Bruce Wayne and Burt Ward as Dick Grayson, his young ward. The bright and breezy attitude of the show is antithetical to the Nolan films, which lash out with great but murky purpose. Those films are spectacular, but they are by no means definitive, and the ’60s television series embodies an entirely different approach to the material, and released it into a vastly different world.
Batman walks the tightrope between delightful camp with lots of laughs and farcical mess with shoddy writing and phoned-in guest performances. Much of the time, it’s an amusing and diverting comedy, able to laugh at its own silly and reliable plot constructions and alliterative dialogue. After all, this is a show that has Batman squaring off with The Joker in a surfing contest, and the Boy Wonder sharing a meal with the Caped Crusader at a drive-in in broad daylight.
The tone is playful, arch, tongue-in-cheek; there’s never the sense that this series has some serious message about entrenched institutions—unless you count all the times Batman delivers PSA-grade warnings to Robin about wearing his seatbelt or keeping up with his homework. The technical jargon is laughably inaccurate, only there to make it seem like Batman and Robin have some idea how to turn into forensic scientists for a case: Their equipment includes Universal Antidote Pills, high-energy radar, Bat-springs, and an automatic tire-repair device. For some, that makes the series unwatchable and hokey, but to others, it’s endearing and light-hearted.
This version of Batman has inspired many campy tributes, some ingenious (Robert Smigel’s The Ambiguously Gay Duo, Mermaid Man and Barnacle Boy in Spongebob Squarepants), and others utterly abysmal (Joel Schumacher’s Batman & Robin). Another Batman series to embrace a lighter and more comedic tone, Batman: The Brave And The Bold, adapted some of the villains that were created specifically for this version of Batman. Since the series aired episodes on consecutive days with cliffhangers, these selected entries are for two-part stories with the titles for both episodes.
“The Joker Is Wild”/“Batman Is Riled” (season one, episodes five and six): The Joker was one of the two most frequent villains to appear on Batman (he and the Penguin appear in 10 episodes), and Cesar Romero’s performance as the Clown Prince of Crime is the most famous from the show. His springy escape from prison is a perfect example of the theatrical humor that was the series’ signature. As with many incarnations of the character, this first appearance sees the Joker hatching a plot to unmask Batman and Robin. Also of note: The mask Romero wears while playing Pagliacci during the television-studio ruse is nearly identical to the one Heath Ledger wears in the opening bank robbery of The Dark Knight.
“Zelda The Great”/“A Death Worse Than Fate” (season one, episodes nine and 10): By the over-the-top standards of Batman, Zelda the Great might be the series’ most subdued villain. As played by Anne Baxter, Zelda is an escape artist who steals $100,000 each year to pay for a new illusion made by “strange Albanian genius” Eivol Ekdal. She hates robbing banks, and after kidnapping Aunt Harriet (Madge Blake), is eventually swayed by a strange television conference with Bruce Wayne and Commissioner Gordon. This is one of the least outlandish episodes of the series, aided by Baxter’s sweet and light performance. She didn’t just get to play a buttoned-up Batman villain during the show’s run; she returned in season three as Olga, Queen of the Cossacks, to team up with Vincent Price’s Egghead.
“The Purr-fect Crime”/“Better Luck Next Time” (season one, episodes 19 and 20): Aside from the Joker, Catwoman is the villain who traditionally has the strongest bond with Batman. But the homoerotic tension between Bruce Wayne and Dick Grayson interferes with Batman’s typical reparteé when dealing with Catwoman. (Aunt Harriet was incorporated into the comics just a few years before this show to combat that very notion.) Fortunately, Julie Newmar is superb as the Feline Fatale, sending Commissioner Gordon an adorable kitten, dressing her henchmen in ridiculous striped costumes and cat ears, and keeping a handful of tigers around in her hideout. When Batman finally corners her, she chooses money over salvation in one of the only poignant moments to happen in such a trippy series. Also Batman “fights” a tiger. Yeah, that’s pretty much all that needs to be said.
“The Penguin Goes Straight”/“Not Yet, He Ain’t” (season one, episodes 21 and 22): Of all the frequently recurring villains, Burgess Meredith hams it up the most as the Penguin, with a long cigarette holder in his mouth, waddling movements, and exaggerated vocal tics. This two-part storyline has the Penguin seemingly reformed and winning the affection of the public (which is strikingly similar to aspects of Tim Burton’s Batman Returns). It’s all part of a longer con, but the way that Burgess Meredith’s Penguin turns the tables on Batman and Robin, making them the villains, is deftly clever.
“The Bookworm Turns”/“While Gotham City Burns” (season one, episodes 29 and 30): The Bookworm doesn’t work as a villain on paper; nerdy villains rarely do (Mandark from Dexter’s Laboratory?). But Roddy McDowall really sells the character as a bitter failed novelist who has no original plots of his own, but can quote from literature better than anyone (except Bruce Wayne). Batman makes the cheeky observation that Bookworm is just as much of an amateur at crime as he is at writing because of overplotting: Bookworm erects a giant false book in the middle of a downtown street and steals a cookbook from Wayne Manor at the same time. After all the insane recurring members of the rogues’ gallery, a literary villain is a welcome original character for the show.
“Death In Slow Motion”/“The Riddler’s False Notion” (season one, episodes 31 and 32): Cesar Romero’s Joker is maniacal and unhinged, but the only villain in the rogues’ gallery to even hint at something darker is Frank Gorshin’s Riddler. After four appearances in the first season (this being the final one), Gorshin held out for more money, which kept him out of the entire second season. But this is his finest hour, with him entering the episode with a remarkably competent Charlie Chaplin impression and a scheme that involves filming several short silent films. The second half of the plot has one of the funnier lines in the entire series, when, after a daring last-minute rescue, Batman says to Robin: “Your owe your life to dental hygiene.” It’s one of the finest after-school special bits the show ever produced.
“An Egg Grows In Gotham”/“The Yegg Foes In Gotham” (season two, episodes 13 and 14): The second season of Batman ballooned from 34 episodes to 60, and incorporated repetitive stock footage and tiresome recurring gags like the “Batclimb” cameo. However, new villains occasionally buoyed the structural repetition that made the frequently used rogues wear thin. Egghead is without question the best villain created specifically for Batman, and that’s largely thanks to the legendary Vincent Price’s exuberant performance. He may make one too many egg-related puns, and the central plot features a spectacularly insensitive depiction of American Indians—a character in a colorful headdress named Chief Screaming Chicken is never a good sign—but Price is just having too much fun for any of those trappings to weigh this down.
“The Devil’s Fingers”/“The Dead Ringers” (season two, episodes 15 and 16): The second season of Batman was criticized for moving away from fun and campy romps into entirely unbelievable farce, and nowhere is that more evident than the two-part episode featuring none other than Liberace, playing both a piano virtuoso and his conniving twin brother. Sure, it’s patently ridiculous, but it’s also hilarious to watch Liberace seduce Aunt Harriet. Initially, Batman and Robin are on vacation—Bruce is camping, and Dick has an exceedingly awkward date—leaving the bumbling Commissioner Gordon and Chief O’Hara to actually do some police work of their own for a change, which they of course botch entirely. This is Batman at its most slapstick and farcical, and with the benefit of hindsight, one of the silliest guest stars outside of the “Batclimb” celebrity cameos.
“The Zodiac Crime”/“The Joker’s Hard Times”/“The Penguin Declines” (season two, episodes 37-39): This Joker/Penguin team-up isn’t the first time that Batman paired two villains together in the same plot, but it is the first three-part story to stretch beyond the usual consecutive-day cliffhanger. The Joker’s plan to commit 12 crimes corresponding to each Zodiac sign finds him shipping the Penguin into Gotham to join him. Most of the crimes are just silly, but the final ploy aims to contaminate the Gotham water supply (just like Batman Begins, right?) and turn it to strawberry gelatin (not so much). But the two villains don’t always get along; their best squabble has nothing to do with Batman at all, with them trading barbs over whether the comically sartorial Penguin or garish Joker is the best dressed.
“Enter Batgirl, Exit Penguin” (season three, episode one): In its final season, Batman switched from airing two episodes a week on consecutive days to airing once a week. It also introduced Batgirl, the secret identity of Commissioner Gordon’s librarian daughter Barbara, played by Yvonne Craig. After close to 100 episodes of actresses playing either villains or arm candy, the introduction of Batgirl is a welcome female presence, even if her first appearance sees her kidnapped and blackmailed into potentially marrying the Penguin before she’s called upon to save Batman and Robin from a vat of acid. Craig’s addition to the cast may have been a ploy to boost ratings, but with Madge Blake’s declining health, the show sorely needed a recurring female role. Also, Bruce gives Dick a car for earning his driver’s license, and the episode ends with Dick saying, “Highway safety is every citizen’s primary responsibility.”
And if you like those, here are 10 more: “Hi Diddle Riddle” (season one, episode one), “Instant Freeze” (season one, episode seven), “He Meets His Match, The Grisly Ghoul” (season one, episode 16), “Holy Rat Race” (season one, episode 18), “The Curse Of Tut” (season one, episode 27), “Shoot A Crooked Arrow” (season two, episode one), “A Piece Of The Action,” a Green Hornet crossover (season two, episode 51), “Black Widow Strikes Again” (season two, episode 55), “The Ogg Couple” (season three, episode 15), “Louie’s Lethal Lilac Time” (season three, episode 18).
Availability: Though there hasn’t been an official DVD release of the series, every episode is up on YouTube for camptastic viewing pleasure.
Up next: The Dick Van Dyke Show