The Sheer Radness Of ‘Surf’s Up, Joker’s Under’ (1967)
If you asked a bunch of comic fans what the greatest Joker story of all time was, I imagine you’d get a variety of answers. Some would probably point to Alan Moore and Brian Bolland’s The Killing Joke, which raised the bar for the Joker’s criminal madness. Others might say Denny O’Neil and Neal Adams’s The Joker’s Five-Way Revenge, which defined the direction the character would take for the next thirty years. Still others might even point to The Dark Knight and Heath Ledger’s incredible, harrowing performance.
Those people are all wrong. As you and I know beyond a shadow of a doubt, the single greatest Joker story of all time is “Surf’s Up, Joker’s Under,” an episode of the Batman ’66 TV series in which the Joker attempts to take over Gotham City by defeating Batman in a surfing contest.I’ve been thinking about this story a lot lately — more than usual, I mean. I generally can’t go more than a few days without thinking about the Joker wearing surf jams over a thee piece suit and trying to rule the beach — it’s a favorite of mine, and of Trip Fantastic‘s Derek Charm, who drew the amazing tribute to it at left — but ever since the announcement that DC was going to revive Batman ’66 for a new comic series, it’s been on my mind pretty much non-stop, and a lot of that has to do with the fact that it’s a perfect representation of how that show worked.
Really, though, it’s kind of a weird episode, even by Batman ’66 standards. It aired during the show’s third season, when the popularity that made it a cultural phenomenon was fading a little and things had gotten a little more bizarre as a result. Sets, for instance, had been reduced to sparse sound-stages with just enough furniture to get across an idea of where those skewed scenes were supposed to be happening. It’s also worth noting that the two-part cliffhanger format with the breathless narration by Desmond Doomsday (the stage name of show producer William Dozier) wasn’t as prevalent, giving us this story, which ran a single episode to make room for my all-time childhood favorite, Batman’s three-part trip to Londinium to battle the juvenile delinquents of Lord Ffogg’s School for Girls.
Beyond all that, though, this episode is the absolute best example of the Joker just straight up doing weird stuff to mess with Batman, an idea that we’ve really gotten away from in recent years. Don’t get me wrong, I like the Master Planner Joker who wanders around cutting off faces and beating sidekicks to death with a crowbar as much as anybody does, but I still cling to the idea that he’s a crazy person who does crazy things for crazy reasons, prompting Batman to respond in kind. I mean, I don’t even think the Joker does anything that’s actually illegal in this story, but you never know when one of those seemingly inconsequential acts could lead to the absolute destruction of Gotham City, so in all things, evil cannot be allowed to win.
Which is why Batman and the Joker had a surf-off to win the hearts of Gotham City’s most radical teens.
Our story opens on a sunny beach, which is our first indication that, as Jeff Parker put it, the part of Gotham City will be played quite obviously by Southern California for the evening. Barbara Gordon is chilling on the beach with her beau, Skip Parker, when the Joker cold rolls up in a hot rod…
… and starts talking into a hot dog:
That’s another thing I really miss. Not hot dogs that are actually sophisticated electronics — although honestly, I think we’d be a lot better off if that was the case — but that the Joker can just drive around and go places without people losing their minds about it. I don’t think there’s been a time during my entire life when the Joker could just roll over to the beach without people freaking out and calling in an air strike or something, but here he is.
That said, it is a little weird that this is a complete non-issue here. I mean, the last time the Joker showed up on Batman, he tried to murder Bruce Wayne and assaulted Alfred with a fireplace poker. You’d think he would’ve gotten more than eight months in prison for that. Although, now that I think of it, the standard sentence for everything short of High Treason seems to be around 90 days in Batman, so that’s really equivalent to almost three consecutive life sentences.
Anyway, the person on the other end of the hot dog? The Joker’s latest henchwench, the sultry, silver-bikinied Undine:
Please enjoy that shot and marvel at the level of subtext we’re working with here.
While Undine provides an entirely understandable distraction, the Joker’s goons — Riptide and Wipe Out — stuff former surfing great and malt shop proprietor Hot Dog Harrigan into a bag and toss him into a trash can, a fate from which there is no escape. With Harrigan out of the way, the Joker has full run of the malt shop, The Hang Five. He then gets Undine to lure Skip in with the promise of a phone call, and then gasses Skip with a gimmicked payphone by pressing a button on his electronic hot dog.
Now, his plan becomes clear: He’s going to abscond with Skip, steal his surfing secrets with a brain-swapping machine, and then “rule the waves.”
Seriously. That is his entire plan.
“Me, the Joker! King of the surf and all the surfers! Then, Gotham City! Later: The world!”
Of all the things I love about this story, high on the list is that the Joker having a brain-swapping machine is a given that doesn’t even need to be explained, and this is what he’s going to do with it.
Back at the beach, Barbara notices that her boyfriend’s missing and the Joker’s running around, puts two and two together, and phones in a hot tip to her dad. He, in turn, calls up Batman, and in one of the show’s most brilliant moments of the good guys being unfailingly thorough in the pursuit of justice, Gordon explains that he “suspects” it’s the Joker up to some “brazen buffoonery” because of Barbara’s description. He suspects! You’d think the Joker would be pretty easy for someone to identify, what with him being the only green-haired albino who would wear a purple three piece suit to the beach and all, but Gordon wants to make sure that they have all the evidence before he confirms it.
It’s enough to get Batman and Robin involved, so after some stock footage of the Batcopter, the Dynamic Duo arrive. They attempt to avoid spooking the civilians by landing away from the scene of the crime and “just walking up the beach like normal people,” and they’re not the only ones going for a subtle investigation. Chief O’Hara and Commissioner Gordon are also on the scene, investigating undercover as two hodads named Duke and Buzzy:
They blend in effortlessly, and while their suspicions initially fall on a green-haired band that plays a pretty rockin’ tune over more surfing stock footage, another tip from Barbara has them eyeing Undine from a booth in the Hang Five.
Meanwhile, the Joker’s machine has successfully lifted “everything you ever knew or heard about surfing” out of Skip’s brain and dropped it right into the Clown Prince of Crime, along with a heaping helping of his youthful energy. No sooner is it done, though, than Undine shows up, telling the Joker that she “didn’t dare call you again on my hot dog” (amazing) and alerting him to the fact that she thinks those two aged hodads are “fuzz.”
As an afterthought, she mentions that Batman and Robin have shown up. Kinda buried the lead there, Undine.
Still, it’s enough to get them prepared, and when the Caped Crusaders crash through a (completely glass-free) window, the Joker and his men stab them in the chest with needles several dozen times:
Of Note: Adam West’s perfect real-life face.
Said needles are, of course, poison blowfish spines, because what else would they be? Not content to let the poison do all the work, though, we get our first real deathtrap of the episode, when the Joker attempts to cover them in foam that will turn them into surfboards. It actually goes pretty far, but, well, utility belts. You know how it is.
Once they’re free, Batman and Robin find Skip locked in a chest of drawers, drained of his surfing prowess. Batman instructs Robin to change back into his secret identity — Millionaire Bruce Wayne’s Youthful Ward Dick Grayson, as a cool teen, has the necessary pull with the Gotham City Surfing Association to get a one-on-one, officially sanctioned contest going for the title of Best Surfer on the Beach. The contestants: Batman and the Joker.
Thus, after donning their baggies over their costumes… which in the Joker’s case means putting on a pair of shorts over a pair of purple pinstriped tuxedo pants…
…the S is O.
The surfing battle is basically amazing. Barbara finally re-enters the story and she and Dick stand around offering commentary with hilariously stilted surf lingo while Batman and the Joker alternate between rear-projected closeups and actual footage of stunt doubles surfing in full costume. At one point, a shark shows up, and Batman whips out a can of Shark-Repellant Bat-Spray, because again: of course he does.
In the end, avoiding the shark attack puts Batman over the top in points, soundly trouncing the Joker in their surf-off:
As you might expect, the Joker is not exactly a good loser, and a fight scene breaks out, with Barbara joining in as Batgirl to more thoroughly bash the Joker and his thugs. Thus, evil is defeated, Skip gets his surfing power back, and with one “Cowabunga, begorrah,” O’Hara and the Commissioner haul the Joker off to jail.
So let this be a lesson to all of us. While evil may have the seductive, alluring abilities of a master surfer, they are merely stolen. True surfing ability, and the responsibility of using it wisely, belongs to the righteous.