The Batman 66 Episode Guide 1×05: The Joker Is Wild
The 1966 Batman television show was one of the most successful and influential adaptations of comic books to mass media of all time. Over the course of three seasons and 120 episodes, the series became a cultural force with its unique combination of tongue-in-cheek humor, thrilling superhero adventure and celebrity guest stars, and shaped the way the public would view the Caped Crusader for the next five decades. Now, in the midst of a well-deserved renaissance of the show, ComicsAlliance is proud to present The Batman '66 Episode Guide, an in-depth examination of every single adventure, arch-criminal and deathtrap cliffhanger of the series.
This week, the Joker makes his debut with a daring prison escape... and he has his own utility belt!
Episode 1x05: The Joker Is Wild
Script: Robert Dozier
Director: Don Weis
Original Air Date: January 26, 1966
Special Guest Villain: Cesar Romero as The Joker
It probably goes without saying this early in the series, but this episode has a lot of pretty notable firsts, and chief among them is that it's the debut appearance of Batman's most famous foe, the Joker. Looking back from the closing days of 2014, when the Joker is mostly known for beating one of the lesser Robins to death with a crowbar and then going on to kill roughly eighty billion people, it's always kind of amazing to see him back in the days when he was pulling off comedy theme crimes, and this episode's opening is a pretty stellar example.
We start at Gotham State Penitentiary, which is currently playing host to shockingly well-attended a softball game among prisoners, with the Joker serving as pitcher...
...and folks, I would give just about anything to see this exact scene with the ultra-violent, genuinely terrifying modern-age Joker. Just give me a four-issue miniseries about this baseball game, I beg of you.
It's worth noting that this isn't just our first look at the Joker, it's a rare look at one of the arch-criminals out of costume. Occasionally, you'll get someone wearing a disguise, but most of the time, the major villains only show up with their distinctive look -- or, in the Riddler's case, one of a few pretty amazing outfits. Catwoman even attends college while wearing a full-on skintight supervillain suit and cat ears, but our first look at the Joker is in prison grey. It's especially weird considering that the previous episode, which introduced the Penguin, went out of its way to explain why Burgess Meredith was waddling around Gotham State Pen in a top hat and tuxedo.
Anyway, despite the fact that the game is taking place under the watchful eyes of the wardens and Chief O'Hara, the Joker manages to pull off a daring escape. The catcher switches out the softball for an explosive, and when the Joker lobs an easy pitch over the plate, the batter hits it, causing a blinding explosion. When the smoke clears, the Joker has escaped with the aid of a giant spring-loaded pitcher's mound.
Okay, so let's pause here and take a moment to appreciate the logistics of this breakout. Not only does this plan require smuggling a not insignificant amount of explosives into the prison, but the explosives are used only for a distraction that covers up the real heavy machinery, a giant spring (later revealed to have been fashioned in the prison machine shop) capable of launching a full-grown man from the center of a prison yard over the wall, resulting in a landing that somehow does not result in an immediate and splattery death on the streets of Gotham City. If he can pull that off, how the heck is he even in prison?
From there, we cut to Commissioner Gordon's office, and his reaction to the news of the breakout is fantastic. One of the things that has always interested me about the Joker, particularly the Joker that appears on the TV show, is that in this era, he wasn't really any different from any of Batman's other foes. He has a great look and he's one of the elder statesmen of the Rogues Gallery -- having appeared alongside Catwoman all the way back in Batman #1 -- but really, they all sort of filled the same kind of role. You could just swap out the Joker for the Riddler in most of these stories and they wouldn't feel any different, and I'd even go as far as saying that if we're talking about Frank Gorshin's Riddler, he's actually way scarier than Cesar Romero's Joker.
And yet, Gordon sells the news of the breakout like it's the most terrifying thing he's ever heard.
For the first time in the series, there's no debate about whether the police can handle this. It's just straight up, "Oh my God, we have to call Batman right now or we are all going to die."
But maybe that's just the last 30 years of Joker stories talking.
Either way, the call is made, interrupting Dick Grayson's piano lessons. Turns out Dick's not really that into it, leading Bruce to admonish him, as music is "the universal language, one of our best hopes for the realization of the brotherhood of man." Sadly, Chopin will have to wait, for there is clown crime afoot!
At police headquarters, the Dynamic Duo is presented with a clue left behind by the Joker after his prison break, which he miraculously managed to survive: A bust of the Joker himself, which the Caped Crusader describes as being "a good likeness."
I assume that Adam West had not yet met Cesar Romero when this was filmed. Rest assured it is not the last dubious piece of artwork we shall see.
Unlike previous bouts of apophenia, this clue is actually pretty straightforward: A bust left on a pedestal indicates that the Joker will be targeting a place where there are busts on pedestals, i.e. the Gotham City Museum of Modern Art, which is currently exhibiting a Comedians Hall of Fame. It's not just thematic, though, it's personal: As Batman reveals, he "read in the paper they were not going to include the Joker."
That the Gotham City Museum of Modern Art even has an exhibit on famous comedians is asking for trouble, but I'll give them that. The people need culture, and bringing them a slightly melty statue of Laurel and Hardy is as good as anything, I suppose. But are you seriously going to announce in the newspaper that you are not including famous clown/murderer The Joker in your exhibit?! Why not just throw a tank of poison gas into the gallery while you're at it and save yourself the trouble?
Regardless of whatever idiot was handling PR for GCMOMA, Batman's on the right track, and after pulling up in front of the museum, in front of a trio of girls who start yelling about how much they love Robin...
...the Dynamic Duo head inside. Once they get to the gallery, though, Batman notices that the Hall of Fame actually does include the Joker, in the form of a statue that somehow looks even less like Cesar Romero than the first one did:
This is where the episode actually falls apart for me a little, and not just because this godawful statue doesn't even have a string tie. Batman, The World's Greatest Detective, already knows that the Joker was not meant to be part of the exhibit, and yet, here he is in all his bronze glory. And yet, Batman decides not to investigate the statue at all. He just sort of looks at it from ten feet away and then heads out after he gets the guards to lock up early. Now, I'm no detective, but I have played enough Phoenix Wright to know that if you notice something that shouldn't be there, you at least tap it two or three times just on general principle.
Alas, he does not, and sure enough, once the museum has been locked by a guard that assures Batman that no one could possibly break into the gallery, the statues pop open with the requisite colored smoke and we get our first good look at the Clown Prince of Crime.
As you may have noticed even before the crisp new transfers for the Blu-Ray release, Romero never shaved his moustache to play the part of the unmustachioed Joker, instead preferring to just have them slather it in white facepaint and hope for the best. According to Adam West himself in his Adam West: Naked commentaries for the show -- which, I remind you, were filmed in West's basement for this portion of the show -- this was due to Romero believing that his moustache was the source of his prowess as a "Latin lover."
The Joker introduces his sweater-vested henchmen, all of whom are named for the famous comedians that are immortalized in the Hall of Fame, including a guy with the somewhat improbable name of "W.C. Fields." I guess when you've got that name in Gotham City, your career as a punching bag for the Caped Crusader is pretty much set in stone. Once that's out of the way, though, it's on to his real target, the handily labeled Hall of Fabulous Jewels.
Outside, Batman suddenly realizes that while the guard said no one could break in, that doesn't mean that no one could break out. He heads back in to find the Joker and his men stuffing Fabulous Jewels into trick-or-treat bags (a pretty great touch), and we get the first-ever first-act appearance of the Bat-Sound Effect Onomatopoiea Matrix:
As you can see, it's a short fight, but it's also a weird one, and not just because it takes place in the middle of the first episode of the story rather than the climax of the second. Again, there's a pretty good chance that I just can't look at this show without seeing it through the lens of the Modern Age Joker, but while the fight is mostly the usual stage combat made up of punches that could not be further from connecting, Romero charges directly at Batman and starts strangling him and trying to gouge out his eyes, all while gleefully cackling.
It's kind of shockingly violent. So violent, in fact, that it dislodges a sword that's been mounted on the wall (mistakenly, I assume, since it is not a Fabulous Jewel), which conks Batman on the head and knocks him unconscious. However, while the Joker seemingly has plans for Batman, the Caped Crusader's not out of it yet -- he takes a small explosive out of a (sadly unlabeled) compartment on his utility belt and uses it to distract the crooks and resume thrashing them while the Joker makes his escape.
It's at this point, 16 minutes into the episode, with the Joker yelling, "I swear by all that is funny, I shall never be foiled by that insidious, un-constitutional device again," that the actual premise of the episode arrives. When we rejoin the Joker in the next scene, set at his hideout beneath Gotham Pier Amusement Park, he reveals that he has crafted a utility belt of his own:
Two things about this scene. First, the absolutely stunning Nancy Kovack makes her appearance as Queenie, the Joker's moll. I'd always assumed that the trend that would eventually lead us to Harley Quinn started with the ladies on '66 -- and the show's version of Queenie seems so much like a prototype for Harley's early appearances on Batman: The Animated Series that it's hard not to believe it, right down to the accent -- but this particular character actually goes back a lot further. While she bears little resemblance to the actual character, she at least shares a name with a lady who was henching for the Joker way back in 1941's Batman #5:
Of more importance is, of course, the Joker's Utility Belt, which made its first appearance in 1952's Batman #73, by David Vern and Dick Sprang:
"The Joker's Utility Belt" also provided the inspiration for a few of the other set pieces in the issue, like the robbery at the Comedians Hall of Fame and the heist of the S.S. Gotham that Queenie's about to suggest, but it ends up being pretty different from what we see on the small screen.
Given that these are older stories, I wondered while watching if screenwriter Robert Dozier (the son of Batman's producer, William Dozier, alias narrator Desmond Doomsday), was a long-time fan of the character, but now I'm not so sure. It turns out that "The Joker's Utility Belt" was reprinted in the 80-page Batman #176 in late 1965, meaning that, like the stories that inspired "Hi Diddle Riddle" and "Fine Feathered Finks," it would've been on the newsstands just as the show was getting into production, when Dozier the Elder was looking for inspiration for his new project. There's a Mr. Zero story in there that bears a pretty striking resemblance to a later episode, too, albeit with a much happier ending.
The Joker refers to his utility belt as his "Aladdin's Lamp," prompting Queenie to wish for a two-week ocean cruise on the S.S. Gotham, giving the Joker an idea for a heist that can only really proceed once he kills Batman. Who, as it turns out, is discussing the S.S. Gotham with Commissioner Gordon and Chief O'Hara that very moment at police headquarters, in the guise of millionaire philanthropist Bruce Wayne.
The meeting is interrupted, however, when someone -- presumably the Joker -- manages to throw a clown doll through Commissioner Gordon's window, which is pretty impressive when you consider that it's pretty high up in a very large building. The cops immediately turn to the phone and make a call, but for some reason, Batman isn't answering his phone when Bruce Wayne is standing in their office. Hmmm.
Being temporarily unable to give the latest clue to Batman, Gordon and O'Hara immediately give up on it, and in the most astonishing example of gross police negligence on the entire series -- which is saying something -- O'Hara just hands it over when Bruce Wayne asks if he can keep it.
That is evidence.
No wonder this city's in such a sorry shape with regards to crime.
Back at the Batcave, Batman and Robin run the clown doll through the Hyper-Spectrographic Analyzer, a piece of equipment that I don't think ever actually produces a usable result. Once again, there's nothing to it, but eventually, they realize that the Gotham City Opera Company is performing Pagliacci tonight, and they probably should've been on top of that before they even got a nebulous clue.
It's one of the better-known pieces of trivia about the show, but just in case, the mask Cesar Romero's Joker wears here as Pagliacci is the same mask that Heath Ledger's Joker wears during the bank heist that opens The Dark Knight.
Here, it's a little less lucky. After a stirring performance that brings tears to the eyes of a local drunk watching Pagliacci at a bar, the Joker gets bum-rushed by Batman and Robin, and revealed to the television audience:
But what's this?! It was all part of the Clown Prince of Crime's sinister plot! He produces sneezing powder (presumably from the utility belt hidden under his Pagliacci costume), which disables the Dynamic Duo long enough for a new set of henchmen to give them a sound thrashing, providing the Joker with a chance to unmask our heroes and thereby remove their effectiveness as a crime-fighters!
One last note: While it doesn't say it on the screen, this is the first time that Desmond Doomsday's sonorous voice tells us to tune in tomorrow, same Bat-time, same Bat-channel. I suggest you do the same for next week's entry into the episode guide -- the worst is yet to come!
Episode 1x05 Index:
Getting punched in the face on television