The Bootleg Files: The Mad, Mad, Mad Comedians

BOOTLEG FILES 632: “The Mad, Mad, Mad Comedians” (1970 Rankin/Bass animated television special).

LAST SEEN: On YouTube.


REASON FOR BOOTLEG STATUS: Most likely due to a rights clearance issue.


During the 1960s, Rankin/Bass Productions enjoyed a skein of hit films and television specials, including “Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer,” “Mad Monster Party?”, “The Little Drummer Boy” and “Frosty the Snowman.” In 1970, the studio put forth “The Mad, Mad, Mad Comedians,” which turned out to be their highest rated television show.

Today, “The Mad, Mad, Mad Comedians” is mostly unknown – it was never part of the rerun culture and never released on home video. In many ways, the production’s obscurity is highly justified – it is one of the weakest Rankin/Bass offerings in the studio’s history. But on the other hand, it has a strange curio value due to having a number of comedy legends offering voice performances for caricature depictions of their well-known personas.

The special opens with the Smothers Brothers’ performing “Oh, the Slithery Dee,” and thanks to animation we get to see the giant sea monster as it devours Tom Smothers in one gulp. Then we have the opening credits, which curiously depicts a silhouette montage featuring Charlie Chaplin’s Little Tramp and the Keystone Kops – these silent era icons are nowhere to be found in the show. Also misleading is the title, which suggests a semi-sequel to the 1963 slapstick epic “It’s a Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad World.” Alas, this offering is not the least bit mad, let alone being mad to the third degree.

Although this 30-minute production is a cel animation effort, “The Mad, Mad, Mad Comedians” is presented as if it was a live action show. Thus, there is a loud laugh track that gets activated at the end of nearly every sentence, plus cutaways to what is supposed to be an audience of guffawing guests (including Queen Elizabeth II, Martin and Lews and Popeye the Sailor). The device was typical for its time – many Hanna-Barbera animated series had mild laugh tracks punctuating punch lines – but the volume on canned laughter is out of proportion with most of the weak humor on display.

The first major segment of the show involves Flip Wilson doing his stand-up routine about Columbus’ discovering America. The animation, which was outsourced to Osamu Tezuka’s Mushi Production in Tokyo, did a decent job in capturing Wilson’s appearance and mannerisms, complete with a cigarette squeezed in his hand. (Hey, in 1970 it was still okay for cartoon characters to smoke.) Wilson’s stage routine is then reimagined into a 1492 setting, with Wilson as Columbus. Some odd sight gags include the presence of three of the Beatles in the Spanish court and a kosher butcher shop (in 1492 Spain?). But Wilson’s mix of jive talk and deliberate anachronisms quickly becomes dull when visualized – some things are better left to the imagination.

After that, three old school comics – George Jessel, Jack E. Leonard and Henny Youngman – exchange labored quips before the next segment is up. That features Jack Benny and George Burns driving along in Benny’s infamous Maxwell automobile. A problem arises at a toll bridge over a river, where the toll was raised from 25 cents to 50 cents. Burns insists that Benny protest the toll hike to an oversized cop in the toll booth, and the cop is furious at Benny’s reluctance to pay the toll. Benny gets physically manhandled by the cop, and it is a bit disturbing to see Benny get roughed up in such a crass way. (Yes, it’s a cartoon, but Benny was a placid personality and that type of knockabout was alien to his act.) When Benny asks Burns for back-up, Burns talk-sings one of his vaudeville ditties. This shtick gets repeated before Benny and Burns decide to forego the toll and drive the Maxwell across the river.

From here, we have the most unusual aspect of the show: a recreation of the Napoleon skit from the 1924 Broadway revue “I’ll Say She Is” starring the Marx Brothers. Groucho was lured into doing the voice for his character, while Paul Frees voiced Chico and (for one sentence of dialogue) Zeppo. But Groucho’s voice performance was enervated and the timing for the skit was completely off due to slowly paced animation. Even stranger was the follow-up: a recreation of a W.C. Fields skit based in an Alpine resort, with Paul Frees doing a so-so Fields imitation. Fields had been dead for nearly a quarter-century, and it was unclear why his character was resurrected when there were plenty of living funnymen to work with.

After a brief exchange between Henny Youngman and Phyllis Diller about mothers-in-law, the final segment involved the Smothers Brothers in a visualization of their “Troubadour Song” routine. As with Flip Wilson, the visualization of the routine quickly becomes dull.

“The Mad, Mad, Mad Comedians” was broadcast on ABC on April 7, 1970, as the lead-up program to the Academy Awards telecast. The show’s high ratings could certainly be credited by the stellar act that followed, which affirmed the old axiom regarding the benefits of being in the right place at the right time.

To date, however, “The Mad, Mad, Mad Comedians” remains unavailable for home entertainment release. Most likely, there are problems in clearing the rights to some of the comedy recordings that appeared in the show. A satisfactory copy can be found on YouTube, but there has been no great demand to make the show available again for commercial release, and considering the shaky content it might be best if the production was allowed to remain quietly in oblivion.

IMPORTANT NOTICE: While this weekly column acknowledges the presence of rare film and television productions through the so-called collector-to-collector market, this should not be seen as encouraging or condoning the unauthorized duplication and distribution of copyright-protected material, either through DVDs or Blu-ray discs or through postings on Internet video sites.

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