"They fought, they drank, they jumped a lot of fences" - When Things Were Rotten (1975)
Mel Brooks is famed for his spoofs of Star Wars, horrors and westerns, and one of his most popular efforts is 1993's Robin Hood: Men in Tights. Largely a spoof of 1991's Robin Hood: Prince of Thieves, Men in Tights parodied Robin Hood on film, past and present, from Errol Flynn's signature swordfights, Kevin Costner's accent, the classic archery contest scene, to more contemporary films like The Godfather. Notable in Men in Tights is an almost uncharacteristic lack of classic Brooks' comedy; it's funny and entertaining, but there's a sharpness missing from this edition when compared to his other spoofs; it's notably missing because the film stacks up well as a standalone Robin Hood film. Brooks' clear enjoyment of the Robin Hood story is evident, and when you look through his career, it's not the first time he's given his own spin on the story. He'd already done it, eighteen years earlier, in a 13-part series for ABC, When Things Were Rotten.
The premise is like that of any other Robin Hood series; Robin (Dick Gautier) and his band of Merry
Men fight against the evil Sheriff of Nottingham (Henry Polic II); the twist in the tale is the fourth-wall breaks, references to modern politics and films, anachronistic weapons and costumes, all Brooks staples. The band featured a pre-Love Boat Bernie Kopell as a lounge-styled Allan a'Dale, who often spoke directly to the audience to comment on the antics around him. Richard Dimitri featured as twin brothers, the hippy-like Merry Man Renaldo, and the Sheriff's camp right-hand-man, Bertram. Brooks' regular contributor, Dick Van Patten, features as the gorging Friar Tuck; Van Patten would go on to feature in Men in Tights as the Abbott. Misty Rowe and David Sabin featured as Maid Marian and Little John, respectively.
I'd never seen the series until I bought it a few months ago; I expected it to be a bit of a romp, like any Mel Brooks production is, but I was thrilled halfway through the first episode to discover the series genuinely funny and sharp, and it had hardly aged in its comic approach. There are some jokes which reference then-current politics, such as buying oil from Middle Eastern businessmen, but most of the humour comes from modern writing and acting styles transposed into this world of castles, knights and swashbuckling feats. (The archery contest contains one of the more elaborate
modern twists, a contestant named Sir Ronald of Lord McDonald’s Golden Archers.) There are bigger gags, like the frequently-appearing KFC fast food cart, to the Marries' chef wearing an apron sporting the phrase, 'I hate cooking and Prince John.'
As is unsurprising in Brooks' work, the strongest part of the series is the characters themselves. Each are immediately likeable, especially the villains, whose colourful outbursts against Robin and the Merries are geninely hilarious. Only a few episodes in, it's like you've been watching this version of the characters for years due to their timeless charm; Robin is brave but foolish, always having to rely on his friends; Allan is hesitant and casual, happy to tag along with his buds; Marian is smarter than the lot of them, always stuck with them not understanding their part in their own schemes after she plays hers to the letter, and working as a very successful spy for the gang; John is full of loyal emotiveness and, of course, superhuman strength (the title sequence features him uprooting a tree); Bertram's pompous attitude is at glorious contrast to the Sheriff's manic and panicked behaviour. The series featured surprisingly large and colourful castle and forest sets, several horses, lush exterior locations and guest stars adding their own touch of bizarre comic talents each week.
Despite the parody element, the series features the occasional dash of real history, such as a [baseball-inspired] race to meet King Richard (played subtly by Brooks) upon his return from the Crusades, and Prince John's (Ron Rifkin) marriage to Isabella of France.
A lot of Brooks' own jokes from Men in Tights feature in the series - the homing 'Patriot Arrow,' Robin's shooting of half a dozen arrows and pinning someone against a wall, and certainly more than one joke about tights. Also featuring in one episode is Robert Ridgely reprising his role as the hangman from Blazing Saddles, helping the Sheriff arrange Renaldo's execution; this is the same cameo Ridgely has in Men in Tights!
Despite glowering reviews, the series failed to consistently find an audience in its run. Bernie Kopell would give an interview in which he described speaking with Van Patten every day on their drive to the studio, expressing his concern over the falling ratings; the input of Brooks' and the confidence from the studio in having four full standing sets gave series a big boost. Its swift demise, after only thirteen episodes, seemed impossible (as Van Patten said, "It's Mel Brooks, for
free, on television!"). It seems that the Mel Brooks style of comedy didn't mesh well on television in the era of M*A*S*H, Happy Days and All In The Family. Blazing Saddles had arrived on the scene just the year before, and it immediately broke down the formula of comedy on the big screen (and it's probably worth mentioning the Monty Python guys did the same with The Holy Grail earlier in 1975, too). Though uproariously successful in its attempt to do the same for television, it seems that When Things Were Rotten simply wasn't the kind of comedy 1970s audiences wanted in their small screen viewing. Brooks maintains that the series was canned simply because it cost too much to produce, using a single-camera set-up instead of other contemporary (and cheaper) comedies which used three.
Despite its limited run, When Things Were Rotten certainly gives Brooks' other Robin Hood production a run for its money. I wouldn't say either is better than the other; this is a parody of the classic Robin Hood stories and staples, whereas Men in Tights is more a spoof of Robin Hood on film. They both contain the same reverence to the source material, the same sense of fun and silliness (and some of the same cast!), but where When Things Were Rotten succeeds is in its immediate and uncompromising attitude to itself; honest, silly, but well-crafted fun.
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All images care of Nischenkino.