Sometimes, even The A.V. Club isn’t impervious to the sexy allure of ostensible cultural garbage. Which is why there’s I Watched This On Purpose, our feature exploring the impulse to spend time with trashy-looking yet in some way irresistible entertainments, playing the long odds in hopes of a real reward and a good time.
Cultural infamy: The world wasn’t always friendly to superhero fans. Before our current era of big-budget blockbuster movies and decent animated cartoons, anyone who cared even a little bit about costumed adventurers had to rely on clunky Hanna-Barbera shows and the occasional cheesy live-action movie or TV series. On January 18, 1979, NBC aired Legends Of The Superheroes: The Challenge, an hourlong special in which Adam West, Burt Ward, and Frank Gorshin reprised their Batman, Robin, and Riddler roles from the campy ’60s Batman series, alongside a cast of legendary TV comedians and generic hunks. The show had the heroes dealing with a series of traps laid by a team of supervillains, with each trap setting the stage for a wacky skit. Intended as a live-action Superfriends, LOTS: The Challenge came off more like a live-action version of Scooby’s All-Star Laff-a-lympics.
But even The Challenge wasn’t as wretched at what NBC aired the following week: Legends Of The Superheroes: The Roast, in which the cast of the previous special returned for a series of painfully unfunny sketches and stand-up routines. According to the website TV Obscurities, The Challenge finished 58th out of 59 shows the week it aired, and The Roast finished 62nd out of 63. NBC and Hanna-Barbera’s experiment with live-action superhero slapstick was over, leaving a generation of young comic-book geeks baffled and abandoned, worried—at least until the advent of the Internet and grey-market bootlegs—that the two specials were just figments of our variety-show-addled, Superfriends-stoked imaginations.
Curiosity factor: I was 8 years old when the two Legends Of The Superheroes specials aired, and I was one of those kids who spent years wondering if I’d just imagined them. Back then, I had an allowance of $1 a week—enough to buy two comics and some candy—and I gravitated to the “team” books because I felt like they gave better value for the money. I’d buy Fantastic Four, Teen Titans, X-Men, and even Freedom Fighters and Metal Men, but my favorite title was Justice League Of America, because I’d been raised on the Hanna-Barbera and Filmation superhero cartoons, as well as re-runs of the Adam West Batman. I’m not sure it even registered with me that the first special was meant to be funny; as I recall, I tuned out the jokes and focused on how cool it was to see a live-action Hawkman and Flash. Also, because I didn’t know anything about how LOTS: The Challenge came to be, I remember thinking that this was going to be a regular series, and getting excited. But even my forgiving 8-year-old self was crushingly disappointed by LOTS: The Roast. Where was the action? Where was the story? Why did the format change so quickly? And then why did the show go away for good?
In recent years, I’ve seen a few posts on comics blogs from people who scored illicit copies of the two Legends specials, and it was reassuring to know that I hadn’t dreamed the whole thing up. Then, when Warner Archive announced late last year that it would be selling a MOD DVD of LOTS, I had to re-experience it myself.
The viewing experience: The biggest frustration with Warner Archives’ Legends Of The Superheroes release is that it arrives with no extras save for eight minutes of previously unseen footage, which means that even now, outside of the few tidbits on the Internet, there’s very little information available about what this project was supposed to be, and how it turned out the way it did. And believe me, these specials demand an explanation—or an apology.
The Challenge opens with the heroes and villains in their respective lairs, where the former have an orderly meeting, complete with a salute to elderly superhero Retired Man (played by William Schallert, better-known as Patty Duke’s dad on The Patty Duke Show), while the latter have a chaotic meeting complete with random acts of violence and lots of indistinct muttering, captured in an ugly-looking medium-long shot.
The villains seize on a doomsday plot put forward by Dr. Sivana (played by sitcom vet Howard Morris, a.k.a. Ernest T. Bass on The Andy Griffith Show) and divide up, each tasked to find ways to slow the superheroes down. Sinestro (played by funny-faced comic Charlie Callas) poses as a gypsy and reads Green Lantern’s fortune.
The Weather Wizard (played by fast-talking young comedian Jeff Altman) poses as a used-car salesman, and sells Batman and Robin a lemon.
The Riddler pretends to be a psychiatrist and gets Captain Marvel to sit on his outdoor couch and talk about his feelings.
And Sivana tempts various heroes with his power-draining lemonade.
Finally, the heroes locate the villain’s island hideout, where Batman and Robin hop on Jet Skis and chase the wizard Mordru (an obscure DC bad guy played by former Dead End Kid Gabriel Dell) before heading indoors for an old-fashioned punch-up.
I can sort of understand why my 8-year-old self might’ve found LOTS: The Challenge acceptable. The character lineup does run deeper than the average superhero show—The Huntress! Black Canary!—and the writers do genuinely seem to know enough DC mythology to make jokes about it. Also, I’d been conditioned by Saturday-morning cartoons and kid-friendly prime-time shows to expect even action-adventure fare to contain a fair amount of silliness. Still, the sketches in The Challenge are so tedious and unfunny, and the special looks so cruddy, with its mix of cavernous stages and location footage in the wilds of Calabasas. Plus, the costumes are an embarrassment. The fabric looks cheap, the seams and zippers show, Batman’s cowl is on all wrong, and when The Riddler squats, you can see Frank Gorshin’s underpants-line.
Oddly enough, the cheesiness of the costumes are a point in favor of LOTS: The Roast, where the ridiculousness of everything is part of the concept. At the outset, host Ed McMahon jokes that he hasn’t seen so many crazy costumes since he last “had lunch at Alice Cooper’s house,” and adds that the heroes’ HQ looks like “Truman Capote’s closet.” (McMahon also reads a note he claims is from Arnold Schwarzenegger, complaining that the heroes “really make a spectacle” of themselves.)
Otherwise though, The Roast is a beast to sit through. The special includes several corny routines in which McMahon trades quips with guests like Hawkman’s mom (played by showbiz legend Pat Carroll, who jokes that when young Hawkman brought notes home from school, “they were strapped to his leg”) and hulking monster Solomon Grundy (who roars and threatens McMahon whenever he’s reminded of the word “swamp”), and, yet again, Retired Man.
Later, Dr. Sivana shows up, giving Howard Morris a chance to get uncomfortably close to Black Canary’s breasts…
…and the inevitable Ruth Buzzi pops up as a gun-toting Aunt Minerva.
Also, gossip-monger “Rhoda Rooter” conducts an interview with the unlikely couple of The Atom and Giganta…
…and West and Ward participate in an interminable skit where Robin tries to keep Batman from finding out that he totaled the Batmobile.
Again, it’s impressive—at least for an old DC devotee like myself—to see how far into the character pool the writers were willing to jump, and it’s not like the level of comedy here was any worse than the average episode of Donny & Marie or Tony Orlando & Dawn or Pink Lady & Jeff. Still, it’s odd the way the people at Hanna-Barbera use the occasion of this special to allow Jeff Altman to do a few minutes of stand-up material as Weather Wizard (complete with storms), and to have comedian Brad Sanders lay down some jokes along the lines of “If Hawkman walked through Harlem, by the time he got to Lennox Avenue, he’d be Kentucky-fried,” in the unfortunate guise of Ghetto Man. (What can I say? People had strange ideas about what constituted racially progressive entertainment in the ’70s.)
The Roast ends with Mordru doing a little song-and-dance routine, changing the lyrics to “That’s Entertainment” to something more villain-friendly…
…and then the whole affair should’ve been permanently consigned to the ash-heap of TV history. But alas, it was dug back up by fanboys like myself, who can’t leave well enough alone.
How much of the experience wasn’t a total waste of time? Maybe 20 percent. There’s always a powerful Madeleine Effect whenever I watch anything I haven’t seen in more than 30 years. (I could almost taste the saltine-packed bean-with-bacon soup I probably ate for dinner on the nights I watched these specials.) It’s also worthwhile to be reminded periodically of the aridity of the ’70s variety-show format, if only to have something to throw back at TV buffs who insist someone should revive it. And as noted, the superhero fan in me was mildly thrilled to see some of my favorites onscreen, even in low-rent form… though I still say that the writers and producers missed a sure bet by not bringing out Red Buttons to complain about the heroes who never got a dinner.
But as every fanboy knows, sometimes we suffer for our desire to have our love validated by the mass media. Legends Of The Superheroes is excruciatingly painful to watch, and so boring that after a while during The Challenge, I stopped watching the characters and started thinking about what it would be like to live in Calabasas. (According to Wikipedia, if I lived there now, I’d be neighbors with Rebecca Romijn and Rod Carew, and I’d make more than $100,000 a year. Not too shabby!) When I did pay attention to the characters, I wondered whatever happened to the charisma-free slabs of meat who played the heroes, and about the conversation Charlie Callas must’ve had with his agent after he spent a day sitting out in the heat in a gypsy costume. Sometimes you can go home again. But sometimes, that home is just a dimly lit soundstage populated by over-the-hill entertainers in unitards.