Saturday, March 24, 2018

The Monkees: "The Devil and Peter Tork"

 (this post is part of the Favourite TV Show Episode Blogathon hosted by A Shroud of Thoughts)

With the possible exception of Batman, The Monkees was probably the first show that I could ever say I was a fan of. I don't remember watching it in its first run on NBC from 1966 to 1968 (no surprise given I was only three years old when it debuted), but in 1969 CBS began rerunning it on Saturday afternoon in the Central Time Zone (Saturday morning in the Eastern Time Zone). I watched every single episode and my parents could not get me to move from the TV set until The Monkees was over. What is more, my brother and I "inherited" our sister's Monkees albums, which we very nearly wore out by listening to them so often. The Monkees has remained one of my favourite shows ever since, and The Monkees are still one of my favourite bands. To this day, The Monkees remains my favourite sitcom of all time.

Given how much I love The Monkees, it is very hard for me to choose one, single episode as my absolute favourite. That having been said, "The Devil and Peter Tork" would certainly number among my favourite episodes of The Monkees. Not only is it very funny, but after facing spies, gangsters, pirates, and even aliens, in this episode The Monkees face the Devil himself.

As one might guess from the episode's title, "The Devil and Peter Tork" centres on Peter Tork. Peter wanders into S. Zero's Pawn Shop where he is taken with a harp. Unfortunately, Peter doesn't have any money and cannot afford to buy the harp, although he admits he would give anything for it. The shop's owner, one Mr. Zero (played by Monte Landis), gives Peter a contract to sign and tells him he can "play now and pay later." The other Monkees are not happy when Peter shows up at the pad with the harp, arguing it that it takes up too much space and that he cannot play the harp. It is then that Mr. Zero appears in a puff of brimstone and informs Peter and the other Monkees that Peter can play the harp. As it turns out Peter can play the harp and The Monkees become an overnight sensation when they incorporate the harp into their act. Unfortunately, The Monkees soon learn that Mr. Zero is none other than the Devil himself and Peter in signing the contract with Mr. Zero has literally sold his soul to the Devil. The Monkees must then figure out a way to get Peter out of the contract and save his soul.

"The Devil and Peter Tork" was based on Stephen Vincent Benét's short story "The Devil and Daniel Webster", which in turn took its inspiration from Washington Irving's short story "The Devil and Tom Walker". Both owe a good deal to the German legend of Faust, a scholar and charlatan who sold his soul to the Devil in exchange for knowledge and power.

"The Devil and Peter Tork" was actually the fifth episode completed for the second season of The Monkees, but it would be the 19th episode aired that season. There is an urban legend that NBC held the episode back due to objections over the song "Salesman", which some think is a veiled reference to a drug pusher. In truth this was not the case. Whether or not "Salesman" references a drug pusher (and I personally don't think it does), NBC had no objections to the song. Instead NBC's objections were to a scene in which The Monkees try to say the word "Hell", which is replaced by a "cuckoo" sound each time. The scene was probably made all the more objectionable to NBC's Broadcast Standards department because Micky Dolenz clearly mouths the word "Hell" in an exchange with Peter.

Micky: "You know what is even more scary?"
Peter: "What?"
Micky: "You can't say (cuckoo sound) on television."

Apparently Broadcast Standards objected to the word "Hell" even being mouthed on the air, not to mention they probably didn't appreciate The Monkees poking fun at them!

As to the Devil himself in the episode, he was played by Monte Landis, who made no less than seven guest appearances on The Monkees. With the exception of one episode ("Everywhere a Sheik, Sheik"), Mr. Landis always played a bad guy, including crooked construction mogul Wilbur Zeckenbush in "Monkee Mayor", the evil art museum guard Duce in "Art for Monkee's Sake", the crooked fitness guru Shah-Ku in "I Was a 99 Pound Weaking", and, after "The Devil and Peter Tork", the crooked psychic Oracullo in "The Monkees Blow Their Minds". As a lad I pondered whether Monte Landis was actually playing a different character in every one of his guest appearances on the show or perhaps he was the Devil in disguise in each and every appearance. As to why The Monkees didn't recognise him every time (aside from the fact that he did vary his appearance...), well, he is the Devil and has various powers at his command....

"The Devil and Peter Tork" is significant as the very last episode of The Monkees in which a laugh track was used. The Monkees themselves objected to the use of a laugh track being used on the show, believing that the average viewer was intelligent enough to know when there was a joke or a gag taking place. This made The Monkees the only comedy airing on an American broadcast network at the time that did not use a laugh track besides Batman.

Of course, this being The Monkees, "The Devil and Peter Tork" featured two songs. The first to appear in the episode was "Salesman", a song by Mike Nesmith's friend at the time Craig Smith. It was the lead track on The Monkees' latest album, Pisces, Aquarius, Capricorn & Jones Ltd. Appearing in the episode's tag was "No Time", which would be the last track from the group's album Headquarters to appear on the show. When "The Devil and Peter Tork" was rerun on CBS, "Salesman" was replaced by the song "I Never Thought It Peculiar", from the album Changes (by which time The Monkees consisted of only Davy Jones and Micky Dolenz). This was standard procedure for the show, from when it originally aired on NBC to its reruns on CBS and ABC. As The Monkees was meant in part to promote the band's latest songs, when an episode was rerun it was not unusual for the original song to replaced by one of the band's newer ones. For the show's release on DVD the original songs were restored to the episodes. The restored episodes are also now seen in syndication.

After having won two  Emmy Awards in its first season (for Outstanding Comedy Series and for Outstanding Directorial Achievement in a Comedy for James Frawley for the episode "Royal Flush"), in the show's second season "The Devil and Peter Tork" would be nominated for the Emmy for Outstanding Directorial Achievement in Comedy, again for James Frawley. It lost to the Get Smart episode "Maxwell Smart, Private Eye".

 "The Devil and Peter Tork" is not the funniest episode of The Monkees. It is also certainly not the most surrealistic episode either. That having been said, it is possibly the most touching. There is a certain poignancy to Peter's plight and his fellow Monkees' concern for him. And while Mike Nesmith always claimed he was not an actor, he gives what might be his best performance in the entire series in the final confrontation with Mr. Zero. James Frawley, who directed a staggering 28 episodes of The Monkees  (more than any other director), also delivers some of his best work in "The Devil and Peter Tork". On "The Devil and Peter Tork" the show's production staff also has to be given credit for thumbing their noses at NBC's Broadcast Standards, perhaps the strictest in the business at the time. While it may not be the funniest Monkees episode or even the most far out episode, it is certainly one of the most enjoyable to watch.


Caftan Woman said...

I enjoyed the read, and in particular, your childhood confusion over Monte Landis. I have been catching an episode of The Monkees now and then on local television. I had forgotten how fond I was of the series on its original run, and how good the music is. It has been a nice experience reacquainting myself with the show. I will look forward to it even more after your article.

Michaela said...

Wonderful post about a wonderful show! I've loved The Monkees for a few years now, but I grew especially fond of them when I was studying abroad two summers ago. I felt really homesick, so to help, I would watch The Monkees on YouTube as I fell asleep every night. That was also the summer they released their newest album and I couldn't stop listening to it. It's still a great favorite of mine!

Steve Bailey said...

I well remember this episode! It was my introduction to the "Devil and Daniel Webster" story, and even as a kid, I was touched by Mike's moving speech to the Devil. Nice summary!