Love it or hate it, there’s no denying the huge cultural impact of the 1960’s TV Batman. Who doesn’t know the series’ theme song?
More than 4 decades later, this is how a lot of people see the Caped Crusader and by extension super heroes in general. For that reason, Batmonth would be incomplete without a nod to the most influential Bat-series of all.
These days, the Adam West version of Batman looks pretty dated. The comic book Batman went dark in the 80’s and has never looked back. Soon after, Tim Burton’s 1989 Batman brought the Dark Knight to the masses. After a detour into camp for some of the sequels, Christopher Nolan famously relaunched the franchise with the most serious take on Batman yet.
But part of the strength of Batman has always been that the character holds up to multiple interpretations. In the mid-1960’s the colorful, pop-art infused TV Batman was a perfect blend of adventure and satire that most everyone could enjoy.
As a kid in the 70s, Batman re-runs were my favorite TV show bar none. My brother and I couldn’t wait for the latest Batman adventure every weeknight. Same Bat-time. Same Bat-channel. And since we were watching them in re-runs, we never had to wait till the next night to see the second half. The cliff-hangers were nothing more than a commercial break to us.
At that age, the Batman TV show didn’t seem silly at all. Batman’s villains were all credible threats. Even if they wore silly hats or had names like Egghead. Inevitably, they would ensnare the Dynamic Duo in some fiendishly complicated death trap. And we marveled at how Batman and Robin narrowly escaped. It never once seemed like a foregone conclusion to young viewers like myself.
A big part of the appeal of the show, although I’m sure I wasn’t aware of it at the time, was the bright color palette. The sets were works of art. Batman and Robin wore colorful costumes as did the villains. Even the henchmen wore themed outfits. And the camera angles were weird and eye-catchingly askew.
As an adult watching the show now, I can still appreciate the look of the Batman series and how it must have appealed to a 1960s audience obsessed with Andy Warhol and the pop art movement. The Batman series was like a Warhol painting come to life. As Robby Reed at Dial B for Blog stated:
The Batman TV show has become such a firmly entrenched part of pop culture, it’s hard to imagine a time when it didn’t exist. But there was such a time. It was a time when most of the shows on TV were still broadcast in dreary black and white, and even those in color seemed strangely uncomfortable with a full palette.
The number of colors in our world is finite, and all are quite well known. But what if I, Robby Reed, the creator of this blog and author of this article, could somehow show you a NEW color? You’d remember it as one of the most fantastic moments in your life. This is exactly what the Batman TV show accomplished: It showed the world a new color. And young comic fans will always remember the moment they saw that new color as one of the most utterly fantastic moments in their entire lives.
As a kid, I enjoyed Batman on the level of a rip-roaring action adventure show. Little did I know that as Batman was dazzling me with the colorful exploits of the dynamic duo, it was also operating on a completely different level for adults. It was also a wickedly funny satire of all things super hero.
Part of the reason the series had such an impact on the way the viewing public saw super heroes is that Batman skewered comic book story telling the way Blazing Saddles skewered westerns. It was impossible to look at either genre the same way again.
These days, fanboys get worked up in a lather whenever they see those *Biff*Bam*Pow* title cards. But the show’s humor ran deeper than spoffing the visual medium of comic books. For example, Adam West’s Batman isn’t just good. He’s uber good. No matter the danger, he’s never too busy to stop and teach Robin a lesson about the importance of buckling your seat belt.
(Check out this scene from the 1966 Batman movie in which Adam West as Batman runs through the street with a right out of a Bugs Bunny cartoon. His attempts to safely dispose of the bomb are thwarted by nuns, babies, a marching band and a flock of ducks!)
Goofy, sure. But after reading a lot of today’s grim and gritty super hero comics, it’s also kind of refreshing.
The show was also crazy cool. Shows like Smallville have pulled off some pretty big casting coups, but in its short three-year run, Batman had a veritable who’s who of 60’s era celebrities drop by for cameo appearances. (One rumor has it that Ol’ Blue Eyes himself was turned down for a guest spot.)
While Batman and Robin were already pretty well known, Batman the TV show made them overnight super stars. But more importantly, the show introduced most of America to Batman’s villains. The first episode took the Riddler from relative obscurity and earned him an eternal spot as one of Batman’s foremost foes.
(It helps thank Frank Gorshin was freakin’ awesome! Check out his dance moves.)
Before Batman, the Joker was just a scary clown. Batman made him actually funny. The show also introduced America to the Penquin, Mr. Freeze, the Mad Hatter and the Clock King. Not to mention Julie Newmar as Catwoman adding way more sex appeal than was appropriate for a children’s show.
The show’s popularity spawned a movement called “Batmania”. Batmania was the biggest merchandising push any super hero had ever seen up to that point. For the first time, kids could get anything they wanted with Batman’s face on it. These days, that kind of merchandising is pretty common. But at the time Batmania was unprecedented. They were still selling that stuff in the 70’s when I was a kid!
Unfortunately, Batman was an expensive show to produce. As the ratings took a dip in the second season, producers started looking for ways to rejuvenate the show for its third season. After seeing the success of Catwoman, the producers decided they wanted another female character. A hero who could be on every episode.
Although there had been a version of Batgirl in the comics before the TV show, Batman introduced the world to the Barbara Gordon version of Batgirl. Batgirl broke up the boys club of the Batman TV show giving little girls a hero of their own. And as played by Yvonne Craig, Batgirl added a weekly dose of that sex appeal I alluded to earlier.
(Whoever wrote the scene where a tied-up Batgirl has to wriggle on the floor until she can turn on the sprinkler system to escape, earned their paycheck that day.)
The 60’s Batman was definitely a product of its time. It’s goofy charms and bright color palette are no longer the flavor of the day. But its impact has lasted through the decades. Even today, the campy, out-dated Batman colors the way we see super heroes in general and Batman in particular. It busted up all the old comic book conventions and challenged creators to up their game.
As legendary Batman scribe Chuck Dixon recently told Newsarama:
“I was one of those fans (who discounted the show) until I had to write Batman and realized how much the ’66 show informed me about how Batman works as a character,” he said. “Looking at Batman comics before the show and after, you can see how the TV writers had to work to make sense of a lot of the conceits that comic readers accept without question. Much of the comics that come after the show’s appearance take from material the TV guys contributed.”
I’ll leave you with this classic clip of Batman in the swinging 60s doing a dance that would later win the dance contest at Jack Rabbit Slims and would certainly make Austin Powers say “Yeah, baby!”