Do you remember Mel Brooks' show 'When Things Were Rotten'?
In the spring of 1975, the British comedy ensemble Monty Python released its first complete narrative film, the cult classic Monty Python and the Holy Grail. Historical farce was hardly a new concept, considering F Troop was doing something similar with the Civil War a decade earlier. Not to mention, Mel Brooks has released his campy western satire Blazing Saddles the prior year. Still, it felt like a shift in the style of comedic filmmaking, to more sketch-based, sarcastic and satirical lampoons. Movies like Airplane, Spinal Tap and The Naked Gun would follow.
Yet the approach never clicked on television. The Naked Gun was based on the 1982 ABC series Police Squad! which lasted just six episodes despite being just as funny as the cinematic version that would rake in over $200 million. Less remembered is that forty years ago, Mel Brooks himself suffered a flop for an idea that would eventually make money.
Brooks was peaking in 1975. He had recently dropped instant classics Blazing Saddles and Young Frankenstein, and his prior television series, the delightful Get Smart, wasn't that far in the rear view. Why wouldn't ABC greenlight a send-up of Robin Hood?
Perhaps the first problem was the title. When Things Were Rotten just doesn't exactly grab you from the TV Guide page. Mel Brooks' Robin Hood could have helped, or even the concepts eventual film title, Robin Hood: Men in Tights. Dick Gautier (Hymie on Get Smart) and Dick Van Patten starred as Robin and Friar Tuck. The anachronistic humor was broad, ranging from silly puns and sight gags to sly stabs at the oil crisis. Maid Marian's maid broke out into singing Supremes songs. The borscht belt zaniness was little different than his big screen work. Critics praised it.
Paired with That's My Mama on Wednesday night, When Things Were Rotten could not outperform Little House on the Prairie and Tony Orlando and Dawn. ABC replaced the hour with The Bionic Woman which would become a top five show that year.
Today, the show has some cult status, as it has been made available on DVD. So, do you remember When Things Were Rotten? What went wrong?
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