Too Much Monkey Business: “Lancelot Link, Secret Chimp” & the Evolution Revolution

By on March 22, 2017

“Lancelot Link, Secret Chimp,” the short-lived early ’70s live-action Saturday morning comedy series, was, as far as we know, the only TV show with a cast of chimpanzees (and one orangutan named Henry) with “dialogue” overdubbed by human actors.

Lancelot Link, Secret Chimp originally aired on the ABC network, beginning on September 12, 1970 and although we think it was one of the greatest TV shows ever, it all came to an end much too soon, with the last episode airing on Saturday, January 2, 1971.

The series competed for ratings in the 9:00 a.m. time slot against CBS’s “Sabrina” (CBS) and NBC’s “The Bugaloos,” which we told you about here, airing for an hour during the show’s first season before re-airing during the second season with the cartoons removed from the show (along with the original laugh track, added by the show’s producers in post-production).

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The TV show’s roughly ten-minute spy plot segments — inspired by popular 1960s shows like Robert Vaughn’s spy spoof, “The Man from U.N.C.L.E.” and even comedy spy parodies like Get Smart” and other popular TV shows like “The Monkees” — featured a veritable menagerie of monkeys, numbering close to twenty, who were given their assorted tricks and tasks by animal trainer Frank Inn and his associate Hubert Wells.

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During the show’s short run we see them do what a lot of humans do for sports and recreation — including skiing down mountains, riding around in go-karts and atop miniature horses, playing golf and tennis — not to mention eating with chopsticks, having pie-throwing fights and brandishing weapons, all while wearing all sorts of chimp-sized human costumes and hats of one type or another.

Inn would first train the chimps just as you would a small child, giving them time to get used to balancing themselves on motorcycles with training wheels first, before taking those off after they’d learned the appropriate needed skills (the chimps may have had more of a problem with the motorcycle’s throttle than they did with keeping their balance).

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Balanced by small training wheels, two chimp actors execute a fast getaway.

Inn also worked on “The Beverly Hillbillies,” “Petticoat Junction,” and the feature film Benji,) while Wells worked on Born Free and other features).

The sole orangutan, Henry, belonged to another experienced animal trainer named Darrell Keener, who also worked on “The Beverly Hillbillies.”

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The show’s silly spy segments were also separated by what were called “Chimpies,” which were weird little “Laugh-In”-style sketches, briefly showing a chimp sneezing or some other funny thing that happened during the filming, and Warner Bros. cartoon shorts.

The show also memorably featured chimps in a psychedelic band called the Evolution Revolution, featuring the show’s two main chimp characters — “Lancelot Link” and “Mata Hairi” — on guitar and tambourine, respectively, along with a drummer “Bananas Marmoset” (a chimp named Blackie) and another chimp as their keyboardist, “Sweetwater Gibbons.”

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The show’s leading man/monkey was a bumbling spy named Lancelot Link, Monkey 007 (a “Secret Chimp” who preferred his banana daiquiris shaken, not stirred), played by handsome, 14-year old chimpanzee named Tongo and voiced by Dayton Allen.

His crime-fighting femme fatale partner, Mata Hairi, was played a chimp named Debbie, voiced by Joan Gerber.

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The simian crime-fighting duo worked for A.P.E. (Agency to Prevent Evil) and the plots to the shows were never too serious and always played for laughs.

The episodes had great titles like “There’s No Business Like Snow Business,” “To Tell The Tooth,” “Lance Of Arabia,” “The Great Great Race,” “The Temporary Thanksgiving Turkey Truce,” “The Dreaded Hong Kong Sneeze,” and “The Spy Who Went Out In The Cold.”

Lancelot and his sidekick Mata Hairi were given assignments by their boss, Commander Darwin, which were couched as part of his “theory,” a play on the Charles Darwin (after whom the character had been named).

“What’s your theory, Darwin?” was something Lancelot would frequently ask the Commander, and it was just one of many often-awful groan-enducing puns involving Darwin’s theories on evolution (the chimp band’s name was another).

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The Commander and his super-spy duo, Link and Hairi, would match wits each week against spy villains who worked for their arch enemies, C.H.U.M.P. — for Criminal Headquarters for Underworld Master Plan — an evil syndicate bent on global domination led by a chimp named Baron Von Butcher, voiced by Bernie Kopell, who modeled the Baron on his “Conrad Siegfried” character from Get Smart!

The monocled chief had help from his shifty chauffeur Creto — a parody of “Kato,” the Green Hornet’s chauffeur and karate-chopping sidekick — and a rogue’s gallery of baddies, including the drowsy martial arts master Wang Fu, the imperious Hong Kong-based empress Dragon Woman, the despicable mad scientist Dr. Strangemind (similarly named to the title character from Stanley Kubrick’s 1964 spy spoof, but sounding like Béla Lugosi as Dracula), the cultured Duchess, and singing sheikh Ali AssaSeen (the “assassin”).

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Dr. Strangemind (right) brings The Perfect Chump to life before Baron Von Butcher (left). Animal trainer Hubert Wells, the only human in the series, plays the robot.

Several of these characters — and assorted additional others, like “Parnelli Smith,” a parody of Indy 500 auto racing champ Parnelli Jones, and “Bart Sparks,” the emcee of the Miss Globe contest, a parody of Miss America host Bert Parks — were voiced by Kopell, and most of the r est were voiced by either Dayton Allen or Joan Gerber.

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What we mostly remember from the show, however, were the musical interludes by the Evolution Revolution, appearing in Link’s swanky bachelor pad, entering and exiting from the secret entrance/exit located under one of the sofa cushions.

It’s important to point out here that after the phenomenal bubblegum pop success of “The Archie Show,” and the Archies’ #1 hit (“Sugar Sugar”) and its million-selling soundtrack sales taking the made-up band to the top of the charts, nearly every Saturday morning TV show thereafter, cartoon or otherwise, featured rock bands of one type or another (in addition to “The Bugaloos,” “Josie and the Pussycats” also debuted on Saturday morning in 1970).

After first being introduced during the segment by someone named by “Ed Simian,” a parody of legendary TV host Ed Sullivan, the band — all dressed in colorful garb, flower-child wigs and wardrobe, their keyboardist usually appearing in fringed vest and granny glasses — would play their psychedelic bubblegum Archies-style pop/rock songs, which reportedly communicated coded messages for their fellow A.P.E. agents.

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Born noisemakers, the musical monkeys hammered away at their instruments without special training. Called the Evolution Revolution, the are drummer Bananas Marmoset (left) who worships Thelonius Monk; keyboardist Sweetwater Gibbons, son of an organ-grinder; and Mata Hairi on tambourine, a 48 lb. Virgo.

There was also a self-titled album by the Evolution Revolution released by ABC/Dunhill Records, in the fall of 1970 (one song, “Sha-La Love You”, the leadoff track on Side One, had originally been intended for the Grass Roots, who were signed to ABC/Dunhill at the time).

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From the album’s liner notes, written by the show’s creator/writers, Stan Burns and Mike Marmer, we learn that: Lance Link is the group’s lead guitarist; he’s a native of California, and lives in a ranch house in Tarzana (of course!); he’s a Scorpio; he’s four-feet tall in his stocking feet, and he spent two years as a pre-med student and is violently against vivisection.

His co-agent, Mata Hairi, is the group’s sex symbol; she’s a Virgo; weighs 48 pounds and is three ft., two inches tall; she lives in a Beverly Hills estate formerly owned by Tarzan Johnny Weismueller, and she hates fur.

Keyboardist Sweetwater Gibbons, meanwhile, is the son of a organ-grinder the band’s creative genius and majored in zoology in college, while drummer Bananas Marmoset hails from Thousand Oaks, CA, digs Three Dog Night and Thelonius Monk, is afraid of heights and hates haircuts.

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Steve Hoffman

Bob Emenegger — who co-produced tracks for the album along with Steve Barri and Joel Sill — assembled the Evolution Revolution band from studio musicians he’d used for TV commercials (Honda and Bank of America, for instance).

Most of the group’s songs were, in fact, co-written by Steve Hoffman, who led his own L.A. psych-pop band, the Mystic Astrologic Crystal Band.

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The Mystic Astrologic Crystal Band

We should also mention that the episodes were narrated by the awesomely-named Malanchi Throne, known for his many TV guest-starring roles on “Star Trek,” “Batman,” “Mission: Impossible,” and dozens more.

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“Lancelot Link, Secret Chimp” was created by the aforementioned Stan Burns and Mike Marmer, two veteran Hollywood TV writers who wrote together for twenty-five years.

We have no doubt they both relied quite a bit on their experience having written for the great spy spoof, “Get Smart” (1965-1966), which had just gone off the air after five glorious seasons, and they were also inspired by the continuing popularity of the James Bond franchise, as well as other espionage TV shows and feature films.

Just before creating the series, they were working as the head writers on “The Carol Burnett Show,” where their infamous Gone With The Wind parody won the writing duo an Emmy.

Burns and Marmer were given a huge budget for the series — over a million dollars for a fourteen episode season, reportedly the highest ever, at that time, for a Saturday morning TV series — but it was necessary for the elaborate production of the show.

The production of “Lancelot Link, Secret Chimp” required the laborious staging and training of the chimps, not to mention the show’s episodes were filmed with human actors doing voice-overs ad-libbed right on the set, matching the movement of the monkey’s lips, which proved to be fairly difficult to get to work exactly right.

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Occasionally, there were wonderfully absurd times when the chimps would move their mouths so quickly that the only way to represent it onscreen was to have them breaking into song or spontaneously reciting Mother Goose rhymes.

There were expensive interior studio settings and exterior location work, expensive props and costumes tailor-made to fit the chimps, and the occasionally elaborately-staged stunts or simple action sequences involving chimp-sized cars and motorcycles (often, due to the expense, these props and various bits of clothing, etc. were recycled numerous times).

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There were also additional issues that involved creating new lighting in order to properly illuminate the dark chimp faces.

Unfortunately for all of us who were huge fans of the show, it didn’t last very long, even though there were Lancelot Link comic books and other merchandise, including Halloween costumes, created back in 1970, and we’d guess that if you have any of those collectible items safely tucked away in storage, they’re worth quite a bit of money.

Frank Inn, after the show’s cancellation, would send his chimps on performance tours around the world, and he eventually sold most of his chimpanzees, including Tonga and Debbie, to the trainer who was in charge of the touring show.

Some of the other chimps were donated to an organization that raised and cared for chimpanzees (they were later resold to a trainer in Florida).

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“Lancelot Link, Secret Chimp” was eventually picked up by the Nickelodeon channel for re-runs on their “Nick at Nite” series of programs, sometime in the mid-to-late 1980s, and have occasionally showed up briefly on other networks — TV Land, the Comedy Channel (now Comedy Central) — was even briefly re-created by the Fox network for a series of between-show bumpers airing during their “Dynamo Duck” Saturday morning series, which was another live-action show starring animals (in this case, a baby duckling) fighting crime and thwarting the evil plans of guinea pigs, lab mice and other small critters. The duck and the others were cute, but the chimps on Lancelot Link were more enjoyable to watch.

“Lancelot Link, Secret Chimp” creators/writers Burns and Marmer — who before the show had previously both written for a few of comedian Steve Allen’s early 1950s TV shows, “The Steve Allen Plymouth Show” (1956) and earlier stints on “Tonight!, in 1953 — were, as we said, veteran Hollywood writers, and this short-lived show was pretty much, from what we can tell, the only Saturday morning TV fare they attempted in their long, illustrious careers.

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Burns, on his own, had also previously written episodes of “F Troop,” “Gilligan’s Island,” and after working on the short-lived “Lancelot Link” they would also write for “The Smothers Brothers Comedy Hour,” and Flip Wilson’s “Flip,” not to mention various Dean Martin variety shows, specials and celebrity roasts.

Burns would also later write quite a bit for Mary Tyler Moore (penning several episodes of her show “Mary” (1978), and her 1979 variety show, The Mary Tyler Moore Hour”) and one of his last writing jobs was writing for Joan Rivers’ “The Late Show,” which aired in 1986-’87.

Marmer, meanwhile, would write for “The Burns and Schreiber Comedy Hour,” and “Barbara Mandrell and the Mandrell Sisters,” in addition to penning episodes of “Three’s Company,” “The Love Boat,” and “Punky Brewster,” among many other TV shows.

While we were researching this TV show, we fortunately came across a short documentary by Night Flight friend Jeff Krulik, who along with co-director Diane Bernard, made a documentary called I Created Lancelot Link, interviewing both Burns and Marmer.

Krulik, you may recall — along with his friend John Heyn — is responsible for the famous 16-minute documentary called Heavy Metal Parking Lot, for which he videotaped the partying tailgate parking lot scene at a Judas Priest/Dokken concert at the Capital Centre in Largo, Maryland, near Landover, on May 31, 1986.

We’ve also posted here on the blog about Krulik’s nearly hour-long 1997 documentary Ernest Borgnine On The Bus, which chronicled the time Krulik spent in 1995 on tour with Borgnine and his son, Cris Borgnine, as they drove across the Midwest in Borgnine’s 40-ft luxury bus, The Sunbum.

Filmed on Hi-8 video in 1997 and released two years later, I Created Lancelot Link features an on-screen reunion of writing partners Stan Burns and Mike Marmer, who relate anecdotes about the show’s production along with some of the series finest moments.

We asked Jeff to tell us a little about his I Created Lancelot Link project and here’s what he said:

“In 1997, I had the good fortune to film a bona-fide reunion between Michael Marmer and Stan Burns, the two comedy geniuses behind ‘Lancelot Link, Secret Chimp.’ I didn’t realize they hadn’t seen each other in ten years. My co-director Diane Bernard and I were originally just going to profile Mike as she was friends with his son, but we wound up driving him over to Stan’s house in the valley and the rest is all on tape.

What a thrill it was, as I loved that show as a kid. I was such a fan I even strong-armed my brothers into naming the family dog Lancelot. I still have a Lancelot Link lunch box. And when Nickelodeon ran the series in the late ’80s I taped every episode off air on a 3/4” tape at the public access studio I ran. Every day at 4PM I made another tape. I had no use for it at the time, but ten years later I was able to put that footage to use in my documentary.

Mike and Stan both still had great comic chemistry, and it was obvious to me why they were so successful. I once mentioned their names to Buck Henry at a film festival and he said ‘Stan Burns was the funniest person he ever knew,’ which I thought was high praise indeed. I was proud to see our film sweep the underground film fest circuit in 1999, winning Best Documentary in Chicago, New York and Baltimore. And I’ll always be a fan of ‘Lancelot Link, Secret Chimp.’

Jeff added: “I do want to add that when I made An Afternoon With Zippy The Chimp during my public access years, I learned how freakin’ dangerous chimps are. They can rip your limbs off!”

He sent us this clip:

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Mike Marmer (left) reunited in 1997 with writing partner Stan Burns

Stan Burns and Mike Marmer both passed away in 2002.

I Created Lancelot Link won the 1999 Best Documentary at New York Underground Film Festival, Chicago Underground Film Festival and Washington Psychotronic Film Society.

We hope you’ve enjoyed this look back at the short-lived 70s series “Lancelot Link, Secret Chimp,” and be sure to check out some of our other posts about Saturday morning TV shows from the distant past.

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About Bryan Thomas

Bryan Thomas has been a freelancing writer/critic for All Music Guide, assistant editor for the When You Awake blog, and a contributor to Launch, Music Connection, Big Takeover and numerous other publications and entertainment websites, blogs and zines, most of them long gone. He's written more than sixty sets of liner notes. He’s also worked for over twenty years at mostly reissue record labels -- prior to that he worked in bookstores and record stores, going all the way back to the original vinyl daze. He lives in the Miracle Mile neighborhood of Los Angeles, CA.
  • http://www.jointfilms.com/ Hide Your Sheep

    I discovered this show when it was airing late night Saturdays on Nickelodeon in early 90s. There was no better show to watch with some buds after you’d had a few drinks and smoked a few substances….