Last summer, we celebrated the 50th anniversary of the Monkees as a band by counting down our top 50 Monkees songs. Now, we’re celebrating The Monkees TV show by profiling each and every episode — exactly 50 years after it first premiered.
Tonight’s episode: “Monkee Chow Mein” (Season 1, Episode 26)
Air date: March 13th, 1967
Before we begin, let’s address a glaring fact: by modern standards, this episode is racist. Very, very racist. The quasi-Imperialist and exaggerated Chinese characters, with hackneyed accents, wearing braids and banging gongs, may have been a funny send-up of an “exotic” culture 50 years ago, but is cringe-worthy when viewed from a 21st-Century perspective.
Our boys are enjoying dinner at the China Boy Club Chinese restaurant — and Peter is filling his doggie bag with egg rolls for a dog they don’t have. Davy shares with his mates that he enjoys this place because it is “peaceful and quiet, far away from the cares of the world.” Not for long, Davy!
We soon discover that this restaurant is not what it seems. Following a waiter into a room marked “Very Private,” we are introduced to our villains: the gangster Dragonman, his right-hand man Toto, and his other henchman Chang (Kay Shimatsu). We learn that the restaurant is a front for foreign spies, and the gangsters use fortune cookies to pass along Secret Spy Formulas and information.
Dragonman reminds Toto of the first rule of their spy organization: “He who eat cookie screw up formula somethin’ terrible” and instructs him to bring out a plate of fortune cookies and distribute them to specific patrons. Peter takes one of the fortune cookies, and the boys leave the restaurant — only to be followed by mysterious men donning sunglasses. One of these men orders the Monkees into a car and drives them away.
The boys find themselves in a strange room being interrogated by one Agent Modell. They learn that they have been taken to the Central Intelligence Service (CIS) because Peter unknowingly picked up a piece of classified information with his fortune cookie. Agent Modell is played by Mike Farrell, who later went on to fame as Captain B.J. Hunnicutt in M*A*S*H.
Inspector Blount (Dave Barry) brings Peter in and asks for the Monkees’ help to round up the spies, but they decline. Meanwhile, Dragonman tells Toto that they must capture “the boy with the long hair named Peter” to retrieve the missing piece of the formula. Toto confesses that this is a strange name for long hair (BA-ZING!).
If Dragonman looks familiar, it is because he is played by actor Joey Forman, who also played the title character in the Monkees’ episode “Captain Crocodile.” Toto is played by Gene Dynarski who will later appear in the series CHiPs and the film Close Encounters of the Third Kind.
The Monkees go home, despite being nervous that the spies will come after them. They were right to be worried! Toto and Chang break in, sneak up on who they believe is Peter, and place a bag over his head.
They bring their victim to the “Very Private” room at the China Club, remove the bag, and it is Mr. Schneider, the boys’ resident dummy. Dragonman pulls a string on Mr. Schneider who tells them, “It is better to have loved and lost then to have never loved at all.”
Toto and Chang return to the pad but mistakenly capture an annoyed Micky instead. Toto explains the mix-up by saying that all Americans look alike to him — another racially tinged moment that, while not directed at one of the Chinese characters, reminds us all too well of unfortunate racial stereotypes.
The remaining Monkees go to Blount, and Peter confesses that it is he they are after. Blount offers to help the boys and reminds them that secrecy is the CIS’ most important weapon. “Utter secrecy!” he exclaims. The Monkees repeat the word “secrecy” several times until Blount asks what they are doing. “Uttering ‘secrecy’,” answers Mike.
The Monkees return home, and Peter writes a note explaining that he’s going back to the restaurant to confront the spies. After Davy and Mike discover the note, they find a phone booth and transform into the superheroes known as Monkeemen — their alter egos — in an attempt to rescue Micky and Peter. Take a close look because this is the only episode during which Mike appears as one of the Monkeemen.
Back at the restaurant, the henchmen bound and gag Peter and bring him next to Micky. “Thank heavens you’ve come!” exclaims Micky in a sarcastic tone. As we’ve seen in past weeks, it’s obvious the Monkees are already starting to become tired of the scripts, and this attitude will become more obvious in season two.
The henchmen perform a few acts of torture on the boys until Dragonman has a change of heart, realizing his victims are merely musicians who don’t have any information. Now un-bound and un-gagged, Micky and Peter are told to choose one of the four doors behind them, but only one of them leads to freedom.
After slightly opening the first three doors and discovering danger on the other sides, they open the final door — only to be greeted by Dragonman, Toto, and Chang. They are re-captured.
The Monkeemen break in, and mayhem follows during the tune “Your Auntie Grizelda,” their go-to song for general chaos. Although never released as a single, this track from their sophomore album has become a concert favorite, and is still performed to this day. Led by Peter, “Grizelda” was penned by Jack Keller and Diane Hildebrand, who later write “Early Morning Blues and Greens” for the band’s next album, Headquarters.
Keller co-wrote Bobby Vee’s 1961 pop hit “Run to Him” with Gerry Goffin (also not a stranger to the Monkees — he co-wrote “Take A Giant Step” and “Sometime In The Morning,” with Carole King; just to name a few). He also co-wrote the theme song to the TV show Bewitched with Howard Greenfield, and composed the theme song to the TV show Gidget.
Diane Hildebrand would later write “Goin’ Down” for the Monkees, a jazzy tune featured as the flip side to their #1 hit “Daydream Believer” in 1968.
After the Monkees run amok, the CIS arrives and captures the spies! The CIS takes away Dragonman and his henchmen, and the Monkees celebrate by enjoying another meal until Peter reads aloud from his fortune cookie. He is instructed to make contact with a tall man wearing a carnation on the corner of…. uh oh! Before Peter gets himself into more trouble, his friends take him home.