This past 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: The Monkees at the Circus” (Season 1, Episode 22)
Air date: February 13, 1967
Step right up, folks, because what we’ve got here is a real winner of a Monkees episode: “Monkees at The Circus.” Seriously, this is a killer example of what season one does right: it’s funny, kind-hearted, visually lush, and has some rockin’ tunes to boot.
As a bonus, the boys seem genuinely engaged in their performances — not always the case. I’m guessing they were having fun hanging out with the salty circus folk that filled out the cast in this episode.
“Monkees at the Circus” ended up being the highest-rated episode of the entire show, with a staggering 12,080,000 people tuning in on its original airdate. Not a bad birthday present to Peter Tork, who turned 25 on this date in 1967.
The plot is simple: the Monkees stumble upon an old derelict circus that has seen better days. After listening to the plight of the performers, the boys decide that it’s up to them to save the circus!
The only problem is that there’s an animosity among the population of performers and freaks because they’ve lost a lot of business to the new “rock ‘n’ roll groups” and “discotheques” that are popping up in the late Sixties.
Without revealing that they, themselves, are a struggling rock band, the Monkees disguise themselves as the great Mozzarella Brothers (“The toast of Paris!”) and promise everyone that they’ll draw a big crowd.
And draw a crowd they do, but when the circus performers realize the Monkees are fakers, they refuse to go on.
To top it off, Davy, pretending to be a knife thrower, accidentally murders this week’s love interest (the beautiful and lovely Donna Baccala as Susan), and forces Victor (Richard Devon) out of his dressing room to finish the show while Davy is taken away by the authorities and thrown in the clink. Forever.
Wait. I’m just kidding. The episode doesn’t take that dark of a turn! Davy throws one knife pretty close to hitting Susan, but Victor takes over from there, much to everyone’s relief.
Regardless, I really wouldn’t put it past this episode to go where I just went. There are some really strange visuals going on here.
A word of warning: if you’re as frightened by clowns as I am, it might be best to steer clear of this one. The clowns in “Monkees at the Circus” look like they stepped off of the set, cryogenically froze themselves, woke up almost exactly 40 years later, and joined the Joker’s gang of creepy clowns for The Dark Knight.
Yep, they’re that terrifying, especially the one portrayed by Felix Silla, a little person who also played Cousin Itt on The Addams Family. When the smallest clown offers Davy a giant key to the circus near the end of the episode when Davy’s just trying to mack on lovely Susan, it doesn’t help make anything less creeptastic.
Also weird is a strange sequence in which the Monkees try to learn to tightrope walk and are shot against a stark black background that only enhances the surreality of the shot.
At one point, they’ve formed a human pyramid. When Peter falls, the footage is reversed and Peter is magically back where he started. WHAT?
In another moment, Mike and Peter are walking the tightrope and completely randomly phase through each other.
I’m sorry, guys, this was all a little too much for me. It’s almost like the people making this show were smoking — gasp — substances when they developed this concept. But they couldn’t have been. Right, everyone?
The environment of the circus mostly serves as a rich palate for a bunch of genuinely funny visual and auditory gags.
Right before the tightrope scene, there’s a much more entertaining and linear montage that includes Mike trying to learn to swallow a sword, Peter lifting a super-heavy strongman weight like it’s nothing (and later falling through the floor with the exact same weight), Davy hanging by his teeth from a trapeze, and Micky repeatedly humming the theme for his earlier TV series Circus Boy. When the other Monkees ask Micky what he’s humming, he states, “It’s the theme from my old series,” in a laugh-out-loud meta-moment.
Finally, the episode shows its heart when the circus is saved, and the ringmaster allows the Monkees to play a number for the appreciative crowd. This proves that old and new art forms can coexist hand in hand and that there’s no reason to fear new or strange things (unless they involve really really intense clowns).
The band ends up performing a rousing version of “She,” a song that appeared on the Monkees’ second album, More of the Monkees. This one is a Tommy Boyce and Bobby Hart rave-up with a rockin’ breakdown in the middle of it.
Earlier in the episode, to cheer up the despondent Susan, the Monkees play Carole King and Gerry Goffin’s love ballad “Sometime in the Morning.” This song can feel treacly at times but fits really well with the tinkly circus atmosphere created by this episode.
The footage of a young Micky Dolenz standing at his drums singing is pretty smoldering here. Even with his flattened out season-one Beatles-cut hair, Dolenz is a straight up fox as he serenades us through the TV screen and directly into our hearts.
A classic episode with the elements of the TV show firing on all cylinders, “Monkees at the Circus” has it all: a loopy setting inspiring some genuinely funny jokes, an adorable love story with Davy and a girl-of-the-week, some classic Monkees tunes, and a plot that involves the old meeting the new in surprising ways.
Although I could do without those clowns, I get it! It’s a circus, and my abject terror turned into sheer delight when I realized that even 50 years later, the entire episode still holds its own.