You can just imagine Stan Burns and Michael Marmer making the pitch to ABC. The year is 1969, and the comedy writing duo, celebrated for their work with Steve Allen and Carol Burnette and on Get Smart, are pleading their case to the network bigwigs for their new pilot.
“It’ll be kind of like a Get Smart thing, but with chimps.”
Somehow, the project got green-lighted, and for eighteen magical months, Burns and Marmer gave the world Lancelot Link, Secret Chimp. The show only lasted for thirteen episodes, but together they comprise a seminal moment in television history. OK, that may be a stretch, but watching the lost episodes some thirty years later, one can’t help but imagine how much gleeful pandemonium must have reigned on that set, and how much fun Burns, Marmer and the entire Lance Link crew must have had—except for maybe the chimps.
The plots are thin as orphanage soup. The show is really about dressing chimps in costumes and making them perform amazing stunts—as if you needed anything else. The chimps are seen driving go-karts, threading needles, riding camels. They golf, play tennis, eat with chopsticks, get into pie-throwing fights. This is quality television.
To make the dialogue fit the chimps’ lip action, Burns and Marmer went to ridiculous lengths. Voiceovers were ad-libbed on the set, giving birth to beautifully absurd moments of the chimps breaking into songs at the end of sentences or spontaneously reciting Mother Goose rhymes just so it would look right. Hong Kong action movie dubbing has nothing on this.
The show’s ten-minute spy stories, pitting Lance’s Agency to Prevent Evil (A.P.E.) against the evil agents of C.H.U.M.P., are separated by musical interludes. The songs were performed by Lancelot Link and the Evolution Revolution, a psychedelic pop band that could be an homage to or spoof of the Monkees. The music was all original. The chimps were dressed up in Hendrixesque garb, placed behind the instruments, and filmed “lip synching” the tunes.
Bob Emenegger, who put the actual Evolution Revolution together using musicians he had used in commercials for Honda and Bank of America, insists any pun or reference to the Monkees is accidental. “The Monkees wasn’t even an issue,” he says. “I thought we were better than the Monkees—not as successful, I admit. The writers and producer wanted to have a band made up of the Lance cast.”
Reasons for the show’s untimely demise remain unclear. Rumors that PETA helped shut the show down because all the male chimps were castrated before filming appear to be untrue. (Well, the PETA thing is untrue, but the castration was very, very real.) Perhaps the show’s brief life had something to do with its unprecedented seven-figure budget. Or maybe it can be traced to the time ABC execs came to the set to see the show’s star, Tonga (a.k.a. Lancelot Link), literally taking a bite out of his veterinarian.
For the uninitiated, Diane Bernard and Jeff Krulik’s short 1999 documentary I Created Lancelot Link provides a glimpse of the show’s majesty and madness. Krulik, director of the cult classic Heavy Metal Parking Lot, and Bernard filmed a reunion between the show’s two creators, shot in shlocky Hi-8 video, and offers an entertaining juxtaposition of anecdotes from Burns and Marmer and some of the show’s finest moments (chimps on skis!).
The thirteen episodes have not been aired since Nickelodeon ran them for one season in the mid-1980s. If not for Krulik’s documentary, Lancelot Link might have been relegated to permanent obscurity. But Krulik is agitating for a revival. As of now, the only way to obtain lost Lance Link episodes is through Internet bootleggers. But Krulik hopes that somebody will rally to put the episodes on DVD. “How can you go wrong with performing chimps?” he reasons. “They’re evergreen.”