New Book: Why The Monkees Matter
“Why The Monkees Matter: Teenagers, Television and American Pop Culture ”
by Dr. Rosanne Welch
“Why The Monkees Matter: Teenagers, Television and American Pop Culture ” by Dr. Rosanne Welch finally treats the television program with the respect that it is due.
From 1966-1968 NBC broadcast 58 half-hours of what Time Magazine recently described as “far better TV than it had to be. During an era of formulaic domestic sitcoms and wacky comedies, it was a stylistically ambitious show, with a distinctive visual style, absurdist sense of humor, and unusual story structure that was commercial, wholesome, and yet impressively weird.”
During that time the program earned two Emmy Awards (Best Comedy Series and Best Director) against strong competitors like The Andy Griffith Show, Get Smart, (and future TV Milestone titles) Bewitched and Hogan’s Heroes. In 1968 the band created the concept of synergy and set the stage for other musical television characters from The Partridge Family to Hannah Montana.
In 1989, twenty years after the show’s cancellation over creative direction, the Hollywood Walk of Fame gave The Monkees a star as a television milestone (not as a musical milestone). Their cultural collateral remained high through 1995, when they filmed a Pizza Hut commercial with Ringo Starr who mused about ‘getting the lads’ back together, eventually recognizing he’d gathered the ‘wrong lads’ (though those lads were considered so well known to American viewers they were not named).
Davy Jones’ death in 2012 brought another reunion tour and yet again renewed interest in the show.
Originally, the producers conceived The Monkees as a response to the youth and music movement of the early 60s, a time when every young person seemed to be slinging a guitar on their back and hoping to change the world. In the shadow of Hard Day’s Night the producers cast four relative unknowns who could act, sing and play instruments – Davy Jones, Micky Dolenz, Peter Tork and Mike Nesmith – and hired Jim Frawley to teach them improvisation and become their in house director.
Beyond mere fame, The Monkees deserves ranking as an influential piece of television history because, according to Micky Dolenz, “It brought long hair into the living room and changed the way teenagers were portrayed on television. It made it okay to have long hair in the same way Henry Winkler as the Fonz later made it okay to wear a black leather jacket and Will Smith in Fresh Prince of Bel Air made it okay to be to be young, black and like rap.”
From an artistic standpoint the show introduced a new generation of viewers to the kind of fourth-wall-breaking, slapstick comedy created by Laurel and Hardy and the Marx Brothers as well as to the idea of friends in their late teens living on their own without adult advice or supervision, a powerful idea at the height of the Vietnam war. To further connect with that audience, several episodes ended with short interviews with the cast regarding the protest movement and other events of the era, creating tiny time capsules.
Creative artists – from writers to directors to cast – went on to contribute to the major television and film rebellions of the 1970s, creative projects that still resonate in our culture today. Paul Mazursky and Larry Tucker wrote the pilot as the beginning of careers that grew to encompass I Love You, Alice B. Toklas, Bob & Carol & Ted & Alice. The rest of the young writing staff used the show as a training ground for careers that went on to encompass Emmys for Treva Silverman (The Mary Tyler Moore Show) and Coslough Johnson (Laugh-In), and the creation of such other popular culture successes as Sanford and Son (Bernie Orenstein) and Welcome Back, Kotter (Peter Meyerson).
As individual artists, the actors all continued performing professionally on Broadway and in concerts around the world and frequently in differing blends as the Monkees. The immense profits from the show and its merchandising and music arms funded the producers as they moved into films, including Head, Easy Rider and Five Easy Pieces, changing cinema in the 1970s.
About the Author
As a former television writer (credits include Beverly Hills 90210, ABCNEWS/Nightline, Touched by an Angel) and a current professor of Television Writing and Critical Studies in Television, Welch has a unique understanding of what counts as influential television. As a lifelong fan of the show uses her passion, connection and knowledge to analyze the show for both an academic and a broad audience. While there is continued controversy over the fact that the musical group has yet to be inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, time has shown that the television show deserves the accolades it earned. Now it deserves a deeper reading.
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Why The Monkees Matter: Teenagers, Television and American Pop Culture