And you thought Hogan's Heroes was tasteless...

Say what you will about Hogan's. And you can quite a bit, because MeTV runs it twice a day, five times a week. But at least it seemed to take things seriously. Yes, it played Klink and Schultz as buffoons. But hey, they were the bad guys and there's a certain amount of military parody involved. Other than Hogan and his men, most of the officers on all sides of the war don't come off very well. And at least the war effort portrayed was serious and there were some stakes. And it was set in a POW camp, not a concentration camp, as is often misremembered.

McHale's Navy has no such fig leaf of cover. Maybe comedy was different back in the early 60s. McHale's was originally conceived as a Navy version of The Phil Silvers Show, and was produced by the same man, Edward J. Montagne. Part of the problem is that unlike Sgt. Bilko, McHale and his men are serving during a war even if a lot of what they do is peacetime activities.



Top row: Two of the crew. Gruber. The other guy.
Middle row: Tinker, Gavin MacLeod hamming it up, Fuji
Bottom row: Parker, McHale, Binghamton


Part of it is the really bad stereotypical treatment of the enemy. There's just something cringeworthy about hearing the characters refer to their enemy at least once per episode as "Nips." That, and the same 5-10 Japanese actors keep showing up. Including Mako. The show fares slightly better in its fourth year when they moved the entire crew to Italy (??). But not much.

Part of it is that McHale's men spend most of their time outwitting and humiliating their own people rather than the enemy. Specifically, Captain Binghamton, played by Joe Flynn. I have fond memories of Flynn from the 60s live-action Disney movies, where he typically played obnoxious authority figures like Dean Higgins opposite Kurt Russell in the Dexter Riley college film. Flynn basically played Higgins as a milder version of Dean Wormer from National Lampoon's Animal House.


And part of it is Tim Conway. Sorry, but I've never understood his appeal. Not on McHale's Navy. Not on The Carol Burnett Show. Not on Married With Children. Not on Dorf in the various Dorf videos. Stripped of his physical comedy, he's okay in voice roles like Barnacle Boy on Spongebob. But boy, does Conway do a lot of physical comedy in McHale's. Not a prat is left unfallen as his character, Ensign Charles Parker, trips, falls, and stumbles over everything in sight. Conway and the directors seem determined to let Conway upstage everyone on screen. You can see why Flynn plays his character Binghamton as on the verge of hysterics most of the time: it's the only way he can steal scenes from Conway.

That leaves the rest of the cast. Allegedly, Ernest Borgnine had resigned himself to being straight man to Flynn and Conway. Bob Hastings as Binghamton's aide, Elroy Carpenter, is mildly funny. Carl Ballantine as Gruber, one of McHale's crew, is the only one of that group that really stands out. Maybe it's the fact that he's in his late 40s on the show, which makes him practically elderly compared to the rest of the cast (although roughly the same age as Borgnine). Or maybe it's that he's the one who tends to cause most of the trouble for the crew with his endless scheming. Or he was a comedy magician as well as a comedy actor.


Gavin McLeod is in the first couple of seasons and then disappears. Billy Sands occasionally makes an impression as Tinker, but crewmen Willy, Christy, and Virgil tends to disappear into the background. There's also Yoshio Yoda as Fuji, a deserter who joins up with the crew of the 73 and basically acts as their houseboy.

McHale's has been running on AntennaTV, one of the retro channels. It looks like it's going off the air in 2017, but most of the episodes are on YouTube so I've been watching them there. Which brings us to our two episodes, which are more or less chosen as random for review. Admittedly, they represent some of the low points of the show from what I've seen, and from a 21st century viewpoint. There are occasional glimmerings of actual comedy in other episodes. In "McHale and His Schweinhunds", Parker impersonating a German officer (in the South Pacific?) and using Binghamton's standard "Wha wha wha wha?" expression is kind of amusing. And there's usually one or two good laughs per episode.

But basically the show follows the same format every episode. McHale's crew gets into some trouble, usually thought up by Gruber. Binghamton catches on and figures that this time he's got them. McHale usually brainstorms his way into solving things. They either trick Binghamton or convince his superiors that Binghamton is nuts (sometimes at the end of the episode: next episode everything is back to normal), or score some major military victory and claim that was their intention all of the time.


"Have Kimono, Will Travel" is episode six of season two, and starts with the crew trying to hold a Follies. Binghamton learns about it, cancels it, they reschedule it to a different day, and Binghamton catches onto that. He orders them to take him to a conference to keep them out of trouble, and along the way they get hit by a Zero. Their PT boat, the 73, puts in at an island and discovers that it's a Japanese fuel dump.

The crew go ashore and waylay a driver. I got a mild snicker when it turns out he's just as much a goof-off as the 73 crew, which even Gruber comments on. They knock him out and discover that he's transporting Japanese minstrel equipment. This is never explained: where are the real minstrels?

Anyhoo, the crew need a distraction so they all dress up as Japanese minstrels. This means that bald wigs were apparently part of the equipment. And if the occasional reference to "Nips" isn't bad enough, we have a bunch of white guys dressing up as Asians. The episodes are black-and-white, so we're spared the sight of Caucasians doing "yellowface." It's just as ugly as you can imagine, and made even worse because for some reason they have to put Binghamton in a geisha outfit.


The crew then goes to the fuel dump and performs to distract the Japanese seamen. Including Mako. The seamen can't stand Gruber's magic act, but go gaga over Binghamton as a geisha girl. When the seamen catch on (because Parker flubs up, for the hundredth time), McHale kicks out a tent peg and he and his crew escape, smirking.

"Have Kimono" is a good example of what I was talking about earlier. The Japanese seamen are played as idiots for falling for the lousy "yellowface" disguises. The episode follows the standard template to a T. Yes, on Hogan's Heroes Klink and Schwartz were idiots, but there plenty of dangerous Germans for Hogan & Co. to match wits against. If there are any dangerous enemies on McHale's, I haven't seen them so far.

"Today I Am a Man!" is sadly a Parker-centric episode. Say what you will about the show, the producers and writers knew who was popular. And Tim Conway was popular, I guess. "Today" involves Parker falling for a new nurse, Georgianna (Joyce Bulifant: Murray's daughter Marie on The Mary Tyler Moore Show, Mrs. Davis in the movie Airplane!). However, she's more of a man than he (or most men) ever is. Georgianna beats Parker in judo training, and guns down a Zero. Parker being Parker, he flubs everything up. This also repeats one of the basic concepts of the show, which is that Parker is so incompetent that the 73 crew keep him with them out of a sense of protectiveness. They figure he couldn't survive in the "real" Navy, and they're right. If the show was anything to be taken seriously, you'd wonder how Parker ever made it through basic training. Or even life before he enlisted.


Anyhoo, the crew come up with a "brilliant" idea. They convince Georgianna to play a damsel in distress, stick her on a deserted island with Parker, and send Gruber and Tinker ashore disguised as native head hunters so that Georgianna can let Parker "rescue" her. Did I mention that whenever the show presents the locals, they're presented as stereotypical "ooga-booga" island primitives as well?

Why Georgianna plays along with this, I have no idea. Binghamton hears about the 73 going out without orders and figures that it's some kind of ploy. Meanwhile, Georgianna fakes a sprained ankle and Parker flubs up trying to wrap it. Then flubs up trying to open some coconuts. Then, before Gruber and Tinker can get there, two real Japanese sentries show up. Parker tries to shoot them but fails. I have no idea why: his gun just doesn't work. He faints and Georgianna captures them. By the time the crew land and Binghamton shows up, Georgianna has "fainted" again, and Parker gets all the credit for capturing the two sentries. And Georgianna disappears, never to be seen again.

The whole thing is kind of depressing. The episode emasculates Parker, who is already pretty emasculated. It doesn't do Georgianna any favors, and like in most episodes, the female nurses are presented as either drop-dead beauties to be ogled (Raquel Welch shows up as a bimbo nurse in a swimsuit in a different episode), or crusty battle-hardened veterans. It literally tosses in a Japanese attack as a minor plot device, unless I've missed all the episodes where the Japanese attack the base regularly.


Was comedy in the early 60s so primitive that McHale's Navy was considered good enough to last four years? I guess so, but it seems crude even by the times. The wave of more socially relevant comedies hadn't quite hit yet, and wouldn't really get started until the 1970s with shows like All in the Family. But sheesh, World War II ended in 1945, folks. I guess comedies based on it 15-20 years later were still going strong. But McHale's Navy often plays out like a propaganda film of the era, with lots of Laurel & Hardy/Three Stooges comedy. Even the "rural comedies" of the later 60s were a bit funnier than McHale.

I'll probably keep watching McHale on Youtube when I get the chance. It's an easy half-hour, and it has all of the fascination of a train wreck. And I like Flynn, Hastings, and Borgnine. But it's one of the shows where you just want to speed up past all the pratfalls. They ain't funny, and they're not advancing the plot. And without them, you only have about a 15-minute episode instead of 30 minutes.


But that's just my opinion, I could be wrong. What do you think?
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