This article is a composite of deleted sections from the forthcoming Grove Atlantic release Drunks, Thieves and Scoundrels: American Comedians 1915-2015 by Kliph Nesteroff
If you weren’t conforming to the television homogeny of early 60s comedy, you were out of luck. Fanciful, childlike sitcoms controlled the landscape: The Addams Family, Bewitched, I Dream of Jeanie, Gilligan’s Island, Mister Ed, The Munsters, My Favorite Martian. In an environment where laughtracks told you what was funny, anything highbrow was doomed.
Get Smart was a cut above the others with a joke driven narrative created by Mel Brooks, Buck Henry and Leonard Stern. It was produced by Talent Associates, the David Susskind production company founded in 1952. They had an early hit with the Wally Cox sitcom Mister Peepers, but ten years later Susskind’s production company had lost its relevancy. Producers Dan Melnick and Leonard Stern were hired to revitalize the company with a plan to bring television production back to New York City. Writers with a Manhattan sensibility were hired to develop shows. Among the pilots were The Laughmakers created by Woody Allen and Inside Danny Baker created by Mel Brooks (neither were picked up). The success of James Bond at the box office created a secret agent craze in popular culture. Susskind wanted to cash-in and asked Mike Nichols to develop Get Smart. Nichols turned him down. Second choices Mel Brooks and Buck Henry got the job.
The early 1960s were frustrating for Mel Brooks. He wrote a screenplay for Jerry Lewis called The Ladies Man, but none of his work was accepted. “That didn’t go well. I gave him the material and he and another writer took it and went on a boat and rewrote it. I’d always had that privlege with Sid Caesar of being consulted. My work was highly respected. So I was incensed. I didn’t get along with him too well.”