Thursday, December 11, 2008

Monkey Shines

In re this clip of the opening from Monkey Shines: an paper I once wrote analyzing the show from a sociological perspective. I'm reprinting it in full below.

We Have Met the Monkey and He is Us:

Introduction

Who among us doesn’t remember Monkey Shines, that classic sitcom that, despite its truncated tenure on television, managed to win itself a place in the canon of childhood staples? Who among can't still hum its catchy opening theme Monkey Business? Who hasn't caught himself using the catchphrases that it made a part of our language: 'Monkey Attack!', 'What was the baby using?', and, of course,'How many monkeys does it take?'

Yet from a sober, academic perspective, Monkey Shines is notable not for the entertainment that it provided, but what it taught us about ourselves, both in its messages and in its ultimate cancellation. Monkey Shines was a daring ideological experiment, ahead of the monkey-related conceptions of its time and even of our own; it dared to confront The Man with The Monkey. At the same time, the limitations of society's mindset, unconsciously existing even within the writers, subtly blunted, subverted, and eventually silenced this cutting edge message.

As I discussed in my earlier article Monkey Tropes in Popular Culture: From Gilligan's Island to the Justice League, humanity necessarily fears the message of the monkey. In him, we see too much of ourselves, and yet a version of ourselves that we are not ready- or able- to accept. As a result, portrayals of the monkey in popular culture necessarily transform the monkey into the 'other', and marginalizes his message via a variety of tactics. Monkey Shines sought to change this; its very premise was that Man could and should learn from Monkey. Nevertheless, the classic marginalization tactics can be seen within the show itself. Beyond that, the show's untimely cancellation proves how unready society was to hear even the muted version of the voice of the Monkey that Monkey Shines was willing to provide.

In this paper, I will briefly illustrate the use of these marginalization tactics and discuss how the fate of the show and its protagonist reflect the failings of our society in terms of acceptance of the monkey psyche.

A. Vilification

The easiest way for Man to escape the message of the Monkey is to convince himself that the Monkey is evil. By doing so, he avoids having to confront and assess the truth of the monkey. Although Monkey Shines seemingly avoided this pratfall by casting the monkey as a hero instead of a villain, nevertheless, the monkey is subtly cast as a dangerously chaotic character.

Take, for example, the very first episode, in which the monkey steals from rich Jonathan Crouton, and is therefore ordered to serve as his butler. How can we not be disturbed by this blatant portrayal of the monkey character as a criminal? Such a portrayal, furthermore, is strengthened by the recurring motif of the "Monkey Attack", in which the monkey was shown leaping at one of the human characters' heads without warning. Cute, no doubt. Charming. But what sort of implicit messages about monkeys was it drilling into our subconscious? That they are dangerous, erratic, and unpredictable.

And these same messages were reinforced by the 'comedic' rants put in the mouth of the irascible drunken writer played by Neil Gaiman. Frequently, and most notably following his failed attempt to use the monkey to write him a novel by chaining him to a computer (a glaring case of exploitation, which warrants further examination beyond the scope of this paper), he would launch into anti-monkey invective. Granted, the show put such vitriol in the mouth of Gaiman, by no means the hero of the show, and it can be argued that the viewer was supposed to side with the monkey in such circumstances. Nevertheless, in view of the show's premise and the 'Monkey Attack', it is difficult not to notice a trend of vilification of the monkey, even in this show intended to counteract such stereotype.

B. Infantilization

When it is impossible to view Monkey as evil, he is often reduced to an infantile position, allowing us to subconsciously denigrate his message and thus, once again, escape it. This trope is startlingly clear in Monkey Shines, perhaps because its more subtle impact made it more difficult for the writers to identify.

Throughout the show (a simple viewing of the title sequence will support this assertion), the monkey was shown being held and/or cuddled by other characters. Crouton's character went so far as to carry the monkey around on his back, in a manner reminiscent of similar backpacks for children. This, despite the fact that the monkey was, in fact, 44 in monkey years, making him older than any of the other characters on the show. In the episode A Very Special Monkey Shines, this child-like image was further reinforced by deliberately paralleling the monkey with a young child learning about appropriate touching. This attitude was reinforced by the fact that he was never allowed even a passing love interest, unlike all the other roommates. The sole exception would be the scene in A Threesome, a Monkey and a Whole Lot of Ripple, in which his crush on a pretty girl led the roommates to invade a hotel dressed as sheikhs. Nevertheless, viewers will recall that the love interest quickly paired up with the rich Crouton; the monkey's status as the adorable child character thus remained unchallenged.

C. Anthropomorphism

Lastly, to deal with the reality of the Monkey which our society and our minds are not yet willing to accept, we eliminate the unique monkey point of view by recreating him in our image. Monkey Shines did not escape this failing. Beyond the smaller examples of the monkey's modern dance obsession and his Christmas sweater, can we not see the entire premise of the show as an example of this theme? The monkey- the paradigmatic free spirit- is transformed into a butler, forced not only into the human construct of employment, but into the role of a servant. This is, perhaps, the most poignant expression of the failure of the show's ambition.

D. Where are they now?

Such tactics, however, were not sufficient to save the show from Man's opposition to any positive portrayal of Monkey. From our perspective, perhaps, Monkey Shines did not go far enough; from the perspective of its era, it went much too far. Can the show's cancellation and 'disappearance' be regarded as mere coincidence, in light of the messages that it forced society to confront? The opinion of this author is unequivocally 'No'.

Equally troubling is an analysis of the eventual fates of the show's stars. All four of the human protagonists went on to semi-successful careers in their chosen fields; where is the monkey now?

Conclusion

In the end, Monkey Shines must be viewed as a brave, but ultimately failed attempt to confront Man with the message of Monkey. Its primary message, that a man could and should learn from a monkey, was too bold, too daring for its time and perhaps even for our own. The pressures of society and the limitations of our minds muted the message, subverted it, and at last silenced it. But by remembering both its message and its failings, we can remind ourselves of one basic truth: the monkey is a part of ourselves that we must confront, no matter how frightening or how difficult. Monkey Shines, in the end, forced us all, like Crouton in the opening titles, to look into the mirror and see, to our horror, the monkey looking back at us.

8 comments:

Brand Eks said...

Jonathan CROUTON? Don't you mean Coulton?

Tobie said...

Well, there seems to be some disagreement over the original name of the character in the series- perhaps it was supposed to be changed after the pilot. The wikipedia article currently calls him Harold Loveman, but Paul and Storm, the co-stars, insist that he was called Jonathon Crouton.

Miri said...

Tobie,
I found your paper extremely insightful and highly intriguing. The trope of Monkey as the Other in modern pop culture sensibilities has long been an area of intense interest and concern to me. I would love to hear your views on related issues - stereotyping and exploitation of the animal, vegetable, and mineral personae in pop culture venues mainly, more specifically those related to the paperclip and banana figures, to name a couple - would you perhaps be interested in an interview in a more public forum? A video discussion say? I am extremely excited to hear your views on these hot button issues.
Regards, etc.,

Tobie said...

Miri:
Please get in touch with myself or my agent and we can try to arrange an interview.

Yoni said...

ah, now I understand you and miri's preoccupation with monkeys! :)

splendid, simply entertaining dear old gel. :) You have a stupendous skill with the pen. Can you be hired to do battle with it?

Rusty said...

I'm not sure when you wrote this, but it's a wonderful addendum to the Wikipedia entry about the Monkey Shines TV Show.

I don't fully grasp what the "message of the monkey" is. And maybe you covered this in your other paper, "Monkey Tropes in Popular Culture: From Gilligan's Island to the Justice League," but it's hard to imagine discussing the vilification of primates without mentioning "Gorilla Grodd."

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Gorilla_Grodd

Gorilla Grodd is of course the focus and outlet of most of the vilest of anti-monkey propaganda spewing from DC Comics over the last 40 years.

Now, I know at the time when Monkey Shines was filmed, Neil Gaiman had not become famous as a comic book writer yet. But his catch phrase from the TV show was, "Oh, what a GROTTY MONKEY!" Could Gaiman have actually been exclaiming, "Oh, what a GRODDY MONKEY"?

Also, George A. Romero obviously didn't think that having the monkey just be a criminal guilty of petty theft was enough, because in the MOVIE adaptation of the series the monkey becomes homicidal!

Yoni said...

what about the episode on friends with the monkey that kept on being innapropriate with ros's leg? (I don't remember anything else from that show other than whats her name the pregnant girl's baby and horrible singing and her "happy chord" stuff so why do I remember that one?!)

(not that I ever sat down and actualy watched it either so. . . )

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