Holy campiness, Batman!

Art by España Sheriff

I grew up with Batman. As a kid, the 1960s Batman series was on permanent re-runs on our local channels so I had the joy of growing up with it. My sister and I dressed up as Batman and Robin and ran around our apartment complex as the Dynamic Duo.

With the POW! SMACK! and BAM! punches of our hyperbolical heroes, I was smitten.

Now, many people would say that this TV series isn’t indicative of the ‘real’ Batman… neither the comic books nor[c] any of the numerous movie reboots that have existed in the last 20 years. But to them, I say, “YOU’RE MISSING THE POINT!”

The show was purposely designed to not take itself seriously. Producer Ed Graham decided to capitalize on Saturday morning kid’s television and create a show that was similar in tone to George Reeve’s Adventures of Superman (1950s). However, when it first screened its pilot, it got an abysmal rating. The producers went ahead anyways, prepping the way with weeks of advertising, showcasing the campiness of the show. It worked. Batman was an immediate success, including being nominated for an Emmy for best comedy.

Because the show was already self-aware of its nature, the writers took every opportunity to pun, quip, and camp their way through each episode (two times a week!) for nearly three years (120 episodes). The primary purpose was to entertain the audience, and it succeeded with both adults and kids. Because it aired twice a week, Batman was able to have a two-part tale (instead of stand-alone episodes) that allowed the writer to create over-the-top, ridiculous plot lines, which always followed a simple structure:

  1. The villain of the week does something bad
  2. Commissioner Gordon and Chief O’Hara can’t handle it, and they call Batman
  3. Alfred answers the call, and informs Bruce Wayne
  4. Bruce Wayne & Dick Grayson stop whatever they’re doing and head out.
  5. Batman and Robin manage to stop the villain but only after the fourth or fifth attempt….usually by the second episode.

As a kid, there’s a certain comfortableness in the formula, but as an adult the fun was how the entire story got put together. Oftentimes, you were left wondering, “where exactly were they going with this?!?” — but the show never failed to entertain.

Within this simple structure, the writers filled it with as many jokes, puns, comedic lines, character moments, and fight & action scenes as possible. Fight scenes were punctuated by onomatopoeias and interrobangs!!!

Batman built and maintained a recognisable aesthetic: Everything from its theme song to the sets and costumes. The theme song is instantly recognisble from the first few notes: Na, na, na, na, na, na, na, na, na, na, na, na, na…Batman…Batman…Batman…

The colourful sets and gaudy colour schemes played into the campy-ness. The Batcave was a cornucopia of crime fighting devices and gadgets. It was a visual overload with always something to look at in those scenes, with the Batmobile in a place of honour ready to burst to the next adventure. Every fight scene was an animated choreographed mess with actors falling over each other with clumsy right hooks & left crosses, sidekicks swinging from chandeliers, henchmen being thrown into a polar bear, or heroes diving off short ledges… each action punctuated by a POW, BANG, SPLAT, or BIFF! Since the emphasis was to be as entertaining as possible, Batman never stopped once to consider if a fight scene might even be realistic. If it did, it would lose some of the campy-ness it cultivated.

Each villain had their own aesthetic — from Cesar Romero (Joker), to Vincent Price (Egghead), to Julie Newmar & Eartha Kitt (Catwoman), Frank Gorshin (The Riddler), and Burgess Meredith (Penguin). They each had signature outfits using the same colour sense as the sets, and the henchmen followed the established colour-scheme for that villain. There was no question on the identity of the bad guys. And even when different actors played the same character (i.e. Catwoman: Newmar -> Kitt -> Meriwether), you always knew who was who.

The actors brought their ultimate camp and made each character individually iconic — from Meredith’s instantly recognisable Penguin laughter, to Eartha Kitt’s sensuous Catwoman purrs, to Frank Gorshin’s calisthenic performance as The Riddler1.

And it wasn’t just the regular recurring stars. The ‘Bat climb cameos’ showcased a who’s who of American TV, from Jerry Lewis to Sammy Davis Jr. to Don Ho, who all spouted some form of comedic punny (yet culturally relevant) lines as Batman and Robin climbed by their open windows.

And throughout all of it, Adam West played Batman as the straight man, anchoring the show with his cooly smug expression and whiskey smooth voice, who always took the time to mentor and correct his plucky young ward in etiquette or life experiences regardless of the situation.

With Batman, there is none of the angst of some of the newer Batman movies. Batman is what he is… a very moral, upstanding citizen who takes it upon himself to help rid the world of the bad guys when the police can’t. He just does it with a quip to the baddies and moral lessons to Robin when needed. No matter what you think of Adam West’s Batman, the show made the character iconic in a way that the comics at the time could not, paving the way for future generations of Batman movies, reboots, and animations.

  1. Frank was nominated for an Emmy for his performance as The Riddler, which was eventually mirrored by Jim Carrey’s movie version (with much less success, IMNSHO). 

2 thoughts on “Holy campiness, Batman!

  • 11 December, 2018 at 09:50

    Great article, as a huge Bat-fan myself I agree the Adam West version paved the way for all future Batmans.

  • 17 December, 2018 at 04:23

    I have always gotten the biggest kick watching the over-the-top campiness off the original Batman series of the mid-60s. It was so deliciously silly and fun. The best part of it all were the guest stars who obviously had a blast displaying their comedic talents: Victor Buomo, Frank Gorshin, Cesar Romero, Vincent Price, Cliff Robertson, Burgess Meredith, Julie Newmar, Eartha Kurt, and dozens more. It was meant to be fun, and I’m glad they did it that way, too. Great article, Jade.


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