Last week saw a bit of sad news in the pop culture world: On March 28, Batman TV show writer Lorenzo Semple Jr. died, a day after his 91st birthday.
I’m not gonna lie, folks.
This one left me a little unhappy.
Like many of you geeks who grew up anywhere in the 1960s to 1980s, Batman starring Adam West and Burt Ward was one of your gateway drugs into those wonderful worlds of make-believe.
When you’re 6 years old, is there anything better than superheroes with punching sound effects on the screen?
A cartoon opening sequence?
A crime-fighting good guy with gadgets and an awesome car?
Colorful villains, each with their own catchphrases and crazy mannerisms?
And that theme song! Oh, that theme song. Thank you, Neal Hefti, you crazy hipster cat.
Lorenzo Semple Jr. was hired to create the TV show.
His bible dictated how the show worked, what Batman would and wouldn’t do.
The cliffhangers? Semple did it.
The KAPOW! WHAM! Z-ZWAP! Semple.
Robin’s “Holy (Fill-In-The-Blank)”? Semple fi, baby.
And Batman also had one of my first memories of people of color on television.
You can talk Julie Newmar and Lee Meriwether all you want, but in our house we were all about Eartha Kitt purring her way through Catwoman. She wasn’t the wayward girl who might be turned good, like Newmar and Meriwether. She loved to be bad! No Miss Kitka for her!
And Cesar Romero, cackling and cavorting as the Joker — with a mustache. Romero, a proud Mexican, refused to shave his mustache and instead covered it in clown white. Talk about not compromising on your identity, even when taking on another one.
So with all that fun stuff and the Batmobile — atomic batteries to power, thrusters to speed — made the show amazing.
I have Semple and Batman to thank for igniting my lifelong love of the Caped Crusader. The TV show made me a Batman fan first.
Without the show – and the movie, in which all of Batman’s regular villains team up and hijack the United Nations – I would not have checked out Batman as early as I had. Other than seeing some Super Powers cartoons and that one Scooby-Doo episode, I didn’t have any Batman entertainment around other than the show. The only comic book I saw before age 10 was an issue of The ‘Nam in third grade.
So really, Semple’s vision was the Batman I had, until Tim Burton came around in 1989, and changed everything. It wasn’t until then, and with 1992’s Batman Returns, that I found out that the 1966 show was considered a corny old joke in mainstream pop culture, and blasphemy among comic book geeks.
Batman lasted three seasons from 1966 to ’68. But it left a lasting impression, for good and for bad. As we cycled through the 1980s, and the industry began catering to adult fans, the distance from the campy days turned into disdain.
But look at us now in our jaded, post-post-postmodern age. Current comedy trades on corny old jokes, I think, because there’s something genuine in their slapdash fun. We’ve turned kitsch and camp completely inside out a few dozen times by now.
Adam West is known to a whole new generation for being the mayor in Family Guy without ever knowing why that’s truly funny. I remember when his appearance on Batman: The Animated Series was a commentary on West’s life story as a typecast actor.
After the dour gritty-fest that was the Dark Knight films, pop culture is embracing the old show again. Back to the Batman we remember, the Batman we grew up with. Sometimes you need a little fun.
The Batman ’66 comic is a more entertaining read than the whole “Zero Year” storyline in official continuity. And the show, as Batman celebrates a 75th anniversary, is finally coming to DVD and Blu-ray.
Imagine if they brought ’60s Batman back as a more serious, Magic City-style action comedy-drama with Jon Hamm playing Bruce Wayne as a jaded, Hugh Hefner-style bachelor who decides to fight crime for kicks. Fighting costumed counter-culture freaks and hipster mobsters. Please?
We’d come full circle for a Hollywood master of camp who also penned Flash Gordon and The Parallax View.
Salute, Lorenzo Semple Jr. Toll the bell.