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It's rare to find anyone under the age of 60 who knows what The Colgate Comedy Hour was, let alone someone who has actually watched the show.
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But for 29-year-old Shaun Michael McNamara, who portrays Agent 86 in the Maverick Theater's production of Get Smart, opening this weekend, it's as engrained in his subconscious as deeply as Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles is in other people his age.
Colgate featured such comedians from the golden age of television as Jack Benny, Jerry Lewis and Red Skelton. TV shows and films starring comics from that era, as well as other decidedly old-school masters such as Groucho Marx, were "my bedtime stories," McNamara says. "Whenever I'd visit my grandfather's house, the only things we'd watch were [tapes of] old comedians."
McNamara doesn't know where his grandfather, who was a janitor, caught his comedy bug. But he does know that a great deal of his childhood was spent studying classic comedians like a football player studies game tape.
"He'd pause the shows all the time and ask me why a certain joke or gag would work," McNamara says. "Was it a look, a pause, the set-up. It was a great education."
McNamara credits that education for giving him the kind of comedic chops that were amply demonstrated in Maverick's production last year of The Producers, a riotously funny show that featured McNamara as Leo Bloom, one of the two lead roles.
It's no coincidence that another old-school comic—Mel Brooks—created both The Producers and Get Smart. And it's no coincidence that McNamara was tapped to play Maxwell Smart in the Christopher Segal adaptation of the tongue-in-cheek espionage world created by Brooks and Buck Henry in 1965 and which ran on TV through 1970.
"We wouldn't be doing this show if it weren't for Shaun," says director Brian Newell. "I knew when we were doing The Producers that I wanted to work with him again, but I knew that it would take a certain kind of script. And when I mentioned Get Smart, it just made sense."
Joining McNamara onstage is his Producers cohort, Rick Franklin, who plays the constantly harried Chief. While not nearly as complicated as The Producers, which featured big musical numbers, the show is a technical hurdle, since anyone who has attempted them both knows that comedy is much harder to achieve onstage than drama.
Unlike a serious drama, in which people can sit for an hour without making a sound and no one is sure whether the audience is spellbound or sleeping, comedy is instant gratification—or instant failure. If people don't laugh at something, the actors know it, and it can make for a painful ride for both audience and cast.
"If it's not at the right clip, or you don't take the time to build up to a gag or whatever, it's not going to work," McNamara says.
Now, no one involved with the show is pretending this adaptation, which incorporates bits from the three episodes of the show's premiere 1965 season into a typically outrageous crazy-villain-trying-to-destroy-the-world plot, is great literature.
"If you were to sit down and read this script, you'd be done with it after four pages," McNamara says.
But even though Get Smart isn't Death of a Salesman, which is currently being produced a few blocks away from the Maverick's Fullerton digs at STAGEStheatre (don't worry; we'll get to that in a couple of weeks), it's the kind of show that, cheesy klunkiness of the script aside, is highly technical. When done correctly, it can produce gut laughs. When done wrong, it can land with the thud of a lead balloon.
Worries about the flimsy script were allayed after McNamara sat down with Newell and watched hours of the original show. He realized that while a lot of the material was dated, the comedy remained impeccable. And since the adaptation, which was created in the 1980s, was faithful to the show's aesthetic, it's similarly dated.
But funny is timeless, and even though "we're following the script, as flawed as it is," Newell says, both he and McNamara think audiences will forgive the intentional cheesiness as long as they're laughing.
Where McNamara has an obsession with old-school comedy, Newell has a similar passion for 1960s-era spy films and TV series, ranging from James Bond to The Man From U.N.C.L.E. That's why everything in the production is designed to transport the audience back to the mid-'60s, from a live band who will perform genre-related music to an enormous missile rising from the ground.
And, yes, there is a Cone of Silence.
"I think purists will appreciate what we've done with this show, but even people who aren't familiar with Get Smart will get it," Newell declares.
Well, they'll get it if they don't walk in expecting anything other than what it is.
"I don't think anyone who walks into the [place] should be expecting great theater," Newell adds. "But when you watch a Godzilla movie, you're not looking for great cinema. You want to see him destroy things and watch things blow up."
This review appeared in print as "Would You Believe It's Funny? The star and director of Maverick Theater's Get Smart hope audiences will embrace the adaptation's '60s-era cheese."
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