Not too many of the current generation knows an awful lot about the vast and surreal output of Sid and Marty Krofft. Only particularly hip Gen-Xers, who likely grew up with reruns of “H.R. Pufnstuf,” “Electra-Woman and Dyna-Girl,” and “Lidsville” (and subsequently, getting massively stoned to the very same programs later in life) have any sort of working knowledge of their work. Many of us may know about “Land of the Lost,” reruns, and some of us may have seen the recent feature of film the same name. But, for the most part, Sid and Marty, in terms of their current place in the pop culture firmament, are only a vast footnote to many young people. This is a pity, as their work is immensely friendly, strangely ubiquitous, and remarkably bizarre. For any of you who are still in high school, and don’t know about Sid and Marty Krofft, keep reading, and I will take you through a velour-lined, jerky puppet universe of nightmarish juxtapositions and inside-out sitcom dimensions the likes of which your imagination cannot fathom. I will take through the world of “Sigmund and the Sea Monsters,” the first season of which was released on DVD and Blu-ray on Tuesday.
To be fair, “Sigmund and the Sea Monsters” is hardly the strangest of the Krofft canon. Indeed, it may be the most restrained. When set next to something like “Lidsville” (which is, briefly, a show about Butch Patrick accidentally falling into an alternate dimension ruled by talking hats, and threatened by Charles Nelson Reilly), it’s downright sane. But, despite its relative restraint, “Sigmund” still takes several hours of viewing before you can really get on its wavelength; it’s not until you’ve found yourself in a darkened room, on your fifth or sixth episode, perhaps drunk, perhaps high, perhaps just suffering from a crippling insomnia, taking in the strange sitcom stories involving wiggling cloth sea monsters, that you break through to a strange plane of consciousness where it all seems to (at least temporarily) form its own internal dream logic, and fit into your brain.
“Sigmund and the Sea Monsters,” which started its three-year run in 1973, followed the adventures of Johnny Stuart (Johnny Whitaker, with his squinty eyes, and a Ronald McDonald hairdo) and his little brother Scott (towhead Scott C. Kolden), two kids who live in a beachhouse somewhere in, I’m guessing, Florida. As explained in the themesong, they meet up with a sea monster named Sigmund (played by famed dwarf performer Billy Barty), who is too friendly for his ignorant and mean-spirited sea monster family, and hence ousted. Sigmund looks like a pile of raked leaves with big friendly eyes, and tentacles. Johnny and Scott move Sigmund into their secret clubhouse (No adults allowed!), where they have to keep him hidden from the prying eyes of the human world, and from the evil machinations of his evil family. Johnny and Scott live with their put-upon Aunt Zelda (Mary Wikes), who is obsessed with housework, and who has a flirtatious pseudo-romance with the local cop (Joe Higgins). Occasionally, a nosy neighbor, played by Margaret Hamilton (The Wicked Witch of the West to you) would threaten to interrupt their idyll. Johnny and Scott’s parents are never discussed.
We spend just as much time with Sigmund’s family, however, as we do with Johnny and Scott, and, indeed, watching the team of hard-working puppeteers clumsily operating the sea creature’s faces, while they cavort, undulate, somersault, and make lame jokes that would have been old in the 1940s, is clearly the highlight of the show. Johnny Whitaker may have been a B-level teen idol, along the lines of Donnie Osmond, and he may have sung a delightful early ‘70s ballad every episode, but I’m guessing people tuned in to see Blurp and Slurp running into walls and falling over and making lame sea-life puns.
And it’s here, in the sea monster’s cave, is where the show’s streak of unadulterated surreality begins to take its solid foothold. Sigmund’s family consists of Big Daddy Ooze (Van Snowden), Sweet Mama Ooze (Sharon Baird), twin brothers Blurp and Slurp (Larry Larsen and Paul Gale), and their barking pet lobster (played by anyone who felt like operating the puppet, including, occasionally, Kolden). Big Daddy is a Ralph Kramden type, who is obsessed with get-rich-quick schemes. Sweet Mama is a clucking biddy obsessed with hat sales. Blurp and Slurp are idiots. They all want to kidnap Simgund and bring him back, as they, as is explained in the first episode, are potential inheritors of their uncle Siggy’s fortune, and they will not get the money unless they have Sigmund in their home. They treated Sigmund poorly, however, keeping him as a slave, and berating him for not wanting to scare people.
The schemes the monsters think up were, as I have indicated, incredibly dated, and were only funny to the canned laughter than runs through every scene of the show. The conceits in each episode would be familiar to any child who has spent any portion of their youth watching television. In one episode, they kidnap Sigmund outright, and Johnny dressed as Frankenstein’s monster (their idol) infiltrates to kidnap him back. In another, Slurp dresses in drag (!) to seduce Sigmund back to the cave. In the Halloween special, Sigmund gets a call from Lawrence Kelp (get it?) entreating him to move home in order to receive some prize money. The immortal Rip Taylor even appears in a few episodes to skewer, in that impeccably mincing fashion of his, the sitcom stories we see in front of us.
Did any of you see “MacGruber?” How about episodes “The Venture Bros?” When I hear that young kids are watching stuff like this, it concerns me. Are kids, whose experience with television and movie clichés is limited, really understanding the clever parody that’s going on? Have small children really become familiar with “Johnny Quest” in a way that would make the true satire of “The Venture Bros.” really make any sense at all? Probably not. I’m guessing something similar was going on with “Sigmund and the Sea Monsters;” The creators of the show wanted to, in a subtly wicked way, make an arch parody of 1950s sitcoms, only using sea monsters, and featuring actors in fake-looking puppet suits. The kids watching the show may not have really understood the cute references to “The Honeymooners,” and hence, I’m guessing, much of the show’s impact was lost on them. Did I just imply that “Sigmund and the Sea Monsters” left an “impact” on the world of popular culture? Indeed I did. This weird, bizarro-world sitcom, if you know older shows, plays like a surrealist trick.
But maybe I’m reading too much into the show. I mean, we used to watch Bugs Bunny cartoons, which featured all manner of spoofs and references to popular culture, hit songs, and news items from the late 1940s, and we could still dig the humor of someone taking an anvil to the skull.
Anyway, back to the show. In contrast to the sea monsters, the kids seemed like clueless outsiders. They were our heroes, and they provided the guidance that Sigmund needed to understand the human world, but they were, as were most sitcom characters, somewhat bland ciphers. Sure, they looked like they were having fun, playing on the beach, and living in what seemed to be a perpetual summer vacation. The real moral center of the show is, of course, the clueless Sigmund. Sigmund is a wide-eyed innocent, not belonging to the world of the sea monsters any longer, but not ready to be accepted into human society. He is an unfortunate, childlike alien, trapped in perpetual illegal immigration status. The only thing protecting Sigmund from the onset of a nightmarish, Kafkaesque existential crisis is his honesty and innocence.
Each episode featured, as I have said, a song, written by Bobby Hart and Danny Janssen, and performed by Johnny Whitaker. They were all early ‘70s funky, and featured jumpy rhythms that would, if you listened to them enough, burrow deeply into your ear canal, and build a home. Bobby Hart, it must be noted, wrote many songs for The Monkees in the late ‘60s. A nifty feature on this new DVD is MP3s of every single song in the season, which you can load into your portable stereo, pump up to full, and take a big hit of marijuana as brain cells slowly and blissfully drift away into the ether.
The DVD also features a 20-minute interview with Johnny Whitaker and Scott Kolden today, as they reminisce over their childhood work. Whitaker, the older of the two, seems to have a more workmanlike attitude, talking about acting and his career, whereas Kolden is a bit more whimsical, preferring to think of working on the show as a high-profile summer camp. Whitaker also tells a funny story about being beaten by Donnie Osmond in a “Who is the better kisser?” poll in Tiger Beat magazine, when he knows, from the testimony of common women that they have kissed, that he is indeed better.
To whom can I recommend “Sigmund and the Sea Monsters?” Little kids, I suppose, might dig the floppy monster costumes, and they certainly wouldn’t notice the weirdness. Well, provided they’re not already permanently connected to a portable video device with a screen, and used to fast-paced, noisy nonsense from Japan. I hope I can catch my own kid at the right age, when I can show her stuff like Gerry Anderson’s “Thunderbirds” and the works of Sid and Marty Krofft, and allow her to appreciate it. Adults may have nostalgic affection for it, but it’s hard to see many people my age taking it up on a whim. I guess if you’re around 18, and want to bliss out on Saturday mornings the way you used to as a child, you can pop in these videos, take a huge bong hit, and let the show happen to you.