Monkees Vs. Macheen: “Monkees on the Line”

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“Live, Live, Live! Love, Love, Love!”

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The Monkees are hanging out in their pad and not answering the ringing phone. Mike gets to it too late. He calls the boys together to point out they haven’t had any jobs and might be missing a few calls. Always a man with a plan, Mike wants to hire an answering service. He calls the service to set this up, going on about the doors that will open up for them when someone is always there to answer the phone, etc. Ironically, no one answers.

This fast-paced, physical comedy-filled episode was directed by James Frawley and aired on March 27, 1967. The plot was borrowed from a 1960 film called Bells Are Ringing (screenplay by Betty Comden, Adolph Green based on their popular stage musical), starring Judy Holliday, about an answering service operator who gets a little too involved with her customers (also with Dort Clark, who was in “Monkees on the Wheel,” “The Picture Frame,” and “Monkees à la Cart.”). Gardner/Caruso and Coslough Johnson were the writers. Johnson went solo on other episodes produced in the second season: “Art For Monkee’s Sake,” “The Monkees On The Wheel,” “The Monkees Watch Their Feet,” “The Monkee’s Paw,” and “The Monkees Mind Their Manor.” He also wrote an unproduced teleplay: “The Monkees Toy Around.” Coslough Johnson is the brother of Arte Johnson from Rowan and Martin’s Laugh-In.

At the Urgent Answering Service, the Monkees meet Mrs. Drehdal, played by Helene Winston, who appeared in “Monkees à la Carte” as Big Flora. Mrs. D offers them a job and free service if they’ll answer the phones. In a brief fantasy sequence, she becomes the Statue of Liberty and her impassioned speech compels them to be a “warm heart of this cruel world” and that the city will “be in your fingers.” The boys get all choked up and agree. After all the warmth talk, she points to the sign that says “Don’t Get Involved With The Clients.”

Mike cheats at choosing fingers to win the first shift. Micky explains that Mike always wins because he has six fingers on that hand. The connection of fingers and phones reminds me of the old “Let your fingers do the walking” slogan from The Yellow Pages, which originated in 1962.

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After the others leave, Mike skips over to the switchboard in excitement. Funny to see a tall, lanky man skip. “Monkees on the Line” does a good job of utilizing Mike’s established character traits. He needs to be useful, to take care of people and advise them, etc. For their part, the other Monkees treat him as a protector and big brother. Mike’s ready for the chance to be helpful to the entire city this time.

At the switchboard area, there are a bunch of phones that connect into the wall with their own lines, instead of one big multi-line phone. Looks like there should be about 10 people working there at once, not just the one person. Mrs. Drehdal announces she’s off to Jamaica and gives Mike a quick tutorial: plug in the ringing phone, answer and take the message, and give it to the client when they call in. Duh.

Mike finds a big red button, which she explains is for when you get tired. He breaks the fourth wall to tell us that, since monkeys are notoriously curious, he’ll push the jolly, candy-like button. [“Push the button, Frank!” 10 points to anybody who gets that reference. – Editor] When he does, a bed comes out of the wall. I’ve seen this type of gag used in many comedies, where a bed falls down or out of the wall. But I still enjoy it in this episode; they put it to good use.

A phone rings and Mike performs some physical comedy trying to figure out which phone is ringing. Ellen, the caller, declares, “I had to speak to someone. I just can’t go on, I’m so terribly alone.” Ellen goes on about being alone while all the other phones start ringing. Flustered, Mike delivers this nonsensical gem to one of the callers, “No, I’m sorry, you must have the wrong number. We don’t have a telephone.” Both the phone Mike uses when he talks to Ellen, and Ellen’s phone are yellow. Helpful to the viewer for keeping track, though not for Mike who can’t see her phone. Ellen continues her suicide threats while phones keep ringing. Frantic, Mike picks up all the phones and shouts, “Don’t do it!” He’s amazingly polite the entire time.

Later, Mike’s passed out on the phone table. Peter, Micky, and Davy, dressed as surgeons, revive him with a seltzer squirt. Mike shouts about getting to the girl on the phone before it’s too late. The Monkees use her line number to find her info in the file cabinet. Mike finds it right away; hilariously, the others are still searching in the background. Mike and Micky rush off to prevent Ellen’s suicide. Peter and Davy caution that they’re not supposed to get involved with the clients. Peter’s right again, what do you know? Fourth-wall breaking gag where Mike asks off screen for someone to give him his hat and they toss it to him. Micky: “Where’d you get that?” Mike: “From the wardrobe.”

Once Davy and Peter are on their own, all the phones start ringing at once. Crazy, fast motion business of them answering all the phones and taking tons of messages. Once it’s quiet again, Davy finds something that grabs his attention: “Mr. Smith call Zelda Baby, love, love, love, urgent.” Davy decides to deliver the message by hand as it says “urgent.” He’s now involved in a mini-plot.

Davy knocks on the door of the Smith apartment. Mr. Smith answers still in shaving cream and an undershirt. His wife is played by Lea Marmer, last seen as Madame Roselle in “Monkee See, Monkee Die.” Davy reads the message and angers Mrs. Smith, who hits her husband in the head. They both chase Davy down the hall and into farce territory. They all run into another apartment. A pretty girl in a towel runs out, and Davy chases her enthusiastically. He’s followed out by the Smiths; Mr. Smith suddenly fully dressed in his cop uniform.

At Ellen’s apartment, Micky and Mike walk right in and find all her suicide props. They search the apartment for her in ridiculous places where she couldn’t fit: under a throw pillow, in a small cupboard, under an end table, and behind a framed painting. Micky and Mike look in her day planner, which tells them she’s supposed to be at the theater today.

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At the theater, Ellen rehearses the same lines she said to Mike on the phone. The pretentious director encourages her to suffer, live the part etc. He says “live, live, live!” which echoes the “love, love, love” message from Zelda Baby. The audience now knows she’s preparing for a part and using an unwitting Mike as her scene partner.

Peter now gets his own plot. He takes a call from Manny Spink who pretends to be a theatrical booking agent, booking a job for the Popsicles. Manny and partner are actually placing bets on horses, using the answering service as bookies.

Mike and Micky arrive at the theater and ask about Ellen. The director hams it up; she’s nervous, depressed, and ready to end it all. Mike wants to go back to her apartment. Micky says he should relieve Peter, but Mike says Peter will be fine. Cut to Peter pressing the red button and falling into that famous bed. The bed slides back into the wall and traps him.

Back at the chase scene, Davy runs through the halls with an Olympic torchbearer, a football player and a gorilla (the one from “Monkees Chow Mein”), in addition to the Smiths [“I know, I know … it’s serious …” -Editor] and the girl with the towel. They all enter the Smith apartment. Davy comes out alone with the towel and the torch. Subversively suggesting that there’s a naked girl left in the apartment. These chase scenes remind me a lot of The Benny Hill Show (1955-1991). I’m not alone in thinking it may have been an influence.

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Ellen answers the door to Mike with a noose around her neck and dramatically poses, calling him “Jeffrey.” Mike says he’s from Urgent Answering Service, checking on her phone since she hasn’t called in for her messages. Still acting, she says she doesn’t have any messages because no one cares if she lives or dies. Mike reads little pieces of paper from his shirt and pocket, “Dear Ellen, We need you, we love you. The city wants you. Don’t be depressed, don’t be unhappy.”

In his comically awkward way, Mike blocks her every attempt to “kill herself.” Mike chases Ellen around the table, like he did Miss Buntwell in “Dance Monkee, Dance.” It amuses me that his scenes with women end up this way, even if the contexts are different. She asks him to help her with the noose she has around her neck. Mike wants to talk instead. In a funny visual, he picks up the rope and walks her off camera, like she was a dog on a leash.

The actress playing Ellen is fun when she drops the “acting” with him here and there. This is all very sweet, and would be more so if she wasn’t just using him for rehearsal. Not that I’m saying it would be better if she really was suicidal. All the talk of suicide, Mike’s emotional commitment to being her hero, and the irony that she’s just using him give this episode an dark quality that I enjoy.

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At Urgent Answering Service, Micky and Davy search for Peter. They push the red button, ejecting the bed with a sleeping Peter on it. Peter wakes up and explains that he pushed this red button… So they push it again and Peter goes back into the wall. Micky and Davy start looking for him again. Sometimes they’re not a lot smarter than he is.

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Mike reasons with Ellen, “Now look, I know things get kinda bleak sometimes, and It looks like the whole world’s just running around in circles.” Cleverly the editors cut back to the chase scene, still progressing wildly without Davy. Ellen promises Mike she won’t kill herself until tomorrow.

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At the answering service office, the gangsters are holding up the Monkees. Manny Spink calls them “bright boy” several times, an expression used in “Monkees in a Ghost Town.” Turns out Peter changed the bet from the Popsicles to the Pelicans, since he thought it was a real gig and the Pelicans needed the work [“Come on pelican!” -Editor]. Why didn’t he give it to the Monkees? Spink has lost money, and wants them to cough up 90K. The boys start pulling stuff out of their shirts and pockets and between them, they come up with $8.12 and two buttons that “ought to be worth a nickel.”

Mike walks in and ignores the tense scene, heading for the ringing phones. There’s physical comedy as he tries to squeeze between the two gunmen, who don’t yield. He misses the call and tries to leave the office, not really taking in what’s happening.

The two smaller stories now converge tidily. Mr. Smith and Mrs. Smith walk into the scene; Mr. Smith is still angry at Davy for giving him the “wrong message.” While they argue, the crooks try to escape, but Davy stops them. Davy tells Officer Smith that Manny and his partner are gamblers, and they’ve been using the answering service to place bets.

Entertaining romp to “Look Out, Here Comes Tomorrow” (Neil Diamond). Highlights include Mrs. Smith joyfully hitting her husband and the gangsters with her purse, the Monkees and gangsters riding the hidden bed, and Peter pointing out the “Be Courteous” sign on the wall. After, as Mr. Smith is handcuffing his prisoners, Davy says he thinks the message was for another Mr. Smith, and the Smiths seem to make up.

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Micky wants to know about Ellen. Mike uses his faux-manly persona and assures them that “with my masculinity and my persuasiveness” he made her promise not to do anything until tomorrow. Davy points out Mike was hung up on her. Mike agrees, “she was so sad, and weak and depressed and pathetic and poor.” Weird to think this is what attracts him to a woman, but it goes with the need to be needed. As an actor, Michael Nesmith was charming, likeable and funny throughout this episode.

The not-poor Ellen comes in with a fur coat and lots of jewelry to thank Mike for helping her rehearse. She promises to send him a free picture when her name is in lights and she leaves. I feel for Mike. Ellen emotionally screwed him over. He gets in one of my favorite cynical lines from the entire series, “Behind every dark cloud, there’s usually rain.”

This is another episode that’s very close to my heart (no, it’s not my lungs). I admit it’s partly because it’s a Mike episode, but I also appreciate the episode structure and that each Monkee gets a piece of the plot. The writers and director constructed the story carefully with the three separate plots that tie together via the answering service. So much happens, and the points are punctuated with well-executed sight gags. “Monkees on the Line” is a hilarious and satisfying episode, with an added dark edge that makes it a classic.

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by Bronwyn Knox

Every couple of weeks, “Monkees vs. Macheen” examines the crazy, spirited, Ben Franks-type world of the Pre-Fab Four: David Jones, Micky Dolenz, Michael Nesmith, and Peter Tork alias The Monkees.

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