Monkees vs. Macheen: Michael Nesmith (1942-2021)

There’s wings to the thought behind fancy,
There’s wings to the thought behind play
And dancing to rhythms of laughter
Makes laughter the rhythm of rain.

Mike. Mike. Mike.

My favorite Monkee. The smart one. The very-funny-and-sometimes-awkward one. The one from Texas. The tall one. One of the “musician-not-actors.” The only Monkee I trusted when I was in Kindergarten. My crush when I was fifteen. He meant a lot to me all through my life.

As I did with Peter Tork a few years ago, I’m going to talk about his performance as the Mike character on The Monkees television show, highlighting a few of my favorite moments. Better-done bios and tributes to the musician/producer/writer etc. can be found elsewhere.

One of the things set up early on in the series run was that Mike was the leader who wants to be needed and take care of others, not to mention being the defender of the underdog. This is part of the reason why I was always more “comfortable” with this character when I first saw this show as a tot. He seemed reliable; he was going to hold things down and keep them from getting too chaotic ( while the others were chasing girls, getting kidnapped, and blowing stuff up). It also defines the nature of the show for me. At their best, the Monkees would always defend the underdog against the more powerful villains. Part of the anti-establishment and youthful nature of the show.

A wonderful example of Mike’s leadership appears in “Monkee vs. Machine.” After Peter is frustrated and humiliated by a computer conducting a job interview at a toy company, Mike takes over and gets revenge on behalf of his buddy. Far from letting the mechanical interviewer rule the conversation, Mike destroys the machine using its own logic against it. He’s quick and funny. I also love the proud yet embarrassed expression that Nesmith pulled off when Toy company executive Daggert comes in to hire him on the spot. Mike is not happy with his new job when Daggert mocks and suppresses fellow employee Harper, a toy maker who loves fun and designing things by hand. Defender of the underdog, Mike leads the others in some Monkees-style chaos aimed at Daggert’s biased and ill-fated toy testing sessions.

In “Monkees on the Line,” Mike’s established need to be useful and advise others gets him in over his head. Always planning, Mike decides the band should hire an answering service, which they naturally get tricked into running. His exuberance over the idea of helping the entire city is something to see. He jumps up and down, he skips, he’s adorably excited. Despite the warning not to get involved with the clients, Mike gets very involved with Ellen Farnsby indeed and spends most of the episode desperately trying to keep her from committing suicide. In the scene in her apartment, he is comically awkward and emotionally committed to being the hero. It’s both a relief and unfortunate that Ellen turns out to be using him as rehearsal for an acting role. One of my favorite Mike episodes, he was charming, funny, and lovable.

In addition to his role as leader and defender, one his notable traits was a desire to be a success. A place where his defender/ambitious qualities met was in “Monkee Mayor.” In order to keep his neighbors from being evicted, so the town could put up a parking lot, Mike decides (with a little push from crafty Micky) to run for Mayor against corrupt incumbent Motley. Mike’s speech at the end of the episode, when he realizes he’s been blindly corrupted by Mr. Zechenbush, was well acted. Mike confesses, “I got sucked up in the very forces I was trying to conquer” and it gets to me every time. Something about the fact that Mike was not a practiced actor made the episodes featuring him really connect. There is also a cynicism present in both “Monkee Mayor” and “Monkees on the Line.” Mike really wants to help the helpless but the world, personified by self-involved Ellen Farnsby and evil Zechen Bush, is not playing fair.

The classic example of Mike’s desire to succeed occurred in the very funny “I’ve Got a Little Song Here.” Of course Mike was always heavily invested in seeing the band succeed, (See “The Audition,” “Your Friendly Neighborhood Kidnappers,” and “Captain Crocodile”) but in this story, Mike tries to make it solo as a songwriter. With an uncharacteristic lack of cynicism on his part, he gets taken in by a con artist posing as a music publisher. He’s so excited, not by the possibility of money, but by showing others how he’s “made it.” He worries about others, but he doesn’t want anyone to worry about him. Once the scheme is revealed, Mike sinks into depression, despairing that he will never succeed or go anywhere.

In addition to the (sort of) serious moments, Mike was a funny performer and physical comedian. Here’s a quick look at a few of my favorite moments.

  • In “Too Many Girls,” Mike performs an awkward self-parody of a folk singer in the persona of Billy Roy Hodstedder, playing his own composition “Different Drum” at top speed. 
  • In “The Case of the Missing Monkee,”  Mike leads Micky and Peter in a Marx-Brothers style gag, pretending to be surgeons.
  • In “Monkees a la Mode,” Mike performs some fabulous physical comedy just answering the phone and unwrapping a message around a rock.
  •  In “The Picture Frame,” Mike impersonates a clock, has a full body nervous breakdown, and adorably flirts with a judge. 
  • Speaking of flirting, I can’t leave out Mike serenading Ann with mock manly self-confidence in “Wild Monkees,” and Mike as Princess Gwen, batting his false eyelashes at Peter in “Fairy Tale.”

Woo! That’s a lot of funny and it barely covers his many comic moments.

I don’t want to forget Michael Nesmith’s many musical contributions to the show. My favorite Nesmith song was “Sunny Girlfriend,” which unfortunately only shows up in “I Was a 99-lb Weakling.” The lyrics, the tune, the harmony with Micky; It all works for me. Another beautiful song was “The Girl I Knew Somewhere,” written by Michael Nesmith and sung by Micky Dolenz. This one was used in the romp in “The Monkees Get Out More Dirt” and repeated in a few more episodes after that. Both of these songs were on the album Headquarters. “Papa Gene’s Blues” I always liked for it’s upbeat tempo. A track from the debut Monkees album, it first appeared in “Monkees in a Ghost Town” and was used multiple times, all the way up to the second season episode “Hillbilly Honeymoon.” Pisces, Aquarius, Capricorn, & Jones LTD remains one of my favorite albums (by the Monkees and just generally one of my favorites), partly due to Mike’s vocal performances on “What am I Doing Hangin Round” (Michael Martin Murphey / Owen Castleman), “Salesman” (Craig Vincent Smith), and “Love is Only Sleeping” (Barry Mann / Cynthia Weil).

I wanted to mention a few of Michael Nesmith’s non-Monkees projects too, including, “Joanne,” a beautiful song with the First National Band. There is also the home video of music and sketch comedy, Elephant Parts, which included music videos for the songs “Rio” and “Cruisin’.” I was quite young when Elephant Parts was around but I do have memories of seeing “Cruisin’” on television. I have to admit I had no clue at first that this was “Mike” from the Monkees! I’m also a fan of Repo Man, a 1984 science fiction black comedy he executive produced and secured a negative pickup deal with Universal pictures. More recently, I read his book Infinite Tuesday: An Autobiographical Riff (2017) a couple of years ago and found he was a good writer. The section of the book on his “Pop Clips” to MTV connection was especially interesting; I never realized how much he had to do with the video channel concept. He was very honest, discussing his failures and mistakes as much as his success.

So long, Mike. I hope you’re having a wonderful time, wherever you are. You touched my life in many ways. Thanks for the laughs and the songs.

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