Monkeyin' around on the set of The Chimp Channel
with Becky Ebenkamp
(from Scram #12)
There’s a fine line between the sublime and the stupid, but only occasionally does there come along an entertainment vehicle brilliant enough to straddle it. For every Cabin Boy there’s 1,347 Deuce Bigalow: Male Gigolos. But one lowbrow equation is a proven theorem: Monkeys = funny.
Having long considered Lancelot Link Secret Chimp the peak of quality television entertainment, I was justifiably giddy to learn that TBS would be producing a half-hour weekly series called The Chimp Channel. Since the “sit” in this “com” would revolve around apes running a TV station, viewers would get both a window on backstage showbiz hijinks and a satire of boob tube offerings. Like SCTV, only simian.
Co-creator Tom Stern, a writer with a specialty in chimp-specific work, helped popularize the primate parody concept for a series of 1998 promos for TBS’s stable of classic films. In “Monkey-ed Movies,” apes re-enacted scenes that ran the gamut from Gone With the Wind to Saturday Night Fever to Braveheart. The interstitials proved so popular—America, after all, loves a monkey and a clothed chimp all the more so—that TBS subsequently aired an all-Oscar revue. TCC was green-lighted on the strength and ratings of these shorts.
But soon after production began, Stern found himself at odds with TBS suits regarding the direction of TCC. The fuse blew on the set, when a blotto Stern reportedly flipped out, stripped nude and antagonized the station’s top brass. In his version, this was not a drunken display but “performance art” to protest creative differences. Whatever it was, Stern was canned, lawsuits followed and The Chimp Channel went on without its prime visionary at the helm.
A few months into its run, I managed to procure a visit to the TCC set. While thrilled at the prospect, I didn’t realize what a coup it was. Even a fly buzzing by, I was told, could be a major scene-wrecker for a curious chimp thespian, so this was a closed set. Because of the apes’ limited working hours and desire to interact, I was briefed on “taboo” behavior such as touching or feeding them, making gestures or even eye contact. However, none of this advice proved necessary, as the simians hardly co-mingled with crew members, let alone me.
While getting a tour through the scaled-down-to-monkey-size set—walking through it was a bit like visiting Being John Malkovich’s 7 and 1/2th floor—an announcement rang though the unassuming warehouse buried in the Burbank foothills. “Attention: Chimps are entering the building! Everyone take your place!” Five minutes later this was followed by “Chimps are now walking through!” Only the trainer and cameraman were allowed in the actual performing area, it seemed. Those not essential to the up-close action, including the director, viewed from monitors 50 feet away.
In the scene being filmed, the show’s female lead—a Pamela Anderson actress-type named Marina—would hysterically wave a gun at TCC’s general manager. But before she could fire, another chimp was to emerge from a door that would open to knock the gun out of her hand. This 15-second scene was rehearsed several times with a trainer, as it required the female chimp to react to the door’s bump and toss the gun as if it were accidentally flying out of her hand. To ensure that her mouthing matched up to the cadence of the dialogue, the trainer “hand-talked” to a recorded tape and the primate aped.
This is a lot to remember, especially when one is wearing an uncomfortably hot wig and itchy, ill-fitting dress. Many times, the scene wasn’t performed to completion because the actress tugged her hair off or chewed the weapon. In order not to expend any additional monkey energy, the role of opening the door was relegated to a human during the lengthy rehearsal. The chatter, bump!, toss the gun sequence was repeated ad infinitum.
Finally, it became time to film, and the chimp was placed behind the door. Everything was going well: the actress mouthed her dialogue and held the gun at the proper angle. Then, right on cue, the other chimp bumped her with the door, but she detected a subtle difference. The Pamela Anderson chimp flipped around, saw that the culprit was another monkey, interpreted his action as an attack and clocked him over the head with her gun. Much shrieking ensued. I saw the director glance down from his monitor and rub his temples in a “how the hell did I get into this racket?” motion.
I have no idea whether this was the last straw, but a few weeks later TBS announced it was ceasing production on The Chimp Channel. I don’t know if the episode I watched was the last to be taped; it was the last to air.
It wasn’t like TCC was the funniest thing to hit the airwaves, but its presence is sadly missed in a TV environment sorely lacking in chimp antics. Perhaps some brave, bright soul will pick up the gauntlet. Until then, at least we have MoJo JoJo.•