Whew! With a few hours to spare, I just happened to notice that today is National Astronaut Day. Inspiration enough for a little listicle about a classic comedy subgenre too little acknowledged, the astronaut comedy. There aren’t many of them. The hey-day was that first sprint in the space race in the 1950s and 60s. For a time afterwards, it seemed like the entire space program was moribund. In a way it was — we were no longer testing frontiers, but making routine roundtrip cargo shipments to low-earth orbit…both literally and figuratively under the public’s radar. But there was a vogue for rocket comedy for a brief moment. The new slapstick frontier of course was wacky weightlessness. Almost all of these movies or shows feature segments containing guys floating around a space capsule going, “Whoa, whoa, WHOA!” And I guess it’s pretty funny — if you’re huffing pure oxygen.
Here are some minor classics of the sub-genre:
Abbott and Costello Go to Mars (1953)
This one is particularly interesting because it was made almost a decade before any man had been sent into space — it was 100% science fiction at this stage. And also it is funny. Abbott and Costello are loading cargo onto a rocket when they accidentally trigger the ignition switch. The rocket lands in New Orleans during Mardi Gras, which is full of strangely costumed people whom they initially mistake for Martians. Later they meet some bank robbers who make them take them to Venus.
Have Rocket, Will Travel (1959)
This feature length comedy launched a new phase in the career of the The Three Stooges and was the first of their films to feature Curly Joe DeRita. As happens in all too many of these comedies, they play janitors who accidentally ignite the rocket, and end up landing on Venus, which proves to be populated with giant tarantulas and at least one talking unicorn. Two years, prior the Stooges had also starred in two space themed shorts: Outer Space Jitters and Space Ship Sappy.
The Road to Hong Kong (1962)
The Three Stooges in Orbit (1962)
In this one, the Stooges utilize a flying submarine to neutralize invading martians. When they accidentally attach a nuclear bomb to the vehicle, thinking it is a carburetor, it sends them into orbit!
Naturally the image above is from the popular sitcom’s credit sequence; it wasn’t an animated show. Larry Hagman and Bill Daily played astronauts on the show. Hagman’s character found the genie’s bottle on a beach. Throughout the series, a lot of the episodes take place at a NASA facility where the guys engage in astronaut testing, experiments, training, and so forth. More on the show here.
Way…Way Out (1966)
The premise “Jerry Lewis in outer space” sounds way…way funnier than this movie proves to be. It’s not really one of Jerry’s slapstick pictures; much more one of his later career sex comedies, like Boeing, Boeing (1965), Three On a Couch (1966), and Don’t Raise the Bridge, Lower the River (1968). Yeah there’s a little slapstick because Jerry can’t help himself, but this is basically a comedy about wife swapping on the moon. In addition to Jerry it has Dick Shawn, Connie Stevens, Anita Ekberg, Brian Keith, Dennis Weaver, Howard Morris, Robert Morley, and James Brolin! If each of them got one laugh, the film would have about four more laughs than it does now.
It’s About Time (1966-67)
In this post Gilligan’s Island Sherwood Schwartz sitcom, a pair of astronauts go back in time and land in the age of the caveman. Amusingly the mute caveman characters were played by comedy stars Imogene Coca, Joe E. Ross,and Cliff Norton. No one ever heard of the two guys who were supposed to be the heroes, Frank Aletter and Jack Mullaney (Well, I have — Mullaney was in Dr. Goldfoot and the Bikini Machine. This show was not one of Dr. Schwartz’s monster hits; it only lasted one season.
The Reluctant Astronaut (1967)
Don Knotts plays a former carnival ride operator who gets a job as a — what is it? — right, a janitor for NASA. (I just did a tally; half of these movies are about janitors for the space agency who accidentally take rides on rockets). In this one, Knott’s dad (Arthur O’Connell) thinks he is a real astronaut, so Knotts is forced to masquerade as one, leading to all kinds of mayhem, including flying around in space! A pre-comedy Leslie Nielsen shows his true metier as a straight man, as an actual NASA astronaut.
In this Saturday morning kids show Bob Denver and Chuck McCann play space agency janitors who accidentally press the “launch” button, thinking it is the button to order lunch. That really happens! And then they fly around in space. More on that show here.
Airplane II: The Sequel (1982)
Probably the less said about this one, the better. Officially the sequel to the flawless Airplane (1980), this one was made without the involvement of the comedy wizards behind it (Zucker-Abrahams-Zucker.) It has much of the original cast, but none of the original laughs. The gimmick in this one is that the space shuttle is now a passenger vehicle with service to Mars. The shuttle was very topical at the time; it had only been in operation for a couple of years then. And there STILL isn’t shuttle service to Mars. No one’s ever even been there! At any rate, given the nature of the beast, the heroes of the film are much more like airline pilots than astronauts. We include it as a sort of last ditch effort (Get it? Space capsule? Ditch? You’ll only get that if you remember the days when space capsules used to have to land in the ocean. At any rate, before we sink any further…)
For more on classic film comedy, please read Chain of Fools: Silent Comedy and Its Legacies from Nickelodeons to Youtube,