Appreciation: Adam West, a Campy Batman Who Was Always in on the Joke
The 'Batman' star was a generous and skilled comedian for whom the seriousness and the tongue-in-cheek humor went hand in hand.
Having spent my formative years more or less completely consumed by Star Wars, I was late coming to comic books. I was just becoming a teen when they caught my eye; I started collecting them obsessively just as classmates began to pay serious attention to rock bands and learn how to make out with girls.
I point this out because my age made it all the more unacceptable that, when Batman reruns became part of my afterschool routine, I took them at face value. This candy-colored late-'60s show and its star Adam West were not tongue-in-cheek, to my adolescent eyes. They were telling stories of the Caped Crusader, the only superhero who truly mattered to me.
My younger brother smirked at this obsession. He preferred professional wrestling, a "sport" I mocked enthusiastically. Who could take that seriously, I wondered — not realizing that few wrasslin' fans did, while I was probably the only person in town who couldn't tolerate a joke made about West's Batman or the hammy actors playing his nemeses.
This, I think, is a testament not just to my youthful literal-mindedness, but to the gifts of West, who understood exactly the kind of Pop Art enterprise he was engaged in when the series began in 1966. It has become common wisdom that comedy works best when you play it straight. Who knew this better than West? His Batman was upstanding to a fault, honest and guileless (that whole "Dark Knight" idea would take root after his tenure beneath the cowl). This made him, sadly, easy prey for the series' villains, especially seductresses like Julie Newmar's Catwoman. They would put Batman in fiendish, elaborate traps (usually as an episode was about to end in a cliffhanger), and West would face each with the grim resolve of a man speaking his final words. In this he resembled his primetime counterpart in 1966, Star Trek's Captain James T. Kirk (about whom, more later).
West's Batman was an Eagle Scout Sherlock Holmes, crisply analytical, gently pedantic when explaining his insights to the Boy Wonder. He was the kind of crime-fighter who might scold you with a straight face about failing to look both ways before crossing the street. A bit of the edge came off when he removed the cape, lounging as Bruce Wayne at what the series' narrator usually called "stately Wayne Manor." Bruce liked his butler, Alfred, and was kind to Robin's matronly aunt, Harriet. (Behind the scenes, West reportedly kept producers from firing Madge Blake, who played the slightly daffy Harriet.)
When the series was canceled, West struggled to find other acting work. After a bunch of middling roles (and many probably humiliating "personal appearances" in public dressed as Batman), he returned to Gotham by lending his voice to a variety of Batman cartoons. He'd find a steady gig on Family Guy eventually — but only after discovering how to be "Adam West," a pop-culture version of himself, in comic film and TV cameos.
Here again, West's role in the zeitgeist echoed that of Star Trek's William Shatner. But their 21st-century selves differed in ways that favor West. Shatner, from all appearances, took himself very seriously in his heyday; only years of public mockery convinced him to make a buck by becoming a caricature of himself. For West, the seriousness and the joke went hand-in-hand. He was in on it from the start, and that in-on-it-ness was, in fact, the whole point. Yes, the Batman series was campy. But it was also ironic — in that, all winks aside, there was something truly righteous and exciting about this purple-clad goofball.
West got that. And I'm sure he would have been generous to a 13-year-old comic collector who spent every afternoon trying to take Batman seriously. I'm sure he would have played it straight for as long as it took me to get the joke.