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Jingle Bells, Batman Smells: The History of a Children’s Classic

by  in CBR Exclusives, TV News Comment
Jingle Bells, Batman Smells: The History of a Children’s Classic

Even in the most uncertain of times, generations of children have taken comfort in knowing that, as sure as the sun rises in the East and sets in the West, the words “Jingle bells” will be followed by “Batman smells.” However, what comes after that is up for debate, and the origin of the rhyme is a mystery worthy of the Caped Crusader himself.

Most of us probably know the lyrics to the parodic folksong as “Jingle Bells, Batman smells, Robin laid an egg; the Batmobile lost a wheel, and Joker got away.” Yet a divide over the final line surfaced, or rather resurfaced, last week in a telling, and seasonally appropriate, tweet:

The questions – to say nothing of the lyrical variations — run much deeper than the actions of the Clown Prince of Crime. For example, when and where did the parody originate, and why are so many kids convinced that Batman smells?

One question is probably as unanswerable as the next, but we can make some educated guesses and wild assumptions. (All of that crime-fighting probably works up a sweat, and a stench, requiring more than Bat-Deodorant; so, hey, there’s one down.) But as a folksong, passed from child to child and from generation to generation, its roots are virtually impossible to trace. That said, we can safely (and accurately) assert the parody dates back to at least 1966, as Batmania took hold of not just the United States but the world.

Today, even with ratings juggernauts like “The Walking Dead” and “Game of Thrones,” it’s difficult to comprehend just how the “Batman” TV series captured the attention, and the imaginations, of viewers. On Jan. 12, 1966, 52 percent of American televisions were tuned in to ABC to catch the show’s premiere, owing much to the network’s marketing blitzkrieg, which included press mailings, hourly promo spots, and skywriting above the Rose Bowl game proclaiming, “Batman Is Coming.”

Within months, if not weeks, Batman and Robin merchandise was flooding stores, with early estimates placing retail sales at $80 million for the year — about $597 million in today’s dollars — eclipsing other pop culture megastars of the era, including James Bond. The phenomenon was short-lived, alas, with “Batman’s” cancellation arriving just two years later, but it was unbelievably intense while it lasted.

As discovered by Rob Weir, who first wrote about variants of “Jingle Bells, Batman Smells” a decade ago, lyrics to the song appeared in print within a year of “Batman’s” premiere. An article in the Jan. 3, 1967, edition of the Lawton (Oklahoma) Constitution related how the daughter of an Army family that moved from Fort Sill to Brussels, Belgium, sang the tune during the holidays.

jingle-bells-lawton

From the Lawton (Oklahoma) Constitution

You’ll note that in this early version, the final line had nothing to do with the Joker: “Batmobile lost a wheel — and Commissioner’s stuck in sleigh.” Sure, it’s a little rough, but it was a work in progress.

In any case, that dates “Jingle Bells, Batman Smells” to at least 1966, although it’s impossible to say from the brief newspaper mention whether the song was carried by the Army family from the United States to Europe, or if the daughter learned it while overseas. Likewise, it’s difficult to determine whether the “Jingle Bells” parody was inspired by Adam West’s “Batman” series, or simply made popular by interest in the TV show, possibly even predating it.

A handful of newspaper clips from the period may lend credence to the latter theory. Just two and a half weeks after “Batman” leaped onto TV screens with “Hi Diddle Riddle,” two related letters appeared in the Jan. 30, 1966, edition of the Long Beach, California, Press-Telegram. One, from a seventh-grade class, lobbied for the show to be nominated for an Emmy Award. The other pulled a 1960s “Baba Booey,” declaring simply, “Batman smells.” Interestingly, it wasn’t Batman stinks, but rather smells. Rob Evans of Cracked.com has suggested that the odd little letter could provide a clue to the song’s origin in a kids’ saying in mid-1960s California, but as we dug deeper into the mystery, if became clear that it’s not quite that cut-and-dried.

From the Long Beach, California, Press-Telegram

From the Long Beach, California, Press-Telegram

A few months after the letter’s publication, United Press International wrote an article about “Batman’s” merchandising that seemed oddly preoccupied with odor:

The Batman television show may smell like ripe corn or parboiled tripe to the critics, but to the merchandisers of F.W. Woolworth & Co. it has the fragrant green odor of money.

It’s undeniably a strangely phrased opening sentence, made even stranger by a number of headlines as the story began to appear in newspapers across the nation on May 11, 1966. The White Plains, New York, Journal-News wrote, “TV’s Batman Smells … Rich With Money,” while in the Greenville, Mississippi, Delta Democrat-Times it was, “Batman May Smell, But It Is Green.” We could certainly chalk those up to copy editors trying to play off the quirky phrasing of the article — other newspapers went with headlines like “Batman Fad Outstrips Davy Crockett Craze” and “Batman May Be Corn, But He’s Also Money” — or we could view them as indications the phrase “Batman smells” was already widespread by early 1966.

From the White Plains, New York, Journal-News

From the White Plains, New York, Journal-News

Whichever side you come down on, we know that by summer 1969 the lyrics were familiar enough to be casually mentioned in an Indianapolis Star business column about a new Road Runner tape recorder intended to keep kids occupied during lengthy car trips: “It at least may beat counting cows or 300 live miles of the new summer Jingle Bells … Batman smells, Robin laid an egg …” (Note the writer characterizes the song as “new.”) Two years later, a version of the song was published in Frank Rutherford’s book “All the Way to Pennywell: Children’s Rhymes of the North-east”:

Jingle bells, Batman smells,
Robin’s flew away;
The Batmobile’s lost a wheel
And landed in the hay.

In that early British variant, most of the basic elements are there; no matter when or where the lyrics are sung, the first line generally remains the same (although Australia’s Sydney Morning Herald related a version in 1987 in which it’s Robin who smells). From there the words vary, even while hewing close to the same core themes, most notably “grosslore,” which Children & Youth in History explains “allows children to pursue the curiosity they have about their own bodies.”

jingle-bells-batman2

The website also identifies a fartlore (yes, fartlore) variant in which a different Bat-villain makes an appearance in the final line typically reserved for the Joker — “And Mr. Freeze cut the cheese” —  while another “explicitly challenges adult authority by changing the last line to ‘And the Commissioner broke his leg,'” perhaps as a result of getting it stuck in that pesky sleigh.

But while the popularity of Batman and a childhood fondness for bodily functions help to explain the spread of the song, the appeal may go much deeper:

If the adult authority invested in the hero status of Batman and Robin is challenged in this song, so too does the song undercut their masculinity. Variants of the song feature a last line that has Batman, Robin, or the Joker doing ballet. Interpreting this variant requires attention to the singer-audience context in which the song is performed. Childlore frequently reinforces traditional definitions of gender. By inverting traditional definitions of strong masculinity this variant is an example of children’s awareness of and interest in gender difference. In another context, sung by girls, this variant is an example of the ways girls’ lore sometimes challenges gender hierarchies.

In his 2010 book, “The Lore of the Playground,” Steve Roud collects some versions from around the United Kingdom, many of which veer wildly from the song’s more familiar components, jettisoning the Batmobile and the Joker in favor of lines in which Robin loses his pants in the middle of France, and “Uncle Billy” loses his — ahem — willy on the motorway. The aforementioned Australian variant even ropes in an iconic DC Comics superheroine and a former national airline: “Wonder Woman lost her bosom flying TAA.”

However, if there’s a winner in this decades-long war of lyrics, it’s undoubtedly the version that goes, “Jingle Bells, Batman smells, Robin laid an egg; the Batmobile lost a wheel, and Joker got away.” Those lines seem to have been codified, as much as a folksong can be, by the late 1980s, perhaps in no small part due to “The Simpsons.”

A similar rendition (with “broke” instead of “lost”) was performed by Bart in the animated show’s first episode, “Simpsons Roasting on an Open Fire” (Dec. 17, 1989), earning him an ejection from the Springfield Elementary Christmas pageant. The writers and producers returned to the song in 1992, and again in the 1993 episode “$pringfield,” in which it was performed (with “lost” now in place of “broke”) by Robert Goulet. That version was included on the 1997 album “Songs in the Key of Springfield.”

Mojo Nixon & the Toadliquors incorporated those same lyrics into their rousing take on “Jingle Bells” that appeared on the 1992 album “Horny Holidays.”

Naturally, “Batman: The Animated Series” tackled “Jingle Bells, Batman Smells” early in its well-regarded run. In the second episode, Nov. 13, 1992’s “Christmas With the Joker,” the Clown Prince of Crime sings the traditional carol with his fellow Arkham inmates before breaking into the parody and then breaking out of the asylum (emphasis on the line “and the Joker got away”).

As he escapes on a Christmas-tree rocket, the Joker (voiced, of course, by Mark Hamill) adds a customized second verse that follows the episode’s action:

Crashing through the roof,
In a one-horse open tree;
Busting out I go,
Laughing all the wheeee!

Although those lines were written especially for “Batman: The Animated Series,” some kids apparently did grow up singing a second verse. In 2014, a contributor to The Dork Review related that after the traditional lines involving the Batmobile losing a wheel and the Joker getting away, they added:

Batman’s in the kitchen
Robin’s in the hall
Joker’s in the bathroom,
peeing on the wall.

It certainly seems authentic, showcasing in that last phrasing an upending of societal and household norms while also focusing (again) on bodily functions. (Why, if he’s already in the bathroom, would the Joker pee on the wall? Because he’s a bad guy!) The folks at Children & Youth in History might also have something to say about Batman’s placement in the kitchen, in light of traditional gender roles, but we’ll leave that to them.

Other additional verses do exist, but most — if not all — of them were written for specific purposes, such as the 1999 “Kids’ WB! Kooky Karolfest,” in which the Joker performs altered lyrics that take extra shots at Batman and bring Batgirl into the mix. Voice actor Phil Snyder also wrote a full-length song that expands beyond Gotham to include such characters as Superman, Wolverine, the Fantastic Four and Spider-Man, yet returns to the traditional chorus (in which the Joker gets away, not takes ballet).

However, those obviously aren’t examples of actual folksong, but rather the appropriation of it, which probably brings us full circle, without moving us any closer to solving the mysteries of “Jingle Bells, Batman Smells.” After all, it was the playful borrowing from both the traditional and the new and commercial, with a pinch of “grosslore,” that led unnamed children somewhere, sometime to invent the parody. So perhaps it’s only appropriate that this decades-old tune continues to be shaped and expanded in the commercial arena.

We may never find the answer to exactly how or when the song began, but we can be assured of at least one thing: that long after we’re gone, just as he has for decades, Batman will continue to smell, the Batmobile will lose a wheel, and the Joker will get away. The jury, however, is still out on Robin’s egg-laying capabilities.

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