This may come as a shock to some readers, but Batman was not always the ubiquitous pop culture icon he is today. While the whole comics industry fell afoul of the puritanism of the ’50s and the censorious Comics Code in the wake of Dr. Fredric Wertham’s scathing book Seduction of the Innocent, Batman’s adventures came under particular scrutiny. The gritty noir-inspired pulp drama from which Batman was born was not compatible with the squeaky clean image of the atomic age. Batman’s adventures became homogeneous sci-fi inspired tales virtually indistinguishable from anything else on the racks. DC Comics were seriously thinking of cancelling the Batman title.
Then, Pow! Zap! Wham! William Dozier’s 1966-1968 Batman TV show Starring Adam West, Burt Ward and a penitentiary full of celebrity guest villains became both a hit and a pop culture phenomenon. Batmania became as big as the Beatles and the show cemented the character’s status as a cultural icon. Yet, for all its pop art aesthetic and superficially family friendly brand of adventure, the show was cleverly written, wryly witty and surprisingly subversive. Looking back at it now, there are quite a few things that would never make it past today’s easily outraged censors!
15. HOLY SPIKED ORANGE JUICE!
One needn’t look further than the show’s first episode to see a moment which, while shrugged off by audiences in the ’60s would likely offend savvier audiences today. In the episode, which pits the Caped Crusader against Frank Gorshin’s endearingly wacky Riddler for the first time, Batman traces the diabolical villain to a trendy Gotham night spot. Batman approaches the bartender and asks for (what else?) a large fresh orange juice. The bartender makes with the drink which he calls a “Batman special”.
Unbeknownst to Bats, one of Riddler’s goons has spiked the drink with a pill which makes the crimefighter behave drowsily and drunkenly.
14. HOLY IMPLIED SUBSTANCE USE!
Given Batman’s extensive, dastardly and visually interesting rogue’s gallery, the character’s adventures suited the format of syndicated TV; allowing for guest starring celebrities to be re-imagined as living, breathing incarnations of Batman’s famous comic book foes. Horror icon Vincent Price, however, had the (dubious) honor of portraying a character created specifically for the show… the ignoble Egghead; an outrageously camp (even by the show’s standard’s) villain with a series of egg themed weapons.
One such ovoid device is a gas bomb spewing a yellow smoke which causes Batman and Robin to giggle drowsily like two intoxicated teenagers at Woodstock. Controlled use of certain giggle inducing smokable substances may have been legalized in some states, but there’s still no way this would make it past today’s censors.
13. HOLY BAT BULGE!
In today’s pop culture media landscape superheroes are pretty much ubiquitous. We’ve become used to seeing comic book characters in movies, TV shows, video games and just about every form of media that can be consumed. As such, superhero costuming has become very sophisticated, adapting quickly to the problems caused by the comic book designs on the page. One look at Brenton Thwaites’ Robin costume for the upcoming Titans show demonstrates how far the character’s on-screen design has come over the year’s.
In the ’60s superhero costuming was still in its infancy, and despite the protestations of studio executives and conservative groups, the costumers struggled to keep the Dynamic Duo’s endowments restrained in their skin tight costumes. Legend has it that Burt Ward’s Robin trunks were a particular source of consternation for the costume department, keeping the young actor uncomfortably restrained when shooting.
12. HOLY PISCATORIAL CRUELTY!
The shark repellent Bat-spray from the 1966 Batman movie is one of the most endearingly ridiculous gadgets in Batman’s history, and the image of Batman fighting a clearly synthetic exploding shark while suspended from a rope ladder is one of the most iconic of this iteration of the character. While it’s a fondly remembered image that generations have come to adore, it’s unlikely to pass muster today.
We’re an enlightened bunch today and far more attuned to the ecological damage that we as a species are doing to the marine life on our planet, so it’s unlikely that today’s supervillains would be allowed to augment marine life with deadly explosives. As Robin remarks in the movie; “What cruelty! Stuffing a poor shark with a ton of deadly TNT!”. Which, when you think about it, is a pretty disturbing mental image.
11. HOLY CASUAL MISOGYNY!
The ’60s were a time of political, social and cultural revolution and a turning point in gender politics. When it came to female representation, the Batman TV show sent some mixed messages that would perplex today’s censors. While the show boasted some intelligent and independent women with a sense of narrative agency, there were just as many who represented a wrongheaded backward step.
Every supervillain seemed to have a beautiful but airheaded Moll in their entourage, but by far the most worrying character was Nora Clavicle; a clear avatar for the producer’s insecurities about the women’s liberation movement. Her master plan involves replacing all male authority figures with women (resulting in miniskirt wearing cops with rolling pins for batons) and her weapon of choice is a knitting needle… Yikes!
10. HOLY BAND OF INSENSITIVE RACIAL STEREOTYPES!
The Batman TV show brought us many memorable villains from Caesar Romero’s mustachioed Joker to Burgess Meredith’s cackling Penguin and Julie Newmar’s effortlessly compelling Catwoman. Even some of the characters made just for the show like Egghead, King Tut and Bookworm have their moments… but cowboy themed supervillain Shame is not one of them. Shame was played by Cliff Robertson (who would later go on to play Uncle Ben in Sam Raimi’s Spider-Man trilogy) was by far the series’ most forgettable villain but it’s his cadre of insensitive and crass racial stereotypes would not bear scrutiny by today’s standards.
The troupe includes a stoic Indian Chief and a handlebar mustached “Mexican” (both white actors in blackface).
9. HOLY HUMAN KNOT!
When the Batman TV show launched it sparked an international fervor for the caped Crusader’s adventures… but alas, the mainstream appeal was not to last. By the time the show limped into its third season, it was clear that the creative teams behind it were running out of both ideas and money! Even the charming screen presence of Yvonne Craig as Batgirl couldn’t save the show, and the visual invention that had made the show so popular was on the wan.
In one of the season’s most egregious episodes “Nora Clavicle and The Ladies Crime Club”, the Tremendous Trio of Batman, Robin and Batgirl are tied not to one of the show’s trademark death machines…but to each other! Not only does this tremendously uncomfortable (in all the wrong ways) human knot lack any sort of threat, it’s just plain awkward to see.
8. HOLY FORAY INTO POLITICS
Hey, remember when Danny DeVito’s Penguin made a bid for Mayor in Batman Returns? That was weird right? Even weirder still, it wasn’t the first time that the waddling Emperor of Umbrellas made a foray into the world of politics. In one of the show’s most surreal yet brilliant episodes “Hizzoner The Penguin”, Burgess Meredith’s Penguin runs for mayor opposite a reluctant Batman. Penguin’s campaign demonstrates an admittedly clever political slight of hand, combining truths and half truths to discredit the Caped Crusader.
These days, however, it’s unlikely that the powers that be would allow the realms of politics and popular entertainment to combine in such an on-the-nose way. It’s equally unlikely that anyone would sign off on The Penguin’s unnecessarily suggestive campaign slogan “All the way with Pengy!”
7. HOLY ANIMAL CRUELTY!
In the enlightened digital age it seems we’re a little more ethically aware than out forebears, especially when it comes to areas such as animal rights, conservationism and sustainability. Vegetarianism and veganism are no longer the preserve of a hippy fringe subculture, they’re mainstream causes advocated by a number of high profile celebrities. In a world where we’re all conscious of the environmental and ethical impact of our lifestyles, it’s unlikely that censors would allow Batman to fight with Catwoman’s pet Sumatran tiger!
Fortunately for animal rights enthusiasts, the ‘fight’ in the episode “Better Luck Next Time” consists of little more than Batman playfully pushing the feline around a little before subduing the beast with his high pitched communicator. Not only does Batman do the animal no harm, he admonishes Catwoman for not taking better care of her pets.
6. HOLY SPONGE BELT BAT PANTS!
Okay so maybe this isn’t so much a censorship issue as a quality control issue. Nonetheless, the high resolution digital technology behind today’s standards demands extremely high production values. Today’s HD screens can be extremely punishing to cut corners and shoddy workmanship in production design, especially when it comes to a character as popular and iconic as Batman.
In the ’60s, though color televisions were becoming increasingly commonplace, it was unlikely that even the most discerning viewer would have noticed the episodes in which the worn pouches of Batman’s legendary utility belt were replaced with… simple kitchen sponges. Then again, a key component of Batman’s character is his ability to prepare for any eventuality. Maybe he foresaw an encounter with a criminal whose gimmick involved soiling the dishes of Gotham’s citizens.
5. HOLY REGRESSIVE CARICATURES!
One of the inherent problems with making an entire police force so utterly dependent on a caped vigilante is that it makes said police force seem ineffectual and/or incompetent. Indeed, one of the greatest gifts that the likes of Dennis O’Neill and Frank Miller brought to the world of Gotham in the ’70s and ’80s was explicitly making the GCPD corrupt rather than simply useless. One look at the police presence in the show and it’s easy to see why this change was made.
While Commissioner Gordon merely comes off as a bureaucrat out of his depth, Chief O’Hara is kind of offensive.
He’s bumbling, incompetent, lazy, asinine and a slur on police officers, the Irish and the human race in general. It’s highly unlikely that a kid’s show would be allowed to undermine an authority figure in such a crass way in today’s media landscape.
4. HOLY WHOLLY INAPPROPRIATE DANCE SOLO!
You didn’t think we were just going to gloss over the Batusi did you? This gem of a moment from the show’s very first episode became a cultural icon in its own right; especially when re-appropriated by an episode of The Simpsons; in which a guest-starring Adam West laments “why doesn’t Batman dance any more?” before bursting into an impromptu rendition of the dance.
The go-go style dance, which West claimed to have invented on the spot although some claim it was created by dance instructor Arthur Murray, neatly encapsulates the show’s unapologetically bizarre nature. While it’s not necessarily offensive or deviant to impressionable young minds, it’s nonetheless so weird and jarring (even within the context of the episode) that one can hardly imagine producers or communications watchdogs signing off on it today.
3. HOLY PERSISTENT CHAIN SMOKING
In an era where cigarette packs are adorned with explicit health warnings and brutally stark images of damaged lungs it’s hard to believe that content aimed at children was ambivalent in its attitude towards tobacco consumption. Indeed, in early Batman comics Bruce Wayne and Commissioner Gordon smoked a pipe together and in the 1943 Batman serial Bruce Wayne could also be seen smoking cigarettes.
The link between smoking and lung cancer was discovered in 1957 and while this may have curtailed Bruce Wayne’s tobacco use, the Penguin was seldom seen without his ubiquitous cigarette in its trademark holder in the old Batman show. There’s far less of this on TV today, even for characters like Penguin or Constantine for whom smoking is part of their iconography. Robin Lord Taylor (who plays the character in Gotham) has admitted that the show was extremely restrictive in its depiction of smoking.
2. HOLY DISREGARD FOR DENTAL DAMAGE
For all the fact that we, as adults, love to enjoy this show for its retro pop charm, let’s not forget that it was originally intended to be a children’s show. A clever and self aware children’s show, but a children’s show nonetheless — and the world of children’s TV has always been pretty censorious. Most censorship of children’s content revolves around protecting impressionable young minds from imitable techniques that could cause them harm. Just look at the shows of the ’80s like He-Man and the Masters of the Universe in which the characters would rarely punch or kick each other for fear that it might encourage playground brawls.
In this climate, it’s unlikely that kids would be allowed to see Robin (who was always the intended entry point for young readers and viewers) clinging to a bat rope with his teeth. What censor would allow such orthodontic recklessness today?
1. HOLY INNUENDOS!
One of the more charming elements of the show (and indeed the whole mythology) was seeing the consummately straight laced Batman grappling with his obvious attraction to the wily and villainous Catwoman. While the comics and other media have gone on to explore this dynamic with a lot more nuance, it’s impossible to deny the chemistry between West’s Batman and the show’s three Catwomen…but especially Julie Newmar.
The show was rife with nudge wink innuendos aimed at parents that simply wouldn’t fly today.
Among them is a character played by future Catwoman Lee Meriwether inviting Batman back to her place for “milk and cookies” which she baked herself. But by far the most famous (and oft repeated by West) is Batman’s admission that Catwoman gives the Caped Crusader “curious stirrings” in his utility belt.
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