July 04, 2014

Big Heap Herman in The Munsters

The Munsters: Big Heap HermanWhen the Munsters go on vacation to Buffalo Valley, Herman gets off at rest stop in Indian Flats, where he gets left behind. When he wanders into a Indian Village, an elder of the tribe thinks that Herman is an ancient spirit leader, back to revitalize his tribe's way of life.

Episode Info

Episode number: 2x18
Production Number: 27028
Airdate: Thursday January 20th, 1966

Comment:  Needless to say, this episode is ridiculous, for several reasons:

  • The name "Buffalo Valley" and the "Indian Flats" train station are meant to suggest a remote and "wild" West. This is the only place where Indians exist, according to many Americans.

    Indeed, when Herman discovers the tribal village, he says it's one of the "lost Indian tribes" he was reading about. Implying that normal Indian tribes don't exist anymore.

  • The "tribe" has the usual teepees, headdresses, buckskins, warpaint, and drums, but also a totem pole topped by an image of Herman. Because all tribes are defined by teepees and totem poles, I guess.

  • The actors playing the Indians include Ned Romero ("Wonga"), whose ancestry is Chitimacha Native American. The rest are whites in makeup and wigs.

    Romero's sidekick "Manikoo" is played by Len Lesser, a Jewish actor who often portrayed Eastern European types. Manikoo even sounds like a fast-talking hustler from New Jersey. It's a ridiculous characterization for an Indian.

    The Indians reveal that they're 1960s hep cats who are just pretending to be traditionalists for the tourists. Apparently this is an attempt to inoculate the creators from charges of racist stereotyping.

    In other words, the creators wanted to assure viewers they were "just kidding." Like any good hipsters these days, they presented the racism, then tried to wink it away. Like, "We wanted you to laugh at the Indians, but not to criticize us, because we know the faux Indians were laughable."

  • Seeing that Herman resembles an ancient god or "spirit leader" the tribe decides to marry him to an Indian maiden. Herman is a big goof, but he acts even more stupidly than usual. He goes along with the Indians without a qualm, despite the fact that he's happily married.

    Wonga is uncertain about this gambit. Maybe Herman really will bring the tribe good fortune. If not, he says, the Indians can perform the marriage ceremony three times a day for the tourists.

    The whole concept of the tribe as a tourist destination is ridiculous. What tourists? They're in the middle of nowhere, six miles from a lonely train station where no one stops. How could this possibly be a money-making venture?

  • The episode is a curiosity. On the one hand, it presents a traditional tribe based on dozens of the most blatant stereotypes. On the other, a couple of its Indians talk like regular people: modernists who mock their own traditions.

    As I said before, it's like trying to have your cake and eat it too. But it signals a transition in movies and TV: from Indians as primitive people of the past to Indians who are nominally part of the present.

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