The series centered on the adventures of The Monkees, a struggling rock band from Los Angeles, California consisting of Micky, Davy, Michael, and Peter. The comic elements of the storyline were provided by the strange encounters that the band would have while searching for their big break.
In the early 1960s, aspiring filmmakers Bob Rafelson and Bert Schneider had formed Raybert Productions and were trying to get a foot in the door in Hollywood. Inspired by the Beatles' film A Hard Day's Night, the duo decided to develop a television series about a fictional rock 'n' roll group. In April, 1965, Raybert sold the series idea to Screen Gems, and by August, a pilot script titled "The Monkeys" was completed by Paul Mazursky and Larry Tucker. Rafelson has said that he had the idea for a TV series about a music group as early as 1960, but had a hard time interesting anyone in it until 1965, by which time rock and roll music was firmly entrenched in pop culture.
On September 8, 1965, trade publications Daily Variety and The Hollywood Reporter ran an ad seeking "Folk & Roll Musicians-Singers for acting roles in new TV series." As many as 400 hopefuls showed up to be considered as one of "4 insane boys." Fourteen actors from the audition pool were brought back for screen tests, and after audience research, Raybert chose their final four.
Micky Dolenz, son of screen actor George Dolenz, had prior screen experience (under the name "Mickey Braddock") as the 10-year-old star of the Circus Boy series in the 1950s. He was actively auditioning for pilots at the time and was told about the Raybert project by his agent.
Englishman Davy Jones was a former jockey who had achieved some initial success on the musical stage (appearing with the cast of Oliver! on The Ed Sullivan Show the night of the Beatles' live American debut). Already appearing in Columbia Pictures productions and recording for the Colpix record label, he had been identified in advance as a potential star for the series.
Texan Michael Nesmith, whose mother Bette Nesmith Graham had invented a correction fluid and founded the company that would become Liquid Paper, had served a brief stint in the U.S. Air Force and had also recorded for Colpix under the name "Michael Blessing." Nesmith was the only one of The Monkees who had come in based on seeing the trade magazine ad. He showed up to the audition with his laundry and impressed Rafelson and Schneider with his laid-back style and droll sense of humor. Nesmith also wore a woollen hat to keep his hair out of his eyes when he rode his motorcycle, leading to early promotional materials which nicknamed him "Wool Hat." The hat remained part of Nesmith's wardrobe, but the name was dropped after the pilot.
Peter Tork was recommended to Rafelson and Schneider by friend Stephen Stills at his own audition. Tork, a skilled multi-instrumentalist, had performed at various Greenwich Village folk clubs before moving west, where he worked as a busboy.
Rafelson and Schneider wanted the style of the series to reflect avant garde film techniques—such as improvisation, quick cuts, jump cuts, breaking the fourth wall, and free-flowing, loose narratives—then being pioneered by European film directors. Each episode would contain at least one musical "romp" which might have nothing to do with the storyline. In retrospect, these vignettes now look very much like music videos: short, self-contained films of songs in ways that echoed the Beatles' recent ventures into promotional films for their singles. They also believed strongly in the program's ability to appeal to young people, intentionally framing the kids as heroes and the adults as heavies.
Rafelson and Schneider hired novice director James Frawley to teach the four actors improvisational comedy. Each of the four was given a different personality to portray: Dolenz the funny one, Nesmith the smart and serious one, Tork the naive one, and Jones the cute one. Their characters were loosely based on their real selves, with the exception of Tork, who was actually a quiet intellectual. The character types also had much in common with the respective personalities of the Beatles, with Dolenz representing the madcap attitude of John Lennon, Nesmith affecting the deadpan seriousness of George Harrison, Tork depicting the odd-man-out quality of Ringo Starr, and Jones conveying the pin-up appeal of Paul McCartney.
A pilot episode was shot in San Diego and Los Angeles on a shoestring budget—in many scenes the Monkees wore their own clothes. Initial audience tests (which were just then being pioneered) produced very low responses. Rafelson then re-edited the pilot and included some of the screen tests, to better introduce the band members to viewers. (Dolenz was credited in this pilot as "Micky Braddock.") The re-cut pilot tested so well that NBC placed an order for two seasons of episodes. (The edited pilot was broadcast November 14, 1966, as the tenth episode of the first season, with Dolenz credited under his real last name, as for all other episodes.)
The Monkees debuted September 12, 1966, on the NBC television network. The series was sponsored on alternate weeks by Kellogg's Cereals and Yardley of London.
The series was filmed by Screen Gems, and many of the same sets and props from The Three Stooges short films made by the studio were used on The Monkees: A pair of pajamas with a bunny design on the front that had been worn by Curly Howard in shorts such as Cactus Makes Perfect and In the Sweet Pie and Pie were the same ones worn by Peter Tork in various episodes such as "A Coffin Too Frequent" and "Monkee See, Monkee Die".
To reduce noise on the set during filming, any of the four Monkees who was not needed in front of the cameras was locked into a converted meat locker. In DVD commentary, Tork noted that this had the added benefit of concealing any marijuana use that might be going on, although he admitted that he was the sole "serious 'head'" of the four of them. (In the 1980s, Tork gave up alcohol and marijuana use and has volunteered time to help people recovering from alcoholism.) In a studio outtake included in the 1990s re-release of Headquarters, Nesmith quips, before launching into "Nine Times Blue": "Only difference between me and Peter is I'm just stone legal."
Due to the loosely scripted nature of the series, some episodes would come in too short for air. The producers decided to fill time with various "extras", including the Monkees' original screen tests and candid interviews with the group (conducted by Rafelson off-camera); these interviews usually lasted one minute, hence the frequent joke, "We're a minute short as usual," though the episode "Find The Monkees" featured a three-minute epilogue interview (in which the Monkees gave their opinions on the then-recently-occurred Sunset Strip curfew riots). Although the early episodes contained a laugh track, which was standard practice at the time, the show eventually did not add one, and most of the episodes from Season 2 had no canned laughter. NBC later cited that as one of the reasons for canceling the series.
The theme song to The Monkees, released as the single "(Theme From) The Monkees" in 1967, is one of the group's most well known songs. The line "We're the young generation, and we've got somethin' to say." reflected the new youth counterculture and their desire to give their own opinions on world events and choosing how to live their own lives instead of abiding by the traditions and beliefs of their elders.
The Monkees resided in a two-story beach house at 1334 North Beechwood Blvd. in Malibu, California. The front of the first floor was a combination of the living room, dining room and kitchen. In the back, overlooking the Pacific Ocean, was an alcove formed by massive floor-to-ceiling bay windows, where the Monkees kept their instruments and rehearsed songs. The walls were covered with various kitschy signs and posters, such as the "MONEY IS THE ROOT OF ALL EVIL" sign near the kitchen, the "SCRUB UP" sign above the kitchen sink, and the "IN CASE OF FIRE, RUN" sign with an arrow pointing to an old-fashioned fire extinguisher near the front door. There were also two doors in the kitchen area; one led to a bathroom, the other to Davy and Peter's bedroom. The second floor (via spiral staircase near the front door) only consisted of Micky and Mike's bedroom. By the second season, the upstairs bedroom was occupied by all four Monkees. Also "residing" with the Monkees was Mr. Schneider, a mannequin who dispensed philosophical advice with the pull of his cord. Mr. Schneider was named after the show's co-producer Bert Schneider and was mostly voiced by main director James Frawley. The boys also had to contend with their bad-tempered landlord Mr. Babbit, who was always yelling at them about various infractions that he thought they were responsible for or threatening to throw them out for not paying the rent.
The Monkeemobile was a modified Pontiac GTO designed and built by designer Dean Jeffries. The car featured a tilted forward split two-piece windshield, a touring car T-bucket-type convertible top, modified rear quarter panels and front fenders, exaggerated tail lamps, set of four bucket seats with an extra third row bench where the rear deck should have been, and a parachute. The front grille sported the GTO emblem.
The Monkees won two Emmy Awards in 1967: Outstanding Comedy Series and Outstanding Directorial Achievement in Comedy (James Frawley). Frawley was nominated for the same award the following season. Its win for Comedy Series was considered somewhat of an upset, as it bested long-time favorites The Andy Griffith Show, Bewitched, Get Smart, and Hogan's Heroes.
The Monkees enjoyed a resurgence on Saturday morning/afternoon television on CBS from September 1969 to September 1972 (sponsored by General Foods' Kool-Aid), and on ABC from September 1972 to August 1973. To coincide with the releases of The Monkees Present and Changes albums during this time period, many episodes replaced the older songs with tracks from these recent releases. The 58 episodes were then sold to local markets for syndication in September 1975, where they typically appeared on independent television stations on weekday afternoons (the opening title sequence seen in the syndication package, for all 58 episodes, is from the second season of the original run).
A second, massive resurgence occurred when a Monkees marathon aired on February 23, 1986 on MTV. Within months, the 58 episodes were airing regularly throughout the United States on local stations (in edited form), Nickelodeon/MTV (uncut), as well as Canada on MuchMusic. Dolenz, Tork and Jones, already reunited for a "20th Anniversary Tour", went from playing small clubs to stadiums as the series caught on, and the tour drew critical praise. The popularity led MTV to create a "reboot" version of the franchise in 1987, New Monkees, but it flopped and was cancelled after a half season.
The series has aired edited versions on Antenna TV, a digital subchannel network that broadcasts classic programming from the 1950s-1990s era. IFC also picked up the series for reruns in spring 2015.
Although Rhino Records now serves as the underlying rights holder for this series (as they acquired the Monkees' music catalog, TV series and official logo from Raybert and Columbia Pictures in 1994), Sony Pictures Television remains the television distributor for syndication.
The TV show Miami 7, the debut of the British 1990s pop band S Club 7, had a very similar premise. It was the second time that a manufactured band had their own TV show on American television. Likewise, the Nickelodeon sitcom Big Time Rush followed the same basic format and premise, and producers of that show acknowledged The Monkees as their primary inspiration.
Dolenz said in a 2007 interview on the Roe Conn radio program that, while inspiration did come from the Beatles, the band's image was not meant to be a rip-off of them. He said that the Beatles were always depicted as superstars with legions of fans, whereas the Monkees were always depicted as unsigned and struggling to make a buck. This is reflected numerous times throughout the series, such as in the pilot where Mike Nesmith is seen throwing darts at a Beatles poster, and in the episode "Find The Monkees (The Audition)" where the Monkees struggle to see a famous television producer who is looking for a rock act for use in commercial advertisements; in the episode "I Was A 99-Pound Weakling" Micky is tricked into signing onto a bogus weight-training program but objects by noting, "Where am I gonna get that kind of money? I'm an unemployed drummer." Also in a screen test, a Monkee asks what the Beatles have that they don't have. They sing "Thirteen million dollars!"
When commenting on the death of Davy Jones on February 29, 2012, Time magazine contributor James Poniewozik praised the show: "Even if the show never meant to be more than entertainment and a hit-single generator, we shouldn’t sell The Monkees short. It was far better TV than it had to be; during an era of formulaic domestic sitcoms and wacky comedies, it was a stylistically ambitious show, with a distinctive visual style, absurdist sense of humor and unusual story structure. Whatever Jones and The Monkees were meant to be, they became creative artists in their own right, and Jones’ chipper Brit-pop presence was a big reason they were able to produce work that was commercial, wholesome and yet impressively weird."
Six two-episode VHS volumes of the television series were distributed by Musicvision/RCA/Columbia Pictures Home Video between July 15, 1986 and June 25, 1987, taking advantage of the group's twentieth anniversary.
On October 17, 1995, with The Monkees' 30th anniversary looming, Rhino Home Video issued the complete series as a deluxe VHS boxed set, containing all 58 episodes, plus the pilot and the 1969 special, 33⅓ Revolutions Per Monkee, in a total of 21 videotapes, along with a specially created full-color photo book that tells the history of the series, information of each episode and a variety of photographs from the series. First-run issues of the set also included a limited-edition wristwatch. A few months before, on May 22, Columbia House started releasing a Collector's Edition series also collecting all 58 Monkees episodes and the 1969 special; the one exception being the unaired 1965 Monkees pilot, which was available only on Rhino's Video Box Set.
Rhino later released individual two-episode VHS volumes of the TV series between March 26, 1996 and April 11, 2000; it would be the last time The Monkees television show would be distributed on videocassette.
In May and November 2003, Rhino Home Video released the complete two seasons of the original television series on DVD for the first time. Seasons 1 and 2 were each released separately, six DVDs for Season 1 and five DVDs for Season 2. Both seasons were re-released by Eagle Rock Entertainment on Sept. 27, 2011.
Rhino has released the complete series on Blu-ray for the very first time on July 8, 2016. It was originally scheduled for released on June 26, 2016 but was subsequently pushed back.