Knight Rider: One man and his campy talking car
posted by Mike on 7/11/02
There can scarcely be a more profound treasure trove of pop culture goodness than the world of 80's television. I grew up during the last half of the 70's, and most of the 80's, and I have to say that, despite their massive cheese factor, I enjoyed TV back then at a level I may never again. There was just something special about a green guy in ripped shorts who could solve anyone's problems with his fists, a greaser who could start jukeboxes with his elbow, or an alien who sat on his head (I always wondered if the producers never showed Mork leaving the bathroom because they didn't want to answer the plethora of "why's his hair not wet?" questions.)
When surfing through the ocean of pop culture fan sites, one often finds tributes to the various TV shows and stars of the day: The Mr. T's, the Duke brothers, the (God help us) Steve Urkels. But one rarely sees praise, or even mention, of the men behind the scenes. Short of Gene Roddenberry, you'll rarely find a site that recognizes the contributions of the real TV stars… the writers, and the producers .
Of all the creative men and women who brought their work to the small screen during this era, perhaps none were quite as prolific as Glen Larson. Best known for his brainchild "Battlestar Galactica," Larson did more than just contribute to the magic of 80's television. He WAS 80's television.
Larson's career started out at Universal, where he worked as a freelance writer. Before long, he won his first producer's gig for the Robert Wagner vehicle "It Takes a Thief." While not exactly Shakespeare (hell, it wasn't even Longfellow) it got him in the door. And from there, he never looked back, even when his creations fell flat on their face, which (to an 80's nut's delight) happened quite often. With shows like Magnum PI, Buck Rogers, The Six Million Dollar Man, Quincy, Manimal, and yes, BJ and the Bear, he scraped his way into the annuls of television history… for better, or worse.
Of course, he does have his detractors. While he either produced or wrote for some of the most memorable shows in television history, he also dropped some real abortions into living rooms and college dorms across America. Some have even labeled him as television's most successful plagiarist, as it seemed his new shows always bore strong similarities to a recent motion picture of the time. Any Which Way But Loose was about a trucker and his pet orangutan. BJ And The Bear was about a trucker and his pet chimpanzee (BJ's nemesis, the clueless Sheriff Lobo, was a carbon copy of Jackie Gleason's Beuford T. Justice character from Smokey And The Bandit… he later got his own spin off show, The Misadventures of Sheriff Lobo.) Tron was about a man who is sucked into the world of video games. AutoMan was about a video game character who is sucked into the real world. Smokey And The Bandit was about a man who skirted the edge of the law with his trusty tricked out 1978 Trans Am, whilst pulling off some unbelievable car stunts. Knight Rider was about a man who skirted the edge of the law in his tricked out 1981 Trans Am, whilst pulling off some unbelievable car stunts (though a more direct rip off of Smokey can be found in Hazard County, methinks.) Magnum PI resembled practically every Burt Reynolds movie ever made, and George Lucas sued him for Battlestar Galactica's similarities to Star Wars. Still, his influence in the tried and true network television formula can be seen, even today.
So, in celebration of this man's career, I'll be taking a look back at some of his greatest triumphs, and most embarrassing failures. By the time I'm done, you'll either have garnered a newfound respect for the man, or fallen to your knees in gratitude for the 80's demise. We begin… with Knight Rider.
"Knight Rider, a shadowy flight into the dangerous world of a man who does not exist.
Michael Knight, a young loner on a crusade to champion the cause of the innocent, the helpless, the powerless, in a world of criminals who operate above the law."
While Glen Larson was the series producer for this not-so-epic hit, the idea for the show was actually spawned by then president of NBC, Brandon Tartikoff. As legend would have it, he and one of his assistants were discussing the problems of casting handsome leading men in new series, because many of them couldn't act. Tartikoff joked that they should create a series he called "The Man of Six Words," which would begin with the guy getting out of a woman's bed and saying "Thank You." Then he would chase down some villains and say "Freeze!" Finally the grateful soon-to-be jailbirds would thank him, and he would murmur, "You're welcome." And that would be it. In between action sequences and network-safe sex scenes, the car could do all the talking. The idea was given to Larson to flesh out. And flesh it out he did.
The show that ultimately became Knight Rider premiered in 1982 with a two hour pilot. It concerned a dying millionaire named Wilson Knight, who rescued a young undercover cop named Michael Long, who'd taken a gunshot to the face. Of course, after surgery, it was revealed that the bullet's damage had turned the poor cop into David Hasselhoff.
Kids, say no to drugs! And try to look dangerous when you do it.
The old man rechristened him Michael Knight, hence the snazzy title, and gifted him with a new car, the Knight Industries Two Thousand, or known to the ladies as KITT. Thus armed, Wilson sent him off into the dusty wastelands of America (which, as fate would have it, all looked just like Southern California) to fight for truth, justice, the American Way, and pink slips. Every week, Knight would receive his orders from his British (and relatively faggy) boss Devon (who resided in a huge Wayne Manorish estate called… I shit you not… The Foundation for Law And Government, or FLAG), then travel from town to town, solving problems (ala the Hulk, the A-Team, Werewolf, and a dozen other 80's shows) with his detective skills, and a little help from his Super Car Of Doom (tm.)
Now, there's no mistaking it. KITT was what kids would now refer to as a "fly ass ride." There was nothing this car could not do. First and foremost, it could talk. Voiced by William Daniels (the school teacher from Boy Meets World, as well as the head MD on St. Elsewhere) KITT was the source for many a one-liner, accosting Michael with his uncanny British wit (which is confounding, since KITT was a Pontiac Trans Am.) KITT was bulletproof. He could go from 0 to 300 mph faster than Catholic priests fleeing Boston. Thanks to a nifty Tamagochi style wrist watch that Knight was always losing, KITT had the uncanny ability to show up just before Michael was about to buy it. He could leap fifty feet into the air, and often through solid concrete, with the help of his infamous "turbo boost." He had laser cannons, flame throwers, smoke bombs, infrared motion detectors, and an automatic condom dispensor in the back seat.
Behind every good action hero is a British homosexual aristocrat.
Each episode followed the same generic plot formula. Michael gets a call on his in dash video phone (take THAT, Bill Gates) from Devon, assigning him to help out the weekly damsel in distress, who not only happens to live just a couple exits down from Michael's present location, but also knew enough about Knight's supposed secret existence to ask for help in the first place. It usually involved something A-Teamish, like a woman whose hair salon is being terrorized by the Mafia (In Sunnyvale, Ca???) because she won't give them free haircuts.
So Michael and KITT would rush to her aide. The bad guys would fire lots of bullets, which would either miss, or bounce off KITT's windshield. Michael would invariably decide to investigate further by sneaking unarmed into the villain's lair. Without a doubt, he would be found, get into a fist fight where they'd all take turns getting beat down while the rest of them watched, their guns holstered at their sides. By some miracle of God, the bad guys would get the upper hand. Michael would be on the verge of defeat, then, out of nowhere, KITT would use his 10 second Turbo Boost to smash through the solid cinder block wall of the building (without as much as a scratch to the paintjob) and save the day. I've often wondered why the Turbo Boost only lasted ten seconds… seems rather ineffective…
Why is it that I always hit the door when I'm aiming for the SPOILER?!?
Which brings me to the real point of the whole show. Knight Rider wasn't really about a man of mystery waging a single-handed war on crime. It was an allegory to the relationship between a man… and his manhood.
You heard me right. It has long been said that the type of car a man drives is in direct correlation to what he thinks of his penis. The bigger/nicer the car, the smaller the dick. So Michael Knight's must have been the penile equivalent of an "innie" belly button. Oh it's true… It's damned true.
Nothing says "I love you" like a backrub from an exhaust pipe
Never did you see Knight have a sleep over with one of the dozens of helpless women he rescued. Not once did you see him build a relationship with anyone but his car, not even a one night stand. The only woman he had regular contact with on the show was KITT's mechanic Bonnie, who would from week to week magically appear out on the highway in KITT's traveling garage. But did Knight ever clean her carburetor? Hell no. She never paid Knight a moment's attention… all she ever cared about was getting under KITT's hood… where the REAL action was.
Hey sweet thing. Meet me after work and I'll give you a lube job!
And when you consider the fact that Knight often had long, drawn out conversations with his car, it opens up a whole new vista on the man's psyche. To get right to the point, he's the guy you'd hear talking to himself at a urinal, begging Ole' One Eye to let a few drops go, and give his bladder a rest. He's the guy you'd see stumbling down the street at one in the morning, drunk off his ass and screaming at his crotch about "never being there for me when I need you!" He's the idiot who takes several boxes of condoms into the dressing room at Wal-Mart to see "which style Big Man likes the most." But worst of all, he's the guy who likes to scream "You like that, DONTCHA!" while masturbating, often speaking the responses to himself out of the side of his mouth.
Click here to hear KITT talk dirty to his lover boy
But it gets worse, oh constant reader. KITT's arch nemesis was KARR, the prototype for his design, whose artificial intelligence chips had gone batty, making him the most evil car to ride the roads since Ted Kennedy crossed a bridge (it was easy to tell KITT and KARR apart. KARR was two-tone, KITT was not.) Michael had harsh feelings towards this other car, a car from the past who kept coming back to haunt him, trying to get between he and his beloved KITT. Read between the lines, folks. Michael Knight was flying the rainbow flag, and KARR was the scorned gay ex-lover. It explains everything. No sex with women… his tendency to groom himself after every gunfight (evidenced by the fact that despite all of his heroics, he never got as much as a speck of dirt on his leather jacket)… his agency has the same initials as the Foundation for Lesbians And Gays… his keen fashion sense… well alright, maybe that's a stretch, but come on! Work with me here!
Click here to hear KITT's pillow talk
Every year the producers would try to keep the fans interested by giving KITT new gadgets, just like a James Bond film. When Knight Rider's final season came around, he'd been equipped with his "super" Turbo Boost. Now, in addition to having trans-warp drive, KITT could stretch and transform ala the Men In Black cruiser, no doubt to lure in the transformer crowd. Do you see it? Do you see the hidden message, folks? Longer, Means Better. In addition to snazzy new weapons (and probably a flux capacitor for all I know) he'd been given the automotive answer to the penis pump. It's right there in black and white, people.
In charge, and extra-large, baby
Knight Rider was a success throughout its entire run, and has spawned spin offs (Team Knight Rider) and flat out rip offs (Street Hawk, Viper.) Hasselhoff has since moved on to bigger and better things, namely Yasmine Bleeth's hooters, but to most of his fans (except for the Germans, who love him for his sensual singing voice) he'll always be Michael Knight. Recently, it was announced that plans are in the works for a big budget Knight Rider motion picture. I fully expect KITT to return, voiced by Mike Myers and sporting a new "syntholube" that allows him to perform in Turbo Boost mode for longer than 10 seconds at a time (that's right… on top of everything else, Michael Knight was a "premie.") Until that day comes, I shall be patiently waiting for a time when "'One man (and his tricked out member) can make a difference."
Next time, I revisit one of Larson's less successful creations, AutoMan. See ya 'round.