When it debuted on NBC 50 years ago today, The Monkees was something very new in primetime television. There had been comedies about teenagers before, including The Many Loves Of Dobie Gillis, as well as youth-oriented music shows like Shindig and Hullabaloo. But this was something else: an anarchic quasi-sitcom that employed surrealism and absurdity as well as fast-paced music segments that were produced well ahead of the music video curve. It’s only fitting that the series would find a second life on MTV in the 1980s. Paradoxically, even though The Monkees was a product of the burgeoning counterculture, it was as prefabricated and calculated as anything else on the NBC schedule. The multi-media phenomenon was the brainchild of a pair of producers, Bob Rafelson and Bert Schneider. Rafelson has occasionally claimed that the series was inspired by his own days as a musician and not directly by The Beatles. Clearly, though, the box office success of 1964’s A Hard Day’s Night encouraged NBC to take a gamble on the project. That film’s stylistic influence on the series can’t be denied.
The casting call for The Monkees looms rather large in pop culture lore. Rafelson and Scheider were looking for telegenic young men with lots of charisma and maybe a little musical talent, too. Lots of hopefuls responded to a September 1965 ad in Variety, and there is a stubborn urban legend that Charles Manson was among them. He wasn’t, but Peter Tork, Micky Dolenz, Davy Jones, and Mike Nesmith did turn up for the famous audition. These black-and-white screen tests have survived from that era, and they offer ample evidence of The Monkees’ inherent charm.
These tests look to have been shot on the set of The Farmer’s Daughter, a mid-1960s show that was also produced by Screen Gems. There are moments in which some of the hopefuls run lines from the script, but it’s much more fun to watch the candidates banter back and forth with Rafelson, who busts their chops. Nesmith, seemingly never comfortable with teen idol status, paces around the set and rifles through the furniture. Dolenz cracks bad jokes and is chided about his time as a child star on the series Circus Boy. A giggling Tork admits that he was plucked from total obscurity. “I’m eternally grateful, too,” he says. “I’ll do anything.” Jones is maybe the best of all here, talking about his thwarted dreams of being a jockey and being baffled by American slang. “Bag? I don’t get that!”