Imagine a place where all of the instantly recognizable objects associated with classic television are on display. It doesn’t exist, so we’ll create it here, and pay tribute to many of our favorite Comfort TV things.
Introduced in the first episode of Get Smart, the Cone of Silence would inspire some of the biggest laughs on what many would argue is still the funniest television series ever created.
Was this merely an inspired visual gag by series creators Mel Brooks and Buck Henry, or a subtle comment on government incompetence? Imagine how many taxpayer dollars were poured into research and development on something that never did its job. Not the first time, and certainly not the last. Fill in your favorite boondoggle here.
Its presence in the series’ pilot suggests that this was a moment that would help sell the show: Maxwell Smart, dedicated and eager but also clumsy and dense, awaits assignment from the head of the secret government espionage agency CONTROL. The Chief, Max’s boss, hints at how vital this upcoming mission will be. Not willing to take any chances, Max demands his orders be given only within the security of the Cone of Silence. The Chief, exasperated as if he already knows Uncle Sam got stuck with a clunker, calls for it anyway.
That is a perfect classic TV moment.
The scene works so well that it could have been reprised with only minor variations in future episodes and still earned a laugh. But that would have been too easy for a show with this much genius in its origins. The Cone of Silence would make ten more appearances over the show’s five seasons, and the question was never whether it would function as designed, but how it would fail once again.
In “KAOS in CONTROL,” the Cone still impairs communication between Max and The Chief, but those outside can hear every word they say.
It appears once again in “My Nephew the Spy,” after Max insists that regulations call for all security measures to be taken in such vital circumstances. The Cone is lowered, and the Chief asks Agent 86 what he discovered about KAOS headquarters. Max responds, “Nothing.”
“Too Many Chiefs,” from season one, is my favorite Cone of Silence moment. Here's why:
“Hubert’s Unfinished Symphony” features the debut of the portable Cone of Silence, which looks even more ridiculous than its predecessor. Which is unfortunate for the Chief, who spends most of the episode stuck inside.
When Max and 99 are on assignment in England in “That Old Gang of Mine,” the London CONTROL office provides its own variation, the Umbrella of Silence. Surprisingly it’s up to the task, but other complications ensue.
In the season four episode “A Tale of Two Tails” we learn that the Cone was invented by Professor Cohn. “The Cone of Silence was invented by a Professor Cohn?” Max asks, as he looks up at it; “That’s funny…it doesn’t look it.” One more example of a joke that worked 40 years ago and would now generate demands for apologies and sensitivity training.
With the Cone on the fritz again, Max and the Chief opt for the CONTROL secret word file. Once you see how that works you’ll wonder if it was created by the same guy who wrote the federal tax code.
And though it’s not canon I should mention that a high-tech version of the Cone appears in the 2008 Get Smart film with Steve Carrell. Here at the Museum we’re content to own the original, but if you don’t see it on your next visit don’t panic – most likely it just needs yet another tune-up.