NEW YORK — You don't make fun of truth, justice and the American way, but, seriously folks, how do you do a documentary on Superman with a straight face?
"Superman's 50th Anniversary: A Celebration of the Man of Steel," airing Monday on CBS, is a charming, gentle poke at the super-hero, tinged with a hint of lingering childhood awe. Superman arrived on Earth from Krypton in Action Comics in February, 1938.
Host Dana Carvey of "Saturday Night Live" takes viewers through a one-hour comic documentary that pretends the Man of Steel is a real guy and Metropolis a real town--albeit one that looks suspiciously like New York.
Some of the original "Superman" players are featured. Announcer Jackson Beck--the man who originally said, "Look! Up in the sky!"--does the show's opening narration.
A lovely Noel Neill, who played Lois Lane, is interviewed as Lois' mother. She complains that no one was ever good enough for her daughter after Superman. "I've tried to fix her up with other men, but it's always, 'Can he break through walls? He is bulletproof?' "
There are straight interviews with Jack Larson, who played cub reporter Jimmy Olsen and is now a movie producer, and Kirk Alyn, the first Superman, in the movie serials that ran from 1948 to 1950.
"I felt I was a creator. I created it; I made him look like this; I made him strong, and they believed me," Alyn says proudly. The late George Reeves was the most famous Superman, starring in the television series of the 1950s.
Footage of Superman through the decades, up through Christopher Reeve, is interwoven with new "interviews," such as the one with syndicated columnist Jimmy Breslin, who worked for the Daily Planet's competitor.
"I'd have to say that Perry White made all the right moves," Breslin says of his rival's editor. "He's got a very streamlined staff. What has he got? Essentially three reporters."
Hal Holbrook has a new one-man Broadway show, we are told. He is interviewed backstage--in his distinguished gray hair and blue tights.
And thugs sit around in a bar reminiscing about their inability to resist wasting bullets on the Man of Steel--"I just kept shooting on the chance that one would get through."
Ultracool Lou Reed, wearing shades and puffing on a butt, is interviewed on a street corner: "Superman? I liked him better before when he was more subtle. . . . Now he's flashier, he's more into spectacle."
We also visit a trailer on the outskirts of town, home of Superman's "love child," and his mother, played by Jan Hooks of "Saturday Night Live." Her son, she says, "has that X-ray vision, but only in one eye, so he gets these terrible headaches," then she urges, "Junior, lift up the nova."
Also appearing in the special are Fred Willard, Peter Boyle, Tom Davis and Al Franken, Carol Leifer, Brian Doyle Murray, the Amazing Kreskin and Ralph Nader, among many others.
The special was produced by "SNL" executive producer Lorne Michaels, "SNL" writers wrote it--one of them, Rosie Shuster, is coincidentally related to Joe Shuster, one of Superman's creators--and the producer is Mary Salter, a former producer at "SNL." But the show hasn't the biting satire that "SNL" is known for.
"I think that we felt we wanted to actually honor the character and honor everything about the whole comic-book phenomenon and how this whole sense of a super-hero came into being," Salter said. "We didn't really want to go after that satirically, that was never our objective. . . . We wanted to be pretty gentle."
"I think the sense of humor is quite sly and also gentle, so that it isn't a hard comedy show and doesn't tend to mock Superman or whatever," said Michaels. "It's just bright and charming, and I think the sort of thing you don't get to do in a special."
In the finale, a star-studded crowd awaits the arrival of Superman at a gala celebration.
"I have a plan to destroy Superman at the moment he arrives," says the Brainwave (played by writer Robert Smigel), "but mostly, I'm here to see the stars."
You don't tug on Superman's cape? Well, maybe just a little.