Retro Hijinks: Dr. Robert Culpable – And the Mad Magazine spoof of “Columbo”

It’s one thing when Mad Magazine spoofs the movie or TV show you’re a star of. Obviously, you’re going to be spoofed too. But it’s a whole other honor to be included in the spoof of a show that you were a guest star on!

In its 60 year history, Mad Magazine has spared no television series, movie or pop culture du jour from its lampooning antics (not to mention politicians and any other public figures). Back in 1973, the popular series Columbo wasn’t spared either, getting the royal Mad treatment in “Clodumbo.”

The story line ran similar to an episode of the show, with a Mad Magazine twist of course. The story opens with Clodumbo annoying the hell out of the Police Commissioner and the rest of the department wishing for a homicide so Clodumbo can go and annoy somebody else. Lo and behold, they get a report of a homicide, which has taken place at the house of Dr. Robert Culpable.

If the name wasn’t blatantly obvious, the excellent art work by Angelo Torres is. Robert Culp, who had appeared on two Columbo episodes by the time this issue of Mad hit newsstands in January of 1973, was given the dubious honor of being portrayed as Clodumbo’s prime suspect. (And honestly, who could’ve resisted using the name “Culpable” anyway?). Dr. Culpable is drawn much like how Culp appeared as Detective Brimmer in 1971’s “Death Lends a Hand” with the striped shirt and square glasses. As another nod to that episode, Clodumbo goes to leave and walks into a closet by mistake, just as Columbo did.

And like Columbo on the series, Clodumbo aggravates Dr. Culpable to the Nth degree. Only unlike Robert Culp, who played the guilty party with aplomb, Dr. Culpable was innocent and ended up confessing to a crime he didn’t commit, just to get the pestering Lieutenant to leave him alone!

Take a look for yourself! You can click the thumbnails to view larger images.

Columbo: The Most Crucial Game

Originally aired: November 5, 1972

Two things to note here…

1. The moustache. It was real and it threw me for a loop. He looked so different with it! Outside of a game show appearance from the same year and a photo of Culp from a documentary on race relations from around the same time period (’71?), I was used to seeing Culp pretty much sans facial hair. (The Grizzly Adams beard in Hannie Caulder is a different story).

2. The Los Angeles Coliseum. If I’ve got the timeline right in my mind, about the time Culp filmed his first appearance on Columbo in 1971, he either just completed or was just about to start on filming for Hickey & Boggs. By the time this episode aired in November of 1972, Hickey & Boggs had been out in the theatres for about a month. So you could watch Culp on the big screen running around the Coliseum and then come home and watch him in the same place on the small screen!

Culp plays Paul Hanlon, general manager for a pro football team owned by Eric Wagner. Eric inherited the sports empire from his father but would rather spend his days partying and playing. Paul, however, sees a better and brighter future for himself – if he can get Eric out of the way.

Paul arrives at the Coliseum and makes his way up to the owners box. He dismisses the busboy for the afternoon, explaining that it would only be him in the box and no guests. After the busboy leaves, Paul gets on the phone to Eric, rustling him out of bed (it’s already afternoon) and telling him to do some laps in the pool and be ready to be picked up as soon as the game was over. They had a flight to catch to Montreal for a business meeting regarding the purchase of another sports team.

Eric grudgingly says he’ll be ready but honestly couldn’t care less about buying another sports team. As soon as Paul is off the phone with Eric he phones down to the team locker room and talks to the head coach giving him a hard time about the team’s performance and what plays to do (and the game hasn’t even started yet). While doing this, Paul puts the phone on speaker phone and carries on the conversation while beginning to change his clothes.

Yeah, we’re not five minutes into this thing and Culp’s taking his shirt off.

What he changes into is the uniform of a concession man. Complete with paper hat and popcorn box. (I couldn’t help but laugh when he grins at his reflection after he puts the hat on.) The get up allows him to leave the stadium unnoticed.

With a commandeered “Ding-a-Ling” ice cream truck, Paul drives out to Eric’s house. He carries a transistor radio with him to keep tabs on the game. Just before getting to Eric’s house, he stops at a payphone and calls Eric to make sure he was out of bed and in the pool, as requested earlier.

At first, Paul can’t get through because Eric is on the phone ordering food or booze or something. Paul waits a minute or so and then dials again. Eric answers and is right where Paul wants him to be.

Paul gets back in the ice cream truck and drives away from the payphone…just as a little girl is calling after him for ice cream down the road. He arrives at Eric’s house and selects his weapon of choice from the back of the ice cream truck, a big chunk of ice. (No, no Death By Drumstrick). Chunk of ice in hand, Paul sneaks onto the property and does his dastardly deed, killing Eric at the pool.

Before he leaves, however, Paul has to cover his tracks. Literally. His wet shoes leave footprints behind on the deck, so he removes his shoes and hoses down the deck.

Then he’s back in the ice cream truck, racing down the highway back to the football game. Ah but he takes a moment to have fudgesicle on the way. And if I’m sounding smarmy by this point it’s because I couldn’t take any of the rest of this episode seriously. The changing of shirts, his grinning after putting the hat on and then the fudgesicle. The fudgesicle did me in.

Back at the stadium, Paul returns by the halftime – in time to meet with the head coach (and thus further substantiate his alibi). Paul smoothes over whatever issues he had at the start of the game and tells the coach that he’s doing a fine job. As he says, he has bigger fish to fry now…

When Lieutenant Columbo arrives at Eric’s house he suspects a little too quickly that Mr. Wagner’s death was no accident. When Columbo goes to the stadium to report of Eric’s death to Paul, Paul reacts appropriately enough.

And the most crucial game begins as Columbo investigates and spends the rest of the episode dogging Paul Hanlon. The scenes between Falk and Culp are worth watching the episode for because Columbo really just annoys the hell out of Paul. He shows up at Eric’s house to ask questions and poke around.

He follows Paul to the airport, which irritates Paul to no end. And Paul can’t shake the Lieutenant loose for the life of him until Mrs. Wagner’s plane arrives.

Yes, Mrs. Wagner. Eric had a wife. And Mr. Hanlon had his sights set on more than just Eric’s fortune. Columbo casually remarks how she’ll inherit everything now and continues his pestering of Paul until she arrives.

Columbo, respectfully, leaves Mrs. Wagner alone. He remains zeroed in on Paul Hanlon, showing up at a media event for the basketball team and informing him that his office phone and the phone at the Wagner house had been bugged, turns out, by the family lawyer. Columbo has everyone (including Mrs. Wagner) gather at the house to listen to some choice cuts of phone conversations, particularly Paul’s phone calls to Eric just before Eric was killed.

The recorded phone conversations seem to further reinforce Paul’s alibi, but Columbo’s bothered by something with the calls. Eventually, he does figure it out. There’s one minor innocent sound that’s missing from Paul’s phone calls to Eric and when Columbo shows up at the stadium on another day he casually blows Paul’s alibi all to pieces.

My favorite exchange of dialogue in this scene is Paul – thoroughly annoyed with Lt. Columbo – says, “Columbo, I’m going toss you out of here on your ear!” to which Columbo calmly replies, “I wouldn’t do that sir. Because then you’re gonna miss the best part…”

Compared to the first Columbo episode, this one wasn’t as good. The performances were all great and the episode has its moments, but the storyline itself was lacking somewhat.  I didn’t really full grasp Hanlon’s motive for murder and didn’t pick up on much malice forethought on the first viewing of the episode. The second viewing, when I capped it, I at least picked up on the motive but still found it vague.

Would I watch it again? It’s Culp, of course I would!

“The Most Crucial Game” is available on the second season Columbo DVD set available at

Columbo: Death Lends a Hand

Originally aired: October 6, 1971

Here we go! The episode that started it all for me in being a Fan of All Things Culp.

Culp plays Brimmer, a former police officer turned private investigator who runs a very sophisticated investigative operation (indeed, he was not Jim Rockford. This firm had several operatives, a fleet of vehicles, electronic gizmos, high rise office space and support staff ). Brimmer’s latest case involved investigating the allegations of infidelity on the part of the young wife of Arthur Kennicut, a prominent LA newspaper publisher. Brimmer reports to Mr. Kennicut that his wife had a “clean bill of health” and was not having any affairs. Mr. Kennicut accepts this finding with relief but we find out after he leaves Brimmer’s office that the report from Brimmer was a total lie. Brimmer then attempts to blackmail Mrs. Kennicut, saying he would keep the proof of her affair quiet if she would provide him with inside information of the powerful people in LA that Mr. Kennicut had connections to.

Right. Mrs. Kennicut throws Brimmer’s blackmail attempt right back in his face, saying she would come clean to her husband first and admit her infidelity – and then expose Brimmer’s blackmail attempt, turning those same powerful connections Brimmer wanted information on into a serious source of trouble, not to mention totally ruining his reputation and his business.

Brimmer, a short tempered kinda guy to begin with, becomes furious with Mrs. Kennicut and accidentally kills her.

Of course, he didn’t intend to kill. And once he realizes what he’s done, he knows the murder of this woman is worse than being exposed for the blackmail attempt.  Thus he does his damnedest to cover it up, cleaning up all evidence of anything she touched from his beach house and then transporting her body across LA to leave her in an industrial area.

It should’ve worked. Once her body is discovered the next morning, it looks like a mugging. Tragic and unfortunate, but she was killed for her money. Brimmer, in a further attempt to keep any suspicion possible away from himself shows up at Mr. Kennicut’s home to offer condolences and offer the services of his firm to find Mrs. Kennicut’s killer.

Yup, the whole cover up should’ve worked. Accept for this pesky, cigar chomping police lieutenant named Columbo…

Despite all the charm Brimmer can put forth, he knows right off the bat that Columbo is going to be a challenge.

Scratch that. Not a challenge. A full fledged pain in the posterior.

The rest of the episode is Brimmer trying to outwit Columbo and throw the Lieutenant off the trail. But it doesn’t work. After one particular conversation where the seemingly scatterbrained Lieutenant reveals a couple of innocent facts and makes a couple of innocent statements, Brimmer realizes the heat is on…

Brimmer only digs himself even deeper when he tries to woo Columbo into leaving the police force and joining the detective agency with the promise of more money and complimenting him on his detective skills.

Columbo says he’ll think it over, talk to the wife. Brimmer thinks he might have a chance.  Then two strange things happen. Brimmer’s car won’t work and he sends it off to the garage to be fixed. Then he gets a call from Mr. Kennicut; Columbo has requested that Mrs. Kennicut’s body be exhumed for some reason.

Now this is where I have to apologize for not remembering exactly how Columbo set this up (were they looking for the contact lens in the casket? Were they looking to see if she had both lens still, or didn’t? Or…gah. Sorry!). What I do know, is the “missing” contact lens sets Brimmer on a search through his beach house, where Columbo shows up, “innocently” enough, says something to further unsettle Brimmer and Brimmer searches a little more once Columbo leaves. Then Brimmer decides he has to search his car – which is still in the shop.

Brimmer breaks into the repair shop and finds his car. He searches the trunk and does indeed find a contact lens…

…and the Lieutenant is waiting for him. Brimmer, indignant, storms away from Columbo and reaches for his cigarettes in his pocket. He then attempts to throw the empty cigarette package away when Columbo stops him, grabbing his hand before the contents are ejected into the wastebasket.

The contact lens in Brimmer’s hand is evidence enough. Caught “red handed” Brimmer accepts being busted, admits his guilt and apologizes quietly to Mr. Kennicut, who was also present during this.

I enjoyed watching this episode and for it being over 2 years since I saw it, the fact I can still remember the plot well enough speaks to how good it is. I capped it pretty much right after I watched it. Definitely a worthwhile introduction to Robert Culp!

“Death Lends a Hand” is available on the Season One DVD of Columbo available at