Sunday, August 21, 2016

More Laughs, Satire And Subversion In Made-For TV Cartoons

Watching Jay Ward cartoons in the last post got this writer thinking of other animated series designed for what Ernie Kovacs called "the orthicon tube" in the late 1950's to mid-1960's.

Ace animator, writer and animation historian Mark Kausler beat us to the punch with a well-written and comprehensive article on the Cartoon Research website about a very good show Your Correspondent liked a great deal, Ed Graham Jr.'s Linus The Lionhearted.

There were some odd 1-shot syndicated series that transcended low budgets with clever ideas and a bit of style. Q.T. Hush, produced in 1960 by Animation Associates - readers may recognize the name of Lou Zukor from the credits of Fleischer and Famous Studios cartoons - was a serialized sleuth series that many children of the early 1960's still remember fondly (note the sound is extremely low on this clip).

It's a tough call to select the funniest of the latter 1950's and 1960's TV cartoon series not produced by Jay Ward. Certainly the animated version of Beany & Cecil (many entries directed by former Walt Disney Studio "duck man" Jack Hannah) featuring a winning, funny and likable cast of characters backed with fine voice work, would be in the running.

Chuck Jones termed many of the made-for-TV toons "illustrated radio" - and there were positive and negative examples of this. It all started in the late 1940's, when Jay Ward and Alex Anderson figured out how to make entertaining cartoons on no budget; write exceptionally funny scripts - and spend the budget on damn funny voice actors. Voila - the first cartoon series produced specifically for TV, the witty Crusader Rabbit.

The first made-for-TV cartoon, Alex Anderson and Jay Ward's Crusader Rabbit basically was still frames. Except for a moment in the opening, there really wasn't any animation. Still, the comedy writing and storylines by Anderson, the voice work and central characters were very funny.

Besides Crusader Rabbit, other than the Tele-Comics series – quite literally comics – in the early days of TV, daily puppet shows as Kukla, Fran & Ollie and Time For Beany were the rage.

In animated commercials, the quintessential example of the new breed would be the Bert & Harry Piel ads produced by Gene Dietch at the New York wing of the UPA studio. The Piels were voiced by two of radio's finest, Bob & Ray. It was a very successful campaign which combined limited animation with stylish graphic design and winning yet understated humor.

Dietch would go on to be hired by Terrytoons, write and directed a group of fascinating theatrical cartoons (the best designed specifically for the wide dimensions of CinemaScope) and then create the series Tom Terrific that aired on CBS-TV’s Captain Kangaroo show. While Tom Terrific is not of the same satiric or subversive cloth as the TV shows by Jay Ward, it remains a prime example of designing a series specifically for children which also offers great entertainment value for all ages. Much of this is due to the contrast between ever-plucky Tom and phlegmatic Manfred The Wonder Dog - and how the minimalist pen-and-ink design and soundtrack music fits the storylines and series concept beautifully.

The series Gene subsequently produced at his Prague studio featuring a little nebbish named Nudnik might have also made a wonderful TV show.

And then there was our favorite at Way Too Damn Lazy To Write A Blog, the both silly and satiric Roger Ramjet.

The series creator, Fred Crippen, previously worked at UPA and subsequently made some excellent indie animation short subjects; Network Awesome has paid tribute in a Films Of Fred Crippen collection. Other key figures in the series went on to work on the Carol Burnett and Bob Newhart shows, while radio great Gary Owens, not long after contributing stellar voice work to all 185 Roger Ramjet episodes, joined the cast of Rowan & Martin's Laugh-In.

What happened? It's pretty clear that as the 1960's progressed and vast numbers of individuals across the nation were dropping LSD-25 tabs as if they were peanut M&Ms, the TV cartoon world was getting . . . well, more conservative. Among the last series that Jay Ward and Hanna-Barbera would launch in the 1960's, George Of The Jungle (17 episodes) and Scooby Doo, Where Are You? ended up establishing the direction for the next decade. The former, often hilarious albeit not as satiric as Rocky & Bullwinkle, ended up not getting renewed and would being the last show produced by Jay Ward - subsequent pilots did not sell - while the latter, which recycled plots and animation ad nauseum, would prove a harbinger of series after series after series produced by Hanna-Barbera and Filmation.

The writing was on the wall. The labor-saving, budget-lowering techniques and, most importantly, storyline repetition of Scooby Doo were the polar opposites of the blueprints for how to do entertaining limited animation series for TV established by Jay Ward Productions, Bob Clampett Productions and other studios - and would usher in the Saturday morning Dark Ages.

Much of this could be attributed to Action On Children's Television. These were well-meaning folks who saw the growing and alarming violence in our society and thought that ACME anvils dropping on Wile E. Coyote may have been a determinant that led to Charles Whitman shooting people randomly on a tower in Texas.

For two decades, stringent rules were placed on cartoons made for TV. Producers of Sesame Street for PBS worked within those rules as best as possible, as did the Schoolhouse Rock series, but nonetheless these would be dreary days for Saturday morning television - and the end of the trail for such imaginative producers of content as Jay Ward Productions. The Action On Children's Television era is also where the idea that cartoons were entertainment designed for children and, unlike Tom Terrific, ONLY for children - a concept that must have made Tex Avery cringe - truly took hold with a vengeance, leading to two decades of terrible animation for TV.

The one thing that can be said for the unending recycling and repetition of Scooby Doo and countless other animated series from the 1970's and early 1980's - besides the fact that it gave animation artists employment - is that the Saturday morning formula ended up inspiring some pretty wonderful parodies, all very much in the spirit of Rocky & His Friends, Fractured Fairy Tales and Roger Ramjet, decades later.

Scooby Doo, Scrappy Doo and Dippity Do (but not Hüsker Dü) would be the norm until those very first glimpses of The Simpsons on The Tracy Ullmann Show, ushering in the next era. These initial efforts were darn near as crude as the early Crusader Rabbit shows, but on the right track.

The Ralph Bakshi produced Mighty Mouse: The New Adventures would soon follow, debuting in the 1987-1988 season - and a new and far less rigid era was at hand.

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