Welcome to Summer Of Reruns. For the next few weeks, I’m going to devote this column to looking at several shows and looking at why they’re important; not only in the history of the medium, but also why they’ve stuck around.
We currently live in a golden age of animation on television. I’m not talking about the glut of shows made for kids (though there have always been great ones) nor am I talking about the steady stream of anime that is heavily influencing Western styles. I’m talking about the shows that are dominating the primetime television landscape. The Simpsons continues to be one of the most popular franchises in television histroy. South Park is hailed as one of the best satires the medium has ever produced. The pop culture-obsessed shows of Seth McFarlane range from divisive (The Cleveland Show) to absurd (Family Guy) to fantastic (American Dad); often switching episode to episode. And Bob’s Burgers has been routinely hailed as one of the best sitcoms on air right now. And that’s not even counting the stuff on cable right now (Archer, Home Movies, and the Adult Swim lineup).
And, as far as I’m concerned, this success of animation in primetime television is all built on the back of a prehistoric man and a talking moose!
The period of 1928 – 1945 was considered to be the golden age of animation. While feature length animated films such as the groundbreaking Snow White and The Seven Dwarves were critical and box office hits, the feature length form was still rare. Instead, animated shorts were much more common and the major studios churned them out to fill a movie theater screening’s bill (along with B-Movies, news reels, shorts, and so on). While some of the work was filler, quite a bit had lasting value (thanks to the pioneering work of The Fleischer Brothers’s Betty Boop and Superman, to the work of Chuck Jones and Tex Avery at Warner Bros. and MGM respectively, to the shorts made by Walt Disney and more). With the divorcement decrees of 1948 (where film studios could not own the theaters in which they showed the films they made) and the dwindling post World War II movie audience, it was very easy for the studios to start airing their shorter cartoons on television. The problem was that animation is a painstakingly slow and tedious art form that is costly. Thus when animation hit television, by necessity, it had to be significantly simplified to keep production costs low and to attract sponsors (who would then give money to allow for more episodes to be made).
Within the span of one year (on November 17, 1959 and September 30, 1960 to be exact) ABC would debut two wildly different animated shows that would galvanize the art from on television. One would rely on sitcom tropes, while the other took the form of a variety show loaded with pop culture and satire. One would become one of the most lucrative franchises in television history, while the other would become a deeply influential misfit that would influence creators of all stripes throughout the ages. One would be gorgeous but still raise many questions on what it was trying to say, the other was not so polished but made up for it with some of the most ribald comedy on television. Both shows would galvanize their various studios and spawn plenty of descendants and imitators.
Debuting first, Rocky & Bullwinkle was a fast-paced animated variety show with various repeating bits that played with melodrama (Dudley Do-Right), history (Peabody and Sherman), folk tale (Fractured Fairy Tales and Aesop and Son) and more produced by Jay Ward and his eponymous studio. Woven between them all were the adventures of Frostbite Falls, Minnesota’s famous squirrel and moose duo who would get into various serialized adventures trying to foil the evil deeds of evil spies Boris and Natasha. The following fall, Hanna-Barbera Studios debuted The Flinstones on ABC. Set in the prehistoric town of Bedrock, the animated sitcom followed the lives of Fred, his sassy wife Wilma, his dimwitted best friend Barney, and his giggly wife Betty (and if this sounds like another highly influential sitcom, hold that thought because we’ll come back to that).
Both Rocky & Bullwinkle and The Flinstones were of their time and transcended it. Both shows would pave the way for animation to take a permanent place on the primetime television schedules. Here’s what both shows brought to the table…
* Varying Animation Styles – In this age of computer graphics, animation has gotten easier and cheaper thanks to the advances in the art form. By contrast, The Flinstones and Rocky & Bullwinkle were hand drawn. Due to the needs of television this lead to (in the former) repeating a lot of stock footage and backgrounds to compensate, or (in the later) doing away with backgrounds entirely. In fact both shows would define the process known as “limited animation” that became a necessary evil due to limited television animation production budgets.
* Homages (?) To The Art Form – Rocky & Bullwinkle was a deliberate nod and wink to the earlier, edgier days of television in the 1950s in terms of the antic feel of the variety shows of the 1950s (in particular the work of Ernie Kovacs and Your Show Of Shows) complete with reoccurring bits and characters. By contrast, The Flinstonses was deeply rooted in the tropes of the traditional sitcom; so much so that many critics then and now have accused Hanna-Barbera of wholesale ripping off from the granddaddy of all sitcoms The Honeymooners, a charge not helped by Alan Reed and Mel Blanc’s performances as Fred and Barney sounding eerily like Jackie Gleason and Art Carney as Ralph and Ed. (In fact, Gleason almost considered suing Hanna-Barbera for copyright infringement, but was talked out of it.) This wouldn’t be the first time that Hanna-Barbera aped a popular sitcom on the air (more on that in a minute).
* Pop Culture 101 – Both shows, to varying degrees, would use jokes based on pop culture. In the case of The Flinstones, it was modern devices powered by prehistoric animals and stone-age-based portmanteaus on figures of popular culture (“Gary Granite”, “Stony Curtis”, “Ann-Margrock”, “Perry Masonry/Masonite”, “Mick Jadestone and The Rolling Boulders”,”The Beau Brummelstones”, and more – often voiced by the very people they were parodying). By contrast, Rocky & Bullwinkle was much more obvious in its parodies and satire. It also was known for it’s meta humor as well, as encapsulated by this exchange:
Rocky: Holy Smokes! They’re going to get an A-Bomb! Do you know what that means?
Bullwinkle: Certainly! ‘A-Bomb’ is what some people call our television program.
Rocky: I don’t think that’s very funny!
Bullwinkle: Neither do they apparently.
* The Casts – As I mentioned earlier, both shows had great casts of voice actors, with each one having a pioneer of voice acting in its stable of actors. On The Flinstones, in addition to Reed and the great Mel Blanc (the voice for so many characters in the Warner Bros. franchise), the show would start the tradition of guest actors providing voices. Meanwhile at Rocky & Bullwinkle, the cast was a small repertory company led by the iconic June Foray as Rocky, Natasha, Nell, and a host of other voices. So great is Foray’s work that The Annie Awards have named their highest achievement in voice acting after her. (As Chuck Jones himself famously said, “June Foray is not the female Mel Blanc, Mel Blanc was the male June Foray.”)
* The Influence – Both Rocky & Bullwinkle and The Flinstones would pave the way for animation on television in prime time. While Rocky & Bullwinkle would be the most successful of the shows from producer Jay Ward, Hanna-Barbera would go on to dominate animation on television but sporadically return to the prime time sitcom well again, first with The Jetsons in 1962 (which would be a futuristic take on the sitcom) and then again in the syndicated Wait Till Your Father Gets Home in 1972. While both shows were send ups of sitcoms on the air (with George Jetson heavily inspired by the physical comedy of The Dick Van Dyke Show and Wait Till Your Father Gets Home a gentler riff on All In The Family), Wait Till Your Father Gets Home would be the first primetime animated show since The Flinstones to last more than one season on primetime. It also serves as the missing link to connect with The Simpsons (in tone) and the Seth McFarlane shows (in look). It’s very easy to connect the stylistic dots from it to Family Guy and its descendants.
Rocky & Bullwinkle, by contrast, would deeply influence writers of all stripes. By opening the floodgates for pop culture-based self referential humor, and by bringing back the variety show aspect to television, it would heavily inspire the writers for Saturday Night Live and pave the way for both South Park and the McFarlane shows; shows that heavily trade in pop culture and satire.