I don’t want to blow anybody’s mind, but the classic cartoon Go-Go Gophers is further evidence of a little acknowledged but fascinating trend in 1960s cartooning, whereby animators actively ripped off popular live-action television shows of the time, essentially mining/co-opting them for themes, plots and personalities.
These cartoons were the stuff of my childhood — on Saturday mornings, after school — and I expect much of my cohort will read this and nod knowingly. “Ah yes,” they will ruminate, mindfully stroking their gray beards, “The Flintstones.”
Yes, but it’s bigger than that.
The Flintstones are indeed the best-known example of this dynamic and the first cartoon ever to air on network television in prime time. Launched in 1960, the show was a blatant rip-off of The Honeymooners, then a vivid-but-still-a-mere memory; its 39 episodes had aired from 1955-56 (though star Jackie Gleason would reprise the role and the show intermittently for years). Fred and Wilma Flintstone were clear homages to the lead, live-action roles played by Gleason and Dorothy Meadows. Barney Rubble was even more distinctively based on Art Carney’s character, Ed Norton. I think everyone realized what was going on here, even at the time. It was part of the imprimatur that led to the featuring of The Flintstones in prime time, something unprecedented for an animated series at that time and frankly, still today, apart from The Simpsons.
But cartoonists would eventually prove some of the most facile and prolific rip-off artists in 20th century media history. They saw The Flintstones formula working and reprised the process without shame — to a degree we kids didn’t realize at the time and, I’d wager, few appreciate still today.
Exhibit A? The inimitable Go-Go Gophers, an under-appreciated cartoon and one based completely on another live action (and culturally tone-deaf) TV show from that era, F Troop. Indeed, Go-Go Gophers was the cartoon that decades ago tipped me off to and set me thinking on this weighty matter.
As a kid, I thought F Troop was sorta funny and, crucially, I liked the theme song. Fittingly, each episode of Go-Go Gophers also begins with one of cartooning’s all-time great themes songs, followed by an uncanny homage to F-Troop’s fertile-if-untoward frontier theme. One wonders today how anyone could see the opportunity for such broad humor in the slow-moving genocide of an indigenous people… (We could include here a sitcom based in a German POW camp, with the Holocaust presumably taking place all around it. When Hogan’s Heroes was airing, perhaps folks were similarly dumbfounded by our bygone acceptability of black minstrel humor, like Amos & Andy, just 30 years prior. Thirty years from now, we may similarly come to grips with other such untoward manifestations of white supremacy and the patriarchy.)
Be all that as it may, the creators of Go-Go Gophers (ad guys from Dancer Fitzgerald Sample, apparently seeking to provide content during which their General Mills client’s cereals could be advertised) and their producers (Total Television then CBS, starting in 1967, as part of the brilliant Underdog Show) devised a cast of characters that does the live-action show one better. The two aboriginal characters (members of the Hakawi Tribe) are straight cribs from the TV show, but you’ll recall the cartoon Colonel inhabits a Teddy Roosevelt milieu, while the Sergeant (played by Forest Tucker on TV) is animatedly morphed into a laconic John Wayne-ish figure.
Larry Storch’s memorable TV character, “Agarn”, didn’t make the cut. Neither did the Colonel’s live-action love interest, a sort of Annie Oakley figure clearly inspired by Ellie May from the Beverly Hillbillies. (In the 1960s, when in doubt, no matter how incongruous to the sitcom premise, producers were sure to write into the show some hot young blond. See The Munsters and, for that matter, The Jetsons). Television producers did a lot of shameless things, then and now. They borrowed from any genre or competing show that worked. And so they could hardly complain when cartoon producers did the same.
The animated series that sealed this hypothesis and rendered it undeniable fact (one that will surely someday make me rich and famous) is the one and only Yogi Bear. I hope we can agree there was never anything that funny about Yogi or his show. Boo-Boo occasionally deadpanned some ironic, understated zingers (“I don’t think the Ranger’s gonna like that, Yogi…”); the scriptwriter who sited the show in a fictional Jellystone Park deserves some credit. But otherwise, here was another “classic” Hanna-Barbera cartoon that trafficked in the same lame jokes and stunts show after show after show.
But Yogi himself is clearly based on a live-action TV show character, too. It’s just a question of which one.
Back in the 1970s, UHF stations relied to an extraordinary degree on some very old content to fill their weekday afternoon schedules — just the time when latch-key kids like myself were arriving home to watch TV unsupervised. I’m not sure how much 40-year-old television content is deployed these days, but back then the idiot box was full of stuff from the 1930s! Felix The Cat, for example. Little Rascals. The Three Stooges. Popeye the Sailor. Bugs Bunny (though Looney Tunes were of a quality that, in the main, still reserved them for Saturday mornings, on the networks).
The Bowery Boys also lived into the 1970s via syndication. The main characters here — a half dozen wise-cracking, quasi-toughs who hung out in and around New York City’s Bowery district — were the subject of 12 feature films, the first of which appeared in 1943. Later they would star in three 12-chapter serials. By 1958, they were done, though these serials lived on via syndication, starting in the mid-1960s, mainly on small UHF stations like WSBK Channel 38 in Boston. That’s where I encountered them. Otherwise I’d have never noticed the upturned fedora and anti-establishment bravado that would be become Yogi Bear trademarks.
Yes, it is my contention that Yogi Bear is no more than an animated Bowery Boy.
Think about it: Jellystone Park is somewhere out west, yet this bear (who’s forever scamming pick-i-nick baskets) sounds like a wise guy from the
Lower East Side of Manhattan. Yogi Bear didn’t debut until 1958, as part of the Huckleberry Hound Show, the same year The Bowery Boys franchise passed from the scene. Still, Hanna-Barbera recognized enough cultural relevance to rip it off — to longstanding effect, it must be said.
Some argue that, like Barney Rubble, Yogi is in fact based on Art Carney’s Ed Norton character, from The Honeymooners, and that may true. Similar hat. But we can agree Norton was an affable goof-sidekick, whereas the Bowery Boys, like Yogi, were pointedly anti-authoritarian. Transgressive even. Like alpha Bowery Boy Leon Gorcey often did, Yogi wore a tie — Norton never did.
Either way, these animated cultural borrowings would make a great doctoral thesis — especially when one takes into account the time and place where it played out. Television was still pretty new in 1958 America but the medium had already proved a stupendous cultural force. These early live-action shows (even the middling ones) were watched in extraordinary numbers. Contemporaneous animators were clever to lift these ready-made, recognizable, already proven tropes and run with them.
Movies had previously provided the same sort of cartoon fodder of course. Think of how many caricatured send-ups of Clark Gable, Bing Crosby, Jimmy Cagney and Edward G. Robinson were found in Looney Tunes produced during the 1940s. Hanna-Barbera didn’t miss this trick either: Consider Top Cat, what I had always assumed was a pretty clever reworking not of TV characters but rather the Rat Pack films and public personae then so culturally prominent. (Good theme song, too — appropriately rendered in Sinatra’s swing style.)
But as with so many of these toons, there’s more cultural borrowing to this story. Top Cat debuted in 1961 and lasted just 30 episodes, overlapping perfectly with the cultural star-power then emanating from the Kennedy Administration. Yet colleague Mark Sullivan points out that Top Cat himself was actually inspired by comedian Phil Silvers, then at the height of his cultural relevance thanks to his turn as TV’s Sergeant Bilko. The giveaway here is Maurice Gosfield, who played Private Duane Doberman on Bilko and who also provided the voice for Benny the Ball in Top Cat. Meanwhile, it’s been further theorized that Top Cat’s crew of mates was additionally inspired by (wait for it)… The Bowery Boys!
I wouldn’t bet my life on it but methinks the Huckleberry Hound character had been loosely based on Andy Griffiths’ persona as a stand-up comedian, then as star of his own live-action TV show. I’m sorta surprised that I Love Lucy never got this treatment, though Hanna-Barbera did later produce the animated segments introducing The Lucy Show — and Bewitched. Elizabeth Montgomery (another bombshell) guested as a magical “Samantha” character on the Flintstones (1965). It was all very incestuous, or cross-pollinating if you prefer.
The key here is not to be carried away by the actual artistry (in a scripting or animating sense) deployed by these cartoonists. Even if it’s sorta cool that they so successfully identified children’s subject matter in live-action shows meant for adults, most of the actual cartoons were crap. Wait till Your Father Gets Home, an animated rip-off of All in the Family survived in prime-time for just two years (and forever lives in infamy) because it was so terrible. Huckleberry Hound was, like Yogi Bear, the same lame comedic constructs reprised over and over and over again. Magilla Gorilla wasn’t based on anything fun, live-action or otherwise; it sucked completely on its own merit. Some H-B shows got away with this. I loved Wacky Races as a kid. But generally, the animation and original plotting skills on display today, in places like Adult Swim and elsewhere (Ren and Stimpy seems to me the tipping point here), have taken the medium to a wholly new and better place.
There’s an additional/related point to be made here about the current production of live-action “super-hero” movies based on all the various comic series — a timely point in light of Stan Lee’s recent passing. Unfortunately, I’m not the best person to make it. As a youth I never got into comic books, at all. It mystifies me that so many millions of people today — people who never devoured comics, people way too young to know who Captain America even was — shell out good money to see these derivative films (and their serial iterations) in theaters.
But the dynamic does appear to have come full circle — perhaps 540 degrees. These “super hero” characters do come ready-made, with reasonably tried-and-true narratives that, because no one under 40 remembers them, can be fashioned anew in any way one likes. This is exactly what would-be producers of film franchises seek, apparently.
There was a period, not took long ago, when live-action feature film producers mined shitty cartoons in search of the same thing (Scooby Doo, Josie & The Pussycats, even The Flintstones). None proved particularly successful, it seemed to me. This comic book dynamic has hit broader buttons.
The take-away: Truly there is nothing new under the sun. Not now, not in 1958… But if they ever do make a live-action movie of Josie & The Pussycats in Space, I’ll lay my money down — just to see how today’s CGI masters render Jeep. Or rather I’ll blow 90 minutes watching in my living room, on Netflix.