Friday, March 05, 2010

26. The Rocky and Bullwinkle Show

The adultification (I made that word up, BTW) of cartoons did not being in 1989 with “The Simpsons”. It began in 30 years earlier with a show called “The Rocky and Bullwinkle Show” that revolved around the misadventures of a flying squirrel (Rocky) and his slow-witted, yet very zen, moose friend named Bullwinkle. Created by Jay Ward, this show was not just years ahead of its time—it was generations ahead. Without this show, not only is there no Simpsons but one could argue that there is no show that have any sort of subtle comedy hidden behind overly zany plots.*

* Two things: 1. do not get this show confused with the live-action Robert DeNiro flick based on these characters. This show is brilliant, that movie couldn't have sucked more. 2. During this Blog, the chances are very high that I am going to refer to Jay Ward as Jay North. As you may recall, Jay North is the kid who played “Dennis the Menace” in the old black-and-white, live-action TV show that was on Nickelodeon reruns ad nauseum during the 1980s. I apologize in advance to Mr. Ward and Mr. North if either are still alive and read Blogs.

The interesting thing is that the way the show was originally broadcast is pretty different from how future generations saw it. From the bastion of truth, Wikipedia:

“When first shown on NBC, the cartoons were introduced by a Bullwinkle puppet, voiced by Bill Scott, who would often lampoon celebrities, current events, and especially Walt Disney, whose program Disneyland was the next show on the schedule. On one occasion, "Bullwinkle" encouraged children to pull the tuning knobs off the TV set. "In that way," explained Bullwinkle, "we'll be sure to be with you next week!" After the network received complaints from parents of an estimated 20,000 child viewers who apparently followed Bullwinkle's suggestion, Bullwinkle told the children the following week to put the knobs back on with glue "and make it stick!" The puppet sequence was dropped altogether”

None of this stuff was ever shown in the hacked-up syndication version—it was just the cartoons. And that was ok. While the puppet sounds really funny (especially the riffs on Disney) not seeing it didn't take anything away from the show. I suppose that “Rocky and Bullwinkle” was anti-authoritarian enough without the puppet and his anti-Disney rhetoric.

While the overt displeasure of Disney was missing, the subvert anti-Disney stabs was certainly present in the animation. Unlike the Mickey Mouse style of fluid, elegant lines with expressive face, Rocky and Bullwinkle were drawn with more of a rough-around-the-edges style. It was as if the show wasn't interested in making high art like Disney. The style certainly had a sort of simplistic beautiful quality, but I think that Ward was more interested in telling a better story and crafting a better joke. Essentially the cartoon medium was a conduit for Ward's words that was not possible with live-action actors.

And it worked.

No matter if it was the Rocky and Bullwinkle shorts that were the centerpiece of the show or myriad other shows that surrounded it, Ward was spot on with his voice and humor. Among the other vignettes that hit the mark were “Peabody's Improbable History” which centered on a time traveling dog, Mr. Peabody and his boy, Sherman. Each week they'd travel back to a historical event and find out that things didn't happen quite like the history books said they did.

“Fractured Fairy Tales” took centuries old stories that we've all head one hundred times and set them on its ears. These cartoons were exquisitely narrated by the Seussian named Edward Everett Horton and his voice added a lot of gravitas to the shorts. “Aesop and Son” was a lot like “Fractured Fairy Tales” but these episodes revolved around the cartoon version of the ancient Greek story teller and his wise-ass son. “Dudley Do-Right of the Mounties” was another cartoon short that ran with Bullwinkle and it was about a dim-witted Mountie who foils his nemesis Snidely Whiplash. This wasn't something that I was a big fan of but the premise was to satire the old serials where the handsome hero sometimes needed help.

Aside from the titular characters, the shorts were rotated so that while the format was known, nothing ever really got stale.

Like a lot of shows on this list, the thing that I admired most about “The Rocky and Bullwinkle Show” is that Jay Ward never treated his audience like a collection of idiots. He was the first person to use the televised cartoon as satire, as the two characters cleverly joked about politics, sports and pop culture. While the Red Menace was at it's height, R&B's main bad guys were the bumbling Bolsheviks Boris and Natasha.

Even now, the direct (and indirect) influence of Jay Ward can be felt in a lot of television, both animated and live-action. Simpsons creator Matt Groening has gone on record saying that the initial J in the names Homer J. Simpson and Bartholomew J. Simpson are a tribute to Ward. And since “The Simpsons” have spawned off a legion of satirical, sarcastic shows during its 20 year run, the grandfather of them all is Mr. Jay Ward and his moose and squirrel.

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