The Decidedly Unfunky Buzz of Boomerang

In the quiet of a million-plus personal weekend mornings, the Boomer and X generations got to enjoy a weekly waking dream called Saturday cartoons. It was a burst of brain candy after a long school week and often a rare domestic moment of pure solitude, as the parents remained holed up in the master bedroom. It was just you, the cereal bowl and the TV.

Was it good for you and me? From the early ’70s on, I’ve had my doubts sometimes. I’d see the expert attention to details of cartoons from generations before — the Looney Tunes, the Disney, the “Tom and Jerry,” the “Popeye” — and compare them to the obviously inferior animation and voice work on most of the “hot new cartoons” of my day. Even then I wondered why my generation was being fed such stuff. Was it based on a cynical and greedy notion within the toon industry that we, as gullible kids, would accept cheaper and inferior product, as long as it was packaged correctly? Or was it something less devious, an unavoidable result of economic downturn and creative burnout?

A mid-’70s CBS documentary on “Termite Terrace,” the legendary Warner Brothers cartoon production factory (now available on a new Looney Tunes DVD collection), ended with a somber and almost mournful tone, saying that the days of classic, grade-A studio animation had come to a close, and the void left behind was bound to depress a purist fan of the cartoon artform.

The wheat and chaff from my childhood Saturday mornings, plus those from a couple generations before and after, has survived into our adulthood and can now be seen on Time-Warner’s Boomerang cable satellite network. A spinoff of Ted Turner’s brainchild Cartoon Network, Boomerang launched in May 2000, largely as a reflection of what Cartoon Network was in its early days: a showcase for “classic” TV and theatrical cartoons from the 1940s-80s. In the case of Boomerang, the notion of classic was stretched somewhat, to embrace not only those toons that had won critical praise, but also those with sentimental or kitschy attraction. Daffy Duck on the same stage as The Funky Phantom. Droopy and Underdog. Wile E. Coyote and Captain Caveman.

In the mid-’90s, Cartoon Network began to greatly increase its amount of original programming, created in large part by younger animators with a more postmodern feel. Boomerang, then, is packaged for retro, evoking a dreamlike feel of past childhood, with hypnotic promo music and close-up shots of action figures representing classic toon characters. The network’s slogan, “It’s all coming back to you,” emphasizes the “Boomer” in Boomerang. The bulk of the Boomerang cartoon library comes from the extensive collection of Hanna-Barbera toons produced from the 1950s to 1980s. When H-B was purchased by Turner, the Hanna-Barbera catalog of more than 8,500 cartoons took on a new life, first on Cartoon Network and now on Boomerang.

Joseph Barbera and the late William Hanna were Oscar-winning animators, having worked for MGM during the tail end of what’s been called Hollywood’s Golden Era. Their creation of “Tom and Jerry” was their meal ticket and their credibility card. As televison boomed into a majority of American homes by the end of the 1950s, Hanna and Barbera gathered their capital and created a studio dedicated to producing cartoons specifically for TV. Bob Clampett and Jay Ward were also among the early pioneers in TV animation, but it was Bill and Joe who made the biggest splash. After the success of made-for-TV creations Huckleberry Hound and Yogi Bear, H-B exploded into a position of industry dominance with the prime-time success of “The Flintstones,” which debuted on ABC in 1960.

These cartoons were criticized for their relatively crude drawing quality, and for the lack of fluidity in character motion. And as the H-B factory increased its output, the animation quality of the individual toons suffered. But fortunately for Joe and Bill, in the early days of H-B’s television success, the studio had the luxury of calling upon many of all-time Hall of Famers in voice-over talent. These were a group of actors who came of age in the Golden Age of Radio, and each had an innate sense of just what depth and nuance was required to sell a character to an audience, no matter how crudely drawn the accompanying cartoons. One of the pleasures of watching Boomerang is listening to the works of these voice masters: Mel Blanc, Daws Butler, Don Messick, June Foray, Howard Morris, Jean Van Der Pyl, Alan Reed, et. al. As great as “The Simpsons’” voice actors are, they have the luxury of reading the words of world-class humorists. The early H-B TV writers, while usually competent and professional (and as I’ll get to in a moment, more meaningful than they were given credit for), were not in the same league. But for kids of all ages, that didn’t matter much, because the early H-B voices were so damn good.

The early H-B toons were also aided by Hanna and Barbera’s knack for presenting harsh slapstick, as perfected in the “Tom and Jerry” shorts, where Tom the cat suffered a variety of cruel punishments (an inspiration for the “Itchy and Scratchy” toons on “The Simpsons”). A late-’70s CBS tribute to H-B showed clips of the many moments of physical torture endured by Fred Flintstone, be it being dragged down the road by a dinosaur or getting bonked on the head by a bowling ball.

As the popularity of “The Flintstones” and the original wave of H-B TV cartoon characters began to ebb in the mid-’60s, H-B took a new creative attack to Saturday-morning land — the action-adventure cartoon. “Johnny Quest,” “Fantastic Four,” “Space Ghost” and “The Herculoids” all burst upon the 1960s screen with plenty of plot drama but even less fluidity in the animation. The characterizations often redefined the notion of “wooden,” and the voice actors seemed somewhat constrained by the bland WASP-ish authority of the H-B superhero. Rarely did these shows cut loose with a confident willingness to go surreal although the moment would’ve been better served by it.

What becomes clear in watching these cartoons, now packaged on Boomerang as “Boomeraction,” is that H-B was no different than the vast majority of television in the ’50s and ’60s, in that the scripts and characters strongly reflected WASP-ish sensibilities: a sheen of American-fueled material power with a decidedly unfunky buzz. It evokes memories of Martin Mull’s satirical book and video from the ’80s, The History of White People in America. From Ranger Smith to George Jetson to the “Scooby-Doo” gang, the essential American whiteness of the H-B oeuvre ought not to be lightly dismissed. Deconstructing the H-B dialogues and plots is like taking a crash course in post-World War II attitudes: focused, patriarchal, reserved, dry, world-weary. Not only in H-B, but also in much of the Max Fleischer and Seymour Kneitel-produced “Popeye” toons (also showcased on Boomerang), certainly in most of the Disney animation and even in a good number of more-adventuresome Warner shorts, the world is dominated by muscular, postwar sensibilities of streamlined capitalist boomtime. (Reminds me of that satirical “1945 headline” in The Onion announcing the end of WWII: “Thoughts Turn to Washers, Dryers.”)

With the premiere of “Scooby Doo, Where Are You?” in 1969, H-B began to try to address the increasingly multicultural worldview of a Boomer generation with limited personal connection to anything pre-TV. But it was difficult transition, and as “mod” as Fred, Daphne, Velma and Shaggy dressed, the reserved and still WASP-y characterizations ultimately seemed more at home in a JFK-era environment. Casey Kasem once told an interviewer that he based the voice of his “hippie” character Shaggy not on a ’60s personna, but on Richard Crenna’s teenage character in the ’50s sitcom Our Miss Brooks. Fortunately again for H-B, Scooby Doo himself (thanks in large part to the voice characterization of old pro Don Messick) was a singularly cute and memorable character for kids and he made those around him look better. And the musical compositions of Hoyt Curtin, whose theme songs and incidental music contributed much to the success of the early H-B toons, continued to prop up the H-B machine in times of thematic or animation weakness.

In the early ’70s, the H-B animation continued a decline into further woodenness, and the next wave of voice actors (including Kasem, Frank Welker, Jay North and Michael Bell), while game and professional, didn’t quite have the chops to make up for deficiencies in writing and character, not to mention the awful laugh tracks most H-B shows had.

More attempts to reflect a multicultual context were undertaken in that period: a black member of Josie and the Pussycats, hippie haircuts on the Hair Bair Bunch and a Harlem Globetrotters cartoon, which up to that point was the “blackest” that Saturday morning had ever gotten. By the time of Scatman Crothers’ Hong Kong Phooey character in 1974, the presence of minority characters on television was becoming almost commonplace and clearly here to stay, but WASP-ish dominance of the H-B world never quite ended. The Globetrotters were given the whitebread “Granny” as a mascot, coach and cheerleader. Hong Kong Phooey was a foil for Joe E. Ross’s old-school Anglo cop. I don’t really detect overt racism in the H-B modus operandi; in their era, white was the air they innocently breathed, the color of their L.A. rainbow, and as commercial folk they reasonably rested on what had the greatest combo of comfort and bankability.

The H-B factory, which for years had utterly dominated Saturday morning, started showing creaks and ages by the late ’70s, as the plots and characterizations became increasingly cheesy and the “entertainment” increasingly cheap and pandering. It was somewhat of a relief in the early ’80s when H-B took on Peyo’s storybook Smurfs characters. Whether it was new creative blood in the company, inspiration of the old hands for a refreshing new project, or both, “The Smurfs” (and later, “The Snorks”) represented an overdue step-up in writing, voice and (finally!) animation. It was still a long way from “Termite Terrace,” but it was a step on the road to a partial rebirth of respectability for mainstream animation quality. It would be awhile yet before John Kricfalusi, Mike Judge, Craig McCracken, Matt Groening and others revived the artform and transcended the quaint cultural limitations now displayed everyday in the museum of Boomerang, but with some of the ’80s H-B work, one could begin again to hope.