Saturday morning our four-year-old granddaughter Aviana (aka “Angel Child”) came to stay for a weekend sleepover. (Yay, party time!!) Her parents are very “21st-century” and severely limit Avi and sister Rory’s television viewing. So Lynn and I do our grand-parental duty by going the opposite direction and letting them indulge in cartoons and children’s movies. Usually the programs are Peppa Pig and Daniel Tiger: two innocuous cartoons about gentle, anthropomorphic mammals and their close-knit families.
But yesterday morning I thought it would be fun to introduce Avi to some of the animated shows that yours truly enjoyed when he was a runt. (Maybe my last essay was still on my mind.) So before she arrived, I pulled up, on YouTube, Huckleberry Hound, then Woody Woodpecker, then Top Cat, then Tom and Jerry. Unfortunately, all the selections were only snippets (probably copyright restricted). But I eventually located full animated shorts of the classic Warner Brothers character Bugs Bunny.
Halfway through one episode, with Elmer Fudd trying to decapitate Bugs with his 12-gauge, and with Avi mesmerized while perched on my lap, I looked over at Lynn and mouthed the word “violent.” She nodded. We decided to switch to Peppa Pig.
In the 1940s, Bugs and his Looney Tunes and Merrie Melodies pals entertained adult audiences at theatres. Then, after televisions became fixtures in American households, the entertainment industry learned that kids went gaga over similar animated shows on Saturday mornings. So starting in the 1950s, we baby-boomer kids were treated to, not only televised airings of “that silly wabbit,” but a whole host of animated shows that were not only equally witty, but also equally, um, “aggressive.”
There were the Hanna-Barbera cartoons The Flintstones, The Yogi Bear Show (which included Snagglepuss), The Quick Draw McGraw Show, Top Cat, The Magilla Gorilla Show, The Peter Potamus Show, Jonny Quest, Atom Ant, Fantastic Four, and the futuristic and brilliant The Jetsons.
Before Hanna-Barbera Productions came the Terrytoons cartoons Heckle and Jeckle, Deputy Dawg, and my favorite rodent hero, Mighty Mouse (“Here I come, to save the day!”). Paramount Cartoon Studios produced Superman, Felix the Cat, and Popeye the Sailor, who managed to pound the hell out of Brutus once every episode.
Total Television offered Underdog and Tennessee Tuxedo, the former featuring the voice of Marlon Brando’s best friend, Wally Cox, and the latter the voice of Don Adams (Get Smart).
Jay Ward Productions enlightened kids to the Cold War with The Adventures of Rocky and Bullwinkle and Friends, with supporting characters Dudley Do-Right, and Mr. Peabody and Sherman.
And can’t forget Ross Bagdasarian’s The Alvin Show, with ancillary character Clyde Crashcup and his bald, silent assistant, Leonardo. (A lifetime supply of Rice Krinkles cereal to anyone who knows the number of times Clyde got blown up by one of his defective inventions.)
All the above shows featured entertaining mayhem in varying degrees, but there were rules to soften the jagged edges. Somehow the characters miraculously came to life after getting blown to bits, or getting shot in the head, or after skidding over a cliff. And, thankfully, there were never telltale pools of blood. These rules are collectively known as “cartoon physics.” Such physics not only tempered the violence, but also had a humorous component. Wile E. Coyote always defies gravity after going over the Grand Canyon while chasing the Roadrunner…until he realizes where he is, stares at the viewer with an embarrassed or horrified look, then drops downward (always spread-eagled fashion).
Animated violence back then was nothing like what occurs in some very realistic video games today. So as a child, I don’t think I was traumatized or negatively affected by any of it. I’ve only spent a few nights behind bars.
But I wonder if all of the cartoon physics didn’t manage to seep into our collective, post-Vietnam War, baby-boomer subconscious. If it’s true that, physically, we are what we eat, it’s not a stretch to say, psychologically, we are what we watch.
After posting my “Top 20 Desert Isle Television Shows” list, I became curious about my favorite ‘toon, the animated adventure series Jonny Quest. I located a very good documentary about this show. It featured interviews with present-day animators and directors who were influenced by it, a history of its development, excellent analysis of the show’s technical aspects and cultural significance, and uncut segments.
One segment that jumped out was a scene where evil Asian mastermind Dr. Zin—probably inspired by the Dr. No character of James Bond 007 fame—is careening downhill toward a steep cliff. Boy-hero Jonny steps to the side and jokingly shouts “Here comes the Oriental express!” Dr. Zin then plummets to his death.
The documentary pointedly noted that, on the DVD reissue of Jonny Quest, the “Oriental express” line is censored. Correctness of a political nature, no doubt. And probably profit-driven. However, the docu also astutely observed that, while an ethnically-related joke by a cartoon character was an obvious no-no, it was perfectly acceptable for a man to plunge to his death. And, unlike other cartoons of its era, when a character died in Jonny Quest, there were no cartoon physics. The character was dead.
I’m not implying I condone the use of ethnic humor in cartoons. But one doesn’t have to go too far in America to see just how topsy-turvy its priorities are.