Suspended Animation

Jonesing for a Scooby snack? Still waiting for Underdog to save the day? Nostalgia victims beware: It's hard to revisit the cartoons of one's youth

Every day when I was a six-year-old, oppressed by titanic fifth-graders in an open classroom, I would hop aboard my one-speed and pedal home at noon, key dangling from yarn around my neck. Then I would watch my favorite show, Underdog, while eating lunch. I was, truth be told, a particularly wimpy kid: When I was nine, Kiss looked terrifying, and even the Fonz seemed vaguely to wish me harm. The cartoon's ominous opening theme (complete with a big monster knocking down buildings) unsettled the six-year-old me more than a little, as did one of the villains, a mean-faced wolf named Riff Raff. But as our hero would say reassuringly as he charged into battle to rescue Sweet Polly Purebred, "Never fear! Underdog is here!"

Flash forward 20 years to the early '90s. Pimping my past for all it's worth, I buy a Snidely Whiplash T-shirt from Jay Ward Productions (which I proudly wear to the classes I teach) and acquire an Underdog pin for my backpack. Soon, to my delight, I find old Underdog episodes available on tape and make plans to watch them as soon as I can find the time, my anticipatory delight boundless. Youcan go home again, I think.

Everybody was Hong Kong fighting: Feasting on irony with a Hanna-Barbera lunch box
Everybody was Hong Kong fighting: Feasting on irony with a Hanna-Barbera lunch box

Well, you know the drill. Imagine my horror when I discovered that Underdog was, true to its name, substandard. The animation was cheap and clunky; our hero insisted on speaking in annoying rhymed doggerel. Only Riff Raff, with his pinstriped double-breasted suit and thick Chicago accent, struck me as clever--a knowing parody of The Untouchables that had sailed right over my six-year-old head. Not to mention the other villain, the wonderfully named Simon Bar Sinister, whose henchman, Cad, was a big blond goof.

This is, I would guess, a fairly common generational experience. My parents have old radio shows and early TV. The baby boomers have a hegemony over kid-culture, from Davy Crockett and Howdy Doody on down. And we're left with...what? Scooby Doo? Even at age 11, I had figured out that whoever introduced the gang to new environs was going to put on a ghost costume and chase Shag and Scoob around for a while. So an army of Hanna-Barbera cheapies is my Madeline. Yet it's unsatisfying to try to defend a nostalgia for what we knew was mediocre even as preteens.

For more perspective, pick up Timothy and Kevin Burke's Saturday Morning Fever (St. Martin's Griffin), a Gen X-targeted anthropology of 'tooniana that's far better than it has any right to be. As the paperback-original market seemingly requires, stupid in-jokes are rampant, such as imagined Hanna-Barbera characters "Coo-Coo the Coelacanth," "Ukulele the E. Coli," and "Lenny the Lemming." They're counterbalanced, though, by a rigorous analytical intelligence that we should probably blame on Tim Burke, who in his day job studies African commodity culture as a professor at Swarthmore. Like good populists, the Burkes demand kid entertainment that engages both adults and children, never talks down, and gives children credit for their imaginations. Like good cultural-studies scholars, they defend misreadings, willful or otherwise (were Dr. Quest and Race Bannon on Jonny Quest lovers?), describing such perceptions as "how we play in the sandbox of our televisual memories." And if those platforms let them talk around the controversial question of behavioral influence (what does happen to little kids who see Wile E. Coyote blown up 500 times?), at least they give both sides equal time.

More to the point, they don't condescend to the reader. The Burkes sneak in W.E.B. DuBois allusions (the twentysomething audience watches with "a generational double-consciousness...both affection and smart-ass sneering") and a quick but sharp study of collective memory; dissections of The Herculoids or The Superfriends run alongside an analysis of what it is we experienced at the time. The Burkes explore the economics and evolution of Saturday morning with similar insight, explaining just why those Hanna-Barbera productions looked so cheap--the culprit being the money-saving technique of "limited animation," in which only the mouth moved. Acknowledging the value of those "disturbingly phantasmagorical" and "deranged" Sid and Marty Krofft extravaganzas--what exactly were network censors thinking when they allowed The Banana Splits on the air?--the authors blend appreciation and an appropriate sense of dismay in proper proportion. Nor do their demographic loyalties blind them to the problems and omissions of the televised past: Saturday morning was thoroughly white and male and disappointingly racist (remember those old Danger Island serials with their black savages pawing white women?). To the degree that Saturday morning fever is worth catching, they'll make you catch it.

Yet there's the rub: Is this bout of nostalgia really worth contracting? All the authors want, they say, "is that we be permitted to become the active custodians of our own memories." In the face of our culture's insistence that there's only one real childhood, which involved the suburbs and the '50s, you may find some value in defending your right to love Hong Kong Phooey. But how much? Dissing Scrappy Doo or jointly singing the theme song for Josie and the Pussycats may make for a half-hour of fond twentysomething reminiscence, but is it actually worthwhile in any honest sense of history? To my mind, this is a piss-poor generational inheritance.

Tom Brokaw's best-selling The Greatest Generation lionizes everyone who fought World War II and then came home and made millions of babies. Forty years down the road, how will we be remembered--The Snottiest Generation? Charming and subversively smart though it is, Saturday Morning Fever ultimately feels like an admission of defeat.

 

After a down period in the '80s when merchandising and cartoons became interchangeable, today's Saturday morning fare is a lot better than what I grew up ingesting. I visited this manic world recently, and covered the animated waterfront as widely as possible before exhaustion set in. (For the full Method treatment, I considered obtaining some Count Chocula, but since my parents never let me have anything sweeter than King Vitamin, I stuck with Shredded Wheat.) My discovery: There's a lot of good stuff on these days--smart, funny, witty cartoons that must make kids feel that they're onto something adults aren't allowed to enjoy.

The major players here, as everywhere, are Fox and Disney. Unsurprisingly, perhaps, Fox is sharper, with Ren & Stimpy exerting a major influence on shows like Mad Jack the Pirate, which sells hipster surrealism that is equally accessible to young and old. (On a recent episode, Death appeared as a briefcase-toting Sammy Davis Jr.) My new favorite show, Secret Files of the Spy Dogs, is a clever parody that has the seemingly immortal Adam West voicing the part of a spy master and Mickey Dolenz as two of the dogs. On the subject of West, the new animated Batman trounces clunky old Marvel cartoons (Thor, Spider-Man, The Incredible Hulk, Iron Man, Sub-Mariner) with its stylish understatement. And every so often, the show tosses in a literary allusion for older viewers. The network's no-holds-barred aesthetic, elsewhere a source of lowbrow sensationalism, serves kids perfectly here.

Disney, in comparison, keenly plays to family values while cross-promoting its film and video franchises, with The Adventures of Winnie the Pooh refusing to let the poor old bear lie down and 101 Dalmatians plodding on as a remake of a remake. Still, there's Doug (soon to be a motion picture, as commercials inform kids every five minutes), which gently warps Archie Andrews into a strange universe of blue people and juvenile mad scientists while also telling some home truths about seventh-grade hardships.

In the end, an adult viewer leaves Saturday morning worn out by the pace and volume of the commercials, but more than a little jealous of the bounty kids enjoy today. It's hard to guess what accounts for this: deregulation, market forces, or merely some lucky balance between redeeming social content (an aim the Burkes rightly scorn) and children's natural aesthetic anarchism? Whatever the case, it's difficult to avoid a sense of loss here. I don't particularly want the mass-media past I have; I want this one.

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