There are a few pop culture moments that have become uncomfortably sad, if not even macabre, in retrospect. Take Bill Cosby’s bit from Himself about how his wife once became so frustrated with their son’s behavior that she demanded that Cosby murder him. Or Dennis Miller greeting guest Phil Hartman on his talk show with “How’s Bryn?” barely a year before Hartman was shot to death by his wife in a murder-suicide. Or the exhausted sigh Kurt Cobain lets out near the end of “Where Did You Sleep Last Night?”, recorded just five months before he killed himself.
Depressed yet? Well, then allow me to sink you deeper into the pit of despair and talk about Freddie Prinze. Prinze, a stand-up comedian, experienced almost instant stardom after an appearance on The Tonight Show. In 1974, he was cast in Chico and the Man, a warm, uplifting sitcom about a streetwise but good hearted Puerto Rican youth, and the miserable old white man who barely tolerates him. Chico and the Man was a hit, and Prinze proved to be such a popular guest on the talk show circuit that he was offered a four year contract with NBC.
His first gig with NBC following the new contract was, curiously, hosting a primetime preview show called The NBC Smilin’ Saturday Morning Parade in 1976. I say “curiously” because nothing about Prinze’s persona, despite being just 22 at the time, or his comedy, screamed “popular with the little ones.” And yet, here he is as “The Grandest Parade Marshal of Them All,” singing and dancing in a garish cape and top hat, and doing an almost convincing job of not looking completely out of his element. Four months later, Prinze, who struggled with depression and drug addiction since his teens, committed suicide.
As I’ve mentioned numerous times before, I generally avoid middle-aged navelgazing about how much better things were when I was a kid. Mostly it’s because they weren’t, but it’s also because there are few things more trite and boring than old people smugly looking down on things that exist for the youth.
HOWEVER. However. I will say that you kids today will never know the simple pleasures of Saturday morning cartoons. That is, of course, because there are now multiple channels available that air nothing but cartoons, twenty-four hours a day. But it lacks the joy, the soothing satisfaction, of rising with the sun, sneaking around so you don’t wake your parents, pouring yourself a triple serving of Froot Loops, and sitting in front of the television for the next five hours. Sometimes you’d get there early, and end up having to watch the end of local morning news, but that was alright, it was only ever good news at the end, like a waterskiing squirrel or a Kiwanis pancake eating contest.
Because the Saturday morning cartoons ritual was such an innate part of the 60s through 80s childhood experience, it seems strange in retrospect for a network to air shows encouraging kids to watch them. After all, what else were we going to do during that time, go outside? God fucking forbid. Nevertheless, as previously covered in The NBC Saturday Morning Preview Revue, this was a common practice for nearly three decades, elaborate primetime affairs created largely to promote mediocre children’s programming. The programs were mediocre, I should point out, not the children, although I suppose some children are mediocre, pobody’s nerfect after all.
Sure, you kids today might have your fidget spinners and your YouTube stars, but you know what we rapidly fading Gen X’ers had? Saturday morning preview shows, self-indulgent, half hour programs in which television networks promoted upcoming cartoons. Many of these shows featured stars who were already in established shows, and doing an almost adequate job of acting like they’re not there under contractual obligation.
There were dozens of Saturday morning preview specials, spanning all three major networks over nearly three decades. Why I don’t recall ever watching any of them I can’t imagine, other than probably after 8 P.M. most nights was when my father declared eminent domain on the television. CBS had specials featuring the cast of Good Times, and then, years later, one starring Hulk Hogan, Captain Lou Albano, Pee-Wee Herman, Herve Villechaize, and Patti Labelle–all in one show! ABC countered with shows starring Tony Danza and Weird Al Yankovic. But try as they may, none of them could top the sheer insanity of one of the earliest specials aired, 1974′s NBC Saturday Morning Preview Revue.
If this month taught me anything, it’s that cartoons don’t exist just to sell toys. That’s a sour, cynical viewpoint, and I apologize for it. They also sometimes exist to make more money from an already established TV show. Quality doesn’t matter, what matters is how much more juice you can squeeze, how much more space on a network programming schedule you can take up. Selling toys on top of that would be great too.
Though it ended up a huge part of the 70s zeitgeist, The Partridge Family both as a band and a TV show was nearly finished by the end of 1973. Worn down from near constant touring, performing, and recording as both himself and his fictitious counterpart, the show’s biggest star, David Cassidy, wanted out. Knowing that the audience wasn’t likely to stick around for the continuing adventures of Laurie, Danny, Who Cares, and Nobody Remembers Partridge, the producers made the wise (and let’s face it, shocking) decision to cancel the show while it was still relatively popular. Given that it took just six months until an animated spinoff premiered, it would seem they had seen the writing on the wall (or more specifically, the infamous Rolling Stone interview two years earlier in which Cassidy talked about how much he hated being a teen idol), and already had a contingency plan in mind.
Picture this: you’re the parent of one of the biggest child stars in the world, a kid with crack comic timing, and who, due to a medical condition, has been able to stay little and cute well into puberty. Nevertheless, time begins its inexorable march, and your kid, while still younger looking than other kids his age, suddenly starts looking a little less cute. His cuddly wiseass shtick is getting a little forced and stale, and ratings on his TV show begin to sag. How do you prepare him for the harsh reality of life in show business? Oh, and just to complicate matters, he’s the sole breadwinner in the family.
Well, if you’re Gary Coleman’s parents, you keep that gravy train a-rollin’ by pushing your kid into voiceover work, along with TV movies and the grind of carrying a sitcom entirely on his young shoulders. For one short, unremarkable season, Coleman voiced the lead character in The Gary Coleman Show, a cartoon about a dead child who must do penance on Earth before he can receive his full reward in Heaven. You know, for kids.
I was pretty sure I came up with a word for what I do here, and that word is “nonstalgia,” looking back on something from my youth without any particular fondness, but rather a grudging “Yeah, that happened, I’m not going to pretend I don’t remember it.” It seemed like such a clever word, maybe not necessarily the next “humblebrag,” but certainly something close to it.
Then, of course, I Googled it and found a listing for it in Urban Dictionary, because any word you could possibly make up, even your own name, will have a listing in Urban Dictionary already. Nevertheless, I’m keeping it, because I can’t think of a better word than “nonstalgia” for how I feel about, say, New Kids on the Block, one of (if not the) biggest pop acts of my late teen years. I wasn’t cool enough to like New Kids on the Block. I wasn’t cool enough to not like New Kids on the Block. I had no strong feelings one way or another about New Kids on the Block, and believed that if I tried to pretend as if I did, I would be sniffed out as a traitor in the midst, a poseur, and shunned for my efforts. This manner of thinking ensured that I was very popular in high school, and had many dates.
Somebody had strong feelings about New Kids on the Block, however, and that led to a Saturday morning cartoon named for them which, despite their stunning popularity, sank without a trace after just one season. A shabby mix of animation and live action clips, it looks like something that should have been included as a bonus on a music video collection, viewed once and then fast forwarded past to get to “Cover Girl.” See how much I remember about New Kids on the Block, without having to look them up, without even particularly liking them? I can’t even remember my family’s phone numbers.
How ya doin’, kid? You’re looking a little pale, you gettin’ enough sunshine? The missus and I, we have a little weekend place out in Palm Beach, maybe you can drop by some weekend. You’re workin’ too hard, eh? So you’re in here because I wanted to talk to you about the script you brought me. Now, before we go any further, I love it. I think it’s the greatest thing I’ve read in months, we might be looking at the next Gone With the Wind here. But I can’t sell it to the boss. It’s too…complicated, y’know what I mean? The boss gives everyone exactly thirty seconds to pitch a story, otherwise it’s back to the ol’ drawing board.
You gotta be able to sell your idea in two sentences or less, that’s called “high concept.” Think of Jurassic Park: you think Stevie Spielberg had to go any further than “dinosaur amusement park” when selling that picture? The studio heads practically gave him a blank check and the deeds to their houses! Or Planet of the Apes: the plot is right there in the title! Simplify, simplify. You got something good here, kid, but you need to get to the essence, the heart, the dinosaur amusement park of your plot, and be able to explain that in one sentence. Y’know what I’m sayin’?”
This is how I assume all conversations between cigar chomping Hollywood honchos (who invariably look like Michael Lerner in Barton Fink) and beleaguered screenwriters take place, particularly when it comes to the notion of a “high concept” story pitch. But really, neither Jurassic Park or Planet of the Apes are the best examples of “high concept.” For that matter, nor is Passenger 57 (“Die Hard on a plane”), Speed (“Die Hard on a bus”), or Speed 2: Cruise Control (“Die Hard on a boat”). No, that dubious honor goes to a cartoon, 1981’s Laverne & Shirley in the Army.
You don’t have to have watched a single episode in The Simpsons‘ robust 47 season run to be familiar with some of its best bits. You know about Sideshow Bob and the rakes. You probably know who shot Mr. Burns. And you almost certainly know who Poochie was. As a refresher, though, Poochie was a rapping dog with an attitude, designed solely to draw a new, hipper audience to The Itchy and Scratchy Show. Despite Poochie hitting all the marks that supposedly appeal to young viewers–sunglasses, backwards baseball cap, heavy metal guitar riffs–he proved to be an immediate failure with Itchy and Scratchy‘s loyal fans, and was killed off in the next episode.
Though the episode was inspired by a FOX executive’s suggestion that Simpsons writers bring in a new character to freshen things up in its eighth season, I can’t imagine they didn’t lift a bit of it from 1989’s Rude Dog and the Dweebs, a short-lived Saturday morning cartoon meant to appeal to kids who were just too cool for Muppet Babies. Rude Dog, initially the mascot for a brand of surfer wear (worn largely by adolescents who had never been anywhere near a surfboard), was eventually brought to life and given his own TV show, wedged in between Garfield and Friends and The Adventures of Raggedy Ann and Andy. Everything you need to know about Rude Dog is right in the opening credits: he’s a super cool dog who’s “coppin’ a major ‘tude,” while wearing wraparound shades and driving a pink Cadillac.
It saddens me that kids today no longer have the Saturday morning cartoon experience. No more rising at dawn to mainline Froot Loops while learning about adverbs. No more Michael J. Fox explaining why playing with matches is bad. No more anthropomorphic fat globules in top hats trying to convince kids that sticking toothpicks into frozen juice cubes is not only a fun rainy day activity, but also a delicious snack. And most importantly, no psychotic spin-offs of live action TV shows.
If I were to tell you there was once a Partridge Family cartoon in which they live 250 years into the future, would you believe me? How about a Brady Bunch cartoon where they live in a tree house with a talking bird and a set of panda bears? Maybe I can tell you about the time there existed a cartoon about the Harlem Globetrotters where they were superheroes, with one whose head was shaped like a basketball, one who could turn into a rope, and another whose giant Afro stored an unlimited number of gadgets. Or how about Gilligan’s Planet, the plot of which can be easily surmised by the title? Or Rubik the Amazing Cube, or the Mr. T cartoon, or the other Ghostbusters show? All of these existed, and all of them were poorly animated cash-ins with weird plot twists (they’re in space! they have magical powers! they have a talking bird/dog/gorilla!) that all seem to have come straight from the bottom of a bong.
Though Happy Days wasn’t specifically targeted towards children, there sure was a lot of tie-in merchandise marketed just for them. Besides the ubiquitous lunchbox, you could get action figures, a board game (object: collect 16 “cool points”), a card game, puzzles, Colorform kits, paper dolls, View-Master slides, coloring books, and a cardboard play set. It’s a wonder it took six years to get a cartoon on the air, but they eventually did, with a baffling, barely polished turd called The Fonz and the Happy Days Gang.