Saturday Morning Cartoons 1980s (WB)
Peanuts 1970s (WB)
In 1968, an organization calling itself Action for Children’s Television (ACT) was created. Led by a woman named Peggy Charen, they did their best to put Saturday morning cartoons into a creative ghetto it would take nearly two decades to recover from.
If you need proof, one need only look at the Warner Bros. Saturday Morning Cartoon series. So far, these DVDs contain two sets each of cereal crunching sweetness covering the 1960s and ’70s. Now they’ve added a set focused on the ’80s. Go decade by decade and one can easily see the quality level of their shows drop with each succeeding time period.
Now to be historically accurate, with the advent of the 80s there was some serious changes going around. It just wasn’t on Saturday mornings. Lou Scheimer’s He-Man and the Masters of the Universe, Marvel’s Transformers and GI Joe, Rankin Bass’ ThunderCats and imports like Voltron all would appear between 1983 through 1985. The trick was they weren’t on network TV, but syndicated. Still, Saturday mornings on ABC, NBC and CBS were destination TV if you were a kid (or had the heart of one), and the quality presented by the big three nets was overall dismal.
It also doesn’t help that the shows Warners collected were from their personal library and no where else. This was primarily the studios Hanna-Barbera and Ruby-Spears. Oddly, shows such as Smurfs, ThunderCats or Super Friends didn’t get included, and Warners owns them, too. They’d have made this collection vastly better.
Instead, what you get here are such forgotten atrocities as The Biskitts, Monchichis, Mr. T Show, Dragon’s Lair and Galtar and the Golden Lance. The humor, quite frankly, was drawn from the same fodder that made H-B famous in the 1950s. But like a tire that had been retread continuously over 30 years, it is totally flat and ready to blow out completely. The action shows were even worse. It’s amazing to look at the likes of Chuck Norris or Mr. T’s shows and not see a single punch ever delivered. This was a long way from the days of Space Ghost or Jonny Quest.
Much of this is thanks the ACT. Sagely and surviving animators such as Alan Burnett (Smurfs, Super Friends and, today, the DC Animated Universe), long ago let the world know how the ACT would brook no violence at all. Heroes could-occasionally-tackle or net a heel, but otherwise physical contact of any kind was absolutely verboten. The humor also had any topicality stripped completely out of it leaving only the lamest of the dregs for writers like Burnett to work from.
Nothing points this out more than the extra content documentary on the history of Thundarr The Barbarian. By 80s standards, it was quite adventurous. Admittedly borrowing freely from the likes of Star Wars, Conan The Barbarian and Flash Gordon, it featured legendary comic book talent as Steve Gerber, Alex Toth, Jack Kirby and Mark Evanier. If the sets bore a touch of the lavishness of the original Jonny Quest, that was because it also featured the talents of Jonny’s creator, Doug Wildey.
The series made its debut in 1980. As pointed out by those who worked on the show, was quickly killed by the ACT. They found it too violent and nightmarish, and deemed it was totally unsuitable for children. It would get a second lift in the 90s when it resurfaced on Cartoon Network.
Another sterling example was The Kwicky Koala Show. Historically, this series is remembered as the last work of the animation legend Tex Avery, the man who co-created Bugs Bunny, Daffy Duck, Droopy Dog, Red Hot Riding Hood and the Raid Roaches. The show is populated with characters that were extremely sad shadows of Avery’s former glory. The irony of Avery dying during production could be taken a lot of ways.
On the plus side, one could see the light at the end of the tunnel with The Completely Mental World of Ed Grimley. Based on a character comic Martin Short created during his tenures on Second City TV and Saturday Night Live, this 1988 series was a joyous return to the absolutely loony-ness that made earlier animation so amazing. If anything, the animated version of Grimley pushed into areas that the live action sketch comedy couldn’t do, and was all the better for it. Short and an exceedingly talented crew of voice artists played fast and loose with the spoken word, and took full advantage of the ACT’s constant witch hunts for moral turpitude.
True, Grimley was undoubtedly an attempt by NBC to cash in on the success CBS was enjoying with Pee Wee’s Playhouse, but that’s another story. More important, Paul Ruben’s Pee Wee Herman and Short’s Ed Grimley were harbingers of things to come. It was also important that Margaret Loesch was kick starting the Fox Kids Network around this time, and they didn’t give a pig’s eye what the ACT thought of their shows. They would be out of business in 1992.
Again, it wasn’t that this time period was a complete wipe-out. The equally legendary Friz Freleng was still on top of his game with his Pink Panther Show. Chuck Jones was creating magnificent specials such as his Rudyard Kipling and Dr. Seuss adaptations. Also among these rare oases in the TV wasteland was Bill Melendez’s adaptations of “Sparky” Schultz’s Peanuts comics.
Melendez directed an even dozen of these specials in the 70s. This new collection contains the last six. Like their predecessors, most of them are thematically tied to a holiday, among them Valentine’s and Arbor Day. Actually, the episodes that jettisoned this concept are the one’s that either worked best or were the biggest disasters.
Probably the worst of this litter is entitled What A Nightmare, Charlie Brown. Apparently, this collection is the first time it’s ever been released for home entertainment. After one viewing, one can only conclude it was one time too many.
The basic storyline is Snoopy being absolutely uncontrollable, virtually torturing Charlie Brown with all manner of abuse and derision. After eating one too many pizzas, the normally lovable beagle falls asleep and winds up being part of a sled team and thus victimized by his own share of abuse and neglect. Yes, in the end Snoopy wakes up and realizes the error of his ways. In total this piece is so out of character for the Peanuts gang one can’t believe one is watching the same show, especially as its from the same people who did so many other great shows.
Much more on the money is It’s Your First Kiss, Charlie Brown. This episode returns to one of every Peanut’s fans favorite themes, Chuck’s infatuation with the Little Red Headed Girl. On this one, Melendez is back on track, using master Brown’s dilemma about kissing the Girl as a metaphor about life and love in a very kid-friendly and slyly humorous fashion. Anyone who loves the show can’t leave it without a smile.
Still, what’s the most telling about the Peanuts specials is only 12 were made during an entire decade while the ACT approved thousands upon thousands of visual garbage that would best be forgotten. The real lesson here is to be absolutely certain about who one chooses as the protectors of our children’s entertainment. Put the wrong people in charge and you end up with a case of the Monchichis or something equally painful.