I hate to wake up in the morning.

Seriously. If it weren’t for the obligation of writing this inaugural column, I’d probably be contemplating going to bed in anticipation of sleeping late. It’s been this way for as long as I can remember. I hate to go to bed at night, but I absolutely loathe having to get out of bed in the morning. With one exception.

Saturday morning cartoons. Growing up, Saturday morning was a Utopian finale of a week otherwise filled with the horrid responsibilities of elementary school and taking out the trash on Sunday evenings. Starting at what seemed like dawn and lasting right up until the “Creature Double Feature” on Channel 56, my television schedule was as booked as the Love Boat during sweeps.

The morning usually began at approximately 6:00 a.m. The networks hadn’t begun their programming yet, so I had to start mine with a syndicated episode of The Partridge Family. Despite watching this show regularly and probably having had seen virtually every episode, the only one that stands out in my mind is when the family gets sprayed by a skunk and has to appear at a charity concert. Luckily, their manager, Reuben Kinkaid, is on hand to save the day with tomato juice to wipe away the stench before making the benefit orphans happy. Just think, a mere fifteen years later, young star, Danny Bonaduce is punching out transsexuals for fun.

As the last chords of “Come on Get Happy” ended, it was time to turn the channel and catch old episodes of Top Cat, a Hanna Barbera reworking of the Rat Pack, specifically Ocean’s 11, with T.C., Chooch, Benny The Brain, Spook, and Fancy trying to pull a big score week after week, while trying to avoid prosecution from “The Man”, one Officer Charlie Dibble. With most of the episodes’ plots centering around gambling, lying, cheating, stealing and scamming, it’s amazing that more kids who grew up watching this didn’t grow up to be thugs.

Or editors of an online pop culture magazine.

As the seven o’clock hour approached, it was time for breakfast, which usually meant a nice bowl of cereal without milk. See, milk in cereal makes it soggy and that, my friend, makes me queasy. Even today I like my Cocoa Puffs dry.

Within moments of grabbing the box of cereal and a glass of orange juice, I was back in front of the television, just as Fred Flintstone was getting off of work from his day at Slate Rock and Quarry. As long as the not-so “Great” Gazoo wasn’t visiting, it was usually a fine morning in Bedrock.

The past fast-forwarded to the future as The Flintstones gave way to The Jetsons. Even though Fred Flintstone was a regular blue-collar Joe, George Jetson represented the everyman, with a job that required little more than pushing buttons and kissing his boss’ ass. Not to mention the utter lack of job security. Welcome to the future, which if nothing else, confirmed my belief that one day, dogs will talk.

Eight a.m. brought on the network programming of ABC, CBS and NBC. While over the years, the shows changed, the categories they fell into didn’t. With the exception of a few shows like, The Bugs Bunny/Road Runner Hour that rebroadcast older shorts in a new format, most of the original programming fell into four categories: live action, superheroes, visitors from another medium, and the Hanna Barbera-verse.

In 1969, brothers Sid and Marty Krofft released the first of several shows that defined the live-action genre for Saturday Morning Television, with their series, H.R. Pufnstuf. Inspired in part by the cult series, The Prisoner, Pufnstuf (who according to the theme song “is your friend when things get rough”) told the tale of young Jimmy and his magic flute, Freddie, and their adventures on the Living Island where they teamed up with Pufnstuf, a dragon, and various assorted unsavory types (Cling and Clang, Dr. Blinky and Ludicrous Lion) in an attempt to escape the villainous Witchie Poo and her sidekick, Seymour. This psychedelic show, produced with little more than a meager budget — larger-than-life puppets, actors in suits and visuals reminiscent of a Technicolor explosion — became a huge hit, cementing the success of the Brothers Krofft and allowing them to produce the most memorable live-action Saturday morning programming this side of Saved by The Bell.

After two more equally strange shows, The Bugaloos (with Martha Raye as the bad guy) and Lidsville (Charles Nelson Reilly as an evil magician in a war against hats), the Krofft magic returned with Sigmund and the Sea Monsters. Shunned by his family, Slurp, Blurp and Big Mama, Sigmund the Sea Monster is banished from his home in Dead Man’s Cove ( “Sigmund, get out! You’re the worst Sea Monster ever!”). A chance encounter with brothers Johnny and Scott leads to instant friendship and the boys hide the mischievous lump of seaweed in their clubhouse. Episodes tended to revolve around the boys hiding Sigmund and Sigmund avoiding capture by his family, the Oozes. The second season introduced legendary funnyman Rip Taylor to the cast, covered in green makeup, as Sheldon the Sea Genie.

The year after Sigmund debuted, several ex-writers of the classic Star Trek show reunited on the now-cult series Land of the Lost. Like many of the Krofft shows, the premise of Land of the Lost was explained in the theme song’s lyrics:

Marshall, Will and Holly, on a routine expedition
Met the greatest earthquake ever known
High on the rapids, it struck their tiny raft
And plunged them down a thousand feet below
To the Land of the Lost.

Or more appropriately, the land of chroma-key special effects and rubber costumes. The family Marshall (Dad’s real name was Rick, and their surname was Marshall, despite what the theme song says) struggled in a prehistoric world with dinosaurs, the reptilian race of Sleestaks, Cha-Ka the Pakuni monkey and mysterious time pylons. The shaky stop-motion dinosaurs set against an obviously staged background was so terrifying to me as a child that the T-Rex’s roar to the viewer at the end of the opening credits usually was seen between a small crack in my fingers as they covered my eyes.

Several series followed, but the troika of Pufnstuf/Sigmund//Land of the Lost was unparalleled. Other shows produced within the Krofft dynasty included the Far Out SpaceNuts ( “I said ‘lunch’, not ‘launch!’”) with Bob Denver and “Skipper” wannabe Chuck McCann, the Jim Nabors/Ruth Buzzi UFO series Lost Saucer, spandex-wearing superheroines ElectraWoman and DynaGirl ( “ElectraFantastic!”), and the anthology series the Krofft Supershow (Dr. Shrinker, Wonderbug, Magic Mongo and Bigfoot & Wildboy).

On occasion, shows cross categories like the live-action superhero show, Shazam!, which debuted in 1974 on CBS featuring the DC/Fawcett Comics character, Captain Marvel. Played by shaggy-haired teen idol Michael Gray as Billy Batson who, selected by the immortal elders Solomon, Mercury, Zeus, Achilles, Hercules and Atlas, can transform into Captain Marvel (Jackson Bostwick and later, John Davey) with the his magic word “Shazam!” With Les Tremayne as Mentor, Billy travels across the country in a Winnebago looking to save the day from such villainous threats as car thieves, stowaways in a hot air balloon and an escaped lion. Not surprisingly each Shazam! episode is not only heavy with excitement, but also a morals lesson for the wayward youth audience. Several episodes also crossed over with its companion series, Isis, which starred sexy JoAnna Cameron as high school science teacher Andrea Thomas, who with her magic amulet transforms into Isis, “a dedicated foe of evil, a defender of the weak, and a champion of truth and justice.” Despite her sex appeal and really, really short skirt; Isis had ridiculously high morals. “Oh Mighty Isis”, indeed.

The Saturday morning superhero genre’s pride and joy began in 1973 and lasted for a dozen years until 1985 in one incarnation or another as the Superfriends.

Based on the Justice League, the Superfriends featured Superman, Batman, Robin, Wonder Woman and Aquaman and additional kid friendly sidekicks (first Wendy, Marvin and Wonder Dog and later, the extra-terrestrial Wonder Twins — Zan, Jayna and Gleek the monkey). Meanwhile at the Hall of Justice, narrator Ted Knight would often set the stage for the Superfriends, who after receiving bad news from their Trouble Alert, had to contend with the onslaught of mad scientists and natural disasters. Later seasons introduced actual Super Villains (the Legion of Doom for example, was composed of such parole risks as Lex Luthor, Brainiac, Bizarro, Cheetah and the Riddler) and visiting heroes of various ethnic diversities (Apache Chief, Black Vulcan and Samurai). An epic weekly collection of heroes made it hard for any child to ignore the Superfriends mission, “To fight Injustice. To right that which is wrong. And to serve all mankind!”

Other superhero shows made their presence felt on Saturday mornings including Plastic Man (who teamed with his son, Baby Plas), Mighty Man and his sidekick Yuck, the World’s Ugliest Dog, and Dynomutt, Dog Wonder. Dynomutt, a Scooby Doo spin-off, featured a silly robotic dog teamed with the serious crime fighter, the Blue Falcon, protectors of Big City.

Another trademark of Saturday morning television is the crossover shows from other successful mediums. Alf, Punky Brewster and Gary Coleman (recreating his character from the Kid with a Broken Halo) all came from television. Heathcliff, Richie Rich and the Smurfs all came from comic books or strips.

Occasionally, a sit-com spin-off turned the concept on its head. For instance, Fonz and the Happy Days Gang teamed the familiar Tuesday night characters with Cupcake, a futuristic girl who brings the Gang (and Fonz’s dog, Mr. Cool) on exciting adventures spreading cool with the assistance of her Time Machine. The following season, the show had the Fonz and Mr. Cool enlisting in the army and joining their other Milwaukee pals in Laverne and Shirley. Another baffling series concept had the seven stranded castaways of Gilligan’s Island, build a rocketship out of the huts and after a successful launch finds them stranded on, you guessed it, Gilligan’s Planet.

One of the most popular shows was based on a stand-up comedy act and lasted for a dozen years between 1972 and 1984. Bill Cosby based his series, Fat Albert and the Cosby Kids on his adolescence in Philadelphia and featured humor and music, which allowed the live-action host, Bill Cosby himself, to comment on the social and personal experiences of the characters. The life lessons taught on the show, were easily digestible and the characters of Fat Albert, Mushmouth, Russell, Weird Harold, Dumb Donald, Rudy, Bill and their hero, the television character, the Brown Hornet were all extremely memorable.

As one of the first studios to produce material exclusively for television, Hanna Barbera’s Saturday morning output was unparalleled. From the shark-in-a-band series, Jabberjaw, to the prehistoric crime fighing Cro-Magnon, Captain Caveman, Bill Hanna and Joseph Barbera brought fun to Saturday mornings for millions of viewers. Some of their more memorable series include, Goober and the Ghost Chasers, the various Scooby Doo series, the Wacky Races and Fred and Barney Meet the Thing (featuring a teenage version of the Marvel Comics character, young Benjy Grimm could use his magic bling to transform into the rocky hero. “Thing Ring do your Thing!!!”)

Perhaps their most beloved series was the post-1976 Olympics series, Scooby’s All Star Laff-A-Lympics, which gathered and divided over forty Hanna Barbera characters among three teams competing for the gold medal.

Among the challenging events were ostrich, camel, rickshaw and unicycle racing, and scavenging for everything from a Yeti to the Loch Ness Monster. The teams, the Scooby Doobies, The Yogi Yahooeys and the Really Rottens, with commentators Mildew Wolf and Snagglepuss competed for two seasons on ABC. The teams were comprised with the following members (although on occasion guest stars Fred Flintstone, Barney Rubble and Jabberjaw would stop by to explain the rules): The Scooby Doobies with Scooby Doo, Shaggy, Scooby Dum, Blue Falcon, Dynomutt, Captain Caveman and the Teen Angels, Speed Buggy and Tinker, Babu the genie, and Hong Kong Phooey; The Yogi Yahooeys featured Yogi Bear, Boo Boo, Cindy Bear, Yakky Doodle, Huckleberry Hound, Hokey Wolf, Pixie, Dixie, Mr. Jinks, Quick Draw McGraw, Snooper, Blabber, Augie Doggie, Doggie Daddy, Wally Gator and Grape Ape; and finally, the malicious Really Rottens with Dick Dastardly, Mumbly, the Dread Baron, the Dalton Brothers (Dinky, Dirty and Dastardly), Mr. and Mrs. Creeply with their son, Junior, the Great Fondoo with his Magic Rabbit, Daisy Mayhem, Sooey Pig and Orful Octopus. In other words, pure cartoon bliss.

One other remarkable convention of Saturday morning programming was the public service announcements. Even the commercials seemed to be educational. With Crest Toothpaste conquering the Cavity Creeps ( “We put holes in teeth”) to the Boy Scouts hawking memberships ( “Be prepared! Are you ready to catch the ball? Be prepared! Are you ready to take the lead? Do you know what Scouting’s all about?”), every moment glued to the set was worthwhile. Promoting everything from education (School House Rock) to exercise ( “Exercise! Exercise! Each and every day! If the doctor says it’s good for my heart, I’ll do it right away!”), as well as anti-pollution (Woodsy Owl’s “Don’t Polute!” campaign to the Crying Indian), television became a learning tool as well as providing entertainment with strong morals and values.

Perhaps one of the most memorable stalwarts of the P.S.A. is “Time for Timer” which featured a yellow blob with a top hat performing a series of songs all about eating right ( “Yes you are what you swallow, so the next time you feel hollow, don't just fill your face with any old kind of treat! This goes for every kid, or six foot ath-a-lete, all you really are is what you eat”) and the even more memorable jingle on healthy snacking ( “When my get up and go has got up and went, I hanker for a hunk of cheese! When I'm dancin' the hoedown and my boots kinda slow down, Or anytime I'm weak in the knees, I hanker for a hunk of, a slab, a slice, a chunk of, a snack that is a winner, and yet won't spoil my dinner! I hanker for a hunk of cheese!”)

Today, the only network that shows Saturday morning programming is ABC (fueled by its parent company, the Walt Disney Corporation) and with cable networks providing cartoon programming at virtually any hour of the day (Nickelodeon, Disney, Cartoon Network among them), today’s children will never grow up understanding how unique and special Saturday mornings can be, waking up at dawn and spending the morning in pajamas watching shows that educated, entertained and became endearing to generations. After revisiting several of these shows, I discovered that although many of these programs are fondly remembered, they exist best in nostalgia, Saturday morning programming is for children and it should be watched and embraced by them.

And that my friends, is one to grow on.

This column originally appeared on forcesofgood 1.0


Todd Kauffman said...

WOW - great blog!!!