It is about 7:45 on a Saturday morning, sometime late in 1980, or perhaps early in 1981…
We have gained a new president, lost a Beatle, and the whole country has just learned who shot J.R…
None of this matters to me, of course. I am six. The winter sun has begun to peek through the cracks in my Empire Strikes Back curtains. I am tucked under my Empire Strikes Back comforter. I hear the furnace kick on in the basement. I hear the back door in the kitchen open and close as my dad leaves for work. He runs an auto body shop, and his sole employee is himself, so six-day work weeks are a necessity. Mom works the graveyard shift as a police dispatcher, and arrives home not long before I wake up. She will remain sleeping until noon or so. My sister will also remain sleeping until noon or so, by virtue of the fact she is a fourteen-year-old girl.
The house is mine, and it is the best time of the week — it is Saturday Morning.
As warmth fills the house via the heating grates, I slip out of bed. I am clad solely in my briefs. I’ve always hated the sweaty, tangled mess of pajamas, twisting around my torso and riding up my shins. I usually only wear them on Christmas Eve, so I can appear decent in Christmas morning photos. There’s still enough chill in the air to raise goosebumps, so I make sure I wrap my security blanket tight around me, like a chrysalis or vampire’s cape. This blanket has been with me since the crib, and has seen better days. It is basic, thermal-style cloth (like long underwear) and was once vivid yellow, but has faded to a hue best described as “old buttermilk.” The satin edging it was manufactured with is not even a memory at this point. I already feel a little too old for such nonsense, but I confess it stays within reach for at least another few years.
If I’m lucky, one of my three pairs of Underoos briefs would be among the laundered options in my top drawer. Not only did they come in bold superhero colors, they were much softer than my standard tighty-whiteys, mellowing their cotton with a little polyester. I barely considered Underoos underwear — they were a costume, and, on a warm day, perfectly acceptable as outerwear, at least as far as the yard.
Scantily-clad and wrapped in my shawl, I creep downstairs. There is one possible obstacle on the landing between the two sets of stairs. Ninety percent of the time, our housecat Tom Kitty is an amenable, purring charmer, on the hunt for a lap to knead and a hand to lick. But every once in awhile, he would get in a “mood.” Sprawled on his side, tail twitching, pupils dilated to the max, he would park himself in some family pathway and challenge everyone to dare try and pass fifteen pounds of feline moodiness. Everyone else stepped over him with little consequence. I was his favorite victim. He would literally nod at me, raising his furry chin in a menacing “‘sup, bro?” gesture. I could either sprint past him and hope to outrun him (he would give chase), or try to cause a diversion, frequently by sacrificing my blanket — tossing it over his head would buy me a few seconds. The downside was that I would sooner or later have to retrieve the blanket, and also the fact that Tom had a long memory for slights. “Payback’s A Bitch” might as well have been embroidered on his collar.
Happily, most of the time he either wasn’t on the landing, or was in an agreeable temper, so my journey to the couch and TV was unimpeded. The TV was a Zenith cabinet model, half home entertainment, half furniture, with its controls hidden on the right-hand side by a little louvered door, and fake drawers under the screen. I pull the on-off knob. If I’m a little too early, it’s still showing “Farm Report,” but usually I’m right on time. I feather my couch nest with yet another blanket — a much bigger blue tartan number with fringed edges that lives under our end table. There is no remote. Channel changing must be done on the dial. (Just like my descent from the bedroom, this process can also be complicated by the presence of a moody feline.) If it’s warm enough, I might not bundle myself on the couch, but rather drape myself over a barrel-like hassock footstool that I’ve turned on its side, and rock back and forth like a patient in an experimental chiropractic treatment.
What draws me out of bed so early on a non-school day? The same lure that is reeling in millions of children across the country at this precise moment – Saturday-morning cartoons.
Long ago, cartoons were denizens of the cinema screen, and the major studios had massive animation departments creating the shorts that would run ahead of the feature films. Each studio had its stable of characters — MGM had Woody Woodpecker, Tom & Jerry, and Chilly-Willy, Paramount had Popeye, Casper the Friendly Ghost, Baby Huey, and Little Audrey, 20th Century-Fox licensed stuff from Terrytoons (Mighty Mouse, Heckle & Jeckle), and the twin kings of cinematic animation, Disney and Warner Brothers, had the most iconic characters of all, of whose names I’m sure I need not remind you.
Television arrived for most households in the early 1950s, and immediately began cutting into the movie studios’ profits as more people got their entertainment at home. One by one, the studios shut down their animation departments as a cost-cutting measure. At the same time, animation was still pretty scarce on early television. Kids’ shows tended to be live-action (eg. Howdy Doody, or The Mickey Mouse Club.) What was a cartoon-loving kid to do?
Luckily, along came two former MGM animators — Joseph Hanna and William Barbera. Out of a job when MGM closed their animation department, they formed their own production house with the revolutionary idea of producing quick, low-cost animation directly for television. After a few false starts, Hanna-Barbera hit it big with The Huckleberry Hound Show in 1958, and pioneered the use of “limited animation.” Limited animation uses less-detailed backgrounds, fewer “in-between” drawings between key frames, recycles many elements, and has a lot more “holds,” where characters don’t move at all. Huckleberry Hound and his ancillary characters and spin-offs (Yogi Bear, etc.) were originally developed as packages for weekday syndication on independent local stations, and usually aired sometime after the evening news and before prime-time. Hanna-Barbera’s rival, Jay Ward Productions, actually scored a network deal with ABC for Rocky & Bullwinkle in 1959. There was even a brief period when a flurry of animated shows were developed for prime-time evening viewing, culminating in six seasons of The Flintstones.
Then around 1960, it dawned on the networks and station owners that Saturday morning was a programming wasteland — the perfect place to air a block of kid-centric shows, and much more importantly, kid-centric advertising. The post-WWII economy reveled in conspicuous consumption, and for the first time, the average joe could afford to buy useless crap for his kids. All manner of snacks, candy, toys, and games were hawked to eager young eyeballs. But mostly cereal. Cereal commercials followed each other like a sugar-coated freight train hour after hour. Saturday Morning basically created the brightly-colored, pre-sweetened substance that us kids knew as “cereal,” a development which would certainly send old John Harvey Kellogg into quite a grave-spin. As we’ll see, the commercials were just as big a part of the Saturday Morning experience as the programs.
And the programs were for the most part cartoons. Hanna-Barbera and Jay Ward blazed the trail, and other low-cost animation studios followed suit. DePatie-Freleng and Filmation were both churning out material by 1963. (Think Hanna-Barbera animation was low-rent? Compare it to the dirt-cheap house style of Filmation. I recall an old Calvin and Hobbes strip where Calvin’s dad lambasted the quality of the cartoons Calvin was watching. “They don’t move! They just stand there and blink!” — he was almost certainly watching a Filmation production.) The major movie studios probably believed their old animated shorts were fated to collect dust in the archives, and were delighted to squeeze a few more bucks out of them by selling them to TV at bargain basement prices. (Except Disney — Disney guarded its vaults like a she-bear, which is why you would see nary a feather on Donald’s ass on Saturday mornings.) The fad for prime-time animation died out (at least until The Simpsons), making those shows ripe for plundering. All in all, tons of animated material, new and old, was now available to fill hours of airtime at a much lower cost than live action. Pixie, Dixie, and Mr. Jinks were never going to demand a salary increase or a contract re-negotiation.
Animation in other time slots of the broadcast week dried up, giving Saturday Morning its special cachet. For much of the 70s, Saturday morning was about the only place you could see a decent amount of cartoons on TV. By the time I reached TV-viewing age, things had loosened up. Thanks to a greater number of independent channels on the dial, and the birth of cable, by 1980 there were after-school cartoons, before-school cartoons, and hell, for an hour or two there were even Sunday-morning cartoons. (There was some Dutch/Canadian monstrosity called Dr. Snuggles, and the Pink Panther always seemed to turn up on Sunday mornings on Channel 31.)
But all of that was bush league compared to the hold Saturday Morning held over the average pre-teen viewer. Something about the melange of old Warner Brothers animation, new “limited animation” works by H-B and Filmation, the bright, loud commercials, and the token attempts to educate between all of it held a special kind of magic.
This particular Saturday Morning I’m occupying as a six-year-old was on the cusp of two different eras. The totally bonkers, acid-trip Krofft Brothers material of the 70s is gone, and the cartoons that were basically 30-minute toy and video game commercials of the 80s hadn’t quite kicked off. (These could be just as bonkers in their own way. A magical talking Rubik’s cube? Really?)
What would I see as the old cabinet Zenith warmed up and faded in, and the clock struck 8?
We start on ABC (Channel 13 on my childhood dial) with Super Friends. Based on the notion that if one superhero was good, then more would be better, DC Comics began teaming up its superheroes in the “Justice League of America” in 1960. When this concept came to TV in 1973 as Super Friends, it was dumbed down for those paste-eating types too dim even for comic books. (I once thought there was no way to dumb down a Silver Age comic any further, but the evidence was right in front of my eyes every Saturday).
The show featured a core team of Superman, Wonder Woman, Batman & Robin, and Aquaman. They would occasionally square off against the “Legion of Doom,” a team of supervillains led by Lex Luthor, but more often dealt with aliens, environmental disasters, juvenile delinquents, aliens, children in peril, misguided (rarely “mad”) scientists, and more aliens, including the “Rock and Roll Space Bandits.” The children are rescued, the delinquents are scolded, the scientists shown the error of their ways, and the aliens persuaded peacefully to leave. Supervillains are carted off to jail for surprisingly short sentences (they’re always out the following week). Parent’s watchdog groups like Action for Children’s Television kept a careful eye on programs like Super Friends to ensure they didn’t get too interesting.
The Super Friends do all of this from the “Hall of Justice,” a massive civic building located in the heart of what I assume is Metropolis. They don’t seem to do much with all that pricey real estate, except stand around and wait for a report from the “TroubAlert” computer and then dash into action. Do they have a cafeteria? Does Aquaman have an office? At the end of each adventure, there’s probably lots of paperwork and reports to file with various government agencies. Does Superman have an executive assistant? Security for the Hall of Justice seems pretty lax. It looks like you could just walk in and talk to any of these guys as if they worked in the county clerk’s office or Parks & Rec department. Its location also raises the question, do Batman and Robin have to commute from Gotham City? Can you imagine the Batmobile stuck in traffic, or going through the McDonald’s drive-through for coffee and a McMuffin?
The Legion of Doom has a clubhouse as well. It looks like a big Darth Vader helmet dropped in a marsh.
The Super Friends are sometimes joined by other DC Comics heroes such as The Flash or Green Lantern, and heroes created just for the series. In an admirable-but-hamfisted display of tokenism in 1977, a group of “minority” superheroes were added to the series: Black Vulcan, El Dorado, Samurai, and Apache Chief. Apache Chief is the only one out of this crew whose super power I can remember: he can grow really, really big. Some super powers are more useful than others, I suppose. And some super-accessories are useless. What is the purpose of Wonder Woman’s “Invisible Jet” if she herself is not invisible while flying it (as shown numerous times)? The citizens of Metropolis must’ve gotten used to the bizarre sight of a woman in what appears to be a bathing suit and boots cruising through the sky in a seated position, arms rigidly locked.
And heaven forbid I forget the Wonder Twins, also introduced in 1977. A pair of teenage twins in bowl-cuts and purple jumpsuits (and accompanied by a stupid purple monkey, Gleek), by bumping fists they could physically transform themselves. Jayna could turn herself into any animal (fair enough), and Zan could turn himself into something water-based (total cheat — he could make anything out of ice — “ice rotary saws” and “ice dump trucks” and “ice suspension bridges.”)
A running theme of Saturday Morning was title changes. We went from Super Friends to The All-New Super Friends Hour to Challenge of the Super Friends to the World’s Greatest Super Friends, and finally, in 1980, back to Super Friends. (Not quite finally — it went through two more title changes before it wrapped up in 1986. By then, me and my fellow playground theorists were old enough to speculate that fists weren’t the only thing the Wonder Twins were bumping.)
ABC was the most conscientious about making an effort to educate between commercials and cartoons. To that end, they ran a series of animated educational shorts set to music known as Schoolhouse Rock! (The exclamation point is in the title, it does not indicate excitement on the part of the author.) There were four batches of these produced from 1973 to 1979, and they aired through 1985. The first batch, dealing with multiplication tables, was already shelved by 1980 as I don’t think I ever saw any of them. The fourth batch, dealing with science, was memorable only for Interplanet Janet (“she’s a galaxy girl”). What I, and a lot of my contemporaries, remember are the middle batches, dealing with grammar and American history.
I guess you could call Schoolhouse Rock! a limited success, in that I never learned a damn thing from them, but those tunes sure could get stuck in your head, potentially for weeks or months at a time until you seriously considered throwing yourself off a roof. “Unpack Your Adjectives,” “Interjections!,” “Lolly, Lolly, Lolly, Get Your Adverbs Here,” “I’m Just A Bill,” and the mighty “Conjunction Junction” were brutal and relentless earworms. (Speaking of brutal, my favorite justification for mass genocide, “Elbow Room,” was produced by SR! to celebrate “territorial expansion.”) If you have one of these stuck in your head right now, I apologize.
We then switch to CBS (Channel 10) at 8:30…
Sing along now…
“Overture, curtain, lights/This is it, the night of nights/No more rehearsing and nursing a part/We know every part by heart/Overture, curtain, lights/This is it, we’ll hit the heights/And oh what heights we’ll hit/On with the show, this is it!”
It’s The Bugs Bunny/Road Runner Show, the jewel in the crown of Saturday Morning, the longest block of programming, a ninety-minute anthology of vintage Warner Brothers animation. Ninety minutes was forever to a six-year-old. During this time, I would usually fix myself breakfast, maybe flip to back to ABC for awhile, maybe deign to put on a t-shirt, dig out some Hot Wheels…and the show would still be going on and on. It was actually only about ten shorts per episode when commercials are included, but it was truly the centerpiece of the morning.
After the iconic opening theme song (“This Is It”) with its parade of characters, we plunge right into the first short. The old opening titles and credits featuring the Warner Brothers logo and the Looney Tunes theme are trimmed off (they can still be seen when the shorts are shown in afternoon syndication), replaced with a simple title card and short burst of music. The Bugs Bunny/Road Runner Show eschewed the zanier, hard-edged shorts of the 1930s and 1940s, directed by the likes of Tex Avery and Bob Clampett, in favor of the softer, more laid-back shorts of the 1950s and early 60s directed by Chuck Jones, Friz Freleng, and Bob McKimson. What they may lack in visual kinetics and mania, they make up for in characterization and sophisticated dialogue. (The great “would you like to shoot me now, or wait till you get home?” exchange between Bugs, Daffy, and Elmer Fudd is summed up by Daffy as “pronoun trouble.”) Despite the constant shotgunning of Daffy, and Wile E. Coyote whistling off countless cliffs, Action for Children’s Television knew better than to fuck with Warner Brothers cartoons.
TO BE CONTINUED…