As The Bugs Bunny/Road Runner Show rolled on through the morning, the focus of the program switched to the Road Runner for the second half or final third, introduced by its own memorable theme — “Road Runner, the Coyote’s after you/Road Runner, if he catches you, you’re through…” Unfortunately, the quality of the Road Runner’s portion of the show was somewhat compromised…
You see, Warner Brothers continued to release theatrical shorts longer than the other studios, but they farmed out the actual work to smaller companies. DePatie-Freleng Enterprises (co-owned by former WB director Friz Freleng) made the shorts from 1964 to 1967, resulting in a much-altered animation style (not quite “limited,” but close). The WB/DFE partnership did some Road Runner films, but focused mostly on a series of Daffy Duck vs. Speedy Gonzalez shorts (the less said about which the better). Format Films handled the final batch of Road Runner shorts, which were even worse than the Daffy/Speedy stuff. These late-period embarrassments turned up again and again on The Bugs Bunny/Road Runner Show, but can’t hold a candle to the ones originally produced from ‘49 to ‘63, which also turned up on BB/RR. Even a six-year-old could tell the difference.
Sometimes during one of the Format Road Runner shorts (there were eleven of them, and at least two were shown every damn week), I would turn the dial back to ABC, and frequently encounter The Fonz and the Happy Days Gang, another entry in the trend of turning a prime-time family show into a Saturday morning kids’ cartoon. Before my time, there had already been Saturday morning versions of Star Trek, The Addams Family, Gilligan’s Island, The Brady Bunch, Emergency!, Lassie, My Favorite Martian, and possibly I Dream of Jeannie (the adaptation was pretty loose.)
The Fonz and the Happy Days Gang bridged that era with the 80s, which brought us animated versions of The Dukes of Hazzard, Laverne and Shirley, Mork and Mindy, Punky Brewster, ALF, and more Gilligan.
The premise for a lot of these shows was the same: take a few of the original TV cast, dump them into a crazy new setting, and add a few new “cartoon-only” characters, preferably some kind of cute mascot or talking animal. To wit: Fonz, Richie Cunningham, and Ralph Malph are caught in a malfunctioning time machine and bounce through history accompanied by a comic-relief dog named Mr. Cool and a “future girl” named Cupcake. (Second example: Laverne and Shirley are in the army and their drill sergeant is a pig named Squealer.)
Almost without exception, these spin-off cartoons managed to get most of the original cast to do the voices. I imagine Donny Most probably wasn’t too difficult to convince, but Ron Howard had already directed two TV movies, one feature film and was planning his second (Night Shift), and had left the actual prime-time version of Happy Days. Still, the work couldn’t have been too demanding. Howard could probably knock back a Scotch and polish off his lines for all 24 episodes in an afternoon, with one eye on the clock so he could get to the bank before it closed.
(Those 24 episodes were padded out for almost two years — first in the usual re-runs, then re-packaged with other shows, in true Saturday Morning style, as the rather desperate-sounding Mork & Mindy/Laverne & Shirley/Fonz Hour.)
At some point during The Bugs Bunny/Road Runner Show, it would be time for breakfast. With a laborious lugging about of the kitchen stool, I assembled the disparate parts that would come together to form my perfect meal — a bowl of cereal. I took my cereal very seriously. Every other Saturday or Sunday afternoon, Mom would do the grocery shopping, and I would accompany her to make sure the cereal acquisition was handled by me personally. Mom had grocery shopping down to a science: her trip through the aisles took exactly sixty minutes. I had that amount of time to pick out my cereals for the next two weeks. I had to get one “healthy” cereal (Grape Nuts, Cheerios, Chex, etc.) to offset the effects of the two others I was allowed, which were always powerfully sugared. I liked the healthy ones just as well, because I would simply add my own sugar to taste, usually to the point it would leave a viscous sludge on the bottom of the bowl. Mom would often threaten that I would “get worms” if I continued to eat that much raw sugar, the horrific threat of which might be effective on less-savvy six-year-olds, but I waved it off like the old wives’ tale it was. (To this day, I am worm-free.)
So I stood in the cereal aisle in the dead center of Woodland’s Nugget Market (the original!) for an hour, making my decisions. When Mom passed down that aisle, I knew I was at half-time. Would I go home with a product from Post, Kellogg’s, or General Mills? Would it be Pops? Loops? Pebbles? Jacks? I avoided the Smacks — the puffed wheat cereal looked like a bowl of dead locusts, and I didn’t care how cool Dig ‘Em the Frog dressed, I didn’t want a slimy amphibian on my cereal box. Something from the Crunch family, perhaps? The good Cap’n’s original version would tear the roof of your mouth to hell, and leave a strange film, but Peanut Butter Crunch was smooth as silk. (I’ve often wondered if Cap’n Crunch’s eyebrows were floating above his eyes, or simply painted on his hat.) And speaking of unpleasant mouth feel, Grape Nuts was tantamount to eating a bowl of garden-path gravel, but it had a peculiar charm and its slightly-smaller box often graced our shelf. If I was feeling particularly jaunty, I would select Cookie Crisp, which many hand-wringing nutritionists felt was truly the end of civilization. I preferred the long-discontinued Vanilla Wafer Cookie Crisp (in the blue box).
Around this time, at least one of the choices was almost automatic — Waffelos, my hands-down favorite cereal. They tasted exactly like waffles with maple syrup. They came in regular or blueberry, had a mustachioed cowboy mascot on the box, and best of all, my sister didn’t like them, so the whole box was mine! (If you go to the Mr. Breakfast website comment page — and who wouldn’t? — and read the comments for Waffelos, one of the first remarks you’ll see is “This stuff was like crack!”) The Waffelos cowboy rode off into the sunset before the 80s were half-over, and we’ll never see his like again. (Post introduced some bullshit called “Waffle Crisp” in 1996, but it is a pale imitation.)
Brimming bowl of cereal in (two) hand(s), I carefully baby-stepped my way back from the kitchen to the TV tray I had hopefully remembered to set up ahead of time…
“The jungle: Here I was born, and here my parents died when I was but an infant. I would have soon perished, too, had I not been found by a kindly she-ape named Kala, who adopted me as her own and taught me the ways of the wild. I learned quickly, and grew stronger each day, and now I share the friendship and trust of all jungle animals. The jungle is filled with beauty, and danger, and lost cities filled with good…and evil.
This is my domain, and I protect those who come here; for I am Tarzan, Lord of the Jungle!”
I was always a little sad when The Bugs Bunny/Road Runner Show wrapped up, but it was still only 10 am. The dial would usually stay on CBS, and I would be “treated” to The Tarzan/Lone Ranger Adventure Hour, a Filmation concoction consisting of old episodes of their Tarzan, Lord of the Jungle series (1976-79) combined with newly-produced adventures of The Lone Ranger. (The next season, they would toss in Zorro for the hell of it, introducing the Tarzan/Lone Ranger/Zorro Adventure Hour.) The Tarzan stuff was often kind of interesting, to the point where I could recite most of the opening monologue by rote, but the Lone Ranger portion was execrable — its animation was on par with flip-books made by bored middle-schoolers.
It was very rare when I would make it through an entire “adventure” hour, so back to ABC I would go…
Sometimes the ABC educational interstitials were genuinely creepy and off-putting. I’m talking, of course, about our guide to nutritious snacking, Timer. A yellowed, misshapen ball of plaque, cholesterol, or perhaps just miscellaneous gristle, his unappetizing appearance is not aided by a long, sinister nose, spindly limbs, bowtie-and-top-hat combo, and the shrill, babbling voice of a dementia patient “hanker[ing] for a hunka cheese!”
He was, frankly, cheese-obsessed, and also extolled the virtues of making toothpick popsicles in an ice cube tray, using whatever kind of juice “turns you on.” Really, Timer!
And no, I don’t want to go on a tour of the digestive system with you.
This hour on ABC was usually dominated by some iteration of Scooby-Doo. Everyone knows the basic format and characters of the original Scooby-Doo, Where Are You! series (twenty-five episodes in 1969-70, and endless re-runs of same), but that was just the beginning. The cowardly Great Dane, who had the gift of speech but was still clearly mentally-challenged, cranked out episodes with various formats and co-stars for decades, jettisoning Fred, Daphne, and Velma along the way, and adding Scooby-Dum, Scooby-Dee, and the nightmarish Scrappy-Doo, perhaps the least popular animated character of all time. Jar Jar Binks is warmly embraced by comparison. By the time the 1980-81 season rolled around, you could find the Scoobies on something called The Richie Rich/Scooby-Doo Show.
At 11:00, it was a toss-up between The All-New Popeye Hour (CBS) and Thundarr The Barbarian (ABC). An unholy mash-up of Star Wars and Conan the Barbarian, Thundarr was a little over my head at the time. Set in a post-apocalyptic world, it had a touch of Mad Max and Planet of the Apes in its make-up as well. I remember quite clearly the Speedo-clad Wookiee knock-off known as Ookla the Mok, and the backgrounds showing the moon as shattered in half (this must have made for some orbital irregularities), but everything else is a blur.
Popeye, on the other hand, was comfortable as a bulbous old shoe. The original Paramount theatrical shorts (1933-1957) had been a staple of television for some time, and King Features Syndicate commissioned a new round of shorts for TV in 1960-62. These were pretty awful, done in the most limited of limited animation (they pumped out 220 in two years) and entered the long-term TV landscape with their superior forerunners. These made-for-TV episodes altered Bluto’s name to “Brutus” in a bizarre mistaken belief that Paramount owned that name but none of the others, leading to years of playground debate. Were they the same character? Why the name change? Were they brothers? First-graders weren’t too cognizant of trademark and copyright law.
The All-New Popeye Hour, begun in 1978, was Hanna-Barbera’s take on the character, but being made deliberately for Saturday Morning, in this incarnation Popeye never threw a punch. It was deemed more acceptable to use his spinach-fueled strength to lift Bluto over his head and toss him painlessly into whatever body of water was nearby. That oughta do it. At least Bluto got his name back. (This series was also noteworthy for being the final time Jack Mercer voiced the character. Mercer had brought to life the one-eyed sailor’s tricky mutterings in every iteration of the character since 1935.)
You may have noticed, Gentle Reader, that I have spent the whole morning flipping between ABC and CBS. There’s a reason for that. NBC (Channel 3) simply didn’t have its Saturday Morning shit together. Their Godzilla/Hong Kong Phooey Hour and The Flintstone Comedy Show simply couldn’t compete with Super Friends and The Bugs Bunny/Road Runner Show. So far was NBC off my radar, I didn’t even know I could get another thirty minutes of Warner Brothers later in the morning in ‘80/’81 with The Daffy Duck Show, something I never knew existed until I began research for this blog post. (NBC began righting its ship later that very year, introducing The Smurfs. From then on, they began programming that skewed toward female pre-teens — Gummi Bears, Kissyfur, Foofur, It’s Punky Brewster — at which point they finally became a major player on Saturday Morning.)
In those days, Saturday Morning would actually stretch an hour or so past the technical “morning.” Sometimes I would get fidgety and bail out around now (or if the previous hour’s Popeye was particularly inane), but usually I gutted it out. I was a trouper. It was now noon, and time for Fat Albert and the Cosby Kids on CBS.
The Filmation-produced cartoon began its long run in 1972, and was based on a routine from Bill Cosby’s 1967 album Revenge. The setting was an inner-city junkyard used by the cast of misfit kids as a hangout. There would be a situation or a misunderstanding, it was dealt with, and everyone learned an Important Lesson. In between philosophizing and moralizing, the gang never missed their favorite show, The Brown Hornet. Beginning in 1979, a Brown Hornet mini-adventure was always included in every episode. Even the slightest change could trigger a title switch on Saturday Morning, so I watched the Cosby gang’s shenanigans as The New Fat Albert Show.
At the beginning and end, and on either side of the commercial breaks, the Cos himself would appear in live action segments and comment on the situation faced by his animated pals. He would often break into Fat Albert’s voice. At six, I thought he was doing a damn good Fat Albert impersonation, not even dimly aware that he was the sole vocal performer for most of the cartoon cast.
(The titular Fat Albert, the center of this show’s moral universe, would almost certainly be against using Quaaludes for anything other than their intended purpose. Just sayin’.)
The dial stayed on CBS (usually, see below) for Drak Pack, short-lived but one of my favorites. A fairly high-concept show about a group of teens who could transform themselves (by bumping fists, Wonder Twins-style, and hollering “Whack ‘em!”) into super-powered monsters — a vampire, a werewolf, and Frankenstein’s monster. They would get into their “Drakster” — part car, part plane, part sub — and fight evil (supposedly to atone for the evil their monstrous ancestors did). Sounds awesome, right? I actually wish I could watch it right now. Wait, holy crap! Most of the first season is on YouTube! I’ll finish this blog later…
One line from the show always stuck with me. The Pack’s mentor is Count Dracula himself (referred to as “The Big D.”) He was rummaging around his fridge in one episode. “Nothing but plasma,” he lamented in his Transylvanian accent. “I hate diet drinks.” Not bad for a show aimed at six-year-olds.
My sister would usually wander in about now, to be greeted with the sight of me looking like a mini version of the late-period Marlon Brando — bat-winged bedhead, sugar-stuffed belly pooched out, semi-dressed in a pile of blankets, with Hot Wheels and Star Wars figures scattered in a twelve-foot radius, and a bowl of room-temperature cereal milk on a TV tray teetering dangerously every time I accidentally kicked it or bumped it with my elbow. She generally made no comment, but headed into the kitchen for her own sugar fix, often in the form of cinnamon toast. She would then either retreat into her room, or join me in staring at the magic box.
If she stuck around, she would often opt for the ABC Weekend Special. This was a garish and unwelcome intrusion of live-action into my animated world. Hosted at the time by ventriloquist Willie Tyler and his puppet Lester, the ABC Weekend Special would adapt a random, obscure YA book (usually whatever they could get the cheapest) and turn it into a mini movie-of-the-week. Often they were two-parters, meaning you would have to tune in the following Saturday for the exciting conclusion. Frequently dealing with amazing animals, not-too-scary paranormal stuff, and kids solving mysterious mysteries, the ABC Weekend Special always had a bittersweet, elegiac feel for me, as it served as an indicator that Saturday Morning was wrapping up.
While it still had its claws dug in, ABC would often make a final attempt to educate and enlighten me, still insisting on all the fun to be had with healthy eating. In the vein of Schoolhouse Rock!, and along with good old Timer (see above), The Bod Squad warned me about several pitfalls of middle-class, suburban eating, such as eating when I’m not really hungry (“Watch Out For The Munchies”) and overuse of condiments(“Don’t Drown Your Food”). They also made lots of suggestions for how I could improve my dietary habits — using fresh fruit and yogurt for “fun” snacks (“Make A Saturdae”), and taking a tip from those exotic folks a little further down the socio-economic ladder and giving the super-nutritious (and dirt cheap) “Beans and Rice” a chance.
If I committed to Drak Pack, or made it through the ABC Weekend Special, I had finally reached the dregs. It really does end here, at one in the afternoon. I would stretch, finally put my cereal bowl in the sink (or not), dress myself in the usual haphazard manner (matching socks were for school days), and head outside to play with the neighbor kids, themselves just emerging from their Saturday Morning cocoons. My sister would take over the TV-watching spot on the couch for American Bandstand. On a rainy day, however, I might have stuck around and been treated to the likes of Rockpile, The Manhattans, Mel Carter, Loverboy, Jermaine Jackson, A Taste of Honey, Diana Canova, Juice Newton, and other towering musical icons of late ‘80/early ‘81.
I would do it again the next week, and every week for years to come. This particular Saturday Morning I’ve shared with you, Gentle Reader, was only a tiny sliver of a huge forest. Many shows had come and gone before my time, and many would come after. Shows changed (Hulk Hogan’s Rock ‘n’ Wrestling, anyone?) but my spot on the couch stayed the same, at least until 1988 or so, when I finally deemed the whole mess unwatchable. I assumed it was that the programming got worse, but in looking back, it was always of dubious quality. That was its charm. No, sadly, I just got too damn old. I discovered the joys of sleeping until noon on Saturday, like everyone else.
Saturday Morning would barely survive the 80s anyway, a victim of cable, home video, changing tastes, and a crackdown on the amount of advertising that could be directed at an audience of 100% children. Live-action began to dominate Saturday morning television in the 1990s, as animation proliferated on other days and at other times. Around the turn of the century, one by one, the networks began replacing kids’ shows with news magazines, local programming, and infomercials. The last network to offer genuine kids’ shows on Saturday Morning, the CW, pulled the plug in September of 2014.