Friday, 3 October 2014

The 50th Anniversary of Underdog

It was 50 years ago today, on 3 October 1964, that Underdog debuted on NBC. It would prove to be one of the most successful Saturday morning cartoons of all time. It ran nine years on network television (most of its run was NBC, although it spent a couple of years on CBS) and then went onto a highly successful run in syndication.

Not only was Underdog very popular, but it was also in many ways historic. It was the first Saturday morning cartoon consisting of largely original material to centre on a superhero. Indeed, it was parodying superhero cliches and conventions nearly two years before the live action Batman debuted. It was also one of the earliest Saturday morning cartoons. Arguably the 1963-1964 Saturday morning schedules for the networks was the first as younger Baby Boomers and Gen Xers would know them, with all three networks scheduling blocks of several hours of cartoons. Underdog then debuted in what could be the second year of Saturday morning cartoons blocks as younger Baby Boomers and Generation X remember them.

Underdog was my favourite television cartoon when I was growing (and to be honest I have to admit that it still is). For that reason I have written about the cartoon several times. Here then is a post I wrote several years ago on Underdog, "There's No Need to Fear...Underdog is Here!", first published on 6 August 2007.

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This weekend saw the release of yet another movie ostensibly based on a television cartoon, in this case Disney's Underdog (I'm calling it this to differentiate it from the classic TTV cartoon on which it was supposedly based). The movie has received largely bad reviews from critics (it has a dismal 14% on the Critics Tomatometer at Rotten Tomatoes). It also performed very poorly at the box office on its opening weekend. While it was the third highest grossing movie this weekend, it only earned $12 million--not a strong vote of confidence for any film.

For many Underdog fans like myself, this probably feels like vindication. We knew it was a bad idea when Disney announced that they wanted to adapt the classic cartoon using a real dog. When the first descriptions of the film's plot and the first trailers came out, we railed against how unfaithful it looked like the movie was going to be. And we were angered even more when, from the trailers, it appeared that Disney's Underdog was not even going to be any good as a family film. Of course, I am guessing that many fans may well have been concerned that the film might undermine the continued success of Underdog. I am guessing that many fans fear that others may mistakenly believe that because the movie wasn't any good, then the original cartoon mustn't have been either. Worse yet, many might fear that with the failure of Disney's Underdog, many Hollywood executives might veto any project featuring our Champion of Champions. Quite simply, they might brush off even projects which are faithful to the original with the words, "Well, that Disney movie bombed..."

Fortunately, while the latter is a possibility (Hollywood has an uncanny history for turning down good ideas while readily embracing bad ones...), I doubt the former will be the case. First, there have been enough horrible live action adaptations of classic cartoons that most people realise that a movie based on a cartoon doesn't reflect how good or bad the source material might have been (quite simply, George of the Jungle is still a classic cartoon even if the movie based on it sucked). Second, Underdog has been around for forty years. I doubt even something as abhorrent as Disney's Underdog is going to spell its doom.

For those of you who are not familiar with Underdog (and if you are under thirty you might not be), Underdog was a wildly successful, Saturday morning cartoon that ran a total of nine years on network television before going on to a highly successful syndication run, and new life on both VHS and DVD. The series centred on Underdog, an anthropomorphic, canine parody of Superman dressed in a red suit and blue cape. The series was set in a world where dogs (and apparently other animals as well) walked upright and were the equals of human beings. Indeed, Underdog was really Shoeshine Boy (his name was the same as his profession), a canine in a large metropolitan city. Whenever there was trouble, Shoeshine Boy would race to the nearest phone booth to become Underdog. Usually that trouble came in the form of some threat to Sweet Polly Purebred, a canine TV reporter for television station TTV. Although their relationship was platonic (this was a Sixties Saturday morning cartoon, after all), it was clear that Underdog was in love with Polly and vice versa. Unlike Superman, Underdog did not naturally possess super powers. His powers relied on taking a Super Energy Vitamin Pill contained in a ring on his left hand.

Like any superhero, Underdog had his own rogues gallery. His chief archnemesis was mad scientist Simon Barsinister. Balding and with a voice like Lionel Barrymore, Simon was trying to take over the world long before Pinky and the Brain were born. Assisted by his over sized, none too bright henchman Cad, Barsinister plotted to dry up the water supply of the world, developed a shrinking potion, invented a net that induces amnesia (the "Forget-Me-Net"), and even united Underdog's entire rogue's gallery (although he had to use his vacuum gun to do it) to battle the Caped Canine. Underdog's other primary archnemesis was Riff-Raff, a wolf who was also the chief crime boss of the city. With his right hand man Mooch, Riff-Raff was known for creating complex plots even for simple crimes. Among other things, he gathered a group of specialists to steal the painting "Whistler's Father," plotted to steal a gold shipment by disguising himself and Mooch as guards, attempted to frame Underdog with a look alike, and even took over a small Western town, turning it into a city of criminals! Beyond Simon Barsinister and Riff-Raff, Underdog faced a variety of colourful opponents, from the super powered alien Overcat to the shocking (literally) Electric Eel to the vampire like Batty Man. Underdog battled a number of aliens from other planets, including the inhabitants of the planet Zot, the Flying Sorcerers, and the Magnet Men.

Underdog was produced by Total Television (TTV, for short), who were also responsible for King Leonardo and His Short Subject and Tennessee Tuxedo and His Tales. Following the success of those series, they needed to do another one. During a meeting Gordon Johnson, the head of the Dancer Fitzgerald Sample advertising agency, told producer and writer W. Watts "Buck" Biggers that if they wanted to do well in the ratings they needed a "super series" and that they should avoid frogs (the reason for this being the fact that Jay Ward was then producing a series called The Adventures of Hoppity Hooper, featuring a frog). At first they were at a loss for a concept, but then writer Chester "Chet Stover caught a rerun of the I Love Lucy episode "Lucy and Superman" on television. In that episode, Ricky manages to get Superman (played by George Reeves, of course) to show up at Little Ricky's birthday party. But when Lucy grows concerned that the Man of Steel might not show, she dons her own makeshift Superman suit and goes out on their apartment's ledge in order to make her entrance through the window. Chet Stover then came up with the idea of a hapless superhero.

The idea that the superhero should be a dog called "Underdog" came about when one of TTV's production staff (pretty much Biggers, Stover, and art director Joseph Harris) referred to them as "underdogs." Joe Harris then designed a canine superhero in a red baggy costume and oversized blue cape. Harris designed Underdog so that the colour scheme of his costume was the reverse of Superman's costume and so that he would not look cute and cuddly. Underdog's occupation of shoeshine boy came about as a result of Wally Cox being cast as the Caped Canine's voice; it was a fitting occupation for a character who spoke softly and slowly. For the other major characters on Underdog, Harris looked to the big screen. Underdog's romantic interest, Sweet Polly Purebred, was inspired by none other than Marilyn Monroe. His archnemesis, Simon Barsinister, not only took his appearance from Lionel Barrymore in It's a Wonderful Life, but his voice as well. His other archnemesis, Riff-Raff, was inspired by George Raft and other movie gangsters. Chet Stover and producer W. Watts "Buck" Biggers wrote nearly all of the scripts and provided Underdog with much of his mythos. Biggers would also write the famous theme song.

Underdog debuted on NBC on October 3, 1964. It was the first Saturday morning cartoon featuring a superhero. It was also an immediate success. Even in its earliest years, the cartoon produced a large number of merchandising tie-ins, including a Milton Bradley board game and the prerequisite lunch box. If there was any doubt that Underdog had arrived, it was squashed when Macy's approached TTV for an Underdog balloon in their Thanksgiving Day Parade. The debut of the balloon in the 1965 Macy's Thanksgiving Day Parade was even accompanied by a skit in which an actor dressed up as Simon Barsinister menaced an actress dressed as Sweet Polly Purebred. On NBC, following the broadcast of that Thanksgiving Day Parade in 1965, a special episode of Underdog was even aired--"Simon Says...No Thanksgiving." The Underdog balloon would be a regular in Macy's Thanksgiving Day Parade for nearly twenty years. Underdog would also become the first Saturday morning cartoon character to appear on a cover of The New Yorker. The November 20, 1966 issue of that magazine featured an illustration of the famous Underdog balloon from the Macy's parade.

It was probably due to the show's success that it became one of the few cartoons to enter syndication while still in its initial, network run. In the '65-'66 season (the second season Underdog spent on NBC) there debuted a syndicated series called Cartoon Cut-Ups, which featured episodes of Underdog, Tennessee Tuxedo, and The World of Commander McBragg. Although still popular, Underdog would change networks in the 1966-1967 season, switching from NBC to CBS for a two year run. It returned to NBC in 1968 to run for another five years. In all, Underdog ran for nine years on network television. After its network run it continued for many, many years in syndication (indeed, it is probably still airing somewhere in the United States). Underdog merchandise even continued to be produced throughout the Seventies, everything from collectible glasses to a Little Golden Book. In 1970 Charlton started publishing what would be a ten issue run of Underdog comic books. Gold Key would publish another series of Underdog comic books started in 1975, this time lasting 23 issues. More recently there have been Underdog action figures and even bobble heads. Episodes of the series would be released on VHS and later on DVD.

Beyond the sheer length of its network and syndication runs, the lasting success of Underdog can also be seen in how far it has infiltrated American pop culture. The Underdog balloon made a memorable appearance in the Woody Allen movie Broadway Danny Rose and has been referenced in everything from the movie Detroit Rock City to episodes of In Living Color (a recurring line from the episode "Round and Round" occurs in a Handi Man sketch), The Powerpuff Girls (in the episode "Super Zeros," when the Girls adopt different identities, Bubbles paraphrases an Underdog catchphrase), Will and Grace, Friends, and Scrubs. Underdog appeared alongside various Marvel Comics characters in a famous Visa commercial (aired during Super Bowl XXXIX). In 2005 his image was featured on the No 37 R&J Racing Dodge Charger, driven by Kevin LePage, for two Nascar races. Its theme song has been remade by The Butthole Surfers, and the acapella group The Blanks (who performed it on Scrubs), and The Plain White T's (for Disney's movie). Underdog has also had a lasting impact on television cartoons. He was the first superhero created specifically for Saturday morning television. Only a few years after his debut, Saturday morning would be filled with superheroes from Space Ghost to Jay Ward's own Super Chicken. Craig McCracken has also acknowledged Underdog as one of the influences on The Powerpuff Girls. It may also have been an influence on the Nickelodeon series Kappa Mikey and the children's book series Captain Underpants. In TV Guide's Fifty Greatest Cartoon Characters from a few years go, Underdog was ranked #23 (which some thought was too low, just to show how beloved he is).

All of this points to the reasons why many adult human beings have been so upset by what they have perceived as Disney's lack of respect for the source material when they made Disney's Underdog. There are those who will say that Disney's Underdog is only a movie, and a children's movie at that, that ultimately it is not important whether it is very good or whether it respects the original cartoon or not. These people may think it is silly for many to take the new movie as an affront to their own childhoods. I think what these people are missing is that Underdog ceased to be a mere cartoon years ago and became a pop cultural icon. Indeed, if one listens to Underdog fans explain why they loved what was a low budget cartoon produced primarily to sell cereal (TTV and hence Underdog was sponsored by General Mills), one will soon find that Underdog goes far beyond the average cartoon from yesteryear's Saturday morning.

Underdog was indeed produced on a shoestring budget and at a pace that was hectic even for a Saturday morning cartoon. The animation was not done here in the United States, but at Gamma Studios in Mexico (the same studio which animated much of Jay Ward's work), who could not even afford to buy paint for the animation cels. Regardless, Chet Stover, W. Watts Biggers, and Joe Harris worked a good deal of magic on the show. The scripts were original and imaginative, going beyond simple superhero parody and Saturday morning antics. Perhaps only Stover, Biggers, and Harris could have imagined a plot in which Simon Barsinister develops a machine which turns people into Valentines. And in the Sixties I doubt even Jay Ward would have one of his heroes paraphrase Karl Marx (Shoeshine Boy did--in the episode "The Marbleheads")! The men at TTV weren't below the occasional in joke either. Parodying the old Superman radio show, whenever Underdog flew over the city, people would look up and exclaim, "Look, up in the sky! It's a plane," "It's a bird," "It's a frog..."--a reference not only to Gordon Johnson's advice that they avoid frogs, but a swipe at Jay Ward's The Adventures of Hoppity Hooper as well.

Not only did the series have great scripts, but some of the best voice talent of any Saturday morning cartoon. Joe Harris wanted Mort Marshall, the voice of the Trix Rabbit (which he also created) for the voice of Underdog, but TTV would choose someone else after seeing the movie Spencer's Mountain. In that film, playing Preacher Goodman was an actor who spoke very slowly and in a nearly rhythmic fashion--Wally Cox. Playing the eternal nebbish in most of his roles, Wally Cox had starred on the classic TV show Mr. Peepers in the Fifties and was already a movie veteran when he began giving the Caped Canine his voice. Cox never treated his role as Underdog as that of a mere cartoon character, giving the hero a personality all his own. Allen Swift, who provided the voices for both Simon Barsinister and Riff-Raff, not only voiced many of the puppets on Howdy Doody, but had already done over 10,000 commercials well before Underdog debuted. Comedian George S. Irving, a veteran of Broadway, not only narrated the show, but was the voice of Tap-Tap the Chiseler (Riff-Raff associate and Underdog lookalike). Despite its bargain basement animation, Underdog was very much the sort of cartoon adults could enjoy as well as children.

Beyond anything else, perhaps the reason Underdog remains loved by so many is the fact that, like all TTV shows, it was driven very much by its characters. If Underdog made TV Guide's Fifty Greatest Cartoon Characters, it was with good reason. For a Saturday morning cartoon character Underdog is a fairly complex character. As Shoeshine Boy he is soft spoken, even meek. And yet, upon racing into a phone booth (and blowing it up in the process), he can become Underdog, that Champion of Champions who can lift ocean liners with ease. Despite his great power and the fact that he speaks with a lower voice than Shoeshine Boy, Underdog isn't really that far removed in personality from his alter ego. Both have a strong sense of right and wrong, both seek to live their lives with honour, both are compassionate to others, and both lack any sort of ego whatsoever. It is inconceivable that either Shoeshine Boy or Underdog could ever take a life, even of a hardened killer like Riff-Raff. In many respects Underdog taught children of the Sixties and Seventies more about what is right and wrong than those cardboard, preachy cartoons that proliferated in the Eighties. Underdog was not simply a hero, however, as he also figured in what could be the only real romance Saturday morning ever produced. One does not have to read between the lines of episodes to realise that Shoeshine Boy (and hence Underdog) is in love with Sweet Polly Purebred. Their relationship is strictly platonic--the most either Shoeshine or Underdog might receive from Polly is a peck on the cheek. And yet it is clear that Polly loves Underdog (and possibly Shoeshine Boy as well--I always wondered if she really knew the truth) back. Beyond the fact that this was a Saturday morning cartoon, it is unclear why they never got together--perhaps they both realised that her life was already in enough danger without being married to a superhero.

Disney's Underdog looks like it will bomb. In a few years I suspect it will be forgotten along with such duds as the movie adaptation of The Flintstones and The Adventures of Rocky and Bullwinkle. And while Disney's Underdog disappears into obscurity, the classic animated cartoon Underdog will still be remembered.

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