Thursday, July 12, 2007

Total Television (TTV)

By the late Fifties the television industry learned that there was money to be made from cartoons. Earlier in the decade many theatrical cartoons were released to television and these cartoons soon filled afternoon schedules. With the debut of Mighty Mouse Playhouse, a collection of old Terrytoon theatrical shorts, on Saturday morning in 1955, cartoons found their way to Saturday morning. With the profits to be made from cartoons, there was soon a demand for original cartoons made for television. As a result new studios, such as Hanna-Barbera arose.

Among those new animation studios to arise was one called Total Television Productions or more simply TTV. TTV would be active throughout the Sixties, producing some of the most memorable cartoons of that decade and at least one undisputed classic. Among the shows they created were King Leonardo and His Short Subjects, Tennessee Tuxedo and His Tales, and the classic Underdog. All of Total Television's cartoons were produced in conjunction with Leonardo Productions. The actual animation was done by Gamma Studios in Mexico, who also animated many of the Jay Ward cartoons.

The beginnings of TTV can be traced back to the Dancer Fitzgerald Sample advertising agency in New York. In the late Fifties Dancer Fitzgerald Sample handled an account for General Mills. The account was largely the responsibility of three men. W. Watts "Buck" Biggers was the account executive for General Mills. Joseph "Joe" Harris was the supervisor of animation for General Mills (he created the Trix Rabbit for them). Chester "Chet" Stover was the copy supervisor on the account. The three men were approached by their superior who told them that General Mills wanted to sponsor a television programme for children. Biggers put Stover in charge of writing the copy for the project. He put Harris in charge of the art. To produce the new programme, they formed a new company called Total Television Productions Inc. or TTV for short.

From the beginning it was decided that their cartoons would be shot in colour. Even though the majority of network programming was still in black and white, Biggers, Harris, and Stover realised that the change to colour was inevitable and did not want their cartoons to become obsolete. The expense of animating a full season of a Saturday morning cartoon was one hurdle. In order to keep costs down, they went to Gamma Studios in Mexico, who had worked with Jay Ward's studio. Gamma Studios did not even have paint to do the animation cels, so they simply bought paint at a paint store and used that to paint the cels.

The first cartoon produced by Total Television was King Leonardo and His Short Subjects. The primary cartoon on the series centred on Leonardo, the king of Bongo Congo, who was constantly in danger of being over thrown by his evil brother Itchy and his gangster henchman Biggie Rat (who sounded a lot like Edward G. Robinson). Fortunately, their plots were always foiled by Leonardo's advisor, a wiley skunk named Odie. Another segment on the show was Tooter Turtle, a cartoon which centred on the title character who was constantly being sent to different setting by the lizard called Mr. Wizard. In the end Tooter would get himself into some trouble and beg, "Mr. Wizard, get me out of here!" Another segment was The Hunter, which followed the adventures of the title character, a bloodhound detective out to stop a criminal fox. The Hunter was voiced by Kenny Delmar, who played the character Senator Claghorn on The Fred Allen Show on radio. It was for this reason that The Hunter sounds a lot like the Warner Brothers character Foghorn Leghorn, whose voice and personality was inspired by Senator Claghorn! Another segment was about Twinkies the Elephant, which was primarily an advertisement for General Mills' Twinkies cereal. This segment was removed when the show was syndicated.

King Leonardo and His Short Subjects debuted on NBC on October 15, 1960. It was a replacement for Hanna-Barbera's Ruff and Reddy. The new series became a hit, no doubt encouraging the networks to schedule more cartoons on Saturday morning.

Total Television's next series grew out of FCC Chairman Newton N. Minnow's famous "Vast Wasteland" speech from 1961. Minnow not only announced that the television landscape was a vast wasteland, but that it should also seek to be of a higher quality and that it should seek to educate as well as entertain. To this end, Total Television decided that their next cartoon should be educational. Indeed, the main cartoon of Tennessee Tuxedo and His Tales did seek to educate as well as entertain. Tennessee Tuxedo was a penguin whose best friend was a walrus named Chumley. Together they lived at the Megapolis Zoo, under the watchful eye of zookeeper Stanley Livingston. The series centred on Tennessee's various adventures at the zoo, as well the occasions on which he escaped. When in trouble the pair would go to Professor Phineas J. Whoopee (voiced by Larry Storch of F Troop fame), who would lecture the two on various educational topics (hence the educational aspect of the cartoon). Tennessee Tuxedo was voiced by Don Adams, the second such time he used his famed William Powell impersonation for a TV character (the first was for The Bill Dana Show, which debuted a week prior to Tennessee Tuxedo and His Tales and featured Adams as hotel detective Byron Glick). He would later use the same voice for Maxwell Smart on Get Smart. Tennessee Tuxedo and His Tales was filled out by The World of Commander McBragg, which featured the voice of Kenny Delmar as a Munchausen styled world explorer, and Klondike Kat, a feline Canadian Mountie locked in constant battle with the criminal mouse Savoir Faire. Tennessee Tuxedo and His Tales debuted on CBS on September 28, 1963.

The next cartoon Total Television produced would be their greatest and most lasting success. The idea for Underdog emerged after Chet Stover had watched the episode of I Love Lucy on which George Reeves had guest starred as Superman. At one point, fearing Superman would not show up for a kid's party, Lucy dressed up as the Man of Steel herself. The next day Stover suggested to Biggers and Harris that they create a superhero who was a dog. The end result, scripted by Biggers and Stover and animated by Joe Harris was Underdog. Underdog was Shoeshine Boy, a mild mannered boot black who whenever he took a super energy vitamin pill (contained in a ring on his finger) became the super powered Underdog. A romantic interest was provided in the form of Sweet Polly Purebred, a canine reporter for station TTV. Underdog had no shortage of enemies to overcome. His archnemesis was mad scientist Simon Barsinister, voiced by Allen Swift in his best Lionel Barrymore imitation. Perhaps his second greatest opponent was the lupine gangster Riff-Raff, voiced by Allen Swift in an imitation of George Raft. Underdog's other opponents included the superhuman Overcat, the Electric Eel, and the planet of Zot.

Like the other Total Television shows, Underdog also included other segments. The Hunter and The World of Commander McBragg were reused on the show. When Underdog made the move from NBC to CBS, The Hunter and The World of Commander McBragg were replaced by Klondike Kat and a new cartoon, Go Go Gophers (with The Beagles, the last cartoon produced by TTV). Go Go Gophers centred on a Native American tribe of gophers constantly at odds with a cavalry made up of two coyotes. Underdog debuted on NBC on October 3, 1964. In 1966 it made the move to CBS where it aired for two seasons (one on Sunday mornings) before returning to NBC in 1968. In its second run on NBC, all four parts of an Underdog episode would be shown in one half hour, with the only other segment being The World Of Commander McBragg). In all, Underdog ran for nine entire seasons on network television. It was by far Total Television's biggest success. Much of its success may have been because with Underdog TTV was a bit ahead of the time. Underdog was the first superhero created for Saturday morning television. Within two years of the show's debut, Saturday morning would be filled with superheroes, from Birdman to Super Chicken.

The success of TTV's cartoons naturally meant that their reruns would be syndicated. For instance, King Leonardo and His Short Subjects entered syndication as soon as it left the air in 1963. In the mid-Sixties, then, Total Television combined episodes of Underdog (which was still airing on network television), Tennessee Tuxedo, and The World of Commander McBragg to create the syndicated package called Cartoon Cut-Ups. Many of the elements that would eventually find their way into the syndicated version of Underdog originated on Cartoon Cut-Ups. This included a brief outro in which George S. Irving would intone, "Looks like this is the end, but don't miss our next Cartoon Cut-Ups show (when Underdog entered syndication, this would be redubbed to say 'our next Underdog Show' instead)" and the Cartoon Cut-Ups closing music. Many of the Underdog shows which aired in syndication in the Seventies and Eighties originated, in fact, as Cartoon Cut-Ups shows.

Total Television's next original cartoon would not be nearly as successful. The Beagles were a musical duo composed of two dogs, Stringer and Tubby. They were managed by Scotty, a Scottish terrier whose love in life was cold hard cash. In fact, it was generally Scotty who got The Beagles involved in their adventures by having them perform increasingly dangerous publicity stunts! With The Beagles TTV was one again slightly ahead of the times. Each episode would incorporate one of their British Invasion style songs into the action. In this respect, The Beagles was a precursor to such cartoons as The Archie Show, The Groovy Ghoulies, and similar cartoons that aired in the early Seventies. Like previous TTV shows, The Beagles featured additional cartoon segments, in its case The World of Commander McBragg and Klondike Kat.

The Beagles debuted on CBS on September 10, 1966. An album of their songs entitled Here Come The Beagles was released on Columbia Records in 1966 (another way in which the show presaged The Archie Show). It was Total Television's first failure and its final original production. It ran only one season on CBS. ABC picked the series up for the 1967-1968, but it aired on Sunday instead of Saturday. Sadly, it seems that much of this series is lost. Joe Harris in a message to the Toon Tracker web site told how when the editor on the show, who had the masters, died and his wife threw The Beagles masters out. Harris inquired of Golden Books (who then owned the TTV characters) about any possible masters for the show and they found nothing. More recently, however, black and white copies of The Beagles opening and part of an episode have surfaced on YouTube.

While it was their last original production, The Beagles was not TTV's last show. Go Go Gophers graduated to its own show on CBS on September 14, 1968. This series was apparently made up entirely of reruns of the Go Go Gophers segments from Underdog. On its own Go Go Gophers aired for only one season.

Total Television was working on yet another show in the late Sixties, one that never aired. The Colossal Show would have centred on a family in an ancient Rome which had Roman equivalents of modern day technology. In effect, it was a Roman version of The Flintstones, a concept which Hanna-Barbera used in the 1972 cartoon The Roman Holidays. The Colossal Show would never air, although Gold Key put out a comic book based on the series dated July 1969.

The reason that The Colossal Show never got beyond the planning stages was simply that General Mills, who sponsored Total Television, pulled the plug in 1969. Without General Mills to provide it with money, Total Television simply could not continue. Regardless, Underdog would continue to air on Saturday mornings until 1973, after which it would have a healthy syndication run. The King and Odie (the syndicated title of King Leonardo and Friends) and Tennessee Tuxedo would continue in syndication. Only The Beagles would fade into obscurity.

One rather strange footnote to the history of Total Television is that it is often confused with Jay Ward Productions. Indeed, I have actually seen Underdog, TTV's most popular creation, credited to Jay Ward! In some respects the confusion is understandable. Both Jay Ward Productions and TTV were sponsored by General Mills. As a result, segments of Jay Ward cartoons might appear in TTV shows in syndication and vice versa. In one instance a TTV cartoon appeared as a segment in a Jay Ward cartoon in its first run! The Adventures of Commander McBragg sometimes appeared on episodes of The Adventures of Hoppity Hooper when it aired on ABC from 1964 to 1967. In syndication Jay Ward's Aesop and Son and Fractured Fairy Tales would appear in episodes of Tennesse Tuxedo, while TTV's Tooter Turtle and The Hunter would turn up on episodes of Jay Ward's Dudley Do-Right Show. It must be pointed out that Jay Ward Productions and Total Television also had similar house styles, due largely to the fact that both relied on Gamma Studios for their animation.

While there appears to be some confusion between Jay Ward Productions and Total Television, there are some significant differences. Nearly all of the Jay Ward cartoons feature a good deal of political and topical satire, something that is largely absent from TTV's cartoons. Indeed, Rocky and His Friends and its continuation The Bullwinkle Show were largely based around the Cold War. Jay Ward's cartoons also relied heavily on parody. An episode of The Adventures of Hoppity Hooper parodied The Twilight Zone with an episode entitled "The Traffic Zone," in which the characters were turned into vegetables. An episode of Super Chicken (a segment of George of the Jungle) pitted the superhero against a parody of Robin Hood. While Jay Ward Productions relied on topical satire and parodies, TTV tended to rely more upon situations of the sort found in the old radio comedies. An example of this is Phineas J. Whoopee's overstuffed closet on Tennessee Tuxedo, reminiscent of Fibber McGee's overstuffed closet on the radio show Fibber McGee and Molly. Indeed, The Hunter, voiced by Kenny Delmar, is more or less Senator Claghorn from The Fred Allen Show as a bloodhound. Another difference is that Total Television often designed their characters with a specific actor or character in mind. Tennessee Tuxedo was created around Don Adams's particular brand of wisecracks. Simon Barsinister was meant to sound (and to look a bit like) Lionel Barrymore. Although both studios created very three dimensional characters (let's face it, Bullwinkle and Underdog are remembered to this day for a reason), an argument can be made that TTV was more character driven. Finally, TTV's sense of humour was a bit gentler than that of Jay Ward's. While TTV engaged in its share of parody (Underdog is pretty much a parody of Superman), I can recall no instance in which it engaged in political satire.

Oddly enough, while they were often confused, there was apparently no love lost on Jay Ward's part towards TTV. General Mills was the sponsor of Jay Ward Productions beginning with Rocky and Friends in 1959, before TTV was even founded. Ward then felt that TTV was trying to get in on his action where General Mills was concerned. He also felt that they were copying his house style, something which could be attributed to Gamma Studios animating both Jay Ward and TTV cartoons. Eventually Ward would have all of his animation done in Los Angeles (where both The Adventures of Hoppity Hooper and George of the Jungle were animated).

Even though Total Television closed down in 1969, their cartoons have continued to be popular throughout the decades. Indeed, they have had a lasting impact on pop culture. Underdog ranked #23 on a list of the 50 Greatest Cartoon Characters put out by TV Guide a few years ago. A balloon based on the character would debut in the Macy's Thanksgiving Parade in 1965 and would be a parade regular for nearly 20 years. References to Underdog can be found in everything from the movie Detroit Rock City to the TV shows Will and Grace, Friends and Scrubs. It is quite possible that the character Riff-Raff from The Rocky Horror Picture Show was named for the Underdog villain. In less than a month a feature film very loosely based on the cartoon will be released.

Although not as famous as Underdog, other TTV characters have also had a lasting impact. Tooter Turtle's line, "Mr. Wizard, get me out of here!" is quoted in the movie The Matrix. Go Go Gophers was referenced in episodes of Mystery Science Theater 3000. There is a hip hop artist called Klondike Kat and an R & B artist named Savoir Faire (who even uses the mouse's catchphrase, "Savour Faire is everywere!"); I don't know if they are sworn enemies... The Simpsons has made some references to TTV characters. In the episode "Lisa's First Word" Tennessee Tuxedo's line "Phineas J. Whoopee, you're a genius!" is paraphrased as "Homer J. Simpson, you're a genius!" Commander McBragg also made a guest appearance on in the episode "The Seemingly Never-Ending Story."

TTV's cartoons still air today and many of their episodes are available on DVD (albeit Classic Media has not yet seen to release them in complete season collections, totally uncut...*grumble*). It is safe to say that they won't be forgotten anytime soon. I doubt even a horrible, live action movie adaptation will ever ground Underdog.


Fun Ideas said...

I hope you got the latest issue of "Hogan's Alley" which features interviews with Buck Biggers and Chet Stover by me and written by me. It's all about TTV.

Mark Arnold

Fun Ideas said...

I would like to direct anyone interested in purchasing my book on the subject of Total TeleVision at Amazon at:

Terence Towles Canote said...

Thank you, Mark! I'll be sure to pick up a copy ASAP!