Friday, August 7, 2009

Book Review: CREATED AND PRODUCED BY TOTAL TELEVISION PRODUCTIONS by Mark Arnold (Bear Manor Media, 2009)

Over the past two decades, Mark Arnold has done yeomanlike service in preserving memories of various pieces of fondly recalled pop culture that have, for one reason or another, fallen by the wayside (though fond memories of them may linger on). Most of his efforts have gone towards commemorating the legacy of Harvey Comics in his fine fanzine, THE HARVEYVILLE FUN TIMES!. For more than 15 years, I've written the RICHVILLE RUMINATIONS column for that magazine and therefore can testify directly to Mark's love for the subject matter. Now, Mark has favored us with a book on the unjustly overlooked output of Total TeleVision productions, a cartoon producer in the paradoxical position of having created several of the best-loved animated TV series of the 1960s, yet currently languishing in such obscurity that (gasp!) no one has even bothered to create a Wikipedia page wholly devoted to the company. Though Mark's book isn't as tightly organized as I might have liked, he presents by far the most detailed and enlightening history of TTV that has appeared to date.

Past reference works that have touched upon TTV's output have tended to be condescending at best and disdainful at worst, often making disparaging remarks that compare the company's work unfavorably to that of the Jay Ward Studios. This is an understandable parallel to draw, given that (1) both the Ward shows and the TTV efforts were sponsored by General Mills; (2) both groups of shows were animated by the same limited-animation factory in Mexico; (3) a number of network and syndicated "compilation series," such as The Dudley Do-Right Show and Go-Go Gophers, indiscriminately mixed Ward and TTV product together, virtually forcing viewers to do comparisons; (4) to be perfectly frank, Ward's shows (especially those starring Rocky and Bullwinkle) were legitimately funnier that TTV's. Arnold, however, provides some helpful information as to WHY such TTV series as Underdog, Tennessee Tuxedo and His Tales, and King Leonardo and His Short Subjects took a different tack.

When Buck Biggers, Chet Stover, Treadwell Covington, and artist Joe Harris formed TTV in the late 50s, the goal was to follow Ward's lead and produce shows sponsored by General Mills (for whose advertising agency Biggers, Stover, and Harris all worked at the time). The focus of TTV's output, however, was intended to be different from the outset. Wary of Ward's prickly reputation and penchant for firing jokes that sailed over the heads of (most of) his audience, GM wanted shows that, while still watchable by sophisticated audiences, were a bit more "kid-friendly." TTV shows, as a result, emphasized characterization and narrative over "boffo yuks." This approach sometimes puts these shows in the awkward position of "falling between two stools" -- not being funny enough for the wiseacre crowd that loved Ward's material, yet being too funny to be taken entirely seriously. (This was especially true of Underdog, which spent its active life in perpetual tension between authentic, cliffhanger-ridden superheroics and outright parody.) It did, however, have the advantage that when such a "halfway-house" methodology was appropriate to get a specific point across, TTV's work could be very effective indeed. This is why, after considerable reflection, I've come to regard Tennessee Tuxedo, rather than Underdog, as being the best TTV series. Tuxedo was one of several "educational" cartoons that popped up in the early 60s in response to complaints (most famously by FCC Chairman Newton Minow) that animated TV fare didn't teach kids anything useful. Similar beefs have been registered in the intervening decades, resulting in occasional classics (Schoolhouse Rock) and a whole lot of schlock (Histeria!, Cro, most "green-themed" cartoons). Tuxedo was the best of that first generation of "edu-toons," which also included The Funny Company and The Big World of Little Adam. Unlike those series, which leaned heavily on live-action documentary footage, Tuxedo wrapped its soft-pedaled nuggets of info in the appealing package of wise-guy penguin Tennessee Tuxedo (would you believe, voiced by Don Adams?) and dimwitted walrus Chumley getting required data from Phineas J. Whoopee, the genial "man with all the answers." The fact that Tuxedo was 100% animated (with assistance from Whoopee's "three-dimensional blackboard") permitted the educational material to slide smoothly down the throats of the youngsters for which it was intended. As Arnold points out, while some of the technology described in Tuxedo has dated, the method of delivery displayed in the cartoon remains highly effective.

Tuxedo and Underdog, like most of the other TTV features, relied upon repetition of catchphrases and the like as a means of ramming their points home. This has the advantage of rendering the shows difficult (if not impossible) to forget, yet, when taken to extremes, it can become irritating. Arnold notes the major repetitive features of these shows and additional TTV products such as The World of Commander McBragg, The Hunter, Klondike Kat, Go-Go Gophers, and Tooter Turtle, yet does not "string the thread through the popcorn" and discuss TTV's output as a complete entity. Instead, we get series-by-series recaps, some of which are better than others. Another structural flaw in the book is the heavy emphasis upon lengthy quotations from Biggers, Stover, Covington, Harris, Bradley Bolke (the voice of Chumley), and others. Aside from not being adequately edited for clarity, these quotes should have been set off in paragraphs by themselves, allowing Arnold to fill in the gaps with more writing of his own. As it is, I had to read the book several times before the narrative really started to "flow" and make coherent sense.

Despite the aforementioned problems, Arnold's book, along with Biggers' and Stover's own book of reminiscences (also available from Bear Manor Media), will be the standard reference work on TTV into the foreseeable future. Arnold is especially good when describing TTV's demise in the late 1960s and the story behind the company's last, unproduced series, The Colossal Show. This series, which was intended to star a Sergeant Bilko-style character in ancient Rome, "lives on" to this day in the peculiar form of a one-shot comic book commissioned from Gold Key after TTV had reached a "handshake deal" with NBC to produce the show (General Mills had dropped out of the picture several years before, and TTV's actual last series, The Beagles, was sponsored by a toy company). NBC eventually backed out of its commitment, but the comic book remains, preserving what The Colossal Show might have looked like, in the manner of prehistoric tree sap preserving an ancient insect. The failure to produce this series -- which would undoubtedly have been far, far better than Hanna-Barbera's later The Roman Holidays -- is probably the one "pseudo-tragedy" in TTV's relatively short, but genuinely distinguished, history. Thanks, Mark, for finally doing TTV some justice.

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