A MetaFilter post about “Classic Saturday Morning Cartoons” that included Cartoon Network originals from rather recently, prompting several Gen X MeFites to comment that you had to go back to the 1980s for REAL Classics. I had to set them straight.
I’ve mentioned before that I was born the Friday before the debut of both Captain Kangaroo and The Mickey Mouse Club, so I consider myself eminently qualified to spout off regarding ‘kids TV’.
It must be noted that Crusader Rabbit (linked by Guy_Inamonkeysuit) was truly the first cartoon made for television, debuting in 1949. Three-and-a-half minutes daily episodes of serialized ‘adventure’ stretched out over several weeks syndicated to individual stations by NBC to fill time in the local ‘kiddie shows’. Compared to the theatrical toons available at the time (mostly early ’30s or silents with added-on music) it was apparently pretty impressive (I don’t know, I hadn’t been born yet). One of the co-producers was a guy named Jay Ward, who, after losing the show to another production company after a couple seasons, sold real estate for a few years until he met an animator/voicer named Bill Scott and they brought us Rocky & Bullwinkle.
When the Mickey Mouse Club showcased Disney theatricals from only a few years before, it was a big deal, as was Captain Kangaroo’s resident toon, Tom Terrific (created by UPA veteran Gene Deitch). The first TV cartoon produced in color was Colonel Bleep in 1956, with a very stylized look and characters (an alien, a caveman and a pinocchio-like puppet) who didn’t speak English, so the narrator did all the talking and it never had to bother with lip-synching. In the no-budget world of TV cartoons in the ’50s, a smart move.
Hanna-Barbera’s Ruff and Reddy on NBC was the first cartoon made for Saturday Morning, but still in the three-and-a-half-minute serialized format, on a show alongside some recycled theatricals (sadly, NOT Tom & Jerry) and a live host with puppets. H&B got the reputation as ‘pioneers’ in ‘limited animation for TV’ although they weren’t, but when they started doing the syndicated half-hour Huckleberry Hound, Yogi Bear and Quick Draw McGraw, they became the best at it, and the quality of those shows led to their Saturday Morning domination from the mid-’60s into the ’80s.
When I was a kid, I had a record player and lots of kid-targeted records, including the yellow vinyl “Golden Records” that played at 78RPM. My first 12-inch-33-and-a-third albums were ‘story records’ of early H-B cartoons, which essentially contained the soundtracks of the 7-minute cartoons and added some narration to fill in what you couldn’t see. What I realized, even at a young age, was how little the pictures were really needed.
Then there was Beany & Cecil, produced by former Looney Tuner Bob Clampett (and previously done as a puppet show with Daws Butler & Stan Freberg doing voices and operating the puppets) which rivaled Rocky & Bullwinkle for ‘grown-up wit’ and beat it hands-down for animation quality (Bullwinkle was one of the first to ‘outsource’ its animation… to Mexico, where Gamma Productions was essentially ‘learning by doing’).
And the first Japanese import was Osamu Tezuka’s AstroBoy, dubbed and translated by Fred Ladd for syndication by NBC (who rejected the literal translation of the character’s name, “Mighty Atom”, as too generic), followed by giant robot Gigantor, Speed Racer, Kimba the White Lion (which Lion King DID steal from) and my favorite, The Amazing Three, about aliens sent down to observe and judge humanity, disguised as animals (and disguised well, the alien duck had all of Daffy & Donald’s personality flaws).
The Marvel Superheroes beat Superman and his DC allies to TV cartoons by several years, using the limitations of animation to look like comic books brought to (semi-)life (including visual sound effects stolen by the live-action Batman show). But when SpiderMan got his own show, they recycled the same animation of him swinging across town for almost a third of the air time, making it the most boring superhero cartoon I ever saw.
Many shows generally remembered as “Saturday Morning” actually started in Prime Time and only aired in Kiddie Time as reruns: The Bugs Bunny Show, Rocky & Bullwinkle, The Alvin Show, Top Cat, The Jetsons, Jonny Quest, and Calvin & the Colonel (a version of Amos & Andy that tried to skirt the racial issues by making the characters animals).
To many of us, the Banana Splits was a giant step backwards for its use of live-action segments between the cartoons (even if the Splits were voiced by Daws Butler, Paul Winchell and Allen Melvin), and the live-action Danger Island seemed like Jonny Quest with less action. But the guys who designed the Splits, Sid and Marty Krofft, went on to better things.
And THAT is “Classic Saturday Morning Cartoons”, next to which the “Classic ’80s stuff” pales in comparison (except Thundercats, which was the first TV toon I ever saw that impressed me with its action animation).
I think I covered everything about TV toons that I ever will want to here.