At the last KEVIN GEEKS OUT, I spoke on the topic of Saturday Morning Cartoon Visions of the Future. Here’s a recap, with links…
The first example people think of is THE JETSONS. But remember, the 1962 cartoon appeared on ABC as a prime-time sitcom. What’s more it was a sort-of spin-off of The Flintstones. (Jetsons: Flintsones as Green Acres: Beverly Hillbillies.) The show was set exactly 100 years in the future — 2062 A.D.
In 1974 Hanna-Barbera ripped-themselves off by making THE PARTRIDGE FAMILY 2200 A.D. This cartoon was made 12 years after the Jetsons premiere, but it was set 40 years later than the Jetsons. It follows the same basics of flying cars, elevated cities, automated kitchens. And instead of a dog for comic-relief, there’s a ROBO-dog.
The cartoon came hot on the heels of the live-action Partridge Family. Just after that show was cancelled, this appeared on the Saturday morning line-up.
Shirley Jones and David Cassidy bowed out, but a CBS press release boasts “the kids are the same — with voices of most of the original cast — and there will be new friends to join in the fun of the future.” The Band’s manager was originally voiced by Daven Madden (TV’s original Rueben Kincaid) but was replaced by John Stephenson, a go-to voice-actor for Hanna-Barbera. And the robot-dog Orbit was performed by (who else?) Frank Welker.
Next is my favorite of the bunch: THUNDARR THE BARBARIAN (1980). Man, I loved this show — so much so that I refuse to re-watch the series and learn how horrible it probably is. (Please, let me enjoy the false memories.) It’s been said that Thundarr was ripping-off Star Wars and Conan the Barbarian. But watching the opening credits, I’m reminded of that hint of melancholy that exists in post-apocalyptic fiction. No matter how well a particular adventure goes, they are still living in a nuclear wasteland. It’s strangely romantic, right?
Thundarr was created by Steve Gerber, who wasn’t some TV guy but a comic-book writer. That’s part of the reason the series has a distinct look and feel that’s different from the stuff churned out by Hanna-Barbera. It was a Ruby Spears production; they made shows like Wonderbug, Plastic-Man, Fangface and a host of other hits. Marvel Comics’ legendary Jack Kirby designed the backgrounds and the destroyed cities, as well as some of the bit characters. The series is set in the year 3994, but it predicts the end of modern civilization in 1994. Thundarr ended after only two seasons and was replace with an entirely different animated sensibility: THE MORK & MINDY/ LAVERNE & SHIRLEY/ FONZ HOUR. (I guess ABC was inspired by CBS’s idea to turn long-running live-action shows into cartoons.)
In a nutshell: Mork was a faithful adaptation, but it had him in school and added an egg-car and a space-dog. Laverne and Shirley had the girls join the Army with a drill sergeant who was a pig (literally!) and voiced by Horshack from Welcome Back, Kotter.
But I’m going to focus on the Fonz portion of the show, since that one deals with the future. First off, the premise is that Fonz, Ritchie, Ralph Malph (and Fonzie’s dog Mr. Cool) join a future chick named Cupcake and ride in her spaceship, which is also a time-machine. We know this is true to the Happy Days universe, because in the fifth season (post-shark-jump) Mork from Ork visited the Fonz. So we know that aliens and UFOs were around in 1957 Milwaulkie, and they were capable of traveling into the future and Boulder Colorado.) [Also, I wonder if this is where Repo Man took the idea that flying saucers are time machines?]
Many of the Fonz and the Happy Days Gang episodes are comically set in the past. But one episode, titled “May the Farce Be With You” takes them to the year 2057 for a Star Wars spoof. This is ironic for two reasons: first, all the Star Wars references are wasted on the 50’s kids who won’t see the movie for another 20 years. Second, Star Wars was set in the past, not the future. (Tangent: I wonder if Ron Howard and George Lucas talked about this connection when they collaborated on Willow. Or did Lucas just razz Ron about making a fortune on a sitcom that ripped-off American Graffiti?)
Sadly, the Happy Days U.F.O. never brought Fonz and friends into the year 3994. Too bad, it would’ve been a great cross-over with Thundarr. Can you imagine a better comic duo than Ralph Malph and Ookla the Moc? I cannot.
Next: true story from a pitch meeting. I was invited to re-invent an old show from the vaults of Classic Media. They own some beloved properties including Lassie, Gumby, Felix the Cat, George of the Jungle, the list goes on and on. I was given the chance to pick a property and come up with a brand new take for a TV series.
I chose a personal favorite that was in desperate need of a make-over: The Lone Ranger. my pitch, titled LONE RANGER: 2056 took the masked man out of the Old West and put him in a new frontier: the post-apocalyptic wasteland. The same way The Road Warrior is a re-telling of Stagecoach, my Lone Ranger followed a single man fighting for justice in the shattered cities of America. Instead of a white horse, he’d ride a silver harley. Instead of Injuns, there’d be Mutants. And instead of train-robbers, there’d be a corrupt would-be government threatening to foil the vigilante hero. The backdrop was new, but it still provided dramatic obstacles for the Ranger to uphold his creed (which takes on new meanings when applied to a post-apocalyptic wasteland.)
My pitch was not well-received. The guy I met with said that it would be irresponsible to set a children’s show in a post-nuclear setting. You can’t do that. (Sure you can —Thundarr the Barbarian.) He also said you can never have a children’s show where the government is portrayed as the bad guy. (Sure you can — Boss Hogg!)
I later learned that a successful re-imagining was to take a character like Richie Rich, but make a new show where he’s black. You only had the freedom to recreate a lesser-known character in their library (like Commander McBragg or Tennesee Tuxedo). But the company would never pay money to bring back a lesser-known character. The lesson was: do not screw with beloved classics and put them in a bizarre new environment.
Which bring us to our final cartoon vision of the future. Do you recognize this rabbit? If you said Bugs Bunny, you’re close. It’s Ace Bunny, a descendent of the famous Looney Tunes rabbit. He was the star of LOONATICS UNLEASHED, a KIDS WB series that imagined the classic characters as Matrix-style super-heroes in the year 2772 A.D. The series ran from 2005 – 2007. Daffy Duck was now Danger Duck. Wile E. Coyote became Tech E. Coyote. And Tasmanian Devil was Slam Tasmanian. They teamed up to fight crime in the futuristic city of Acme-tropolis. But don’t worry, even though they run around with samurai swords and jet-packs, they still possess the vaudeville-like wit and humor that made their ancestors famous.
(Ace Bunny is voiced by Charlie Schlatter, who is doing a Bugs Bunny impression. Fun Fact: Schlatter started his career doing a George Burns impression in the body-switching comedy 18 Again!)
Before the first episode ever aired an 11-year-old kid in Oklahoma started an online petition asking Warner Brothers to not make the show. In two months there were over 80,000 signatures from around the world, urging Warner Brothers to kill the cartoon. But a WB Spokesman said they “just wanted to create something that would be accessible and fun to a new generation of kids.” In his defense, they had already turned the characters into babies, so a something new was needed.
Watch an episode of Partridge Family 2200 A.D. in Spanish.
Play the Thundarr online role-playing game.
See the Fonz pilot a space-ship and make-out with an evil robot. Ayyyyyyyy!