Preface: Of all the impressions I have from going back and re-watching these cartoon classics on the internet, it’s my memories of the time that affect me most. Cartoons & teen programming stays with us, because it’s what we chose to like when we had a choice. As kids of Generation X, we were honest in our selections in all media. We had choices, and either liked it or didn’t. Our reaction was swift & merciless. We were smart, so if you sucked, you got yanked off-the-air quickly, because there was little room for that with the networks & sponsors. These corporate stiffs had no clue, and always used Generation X kids as a barometer for what was cool– in all mass media.
Back in the 1970’s, this was the best time of the week for kids. Television had saturated America, but there was no programming for kids until this time slot was developed. This was pre-cable TV, where viewing options were CBS, NBC, ABC or PBS– roughly in that order. Every other time slot was for adults.
Weekday mornings were always 2-hour news show such as Today & Good Morning America. Then it went into game shows until around noon. Then three-to-four hours of soap operas. Evenings were for adults too, and then many stations went off-the-air from midnight to 6 AM. There was maybe an hour (or two) of kids after-school programming per day during the week, which was mostly syndicated 1960’s & 1970’s sit-coms & Star Trek (1966-69).
Syndicated cartoons were often ancient, with too much lameness such as Woody Woodpecker and Tom & Jerry. Mel Blanc’s Merrie Melodies were in rotation, but you couldn’t get enough of them. Beyond Hanna-Barbera & Bugs Bunny, the best 1960’s cartoons were Underdog (1964-67) and Rocky & Bullwinkle (1959-64), but they were also hard for kids to find.
Hence the need to create a Saturday morning cartoon time slot. As a kid, it felt great to wake up and know there was no school, just fun TV watching ahead. Sunday mornings were exclusively religious programming, and the rest of the daytime weekend was sports, so this was it for cartoons.
Non-animated fare for children was PBS’s Mr. Roger’s Neighborhood, Sesame Street, and The Electric Company. More adventurously for kids, ABC ran a variety of Sid & Marty Krofft series, most prominently: Land of the Lost, Sigmund and the Sea Monsters, the Bugaloos & H.R. Pufnstuf.
Krofft Productions is difficult is explain (or even justify) to those who weren’t there, but here it goes. The lack of competition during this era really stifled innovation, as the boardrooms of the three major networks made every decision regarding what television audiences would see. Hanna-Barbera had taken the lead in kids programming, and they were making money for their affiliates on all three networks. Hanna-Barbera owned 80% of the Saturday morning market. The problem was, by the middle of the decade Hanna-Barbera cartoons were either old, or looked old. We’ll return to this point later.
Sid & Marty Krofft had worked for Hanna-Barbera in the late 1960’s. They left to move in their own direction, creating live action series for kids. During the 1970’s, Sid & Marty Krofft created dozens of new series, many lasting just a few episodes, that constantly ran on Saturday morning & after school.
Each Sid & Marty Krofft creation seemed to have the same strengths & weaknesses, which made them delightful & maddening at the same time. Land of the Lost (1974-76) was their flagship series, running three seasons. It was a stretch making it that far, as the acting is really bad, and there is too-little inspired writing. Every plotline seemingly stagnates into inaction, as characters endlessly talk about what to do, or whatever else.
Land of the Lost is a great concept, with a great theme song (and rockin’ closing song), with some semi-cool dinosaur animation. The sleestack is a great monster idea. Fun fact: a young Bill Laimbeer (C/PF Detroit Pistons, NBA) was a sleestack. No one knew who he was at the time, but watching this show in retrospect, one can always tell which sleestack is Bill Laimbeer. It’s the biggest and most-aggressive one.
Sleestack were a far-out idea, but kinda lame too. Typical example: multiple sleestack closing in on Will & Holly, who are trapped in a stryofoam cavern, just about to be caught. Then it’s— cut to a commercial for messages from McDonald’s, Trix, Captain Crunch, Eggo, Hershey’s, Coca-Cola, Light Brite & Coco Puffs. After that it’s back to the “action,” where the sleestack have been moved back ten feet. Holly will then cry out in fright, “They’re getting closer!,” as the entire sequence plays out again– until Will & Holly escape.
Land of the Lost also had a usable vehicle with its time machine and the solitary friendly sleestack named Enik, who aids the castaways. They shuffle different-colored boulder marbles around a stone board– and things happen. Cool concept, but only a few stories actually hold up, which really hurts the overall plotline.
I’m neutral on Chaka. As I mentioned, this is the BEST show from the Krofft brothers, and it has serious flaws. It’s considered to be a low-budget version of Gilligan’s Island by those who watched.
The original desert island castaways had Tina Louise & Dawn Wells going for them, which is nice. The rest were too inept to find a way off, for all the reasons we know. That’s how Hollywood goes two hit seasons with that concept & budget.
Both shows hooked viewers with a terrific opening title sequence & catchy song (& outro version). Land of the Lost had a fascinating concept beyond that, which made it a cult hit with GenX.
Second place for cool in the Krofft series probably goes to Electra Woman & Dyna Girl, a live action series from 1976. It ran 16 episodes in a single season as part of the Krofft Supershow (1976-79). Electra Woman & Dyna Girl was dropped during it’s second season, along with Dr. Shrinker. Electra Woman & Dyna Girl ran in syndication on Saturday mornings & after school, and was well-received by the kids. So, what happened?
Once again, Electra Woman & Dyna Girl is a great idea, two super-hero babes with a hooky title song– which ALWAYS helps. All the mainstream had in that genre at the time was Wonder Woman (1975-79), and a limited amount of Batgirl. Competition was needed, and Krofft Productions recognized this. But once again, there was no money put into this series, as the episodes were stretched thin, with too many lulls. You need writers to sustain a series.
Sid & Marty Krofft were good at knowing what the kids wanted, and deserve credit for that. But too often they axed ideas which had more potential in them, because they didn’t have the resources to develop them properly. It was cheaper & easier to move onto something else, and that’s what they mostly did.
Everyone knows that Land of the Lost was brought back for a bad movie in 2009. Few know that Electra Woman & Dyna Girl was brought back as a pilot for television in 2001, with Electra Woman played by Markie Post. This is hilarious stuff, as it nails the original concept perfectly while updating it. It should have gone to series– but Warner Brothers killed it. Idiots.
Back to Sid & Marty Krofft, as Dr. Shrinker is the last original series I’ll mention specifically. It’s the same deal here as the rest, as this show barely made it through its only season, yet lives on in so many memories of GenX-ers, because of its theme song.
Dr. Shrinker is a case of the title song being the best part of the show. For the record, this also happened with Barney Miller (1975-82). Dr. Shrinker held up for a few episodes, until one realized this was a constant loop of capture & escape, with no resolution in sight. One or two episodes of Dr. Shrinker could be maddeningly hilarious in its time, and still is in retrospect. Anything more is suicidal lunacy. The title song sticks in your head forever.
The collective works of Sid & Marty Krofft are a mixed bag of interesting & crazy ideas, marred by lack of execution. In so many ways their concepts influenced GenX, while most viewers were smart enough to recognize their limitations. This is why just about all of their series only ran one season, but the impression they made remains deep in the memory banks of those who watched.
When kids tuned in to whatever version of Krofft productions was on at the time, we were looking for ideas & creativity. Sid & Marty Krofft thought outside-the-box, and took chances. This was low budget and it showed, but they found ways to make it work for years, and when you’re discussing the kids TV demographic, that’s saying something. In terms of the popular influence of Krofft productions, and the advertising money they created for their network– it was huge on all sides.
In the 1970’s, Hanna-Barbera had become a behemoth, nearly monopolizing Saturday morning cartoons. At first this was for the better with Scooby Doo, and everything they built around that iconic great dane. The great Hanna-Barbera cartoons of this era included: Harlem Globetrotters, The Scooby-Doo Show, The Yogi Bear Show, Hong Kong Phooey, Laff-A-Lympics & Challenge of the Super Friends.
Eventually, as with any monopoly, lack of innovation became their downfall, as their legendary stable of iconic cartoon characters, going all the way back to Huckleberry Hound, Yogi Bear & the Flintstones had become dated. Hanna-Barbera cut corners in animation, using the same scrolling backgrounds over & over, which eventually caught up with them.
By the time cable TV & Nickelodeon came along in the 1980’s, Hanna-Barbera quickly became an industry relic, which Ted Turner bought up and used to launch the Cartoon Network in 1992. For straight boys who cut their teeth on sugar-coated cereals during 1970’s, The Smurfs were the jumping-off point for Hanna-Barbera.
As a side note, The runaway success of The Smurfs cartoon spawned a video game which was platformed exclusively on ColecoVision. The dominant home console platform of the day was the Atari 2600, and newly introduced Atari 5200– in late 1982. With such exclusive licensing, Atari console owners couldn’t play the Smurfs video game because it wasn’t allowed to be available on any other platform.
This was a major salvo in the infamous “video game wars” that eventually crashed the video game industry in 1983-84. Atari and all the rest went bankrupt, with Japan’s Nintendo capturing the market with its NES & Super Mario in 1985. Nintendo had been huge in video games since Donkey Kong in 1981, which was also exclusively licensed by ColecoVision as their original pack-in game.
The best of the rest on Saturday morning included the following:
Return to the Planet of the Apes (1975) was an action animated series based upon the novel Planet of the Apes (1963) by Pierre Boulle. It ran 13 half-hour episodes, and is better than any of the movies or other adaptations. Return to the Planet of the Apes is animation that approaches art, with it’s minimalist storyboarding & intelligent themes.
The plot moves along quickly with purpose, and the scoring is outstanding. Ethical issues such as imprisonment, intolerance, sympathy, science, and love are explored in creative & subliminal ways. This remains a first-rate cartoon, easily one of the best ever.
The Pink Panther Show aired on NBC in all kinds of versions during the decade. Great cartoon characters included the Ant & the Aardvark– one of my all-time favorites. This cartoon has serious durability, used in the Blake Edwards’ Pink Panther movies starring Peter Sellers back in the day, it remains funny & engaging up to today. Classics never die.
Filmation became a big cartoon production competitor to Hanna-Barbera in the 1970’s. Fat Albert and the Cosby Kids ran for most of the decade, and was their biggest hit. No matter what became of Bill Cosby and his sexual predations, Fat Albert and the Cosby Kids still has an undeniable charm & reach towards kids. It ranks with The Cosby Show as his greatest artistic achievement, and in many ways outstrips that blockbuster 1980’s sit-com which came after.
Tarzan, Lord of the Jungle was a half-hour action cartoon that ran four seasons, from 1976–1980 on CBS. It’s probably the best version of Tarzan on any screen, as it portrays the title character as not only strong, but also intelligent & caring towards all. A great way to strengthen your voice (and irritate your parents) is to imitate his call of the jungle.
The New Adventures of Batman was successfully brought back as an animated series that aired on CBS. The was another Filmation production, featuring the DC Comics superheroes Batman & Robin with Batgirl, and it was terrific. All the kids watched it, along with Hanna-Barbera’s SuperFriends series.
It’s natural for kids to identify with superheroes. It’s also natural for teens & adults to outgrow this phenomenon. With that said, the best version of Flash Gordon was the 1979 animated series, shown as a Saturday morning cartoon. It had excellent animation for its time, and took major influence from Star Wars— in its Empire Strikes Back (1980) era.
Now re-titled as The New Adventures of Flash Gordon (1979), Season 1 is sixteen chapters, and is all you need to see. Season 2 (1982) is domesticated & silly in comparison. This series had a major influence on Japanimation as an art form with commercial possibilities. Peter Chung’s Æon Flux (1991-95) is a good example of this.
Conclusion: Cartoons aren’t mindless entertainment, as so many “responsible” parents insisted back in these days. It’s what kids are interested in, therefore it becomes a competitive market. Generation X was the “Saturday morning cartoons” generation. Along with video games, MTV, and early home computers, their embracing of these innovations would change popular culture forever.
The most divisive line between modern and old popular culture is Generation X. Like it or not, most kids today consider the Beatles to be old, and they’re right. That’s hurtful to an older generation of baby boomers & classic rockers who have been left behind culturally & intellectually.
Generation X doesn’t think that way. They understand the Beatles were geniuses in their time, but rock music & art has long since modernized past their influence. Hip-hop & rap, along with the Velvet Underground, Sonic Youth, and electronica have more influence today.
The first adult animation feature film for Generation X was Heavy Metal (1981), a sex-up space conquest fantasy trip, with a R-rating. It features a killer double album soundtrack– an essential record for any rock fan. Play it loud!!
Æon Flux was an animated action series of shorts, and eventually half-hour episodes featured on MTV, the same network that broadcast Beavis & Butthead. This, along with The Simpsons is late teen & young adult cartoon content for Generation X.
Mystery Science Theater 3000 is the adult version of cartoons, with their puppeteering & incisive hilarity. Content on the Disney Channel, Nickelodeon & the Cartoon Network of this era slanted younger, meaning Generation Y. The same became true with video games, music & computers.
As we can see, cartoons can be stimulant for a young imagination. They will never go away, because people don’t want to get old. Cartoons can be a fantasy that takes you away on an adventure, and that has value– if it’s creative & well done. Cartoons make people laugh, and remind them of when they were young. Nothing is more valuable than that.