Rewind: 'Fat Albert' The Junkyard Jewel Of Saturday Morning TV

'Fat Albert and the Cosby Kids' one of the most important and influential shows of '70s kids' TV, both for better and worse.

In the new movie "Fat Albert," the junkyard gang steps out of an

animated Philadelphia of the 1970s and into the real world of today, which

is quite a different place, and not just because Bill Cosby's become old

and cranky.

When the classic Filmation cartoon premiered in 1972, hip-hop culture didn't exist yet, kids were still listening to music on LP and 8-track tape, the Vietnam War was still raging, and, perhaps most importantly, nobody had cable TV. OK, maybe "most importantly" is a slight exaggeration, but what kids

today don't realize is how good they've got it in this era of the

Cartoon Network, Nickelodeon and the countless other cable channels

geared exclusively to them. Back when Fat Albert first "Hey Hey Hey"'d

on TV, there were only a fistful of networks creating new programming,

and only one block of time in the entire week was specifically geared

toward kids: Saturday mornings.

It's impossible to overstate the sociological import of the golden age

of Saturday morning TV. From the 1960s through the 1980s, Saturday

morning was the one time when kids ruled the tube. The major networks —

CBS, NBC and ABC — made almost as big a deal about their Saturday morning

fall lineup as they did prime time. Centerspread ads for the new shows

were placed in comic books, half-hour preview specials (one hosted by

Darth Vader) aired on the Friday night before the first new Saturday

morning of the fall. It was a big deal.

While one's subjective experience colors opinion, we'll go out on a limb

and proclaim the mid-'60s through the '70s to be the golden age of

Saturday morning. In the '50s, the few kiddie shows were mostly safe,

saccharine fare like "Howdy Doody" and "The Mickey Mouse Club." By the

'80s, cartoons had become either veiled ads for toys (e.g., "G.I. Joe"

and "Rubik the Amazing Cube"), preachy treacle like "Mr. T" and "The

Shirt Tales" or a fuzzy combination a la "The Care Bears."

But in those years in between, Saturday morning flourished with a

delicious sugary mixture of comedy and violence. "George of the Jungle,"

"Wacky Races," "Josie and the Pussycats," "Scooby-Doo, Where Are You?,"

"The Jetsons" and "The Pink Panther" were not only hilarious (or at

least we thought so), they all had really cool theme songs.

Cartoon crime fighters the Herculoids, Superman, Batman and Aquaman (both

in solo cartoons in the '60s and then teamed in the "SuperFriends" in

the '70s), Spider-Man, the Lone Ranger and Speed Racer actually beat up

bad guys until children's watchdog groups put an end to the fisticuffs

in the '80s and made Tarzan and He-Man reason with villains to show them

the error of their ways.

Live-action kidvid on Saturday mornings ran the spectrum from bland to

bizarre. Soft comedy/variety programs like "The Hudson Brothers Razzle

Dazzle Show" and "The Harlem Globetrotters Popcorn Machine" were

kiddie equivalent of prime-time shows like "Sonny and Cher" and "Tony

Orlando and Dawn." Meanwhile, bad special effects mixed with allegory in such live action adventures as "Shazam!," "Isis" and "Space Academy." And then

there was the hallucinogenic world of Sid & Marty Krofft, the producers

of "Lidsville," "H.R. Pufnstuf" and "Land of the Lost." These

kaleidoscopic enigmas starring giant puppets, kids with British accents

and escapees from a Timothy Leary Day Parade held viewers spellbound,

making kids ask for the first time, "What are these people on?"

Even the educational stuff was entertaining ... anyone who grew up in the

'70s can recite the preamble to the Constitution, but only if they're

allowed to sing it, as learned from the legendary "Schoolhouse Rock"

bumpers on ABC. CBS had "In the News," short features about current

events that played like "5 Minutes" (instead of 60) for youngsters.

There was a subtle maturation that occurred for many during this period

as well. Inevitably, the Saturday morning would come when all those curious pop-culture references, caricatures of Hitler and Teddy Roosevelt and usage of really old songs

on "The Bugs Bunny/ Road Runner Show" made sense ... "Hey! These

cartoons are really OLD! They weren't made for me, they were made for my

PARENTS!" That moment when a kid realizes that pop culture existed

before they were born is a key epiphany. Suddenly the world doesn't

revolve around them quite as much.

But it wasn't just the programming that made Saturday mornings such an

indelible part of youth. Everything was different in those early hours

of the weekend. We got up before our parents and fed ourselves, usually

bowls of brightly dyed cereal that (back then) had the word "Sugar" in

the name. We'd have to sometimes battle with siblings over what shows

we'd watch and drool at the commercials for toys and games that would

never pass consumer-safety organizations (or the department of Homeland

Security) today.

"Fat Albert and the Cosby Kids" stands as one of the most important and

influential shows of that period, both for better and worse. (It's like the Beatles' Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band of cartoons: Did it elevate the art form or kill it?)

On the one hand, it was genuinely funny and

the first time urban life was depicted with some realism in a kids'

show. The songs performed by the Junkyard Band were really catchy

("Beggin' Benny" remains our favorite and begs for an Outkast cover

version). But "Fat Albert" was also the first cartoon to shove moral

messages down kids' throats, sometimes to the point where one needed a

politically incorrect Heimlich from Dudley Do-Right or the Go-Go Gophers

to knock it loose.

If kids felt kinda bummed by being lectured to by Bill Cosby, that

feeling was only exacerbated by what was to come next. "Fat Albert and

the Cosby Kids" was always the last cartoon of the morning, with just

one more bit of kidvid remaining that day.

"The CBS Children's Film Festival" was an hour-long anthology show that

showed usually depressing foreign films about Swedish boys losing their

balloons. Hosted by '50s holdovers Kukla, Fran and Ollie (two hand

puppets, one actress/singer/teacher), the show almost seemed

designed to make you want to turn off the TV and get some fresh air.

Which is usually what happened. There were no video games to play, no

cable channels to pick up the slack, unless you wanted to watch old

movies or shows about fishing. It was time to go outside and play, to

meet up with your friends and start getting dirty before dinner. It was

a good time.

The impact of that golden age of Saturday morning cartoons is evident in

much of the entertainment created for (at least somewhat) older audiences.

We've been subjected to big-budget, live-action films of "Scooby-Doo,"

"The Flintstones" "Rocky and Bullwinkle" and "Josie and the Pussycats."

"Space Ghost" fought interstellar evil in the '60s before becoming a

sarcastic talk-show host in the '90s on "Space Ghost Coast to Coast."

Other Hanna-Barbera adventure shows, "Sealab 2020" and "Birdman," have

been tinkered with to create satire for the Cartoon Network's "Adult

Swim" block of programming, which this year also brought us the

brilliant "The Venture Bros." Created by Chris McCulloch (a veteran of

"The Tick"), "Venture" is a loving homage to "Jonny Quest," "The

Fantastic Four" and dozens of other violent shows of that era.

While the networks do still program to youngsters on Saturday mornings,

it's not the same. Pre-teen sitcoms like "That's So Raven" and "Strange

Days at Blake Holsey High" and advertising that emphasizes being cool

over having fun are indicative of a world in which kids aren't kids past

the age of 8 or 9. Not to sound like grumpy old Uncle Rewind, but

it makes us kinda sad. We wonder if Fat Albert, Mushmouth, Dumb Donald

and the rest of the gang will be able to adjust. If not, at least

they'll probably have company. It's only a matter of time before more

filmmakers, animators and cartoonists who rotted teeth and frazzled

brains in front of the tube every Saturday morning resurrect one of Fat

Albert's peers. But will Bob Denver agree to cameo in "Far Out Space

Nuts: The Motion Picture"?

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