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
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
“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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