In The Flintstones, Hanna-Barbera found a shameless rip-off that worked

In The Flintstones, Hanna-Barbera found a shameless rip-off that worked

How the first primetime animated series found success

For most of the history of television, the barrier to syndication—and to profitability—has been 100 episodes. The shows that have made it to that mark are an unusual group. Many were big hits. Some found small cult audiences. Still others just hung on as best they could and never posted numbers quite low enough to be canceled. In 100 Episodeswe examine shows that made it to that number, considering both how they advanced or reflected the medium and what contributed to their popularity.

The most popular theory for the collapse of the multi-camera, traditional sitcom in the late ’90s and early 2000s stemmed from two probable causes. For one thing, network executives came to believe, the market had become oversaturated in the wake of NBC’s mid-’90s success with Seinfeld and Friends, two shows that brought a more upscale audience to TV’s most durable and traditional format. For another, there was the idea that the young people advertisers were most interested in courting had the rhythms of the multi-camera sitcom in their blood. It was impossible to surprise members of Generation X or Millennials, because they’d been raised with television, and they’d known the setup-punchline structure like the back of their hands since the age of 9 or 10.

There were plenty of reasons to believe both of these aspects played into the gradual sense that the multi-cam was played out (even as many of the top shows on TV remained multi-cams), but the latter made more sense to longtime pros. Television was radically changing in the ’90s and ’00s, abandoning storytelling tropes and structures that had long been held as certainties. Seinfeld, to this school of thought, was the ultimate shot across the bow of the multi-camera sitcoms people had been digesting in daily reruns for their entire lives, and after that explosion of the form, there was nowhere to go but to completely abandon it. And the more that cable filled time with cheap multi-camera sitcom reruns, the more kids grew up knowing those rhythms down in their marrow. Nick At Nite, TBS, Disney Channel—once kids left the comfort of cartoons for more “grown-up” live-action shows (as most do around the age of 8 or 9), they were devouring and regurgitating this stuff with enormous speed.

But it’s easier to go back even earlier in the pop-culture life of the average American child, to find the rhythms of the traditional sitcom being learned from the time a child is able to understand narrative. In fact, it’s easy to go all the way back to Fred Flintstone.

When William Hanna and Joseph Barbera launched The Flintstones, the series that would catapult Fred to fame, they were self-consciously building a series that would hopefully appeal to both kids and their parents. Hanna and Barbera knew they could get the kid audience. Their slate of afternoon syndicated programs already included shows starring Huckleberry Hound and Yogi Bear, and they had proved that original animation could be done for television on a reasonable budget. The pair came to television after a lengthy, successful background in animated theatrical shorts, their most famous work on MGM’s series of Tom And Jerry cartoons, but their primary innovation in television animation was to figure out a way to do things as cheaply as possible. The men’s characters were sharply designed and fun to look at, but their shows famously featured lots of stock positions and lips flapping about in lieu of full-body animation. And that was simply the only way the two could bring animation to TV on a weekly basis. The kinds of production schedules normal for feature animation—or even theatrical shorts—simply weren’t possible in TV. Speed was of the essence, as was cost.

What helped Hanna and Barbera was an instinctive sense that their cartoons could be slightly more story driven than many children’s programs of the early television era. The most typical format for kids’ shows of the time was either a rough take on movie serials (perhaps best exemplified by The Lone Ranger) or a variety show with a host, produced on the cheap at the local station (the many basic variations on Bozo The Clown scattered throughout the country). Puppets like Howdy Doody were popular, as were some very basic science-fiction programs. But there weren’t very many of the sort of comedic programs Hanna and Barbera were creating with Huckleberry and Yogi. The setups were simple, but kids were already learning a basic dose of the setup-punchline rubric, coated in occasionally charming, usually repetitive flights of whimsy.

The Flintstones, then, was the show poised to break the men’s company, Hanna-Barbera, through to the adult audience. The program ended up succeeding beyond anyone’s wildest imaginations, running for six seasons and 166 episodes, getting nominated for an Outstanding Comedy Series Emmy (for its first season), and proving a key hit in the early development of ABC from also-ran network to one that could compete with CBS and NBC. The show took ages to pitch, with Barbera running between all three networks and a variety of sponsors, trying to figure out a way to get the show on the air, something that would eventually happen with the help of a cigarette company. (Barbera’s pitch, which involved storyboards and performing various voices and sound effects, took much longer than normal pitches and was so physically demanding that it exhausted him—he often had to make it multiple times in the same day.) But once ABC committed, The Flintstones debuted in September 1960 and rode steadily into the Nielsen Top 30, where it stayed for three years—and arguably provided the template for most of the gimmick sitcoms of the ’60s.

Its success shouldn’t have surprised anyone, though. The Flintstones was basically The Honeymooners.

Hanna and Barbera were frequently touchy about the notion that they were ripping off The Honeymooners when conceiving of The Flintstones. (Reportedly, Jackie Gleason thought of suing but decided against it when considering what it would mean to be the man who took Fred Flintstone off the air.) Though the program was not a big-enough hit to survive more than one season as a traditional sitcom, the shadow of The Honeymooners—and the comedic sketches on The Jackie Gleason Show that gave rise to the sitcom—loomed large over American television in the late ’50s. Gleason was one of television’s most beloved stars, and in The Honeymooners, he had both invented and perfected the blue-collar sitcom. And Hanna and Barbera had certainly noticed. According to Ted Sennett’s terrific book The Art Of Hanna-Barbera, Hanna, in particular, loved Gleason’s program. “I used to watch The Honeymooners and laugh until tears would run down my cheeks,” Sennett quotes him as saying.

Viewed in isolation from Hanna-Barbera’s other output, The Flintstones might seem to fall on the right side of homage. While the show’s “two working-class couples” setup is very similar to The Honeymooners, it’s not as if Gleason could copyright the idea of making a show about two married couples who happen to be friends. The program’s character designs and voicework certainly bear considerable resemblance to the characters on The Honeymooners—in particular, Mel Blanc’s voicework as Barney Rubble grew more similar to Art Carney’s Ed Norton throughout the program’s run. But the show is also a kooky Stone Age fantasy, a goof on what the modern era might look like when filtered through a prehistoric lens. As such, it’s easier to divorce oneself from the program’s inspiration when watching. Gleason and Carney’s characters on The Honeymooners likely never would have gone to the circus, much less been blasted into space, both adventures Fred and Barney would have in later seasons. For as much as The Flintstones seemed like an animated copy of The Honeymooners, it was that word, “animated,” that saved it from seeming too similar. As with other animated primetime series that would follow (save, perhaps, King Of The Hill), The Flintstones grew more and more whimsical as the years went on, pushing into territory live-action sitcoms simply couldn’t compete with.

Viewed in combination with the company’s other output, however, The Flintstones starts to feel uncomfortably like what it was accused of being: a Stone Age rip-off of a more original show. Characters in animated works are based on character models that are consulted repeatedly (and sometimes even directly replicated) in order to make sure everything looks just so when the work is finalized. In too many of Hanna-Barbera’s programs, it’s far too easy to imagine the animators doing just that, but using the live-action sitcoms that blazed the trails Hanna-Barbera happily followed along, then adding some fantastical element. Look, for instance, at the way Top Cat is disturbingly similar to Sergeant Bilko of The Phil Silvers Show, or how the teenagers on Scooby Doo roughly line up with those on Dobie Gillis (Zelda, for instance, is renamed Velma). Individually, these works stay on the right side of homage; together, they start to feel a little like theft, like a company needing to stay one step ahead of television’s crippling production schedule by turning to what had worked before.

At least if Hanna and Barbera were going to copy what worked before, they went about it as honestly as they could. The Flintstones employed a healthy number of traditional comedy writers, including Herbert Finn and Sydney Zelinka, who had worked with Jackie Gleason. Though the show certainly had a more traditional story department, it was intent on making sure the adventures of Fred, Wilma, and all the rest would follow traditional sitcom plots right down to the letter. This, also, established a pattern primetime animated shows follow to this day: The early seasons featured more realistic, down-to-earth plots, but they grew loopier as the seasons went on, as more traditional setups fell by the wayside. The first episode of The Flintstones featured Fred and Barney trying to figure out a way to go bowling, instead of going to the opera with their wives. It was a premise any sitcom could have used (albeit one that concluded with Fred and Barney racing their wives home in a prehistoric helicopter). But by the final season, both were commiserating with an alien named The Great Gazoo, which was much less likely to pop up on My Three Sons. Still, the rhythms of comedy—stretching back to even before the advent of the sitcom—were strong on The Flintstones. Consider a bit from the episode featuring the birth of Fred and Wilma’s only child, Pebbles, for some classic, comedic ridiculousness:

If the show worked at all (and it obviously has, given its enduring popularity), it was because of the Stone Age setting, which Hanna and Barbera considered their signature triumph. The two considered all manner of possible settings for their primetime sitcom, including the Roman empire and Colonial-era America, before the idea of a prehistoric sitcom began to take form. To modern eyes, this is all very silly. The Stone Age setting primarily takes the form of lots of rock puns and the imagination of then-modern technology via prehistoric means. The Flintstones led comfortable lives of copious consumption, but Hanna and Barbera underlined all of it with a wry satire on the machinery of production—in this case literally represented by beasts who did all the grunt work for the characters and were rarely silent about their struggles. At times, this fourth-wall breaking became the only consistent source of humor on the show, and The Flintstones leaned on it far too heavily.

Truth be told, The Flintstones is a fairly junky TV show. Its fame stretches from a variety of places, mostly having to do with how it was the only successful primetime animated series until The Simpsons debuted in 1990, and it has some solid elements throughout. The voice acting, particularly from the central foursome of Alan Reed (as Fred), Blanc, Jean Vander Pyl (as Wilma), and Bea Benaderet and Gerry Johnson (both as Betty), was generally terrific, and Hoyt Curtin’s theme song is one of the all-time greats (though it didn’t actually appear in the series until season three, and the original theme song was basically just the Looney Tunes song). The show also occasionally nudged against genuinely dramatic subject matter, as when the Rubbles can’t conceive and decide to adopt. (True to the show’s form, they adopt a baby boy left on their doorstep who possesses super-strength.) 

But these points in the series’ favor can’t overcome the stilted animation or the tired story setups or the way the show devolves into absolute nonsense roughly after the birth of Pebbles. Many of the jokes were tired in 1960 and are even more labored now. There’s a reason The Flintstones has mostly been relegated to a kids’ show since its height. Whatever its initial charm as a fantasy sitcom, that charm wore off somewhere in the first two seasons and was replaced by increasingly ridiculous stories, like that super-powered toddler or The Great Gazoo. The show sunk out of the top 30 after season three, and for good reason: There was little left for adults to hold onto, and other series were doing a better job of carving out territory in the world of the gimmick sitcom.

And yet, to bring everything back to the beginning, The Flintstones, just like every other Hanna-Barbera cartoon of the era, works enormously well as a kind of indoctrination for kids into sitcom tropes. Consider this: Not once has this article laid out what a typical episode of The Flintstones is like, how all of the bits of its premise fit together, as an 100 Episodes piece normally would. And that’s because everyone already knows, even people who haven’t seen an episode in decades. The show is so simple as to be elemental, and no matter when a first encounter occurred—in syndicated reruns from the ’60s and ’70s, as part of USA’s Cartoon Express block in the ’80s and ’90s, on Boomerang in the ’00s—this show and others produced by these two men were some of kids’ first pop-culture tutors in how all of this comedy stuff works. The Flintstones hasn’t really been a going concern as an actual TV show for ages, but the empire that has spread out around it—an empire of feature films and spin-offs and amusement parks and TV specials and chewable vitamins and breakfast cereals—has guaranteed it will be eternal. And even more than that, it has secured its place in television history by ensuring that by the time the children who veg out in front of it get to adulthood, everything the show copied so poorly from other programs will seem old-hat and tired, and those children, now adults, will set out in search of other territories.

Next time: Stephen Bowie takes us back to one of the most successful private eye shows of the ’60s and ’70s: Mannix.

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