Low-rated and barely animated, Rocky & Bullwinkle became a TV touchstone

Low-rated and barely animated, Rocky & Bullwinkle became a TV touchstone

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 Episodes, we examine shows that made it to that number, considering both how they advanced or reflected the medium and what contributed to their popularity.

Back in the pre-Pixar days, when the cute, antiseptic look of bad Disney seemed to have smothered any other possibilities in feature animation like kudzu, any animation freak could have reeled off a tear-stained list of the alternate roads that were shut down or led to dead ends: the Fleischer brothers; John and Faith Hubley, Gene Deitch, and the other independent souls who passed through UPA; and the many varieties of fanciful nightmare imagery coming out of Eastern Europe. But there’s not much in the way of a great tradition of unappreciated, eccentric animation done for television in the pre-cable era. For most of the history of animated TV series, the form was totally defined by the cheap, uninspired work ground out at Hanna-Barbera Productions. The great exceptions are the cartoons produced by J. Troplong Ward for his Jay Ward Productions, which are cheap and inspired

Ward Productions was home to a raft of cartoon characters whose simple designs—yoked to clear motivations and brought to life by brilliant voice work—instantly stamped themselves on the viewer’s cerebral cortex. There was Dudley Do-Right of the Canadian Mounties and his leering, green-skinned foil, Snidely Whiplash; Mr. Peabody, the time-traveling genius dog (and unintended answer to the question, “What if George Will was naked and walked on all fours?”) and his adopted boy, Sherman; and the nasal, honking princesses, game-show-announcer-voiced princes, wheedling gnomes, and other exotic creatures of “Fractured Fairy Tales.” But the towering figures around whom the lesser players all clustered were the resourceful, plucky Rocket J. Squirrel and his epically dim but dependably good-hearted pal, Bullwinkle Moose. 

From 1959 to 1964, they were the tentpoles of 163 half-hour, multi-segment episodes of what, depending on the whims of whichever network had elected to lose money on it, was called Rocky & His Friends, The Bullwinkle Show, or The Adventures Of Rocky & Bullwinkle. Against the Cold War backdrop of the last years of the Eisenhower administration and the New Frontier of the Kennedy era, Moose and Squirrel were forever being rousted from their snug home in Frostbite Falls, Minnesota, to save Western civilization from some encroaching menace. Though Bullwinkle would have been the last to notice it, the encroaching was usually being done by two familiar figures: the pasty-white, mustachioed, black-hatted villain Boris Badenov (a caricature of the movie actor Akim Tamiroff) and his comely brunette partner, Natasha Fatale, spies for the sinister Slavic nation of Pottsylvania. It is a rare episode indeed in which Rocky and Bullwinkle don’t have more pressing things to worry about than which of them gets top billing.

The cast also included William Conrad, who served as announcer and narrator, and Edward Everett Horton, who narrated “Fractured Fairy Tales”—though that description understates their contribution. On a show that often blew up the fourth wall, they interacted enough with the characters to count as characters themselves. And their familiar voices also gave the show solid links to old radio and classic Hollywood. Horton had been a familiar type in early talking comedies, master of what Pauline Kael called “the hollow-head-under-a-top-hat Edward Everett Horton manner,” and Conrad had been the voice of Matt Dillon on the radio version of Gunsmoke. Later, he would step in front of the cameras to star in Cannon, playing a private detective who charged his clients hefty fees to keep himself in caviar.

More than one critic has compared the sprawling plotlines of Rocky and Bullwinkle’s adventures—which, running for weeks from episode to episode, are chopped up into bite-sized nuggets, each ending with a cliffhanger—to a radio show. That must seem to a lot of people as the politest thing those critics can say about the animation. Parodying hoary old melodramas and making a joke of the way the show itself knowingly commented on the television medium, the art of pop storytelling, and its own corny jokes, Rocky & Bullwinkle may well have been the closest thing TV cartoons had produced to MAD in its Harvey Kurtzman, color- comic-book phase, though those comics did have great artwork. (Maybe the only upside to the low repute in which comic-book artists were held back then was that great art didn’t cost much more than shitty art.) TV critic Elvis Mitchell once summed up Rocky & Bullwinkle’s “poetry of motion” by writing that “you can find more gracefully undulating tattoos.” But he added that “what Bullwinkle offered was a resource: unapologetic brains. It covered so much ground so quickly you almost didn’t have time to note the crude pop-art hieroglyphics of the action.”

The characters of Rocky & Bullwinkle have their roots in The Frostbite Falls Revue, an underdeveloped project that Ward worked on with his then-partner, Alex Anderson. (Anderson, who wasn’t involved in the Rocky & Bullwinkle series, was in his 70s when he learned that Ward had claimed sole copyright of the characters. He filed suit to have himself declared their legal creator.) But before that, Ward and Alexander had been experimenting with the tone and format on their first collaboration, Crusader Rabbit. That show, whose style of “minimal animation” is closer to a goddamn slide show than to Rocky & Bullwinkle, also takes a spoofy attitude towards cliffhanger-adventure melodrama. Crusader Rabbit himself was the sole survivor of an early Anderson-Ward proposal for a TV cartoon series to be called The Comic Strips Of Television, which would feature a variety of short series fastened together, an idea that finally bore fruit with Rocky & Bullwinkle.

By the time Rocky & Bullwinkle went into production, Ward and his writers had taken a page from the more meta Warner Bros. cartoons—the ones where Bugs Bunny looks back on his illustrious career in pictures, or Daffy Duck barges into Jack Warner’s office to demand better roles—and turned the concept into a variety show with a behind-the-scenes component. When Rocky and Bullwinkle weren’t up to their necks in danger and Boris and Natasha weren’t planting bombs in their luggage, Bullwinkle might present a poem in the “Bullwinkle’s Corner” segment or provide the viewers with some much-needed educational content in his role as “Mr. Know-It-All.” Boris and Natasha were likely to turn up here, too, as if they really were members of a theatrical troupe that had to double up to save money on actors. This “Let’s put on a show!” façade underlined the degree to which the heroes’ adventures were not to be taken seriously. That, in turn, freed the writers to come up with leaping, bounding storylines that, in their sheer imaginative insanity, shamed the Uncle Scrooge adventures of Carl Barks—which also had much better artwork.

The first Rocky & Bullwinkle adventure serial, “Jet Fuel Formula,” scrambles together many of the key paranoid concerns of Americans in the 1950s, after dosing them with laughing gas. It begins on a note of the sheerest banality: Bullwinkle, puttering about the kitchen, trying to bake a mooseberry fudge cake from his grandmother’s recipe. The plot thickens when Bullwinkle learns that his grandmother’s batter is actually a rocket fuel powerful enough to make Sputnik look like a paper airplane. It’s a discovery he makes when he lights the oven, which, powered by the batter, achieves liftoff and winds up on the moon. Since ovens don’t grow on trees, Rocky and Bullwinkle have to build their own rocket so they can journey to the moon and reclaim it. 

When they return to Earth, the U. S. government puts Bullwinkle to work trying to duplicate the formula. Meanwhile, the two friends are targeted by Boris and Natasha and a couple of Moon Men, who want to sabotage the space program, lest their home fill up with tourists. There are also plot complications involving Rocky and Bullwinkle’s seafaring friend Captain Peter Peachfuzz; Boris and Natasha’s boss, Fearless Leader; the Abominable Snowman; and a blight that almost wipes out the world’s supply of mooseberries. As the weeks go by and the show keeps adding to the plates spinning in the air, it’s easy to imagine that the writers may have thought that the network was postponing cancellation because someone high up was curious to see how long they could keep this shit up.

Other plotlines would involve Boris and Natasha’s scheme to topple the world’s economy by counterfeiting cereal box tops, a floating mountain that is thickly veined with the anti-gravity element Upsidaisium (think Unobtainium crossed with Flubber), an attack of metal-eating robot mice, and the Pottsylvania Creeper, a man-eating plant that wreaks havoc across the country after the Pottsylvanians manage to get one entered into the Frostbite Falls flower show. Whenever the plots didn’t threaten to split the viewer’s head down the center, the puns made up for it: One story centers on a jewel-encrusted ship that is gradually revealed to be the “ruby yacht” of Omar Khayyam. Then there’s Bullwinkle’s alma matter, Wossamotta U., whose fight song (“Hail, Wossamotta, hail / Better we should be in jail!”) has entered the golden annals of really stupid things that feel great to sing in unison with a bunch of other drunks.

Not all the Rocky & Bullwinkle story arcs had epic ambitions and life-or-death consequences. One of the tightest and funniest sequences in the show’s history involves Boris posing as an acting coach so he can con Bullwinkle, who has come down with the theater bug, into believing that he is a potentially great Method actor with an “ultry sultry” stare that can turn women to jelly. Boris and Natasha’s participation in this scheme is notable partly because the stakes are so low: It’s not part of some larger plan to destroy the American way of life; it’s just a way for him to humiliate the hated moose while making a quick, dishonest buck. (Bullwinkle is soon divested of his life savings, which he stashes in a mattress that he’s lugged from Frostbite Falls to Hollywood.) 

But if Boris has to relax his standards of villainy a little to allow for a Marlon Brando parody to fit into the show, so be it. In the end, Boris and Natasha always failed in their mission to bring America to its knees, but Rocky & Bullwinkle was a great success at demonstrating that there was nothing in American culture so self-important, fearsome, pretentious, and credentialed that it couldn’t be reduced to a hailstorm of corny jokes. Sadly, the show was canceled just as The Beatles were about to lead the charge for a new appreciation of self-referential irony and sophomoric wit in popular culture; it had been just far enough ahead of its time to ensure that it would be one of those things that hangs around forever, until its topical humor takes on a timeless quality. (NBC, which took the show on after two seasons on ABC, canceled it in 1964, but was still pulling it out of the closet to fill holes in its Saturday-morning schedule in the early 1980s.) 

Subsequent attempts to revive its brand of humor—notably in two feature films, the live-action Boris And Natasha (1992) and the 2000 live action-CGI mash-up The Adventures Of Rocky And Bullwinkle, served only to prove that this stuff is harder to make work than it looks. For now, let the last word on Jay Ward’s philosophy of life go to the faculty member at the financially drained Wossamatta U., who suggests that the school reach out to Daddy Warbucks. When informed that Little Orphan Annie’s ward and protector is a fictional character, the guy just shrugs: “You mean we’re real!?”

Up next: Party Of Five

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