The doleful soul of Tennessee Tuxedo

The doleful soul of Tennessee Tuxedo

In September of 1963, CBS began airing Tennessee Tuxedo And His Tales as part of its Saturday morning programming block, replacing Total TeleVision productions’ previous show, King Leonardo And His Short Subjects. Total TeleVision had been formed in 1959 by a team of creatives from the Dancer Fitzgerald Sample advertising agency, with the backing of General Mills. Their mission was to produce children’s programming with an educational component at a time when there was much public handwringing about how TV was rotting kids’ brains. So Tennessee Tuxedo built an actual academic lesson into the structure of every episode. On Shout! Factory’s new Tennessee Tuxedo And His Tales: The Complete Collection DVD set, one of the show’s creators, W. Watts “Buck” Biggers, explains that they based their stories on the Popeye model: “You get ’em up a tree, you throw rocks at ’em, and then you figure out a way to get ’em back down.” But where Popeye had spinach, the bowtied penguin Tennessee Tuxedo and his dimwitted walrus pal Chumley had knowledge, which they picked up from “the man with all the answers,” Phineas J. Whoopee. After a two-minute lecture on basic scientific principles, Tennessee and Chumley would return to a task that had previously bested them, and would usually do better at it—though never good enough to escape their lives as zoo animals.

I knew nothing of the history of Tennessee Tuxedo And His Tales when I watched it as a boy. By the time it made its way to my TV, the show had been stripped, chopped, and redistributed into various syndication packages, often combined with cartoons from Total TeleVision’s friendly rivals at Jay Ward Productions. Ward also had a partnership with General Mills, and a few years earlier had encouraged Dancer Fitzgerald Sample to buy a Mexican animation studio then called Val-Mar (and later renamed Gamma Productions), so that he could cheaply produce what would come to be known as The Rocky & Bullwinkle Show. Ward’s company was based in Hollywood, while Total TeleVision was based in New York, but both employed Gamma, so both companies’ output had the same flat, misshapen look and limited movement—as did the cereal commercials that ran during their shows, not coincidentally. By the ’70s and ’80s, when I saw these cartoons, they were all jumbled together, both in my mind and in the way they were packaged: Total TeleVision’s Tennessee Tuxedo, Commander McBragg, Underdog, Klondike Kat, Tooter Turtle, and Go Go Gophers sat side-by-side with Rocky & Bullwinkle, Dudley Do-Right, Peabody’s Improbable History, Fractured Fairy Tales, and Aesop & Son.

Even as an 8- or 9-year-old, though, I could tell that the Jay Ward shows were superior. Ward compensated for his shoddy animation by loading his shows with puns, asides, self-reference, and wit. Total TeleVision countered with slapstick and wacky voices, frequently by actors doing on-the-sly impressions of other famous folk. (On Tennessee Tuxedo, Don Adams played the hero as a riff on William Powell, while Larry Storch based Phineas J. Whoopee on Frank Morgan.) On the DVD set, Biggers admits that General Mills “wanted a show that was a little less sophisticated” than Rocky & Bullwinkle, and TTV obliged.

Yet as simple as Tennessee Tuxedo And His Tales was intended to be—and as much of egomaniac as Don Adams could be to work with, at least according to Biggers—the show ran for three years on CBS, ending only because General Mills felt that three years was about the right lifespan for a kiddie show. Every three years a new wave of youngsters arrives, and they want to watch something different from what their big brothers and sisters watched. That was the theory, anyway. No one had any idea back then how long these little thrown-together pieces of entertainment would stick around, or what they would mean to the people who watched them. The likes of Tennessee Tuxedo survived in syndication largely because they were an option that local TV programmers didn’t have to weigh too heavily. They just ticked a box on an order form, ran the show at 7 a.m. every morning, and sold enough toy ads to pay the bills.

Tennessee Tuxedo represents a lot of what television meant to me when I was little. I watched that show mainly in the mornings before elementary school, and as a latchkey kid, I usually had to switch it off about halfway through, so that I could make my way down to the bus stop at the entrance to our apartment complex. Which meant that every weekday during the school year, I had a choice: Turn off the TV and go where I was supposed to go, or keep watching and then lie to my mother later, telling her I stayed home sick. The latter I could only do a few times a year, but it seemed like a viable option just about every day, which meant that Tennessee Tuxedo became emblematic of what I had to leave behind when I chose to go to school.

It wasn’t that I hated school, mind you. I got mostly good grades, and had a few close friends. I also got picked on some, and was bored most of the time—just like most children. And it wasn’t that I loved Tennessee Tuxedo. It was only the best option at that time of day from the five channels we received back then. But I watched the show on my time, and when you’re a kid, any time that hasn’t been planned out for you by a grown-up is special. There’s a great line in Jackie Brown, when Ordell complains to Melanie that smoking pot all the time will “rob you of your own ambition.” She replies, “Not if your ambition is to get high and watch TV.” I’ve never been a drug guy, but I can definitely co-sign the back half of that sentence. In my boyhood especially, my idea of heaven was being allowed to watch television all day, with no homework or chores getting in the way.

I often wonder if a lot of our affection for our respective pop-culture pasts is driven less by their actual quality than by when, why, and how we originally experienced them. I’m not just talking generalized, rosy nostalgia here; I’m talking specific associations. For example, I typically only saw game shows during summer vacation—often while visiting my beloved grandmother, who watched them regularly—or during snow days. And I watched old sitcoms after school, or post-prime-time during the summers, when I was allowed to stay up late. So on some level, I still associate those shows with freedom—or at least with not being in school.

That’s part of the weird, sad, wonderful transformation that occurs in pop culture, from creation to reception. Fifty years ago, a group of men and women worked to create a sloppy-but-not-too-terrible cartoon show that would sell cereal and maybe teach kids about simple machines. Yet today, when I hear the Tennessee Tuxedo theme song, I’m not thinking about any of that. I’m remembering being 9 years old. I’m remembering it being 7:15 a.m., on a cold Tuesday in February. It’s dark outside, and rainy, and I don’t have an umbrella for my five-minute walk to the bus stop, where I know I can expect the kid who lives two buildings over to make fun of my second-hand blue jeans for being too small. I also know that when I get to school, the smell of ammonia and tater tots, combined with the flickering fluorescent lights, will make me mildly nauseated. Or maybe I’ll just be feeling the effects of the Little Debbie oatmeal creme pie I ate out of my lunch before I left the house—a choice that means that now I don’t have a dessert to look forward to in the middle of the day. Meanwhile, the bus is loud, bumpy, and smelly, and I’ve just realized that I forgot to compile all the animal facts I need for my science notebook, which means I can expect a “Needs Improvement” on my report card, which means I’ll be grounded and miss my best friend’s skate party.

However crudely animated Tennessee Tuxedo was, and however unsophisticated, to me it still recalls our warm, empty apartment on another dreary school-day, and how much I wished I were sprawled out on the floor next to our little TV, with the plastic spoon jammed in where the volume knob used to be. I wanted to stay home and watch a man with a three-dimensional blackboard explain how the internal combustion engine works, instead of watching an old woman write the words “characteristics of mammals” slowly on a real blackboard. Throughout my youth, my mind and heart were elsewhere, always drifting toward the tube, and toward a small penguin who never can succeed-o.