1. The Far Side
As if in tacit agreement that no one reads newspapers anymore, comic-strip characters rarely leap from the funny pages to television these days—and the ones that once did can no longer find airtime if they aren’t connected to a boy named Charlie Brown. Then again, no single contemporary strip enjoys the complete cultural penetration achieved by strips like Peanuts, Garfield, or even Blondie at their creative and popular peaks. Considering that company, Gary Larson’s single-panel feature The Far Side is by far the strangest comic enterprise to ride a wave of desk calendars and T-shirts to a pair of small-screen adaptations. Helmed by “Bambi Meets Godzilla” director Marv Newland, the two installments of Tales From The Far Side are a perfect meeting of behind-the-scenes talent and source material, with each segment hitting its one joke—or, in the case of Tales From The Far Side II’s extended “Death Takes A Holiday” sequence, hitting its one joke again and again—and moving on. Positioned as part of CBS’ Halloween programming in 1994, the first special leans heavily on horror-movie spoofs and an ethereal score from guitarist Bill Frisell; its more patient, wider-ranging sequel never aired in the United States, premièring instead on the BBC in 1997. It’s little wonder—any audience accustomed to the animated adventures of Snoopy and friends wasn’t likely to warm to a special network presentation that ends with drunken extraterrestrials blasting away at Earth.
Garfield creator Jim Davis is on record as citing finicky 9 Lives mascot Morris The Cat as a partial inspiration for the widely syndicated cartoon tabby. It’s only fitting that when Garfield came to television, he was accompanied by a pair of voices to match Morris’ phlegmatic purr: television writer/producer Lorenzo Music and soul legend Lou Rawls. With Music providing the fat cat’s thoughts and Rawls supplying the theme song, Here Comes Garfield was the first of 12 primetime specials starring the lasagna-loving, Monday-hating feline to air between 1982 and 1991. Halloween and Christmas installments of the franchise became perennial programming staples, and Davis—never one to give up on a profitable thing—eventually green-lit the Saturday-morning series Garfield And Friends in 1988, the same year the bizarre, Rawls-free Garfield: His 9 Lives debuted on CBS. Other specials, which never achieved the same sort of enduring popularity as the holiday entries, found the character indulging in genre exercises, though not to the extent of His 9 Lives, which features a number of thrilling shifts in animation styles (including a cameo by the characters of George Herriman’s Krazy Kat)—as well as some of the most unsettling Garfield imagery this side of the grotesque storyteller in Garfield’s Halloween Adventure.
3. Wizard Of Id
In 1968, cartoonist Johnny Hart and puppeteer Jim Henson met to plan out a possible television series based on Hart’s Wizard Of Id. Henson found appeal in the strip’s humor and shot a test pilot in March 1969. The short pilot creates something of a plot by stringing together beats based on single strips, each joke punctuated by the characters’ “Ain’t we stinkers?” mugging—and the strength of the footage is definitely in the jokes. There are some hints of the meta-madness that punctuated Henson’s later work, but the short remains a paint-by-numbers affair. Hart pitched the pilot around, with ABC even expressing interest in a film at one point, but by then, the ever-restless Henson had moved on to other ventures, including Sesame Street.
One school of thought says baby boomers didn’t begin to feel nostalgic for their lost ideals (and simultaneous disenchantment with those ideals) until the release of The Big Chill. Adherents to that view obviously missed A Doonesbury Special, an animated short film from 1977 whose palpable wistfulness can be traced to the broken promises of The Me Decade and the mid-production death of co-director and co-producer John Hubley. (Hubley still shares these credits with wife Faith and Doonesbury creator Garry Trudeau, however.) An autumnal atmosphere hangs over the entire special, which floats freely through vignettes about the shifting concerns of the then-commune-dwelling inhabitants of Trudeau’s strip. Only perpetual space-case Zonker seems to notice that the leaves outside are changing color, as his impassioned plea to disband the commune simply fades away like so many memories of anti-war protests, embarrassing football losses, and Jimmy Thudpucker singles.
Two elements of 1987’s Blondie & Dagwood, based on Chic Young’s long-running newspaper comic Blondie, seem strikingly off-kilter. One is the strained attempts to render Dagwood’s ultra-stylized hair in something like three dimensions, even though it already looks ridiculous in two. The other is Dagwood’s voice. The strip has always rendered Blondie simply and delicately, and her husband Dagwood as a bulbous caricature; the voice casting follows suit, with Loni Anderson using her own voice for Blondie, while voiceover legend Frank Welker renders Dagwood with a high-pitched, nasal honk. Everything else about the TV special is familiar, thin gruel, though: Dagwood makes big sandwiches, falls down a lot, slams into the mailman while running late for work, and horks off his boss, Mr. Dithers, who fires him—and just as he needed extra money to have his roof fixed, too! So Blondie has to go to work, even though her only experience is as a housewife, yuk yuk. While Blondie & Dagwood does deserve some credit for trying to stick by the strip’s roots while opening up the action to bigger, more ludicrous setpieces (like Dagwood “hang-gliding” off his neighbor’s roof after getting tangled up in his TV aerial), it’s still pretty lame and limited. But someone must have thought it went well: It was followed two years later by another half-hour animated special, Blondie & Dagwood: Second Wedding Workout, featuring the same writers and cast, and a story that has Dagwood simultaneously committed to an important work project and a 20-year-anniversary second wedding to Blondie. Wackiness ensues—but not very entertaining wackiness.
Chuck Jones’ half-hour TV adaptation of Walt Kelly’s comic strip Pogo, 1969’s The Pogo Special Birthday Special, is recognizably a Jones product from start to finish—it’s full of Jones touches, like wry eye-rolls aimed at the audience, and mighty familiar sound effects, which sometimes show up in print onscreen. (Not to mention Jones’ signature comic timing.) But while it feels more like a Jones cartoon than a Kelly strip—particularly given the vocal casting of June Foray, who does Pogo as a Southern-fried version of Rocky The Flying Squirrel—Kelly’s contributions do assert themselves to some degree: He scripted the piece, the animation holds closely to his latter-day character designs, and he even voices several of the characters, as does Jones. That said, it’s hard for an animated piece to get across Pogo’s wordplay and density, and it winds up largely being a mildly draggy goof in which Albert the alligator and Beau the dog duel over the correct words to “Deck The Halls,” while Porky Pine blushingly tries to woo “a female lady-girl” and his friends decide that as “a norphan,” he’s lonely and needs a family and a birthday of his own. It’s cute throughout, and nicely animated, but there’s definitely a reason The Pogo Special Birthday Special didn’t achieve the holiday ubiquity of Jones’ How The Grinch Stole Christmas!, produced just a few years earlier. It doesn’t help that no one in the Okefenokee Swamp knows what holiday the special is celebrating.
7. For Better Or For Worse
Lynn Johnston’s gentle family saga landed a series of seven specials in the cartoonist’s native Canada, beginning with 1985’s The Bestest Present, which featured the voices of Johnston’s own kids as Michael and Elizabeth, their fictional alter egos. More specials appeared in the early and mid-’90s, many centered on the then-toddler April exploring a world where most everything was new to her. Like the comic strip, the specials progressed roughly chronologically, so Michael, Elizabeth, and April all aged as the show went along, and changes made to the status quo in the strip were reflected in the specials. The specials were big successes in Canada, but they attracted less attention in America, where they aired on HBO and the Disney Channel. The specials did have one unexpected effect on the comic: They forced Lynn Johnston to nail down specific layouts for her characters’ home and neighborhood.
“Man or woman, this is one of the most amazing times to be single,” Cathy says at the outset of her first, eponymous TV special in 1987. The program—which boasted production help from longtime Peanuts collaborators Lee Mendelson and Bill Melendez—features a few jokes about newfangled answering machines and sushi restaurants, but its most “It’s the ’80s!” aspect is the idea that exploring the plight of “singles” as a demographic group is novel or amusing. This is the cultural moment in which Cathy Guisewite’s noseless bag of asexual pathos flourished. And so, too, did her feminist friend Andrea—and her itchy pepper-spray finger—as well as Irving, Cathy’s simpering repository for trite male stereotypes. CBS inexplicably brought this unlikable cast back to the airwaves for two further specials in the late ’80s: Cathy’s Last Resort and, Lord save us, Cathy’s Valentine.
The 1989 half-hour prime-time special Marvin: Baby Of The Year presaged the talking-babies-getting-into-hijinks phenomenon that launched later that year with Look Who’s Talking. The special finds Tom Armstrong’s pudgy 2-year-old protagonist Marvin and his bratty cousin Megan dropping the sort of baby-themed zingers that have characterized the comic strip for three decades as they compete in a “Baby Of The Year” contest at the local mall. The competition forces its diapered competitors to race baby-walkers and solve block puzzles in their quest to be the babiest baby that ever babied, or something. Even though, judging by the special’s jokes, Marvin is hideously fat and pretty damn stupid, he reaches the finals, eventually losing to a glammed-out baby girl with obviously fake eyelashes in a foreshadowing of yet another baby-centric cultural phenomenon to come: Toddlers And Tiaras.
10. Lil’ Abner
In the mid-’60s, with the successes of The Beverly Hillbillies, Green Acres, and other rural-set comedies, the idea of a Lil’ Abner TV series seemed like a natural fit to NBC, but the project never went beyond the pilot stage. In spite of making the transition from the comics page to almost every other format (including the big screen and the Broadway stage), Al Capp and his various creative partners could never make a TV version work. The 1967 pilot is fine as-is, but it misses much of what made the strip so satirical and fun by taking everything in a much broader direction. It would be difficult to bring Capp’s weird blend of warmth and loathing for his characters to any other medium without the direct control of the man himself, which may be why every attempt to make the strip a TV show failed, even when the market seemed more than ready for such a thing.
11. The Smurfs
It’s hard to believe that the little blue creatures that infested cinemas in 2011 have been around since the 1950s, when writer-artist Peyo first introduced them in the Belgian magazine Spirou. Although arguably best known in America for their Saturday-morning TV series, The Smurfs have also managed to star in no less than seven one-off specials, some holiday-oriented (The Smurfs’ Christmas Special, My Smurfy Valentine, The Smurfs’ Halloween Special, and ’Tis The Season To Be Smurfy), some less specific (The Smurfs’ Springtime Special, Smurfily Ever After), but all positively smurfilicious. Of the bunch, the most intriguing is the Olympic-inspired The Smurfic Games, which begins with the revelation that Smurfs from the east side of the town speak differently than Smurfs from the west side of the town, and quickly devolves into a competition between the whole lot of them. Unsurprisingly, the special ends with all Smurfs coming together as one big, Smurfy family.
12. Hägar The Horrible
Starring Dik Browne’s titular red-bearded Viking, 1989’s Hägar Knows Best pulled heavily from the strip’s initial storyline from its 1973 debut. After years of plundering, Hägar returns home to find his daughter, Honi, is betrothed to a most un-barbaric young man, Lute, while his son, Hamlet, has been expelled from school and is becoming civilized, thanks to a love of books. Horrified, Hägar sets out to train Lute and Hamlet to be vicious Vikings like him. Hägar ultimately fails, but in a standard parenting trope, he learns to appreciate the joys Honi finds in her beau and Hamlet finds in his books, accepting his children for who they are, which provides for a happy ending (and a happy family).
13. The Phantom
Lee Falk’s so-called “Ghost Who Walks” first found his way out of his daily comic strip and into a live-action medium in 1943—courtesy of a 15-part movie serial—and Billy Zane eventually pulled on the character’s signature purple tights for a feature-length Phantom film 53 years later. But bringing the seemingly immortal hero of the jungle to the small screen in a similar fashion has never panned out. In 1961, a color Phantom pilot was produced, featuring former Bob Hope stunt double Roger Creed in the title role, but although the supporting cast in the pilot was strong (Reginald Denny, Paulette Goddard, Richard Kiel, and Lon Chaney, Jr. all make appearances), the adaptation often veers away from the character’s established mythos, including setting the story in southeast Asia rather than The Phantom’s traditional African stronghold. Although there were reportedly four episodes written, the scripts were abandoned when the pilot failed to be picked up by any network. An attempt to mount a Phantom series in the 21st century was similarly stymied, resulting instead in a swiftly forgotten 2009 miniseries.
14. Miss Peach Of The Kelly School
The bland Mell Lazarus gag strip that isn’t Momma, Miss Peach was used as the basis of a string of holiday specials, the first of which aired 25 years after the strip debuted. Instead of commissioning full, drawn animation, the producers of the specials decided to go with a mixture of live action—with a flesh-and-blood actress playing the title character—and puppets for the kids. (Filmed in Toronto, the specials boasted several alumni of the Second City—including Martin Short as the voice of a turkey too smart to be served for Thanksgiving dinner.) The results are marginally more striking than the strip itself—at least in the sense that they were creepier—and lend credence to Matt Parker and Trey Stone’s dramatic post-Team America: World Police insight: “Puppets can’t do shit.”
There are so many Peanuts specials that if you string together a random collection of words and end it with “Charlie Brown,” there’s probably a special with that name out there. Many of them—particularly in the ’70s—were surprisingly good, but Charles Schulz’s attempts to create “his Citizen Kane” ended up dragging some of the specials down into strange kitsch. (See: The Spike-starring, partially live-action It’s The Girl In The Red Truck, Charlie Brown or the pathos-mining cancer drama Why, Charlie Brown, Why?) Others tried to cling too hard to current trends, and just ended up extremely strange—for example, the infamous It’s Flashbeagle, Charlie Brown. The specials followed everything from Snoopy falling in love with a circus dog to the Van Pelts almost having to move to the kids ending up at Omaha Beach by mistake and reflecting on D-Day. Few of these specials were unwatchable, and the specials soon took on a weird continuity of their own, even as the reasons for them grew more and more specious. If nothing else, how else were viewers going to get to see Snoopy have a nightmare in which he becomes a sled dog?