Some of the problems with both are the same. And it may have stemmed from the personalities of Bill Hanna and Joe Barbera themselves.
It could be said that Joe and Bill abhorred one word—originality.
Yes, that’s even though they were responsible for some of the most loved—and infamous—characters in television animation.
It really started when their theatrical career took off because of two characters. The idea of ‘mouse vs. cat’ wasn’t original. Paul Terry had used it for years. And once Joe and Bill had their two characters—whose names came right out a 1930s Van Beuren B-Grade studio series—they repeated the same basic premise over and over and over and over again for 17 years. Seven Oscars showed there was no need for change. Some really inspired direction, layout drawings and animation and a few plot variations managed to keep the Tom and Jerry series fresh, funny and occasionally charming. But it was evident by the 1950s things were getting shop-worn and needed something. But why come up with something original? Instead, they merely ripped off themselves and inserted an annoying duck in several shorts. Or an annoying baby mouse. In their big non-Tom and Jerry cartoon, they purloined the concept from 1939-era Hugh Harman, even down to the Bible verse used for the title (“Peace on Earth” “Good Will to Men”).
Then came the television cartoons. Those already had one strike against them—there’s no way the animation could compare to what Hanna and Barbera had accomplished at MGM. Fortunately, talented designers, likeable characters and good writing managed to overcome that. Still, a small sense of unoriginality hovered over the cartoons. It surely wasn’t a coincidence one of the star characters had a name that sounded like a New York Yankees catcher with a voice reminiscent of Ed Norton. Or that another reminded everyone of a nightclub comic who had made it big in the movie No Time for Sergeants, no matter what Daws Butler later (and, I suspect, truthfully) insisted. Or that a dog spoke like Jimmy Durante. Or a cat like Ed Gardner. Or a burro like Desi Arnaz. Or a bunch of characters like Phil Silvers. Fortunately again, Daws was such a marvellous talent, he only invoked the memory of the radio and TV stars by changing the voices a bit and using his own funny particular inflections. He made the characters different. But Bill and Joe used the familiarity of something—not originality—as the starting point for their best TV cartoons.
The half-hour shows were no different. All the publicity about the new concept of a half-hour prime-time cartoon didn’t stop opinions at the time (which continue today) that all Joe and Bill did was steal from The Honeymooners (with a chunk of I Love Lucy’s birth-of-Little Ricky shows tossed in), Blondie and Bilko. But again, in the best of the episodes, there was enough interesting design and great voice work that made the cartoons not only entertaining, but much different than their inspirations.
Unfortunately, all the elements that added up to fun cartoons in the Huck days started disappearing in the shorts. Loopy de Loop is a prime example. Loopy doesn’t do anything funny, say anything funny or even sound funny. Mike Maltese started running out of ideas and started not only borrowing gags from his Warners cartoons but from earlier Hanna-Barbera cartoons. Even the designs looked like they had come out of earlier cartoons. The Hanna-Barbera shorts started losing whatever originality they had. And, as you can see, originality wasn’t really a strong suit by the guys ultimately in charge.
And the shorts started sounding the same. In the Quick Draw series, all three segments used completely different parts of the Capitol Hi-Q library (with occasional exceptions). Now, Hoyt Curtin’s tracking library appeared everywhere and music you’d associate with The Flintstones or Magilla Gorilla would shake your eardrums by unexpectedly leaping out at you in Touché Turtle or Squiddly Diddley.
We roll into the later part of the ‘60s and, suddenly, Hanna-Barbera went on a fantasy-adventure binge. So we got a bunch of similar looking and sounding cartoons like The Herculoids, Space Ghost and Birdman. Space Ghost borrowed (are you surprised?) a concept from Jonny Quest that appeared endlessly and unoriginally again and again in Hanna-Barbera series—a little animal(-like) comedy relief sidekick who could both get into trouble and save the day. They loved the concept so much that they even shoe-horned a modified version into The Flintstones when they created the Great Gazoo. In Jonny Quest, Bandit was a good element to take a break from the drama and suspense. In The Flintstones, Gazoo was annoying and unnecessary. Why detract from (and, in the script, insult) likeable, funny main characters?
And things got worse.
With Filmation’s practically instant success with blandly-designed, constantly-reused-animation shows, Hanna-Barbera decided to hew to the unoriginality route and rip off Archie. Thus we got another comic book property—Josie and the Pussycats, complete with the singing teenaged band concept that was ripped off again and again.
And things got worse.
Hanna-Barbera snatched some elements of the radio show I Love a Mystery, a line from a Sinatra song, more teenagers and Astro’s voice and came up with Scooby-Doo, Where Are You? At first, the series counter-balanced ugly character designs and all that unoriginality because it kept the one thing that made the radio show a success. It was a mystery show with some comic relief tossed in. Viewers could play detective and try to solve the case. But then—at least it seemed to this young viewer at the time—the producers made the same mistake as the creators of the ‘60s Batman series with Adam West. They played up the comedy and played down the dramatic part. Soon, you could solve a Scooby plot in your sleep, which is what the cartoons started inducing. Then, to try to waken viewers, they started adding appearances by people like an animated Phyllis Diller. Phyllis Diller?! Even kids could see out-of-character stars had no real business being there and the series was dead. The show lost me. Between that and the ugly, stiff, laughtrack-bathed Filmation shows with Dal McKennon screeching at me, I stopped watching most Saturday morning cartoons. Oh, Bugs and Daffy were still on and worthy of my attention. But forget that new stuff. If I’m going to watch something I’ve seen before, I’m going to watch something really funny.
And then things got worse.
Hanna-Barbera, bereft of ideas, ripped off itself (Pebbles and Bamm-Bamm, Yogi’s Gang, Tom and Jerry with a bow-tie, endless Scooby shows, Roman Holidays) and after playing that card, ripped off live action (Jeannie, These Are the Days, The Addams Family). And it’s perhaps telling that Hanna-Barbera’s biggest property of the ‘80s wasn’t even created by the studio—they licensed The Smurfs.
Not a stick of originality in the lot. But, really, the studio had never been too high on originality to begin with. Though, to be fair, networks love familiarity. And producers love squeezing whatever cash they can out of a property. If they can take something they’ve exhausted and find a different way of doing it, they can revive their animated cash machine.
Perhaps this was all inevitable. Success begats money which begats growth which begats a corporate structure which begats conservatism which begats less risk-taking and originality. Yes, Joe and Bill sold out to Taft fairly early in the studio’s life so there were stockholders to worry about. And, yes, there were pressure groups and network censors who watered down cartoons so much that Quick Draw couldn’t be shown quick drawing because of paranoia that seeing a gun would turn children into mass murderers (a good thing cartoons were emasculated way back then because that made mass-murdering extinct today). But, for whatever reason, and with rare exception, the Hanna-Barbera cartoons stopped being fun or entertaining.
Fortunately, for a while, Joe, Bill, Carlo Vinci, Mike Lah, Ed Benedict, Daws Butler, Mike Maltese, Warren Foster, Art Lozzi and a bunch of others created some enjoyable cartoons and that’s what this blog is here to celebrate.
And, in the end, perhaps you can’t really blame Joe and Bill in the area of (un)originality. After all, didn’t they start in animation at a time when almost everyone felt the only way to make a great cartoon was to rip off Walt Disney? How original is that?