Wednesday, September 29, 2010

The Inked Disaster

There’s a good reason The Flintstones were panned after their debut. It’s called “perspective.”

It seems impossible to anyone today that such a thing could have happened. But our perspective is not that of TV reviewers the day after the show first aired 50 years ago this Thursday. For one thing, people today have seen the same 166 years episodes constantly aired over and over—on a daily basis for many of those years. We’ve grown to love the characters, the theme song and the funny little unhappy living gadgets that turned the show into a huge money-maker for Hanna-Barbera and its later owners. None of that was available to TV critic tuning in on September 30, 1960. All he or she had was the ability to compare that one episode starring unfamiliar characters to television that had aired up to that point, and to the pre-show hype.

And the first episode doesn’t live up to the hype.


Endlessly came the drumbeat from the H-B advertising machine that The Flintstones was different. It was adult, adult, adult! Full of social satire on suburbia! The first episode that aired was ‘The Flintstone Flyer.’ Anyone expecting veiled commentary on modern day marriage or daily life would have been sadly disappointed. The cartoon opened with a clip from later in the show where the gag is a bowling ball splitting apart, like the way cars split apart in chase scenes in silent film comedies. The opening’s the best part, where a city scene is transposed to the Stone Age, but it’s something that had been done by the Fleischers in cartoons 20 years earlier. Then the rest of the first ten minutes is a fat unknown guy yelling at a smaller unknown guy, though we get a cute gag remarking on the huge size of Sunday newspapers.

At that point, critics must have thought about the funny lines spouted by Quick Draw McGraw and the weary, subservient husbands on ‘Papa Yogi’ and wondered why this show wasn’t doing any of that.

Of course, people got to know the characters and the show took off. But it seems to have taken a bit of time. Joe Barbera recollected Daily Variety called it “an inked disaster.” He was half-right. It was really the New York Times. Here’s what columnist Jack Gould wrote on October 1, 1960:


One of the innovations announced for the current season was a half-hour situation comedy to be done in the format of an animated cartoon. With so many sponsors making witty use of drawings—indeed some of the commercials have been more amusing than the shows—the prospect of such an entertainment series was both enticing and overdue.
Last night the event finally came to pass; “The Flintstones,” conceived by the young men who won assorted prizes for “Huckleberry Hound,” made its debut at 8:30 on Channel 7. Regrettably, the verdict can not be pleasant; the show was an inked disaster.
*
The producers, William Hanna and Joseph Barbera, have concocted two married couples, the Flintstones and the Rubbles, and put them down in the town of Bedrock. The masculine figures are notably unattractive, coarse and gruff, and the woman nondescript. The speaking voices assigned to the four characters are not very tasteful.
Where it was presumed a Stone Age perspective would be applied to civilization’s contemporary foibles, the thirty-minute cartoon turned out to be an extremely heavy-handed and labored effort. The humor was of the boff-and-sock genre, nothing light or subtle. The story was about how the men wanted to go to a bowling alley and the women wanted to go to the opera; much of the action merely suggested the Three Stooges’ capering on an easel.
The cartoon was accompanied by intrusive canned laughter to alert the home audience to the appropriate moments for reaction. The injection of such a mundane touch played complete hob with any sense of illusion or make-believe. So did the commercials in which the cartoon characters served as pitchmen for vitamins.


But he wasn’t the only one unhappy with the show. Cynthia Lowry, the AP radio-television columnist, called it “ham-handed” (Oct. 19, 1960). Donald Kirkley of the Baltimore Sun disliked the series so much, he panned it twice, first explaining it was “far below” expectations on October 14, then offering these thoughts on October 20, 1960:

Another good idea gone wrong is The Flintstones (WJZ Fridays). An animated cartoon about adults living in the Stone Age could be comical and has possibilities for satire. This offering concocted by Bill Hanna and Joe Barbera, authors of Huckleberry Hound, missed the target by a mile. The trouble is in the writing and the characterizations. Close your eyes and you’d think this was just another suburban family comedy and not a very good one inhabited by unpleasantly uncouth people. Watching them ride in helicopters made of egg beaters, automobiles hewn from logs and bowling with rocks is incongruous rather than funny.

Columnist Jay Fredericks opined (October 30, 1960):

SPEAKING of good laughs, there are damn few good or bad ones in a new television series, “The Flintstones.”
I was solemnly assured by a local television official a couple of months ago that “The Flintstones” would be (a) hilarious and (b) THE show of the season. It is neither.
For those of you who have been lucky enough to escape, “The Flintstones" is an animated cartoon about two stone-age couples who have all the troubles of our suburban society.
The series was created by the same people who originated “Huckleberry Hound,” and, for this reason, I was willing to hope that the first effort was not typical of the whole series — that somehow, it had just got off to a weak start.
Unfortunately, this isn’t so. The whole series is weak. “The Flintstones” is just another unfunny, predictable situation comedy, the only difference being that the characters are drawn rather than being living, breathing actors.


And the AP’s movie-TV writer Bob Thomas wrote in papers of November 11 about how lousy television viewing was overall on Friday night. Before he ripped The Twilight Zone (!) came the opinion:

“The Flintstones” offered some hope of escaping the crushing routine on Friday night. After all, it was a cartoon with the amusing premise of a modern view of the Stone Age. Alas, it was simply another domestic farce and no funnier than “December Bride.” Plus which it had an inane laugh track. Canned laughter for cartoons! What next?

Even fans today aren’t all that keen about the laugh track. But don’t blame Hanna-Barbera for it, as we learn from this column by the Times-Mirror Syndicate, dated October 9, 1960.

VIEWING TV
‘Flintstones’ Has Built-in Laughter
By HAL HUMPHREY
Hollywood
To give you an idea how unsure of itself the TV industry is, we now are witnessing laugh tracks being attached to animated cartoons.
Kids and adults have been sitting in living rooms watching old “Popeyes” and the TV-born “Huckleberry Hound” and laughing it up big all by themselves. That happy day is about to end.
On the ABC network on Friday 8.30 p.m., is a now cartoon series called “The Flintstones.” It comes at a prime evening hour so that both parents and kids can view it each week. It also comes with a built-in laugh track.
Bill Hanna and Joe Barbera, creators of “Huck Hound” and “Quick Draw McGraw,” weren’t sure they had heard right when told to put a laugh track on their newest baby, “The Flintstones.”
“I guess you’d have to say we were flabbergasted,” says Hanna. “It simply never occurred to us that laughs were something which had to be added.”
Bill Dozier of Screen Gems, Inc., distributors and partners in “The Flintstones,” explained to the naïve Messrs. Hanna and Barbera that the show is a situation comedy for adults, and that all situation comedies for adults come equipped with laugh tracks.
Hanna and Barbera got their next shock when a fellow by the name of Charles Douglas came calling with his portable laugh machine.
Charlie’s machine looks something like a miniature piano or organ. When he rattles the keys, it plays a wide variety of human laughs which Charlie has recorded on tape at Elks’ conventions, carnival fun-houses and old Martin & Lewis radio shows.
During a run-through of “The Flintstones” in the studio, Charlie plays a medley of laughs on his “piano,” and they are duly recorded on a sound track to match what is hoped will be the spots where a live audience will laugh at seeing the half-hour cartoon.
“We threw out the first two laugh tracks ourselves,” says Joe Barbera. “They were too heavy, and just didn’t work. Now we have a much lighter track, which we hope the audience will be aware of only subconsciously.”
“You know,” says Hanna, “it is a funny thing, but ‘The Flintstones’ was bought by ABC and the sponsors when they discovered adults were watching and enjoying ‘Huck Hound’ and ‘Quick Draw McGraw.’ But after buying for adults, they now are worried about whether adults will like the cartoon series. How do you figure it?"
I found the first episode of “The Flintstones” only mildly funny. I’m sure that one of the reasons it didn't seem to measure up to other Hanna-Barbera shows was due to all of the “expert” distilling this first show had to go through.
If the creators can get off in a corner by themselves, subsequent episodes are almost bound to improve.

But not all reviews were bad. The show got a boost from a column syndicated in a pile of small-town papers around November 6, 1960, though it sounds like the writer was working from studio PR handouts. I constantly read about “Cobblestone County” as if it were an important part of the show and I don’t remember the reference at all.

‘The Flintstones’ Spoofs Suburbia’
Comedy On Rocks Gains Viewer Nod As Most Distinctive
By ERSKINE JOHNSON
Hollywood Correspondent
Newspaper Enterprise Assn.

HOLLYWOOD (NEA) — There’s rock-and-roll and Rock Hudson and people at bars ordering Scotch and bourbon on the rocks. There are charges that U. S. diplomacy is on the rocks, there’s soup on the rocks and now there is a TV show on the rocks.
More than one situation comedy will be thrown on the rocks by fans before the season is over, I suspect, and you probably have been muttering all along that many a TV producer has rocks in the head.
But with “The Flintstones” on ABC every Friday night it appears to be success on the rocks. There’s another way to have rocks in the head—the way two cheerful fellows named Bill Hanna and Joe Barbara have ‘em.
Veteran animated cartoon producers, Bill and Joe and their geologic cerebrations launched “The Flintstones” as the year’s most distinctive comedy ideas.
The half-hour show, entirely in animation, is about a modern suburban family in the Stone Age —and almost everything is on the rocks from the characters to the dialogue, as the plots kid both suburbia and the Stone Age.
It's amazing how much fun and nonsense these light-headed cartoonists are putting on the rocks.
Fred Flintstone and his family own a genuine “Stoneway” piano and a hi-fi set which plays grooved discs of rock. The needle is a sharp-beaked bind that comments acidly on the music.
Fred is a subscriber to the Daily Slate, a newspaper chiseled on a stone slab. The big circulation problem of the Daily Slate is its Sunday edition, because no subscriber is strong enough to pick it up.
One episode has the Flintstones departing for Hollyrock, the town where prehistoric movies are made. They check in at the Rockadero Hilton and meet stars like Gary Granite and Rock Pile.
In the same geological vein, virtually all of the characters have stony names. There’s Joe Rockhead, chief of the Bedrock Fire Department in Cobblestone County; Perry Gunnite, a detective so tough that his favorite drink is rocks on the rocks (he drinks it by the quartz); Mr. Granite, foreman of the Rockhead and Quarry Cave Construction Co. where Fred Flintstone works. The firm’s motto is “Own Your Own Cave and Feel Secure.”
Even the music is along the same lines.
“I don’t know what we would have done without rock-and-roll,” Barbera laughs. “If it didn’t exist, we might have had to invent it.”
Even the voice of a sports commentator on the series was made to fit the rocky mood.
“We made him sound like Andy Devine,” Hanna laughs. “You know—gravelly.”
Putting puns on the rocks for the show is a creative brain trust which includes Joe and Bill, associate producer Allan Dinehart; story director Alex Lovy and writers Warren Foster and Mike Maltese. It’s a serious business with them.
Brainstorming polylithic parodies keeps the midnight oil burning.
Oil on the rocks, of course.

Serious business, indeed. The Flintstones became the company’s biggest success, both on the tube and on the balance sheet through endless commercial tie-ins. But I can’t help but think one wire service columnist had the best perspective looking back on the show in 1961 after it had been on a few months.

TV Reviewer Not Impressed With ‘Flintstones’ Series
By FRED DANZIG
New York, Jan. 25 (UPI) — The great TV hoax of this season, in my book, is “The Flintstones.”
It was a happy occasion last year when ABC-TV announced that the 1960-61 season would be enlivened with an “adult-aimed situation comedy in animated cartoon form . . . a satire on modern suburban life.” The handout referred to “The Flintstones,” a prime time entry off the drawing boards of the Hanna-Barbera Studios, producers of the great “Huckleberry Hound” series.
The prospect of an adult cartoon series was something to which I looked forward with pleasure. Well, “The Flintstones” came and conquered. The show caught on. It won awards as “most unique new program,” of all things. Millions of adults tune it in.
But it’s not the show it purported to be.
As I watch the show, off and on—in the words of the TV knob—I find myself wondering when it will begin to be an “adult-aimed . . . satire on modern suburban life.”
The other day I saw this quote from Joe Barbera, one of the creators of “The Flintstones:” “We never said Flintstones would be adult. That was all part of a publicity buildup ... Nowhere in the format did we promise people an animated New Yorker magazine.”
In short, we’ve been had. While the great awakening has made my disappointment easier to bear, it would effect [sic] the youngsters. They did it. And I dig “Huckleberry Hound,” which is more adult and more satirical, even though it’s billed as a “kiddy show.”

The disappointing thing in the review is not Danzig’s conclusion, but the barefaced BS of Joe Barbera. He certainly did say the show would be “adult”; you can find a reprint on this blog of the newspaper story where he did it. To write it off as mere publicity is disingenuous at best. His Flintstones pre-debut interview barrage wasn’t the only time Barbera shovelled it high for the sake of getting people to watch his shows. He even played the “not for kids” card again when pushing Jonny Quest before it aired in 1964.

In reading Danzig’s review, you can understand why critics were initially disappointed. However, viewers ignored, saw through, or forgot the PR hype and came to like the show. In a 50th birthday post, we’ll explain why.

9 comments:

  1. Thanks for your roundup of the reviews. I've linked to it from my blog, http://the60sat50.blogspot.com/.

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  2. The major metropolitan dailies and wire service reviewers tended to be in a snit in general in the 1959-63 period over the major changes wrought to television with the decisions by the big studios to stop trying to fight the medium and jumping head-first into TV production. The death of the live prime-time TV dramas -- and, from a New York-centric view, the shift of those hours of prime-time production out of New York and to California -- created quite a backlash at the time for a variety of shows, with your mention above of Bob Thomas' trashing of "The Twilight Zone" being the most obvious example (Rod Serling was seen as something of a heretic for abandoning the live dramas of 1950s New York television for Hollywood and fantasy scripts).

    That doesn't make "The Flintsones" an unappreciated masterpiece; as thousands have noted, it's "The Honeymooners" meets Fliescher's Stone Age cartoons with a few more then-contemporary pop culture references. But it probably showed up at the worst possible moment to get any benefit of the doubt from reviewers, who still couldn't believe stuff like this was replacing shows like "Playhouse 90".

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  3. Perhaps because I grew up hearing the laugh track on reruns THE FLINTSTONES- as well as on its follow-up prime time series TOP CAT and THE JETSONS- it doesn't bother me at all. If anything, to hear the same 'laughs' under cartoons as in sitcoms and variety shows was rather reassuring. It subliminally conveyed the idea that adults and kids alike enjoyed the same cartoon.

    When these shows were rerun in syndication or on cable decades later with the laugh tracks removed, they somehow didn't seem nearly as funny. The timing somehow seemed off.

    Of course, some late 1960s network suits decided Saturday AM cartoons should have laugh tracks as well. It made some sense with the LAUGH-IN inspired ARCHIE show, and the live-action segments of THE BANANA SLIPS. But certainly not under the early 70s benign-talking-animal and Meddling Kids shows.

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    1. Like "roger", I totally agree... BTW Glen Glenn Sound had a hand (applauding, naturally,) for the machine and laugh track (which Art Clokey wisely decided not to use on me and Gumby!).

      Of course, like "Oy, Yogi" and "Carpet Vermin", Howard, "Banana Slips" was an intentional nickname LOL (cue, uh, laugh track.:))Steve

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  4. I don't recall any verbal reference to Cobblestone County throughout the run of the series, although the town of Bedrock (varying size and population notwithstanding) became as much a part of the show as the characters.

    Bizarrely, many reference books state that the Jetsons live in 'Orbit City', even though no specific locale is ever mentioned on the show itself. At least not in the 'Classic 24'; I avoid the 1980s episodes.

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  5. The whole business about the laugh track is interesting to me on several levels:

    --It is interesting that TV network mentality pretty much MANDATED the use of canned laughter for comedies, as if the shows would fail without it. Witness episodes of MGM PARADE that occasionally air on Turner Classic Movies. Any comedic scene (e.g., a Robert Benchley one-reeler) has added laughter.

    --It is interesting that the article mentions Charley Douglass by name and that he brought his laugh machine TO the production. I knew about Douglass and his "piano-like" machine, but I always suspected that there was a sound studio somewhere where producers would bring their shows in for sweetening, especially when you consider 25-30+ episodes of a given show per season, times how many shows on a network, times how many networks and syndication. Also, given the number of tapes of laughs/applause/other reactions plus their playback mechanisms, just how portable a machine WAS it?

    --It is interesting that Joe Barbera complained about the laugh track being "too heavy" and that they ended up using a "much lighter track." Nearly all episodes had a fairly "light" track, but the laughter in the first aired episode, "The Flintstone Flyer," was rather boisterous and almost drowned out a couple of lines.

    I agree wholeheartedly with Howard's comment -- hearing the same laugh track on live-action shows and cartoon shows somehow made me think that the same adults "laughing" at the live-action show also enjoyed the cartoon. Removing the laugh track from this show after all those years kinda made it feel like the "audience" didn't find it funny and enjoyable anymore.

    A commenter on Amazon.com had an interesting take in his review of THE FLINTSTONES first-season DVD set and the removal of the laugh track from several of the episodes. To paraphrase, he said the laugh track was important in that it gave the show legitimacy as a prime-time situation comedy, right up there with its live-action brethren.

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  6. I was one of those that saw The Flintstones back when it was seen on regular stations through syndication with the laugh track, and I accepted it then as I did now since that's how it was. Watching it without it also did it for me too, but I can see where the line divides between those that want it and those that don't.

    >>Bizarrely, many reference books state that the Jetsons live in 'Orbit City', even though no specific locale is ever mentioned on the show itself. At least not in the 'Classic 24'; I avoid the 1980s episodes.

    I supposed they were getting their info from the 1980's series where they do list Orbit City as the town they live in.

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  7. This is a great blog. So much information about everything Hanna Barbera.
    Here be some old videos from the 1960/66 studio. Security was a lightweight concern back then. No problem walking around with a movie camera filming anything at will. Please enjoy. (http://vimeo.com/14524349) TB

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  8. In the grand scheme of things, the critics were completely correct. A bright season or two of nicely designed, mild entertainment followed by jumping the shark, cancellation, and decades worth of poorly reviewed spinoffs. Now, they're more known for pills and cereal than being entertaining characters among today's youth. Some legacy.

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