Friday, May 18, 2012

The Failure That Really Was

Hanna-Barbera produced some enjoyable prime-time series, even though they all turned out to be enjoyed by more people when they moved to Saturday mornings or syndication. And Hanna-Barbera produced some prime-time failures. But one of them is so obscure, only the most ardent fan of the studio might have heard it, let alone seen it. The show is outside the realm of this blog, but I feel a duty to bring it up so its existence is recorded somewhere.

Newspapers in 1982 were giving feature space to Hanna-Barbera for its huge success on Saturday mornings with ‘The Smurfs,’ which garnered an astounding 44 percent of the U.S. television audience in its timeslot. The studio capitalised on that with some prime-time Smurf specials. But buried in the Friday night line-up, seemingly without any advance notice or Joe Barbera’s normal ebullient hype, was something called ‘Jokebook.’ TV Guide listings of April 23, 1982 described it thus:

Hanna-Barbera’s Jokebook, a seven-part series featuring animated humor, begins tonight at 8 PM [Eastern/Pacific] on NBC. Culled from classic cartoons as well as from foreign and student films, the comedy is strung together by such characters as The Nerd, Treeman, and Eve and Adam — and by Presidential drolleries from the witty residents of Mount Rushmore.

The characters were in bridges produced by Harry Love and supervised by Marty Murphy, who had worked on H-B’s ‘Wait Till Your Father Gets Home.’ I don’t know who animated the cartoons, but writer Hal Erickson’s book Television Cartoon Shows lists familiar voice talent: Don Messick, Hal Smith, John Stephenson, Lennie Weinrib, Janet Waldo, Frank Welker, Bob Ogle, Joan Gerber, Ronnie Schell, Marilyn Schreffler and Henry Corden, as well as Joyce Jameson and Sidney Miller.

The show may have had a preview; I found it listed for an Iowa TV station on December 19, 1981. Regardless, “seven-part” turned out to be optimistic. Here are newspaper summaries for each of the shows that aired.


April 23, 1982
Jokebook: A colorful showcase of 19 fast-paced animated vignettes sparked by humor for all ages, an assortment of strange but lovable characters and an Academy Award-winning film titled, “Crunch Bird” are all part of the premiere of this series produced by William Hanna and Joe Barbera.

April 30, 1982
JOKEBOOK – Included: a Mount Rushmore barbershop quartet harmonizes; dissatisfied passengers on the Ark besiege Noah with their complaints; a hung-over damsel in distress gives her dragon slayer an ungrateful heave-ho.

May 7, 1982
JOKEBOOK – Scheduled: An old woman’s electric lawn mower runs amok after two Boy Scouts repair it; a scientist turns his nagging wife into a shrinking violet.

And that was it. Next week, NBC aired “New York, New York” with Liza Minnelli (who has been accused by some of being somewhat cartoonish) and began filling the time slot with movies. It’s not hard to see why. The April 30th “Jokebook” placed dead last in the ratings that week. Not that it had a prayer to begin with. The show aired opposite “The Dukes of Hazzard” on CBS and “Benson” on ABC. Evidently Hanna-Barbera decided if you can’t beat ‘em, join ‘em. A year later, it was producing a “Dukes” cartoon. The less said about it, the better.

It’s a shame “Jokebook” didn’t succeed. Maybe it needed some kind of animated or puppet host to pull the elements together. Maybe it needed a different time slot. Or maybe the concept was just a little ahead of its time. Showcasing student, independent and foreign animated films is something not unheard of today, just not on network television. For that reason, the show deserves to be remembered today.

Late note: Tom Ruegger, who was writing at H-B at the time, explains in the comment section why the show was doomed.


A Yowp thank-you to Barry I. Grauman for inspiring this post.

28 comments:

  1. I found this intro on youtube if anyone is interested.

    http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=HIRsmoVAesM

    I'm going to dig around and see if I can find more...

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  2. Maybe it needed a different time slot. Or maybe the concept was just a little ahead of its time. Showcasing student, independent and foreign animated films is something not unheard of today, just not on network television. For that reason, the show deserves to be remembered today.

    It was sorta something we got a decade later with MTV's Liquid Television if that came close.

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  3. It would be nice to at least see a bit of this outside the intro Chuck, so I'd love to be updated if possible (too bad I was only 4 when the show aired).

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  4. I remember something like this, where in one of the segments had a little robot or wind up toy walking up a lady's skirt. Was that this?

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  5. Yowp,I saw these programs when they aired.I remember some of the segments being somewhat risque for prime-time TV at the time, and definitely for H-B.

    One sequence I've never forgotten involved a wind-up toy man walking up the leg and into the skirt of an attractive woman at a bus stop. She nonchalantly turns and slaps the man standing next to her,boards the bus and haughtily sits down with a loud CRUNCH. Final shot is of a crumpled but deliriously happy toy man.

    I would love to see these again on DVD, but I wonder if there would be a rights issue with the theatrical and student shorts.

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  6. Eric B, your posts appeared while I was composing mine. That segment left an impression, didn't it? XD

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  7. I definitely remember this one. NBC promoted it as animated re-enactments of 'classic jokes'- which could be interpreted as old and corny. The segments were hit-and-miss, with some interesting variations in the animation. Some were done in-house; I remember seeing Ed Love's animation in one sequence. Every segment had the classic H-B SFX and, unfortunately, a loud laugh track.

    It did have a fun theme song done by Scatman "Hong Kong Phooey" Crothers.

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  8. I stumbled across this oddity on Youtube about a year ago. Had no idea H-B were involved.

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  9. There are two episodes at the Paley Center for Media in NY and LA. The titles are very similar, but the descriptions are different, so I'm guessing they are in fact two separate episodes.

    http://www.paleycenter.org/collection/item/?q=jokebook&p=1&item=T83:0142
    http://www.paleycenter.org/collection/item/?q=jokebook&p=1&item=T83:0127

    Some shorts by Les Kaluza were included; something by Ted Petok in one episode (I'm assuming Crunch Bird, though it's not mentioned in the summary), and something by Borge Ring in the other (though again I'm not sure what).

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    1. I thought it was interesting to see Ring's name shop up there, I also spot Tex Avery getting a writer's credit too.

      That first link you brought up mention another Academy award short that aired called "The Fly", which was made by Ferenc Rofusz at Pannonia Filmstudio in Budapest, Hungary. I have 16mm copies of both that and The Crunch Bird in my collection!

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  10. I have all three episodes as aired on Beta Video tape. Irv Spence animated quite a few segments, including that old lady with the lawn mower and boy scouts segments. Mark Kausler

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  11. Thanks, Chuck, Mark and all for your insights into this. I'd never heard of this before.
    HB spent most of 1982 promoting the Smurfs and Pac-Man in feature newspaper stories, not this (the year before, they were trying to work out a deal with Wolfman Jack for a cartoon series based on his years on XERB).

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  12. I have the entire run on 3/4" video tape, from the archives at HB. It really is a neat concept. It didn't fail because of anything lacking within HB, it was just a concept that wasn't quite ready for TV. Plus, at the time, NBC was pretty much in the basement ratings-wise, similar to how they are today. (Anybody remember "Super Train??") Nobody was tuning into NBC. Another long-lost series was "The Hanna-Barbera Happy Hour," an hour-long variety series with marionette-type puppets as hosts. That series suffered from really bad comedy-sketch type skits. It was another concept that wasn't quite ready for prime-time TV, bad scripts or no bad scripts.

    Yowp, HB produced "The Dukes" for Warner Bros and CBS. It wasn't really their show.

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    1. I use to watch "The Dukes" on CBS Saturday mornings! Years later I paid someone $20 for all the episodes on VHS from wherever he got them from, and this was still in the days when I didn't think we'd ever see this one again (as it's now available at the Warner Archive today). I wouldn't mind at least seeing an episode or two if it's possible someday just to get an idea of what this was like (for anyone that don't mind helping me).

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  13. the show vaguely reminds me of rankin/bass' "tomfoolery", a show from 1970 that was vilified by critics, ignored by viewers and buried at 7 a.m. saturday mornings by nbc, but i loved it. had i seen this show, i probably would've liked it, too.
    the adult characters remind me of characters i might see in a rankin/bass cartoon, but the bird is right out of ed graham's "linus the lionhearted"!

    firedome

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  14. Wow!! I had all but forgotten about this obscure NBC gem. I too, didn't know that Hanna-Barbera was involved. I wish I COULD forget " Super Train ". One of Fred Silverman's high hopes for the tanking NBC.OOPS!

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    1. Green-lighted by the Silverman regime, but not aired until he had been canned, which is never good for a show with a non-traditional format, since the new people may not have had any faith in the series and just dumped it into the lineup with no fanfare or publicity.

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    2. Oh, there was a ton of fanfare and publicity for Super Train. I remember it quite well.

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  15. With Marty Murphy's involvement, the design was reminiscent of the comics he used to create for Playboy Magazine. I loved the show. It was just too adult for the average cartoon viewer. Throw it in the kiddy hour of 8PM and it was doomed.

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  16. I've heard of this show and saw and, Anonymous, loved it,too,as well, it when it was broadcast,too...even if Scatman Crothers's major starring solo H-B cartoon, 1974's "Hong Kong Phooey", doesn't appeal to all, try this one, even if the old Scatster is only the singer.Steve

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  17. I was working at Hanna Barbera at the time this was made. Thankfully, I wasn't involved in "Jokebook." I recall it being an unmitigated disaster.

    Harry Love, one of Joe Barbera's closest pals and confidantes, was actually in charge of the story content for "Jokebook." Two things about Harry: (1) he was NOT a story guy, and (2) he had no sense of humor. Add to that the fact that, at that time, Harry was 71 years old, and you might be able to fathom how profoundly out of touch this show truly was.

    Harry claimed to be looking for cutting edge cartoon comedy, but whenever anyone went in to pitch ideas to Harry, all Harry could talk about was that he was in charge, that he was close friends with Joe Barbera, and that he and Joe went out to lunch every day and occasionally hit on restaurant hostesses. I kid you not.

    If Harry had put some of Joe's lunch escapades into the show maybe it would have been funny. But he didn't. What Harry did put in the show -- and put into production -- were wheezy, lame and ancient one-panel sex jokes rejected by Playboy and other publications at least a decade before. Most of the segments looked like they came from the point of view of a lecherous old man, which they did!

    And while the writing and comic material were awful, the animation and design were even worse. When the NBC execs saw the first rough cut, they were aghast and refused to air it.

    Hanna-Barbera scrambled and tried to re-animate some of the material, but improving the animation only pointed out just how lascivious the material truly was. Major sections of episodes had to be thrown out, forcing HB to go on a frantic search for animated shorts films to pad out the Jokebook eps.

    Like I said, it was a disaster.

    HB may have originally contracted to make seven episodes, but they had trouble coming up with enough footage to eke out the three episodes that reached the air.

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    1. Are you sure there were only three episodes made? I could have sworn I had more episodes on tape. Maybe it just looks that way since they are on 3/4", but I will have to look.

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  18. I believe the show was cancelled after the third episode aired. More episodes were produced but I'm pretty sure they never saw the light of day.

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    1. Too bad it wasn't something that could've caught my folks' attention at the time but I don't think they had gotten their VCR for another couple months or I would've saw it by now!

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    2. Thanks, Tom. That makes sense. I do have about 7 episodes on tape but I haven't watched them yet. I'm sure it was canned after the third episode -- I do remember that much. I guess I have some rare stuff here. Who knew!

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  19. Here in Brazil, these animated vignettes were broadcasted by the late Manchete TV, at its first year of broadcast (1983), in the prime time intervals.

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  20. Thanks for the info on this obscure Hanna-Barbera program.

    Here's the theme song

    http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=HIRsmoVAesM

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