Wednesday 9 March 2011

The Gospel According to Hanna-Barbera

By 1990, Joe Barbera was used to having a huge audience of kids on Saturday mornings. But he had a huge audience of a different kind one Sunday morning that year. That’s when Barbera appeared on Robert Schuller’s Hour of Power religious broadcast from the Crystal Cathedral in Garden Grove, California.

At first, it would appear somewhat odd that Joe, the former Catholic school boy taught by nuns, should step foot inside the sanctum of one of America’s best-known Protestant televangelists. But perhaps there is a Gospel According to Hanna-Barbera that speaks to church-goers of all denominations. Yogi Bear teaches the consequences of disobeying Exodus 20:15, since he is caught and punished for breaking the Commandment about theft. (Does that make Ranger Smith God?) Huckleberry Hound perhaps epitomises the beatitude of St. Matthew 5:5. Granted, the meek Huck doesn’t inherit the Earth after seven minutes on screen, but he generally vanquishes the bad guy (snickering dogs excepted).

If one really wanted to be cynical, one could point out Barbera’s talk conveniently came not too many days before a TV special back-patting Bill and Joe for 50 years of Tom and Jerry cartoons. But if it started out as a commercial, it ended up unexpectedly becoming a lesson in a source of fortitude.

Doug Mason of the Scripps Howard News Service penned this feature story which appeared in papers during December 1990.

Making a mouse bash a cat’s head in with a mallet may not get you into Heaven, but it did get Joe Barbera into the Crystal Cathedral.
Barbera — half of the famous animation team of Hanna-Barbera — was the guest speaker recently at the Orange County, Calif., church, known to millions of Americans through the televised sermons of the church’s pastor, Dr. Robert Schuller.
As Schuller introduced Barbera, the evangelist dropped a few names: Yogi Bear, Huckleberry Hound, Fred Flintstone, Quick Draw McGraw, Scooby Doo . . . With each name, the audience got a little more rowdy.
“They were applauding like crazy,” Barbera says from his office at the Hanna-Barbera Studios in Los Angeles.
Barbera met his future partner in 1937 when both joined the MGM animation department. They teamed up two years later for the first Tom & Jerry cartoon, Puss Gets the Boot, which was released in February of 1940 and earned an Academy Award nomination.
After the success of Puss Gets the Boot, Hanna and Barbera began a series of Tom & Jerry cartoons that lasted for 15 years.
Hanna and Barbera became the heads of the MGM animation studio. They were two of the most respected names in the business. Then in 1957, the mallet fell on their heads. Without warning, MGM closed the studio. The problem was money. The movie industry was in a slump in the late ‘50s, mostly because of competition from the free entertainment provided by television. All the studios were trying to economize. Somebody figured out that you could reissue old cartoons and make just as much money — so why make new ones?
As it turned out, though, closing the studio was probably the best thing that could have happened to Barbera and Hanna. Almost immediately, the newly unemployed animators got an offer to produce original cartoons for television.
“We didn't miss a beat,” Barbera says. “We went straight from theatricals to television.”
Still, it was a comedown for the former heads of the “best animation studio” in town. The budgets for TV cartoons were much smaller.
To meet budget, Barbera and Hanna once again became pioneers: They created limited-animation, or, as animator Chuck Jones calls it “radio with pictures.”
Fluid movement
Gone was the fluid movement, the delicate facial expressions, the elaborate action. But the talented Hanna-Barbera staff, which included many of the top animators, writers and designers from MGM and Warner Bros. (whose animation department was also in trouble), did their best with what they had.
The animation may have been jerky, simplistic and flat, but Hanna-Barbera’s early characters were beautifully designed; and their dialogue contained more humor and wit than a lot of live sitcoms.
The studio’s first major success came with the creation of The Huckleberry Hound Show, which also introduced Yogi Bear and Boo-boo, and Mr. Jinx [sic] and Pixie and Dixie. The show won an Emmy for Outstanding Children’s Programming.
Hanna-Barbera sold their studio in 1966, but have continued to help run it. In the past few years, they have had great success in the home video market, both with releases of their old cartoons and with new animation made especially for video.
The last venture — a series of made-for-video adventures from the Bible — was a personal triumph for Barbera. It took him 17 years to convince somebody that animated Bible stories would be a good idea.
“Everybody gets terrified when you talk about doing a Bible series,” Barbera says. “The networks were afraid to put them on. I told them ‘It’s not a matter of preaching. The stories are great!’”
Barbera’s instincts were right. The Bible adventures series has sold more than 2 million videocassettes and has won the praise of religious leaders throughout the country.
It was the Bible series that got Barbera invited to speak at the Crystal Cathedral.
Of course, when Barbera visited the church’s Sunday school, he found a few fans of Snagglepuss and Wally Gator, too.

It was deliberate that it was Barbera and not Hanna and Barbera at Schuller’s showplace. The Bible cartoons were Barbera’s baby. He devotes several pages about the concept in his autobiography and how he pitched them and pitched them to networks and everyone shied away from the idea (by contrast, you’ll be hard-pressed to find any mention of the cartoons in Hanna’s autobiography outside the appendix).

While the wire service story is fairly secular, Barbera reveals in his book he had a religious, albeit non-dogmatic, bent in his talk to the congregation:

Anyone who has seen one of Reverend Schuller's television programs has some idea of the immensity of the Crystal Cathedral, which, I believe, is the largest house of worship in the world. Standing with him in the pulpit, looking out at the cavernous structure, I felt about as significant as an insect.
“How is it you kept going back with the Bible series for 17 years? What made you do that?”
It was the first time anyone had ever asked me that question, and, in front of thousands of people in the Crystal Cathedral and hundreds of thousands of viewers to whom Schuller’s services are broadcast, a light bulb clicked on over my head.
“Look, I am an ordinary person—a human being. You don’t think it was me coming back for seventeen years, do you? Obviously, it had to be a force bigger, stronger, more powerful than I could ever be.”
I hadn't intended to say anything like this at all. I hadn't even thought about it. But here I was, preaching from a pulpit, telling the world that God had said, in effect, JB, get up, get that artwork, go out, and try to sell it again. What's even stranger is that it was all true.

When you watch the cartoons—and I say this at the risk of invoking St. Matthew 7:1—you have to suspend disbelief that characters in the Old Testament can understand modern American English. And there’s something jarring about a comic relief teenager with a baseball cap being plunked into the middle of Scripture. A couple of the half-hours I saw seem padded a bit with crowd reaction shots. But the cartoons are done with sincerity and are neither preachy nor overly pious.

There’s a Biblical analogy in Barbera’s travails, if you think about the story of Daniel and the lion’s den. An old Sunday School song goes “Dare to be a Daniel. Dare to stand alone.” Joe Barbera, the co-founder of the Snagglepuss den, stood alone to get a very non-Snagglepuss series in people’s homes. Standing alone for what is right is something people have to do in life sometimes. Just call it another lesson from the Gospel According to Hanna-Barbera.


  1. Joe was always the salesman of the Hanna-Barbera team, looking for new markets to conquer, usually by adapting other people's ideas to fit a new half-hour show pitch to this network or that sponsor. So it's no surprise that by 1990, with the growth of cable TV religious channels and the home video market, Joe would see religious cartoons as a new market to conquer.

    (It's also interesting to see the tone this story -- done after a generation of kids who had grown up watching the Golden Age cartoons on TV had reached adulthood. The tone is more of that everyone knows who these characters and who the people behind them are and goes from there, as opposed to the more formally-written stories on the H-B studio from the late 1950s and early 60s.)

  2. I remember back in the 90's, my wife and I saw in the nursury of our church, Hanna-Barbera's " Noah's Ark ". Charlotte Rae was Noah's wife, and " The Voice Of Canada " himself, Lorne Greene was Noah. Also Peter Cullen and Rob Paulsen were in the cast. I had forgotten about that series.


    Noticed a bunch of episodes are up on YouTube now for anyone who doesn't want to go out of their way to see this series.

  4. Cartoons live forever...Schuller's organization went broke, and the Crystal Cathedral is now a Roman Catholic church (i.e. owned by the Archdiocese of Orange County).