Wednesday, 16 May 2012

The Failures That Really Weren’t

Free nation-wide advertising. You can’t beat it. And that’s what Bill Hanna and Joe Barbera were handed by United Press International just before “The Jetsons” debuted in 1962. But there was a little bit more than that.

A guest column with Hanna’s and Barbera’s byline published August 24, 1962 outlined some of the space-age-of-the-future gadgets that would be seen on the coming show. That would have been the most interesting thing to readers back then. But to those of us who have seen “The Jetsons” countless times, the column reveals something else.

Bill and Joe decided “Top Cat” was a failure.

Of course, they didn’t come out directly and say so in the story. After all, “Top Cat” was moving to Saturday mornings and would be sponsored by Marx, so they weren’t about to bash their own cartoon. But the revelation they “learned” something in the previous season can only refer to T.C. All the studio’s other shows had been roaring successes.

Television in Review
Family of Future Is New Creation By Originators of ‘The Flintstones’
(EDITOR'S NOTE: Rick Du Brow is on vacation. Today, Bill Hanna and Joe Barbera, creators of “The Flintstones” and other notable animated characters on television, tell about their new series — “The Jetsons.”)
HOLLYWOOD (UPI) —This year, when World War II comes charging onto your television tubes during a season which will also find more unemployed actors suddenly working as M.J.’s, a quiet but significant milestone will turn over at Hanna-Barbera studios.
No private eye, no Anzio landing, no brain surgery, no, none of that. Instead, as a sequel to our animated series about a stone-age family, “The Flintstones,” we will modestly present the first family of the future, ABC-TV’s “The Jetsons.” In ultra-dynamic, spectoramic, ever-lovin’ living color, yet.
We learned some important lessons last season: 1) Clever and witty dialogue cannot alone carry a show. There has to be action, and 2) There have to be strong points of identification between the audience and the characters in the show.
“The Jetsons" is the product of over 16 months of extensive research and planning by our talented staff of artists and writers. The feeling around our shop was that the public was intensely interested in what the future held for them in terms of space exploration, better things for better living, etc.
Voila! The birth of the family of the future.
“The Jetsons” live in the sky pads apartment (high-level adjustable living). George Jetson is a hard-working, honest, lovable husband who is devoted to his family, which consists of wife Jane, teen-age daughter Judy, 9-year-old son Elroy and their dog Astro.
George works for Spacely Sprockets Co., which supplies materials to such futuristic corporations as General Rotors. He is the digital control operator — a sort of 21st century office foreman of the completely automated factory.
Jane Jetson, his attractive and spirited wife, solves the every-day problems of cooking and cleaning with a variety of time-saving appliances.
These include a seeing eye vacuum cleaner, a machine with two electronic eyes which seeks out dust, dirt and debris, and consumes it.
Many times, however, when Jane isn’t looking, the vacuum will lift up the rug and sweep it under same.
There is also the foodarackacycle, a dandy gadget to end all dandy gadgets; it stores, processes, prepares and serves food to the Jetson household. Just insert the meal ticket into the machine and out comes your desired meal. Beef Venus, sauteed with onions and mushrooms, cherries galaxy for dessert.
We hope that viewers will join us as we take a peek into the future. We promise them no two headed monsters, no violence, just an honest glimpse of what lies ahead mixed with humor and fantasy.

It turned out “The Jetsons” was as much of a prime-time failure as “Top Cat.” It lasted only one season, easily bested in the ratings by Walt Disney on NBC.

Modern-day commentators keep comparing “The Jetsons” to “Blondie.” Perhaps it’s because of the presence of Penny Singleton on both. But the two don’t have an awful lot in common besides some generalities, as anyone who watched Singleton’s Blondie movies of the ‘40s can probably attest. Not a single newspaper column at the time the show was first aired made the comparison. But many of them do point out the inescapable fact “The Jetsons” had an awful lot in common with “The Flintstones,” one even referring to the show as a “sequel.” Instead of going into the past, it went into the future. Creative inventions worked on the one show, so they were tried on the other. The credits rolled over Fred yelling for his wife because of a pet-caused dilemma outdoors. George did the same. Perhaps viewers felt they had seen it all before, just like they did when Hanna-Barbera attempted to foist “The Roman Holidays” on them.

So George and Jane followed T.C. to Saturday mornings, where kids never tired of the space age fun, and where Bill and Joe decided their true market was. Saturday mornings were slowly taken over by cartoons, many of them made by Hanna-Barbera. Business boomed. The prime time failure wasn’t such a failure after all.


  1. There was a 'softer' resemblance to the Blondie series -- Mr. Spacely as the bombastic Mr. Dithers, two kids, Astro in place of Daisy -- but it wasn't as overt a steal as either The Flintstones was to The Honeymooners or Top Cat was to The Phil Silvers Show (and the vocal presence on TC of Maurice Gosfield so quickly after the demise of Bilko couldn't help but remind the audience of its origins).

    Just remembering how I felt about the original run of The Jetsons as a kindergarten TV critic, you didn't just have the obvious similarities to The Flintstones working against it, but there was also a sense of George being less in control of his world than Fred was -- no real sidekick to bounce things off of other than Henry's occasional appearances, and more of a focus of him being beaten down at work or over-matched at times at home. It just didn't feel as if it was as upbeat a show as The Flintstones, which may also have contributed to its shorter run (albeit in the last few seasons with Fred & Barney, things at times got a little too wackily upbeat).

  2. Top Cat is not a failure, if it is still well-known fifty years later!

    'Nuff said!

  3. As much as I liked Fred and Barney as a kid, I preferred the Jetsons and still remember watching them when they were shown at night. To me, George was much more likable than Fred the blowhard, and of course a boy could identify with Elroy. Plus Jane was less of a shrew (and prettier) than Betty and Wilma.

    I watched Top Cat first-run as well, and really used to enjoy watching TC get ready for bed (brushing his teeth, etc.)

  4. One question off topic; Why didn't Scott Bradley, the composer of Tom and Jerry's music at MGM, come to work at Hanna-Barbera(no dissrespect to Hoyt Curtin who was a master)

  5. Obviously the initial ratings success for THE FLINTSONES inspired more prime-time cartoons from H-B and other production houses. The fact that none of them (TOP CAT, THE ALVIN SHOW, THE BULLWINKLE SHOW, THE JETSONS, JONNY QUEST) lasted more than one season but became durable fixtures on Saturday AM network reruns and syndication shows that 1960s American viewers couldn't handle more than one animated cartoon series. Or that THE FLINTSTONES had more adult appeal than the others. THE ALVIN SHOW was pretty much aimed exclusively at kiddie viewers.

    I find it interesting that Hanna declared TOP CAT a "failure" after the fact. One would think that low ratings inspired ABC to make this proclamation by not renewing it for a second prime-time season.

    And yet, 35-40 years later FOX has been able to keep multiple prime-time animated series running for multiple seasons- none more so than THE SIMPSONS.

  6. I remember that time slot. A lot of channel switching during commercial breaks. Disney....Dennis the Menace.... The Jetsons. I believe that even though Jay North was getting too old for the part, and " Dennis " was in it's last season, it still had strong enough numbers along with Disney to help bring along the demise of The Jetsons in primetime. I never felt that " Top Cat " was a failure. Still enjoy it. But, I've also always been a fan of " Bilko ". Maybe it was the similar dymamic in the storyline.

  7. Anon, Bradley retired. Even if he hadn't, the cartoons themselves weren't scored since the studio used stock music for its first few years.

    All HB needed was jingle-like theme songs and, frankly, that wasn't the kind of music Bradley had any inclination to write.

    Howard, further to that, ABC swapped time-slots of the Flintstones and Quest because The Munsters was clobbering the Stone Agers in the ratings. The network basically gave up on counter-programming and sacrificed Quest to keep The Flintstones on the air.

    1. I remember reading- maybe it was in your blog- that QUEST was too 'expensive' for ABC to renew it for a second season. Of course, better ratings would have helped.

      What's ironic is that both THE MUNSTERS and THE ADDAMS FAMILY were both cancelled after two-season runs in spring 1966, as was THE FLINTSTONES. ABC obviously felt it was worth the risk to renew the 'STONES for one more season, but the cost was the Great Gazoo and some other ridiculous episodes.

  8. Harrison Henry17 May 2012 at 19:46

    To clarify Bill Hanna and Joe Barbera’s comment that : “1) Clever and witty dialogue cannot alone carry a show. There has to be action, and 2) There have to be strong points of identification between the audience and the characters in the show,” I present the following excerpt from Joe Barbera’s autobiography, My Life in Toons (pp. 145-146), where Joe Barbera gives a fuller explanation of the above-mentioned comments:

    It was a lot of fun, and I thought the show [Top Cat] was going great. Then, at about show number seven, Screen Gems’s [sic] John Mitchell and Jerry Hymas came out to look at the material.

    They did not like what they saw.

    John pulled no punches. “What the hell is going on here? Where are the laughs?”

    I was stunned.

    But the next comment was insightful and a lot more helpful. “This isn’t a cartoon. You’re missing the cartoon laughs.”

    He was right. In one respect, we had made “Top Cat” look more like the traditional theatrical cartoons than say, “Huckleberry Hound” or even “The Flintstones.” Limited animation, of course, was still the order of the day—but, in “Top Cat,” it was richer, fuller, more complex, and the backgrounds, too, were more detailed and elaborate. Yet, in another, more important way, I had taken a fatal detour from cartoon tradition. The great mix of urban alley cat characters had generated a lot of nifty dialogue and I got carried away with it at the expense of the purely visual humor that must be a part of any successful cartoon. We might as well have been doing live action. There were no cartoon sight gags. I had committed the very crime for which I had earlier junked the “Flintstones” scripts by that ex-“Honeymooners” writer.

    I had seven shows in the can, and, believe me, I had no desire to do any part of them over again. But I was honest enough with myself to know that John Mitchell was right, and if I let these shows go as is, “Top Cat” would evaporate in a single season or less. So I went over each cartoon and put in the kind of material that should have been there in the first place.

    For example, there was one scene in which TC lays out a con game for the gang. As I had originally written it, it was just straight dialogue: talk, talk, talk. Now I went back in and gave Top Cat a golf club. With “The Flintstones, “ we had discovered the laugh potential of props that grew out of the show’s major premise: a stone-age boulder for a bowling ball, a Stoneway piano, a mini-mastodon as portable vacuum cleaner, and so on.
    The prop premise of “Top Cat” was that, suave urban sophisticate that he was, TC would possess all the finer things in life—but translated into terms of the alley. His best-known prop was the telephone, indispensable to every wheeler-dealer, but in this case it was the official police call box mounted on a telephone pole and conveniently appropriated by TC whenever the need arose. Thus the golf club I gave Top Cat was a piece of pipe with an elbow joint screwed onto the end. Now, like many another self-respecting top exec, TC briefed his lieutenants while practicing his putting. Benny the Ball, as caddie, held a stick with a rag flag attached to mark the hole, and each time TC hit one his entire entourage would work like mad, laying pipe, screwing in angles and elbow joints to guide each and every ball to a hole-in-one. This was a cartoon gag—and all the while it went on, the necessary dialogue proceeded.


  9. Harrison, thanks so much for posting the quote. Joe Ruby and Ken Spears were saying on Stu's Show the other week the live action writers brought in by HB were extremely dialogue heavy. They explained half the cartoon would over with nothing but talking if their scripts were shot as originally written. Barbera's right. All talk and no action makes for a dull half-hour.
    The Bilko show was talky, but Phil Silvers' personality is what everyone focused on, and he carried the show beautifully. TC, I'm afraid, doesn't have that force of personality. He's not as over-the-top that Bilko (and some of the other characters) got.
    Part of the problem with Top Cat to me, and I admit I've never seen them all, is everyone's a nice guy. You can't have real plot-driving conflict unless someone's a jerk. Dibble's a nice guy; fooling him isn't as satisfying as, say, pulling one over on old Cogswell on The Jetsons. If I had to speculate, I'd say the studio deliberately decided a cop *couldn't* be portrayed as a real antagonist.

    1. Despite Jetson having more cartoonier mishaps than Top Cat (getting stuck in a washing machine, being used as a human wash cloth and caught in a dogwalker) he was not shown in a favorable comical way. Jetson was depicted as a wackjob, that nobody really respected. He was kinda like Hal from Malcom in the Middle. Top Cat was much more in control of things.

      As far as, jerks as concern, for TC. No villains in the show ?. On the contrary, there were, but they were all episodic characters: Crooks, robbers, jewel thieves, even evil butlers. There were enough of them to form plot-driving conflict. They weren't thr leading characters in the show, however the same could be said about the Jetsons and a whole lot of other sitcoms.