Sunday, 23 September 2012

The Jetsons Are 50

A life of ease and convenience awaits you in the future, thanks to science. That merry message of consumerism has woven its way through popular culture for decades. Tomorrow was laid forth for astonished eyes at World’s Fairs in 1939 (New York) and 1962 (Seattle) and at Disneyland. Commercial films of the 1950s happily displayed gleaming modern suburban homes rid of time-consuming chores and drudgery (thanks to sponsors’ products) as cheery pizzicato strings plunked in the background. Popular Science magazine amazed curious readers with can-you-believe-this contraptions that, it was suggested, were just on the horizon.

They all gave us hope. The fears and problems of the present would disappear and we could optimistically look forward to a new, carefree world. It’s a message that still resonates. And, perhaps, that’s why The Jetsons remains popular after its debut 50 years ago today.

The real stars of The Jetsons weren’t the human characters who weren’t much more than mild, white-bread, Saturn-ringed suburbanites. The real stars were the inventions that left you wondering if they really would exist in the future. Unlike the over-the-top future gadgets of the Tex Avery’s “House of Tomorrow,” the ones on The Jetsons had an aura of authenticity. You wanted to believe we’d be in flying cars and space needle homes some day.

Not having access to studio records (if such exist any more) or the trade press of the day, it’s difficult to say when Hanna-Barbera seriously put The Jetsons in development. Newspaper stories in 1961 make no mention of it, though a United Press International story datelined Hollywood in late November predicts a Top Cat failure and reveals the studio had three replacement shows in the can ready to go. But I suspect they’re the cartoons that made up the Lippy-Wally Gator-Touché Turtle package that went into syndication. A story in the Oakland Tribune dated February 19, 1962 reveals ad agencies in New York had come up with a tentative fall schedule and The Jetsons was on it (Fridays at 7:30 p.m). On April 28, 1962, it was reported Morey Amsterdam and Pat Carroll had been signed for the lead roles and the following day, Larry Marks would be writing for the show. By May 7, UPI released the ABC fall schedule which put the show in its familiar time slot, the “Jet Screamer” episode was in (or had finished) production by May 26 and stories toward the end of June revealed George O’Hanlon and Penny Singleton were voicing the adult leads, with Janet Waldo and Daws Butler as the kids.

September 23, 1962, the show launched at 7:30 p.m., sponsored by Colgate, Dow Chemical (Saran Wrap), MMM (Scotch Tape) and Whitehall Pharmacal (Dristan). While Joe Barbera gushed about the show in pre-premiere interviews, Bill Hanna was more reserved. His measured prediction to the Long Beach Independent:“You just can’t say until the guy in front of the tube watches it.”

After The Flintstones debuted, Jack Gould of The New York Times called it an “inked disaster.” After The Jetsons debuted, Gould blew off the show in one line. All he had to say was: “‘The Jetsons,’ on Sunday night over Channel 7, is a space age cartoon made up of about equal parts of ‘The Flintstones’ and ‘Hazel.’”

The television landscape had changed since The Flintstones went on the air in 1960, riding the universal acclaim of Hanna-Barbera’s late-afternoon syndicated shows and the novelty of a half-hour animated sitcom. The following season produced nothing but prime-time animated failures. It was now 1962 and The Jetsons was blown off as a been-there, done-that concept. A review by UPI’s Rick Du Brow gave it two lines: “ ‘The Jetsons,’ an animated half-hour comedy series about a futuristic family, made its debut Sunday night on ABC-TV. There are robot maids, schools on space platforms, and the like. It is a genial time-killer.”

The AP’s Cynthia Lowry was less impressed. “A new cartoon series—ABC’s plunge into color programs—also came into view: ‘The Jetsons.’ This is the usual suburban set-up—idiot father, cute-trick mother, teen-age daughter with ponytail and small brother. But there is a difference. They live in the year 2062 on what is apparently a space platform where everything is done by pushing button and launching rockets. A very, very little of this can go a long way.”

The gadgets weren’t enough to attract the numbers of viewers ABC wanted. Neither was the fact the show was in colour for the comparatively few homes with a colour set. So was another family show broadcast opposite it—Walt Disney’s Wonderful World of Color. By the end of the season, Disney knocked CBS’ Dennis the Menace into permanent syndication and The Jetsons onto Saturday mornings (for Marx Toys) where it did extremely well, thus re-enforcing the belief that cartoons are kid programming.

Besides the creative gadgets, The Jetsons is best known for the great theme composed by Hoyt Curtin. Curtin never turned down a chance to make a brassy big-band splash. Martin Goodman wrote for Animation World Network in 2007:

Curtin went jazzy for this one, showcasing his songwriting versatility. The lyrics are minimal (11 words) but the instrumentals are wonderful, including a free-form turn by noted trumpeter Bud Brisbois. Curtin originally wrote the piece for a small combo, but Hanna and Barbera wanted a more symphonic sound. Curtin gave the pair their money's worth, with a hint of "Chopsticks" thrown in for good measure.

An Associated Press story from 1985 insisted Pete Candoli was on trumpet. Listen and decide for yourself. This is from the Mark Christiansen collection and includes original titles and bumpers. Your announcer is Dick Tufeld.

Curtin admitted he liked the theme because it was written “to provide challenges to my friends in the band.” It’s full of key changes and sixteenth notes that change from sharp to natural. Not only did Curtin have a knack at writing great themes, he had a great ear for writing underscores that perfectly fit whatever prime-time show he was working on. For The Jetsons, he came up with light music for electric Wurlitzer and marimba that could be easily matched to a particular scene’s mood. Want to listen to some? Just press the arrow below each cue name.




















The names you see are NOT the names of the cues. Each cue was given a descriptional name so it could be found in the music library by the sound cutter. But I have no idea what the names are and had to call them something. Hanna-Barbera didn’t let some of them go to waste; they appeared on later H-B shows.

The Jetsons lasted 24 episodes in one year of prime time but, thanks to reruns, have been a pop culture phenomenon ever since. The show has become a metaphor for the wonderous future that awaits us. I just wish they’d hurry up with those flying cars.


  1. "The Jetsons" also had the misfortune to appear at a time when it was open season on virtually all of the mass-market sitcoms and drama shows by the major TV critics of the day. Minnow's "Vast Wasteland" comment had already been cemented into the lexicon, and for a medium that was just 15 years old in 1962 when it came to the idea of prime-time schedules and styles of shows as we know it, there was already a nostalgic pining for the halcyon days of the 1950s with its live drama and other non-film presentations. You had a generation of critics who were cranky for a generation about anything not geared towards ennobling the culture -- we ended up with PBS out of this crankiness, but also with years of reviews of shows from people who sounded like Mikey from the Life Cereal commercials.

    Add to all that it's cartoon nature and the obviously twist on "The Flintstones", and it was unlikely "The Jetsons" was going to get much love from the reviewers of the day. But the success of the original 24 episodes is shown not only from how its concepts have been absorbed over the years by kids via syndication re-runs, but by Hanna-Barbera themselves, via their misguided efforts to revive the series in 1985-87 (as with the new Yogi cartoons a few years later, it wasn't so much that the revival was misguided, but that H-B had lost the ability to recreate was made the characters enjoyable and worth reviving in the fist place).

  2. Happy 50th Jetsons! I was there, the first grader, enjoying my last Sunday evening hours trying not to think of school, and much to my parent's chagrin, switching during commercials breaks to " Dennis ", then " Disney ", and The Jetsons. Kept it mostly on The Jetsons. By this time, "Dennis " was really hurt by Joseph Kearns' passing, not much chemistry between Gale Gordon and Jay North, and the fact that North was getting to old for the part. It's hard to believe 50 bigs ones have passed since those carefree Sunday evenings. Brings back a lot of pleasant memories.

  3. I love the song Jetsons Twist, always have. I figured out how to play it on the piano. I could use two people though (to keep the bottom going while I play the melody) Maybe the animators had an invention for three handed piano players. I think they did on episode #84.

  4. Yowp writes:

    “Unlike the over-the-top future gadgets of the Tex Avery’s “House of Tomorrow,” the ones on The Jetsons had an aura of authenticity.”

    You know… That’s a GREAT POINT!

    There NEEDED to be some sort of relatability (…or, as you say, “authenticity”) for the show as a whole to work – and Tex Avery style gags, no matter how much WE might like them, would not have cut it!

    And, if The Jetsons was ABC’s first color show (as I think you said on “Tralfaz”), what was the deal with The Flintstones and Top Cat? Were they animated and filmed in color – but merely broadcast in B&W? I’d sure like to know more about that – because we never think of those shows as anything BUT color.

    I’d expect that certainly applied to Huckleberry Hound, etc. But, by the years of the prime time shows, I thought they might have always been in color.

    Still, I saw their original runs in B&W, because we didn’t get a color set until 1968.

    If you don’t mind a plug, I’ve also put up a three-part tribute to The Jetsons at my Blog. With your permission, I’ll post links below. And, if I’ve been presumptuous, you may delete this comment as a whole with no hard feelings. But, I hope you and your readers will find it to be of some interest.

    It differs from yours with a much greater emphasis on the comics – which has always been my area of self-described expertise. (You decide!)

    I’ve linked to your Jetsons posts in return, at the end of my first post.

    Thanks for being one of my favorite stops!

    Joe T.

  5. Yes, Joe, "The Flintstones" aired in B&W for its first couple of seasons. "The Sunday Night Movie" was also broadcast in colour starting in the 1962-63 season.
    Judging by newspaper listings and ads, the season premiere that year was in black and white. The first colour Flintstones aired September 28, 1962.

  6. The "Jetsons Twist" cue was later adapted by Joe Barbera as the theme for H-B's 1970-'72 Saturday morning series, "JOSIE AND THE PUSSYCATS".

  7. I credit the Jetsons with introducing me to the sort of music I love now--the swinging space-age bachelor pad sound. The ending credits music is over the top--full bore right before George loses it on the treadmill--and I've always hoped to find copies of the incidental music. Thanks for the post.

  8. Thanks ever so much for the post, Yowp. I've enjoyed the did John Kricfalusi (but his expierence at H-B on his own at doing it wasn;'t as good as he thoiught, when the character of Orbitty, a "E.T." character, came on..).SC

  9. I've always found it odd that I never see anyone mention the resemblance of the Jetsons to Blondie, especially being that Penny Singleton played both Jane Jetson and Blondie Bumstead (the latter in the long-running film and radio series.)

  10. Because there isn't much of a resemblance, other than one voice artist. The main Jetsons characters don't have (except superficially, like any human character) the same traits as the Blondie strip. The plots bear no resemblance to Blondie, even the old movies.
    Any comparisons to Blondie were made long after the original series ended and, to me, are only because Penny Singleton played a wife and mother in both. If Pat Carroll had kept the role of Jane, no one would be mentioning Blondie.

  11. I don't know. While not as obvious as the Sgt. Bilko-Top Cat similarities, it seems at least as close as the Honeymooners-Flintstones ones. The lazy husband/father, who's work life revolves around sleeping at his desk, while his extremely short and explosively abusive boss tries desperately to get work out of him, sure reminds me of the the Dagwood/Dithers model.

    Jane is certainly less ditsy than Blondie as played by Singleton in the films, but compares better with the contemporaneous comic strip version. Judy bears more of a similarity to Cookie, than Elroy does to Alexander due to his being the younger child. (I'm not as familiar with Alexander's childhood/Baby Dumpling phase, which might be more Elroy-like, thoigh.)

    Daisy is less an anthropomorphic character than Astro, who is more a typical H-B dog. Still, George's difficulty walking him has similarities to the image I seem to remember of Dagwood ending up tied up by Daisy's leash. Of course, the Bumsteads have no maid (that I can remember) but Rosie is both a technological icon as well as a character with film and TV precursors including Thelma Ritter and Louise Beavers.

    In all, my argument is less that The Jetsons is just a Blondie clone than that it bears a striking similarity in its cast of characters, if not its storylines. The same can be said of The Flintstones and Top Cat. Both resemble their sources, but it's their situations that are similar, not, for the most part, the direction of the stories.

    I don't know how familiar the H-B crew doing Jonny Quest was with Tin Tin, but that's an argument for someone else to make.

    I confess I didn't make this connection in 1962, but being seven then, I didn't catch the Flintstones or Top Cat similarities either.