Thursday, 12 April 2018

The Future of the Past

What does a successful producer do after a failure? Go back to what it was that was a success and put a twist on it.

In 1960, Bill Hanna and Joe Barbera took TV sitcom suburbia, put it in the Stone Age and reaped the rewards of prime-time success with The Flintstones. After failing in 1961 with Top Cat, Hanna and Barbera went back to the idea of TV sitcom suburbia and put it in the future. Thus The Jetsons were born in 1962.

I’m not going to get into one of those “which show was better” things that fans like to endlessly debate. But there were several things I liked about The Jetsons, though some of the ideas were expropriated from that Modern Stone Age family. In no particular order:

Astro. He may actually be the most rounded character on the show. He’s devoted, a klutz, a coward, enthusiastic and talks like a dog in an old vaudeville routine. (Comic: “Fido, where are the shingles on my house?” Talking dog: “Rrroof!” Comic: “Roof?” Dog: “Rrrrright!”).
Gadgets. The ones on The Flintstones were living beings so they talked. The ones on The Jetsons were sterile and antiseptic, like you would expect in the future. And they’re logical. They seem like something we would have 100 years from now.
Space Age designs. Buildings of the future? Well, if the future was at the Seattle World’s Fair a few months before The Jetsons debuted in 1962. But who cares. The designs were extremely clever and attractive. And they still look futuristic.
Music. The title theme is better than The Flintstones’ “Rise and Shine,” even though anyone with a good ear can hear the edits in the closing. Still, you can’t beat Pete Candoli’s trumpet. The electronic instruments used in the cue library were fresh for their time. And how many cartoon scores employed a theremin?
Uniblab. The ultimate office suck-up of the future. A terrific satire on workplace politics.
“Jane, Stop This Crazy Thing!” So it’s not original. Fred Flintstone yelled outside his house after problems with a cat during the closing credits, too. But it’s still amusing. I like how Astro and the cat turn their heads, following George’s path on the Treadmill of Forever.

I should probably add the voice work as a factor as well, but it was great in all the Hanna-Barbera series into the ‘60s.

Surprisingly, The Jetsons could have been very much different. We’ve posted some early Ed Benedict designs for the series and, as you may know, Morey Amsterdam and Pat Carroll were signed as leads only to have their voice tracks scrapped. This story from Variety’s Dave Kaufman called “Jetsons Projects TV Into Next Century” fills us in, and lets readers of the soon-to-debut series know what was in store. It was published August 14, 1962.

BILL HANNA and Joe Barbera, who brought the stone age to tv via "The Flintstones," are reversing their field and going in the other direction with their new animation series, "The Jetsons," which takes place 100 years from now. Debuting this fall on ABC-TV, "Jetsons" should provide something new in a medium not noted for new frontiers (no political connotation there).
Actually, a couple of years ago, after "Flintstones" scored, the idea of a series based in the future was suggested to H-B, and Barbera admits sheepishly it was rejected becauae they thought it too corny an idea. However, with the revolutionary developments in the space age in the past two years, H-B quickly changed their views and came up with the future, so to speak. "If ever anyone is responsive to much thinking, it's now," the partners say.
After working on the project six months, they junked their material and started all over again, because too much of it seemed contemporary, in view of what they learned science researchers in industry already have come up with in planning for the future.
In the super-electronic age of tomorrow, as depicted in the series, there will be such devices as a seeing eye vacuum cleaner which goes beyond the push-button stage; on its own, the probing eye cleaner picks up dirt, even lifts rugs and cleans under them. There is a "Spaceburger," a space station restaurant in which the trays come out on a light beam when the space travelers order.
There is a rock "n" roll idol of the times, Jet Screamer, and he leads his pack in a dance taking place on a degravitized floor, so that tomorrow's teenagers terp not only feet to feet, but head to head.
There is a three-hour work day, and a three-day work week. And if you want to play in all this spare time, you can go to Las Venus, which has among its attractions the Supersonic Sands, the Flamoongo and the Riviera Satellite. The Sands is shaped like huge silver dollars, and each one is a room which comes to you and slides back into the hotel when you check in. Each room has a built-in robot dealer for those too lazy to go to the casino; each also has electronically designed slot machines which urge you to play them.
There is a mother-in-law space car in which she's separated by design from the couple involved, and If she yaks too much anyway, she can be dropped by an ejector seat. They don t wash dishes—they're disintegrated after one use. There's a "Slidewalk," local and express; a "You-Rent-A-Maid" service; a 10-sec hairdo; robot dancers for femmes married to guys who don't like to dance. You go to buy a space car, and sit down as they show you on a huge screen on the ceiling an actual video view of the robots assembling the cars, just how they're made, etc. This last bit was shown an auto exec from Detroit, who was more than somewhat startled, as he revealed his company has developed just such a system (minus robots) and plans to spring it for use in about two years, "We have taken families and their problems and moved them 100 years ahead. All the problems are basic ones. We try to answer everybody's thinking — 'I wonder what it's going to be like 100 years from now'?" remarks Barbera. He adds that "if we get scientific, we're dead. We have to do it with fun."
H-B term a lot of nonsense the feeling that cartoon series put actors out of work, pointing out they use over 230 actors a year. And they use full orchestras and top writers on their shows. They pay top prices on scripts—up to $3,500 for a half-hour show. H-B, who began their operation in 1957 with five on their payroll, now have 230 employes. In terms of footage on the air, "we turn out more animation than any other company," asserts Hanna.
The series even aired in colour, the first to do so on the ABC network, no doubt to compete against Walt Disney’s Wonderful World of Color on NBC. It couldn’t. Uncle Walt won the ratings war and The Jetsons moved after one season into Saturday morning reruns. Despite the single prime-time season, the cartoon show was hardly a failure, considering the number of times it has been rebooted since 1962. And it’s almost mandatory for the commercial media to refer to the series every time there’s a story about the development of a flying car.

Though The Jetsons was about the future, it is still very much a product of the past. Gadgets didn’t work, bosses were loud jerks and freeways were still ridiculously clogged, but the series reflected a sense of progress and optimism about the future. Today, humanity seems completely cynical and pessimistic about the future, reflected in popular culture today as dystopian not utopian. No wonder people happily look back to the future of the past, something you can see when you watch The Jetsons.


  1. Yep, it just goes to show that with all the progress, the problems were still there, ie undesirable bosses, clogged freeways, gadgets that break. I think those eternal elements is what helped us identify with this very imperfect future setting. Love your last paragraph, Yowp. Couldn't have said it any better.

  2. I love The Flintstones, but I've always loved The Jetsons more, and as Errol says, for the reasons you give in that last paragraph. Even the not-so-great episodes are still 100 times better than 90% of H-B's output in the rest of the decade (Jonny Quest and Scooby Do's first season excepted), 1000 times better than anything they did in the 70's, and infinately better than the 80's "orbity" reboot.

  3. I found the episode "Jane's Driving Lesson", with the driving instructor's EXPERIENCE-REINFORCED sexism (though not realistic).

  4. Hey Yowp, just wondering, are you ever going to review the Hokey Wolf Series?