Saturday, 28 April 2018

The Great Maltese

Mike Maltese is my favourite cartoon writer. It’d take forever to list all the incredibly funny cartoons he was responsible for at Warner Bros. I still laugh at them. It’s impossible not to.

In November 1958, Maltese left for Hanna-Barbera. Despite the restrictions on visual gags imposed by limited animation, and the fact he was now churning out more than a story a week instead of a story a month, his cartoons were still (for the most part) funny.

Maltese departed for a year and a half to re-unite with Jones at MGM in the mid-‘60s only to return to Hanna-Barbera before leaving in frustration several years later.

There are few reminiscences by Maltese about his long career in animation. That fine columnist John Crosby talked to him in 1960; it was posted here. Historian Joe Adamson spoke to him in an interview transcribed in the book Tex Avery, King of Cartoons. And snippets of another interview appear in Mike Barrier’s tome Hollywood Cartoons. But there was a round-table with Maltese conducted on March 14, 1977 involving several top people in animation. It is full of great stories about his time at Warners (grazing over MGM and with only one mention of Lantz). He also talks a bit about his time at Hanna-Barbera. Unfortunately, he doesn’t discuss arriving there. Instead, he focuses sourly on what network television did to the cartoon business. The things Maltese tossed into a Quick Draw McGraw cartoon (such as Quick Draw accidentally shooting himself in the face) in 1959 would never, ever have been allowed a decade later. Maltese certainly wasn’t nostalgic for late ‘60s and ‘70s TV animation.

I’ve transcribed the portions involving Hanna-Barbera; the discussion goes in various directions and simply comes to a stop.

Mike Maltese: In 1958, I went to work for Hanna-Barbera. I quit in 1971 because the network boys were telling me how to write cartoons, and this I didn’t want....
The cartoon is a good business to be in, but rough today. They’ve got to pull out of those Saturday-morning kiddie-cartoon show things—if they can do it. Get the hell away from that. And you have to fight the network boys who tell you how to write cartoons, and, of course the animators have to fight this cutthroat animation in Australia and other foreign countries, where they’ll work for peanuts....
At times a story man worked in tandem with another story man. At other times he could be working in a group. As for myself, I preferred working alone as much as possible, and with directors who gave me that freedom. In that way, a future audience could say, hopefully, “That was a Mike Maltese story; those were Mike Maltese gags.” In that respect, I was fortunate to spend many happy years working with good directors, chief among whom were Chuck Jones at the Merrie Melodies/Looney Tunes fun factory, and, later, Joe Barbera at the Hanna-Barbera nut farm.
They gave me as much freedom as my ego—or whatever prompted me—required. Their guidance and particular talents helped me tremendously. I’m happy to say I enjoyed the good years of animation. Unfortunately, the days of the big studios and theatrical cartoons are all but dead. The big market today is television. Let’s not be satisfied with just Saturday Morning kiddie cartoons; perhaps we should go after prime-time audiences—with the audience values of a Mary Tyler Moore show, or an All in the Family show.
Now I’d like to read a list of some cartoon characters for which I’ve written Hanna-Barbera: The Flintstones, Super Snooper and Blabb, Augie Doggie and Doggie Daddy, Quick Draw McGraw and Baba Looey, The Jetsons, Squiddly Diddley, Snagglepuss, Top Cat, The Wacky Racers, Harlem Globetrotters, Josie and the Pussycats, The Impossibles, Abbott and Costello, Laurel and Hardy, Secret Squirrel, Atom Ant, Magilla Gorilla, Hardy-Har-Har and Morocco Mole, Chopper Dog and Canary [Yakky Doodle], Perils of Penelope Pitstop, Funky Phantom, the Hair Bears, and others I can’t remember. Over 2500 cartoons.

Darrell Van Citters: Did you find that any particular characters were more difficult to write than others?

Mike Maltese: Yeah, the Hanna-Barbera characters like the Harlem Globetrotters and the Wacky Racers, because we were working under the conditions set up by the network bosses. They thought the more characters in a story, the better it was. Trying to make of that stuff funny was impossible. For instance, I went in one day (this was later on, when the network boys had taken over the Hanna-Barbera studio.) Well, before I tell my story to Joe Barbera, he says, “Great—Do another one.”
At Warners’ I did one a month, 12 a year, sometimes one every two weeks. At Hanna-Barbera I did two a week, then three a week. 150 stories a year, and we went like that. (snaps fingers several times). One right after another. We moved from three rooms in the old Chaplin studios on La Brea to where they are now, in Cahuenga. And then the network boys took over, and when I went in one day to tell Joe my story he said, “I like it, but you’ll have to tell the story crew.” They told me, “Drop it on the desk, and we’ll call you and let you know.” Boy, those were rough times.
For instance, there was a series I refused to do completely. I went in one day, and Joe Barbera says, “The head man (I won’t mention his name) at CBS got a helluva idea, he thinks, for an animated series he wants you to work on.” I go, “What is it?” and he says, “It’s a Secret Fighter for Justice Whaaaale.” (Laughter) “And he’s got a name for it—Moby Dick!!!” (Laughter).
“And he’s got all this here sparkling electric stuff—‘beep-beep-beep-“Trouble in Morocco!!”—‘beep-beep-beep-’—The whale is off!—Who cares? I told him, I says, “Forget it!” He says “Please,” I say, “NO!”...
So I refused, but there was other stuff I had to work on. Finally I said, No more. I quit. If we had had to do the cartoons at the old Warner Brothers studio with the pressure put on us by the network boys, we wouldn’t get a Bugs Bunny done. We wouldn’t get anything finished....
We discovered at Warner Brothers many years ago, that if we write a cartoon for the kids, the grownups aren’t going to like it. But it we write our cartoons for the grownups, the kids are going to like it. They’re gonna like it anyway. Now, many of the Merrie Melodies I wrote some 25 years ago that you see on television still hold up in time. Because I learned long ago to try to write cartoon stories that would hold up in time like Laurel and Hardy, or Chaplin. Abbott and Costello today look real corny. They’re all right, but they don’t hold up as well as Laurel and Hardy. So I tried to learn that much about a cartoon, to write stories that aren’t hurt by time, if possible.
But the kiddie cartoons done later by Hanna-Barbera, they’re (snaps fingers) quick, quick, get ‘em out. Which is all right, but then you have these bosses from the networks telling you how to write them, locate ‘em, and all that, but not only that—You are not allowed to have a cartoon character crash into a wall. “Ummm. Just missed that wall.”
They told us, “No machine guns. No machine-gun bullets.” We had a bunch of these tough little guys with the black shorts and white ties [the Ant Hill mob on Penelope Pitstop], and all—They all jump like the Keystone Cops. And of course, there’s a foul-up and BANG-BANG-BANG-BANG-BANG with the machine guns, but they don’t want to use then, even though the machine guns miss. So, I go, “What are we supposed to do?” and Joe Barbera says, “I don’t know.....We’ll...use...cream pies.” So what I did was have ‘em shoot chocolate syrup, and they say, “Here come the fudge!” Those were the rough cartoons to make....

Brad Bird: I was wondering if it was easier to think up gags for full-animation rather than limited animation.

Mike Maltese: There is a difference, but the amount of work is almost the same. You can do a storyboard for full animation, and what they do with it is up to them; you can get a director who’ll say, “Well, I can cut this down to limited animation.” Now the way we used to do that was we’d have Quick Draw McGraw go off-screen; we’d set up the thing that was going to happen to him off-screen. That would require good sound effects. “Hold on thar!!!” He’d walk off-screen, and we’d hear this BOOM-CRASH-BANG—and they you’d cut over and you’d see the result....
No, there isn’t a helluva lot of difference. The amount of work in writing a story—it’s there. You think of the idea. The only thing you show is maybe a few little drawings of the thing happening to the guy. But you had to think about what was happening to him, and then cut it down to fit the limited-animation method. That kind of explains it....
All I can say is that it’s a great business and I hope that someday you’ll be able to take it out of the kiddie-matinee thing, and bring it up to something better, because it’s going to die otherwise. There’s just so much time on Saturday Morning, and you know what they do to make way for the new stuff on Saturday morning is to move this kiddie crap to Sunday.
Now, Hanna-Barbera tried unsuccessfully for prime time with Just Wait Till Your Father Gets Home. Prime time. I know the writers, and we were hamstrung. They were stopped. Experienced writers who know the cartoon business, were stopped by the network boys. They’d say, “We want this, that the other thing—we—I say, “Wait a minute. We know what we’re talking about.”
Joe Barbera was a great salesman. He could sell anything to the networks. I heard that CBS was going to build a cartoon studio in California and compete, and hire, if necessary, the talent from the other studios, and put their boys in charge.
What they did was they went down to the other studios, and would pit one producer against another—“You do it our way, the way we want, or we’ll give it to De Patie-Freleng or Filmation or whoever!” The result was the producers, who never said anything before, shoulda got together and said “The hell with you guys, you do it our way or we don’t wanna play with you guys at all, cause we’ve got the sponsors, the advertisers. Without them, you can’t live!”
But they got chicken. They got chicken and did it their way. The result was great talents like Joe Barbera and the rest of them backed off and made room for these boys put in by the network boys.
Now, Bill told me he was going to retire, he’d had an operation. Joe Barbera will never retire; he’s married to his work; this is his life. I haven’t seen him in six years. I just saw him again this week, and the first thing he says, doesn’t even say “Hello”—he says, “You know what we’re doing, we’re doing Heidi!” “Now, listen to this record, this is a scene where Heidi’s father is forced to leave her...” Like, who the hell cares? I’m passing his room and.. “Mike, listen to this! Guess who’s singing?” I say, “I don’t know.” He says, “Give it a guess, give it a guess!” (Sings hammily) “Heidiiiiii, you arre my lit-tul girllll.” I say, “Herschel Bernardi.” He says “NO NO NO.” His daughter was there. She says (whispers) “He was in Westerns. Used to play the father.”
I say, “Lorne Greene.” Joe says. “How did you know?” I say, “Wellll.” (Laughter.) So I say, “Sorry, Joe, I gotta leave.” I shook hands with him, and I left.
This is the wrong way! Bill wants out. And he should go out. He’s going to be 67 in July, and I was 69 in February. I could still work, but not under those conditions....

John Musker: Has Chuck Jones ever approached you on doing stories on his TV specials? It seems like there’s a pretty noticeable decline in the story content once you left his unit at Warner’s.

Mike Maltese: Yes, he wanted me to come back, but I wouldn’t leave Hanna-Barbera, because I didn’t go want to go back to work for Warners’s. I knew Warners was on the way out. Because Warner Brothers, unlike MGM, who publicized Tom and Jerry, never publicized Bugs Bunny or any of the cartoons. Any publicity on the Warner cartoons was done by word of mouth. The only time I went back to work for Chuck was when I had a hiatus at Hanna-Barbera and Joe Barbera says, “Well, I’ll call you.” It was the end of ’63. I waited about two or three weeks. Chuck called, and says, “I got a chance to get the MGM release, but I have to do a couple of Tom and Jerries. Will you write them for me?” I say, “Sure. I’m not working.”...
I did about 14 Tom and Jerries for him. And Joe Barbera called me up and he says, “How much is Chuck paying you?” I say, “$250 a week.” He says, “I’ll give you $500.” I say, “I’ll be in in the morning.” (Laughter.)...
So I went back in 1965 and I worked on a whole bunch of different things—different type cartoons, that was the whole secret of it—writing various types of cartoons.
Fred Silverman, who was the head of children’s programming at CBS, had three or four crazy characters—Aquaman, Wireman, and all those (who remembers? This was 12 years ago.) And he says, “Could you get a couple of ideas?” I said, “Sure.”
I went home and wrote 15 story ideas. And I knew the villains in each one had to be strong enough to challenge the talents of these four ‘super-guys.’
I had Paper-Man, who could fold himself up and fly like a paper airplane. This one guy, Electro-Man, could appear on a TV screen at some home, and step out and rob the place, just back into the TV screen, jump in a car, and zoom off. Now, it was up to these guys to get him. They trapped him in a phone booth, he disappeared through the wire. They trapped him in the wire, they tied the wire in a square knot! (Laughter.) I had 15 ideas like this, and I called them, “The Impossibles.” Joe Barbera says, “The Impossibles?” I say, “Yeah, call them The Impossibles.” So he told the ideas to Fred Silverman, and he says, “Unless Mike Maltese writes these things, you’re not gonna get the show.” Joe says, “I’ll give you another $100, Mike.”
Like, stupid. I coulda asked for another two or three hundred. I was always eager to work. I say, “Yeah, yeah, yeah.”
The thing is, you go along, and you try to make your buck. I never made the big money, because I never had the opportunity to go into live-action. I’ll tell you one thing, Joe Barbera got fooled by a lot of live-action writers who tried to write cartoons.
He found out that a cartoon writer could write live-action stories—they write Phyllis and a few other TV shows—the transition from cartoon writing to live-action writing is easier than the other way around. Because live-action guys come in and say, “A guy comes in here—and he has a damn funny walk. And the way he walks funny—you know how you guys draw it---he meets this other funny character here—could be an aardvark or a lion, and—oh well, YOU know how you guys do it. I don’t care, if it’s funny, ha ha.” (Laughter.)...
I also had a lot of fun doing the McGraw show, and I also used Snagglepuss, I don’t know if any of you remember him—the guy who talked like Bert Lahr.
Bert Lahr threatened to sue us. I made sure not to use any of the real Bert Lahr material [evidently Maltese forgot the origin of “Heavens to Murgatroyd”], I added my own Bert Lahr-isms, as it were.
“Exit—Stage left!”
“I’ll be with you in a forthwith—in a fifth-with, eee-ven.”
All that stuff. But we had to stop because he threatened to sue....
Well, that’s all, fellows.


  1. Mike's comment about cartoon writers going into sitcoms being able to fare better than live action sitcom writers going into cartoons came at a time when his former co-worker, Lloyd Turner, was gainfully employed working either as a writer or show-runner on comedies from the Norman Lear and MTM stable of sit-coms (Ken Levine, who went on with his partner to write and/or supervise shows like "MASH" and "Cheers" posted a story once on his blog that their first sitcom story idea sale was on "The Jeffersons" and the guy who walked them through doing the script was Lloyd Turner). Combine that with Frank Tashlin's success in live-action directing, and Maltese wasn't just bragging that the Warners' crew could have done just as well in live-action as in animation.

    (Also, since Maltese does mention Fred Silverman by name here but keeps anonymous the name of the CBS network exec who came up with the the "Moby Dick" super hero idea, there must have been someone even more intervening and less talented and self-aware than Fred Silverman in the CBS children's television department in the mid-1960s. Mike went on in the Avery book to say Melvin Millar ended up getting the story assignment from Joe Barbera to come up with stories for the show, and came up with ulcers because of it).

    1. I also remember that, too, J.Lee, Mike Maltese's recollecitons to the Tex Avery King of Caroton book aauthor Joe Adamson (still alive and on Facebook as I write this!)..and he was my favorite cartoon writer, even if he worked with some directors that weren;'t always true hisotrians of their own life at the WB studio..

    2. So that's the idea that ultimately ended up becoming the Moby Dick action series, with Tom and Tub? I thought Alex Toth created/wrote for that?

      When I read that part about the live-action writers getting into cartoons, I remembered an interview with Joe Barbera and looked it up on youtube. In it, Barbera says he brought in some honeymooner writers to do The Flintstones, only to get dissapointed/angry with them because they couldn't write gags, they wrote dialogue but nothing else. I'd like to know more about the Flintstones writing process. Any idea where I could find more inside things about that?

    3. Tony Benedict has talked about adding sight gags to the scripts by the live action people because they didn't think in terms of cartoons. Then, I gather, the storyboard was put together.

  2. I like his delineation of the Harlem Globetrotters as "Hanna-Barbera characters".

  3. Wow, Yowp! You delivered an unexpected surprise. It’s a thrill reading Maltese reminiscing about his time at H-B. Outside of the interview in Joe Adamson’s Tex Avery book I’ve never heard him talk in depth about his time at Hanna-Barbera.

    It does confirm the fact that the credits weren’t accurate, as Mike recalls writing for THE JETSONS and MAGILLA GORILLA yet he’s not listed in those productions. After discovering that Maltese wrote for JOSIE AND THE PUSSYCATS (shudder) even that isn’t an incentive to explore that series. EEK! I don’t think I could (no pun intended) summon the spirit to watch FUNKY PHANTOM.

    I'm not surprised that Mike was disillusioned working at H-B once the "suits" arrived and offered their suggestions. As Tony Benedict mentioned during H-B salad days all Mike had to do was please Joe.

  4. I actually have friends who watch cartoons, but don't get into the whole... writing, animation, music scoring, and voice acting that most of us here love...who know of Micheal Maltese. Look for his name in the credits. They love just about everything that has his name on it, especially his early works. The humor, story, etc. That says a lot about this man, and well deserved.

  5. Michael Maltese, the all-time greatest animation writer.

  6. In late 1977 I was told at Hanna-Barbera by an old timer who was a friend of Mr. Maltese that he had been begging Maltese to come back to write for H-B. Maltese remained steadfast in his resistance to do so and indeed never came back again.

  7. Hans Christian Brando1 May 2018 at 11:44

    What's interesting about how Warner Bros. didn't "sell" their cartoons--you've probably heard or read Jack Warner's alleged remark "All I know is we invented Mickey Mouse"--is that, in the long run, they didn't have to. After all, who doesn't know Bugs Bunny (I mean besides Jack Warner)? As a body of work, they're probably the best loved and enjoyed of all the studio cartoons.

  8. Yes, Syd Zelinka and Herb Finn, who previous wrote "HONEYMOONERS" episodes for Jackie Gleason, did write several "FLINTSTONES" episodes separately. Zelinka was only around for the first two seasons, and Joe WAS dissatisfied with him (even though he wrote one of my favorite episodes, "The Golf Champion", with "The House Guest" a close second). Herb was around from 1962 through '65, and was somewhat more successful in writing "cartoon scripts" than Zelinka {he even adapted "THE HONEYMOONERS" episode he wrote with Andy Russell, "Dial J For Janitor", into "Moonlight and Maintenance"}.