The 1950’a were a time for executives at the cartoon departments of major studios to be biting their fingernails.
Indeed, Warner Bros. would close down its animation department for a time in 1953, worried about the impact that 3-D movies would have on the Industry. Turned out that 3-D had the lifespan of a mayfly.
But there was something that nails being bitten up to the shoulder, not only in the cartoon departments–but all the way to the boardrooms. That something was Television.
Theater attendance was down. Meanwhile, opthalmologists were enjoying increased business–due to eyestrain, caused from watching too much television.
Many in the Industry, from the Moguls on down the line, saw Television as “The Devil With Horns” — until the light-bulb went off above their heads, and they realized how they could make money off the new medium.
Vast backlogs of old films, at all conceivable lengths, came to television. Soon, each market had is “Million Dollar Movie”–films that were otherwise gathering dust in studio warehouses. And Uncle Chuckles and his ilk had lots more cartoons–some with well-known and established “stars”–to run between the commercials on their local programs.
The cartoons of the time were still just as topical as they had ever been. And the writers and directors discovered that television was just as good a source of laughs as had network radio during its own heyday.
Warners’ had re-opened its cartoon department when 3-D collapsed like a bride’s ‘first souffle’. And their writers and directors were ready, willing and able to get the laughs from then-familiar sources.
During the late 1950’s, Warner Bros. released several cartoons spoofing individual television shows. Friz Freleng tried his hand at one (This Is A Life?), while Chuck Jones also tried his hand with Rocket Squad (a “Dragnet” parody, but with a title spoofing another antediluvian cop show, Racket Squad).
But the go-to guys for spoofs of television were writer Tedd Pierce, and director Robert McKimson. Over a period of several years, McKimson directed, and Pierce wrote such specific spoofs as Stupor Duck, Boston Quackiie, China Jones and Wild Wild World (with its pre-“Flintstones” gags–some of which might go back to Max Feischer’s “Stone Age” cartoons.).
In some cases, the original shows being spoofed have faded into complete and total obscurity. (For example, one cannot find any example of The Affairs of China Smith on either YouTube or DailyMotion.)
Pierce and McKimson also did two more general spoofs of television programming. It is these cartoons–Wideo Wabbit (1956) and People Are Bunny (1959) that concern us here. Both these cartons were scattershot jibes at various television programs. And viewers cannot be blamed if they confuse and conflate these two cartoons.
And why not? There ARE gag sequences that were iterated in Wideo Wabbit and reiterated in People Are Bunny. (These include a spoof of “You Are There”, and one of “Masquerade Party”–of which more anon.)
But each takes pot-shots at game shows of the day, along with other targets.
Wideo Wabbit includes a takeoff on “You Bet Your Life”, the game show that saved Groucho Marx’s career–and in fact, gave him a good dozen years’ extension on his career. The filmed-and-edited half-hour game show gave plenty of time for Groucho to interview the contestants, and thus to be Groucho. (Even the footage that wound up on the cutting-room floor proved useful–providing some generous guffaws for laugh tracks for years to come.)
Here, Elmer Fudd finds himself on the set of “You Beat Your Wife”, with Bugs in pained mustache, eyebrows and lit cigar, asks the trick question to end all trick questions: “Have you stopped beating your wife?” Bugs then throws out the “. . . slip out of these wet clothes and into a dry martini” line he’d used in Slick Hare (1947).
Elmer cottons on when he spies Bugs’ cotton tail through the tail of his tux, and the chase goes on from there.
By the time of People Are Bunny, game shows had gone bigtime. Prizes were humongous, with loads of cash, and luxury items in abundance.
Problem was that, by the time the cartoon was released, the big-money quiz shows had almost all gone from the air. Turned out that a lot of them were rigged in various ways–with some shows actually giving answers to contestants and instructing them how to be ham actors while in the isolation booths. (See the film Quiz Show for more details.)
In the course of People Are Bunny, Daffy is prodding Bugs at gunpoint through the studios of QTTV, when they see some of the prizes being wheeled in—including a ginormus refrigerator-freezer, a fancy convertible pulling a yacht, and suchlike.
Daffy gets onto People Are Phoney with “Art Lamplighter” (likely voiced by Daws Butler in a takeoff on Art Linkletter’s bonhomie on display in “People Are Funny”, a filmed stunt show that had a long run on radio, and then a seven-year run on television). Daffy comes off the worse for wear.
Meanwhile, Bugs–whom Daffy had stashed in a telephone booth–answers a jackpot question hat leads into a verbal gag that the managed to get past the Hays Office of the time–about how rabbits can multiply.
Both Wideo Wabbit and People Are Bunny take as the set-up of their final gag the show “Masquerade Party”.
This was a panel show in which celebrities of the time were dressed up and made up in elaborate costumes and makeup–costimes which were chosen to give a clue to the panel members, who had to, through yes-or-no probe questions, try to deduce the identity o the celeb in question.
This was one of those shows that could always be plugged into a schedule to fill a hole–and sometimes the schedules looked like the finest Swiss cheese.
There was an attempted revival in the 1970’s,with Richard Dawson hosting (before he went into “Family Feud”).
In “Wideo“, the show is called “Fancy Dress Party”,while in “People” it is called “Costume Party”. But the result is the same–Bugs winds up collecting for bringing the first rabbit to the “Sportsmans Hour”, and his adversary gets shot up in the process.
Parenthetically, another big-money quizzer got guyed in a Warner Bros. cartoon.
Fox Terror was one in the ongoing Foghorn Leghorn series. Here, a nervy fox finds himself getting in the way of the ongoing tit-for-tat between Foghorn Leghorn and Br’er Dog.Foggy is just coming back on scene, when the fox, now clad in a green blazer, hustles him into an “isolation booth” (which might be just a phone booth,for all we know), to answer he “Sixty-Four Million Dollar Question”. There is even some “think music” given (a Milt Franklyn arrangement of the old staple “My Grandfather’s Clock”), before the explosive climax to the gag–explosive both for Foggy and for Br’er Dog.
The show being spoofed here is “The $64,000 Question”, one of the biggest, most talked-about shows of the time..
This show was derived from “Take It Or Leave It” (which we mentioned in last week’s column), but writ large for television. All questions from the $4000 question on had the contestant standing in the “isolation booth”–a structure that reminded one critic of “a French Provincial gas chamber”.
The show proved to be rigged–but rigged in a different way. At the behest of the sponsors (Revlon,entirely owned by the Revson brothers), exhaustive interviews were taken with the contestants, and the questions written to help–or hinder–the contestants. It usually worked. (One time it didn’t was with Joyce Brothers–whom the producers wanted to “eighty-six”,but who wound up winning $64,000–a very respectable figure, even in those days of confiscatory taxation!)
Next: Some “Quiz” cartoons from the Sixties.