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November 14, 2022 posted by Michael Lyons

Back to the Future: The 60th Anniversary of “The Jetsons”

On July 31, 2022, the future was changed forever. That was the day that George Jetson was born. Or, at least, that’s a fan theory. In an episode of the show entitled “Test Pilot,” George reveals that his age is 40. It’s also been noted that The Jetsons takes place in 2062. Some enterprising Jetsons fans did some math and then attached a date (how July 31 was chosen is a matter of much conjecture), and the date became the birthday of the patriarch of the future’s first family (at least in the cartoon sense).

When July 31 hit, social media lit up with celebrations for George, and memes and gifs flew around faster than the Jetson family spaceship. Heck, even The Today Show reported on George Jetson’s birthday.

Whether it was fact, fan fiction, or conjecture, the fact that the date became so significant proves how popular Hanna-Barbera’s animated sitcom, The Jetsons, still is. As time moves faster than Astro’s automated dog-walker, hard as it is to believe, this year marks the 60th anniversary of The Jetsons.

In 2012, for the 50th anniversary, writer Matt Novak wrote about the show’s significance in Smithsonian Magazine, stating, “The Jetsons was the distillation of every Space Age promise Americans could muster.”

Novak also placed the show in the historical backdrop of the time, writing:

“The years leading up to The Jetsons premiere in September 1962 were a mix of techno-utopian, and Cold War fears. The launch of Sputnik by the Soviets in 1957 created great anxiety in an American public that already had been whipped into a frenzy about the Communist threat. In February 1962, John Glenn became the first American to orbit the Earth, but less than a year earlier, the Bay of Pigs fiasco raised tensions between the superpowers to a dangerous level. Americans seemed equally optimistic and terrified for the future.”

Into this setting, The Jetsons swooped in, debuting on September 23rd, 1962. They were brought to the screen by Bill Hanna and Joseph Barbera, whose studio was not only a pioneer in television animation, with characters like Huckleberry Hound and Yogi Bear but landmark, prime-time animation, as well.

“Almost everything animated on the air today got there because of what the talents at Hanna-Barbera created,” says colleague Greg Ehrbar, who has been researching the studio for decades and has also written for its characters. “The Jetsons is one of many ‘firsts’ for the studio. This series was ABC’s first color broadcast. But Hanna-Barbera filmed everything they did in color, except for interstitial and promotional footage, even though the expense was huge. Like Walt Disney, who did the same with most of his TV programming, and Desi Arnaz, who pioneered the filmed sitcom. Hanna and Barbera thought ahead.”

Hanna-Barbera gave us the blockbuster success of The Flintstones, a prime-time breakthrough that debuted two years earlier. The Jetsons would be inspired by the sitcom model of that first of Hanna-Barbera’s prime time shows, now taking place at the other end of an animated timeline.

Where The Flintstones were the “modern stone age family” town of Bedrock, The Jetsons would also center on a family, this time in a fictional and idealized future place called Orbit City.

And just like the show’s theme song – seemingly one of the most popular in television history – announces, the show centered on “George Jetson, his boy Elroy, daughter Judy, Jane, his wife.”

Into this mix was their almost-anthropomorphic dog, Astro, Rosie, their robot housekeeper, superintendent Henry Orbit and George’s hotheaded boss, Mr. Spacely.

The Jetsons and some supporting players found themselves in sitcom situations with a futuristic, animated twist.

The first episode, “Rosie the Robot,” centered on the Jetsons hiring the title character, a robot maid. Everything about the family and setting is set up in this initial outing, including George’s job, his relationship with Mr. Spacely, and the family dynamic.

“A Date with Jet Screamer,” the next episode to air, was a satirical look at such teen idols as Elvis and Rick Nelson with a futuristic twist. “The Coming of Astro” enlarged the Jetson family dynamic to include their lovable dog, and “The Good Little Scouts” examined the father and son dynamic as George agrees to lead Elroy’s scout troop as they go camping…on the moon!

The voices behind the characters were a mixture of veteran voice actors and new additions to the Hanna-Barbera vocal family. George O’ Hanlon, who voiced George, was a veteran comedian and character actor for decades before The Jetsons, as was Penny Singleton, who provided Jane’s voice. Singleton had played Blondie in a series of movies and radio programs based on the famous comic strip.

The familiar voices of Daws Butler as Elroy, Janet Waldo as Judy, Don Messick as Astro, Jean Vander Pyl as Rosie, and the one and only Mel Blanc as Mr. Spacely rounded out the cast.

The Jetsons only aired for one season in prime time. Then reruns of the one season aired on Saturday morning television well into the seventies, allowing the show to find a new audience and be embraced by other generations. “The Jetsons was a very expensive show by sitcom standards,” said Greg. “The Flintstones was also more costly than comparable live-action shows, but it made its money back through merchandise, its quality, and momentum of two years on top. The Jetsons was expected to instantly do as well, but it was placed against Walt Disney’s Wonderful World of Color and Dennis the Menace. ABC could compete with a much less expensive alternative. Meanwhile, those 24 shows, which I think of as a complete unit now, ran constantly on all three networks and in syndication worldwide.”

So popular was the show that Hanna-Barbera began producing new episodes in 1985, adding an additional character, Orbitty, an adorable little space alien with an equally adorable voice, provided by Frank Welker.

1990 saw the debut of Jetsons: The Movie, a big-budget, big-screen adaptation of the series produced by Hanna-Barbera. All of the original voice actors came back, but with a touch of (then) timeliness, 80s pop icon Tiffany voiced Judy Jetson. Fans of Janet Waldo should know that she did voice Judy for a feature-length TV movie called Rockin’ with Judy Jetson.

And, in the thirty-two years since the debut of that film, and the six decades since The Jetsons first glided onto TV screens, the show has remained firmly in our pop culture consciousness (try going on a treadmill and not shouting, “Jane! Stop this crazy thing!”).

13 Comments

  • George Jetson, like Dagwood Bumstead, was a thin man with a long nose whose main interests were eating and sleeping. He has a beautiful wife, a son and a daughter, and a big dog, and he’s chronically late for work at his white-collar job with a short, balding, irascible boss. Yet most of us don’t notice the similarities with the Blondie comic strip; I was well into adulthood before I did. It’s the futuristic aspects of The Jetsons that captivate us: the flying cars, the moving sidewalks, the ubiquitous video screens. We laughed when George complained about his sore button-pushing finger, but repetitive strain is no laughing matter in our modern world. Still, it was comforting to see that, whatever technological marvels the future might have in store for us, the familiar dynamics of family and employment would endure.

    There was, however, one instance where the show wasn’t particularly forward-looking: “Jane’s Driving Lesson”. By 1962 jokes about woman drivers were already becoming passé, so it’s odd that a show set in the future would have built an entire episode around them. It seems that in the mid-21st century, women are still such inept drivers that they turn their driving instructors into prematurely aged, jittery wrecks, and hardened criminals like Knuckles Nuclear would rather turn themselves in to the police than ride in a getaway car piloted by one. I once showed “Jane’s Driving Lesson” to my wife just to see how she’d react. That was fun.

    Considering all the wonderful musical episodes of The Flintstones with guest stars like Ann-Margret, Hoagy Carmichael, and the Beau Brummels, I think the Jetsons (with apologies to Jet Screamer) missed an opportunity by not getting Roy Orbison to guest star. They could have called him “Roy Orbitson”!

    • Ironically Jane’s Driving Lesson was the only original Jetsons episode written by a woman (Joanna Lee).

  • I did not know The Jetsons was only one for 1 season!

    When the show premiered, I had just turned 6 and loved anything science fictiony — The Jetsons, with its flying cars, spaceships, and consoles full of buttons everywhere (I loved consoles full of buttons!) was right up my alley. I watched it religiously right into reruns.

    If you walk up to any boomer of A Certain Age and sing “Eep op ork ah ah,” they will respond without thinking, “That means I love you!”

    • Jonny Quest and Top Cat were likewise primetime cartoons that lasted only one season. No idea why that was when the Flintstones went for six. Bad time slots? The growing perception that cartoons were kid stuff?

      • In the case of JONNY QUEST, the show was not renewed because centering on realistic humans made it so damn expensive to animate that H-B and ABC jointly feared they might never have made their money back.

  • what’s with them bring rich and living in magic sky castles?

  • Overt sexism aside, The Jetsons has been the most accurate predictor of the 21st century to date: large flat-screens that either dominate rooms or hang from everywhere, overly-processed foods that never taste right, microscopic cameras diagnosing internal ailments, push-button manufacturing (and repetitive stress disorders), inept executives relying on artificial intelligence to manage work, FaceTime, robot dogs, robot vacuums, etc. and we have another 40 years to see the rest come to fruition – I’m assuming flying cars and sky-needle apartments are necessary because the planet surface has been ravaged by a global environmental disaster.

    • ….or maybe it was just a cartoon….

      • LOL, of course …and it’s the upbeat accordion cues that keep the whole enterprise from devolving into dystopian allegory 🙂

  • Old enough to remember those HB shows in prime time, along with Bugs Bunny, Alvin, Bullwinkle, and, fleetingly, Calvin and the Colonel. All but the last migrated to Saturday morning, but they weren’t quite the same big deal in daylight hours. Especially in competition with superheroes.

    A nice touch on Flintstones, Jetsons, and Top Cat was closing credit sequences set at the end of the day: the Flintstones returning from the movies (was that cat ever a regular character?), George being welcomed home from work and sent to walk Astro, and Top Cat observing the niceties before going to sleep in his garbage can. Like they were signaling kid viewers it was bed time, which made a bit more sense in prime time.

    Jonny Quest, in contrast, repeated the nifty opening theme and action montage — a bit like giving kids a shot of expresso before toothbrushing and jammies.

  • It has been pointed out by many that the Jetsons’ “Orbit City” buildings appear to have been inspired by the “Space Needle” tower at the 1962 Seattle World’s Fair.

  • This is how we expected to be living now, in a sterile if not unpleasant Electrolux utopia; instead of trying to dodge a plague like welcome back to the 15th century, and facing climate catastrophes and an atrophying living standard. Eep Aap Orp Ah-Ah!

  • I sure don’t find anything remotely “adorable” about Orbitty. Annoying, cloying, unnecessary, yes. But adorable? Not so much.

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