Inspection- Want to See Me Pull a Moose Out of My Hat?
About 6… Eastern.
I was four.
My middle brother was about seven and a half.
We tiptoed downstairs; well “tiptoe” as much as little kids can, and turned on the old RCA. The first show was agricultural. I guess since Mom had grown up on a farm, and Dad in the wilderness, a program about farms and big farm equipment was the main attraction. Oh, and being about something and somewhere other than the New York City area. Though our two story white house, and what eventually became close to an acre “spread,” looked over the scenic yet massively polluted Hudson, it was far less than we desired.
Let me explain. Our father, Bill Carman, had filled us with stories of how woodland life in the Adirondacks was magical and city life something to be loathed. I suppose that’s why we found even a show about farm life comforting compared to our slightly better than average NYC version of suburbia: late 1950s; early 60s.
After the tractors all tractored, and the barns slowly seemed to back away because the cameraman had pulled back; credits for the “Ag” program rolled. Then there was the sound of a galloping horse punctuated by frenetic and shaky music, announcing the arrival of a thoughtful and wise rabbit in shining armor carrying a lance. On some of the sites I haunt, net-wise, you will find a picture of that hare stuck in a contemplative moment next to my name. I wonder some days if I can ever live up to his legacy or the men and women who created him, or gave voice to him, Rags and all his “children.” His name: Crusader Rabbit… and his buddy was Rags: the classic smart straight man partnered with a hilarious dunce who unwittingly delivers punch line after punch line. This formula has worked well for practically every Jay Ward Production and inspired both Animaniacs, where everyone but our heroes were dull knives in the drawer of life, and Peter in Family Guy. Peter, who is his own far less than brainy sidekick; is surrounded by his brilliant baby Stewie, quite smart and tolerant wife Lois and wise, yet wise guy, dog; Brian. Brian Griffin: this generation’s Mr. Peabody; the creative progeny of the only dog to ever have a pet boy.
This is the story of how a rather Conservative gentleman named Jay and a peace activist named Bill made animation history while inspiring generations of entertainers, writers and animators. If only our partisans these days could work together so well.
Some of the best scripts written for animation owe everything to the battles fought by Jay Ward and Bill Scott against the usual mundane stupidity demanded by real life dull witted sponsors and TV execs. You know, the kind of mid-level management maroons who can seem less intelligent than the youngest viewers tantalized by Teletubbies-like fare’? Their idea of “good” scripting via the changes they demanded would only work if used to program the psyche machine that almost drained Captain Kirk’s brain.
The animation in Crusader was horrible. The movement alone might make one seasick. But the scripting, though filled with puns far beyond the expected intellect of either a four; or an almost eight, year old, was delightfully entertaining and educational. That’s how one educates; encourage students to go beyond what they know, or what they think they know.
Our oldest brother, Ted, had turned my middle brother Jim on to the mighty rabbit. Crusader’s toon was the first, oldest and longest lasting TV animation series on TV up until The Simpsons recently cracked that barrier. Jay Ward and and his own very intelligent, witty, sidekick; Bill Scott, were my first real teachers: teaching me to love playing with syntax; put words together in fascinating and funny ways. I learned that English can be fun; and isn’t just the province of some talentless teacher whose anal attention to grammar could drive any children away from the educational dinner table faster than insisting on serving liver, mustard and Brussels sprouts blended into ice cream.
To quote my father, “Gack!”
The puns were howlers. While being chased by Indians, Rags the lesser of the intellects: a feline Bullwinkle with stripes, stood up in the covered wagon and yelled…
“Pip! Great Expectations! Tale of Two Cities!”
“Rags, what are you doing?”
“I’m giving them the Dickens.”
In another episode they left off of dock Kildare to save some sacred sands. I believe they were going to “Sheik-cago.”
I know, most of my younger readers are now saying to myself, “What in the name of Frostbite Falls is he talking about?”
Cursed young whippersnappers. Excuse me. Sorry. “Wonderful” young whippersnappers; could you please continue reading? Whew. Almost farwinkled myself there! (Or, since coming up with puns one must be willing to toss the bull around a bit; “Bullwinkled.”)
Jay and Bill lost the rights to Crusader: a story that reads as if Snidely Whiplash jumped off the very cells they created and sabotaged Jay and Bill’s creative rights. After that Ward’s next production was based around “moose n’ squirrel,” as their nemesis Boris Badenov referred to them. Moose n’ squirrel offered kids and their adults a fierce pun, parody and joke off. Consider the various titles and alternative titles of upcoming episodes, like when Bullwinkle somehow managed to find himself facing the guillotine…
“Severed relations” or “How to get a Head.”
Or their confrontation with Boris’s boss…
“For instance, when the feared Mr. Big points a gun at at our heroes and threatens, ‘Gentlemen- I’m afraid your hour has come,’ Bullwinkle pointlessly asks, ‘Is that standard, or daylight savings?'”
The puns were so frequent Jay Ward’s partner in crime, writer, voice over artist and script consultant, Bill Scott, had a sign on his desk, “Don’t forget the plot!”
By now it should be obvious that I have just finished Keith Scott’s book The Moose that Roared. The end of the book is a long list of every show, every program, every commercial Jay Ward Productions did; including voice over credits. “Boring,” right? Uh, uh. No, it includes the horrific puns that tagged the end of each episode that also announced the next. The chapters are set up like those very same clever episodes.
It isn’t a surprise at all that Jay Ward and Bill Scott were plagued by censors and sponsors with no sense of humor. It also isn’t a surprise that they never came close to being as accepted by the industry like the blander Disney scripts, or some of the the more hideous, mindless trash put out by Hanna Barbara.
OK, I admit it. I also watched the Flintstones, the Jetsons, Wide World of Disney too: and even bought an Archie comic every week.
What the name of Dudley Do Right was wrong with me?
As an entertainer who makes the majority of his earnings entertaining the very young with puns, parody, song, magic, talking pieces of cloth…. Sssh! They’re listening! I meant to type “puppets.” (They scare me. I think they’re plotting to toss some banana peels and water balloons at me right now.) … I suppose I owe my meager earnings in part to those mornings watching Crusader, Peabody, Fractured Fairy Tales and eventually Bullwinkle… though that last one was mostly at night. My own act includes several variations on, “Hey, Rocky, want to see me pull a rabbit out of my hat?” That act didn’t work so well in High School when puns were considered “bad jokes.”
That’s right. You figured it out. Until I met my wife of over thirty years, oh how my dating life suffered.
The detail. Oh, the detail in this book is so Badenov-inly blasted amazing. Besides credits for every Ward production ever done, Keith includes odd facts; like Natasha and Boris, arch villains, were based on The Adams Family magazine cartoons.
As a performer who has made a living off my own scripting efforts here’s my own guideline for good scripting: every worthy script purposefully does a delicate balancing act between mundane and offensive, and may even ever so slightly step over the last one on a rare occasion. In fact, I believe it impossible to write anything of worth without offending someone. Some people can find offense, my dear Sherman, anywhere. If you offend no one; what you’re doing is probably schlock, and that’s as polite a word I can type to describe such bland butcheries some dare call scripts.
While I have had my share of unintentionally offending, when it came to enraging the easily outraged my far less famous attempts can’t even begin to compete. For a while he had a Bullwinkle puppet introduce the segments. Pre-one episode the puppet was seen roasting the NBC peacock. The execs at their host network, NBC, were not amused. Some of the promo was, in my opinion, a bit off base. The puppet, apparently, beat Soupy Sales to the punch line by asking kids to go into Mom’s purse or Dad’s wallet and send money to him. And, OK, I understand pretend Salvation Army ladies asking people to repent and watch Bullwinkle while holding signs in front of the CBS studio in New York, when they were on NBC, but then parading them down Madison Avenue while asking men to pinch them?
No. No. And again, um… NO.
Rather than the stiff, competitive Disney atmosphere where if Walt didn’t like you because your creation; Donald, always beats out his own cherished Mickey, you might get fired because “someone” put a liquor bottle in your drawer…
Or the uninspiring banality of scripting for Hanna Barbara…
…Ward kept a loose leash on his stable writers. If you could make him laugh, you were in, and Jay loved to laugh. And most of all… he loved great scripting. As Lloyd Turner one of his writers. said…
“(We were) …a literate circle, but instead of Hemingway, we had a moose.”
There were many other Ward productions, like Fractured Flickers; a strange mix of spliced together silent clips with new narration. I remember loving it. They also did the Captain Crunch commercials. There were also many, many poorly timed attempts, like a show with Kennedy jokes whose premier date was immediately after the assassination of JFK.
Having made my share of ill timed jokes, so I can feel their pain. I once did a rewrite of Abiyoyo, a South African folk tale adapted by Pete Seeger, and later by moi’. In my version the townspeople reject a father and a son’s “talents” because they “know” true entertainment. After all, they’re the village people and they lived in the Y M C A. Cue the song; Ken with his Martin OM21, and everyone sings. My brain somehow didn’t register one day that while the “C” has been mostly dormant in “Y” for quite a few years; even before I went the Y in the late 50s; early 60s, I was about to perform at a orthodox Jewish center. A director saw me putting the “Y” sign up and mentioned the offense my dense nature was about to commit.
Oops. Edit on my feet time!
Jay never really was all that comfortable being the performer even I managed to become. Because of a nasty accident where he had been enclosed in an extremely tight space for quite a while he avoided even going out of his house in the early years. Bill Scott did such publicity stunts. It was so bad, that once Jay sent his wife to a wedding with mannequin-like figure that had been made to look like him. The figure was even in the reception line and a tape machine installed in its chest played a tape he had recorded making wisecracks, asking those who passed by to buy one of his projects and requesting they “keep the line moving.” When he did venture out in later years, Jay Ward felt comfortable in large public gatherings mostly when he was playing some character.
As with many small production houses built around a few characters, time eventually kills such delightful fractured fairy tales.
As the lights dimmed, then finally drizzled to a stop, at Ward Productions, Bullwinkle themed restaurants and a Dudley Do Right Emporium that sold memorabilia based-bling were mostly all that remained… other than the obvious reruns. Many of the writers, and his sidekick Bill Scott, died. Ward himself passed away almost a decade before an attempt was made to recreate his most famous toon with a Bullwinkle movie, but Disney took that Ward/Scott magic and turned out what I thought was a rather droll film. Keith, the author of the book, was the voice over for Bullwinkle: and performed flawlessly, in my professional opinion. What the movie suffered from in the end was the “magic” that the “Magic Kingdom” has rarely ever had in their scripts.
All the children’s entertainers I’ve met, every book I’ve read, of all the interviews I’ve heard and seen with those who are doing the best of animation and youthful entertainment, I don’t remember one who has claimed that Mickey was their main inspiration; or even secondary. Not one brags about the incredibly brilliant scripting pouring out the mouth of Fred, Barney, Barney of PBS infamy, George Jetson. No one. But everyone out there entertaining children, or scripting shows for children, who also does it well that I have met; or read of, either mentions a Ward production, or other scripts inspired by some Ward production.
Somewhere the party boy who loved to dance down Madison Avenue with fake Salvation Army girls; and his boss wearing one of those big British admiral hats, moosed be having one Rocky, yet rocking, party. And God is laughing with them.
Inspection is a column that has been written by Ken Carman for over 30 years. Inspection is dedicated to looking at odd angles, under all the rocks and into the unseen cracks and crevasses that constitute the issues and philosophical constructs of our day: places few think, or even dare, to venture.
Ken Carman and Cartenual Productions
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