Friday, November 18th, 2011

The Strange Fad of Comedian-Based Saturday Morning Cartoons

Maria Bamford has a great bit about how she wants to have a TV sitcom someday called Me, My Mom, and a Monster, in which she, her mother, and a friendly but disgusting monster all live in the same house, where one can presume wackiness would ensue. Had Bamford been an up-and-coming comic in the late ‘80s or early ‘90s (which she wouldn’t have been, because she would not have gotten any club dates in that culture of jokes about airplanes and the myriad difference between New York and Los Angeles), she might have actually gotten the greenlight, and Me, My Mom, and a Monster would have wound up as a Saturday morning cartoon.

In the stand-up comedy boom of the late ‘80s and early ‘90s, lots of comics translated their act and persona into network sitcoms. Others, bizarrely, and in what was almost universally ill-conceived, wound up with Saturday morning cartoons based on themselves and their routines. This could never happen in 2011, mainly because there’s not much Saturday morning TV for kids left (other than third-rate syndicated animal facts shows and reruns of Busytown) and comedians are too cool and too edgy to be asked to participate in such an endeavor. Bill Cosby and Fat Albert is definitely the pioneer here, but comedians and comic actors are stereotypically (if not usually) tortured, idiosyncratic, and dark-sided. Only the squeakiest of squeaky-clean comics (like Cosby) or shtickiest of shticky (like Jeff Foxworthy) even register on a kid’s radar. Marketing-wise, it doesn’t make sense. Plus it’s impossible to think that some network executive thought it would be a good idea to pitch Louie Anderson to children.

Camp Candy (NBC, 1989–92), starring John Candy.
Of all the major comic actors of the ‘70s and ‘80s, probably the only one who never hosted Saturday Night Live was John Candy. Even though he ran in the appropriate circles, he never could squeeze in the gig. He was a busy guy, what with filming Vacation, Planes, Trains, and Automobiles, Summer Rental, co-owning a Canadian Football League franchise, and, it would seem, running a children’s summer camp that was open all year and from which children never left, a fate more purgatorial than even the camp from Salute Your Shorts. It’s as if they based the idea of a John Candy cartoon around the punny, misleading title (it is not a candy-making or candy-eating camp) and the sense that Candy looked funny in a too-small uniform, like the one he had to wear in Vacation.

Rick Moranis in Gravedale High (NBC, 1990–91), starring Rick Moranis.
Considering Camp Candy, this, and Martin Short’s beloved but short-lived The Completely Mental Misadventures of Ed Grimley, some SCTV-loving comedy nerd apparently got to head up NBC’s children’s division in the late ‘80s. I’m sure Life With Robin, with Robin Duke, was tossed around a boardroom at some point. But Gravedale High had a far, far more bizarre and arbitrary premise than even Camp Candy:

Rick Moranis, the real Rick Moranis, not a character played by the guy from Ghostbusters, takes a job as a teacher at a high school populated by teenage versions of classic movie monsters, which have lots of angst and embody common teen TV-and-movie stereotypes.

Bobby’s World (Fox, 1990–98)
Unlike the others here, Bobby’s World was based on a character, and the only completely child-friendly element, of Howie Mandel’s stand-up act. Essentially the same voice as Skeeter, the Muppet Baby Mandel voiced, Bobby was a bright-eyed, imaginative five-year-old, and this gentle cartoon was a massive hit, running 80 episodes, airing around the world, and winnings tons of kids’ TV awards.

Little Rosey (ABC, 1990), starring Roseanne Barr.
An amateur political commentator, victim of the Hollywood machine, and part-time reality show star, it’s hard to imagine a time in which Roseanne Barr was arguably the most famous female entertainer in America. In 1989, her “domestic goddess” act was a stand-up phenomenon and her innovative, blue-collar sitcom Roseanne was the #1 show on TV. ABC was making a lot of money off of her, and since Roseanne was a family show, they gave her a Saturday morning cartoon, positing what Roseanne would have been like as a child, living in a cute small town with her doting parents. Answer: just as sarcastic, obnoxious, and abrasive as she was as an adult. But put those qualities on a child, and you get someone whose self-preserving pride and massive sense of entitlement leads to a barely tolerable human Garfield (and who wasn’t even voiced by Barr). Little Rosey was a hit for the first three months of the 1990 fall season, until, as she frequently did on Roseanne, fought with producers and network executives. The show was gone by the end of the year, although had it lasted into 1991, it likely would have been shelved, when Barr publicly accused her parents (depicted in the show) of sexual abuse.

Life With Louie (Fox, 1994–98), starring Louie Anderson.
One of the major club-and-cable comics of the ‘80s, Anderson’s act was primarily self-deprecating jokes about his obesity and nightmarish childhood. Well, Fox decided to turn that childhood into an animated show for kids. Instead of Anderson’s second-hand recollections then, the viewer was privy to Anderson’s childhood embarrassments, traumas, and father who hates Louie because he is overweight, lazy, not good at anything, and consequently, obviously extremely depressed. Whenever watching this, I always expected or hoped each episode would end in a cathartic bit in which lil’ Louie confronts his father, or the father admits he hates the boy. You know, like what would and will happen in real life, at every Thanksgiving ever. (Happy Thanksgiving!)

Brian Boone writes about insignificant things on the Internet and in books.

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  • Zack Stovall

    The Christmas episode of "Life with Louie" is a perennial favorite, right up there with Charlie Brown.

  • Josh Drimmer@twitter

    Seriously? No mention of the Ed Grimley cartoon Martin Short did? My childhood was scarred by viewing just one episode of that tragic (NBC?) cartoon, and it can't even get mentioned here?

    • http://splitsider.com Adam Frucci

      @Josh Drimmer@twitter There is a mention of it, which links to the full article that we ran that focuses solely on that show. Read it fully instead of just skimming the headings!

  • semiserious

    I think this premise segued into the trend of making Saturday morning cartoons out of Jim Carey movies. I think at one point Ace Ventura, Dumb & Dumber and The Mask cartoons were all on at the same time on the same network.

  • Nick Jeffrey

    Brian Boon – Have you ever read the book "Saturday Night-A Backstage History of SATURDAY NIGHT LIVE" by Doug Hill & Jeff Weingard? If you haven't, I highly recommend it – but in that book there's a picture of John Candy and Jim Belushi and the caption reads "Host John Candy". Also IMDB lists him as hosting here – http://www.imdb.com/title/tt0695024/. So John Candy did in fact host Saturday Night Live. Do I win a comedy nerd award for pointing out a mistake???

    • Brian Boone

      @Nick Jeffrey You're right. He hosted once. I'd read in another SNL book that they tried to get him almost every year and couldn't, forgetting that they got him the once. He should have been a five-timer instead of spending all his time running a camp.

    • Nick Jeffrey

      Bob Odenkirk said he was the "most burned" person in the 'Live From New York' book by Tom Shales, meaning they would repeatedly ask him to host and then un-invite him at the last second when someone better came along. He would have been an excellent five-timer. He was made for sketch comedy, not cartoons or even movies (except 'Who's Harry Crumb?'- That movie rules). Awesome article – thanks for responding.

    • WeevilWobble

      @Nick Jeffrey Yeah, and then he got so sick of being burned he refused any and all offers to host. Which makes sense.

    • Nick Jeffrey

      @WeevilWobble – Oh absolutely- I don't blame him at all for never wanting to do it again. But he did host once and he should have hosted many more times after that. Tony Danza hosted TWICE for God's sake.

    • Canais Young

      John Candy actually hosted, but what I think the author meant to say was John Candy was never a cast member on SNL. Dick Ebersol asked Candy nicely if he wanted to join, but Candy stayed faithful to SCTV.

  • Vivekananda Nemana@twitter

    These days I always think of Sarah Palin when I hear the mom from Bobby's World.

    • Canais Young

      Blame Gail Matthius for that.