There’s Never Been a Better Time to Revisit ‘Rocky and Bullwinkle’

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I generally try not to timestamp these articles, because who knows? Someday somebody’s going to be searching for information about Woody Allen’s lost short film and the last thing they’re going to want is a bunch of references to Chewbacca Mom in there. However, since America’s interactions with Russia are under such scrutiny right now, I thought that today we should look back at one of the 1960s most trenchant satires of the Cold War and Russia’s frequent attempts to kidnap the United States’ treasured moose and squirrel. I refer of course to Rocky and Bullwinkle.

It’s entirely possible that you are unfamiliar with Bullwinkle Moose and his good friend Rocket J. Squirrel. The duo was strongly embraced by the children and adults of their generation when they first appeared in 1959, but now the characters only make the occasional nostalgic appearance in the form of not-so-great films, Geico commercials, or postage stamps. Well, the premise is quite simple. Rocky, an adventurous flying squirrel, is friends with Bullwinkle, a dimwitted moose. (Please don’t ask why.) Unfortunately, anything they attempt, whether they’re checking out a house Bullwinkle has just inherited, or deciding to try and make it in Hollywood as actors, they are continually persued by Russian spies, Boris Badenov and Natasha Fatale (okay, actually they’re from the Russian stand-in “Pottslyvania,” but on this show Bullwinkle graduated from MIT, the Moose Institute of Toe-Dancing, so…). Sometimes they’re after “moose and squirrel” because they’ve accidentally invented a rocket formula. Or the time Bullwinkle accidentally stumbles into the launderette that the spies are using to hide their illegal deeds. Or that time with the metal-eating mice…

Okay, but just describing the plot (or what there is of one) isn’t enough to get the merits of this show across. The charm is in the writing. Never has there been a show that uses puns so masterfully and so consistently (perhaps the most famous is when Bullwinkle is given a scholarship to Wossamotta U). And while not the first television to do so, R&B may be the first made-for-television cartoon to break the fourth wall. Characters on the program are constantly making reference to how they hope they don’t get cancelled or how the sponsor’s not going to like something.

I specifically refer to the program as a “made-for-television cartoon” because at the time, there weren’t a lot of them. Two of the co-creators of Rocky and Bullwinkle,  Jay Ward and Alex Anderson, had collaborated on the very first cartoon made for television, Crusader Rabbit in 1949. It featured very limited animation (and often times just still images on screen) to keep costs very low for the fledgling medium. By the time R&B came about, William Hanna and Joseph Barbera had formed their own company specifically to produce cartoons for TV, beginning in 1957 with The Ruff and Reddy Show. With a much higher budget than any other TV cartoon (but far below those of their theatrical counterparts), Ruff and Reddy was a success and paved the way for more money to be spent on animation.

Well, not a lot of money. Looney Tunes director and animation legend Chuck Jones referred to the cartoons as “visual radio” and he’s not far off. Though it seems as though the budget improves as the show goes on, Rocky and Bullwinkle’s animation is limited. Mouths flap, and backgrounds pan behind characters, but if you’re looking for a masterpiece in realistic movement, this is not the place.

In addition to the main Rocky and Bullwinkle segments, the show also featured a rotating cast of segments that in some cases are just as notable. Fractured Fairy Tales, as you might guess from the title, featured strange retellings of fairy tales which often involved pop culture references (and even more puns). Dudley Do-Right, about a mixed-up Canadian mountie and the love of his life Nell, who is much more enamored with Dudley’s horse, named Horse. Peabody’s Improbable History in which a brilliant talking dog and his not-so brilliant boy, Sherman, travel through time to learn about, and frequently fix, history.

Despite the fact that the show is mostly missing from the modern media landscape, the show’s influence is still widely felt today. Matt Groening cites it as having a huge impact on his life. “From watching that show when I was a kid, it was one of my fantasies to grow up and have my own cartoon show. It was a big influence.” (Ever notice how so many of the characters on The Simpsons have a “J.” for a middle initial? You can thank Rocket J. Squirrel and his creator Jay Ward for that.) Dan Abrams, creator of the subversive Rocko’s Modern Life said of the show, “There were jokes that I didn’t get as a child that I now understand the references to. They were able to create shows that were funny to both groups without sacrificing anything. That is a hard job to do and we always strove to emulate that quality.”

Now, if you think you’re ready, I present to you one full, pun-filled installment of the serialized adventures of Rocky and Bullwinkle:

Ramsey Ess is a freelance writer for television, podcaster and a guy on Twitter. Check out his web series Ramsey Has a Time Machine featuring Chris Elliott!

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