Tuesday, September 15, 2020

Jay Ward

The cartoons of Jay Ward are different from Looney Tunes in that there’s a higher premium on words. Not that Bugs Bunny and pals don’t engage in funny banter; they do, but with Ward his cartoons are all about the wacky wordplay: the ever-present narrator, the quickness of the delivery, the stronger sense of a plot as opposed to variations on a theme (Elmer tries to shoot Bugs, Wile E. Coyote tries to eat the Road Runner, etc.), perhaps as a means to compensate for the—let’s be honest—limitations in the animation. The scripts and the strong voice acting, shorn of the visuals, would make good radio plays.

Ward, a graduate of UC-Berkeley with an MBA from Harvard, was a television pioneer. In 1948, he and his longtime friend, animator Alex Anderson, made an animated pilot film for NBC, The Comic Strips of Television, featuring a variety of original characters. The only one NBC liked became the first animated series made for TV, Crusader Rabbit, debuting in 1950. Ward served as producer and business manager for the duo’s Television Arts Productions.

I watched some episodes for this post. The roots of later Ward shows are clearly visible: funny animals in a serialized show—squeaky-voiced “straight man” CR and dimwitted partner, in this case a tiger named Rags; villains, of a sort, who are equally silly; an omniscient narrator who interacts with the characters. The animation is very primitive, but the characters are endearingly cute and the serialized format makes one want to know what happens to them.

CR was syndicated nationwide, mostly at NBC affiliates including in New York and LA, until 1952, then a second series was commissioned in 1956 by new parent company Capital Enterprises, but Ward and Anderson lost a legal battle over ownership rights.

Next Ward packaged some more new characters in an unsold pilot, The Frostbite Falls Revue, set in the territory known as the North Woods, which covers northern Minnesota, Wisconsin and Michigan. It didn’t succeed, but two minor characters from the series did pretty well for themselves...

I suspect I knew, even as a kid, that Rocky & Bullwinkle were a little different from most cartoons. The fast pace, the number of jokes that flew over my head but seemed significant somehow, the humor that relied on bad puns and other turns of phrase—it wasn’t Scooby-Doo by any means. 

I was used to cartoons with, shall we say, a limited range of expression, but I wasn’t accustomed to cartoons this sharp-witted. I still preferred action-adventure shows overall, but I made time for R&B whenever they were on, in its various incarnations (like Looney Tunes, it appeared under different names).

The original show, Rocky and his Friends, aired on ABC in 1959 before switching to NBC as The Bullwinkle Show in 1961. After 1964, it aired in syndication. Ward created the show with Anderson and Bill Scott. Fun fact: Dudley Do-Right, one of the show’s feature characters, began life as part of the original lineup for The Comic Strips of Television. He went on to a spin-off series of his own.

Ward and Scott collaborated on two more series, George of the Jungle (a Tarzan parody) and Super Chicken (a superhero comedy), both from 1967. 

In addition to cartoon series,Ward is notable for his commercial illustration. I never ate kiddie cereals Cap’n Crunch, Quisp or Quake but he designed their mascots. Here’s the first Cap’n Crunch commercial from 1963, and it’s very much of a piece with Ward’s other cartoons: 

He also put together this bit of drive-in welcome/intermission filler.

Ward died in 1989 of renal cancer. DreamWorks Animation currently has the rights to his characters. We could use a little more of their kind of madcap humor, don’t you think?

A Jay Ward visual essay

The live-action movies

2 comments:

  1. Yes, we certainly use some of that madcap mayhem these days.

    As a kid my faves were Fractured Fairy Tales, and Peabody and Sherman. They still are. Either I was a remarkable smart child or a remarkably stunted adult!

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  2. You probably already knew Edward Everett Horton from his movies even at that age. :-p

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