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PBS Special on Cartoon Says a Mooseful

March 07, 1991|TOM SHALES | THE WASHINGTON POST

Let us now praise famous moose. Also famous squirrel. That would be Bullwinkle J. Moose and Rocket J. Squirrel, each "J" standing for Jay Ward who, with his partner Bill Scott, invented television animation in 1949 with the primitive cartoon series "Crusader Rabbit."

What has this to do with moose and squirrel?

Crusader and his tiger-pal Rags were the forerunners of Rocky the Flying Squirrel and his moose-pal Bullwinkle, first in 1959 with "Rocky and His Friends" on ABC and then in 1961 with "The Bullwinkle Show" on NBC.

Their cartoons have been rerunning off and on ever since, but now they're coming back in a big way. Buena Vista Home Video has just released six 40-minute stupendously funny Bullwinkle videotapes (for $12.99 each), and PBS stations throughout the country are about to air "Of Moose and Men: The Rocky and Bullwinkle Story," an affectionate retrospective. A showpiece of the current PBS pledge drive, it will be aired on KOCE Channel 50 tonight at 8 and Saturday afternoon at 4:30.

Ward's animation wasn't very interesting visually, but the scripts for these shows were full of sophisticated humor, outrageous puns and topical references that may have baffled viewing kiddies but won the cartoons a loyal audience of appreciative adults.

Each week, Bullwinkle and Rocky--known as "moose and squirrel" to their farcical arch enemies Boris Badenov and Natasha Fatale--presided over a half-hour cartoon revue that included such features as "Fractured Fairy Tales," narrated by Edward Everett Horton, and "Peabody's Improbable History," starring a dog who looked like Dick Cavett and his "adopted boy," Sherman.

In one episode, Mr. Peabody and Sherman travel through time in their Wayback Machine to the days of William Shakespeare, who's having a furious argument with jealous Francis Bacon. When Bacon, claiming authorship of Shakespeare's works, bops the bard on the head with a book, Shakespeare snarls, "Bacon, you'll fry for this!"

It was that kind of show.

The shy, reclusive Ward died in 1989 and his gregarious partner Scott four years before that, but their impudent and outrageous cartoons live on.

The PBS special includes interviews with some of those who worked at Ward's flaky fun farm: June Foray, the voice of Rocky and Natasha; writers Chris Hayward and Bill Hurtz, and writer Allan Burns, who went on to work on "The Mary Tyler Moore Show" and other TV gems.

Hayward recalls that among the favored satirical targets of the writers was that stuffy old Walt Disney Studio, the much bigger and much richer outfit across town. One cartoon, a "Fractured" version of "Sleeping Beauty," features a caricature of Walt himself as a fast-talking sharpie who turns Sleeping Beauty into an amusement park, Sleeping Beauty Land.

It's a little ironic, then, that Disney, which owns Buena Vista, is now packaging and selling the Bullwinkle tapes, but then, where there's money to be made, the Disney company easily can swallow some pride. And the jesting, like everything else about the Bullwinkle cartoons, is good-natured.

Rocky: "Sure is dark in here!"

Bullwinkle: "Yeah, I can't see my hand in front of my face."

Rocky: "You don't have your hand in front of your face."

Bullwinkle: "Well, I said I couldn't see it."

In addition to dialogue like that, the shows were sprinkled, littered, sometimes overrun with puns that ranged from bad to worse: The Ruby Yacht of Omar Khayyam, a jewel-encrusted boat; Whatsamatta U, Bullwinkle's alma mater; and Maybe Dick, the wailing whale. Was he the largest fish in the sea? Maybe.

In the PBS special, writer Hayward says the guys who dreamed these shows up didn't know if the audience would laugh or not. "We knew that we were entertaining ourselves," he says, and the hope was that others would follow. It was the same philosophy at Termite Terrace, the Warner Bros. cartoon unit that turned out all the great Bugs Bunnies and Daffy Ducks in the '30s, '40s and '50s.

Like the Warner cartoons, Ward's antic classics were made by people who trusted their nuttier instincts and were determined to have fun in their work. What they had, they gave. Rocky and Bullwinkle have returned not a moment too soon.

* "Of Moose and Men: The Rocky & Bullwinkle Story" airs tonight at 8 and Saturday at 4:30 p.m. on KOCE Channel 50. It will be shown on KCET Channel 28 Tuesday at 8:45 p.m. and March 16 at 10 p.m.

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