Wednesday, January 7, 2015

Saturday Morning Fever: A field guide to cartoon shows based on pop groups (updated)

The Beatles in (crudely) animated form.

You can score gold and platinum records. You can fill huge stadiums and arenas. You can win Grammys. You can have fan clubs with millions of dues-paying members. You might even get your own movie. But in the pop music business, you haven't truly made it until you get your very own Saturday morning cartoon show.

Or at least that's the way it used to be.

The era of the pop music-based cartoon show seems to be behind us now. But from the mid-1960s to the early 1990s, it persisted as one of the weirdest sub-sub-genres of animation on television. Until 1965, there had never been a cartoon show based on real, living human beings. But that all changed with an enterprising producer named Al Brodax who got the bright idea to base a cartoon show on a certain British rock 'n' roll combo. And it is with that very combo that we begin our journey into Toontown.

The Beatles

The show: The Beatles (1965-1967)

The premise: The Fab Four travel around, playing concerts and getting into zany, slapstick-heavy adventures replete with non-sequitir sight gags and pseudo-Marx Brothers banter. This will be the template for virtually every pop music cartoon show to follow. (Hammerman is the only major exception.) This was, as I've already mentioned, new territory as far as cartoons were concerned, so Brodax and his crew were figuring it out as they went along. One major issue was characterization. How do you differentiate between these guys when they wear matching suits and all have the same hairdo? The characters' faces are actually pretty well-drawn and serve as recognizable portraits of John, Paul, George and Ringo. And the show's two main voice actors do a fairly good job of creating four discernible voices. Writing-wise, it is Ringo who is singled out from the other three as the designated "wacky" one, the unpredictable goofball who is most likely to be the catalyst for plots and who serves as both the instigator and recipient of most of the punchlines. He's the Kramer of the show, in other words. Even though it's often corny and was clearly produced under a strict budget, The Beatles is still a lot of fun. The plots are generally based around the Beatles' songs, and there are a lot of proto-music videos in which the lyrics are literally acted out. Here, as in all future pop music cartoons, this involves many scenes of the group members running around frantically.

Did they do their own voices: Oh, no. No, no, no. Lance Percival did the voices of Paul and Ringo, while voice acting legend Paul Frees was John and George. The only time you'll hear the real Beatles is during the songs, all of which come directly from pre-existing albums and singles. The group recorded no new music for this series. Al Brodax later produced a Beatles animated feature, Yellow Submarine (1968), in which the real-life Fabs made a brief cameo at the very end and did contribute new songs to the soundtrack, but again their cartoon counterparts were voiced by actors.

Sidekicks: First, an explanation of this category. In subsequent shows of this nature, the pop stars will often be saddled with sidekicks, such as "cute" kids or talking animals or both. For one episode of The Beatles, "I Call Your Name," Ringo has a pet frog named Bartholomew (voiced by Paul Frees). And occasionally, the Fabs have a veddy, veddy proper British chauffeur named James who drives them from place to place. But, for the most part, the Beatles are allowed to carry this show all by themselves, with Ringo serving as a sort of mascot. Interestingly, the character of "Jeremy the Nowhere Man" does serve as their sidekick in the Yellow Submarine movie. Maybe that set the precedent for the pop star cartoons which followed.

Rating: 4 out of 5

The Jackson Five

The show: Jackson 5ive (1971-1972)

The premise: The Jacksons are five kids from Gary, Indiana who get discovered (accidentally) by Diana Ross and subsequently become big recording stars, making hits and touring the nation. As with The Beatles, one member of the group is singled out as having the most vibrant personality and the greatest likelihood of getting into madcap hijinks. In the case of Jackson 5ive, a series produced by Rankin Bass (a company best known today for its many Christmas specials), it's clearly the brash young Michael in the spotlight while Tito, Marlin, Jermaine, and Jackie all seem like interchangeable clones of one another. After a pilot which outlines their quick, relatively painless ascent to stardom, the rest of the episodes focus on typical cartoon schtick in various settings. Or maybe not so typical. Some of the episodes have such downright surreal log lines as "Michael is kidnapped by a monkey who forces him to play the bongos." There's even a parody of Kurosawa's Rashomon entitled "Rasho-Jackson." The show's utter goofiness and the exuberance of the J5's early music make this show surprisingly watchable, despite the low-budget animation and the relentless chortling of the laugh track.

Did they do their own voices: Nope. Just a bunch of actors, with Paul Frees doing various supporting and background characters. The confident, assured speaking voice of the "Michael Jackson" character on this show is extremely different from the timid, effeminate whisper the real Michael Jackson had. But MJ got his chance to voice an animated character in the "Stark Raving Dad" episode of The Simpsons twenty years after this series. And the Jacksons did contribute at least one dynamite piece of "new" music to this series: the lightning-paced theme song which serves as a mash-up of some of the group's greatest hits.

Sidekicks: Michael has a pet pink snake named Rosie (who sets the plot of the pilot in motion) and a pair of mice named "Ray" and "Charles" who live in his front pocket. Ray and Charles actually serve as the focal point for one entire episode, "Ray & Charles: Superstars." Amazingly, this cartoon came out a year before "Ben," Michael's #1 hit ballad about the love between a boy and a rat.

Rating: 3 out of 5

The Osmonds

The show: The Osmonds (1972-1974)

The premise: The key to the Osmonds' success in the 1970s was simple -- copy everything the Jackson Five did. Their signature hit, "One Bad Apple" (which serves as the theme song of this show), is as close to musical plagiarism as you can legally get. So a year after the Jackson brothers did a Rankin-Bass cartoon show, the Osmonds did the exact same thing in the exact same way. And, yes, Paul Frees is along for the ride. Like the Beatles and Jacksons before them, the Osmonds travel around, play music, and get into shenanigans. They have their own yellow "psychedelic" plane, clearly modeled on the Beatles' Yellow Submarine, and they travel to various parts of the world. Unfortunately, the depiction of non-white characters on the show is not too terribly progressive. I first found out about this show over a decade ago when I discovered a VHS bargain bin with compilation tapes entitled "The Osmonds in China" and "The Osmonds in Spain." For whatever reason, these episodes are filled with embarrassing ethnic stereotypes which probably seemed completely normal at the time. In terms of characterization, only Donny Osmond and Little Jimmy Osmond get any personality traits. Donny is girl-crazy and the irrepressible Little Jimmy, the only tow-haired member of the clan, is the official "wacky" one constantly spouting malaprops and getting into mischief. Meanwhile, Allan, Jay, Wayne, and Merrill are treated like the "other brothers" on Jackson 5ive, meaning they all look and act alike. As you'd expect from a show about the Osmonds, everyone has huge white teeth.

Did they do their own voices: Yes! The Osmonds one-upped the Jacksons in this department. Actually, one of the few real points of interest here is the way the Osmonds deliver their lines. They were already seasoned showbiz professionals by this point, but they clearly weren't actors. Actually, their lack of finesse adds to the charm of this otherwise-regrettable series.

Sidekicks: Little Jimmy himself serves as a kind of mascot to the group, but the real sidekick role is filled by a dog named Fuji (voiced by, yes, Paul Frees). I guess Fuji is supposed to be Japanese because he speaks with a heavy faux Asian accent.

Rating: 2 out of 5

New Kids on the Block

The show: New Kids on the Block (1990-1991)

The premise: Basically a sitcom-ized version the New Kids' real life. NKOTB are teenage pop stars with legions of teenage female fans. They travel around the country in a tour bus under the watchful eye of their manager and try to sneak out and have fun whenever possible. Joey is the youngest and the only one still in school, but otherwise there seems to be very little attempt at differentiating the various Kids. Their main comedic foil is a burly bodyguard who essentially serves as the Sgt. Schultz to their Hogan's Heroes. The plots tend to be pretty thin and are interrupted from time to time for little skits or parodies. And whenever there's a lull, the editor will just splice in a second or two of the real-life New Kids either dancing or talking to the camera. Think The Monkees as filtered through Saved by the Bell and you're on the right track.

Did they do their own voices: Nope. The New Kids appear as themselves in live-action intros, but (supposedly for legal reasons) their cartoon doppelgangers are played by professional actors. The juxtaposition is jarring. The real Kids have very heavy (but genuine) Boston accents, while their ink-and-paint counterparts sound like the Bowery Boys in a 1940s B-movie.

Sidekicks: The New Kids have a grumpy manager, Mr. Scott, and a grumpy bodyguard hilariously named Biscuit. Biscuit's grumpy dog, Nico, is the closest the show has to a cute animal sidekick. (Not close at all.) None of these characters add anything of value to the show.

Rating: 1.5 out of 5

Kid 'n Play

The show: Kid 'n Play (1990-1991)

The premise: A squeaky clean G-rated adaptation of the raunchy teen comedy House Party, which I remember as being awesome but which I haven't seen in over a decade. In this series, as in that beloved movie, Kid 'n Play are high school students who enjoy rapping and dancing at parties. They clown around a little and try to impress girls. That's about it. At least in KNP's other failed TV show, they got to be detectives. Very little seems to be happening in this series. It's a bad sign when Kid's famous high-top fade hairstyle is wilder in real life than it is in the cartoon. Man, I should really watch House Party again. Funny stuff. Funny, funny stuff.

Did they do their own voices: Nope. The real guys, Christopher "Kid" Reid and Christopher "Play" Martin, did live-action introductions to the cartoons, but voice actors took over from there. One of these voice guys, Brian Stokes Mitchell, also filled in as Danny on the New Kids cartoon show. Coincidence? Cree Summer is in the voice cast, too, for all you Drawn Together fans.

Sidekicks: The duo have a dog who has a mohawk and sunglasses and can drive a van. He can't talk, though, at least not as far as I could tell from the existing clips. If the dog had a name, I didn't catch it.

Rating: 2 out of 5

M.C. Hammer

The show: Hammerman (1991)

The premise: Actually kind of convoluted. At heart, this is a Superman/Clark Kent-type deal. Mild-mannered Stanley works at a rec center in "Oaktown," but when he dons a pair of magical dancing shoes, he becomes the superpowered Hammerman, who fights crime and rescues people from various other calamities. But the shoes, you see, were given to him by an "old Motown dude" named Gramps who traveled around the world with his granddaughter Jody in an epic quest to find someone worthy of such a gift. The theme song helpfully explains this mythology in detail. The series itself is actually not bad by the low standards of the genre. It's preachier than The Osmonds or The Jackson 5ive, which sought only to entertain rather than educate, but it's also a little more inventive than those shows, with a funky look based on "old school" graffiti and lots of absurdist quasi-Warner Brothers humor. It's not entertaining or funny enough to merit sticking around too long, but it's not the complete embarrassment I expected.

Did he do his own voice: The IMDb says he did, but the cartoon Hammerman doesn't sound much like the M.C. Hammer we all know and love. The real deal definitely appears in live action wraparound segments, though, so Hammer fans get their money's worth from this show.

Sidekicks: Oh, brother, does Hammerman have sidekicks! Way, way too many. In addition to Gramps and Jody, there are the rec center kids, two female backup singers who pop up unexpectedly to comment on the plot, a big goofy dude named Showbiz, and a really random white dude with a keytar. And since Hammerman's shoes have eyes and can talk, they qualify as sidekicks, too. The sidekicks are so numerous that they threaten to crowd Stanley/Hammer out of his own show.

Rating: 2.5 out of 5


Black Sabbath

The show: The Black Sabbath Show (supposedly from 1974; actually 2001)

The premise: The members of Black Sabbath travel around the world, playing concerts and getting in adventures. Tony and Geezer are the normal ones. Ozzy is the wacky one (see also: Ringo Starr, Michael Jackson, Little Jimmy Osmond). And Bill drinks constantly and speaks in gibberish, which the others can apparently understand. Oh, and they have a dog, too. Unlike the cartoon Osmonds, Ozzy and the boys apparently can't afford a private plane and instead travel by commercial jet. This was a sketch from Robert Smigel's tragically short-lived TV Funhouse series (from the "Caveman Day" episode), and it manages to cram in virtually every trope of the "pop star cartoon show" genre, right down to the little details like the opening credits and the transitions between scenes, not to mention the more-than-vaguely-racist "world travel" gimmick. Smigel and crew really did their homework. The stiff animation, the laugh track... it's all perfect! Let us give thanks and praise to the segment's director, John Schnall, producer Frank Drucker, and writers Tommy Blacha, Greg Cohen, and Dino Stamatopolous, whom you may remember from Mr. Show with Bob and David or from Community, where he played "Starburns."

Did they do their own voices? Uh... nope.

Sidekicks: An English sheepdog named Doom Doom.

Rating: 5 out of 5


  1. I used to watch The Beatles cartoon all the time, but the only episode I have a clear memory of is the one that included "Devil in Her Heart" because it was about a witch who fell in love with Ringo. Like all cartoon witches, she had green skin.

    1. I was rewatching the series recently on YouTube. I was very surprised to find that there is an "Eleanor Rigby" episode. No, really.