In one way, children’s entertainment has come a long way from the dawn of television. In another way, we lost the ability to create art where the barrier to entry was a lot lower, and all a person needed was a simple sock puppet to affect monumental changes.
Take Time for Beany!, for example. The puppet show was broadcast nationally from 1950 to 1955. It was created by Looney Tunes veteran Bob Clampett. Clampett was a fan of surrealism, as seen in what is likely the trippiest of the early Warner Brothers cartoons, Porky in Wackyland (a.k.a the one with the Dodo). Salvador Dali was one of his big influences, which definitely set the Looney Tunes apart from the rivals at Disney. He was involved in the development of several of the most familiar characters in the world: Porky Pig, Bugs Bunny, Daffy Duck, and Tweety among others.
In 1946, though, Clampett left Warner Brothers. Was it because his style was so out there? Or perhaps it was his ego? Clampett made a ton of enemies among his co-workers. Mel Blanc once described Clampett as an “egotist who took credit for everything.” Clampett had been promoting himself as the creator of Bugs Bunny when the reality was that it was a collaborative effort that included Tex Avery, Chuck Jones, Fritz Freleng, and others. The story is that Clampett had left Warner Brothers to pursue artistic freedom.
Clampett departed at the same time that Warner Brothers bought out the animation studio (Leon Schlesinger Productions) and joined up wiht fellow departing execs to Screen Gems. Screen Gems couldn’t compete theatrically with Walt Disney, MGM, and Warner Brothers, though. The animation studio shut down at roughly the same time Clampett signed on. Animation was just too expensive, especially now that they’d transitioned to color.
Fortunately there as a new emerging medium where he could flex his creativity: television.
The original puppeteers would go on to be well known voices in animation: Daws Butler (Wally Gator, Yogi Bear, and Elroy Jetson among others) and Stan Fredberg (various Warner Brothers characters including Junyer Bear and Pete Puma). The puppet designs were as basic as you can get. The main human characters were of the solid head Punch and Judy types. Only the sea dragon Cecil had a mouth that could move, and he was a primitive sock puppet.
Beyond the stellar voice acting, the secret element too elevate such an endeavor From embarrassing amateur free library show to a work beloved by both Albert Einstein and Frank Zappa was the writing. Clampett brought his Looney Tunes bonafides to the show, and that sweet spot of “entertaining for both kids and adults.” Give an early episode a spin, and the humor feels remarkably modern. Cecil sings “Rag Mop” while puppet Harry S. Truman, only visible from the back, plays the melody on piano. This could seriously be a Sifl & Olly skit. I imagine other modern day humorists have also taken their inspiration from this show. When Bob Clampett eventually took over for Fredberg in voicing Cecil, he sounds and acts an awful lot like the Homestar Runner.
Cecil was joined by precocious boy puppet, Beany, who had a beany propeller cap. They’re also joined by Captain Horatio Huffenpuff, a.k.a. “Uncle Captain”, who pilots a boat named Leakin’ Lena on their adventures. They are bedeviled by Dishonest John, who tries to steal whatever treasure the crew is looking for but is completely incompetent.
In 1962, Clampett would bring back his characters back to the small screen… this time in animated form. Beany looked more like a small boy instead of a terrifying puppet. Cecil, on the other hand, looks exactly like a sock puppet. The show would be broadcast primetime on Saturdays. The switch to cartoons did not dull Clampett’s satirical spirit. One does not have took farther than the show’s intro, which breaks the fourth wall and shows Bob Clampett as the creator of Beany and Cecil. Though I do wonder if Mel Blanc’s accusations of Clampett having a massive ego were validated at this point.
Take, for example, the song that introduces the episode “The Mad Isle of Madhattan”, which portrays the ad men of Manhattan Avenue as a bunch of primitive savages. If you thought that Beany & Cecil was something simply aimed at kids, take a look at these lines:
Manhattan’s Madison Avenue is made of equal parts!
Red tape, sponsor’s agencies, and TV rating charts!
They’re among the obstacles with which our path is strewn,
And now here’s Beany and Cecil in a Bob Clampett cartoon!
It’s a cynical song about the ad industry. It doesn’t stop there. On this episode, our heroes have to deliver a box of Sponsor Bait to hook the big Dodo at the top. Dishonest Dan takes the Sponsor Bait as his own, only to be run through a soulless corporate system that’s more dastardly than he is. If it turns out that Clampett really was fired from Warner Brothers, I offer this episode up as Exhibit A.
The episodes are full of puns, silly visual gags, and then-current pop culture spoofs. The most shocking to my modern eyes were the gags targeted at cigarette ads. It’s a pleasant reminder that those were once so prevalent that you could joke about them on a show aimed at kids. Cecil is asked, “Say, what’s your favorite smoke?” To which he replies, “Herrings! The only efficient smoke that gets filtered to my distaste!”
Dishonest John even has a catchphrase commenting on what I imagine was leveled at the show: “You think there’s too much violence on TV?” The show was rife with memorable lines: “DJ, you DIRTY GUY.” “I’m comin’, Beany Boy!” And John’s “Nyah uh uh!”
In the 80’s, ABC asked Bob Clampett’s family (Clampett has passed away some years prior) for a Beany and Cecil revival. In one sense, it makes sense for them to return to a show with such a storied history. And yet… it also makes zero sense. Beany and Cecil hadn’t been seen on TV in 25 years. Kinds in the 80’S were more familiar with the likes of The Real Ghostbusters, the Smurfs, and Alvin and the Chipmunks. If kids wanted to see puppets, they’d prefer them to be of the Muppet variety.
The Clampett family’s suggestion would be forward thinking even if now it’s unfortunate: he insisted that John Kricfalusi, fresh off his work at Mighty Mouse: The New Adventures, be part of the production. The New Adventures of Beany and Cecil would be the first show animated by Spümcø.
For his part, Kricfalusi was a huge fan. “Some foks got rhythm,” he said in 2007 in his typically acerbic blog that also criticized Fritz Freleng in the very next sentence. “Other’s don’t. Clampett got rhythm.” Later: “Clampett is the ultra director. He uses his tools more than anyone, and has a larger toolbox to boot.” Just to show you how serious Kricfalusi takes his love of Clampett, the same post also has a piece on “quivering animated orifices.” The subject is a little more tame than the title implies. And yet … I see what you did there John. And I don’t like it.
Spümcø wouldn’t be the only ones making a debut. A radio personality from Boston’s WBCN signed on to provide the voice of Cecil, the seasick sea serpent. Later, Billy West would become an animation legend, lending his prodigious vocal talents to Stimpy J. Cat, Doug Funnie, Philip J. Fry, the Red M&M, and the Honey Nut Cheerios bee. When he rattles off Cecil’s catchphrases, they feel more iconic that when they were uttered originally. He gives an enthusiastic verve to “DJ, you DIRTY GUY.”
As it turns out, Beany and Cecil manages to always luck out with the vocal talent. Jim MacGeorge, who voiced Uncle Captain on the 60’s Show, comes back to reprise his role. Dishonest John is voiced by professional Orson Welles imitator Maurice LaMarche. He’s basically doing a spot on imitation of the original, right down to the “Nyah uh uh”‘s.
Beany’s voice actor, Mark Hildreth, has also done some voice work, but it’s far rarer. It’s probably because he was a ten-year-old when this show came out. (Original Beany voice Daws Butler was basically doing his Elroy Jetson… a character he would continue to voice all the way into the 1980’s. Some people can just nail that little boy voice without being young.) Fans of the SSX video game series might recognize him as the voice of DJ Atomika.
There’s some familiar names on the writing staff as well. A few episodes were written by future Two and a Half Men and The Big Bang Theory creator Chuck Lorre. As befitting his affinity for off-putting make leads, Lorre’s episodes tend to center around main antagonist Dishonest John. Lorre was more of a live-action writer, but this year was the year of the Writer’s Guild strike and he was looking for work (writing for animation was not covered by Guild rules). Animation would turn out to be a great place for Lorre as that would be where he would pen his greatest triumph: the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles theme.
Also in the writing staff: future Batman: the Animated Series writer, Paul Dini. Oddly enough, both of his episodes feature attractive lady sea serpent, Cecilia. Paul Dini gotta Paul Dini. Also on board in the role of director was his fellow Batman partner, Bruce Timm.
The initial instincts about Kricfalusi may have been correct. Having watched a few episodes of the 60’s cartoon, the 80’s series come very close in spirit to the show’s anarchic nature. There’s a quick visual gag where Cecil’s skin gets pulled up over his head. Underneath his skin…. is a hairy human arm wearing boxers. It’s a very John K. style joke, right? A slapstick joke from the creator of Ren & Stimpy? Surely it’s a little out of place on a show based on sock puppets. It was to my surprise that this gag was done in the 60’s cartoon originally… complete with the arm wearing underwear.
The biggest departure is the animation style. The character designs are on point. The roly-poly Uncle Captain, for example, looks especially suited for John K. Even in original puppet form, he looks like a Spümcø original character.
However, Spümcø would implement that rubbery style that they became known for. Cecil’s dimensions aren’t consistent. His face can get ridiculously wide, and his tail is as long as needs be for the joke. Cecil is also more malleable, turning into a single muscle or a stack of abs when needs be.
Wikipedia tells me that the show was huge disappointment for ABC. Eight episodes were made, but only five aired before it suffered the indignity of being replaced with another remake of a 60’s cartoon: The Flintstones Kids. Supposedly the show was canceled because the humor wasn’t suitable for children’s programming. “The executives in charge at ABC were not happy with the direction of the series,” Bruce Timm recalled in the book Modern Masters. “Even with those watered down storyboards, they had major BS&P issues.”
I’d heard of this show’s “not for kids” rep. Was I going to stumble upon a treasure trove — a bizarre contraband curiosity that somehow aired on Saturday mornings right under the censors’ noses? I’m sad to say that there’s nothing I found too objectionable. It’s on the level of Spongebob Squarepants: occasionally puerile humor, but nothing kids can’t handle. Then again, it was ABC. Beany and Cecil were on the air right before the warm hug called The New Adventures of Winnie the Pooh. Anything short of the Teletubbies is going to look inappropriate when you air it before that. Based on some unverified internet sources, the ABC execs were heavily into micromanaging their shows and establishing a “family” environment.
However, based on interviews with people involved in the show, I think a lot of that notoriously questionable content never even made it off the storyboards. That was because of the backstage drama.
I know… surprising for a show run by John Kricfalusi, right? Especially when the ABC execs were acting just like the ad company villains of those original Beany & Cecil cartoons and the showrunners not having the clout of Bob Clampett to push back. Timm recounts how there were shouting matches behind the scenes. Kricfalusi would respond by making the cartoons even more outlandish, which angered the ABC execs even more. “John doesn’t handle pressure very well,” Timm recounted in the understatement of the decade. He says the situation had gotten so tense that he quit before the show even aired. Chuck Lorre feuded with both John Kricfalusi and the Clampett family over the show’s direction. Maurice LaMarche mentioned in a tweet that the show messed him up (implying the show drove him to drink).
Timm didn’t think the show was very good. “Beany & Cecil,” he said, referring to the original animated show, “for all its subversive qualities, was still a gentle kids’ cartoon. We would do gags about humiliating Beany because he was such an obnoxious, little Boy Scout. It was the anti-Beany & Cecil show —- it was not really a good show.”
Chuck Lorre was surprisingly on the side of keeping the show clean. Here’s a passage from the book The First Time I Got Paid For It regarding a disagreement he had with the Clampetts: “Try as I might, I could not stand by and let good ol’ Ceec puke up his own eyeballs, or step inside a giant conch shell to (wink, wink) ‘pleasure himself.’ It just didn’t seem true to the spirit of the show. I suddenly found myself in the unlikely position of having to defend the artistic integrity of ‘Beany & freaking Cecil.’ I was emotional. I was passionate. I was filled with self-righteousness. Why I gave a **** is a mystery I’ve yet to unravel.” The incident led to the first time he ever got fired as a writer. He also made mention of Cecil farting sea anemones. I don’t know if that was Lorre being his usual hyperbolic self, or if that was an actual storyboard that eventually got cut by the ABC execs.
On the other side of that argument, Paul Dini: “Beany and Cecil was a creative hotbed with a gang of great artists and directors working together to rejuvenate not only a cartoon we all loved, but the same unfettered spirit of experimentation pioneered by Bob Clampett himself. Unfortunately that was diametrically opposed to the network’s manifesto that the revived Beany and Cecil be nothing more than safe, pretty eyewash for bored kids.”
Billy West took it pretty hard. He’d hoped to do a tribute to Bob Clampett with the show. A letter from ABC execs showed that they were unhappy with his voice acting. (“Inept and dumb,” said the letter writer.) “I was disappointed but I wasn’t surprised,” he said in a 1993 interview. “I found out first hand how cartoons got to be so sucky over the years.”
I also found an old interview with Mark Hildreth, who seems to be the only person to look at this time fondly. He was ten-years-old, though, so he wouldn’t have been involved in the backstage turmoil. I imagine the show hurt so many people that no one really looked back and saw how innocuous they final product really was. It’s curious how everyone involved seemed to be a big fan of the the original shows and wanted to do the right thing by honoring Bob Clampett. Being a fan of something comes with perils of fandom: everyone has a different reason for why they love something.
We can all look back and smile since we know all these talented newcomers would eventually land on their feet. It was like Scylla and Charybdis of old. You face the sea monster, and you come out stronger on the other side. Still, it’s remarkable that so much drama and so much anguish originated from a simple sock puppet.
Check out all the previous classic animation reviews under the tag #MADE ANIMATED!