review by KC Carlson
One of the more interesting things about Underdog is the number of misconceptions many people have about him.
Misconception #1: Many people think the the very popular Underdog balloon is still a part of the annual Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade.
It’s not. The balloon was retired in 1984 — after debuting in 1965, just one year after the debut of the cartoon show on NBC. There was even a special episode of the TV series that originally aired right after the parade in 1965.
The reasons that people think the Underdog balloon is still active are likely twofold. First, there was an entire episode of Friends that featured the balloon, although it was never seen, except in stock footage. (Episode #9, “The One Where Underdog Gets Away”, originally aired on November 17, 1994, ten years after the balloon was retired.) Second — and more recent — is the great 2008 Coca-Cola ad (first aired on the Super Bowl) where the Underdog balloon battles the Family Guy’s Stewie balloon over a frosty Coke balloon in the skies over NYC. (This commercial, of course, was all done with CGI.)
Misconception #2: This one was primarily known only in animation circles. For a number of years, it was thought that all the Underdog cartoons were lost in a fire (as well as all the cartoons produced by Total TeleVision Productions (TTV), including King Leonardo, Tennessee Tuxedo, and Go Go Gophers).
Happily, this one is not true either, as the recent release of Shout! Factory’s nine-DVD Underdog: The Complete Collector’s Edition proves. Shout! Factory has conveniently divided up this set into three individually packaged DVD sets (by season), so it’s possible that they may sell them as individual season sets at some point in the future.
Underdog: The Complete Collector’s Edition contains
- all 124 Underdog “episodes” (episodes meaning the four-and-a-half-minute cartoons, two of which were shown as part of each show)
- all 48 episodes of Go Go Gophers
- all 48 episodes of The World of Commander McBragg
- the first 14 episodes of Klondike Kat (originally airing in Season 3; the rest would air on The Beagles)
- 12 episodes of Tooter Turtle, which originally aired on King Leonardo
- and 2 episodes of The Hunter, also both originally airing on King Leonardo.
One of the two Hunter episodes isn’t the one listed in the packaging, due to the discovery that the cartoon had no audio — made after the box and booklet went to press. It’s been replaced with another episode. (There are more Hunter episodes on the way on Shout! Factory’s Tennessee Tuxedo box set.) For those keeping score, this Underdog set contains about 21 (or more) hours of cartoon fun.
Although most of the pieces of the original 1964 Underdog cartoon show have survived, some are in better condition than others, so there is an occasional difference in picture quality due to different sources for the footage. The original series was long ago cut up and rearranged when the series entered syndication, and some of the original material (mostly interstitial and credit sequences) were lost or misplaced for many years. Many of these are presented in a five-minute bonus feature, and it quickly becomes clear why they didn’t put them back into the regular episodes. Most of them are in terrible shape (some are only in black & white) — and watching them over and over again as part of the regular episodes would be very annoying. I am just happy to know that at least we get the opportunity to see them at all, in any condition.
It’s probably a small miracle that any of this footage still exists, in any form. The cartoons were saved individually by subject to be inserted and re-inserted into different syndication packages after the original run of the show. Most of the original bumpers and inserts have been lost in their original state and only exist via inferior sources. Mark Arnold, animation historian and consultant to this DVD set indicates (in comments for the box set on Amazon.com) that even the audio for some cartoons was lost, forcing them to pull alternate audio from bootlegs to match up with pristine (but silent) video prints.
This is the only downside to this collection, and it’s an incredibly minor one. The folks at Shout! Factory have done a fantastic job of reassembling all of the various pieces of the original Underdog to provide a viewing experience as close as humanly possible to seeing the show as it was originally broadcast on Saturday morning in the mid-1960s. As one of those original viewers, I can directly attest to how well they achieved their goals in producing this amazing missing piece of animation history. I had a lump in my throat as I watched — and remembered every word from that first episode I first saw as an eight-year-old in 1964. Granted, I probably saw that episode a lot. Underdog was on the air, bouncing back and forth from NBC to CBS, for an astounding nine-year run, 1964 though 1973 (less a two-year break, from 1970 to 1972). There were a lot of reruns, since the show stopped producing new episodes in March 1967.
That Underdog is so beloved is no accident. Despite its somewhat dubious origins — it dates from the era where a single sponsor (General Mills in this case) basically funded the entire show as a place to regularly show ads for their extensive line of sugary breakfast cereal — the show is utterly charming, with one of the best lead characters in TV animation history. As the opening narration reminds us in every episode, Shoeshine Boy (Underdog’s secret identity) is “humble and lovable”. He was. And enduringly sweet while almost always speaking in rhyme.
Underdog was your basic superhero story. He had a secret identity (Shoeshine Boy), a girlfriend (Sweet Polly Purebred), dozens of villains (Simon Bar Sinister, Riff Raff, Overcat), aliens (The Marbleheads, The Magnet Men), and a secret to his amazing powers (The Underdog Secret Energy Pill). That part was all for the kids. Underdog also worked as a parody and satire, not only mocking superheroes, but a large part of society as well. And that was for the adults. At this early stage of TV animation, only Underdog and the Jay Ward produced material — notably Rocky and Bullwinkle — were doing things on this dual level.
It’s also interesting to note that Underdog was around for more than a year before the debut of the live-action Adam West Batman TV show in 1966. Underdog also beat Superman (The New Adventures of Superman) to Saturday morning by two years. It seems only the Fleischer Superman theatrical cartoons of the 1940s, Mighty Mouse, and Popeye preceded Underdog in superheroic animation. Underdog‘s success may have inspired a flood of superheroes (some silly, some not) in the two years following his debut, including Atom Ant, The Mighty Heroes, Frankenstein Jr. and the Impossibles, Super 6, and Space Ghost.
Amazing Voice Work
A large part of the character’s charm is due to the voice actor hired to perform as both Underdog and Shoeshine Boy — Wally Cox. Cox was one of the pioneers of early television, starring in the popular television show Mr. Peepers, which ran from 1952-1955. Mr. Peepers was a junior high school science teacher, as well as a bit of a nebbishy bumbler, traits which would carry over to the character of Underdog/Shoeshine Boy. Cox was a natural fit for the character as conceived.
The role of Underdog proved to be a good one for Cox, as it led to him being cast on the popular game show Hollywood Squares. Cox was one of the original “squares” (upper left) from the original pilot until his untimely death in 1973.
Norma MacMillian played Underdog’s girlfriend, Sweet Polly Purebread. She also performed the voice of Casper the Friendly Ghost, Goo in Gumby, and both Davey and Sally on Davey and Goliath. She was an on-screen actress with numerous roles on television shows, but she was probably best known for playing Aunt Martha on commercials for Kraft Foods mayonnaise in the 1980s.
Allen Swift was a former children’s television host before becoming a well-traveled voice actor for an incredible number of animation projects in a very long career. He’s best known as the voice for both Simon Bar Sinister and Riff-Raff, the two main villains on Underdog, although as a utility player for the show, Swift also voiced many of the minor villains, such as Batty-Man and Overcat, as well as many of the alien characters who appeared. Swift was a regular on TTV’s other programs, where he played Itchy Brother, Odie Colognie, and Tooter Turtle on King Leonardo and Tennessee Tuxedo; he was also Tubby and Scotty on The Beagles. Swift worked with Rankin/Bass on many of their projects, most notably as the majority of voices in Mad Monster Party, a 1967 full-length theatrical film (incidentally, co-written by Harvey Kurtzman with character designs by Jack Davis).
George S. Irving was better known as a Broadway character actor in numerous productions, including the original production of Oklahoma!. He’s best known for roles in Irene and Me and My Girl. But he also worked in animation, performing numerous villains and minor characters in Underdog, as well as acting as the show’s narrator. He was the Indian Running Board in Go Go Gophers (the one who talked in fake Indian language and said “Whoopee Doopee!” a lot), as well as minor roles in TTV’s other shows. Millions of people know him best as the voice of the embittered Heat Miser in Rankin/Bass’ The Year Without a Santa Claus.
The Origins of TTV
Total TeleVision was formed by four men: Buck Biggers, Chet Stover, Treadwell Covington, and artist Joe Harris. All four were former ad men. Biggers and Stover originally had the account for the General Mills food corporation, and their job was to create TV animation to sell their breakfast cereals. Around 1960, they all left their advertising jobs to create Total TeleVision (TTV) to produce the cartoon series that would “host” the General Mills commercials. (Usually, that’s the other way around. Back then, shows were created specifically to please sponsors.) TTV had four success stories in King Leonardo and His Short Subjects (1960), Tennessee Tuxedo and His Tales (1963), Underdog (1964), and The Beagles (1966). Underdog was by far the most popular of them all.
Buck Biggers was the primary creative force of TTV, ultimately writing over 500 scripts, and composing all the theme songs — both words and music. Biggers contributes several commentaries on this Shout! Factory DVD set, as do voice actors George S. Irving and Wally Wingert (a current voice actor, best known as the voice of Jon on various Garfield series, and — my favorite — the voice of MODOK on The Avengers: Earth’s Mightiest Heroes); Alison Arngrim (actress, best known for playing Nellie Oleson on Little House on the Prairie — and also the daughter of Norma MacMillan, the voice of Sweet Polly Purebread); and Mark Arnold, writer of Created and Produced by Total TeleVision Productions, the definitive history of TTV, and also author of this box set’s informative liner notes on the history of Underdog.
Another TTV founder, Joe Harris, appears in a bonus feature, narrating (and providing simulated voices) for a never-before seen and wonderfully charming storyboard for Underdog. There’s also a new 30-minute documentary on the show — “There’s No Need To Fear… Underdog Is Here!” — featuring contributions from Biggers, Irving, Arngrim, and Arnold.
Not Without Controversy
Unfortunately, Underdog did not escape scrutiny by the parental groups determined to blanderize all cartoons with the goal of “protecting the children” by making sure that everything on Saturday morning was no longer funny or even made sense. Underdog originally got his powers by eating an energy vitamin pill. When taking one, he would always recite this rhyme: “The secret compartment of my ring I fill, with an Underdog super energy pill!” While there was no problem with these scenes during the show’s original run, for a while in the 1980s and ‘90s, these scenes were dropped for fear that children might associate them with drugs. These scenes have been restored for the Shout! Factory DVD release.
It’s so good to see Underdog brought back and reassembled (as best as can be) in a high-quality format such as DVD. Kudos to Shout! Factory for getting this out under what must have been occasionally trying circumstances. (Shout! Factory provided a copy for review.)