Show business has had a long and productive love affair with the axiom “If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it”, happy to keep churning out variations on a theme, or even the same theme itself with minimal changes, if the viewers kept turning up to consume it.
Everyone is guilty of it, of course with everyone from Hollywood studios through to TV stations and comic books, happy to jump on the bandwagon and keep riding it until the wheels broke, but one of the foremost proponents of the art was Hanna-Barbera which for all its groundbreaking successes such as The Flintstones, the Jetsons and Scooby Doo, was always keen to take a basic concept and rework into all manner of likeminded permutations.
Case in point is The Funky Phantom (11 September 1971 – 2 September 1972), produced for Hanna-Barbera by Australia’s own Air Programs International, whose 17 episodes owed, in more ways than one, a substantial debt of creative inspiration to the far longer-running Scooby Doo (and apparently to a 1946 Abbott and Costello film The Time of their Lives, which features two Revolutionary Era-ghosts caught in, you guessed it, a clock).
With everything from roughly the same gender split of core characters to the fun mode of transport to the weekly mysteries and wise quips and aside, The Funky Phantom was quite the carbon copy of its more successful cousin, taking its creative mimicry even further by having the titular character, a Revolutionary Era-American patriot named Jonathan Wellington “Mudsy” Muddlemore, use the same voice as Snagglepuss (courtesy of Daws Butler), even down to the word “even” which punctuated the end of sentences.
That doesn’t detract from one minute from the fun and enjoyment to be had from the series, but it’s worth pointing out simply to illustrate that cannibalising, in the most flattering way possible, previously successful properties, was something that Hanna-Barbera, ever on the look out for another commercially successful idea, did remarkably well.
It didn’t lead to the same longevity as the source material – neither The Funky Phantom nor Speed Buggy nor the slew of other imitators from the studio lasted anywhere near as long as the big marquee series that made the studio’s name – but when you’re a young kid, like I was in the early to mid-1970s, you don’t really mind.
The Funky Phantom delivered up what I wanted in cartoons at that point:
- Characters I liked – Skip Gilroy (Micky Dolenz) and Augie Anderson (Tommy Cook), who were in a love triangle with the beautiful April (Kristina Holland) and who, along with Elmo the Dog (Jerry Dexter) drove The Looney Duney all over the place, financial backing never disclosed, in search of adventure and mystery (thus opening the opportunity for endlessly creative storylines)
- A fun, camp protagonist in Muddsy and his ghostly cat Boo who hid themselves in a grandfather clock in revolutionary Boston to escape British pursuers and never left dying while they waited and only being released when the The Looney Duney gang stumbled into the haunted mansion where the clock remarkably still sat (clearly not a gentrifying neighbourhood).
- A cute, cheesy expository theme song that lays everything you need to know before the mystery sleuthing begins.
- Some over the top silly situations, mostly due to over the top villains camply posturing their way through each episode and engaging in all manner of chases and ultimately ineffective terrifying of the kids (the bigger scaredy cat was Muddsy who was, believe it or not, actually afraid of ghosts; and yes it was pointed out to him time and again that he is one).
What is interesting as someone who loves comic books is that it was the print version adventures of The Funky Phantom that showed more creativity than the TV series.
Dispensing with the Scooby Doo-esque villains in a mask trope – one episode of The Funky Phantom (#3 “I’ll Haunt You Later”) even used the phrase “I would have gotten away with it too if it wasn’t for you meddling kids!” – they tried a completely different tack to drive the narrative, according to Wikipedia:
“In the 1970s, comic books of The Funky Phantom were released by Western Publishing and Gold Key Comics. The comics were both original stories as well as adaptations of some of the TV episodes. The stories in the comics, however, took a different turn from the TV episodes. While on the show, the “ghost” was always a villain in a mask (like Scooby-Doo), in some of the original comic stories, the villains would often turn out to be other ghosts from on or around the colonial era. (The show never addressed why it seemed that there were no other ghosts besides Mudsy and Boo.) The comics even did a twist on the series when the gang traveled back to colonial times via an erratic time machine, only to find out that the kids are now the ghosts (the machine could only transport spiritual matter) and Mudsy is once more inside his original flesh-and-blood body. Also, the comics introduced a new regular character who never appeared in the show. Priscilla Atwater, a ghostly matron from Mudsy’s time, who lusted after Mudsy and pursued him actively, although she tended to flirt with about any other ghost who came along.”
That burst of creative originality aside, The Funky Phantom was never a powerhouse of cutting edge storytelling but then was that ever really the point for it or many of Hanna-Barbera’s workhorse series?
They were designed as entertainment for kids on a Saturday morning pure and simple, and we cared not if it was thematically groundbreaking or if the backgrounds all looked the same, or whether The Looney Duney even looked like were driving on all four wheels thanks to its placement on said backgrounds; in truth, I, and countless other kids like me, just wanted to laugh, and have some precious non-school fun, something The Funky Phantom delivered in spades, and even after all these years, still manages to the delight of my still cartoon-crazy inner child.