I grew up in a far simpler age when television audiences outside the major cities of Australia only had access to two TV channels – one belonging to national publicly-funded broadcaster the ABC, and the other to a commercial company who usually took a mix of programs from the three commercial broadcasters in the capital cities.
While it did limit the variety of programs we were able to see, NRN11/RTN8, as our commercial channel was known for a number of years, somehow miraculously managed to show a fairly diverse of programs, which coupled with yearly trips to my grandparents in Sydney, meant I was able to catch many of the shows that mattered to a young Australian boy in the 1970s.
Among them of course were Hanna-Barbera’s array of cartoons, staples of Saturday morning children’s viewing bloc in this country, including Scooby Doo, The Flintstones, Yogi Bear, Hong Kong Phooey, Top Cat, The Chattanooga Cats, The Banana Splits, Wheelie and the Chopper Bunch and a host of others.
Granted the plots were rather basic, and the animation repetitive and somewhat crude at times but there a magical sense of fun and silliness to them that captured my imagination, leading me to fall in love with a slew of characters whose antics amuse me to this day.
As a homage to the countless delight hours I spent in front of the television sets in my childhood, and yes teenage years, I decided it was high time I featured the marvellous cartoons of Hanna-Barbera and why each one meant so much to me, starting with the over the top hilarity of …
THE WACKY RACES
Rumoured to have been inspired by Blake Edward’s 1965 slapstick comedy film The Great Race, which starred major actors of the day such as Tony Curtis, Natalie Wood and Jack Lemmon as turn of the 20th century racing drivers in the race of their life, Hanna-Barbera’s The Wacky Races featured 11 different teams in fantastically idiosyncratic cars competing in a series of races across North America.
While it only ran from 14 September 1968 to 4 January 1969 with just 17 episodes being produced, each of which featured two races, it managed to capture my imagination and those of countless children worldwide as the 11 competing teams, including the villain of the piece, Dick Dastardly and Mutley in The Mean Machine – how I loved Mutley’s laugh and the way in which he was rarely best by his evil if ill-judged owner – living on in our memories and on Cartoon Network’s classic animation arm Boomerang.
To be fair the plots were hardly boldly imaginative or endlessly creative – the same storyline anchored pretty much every episode.
Dick Dastardly, who was a villain in the traditional silent era movie ties-a-damsel-to-the-railroad track mould, did his best to win each and every race, by any and all devious means, aided and abetted, willingly or unwillingly by Mutley depending on his mood, usually ending up, much like Wile E. Coyote in Looney Tunes, clutching the short end of the stick.
The hilarious thing for any kid, and yes as an adult re-watching the episodes, was the way in which Dastardly kept trying to win despite his abject failure to do so on every single occasion.
It wasn’t blind optimism that drove him so much as vaulting ego that couldn’t conceive that his brilliance wouldn’t deliver him up his ultimate goal, a sense that he was so talented and so deserving of the win and so much better than everyone else around him that he and only he possessed the ability to win.
Every car-destroying failure, every waylaid or wasted opportunity was Mutley’s fault, or the ill-deserved good luck of the rest of the contestants, who he uniformly regarded as talentless schmucks with no chance of ever winning.
But win they did, again and again and again, as the commentator told wince-inducing, pun-laden jokes one after another, as Keystones Cops-esque physical slapstick reigned and the delightfully idiosyncratic teams kept driving along, largely oblivious to what was going on around.
Was it sophisticated humour?
Not really but hey it was targeted as kids who could appreciate a silly joke or visual hijinks, who loved the idea that Dick Dastardly never won, and that he threw the best melodramatic tantrums in the world.
That’s what made us laugh, and even if it largely buttressed by nostalgia, keeps us laughing still.