First appearing in a prime-time animated special, The World of Atom Ant and Secret Squirrel, on 12 September 1965, Secret Squirrel (voiced by Mel Blanc) is my favourite Hanna-Barbera character after Scooby Doo.
I’m not sure if it’s because he debuted on TV out the year I was born – doubtful since while I was pretty cluey as a baby, I wasn’t that advanced – or simply because he manages to be both capable and comically not all at once, a Get Smart for the animated show (the two shows debuted six days apart).
Whatever the reason, re-watching the episodes was more fun than I’d bargained on, with The Secret Squirrel Show, which also featured rebelliously-mischievous Squiddly Diddly (voiced by Paul Frees) and the delightfully inept Winsome Witch (voiced by Jean Vander Pyl), featuring a visual aesthetic that was a cut above much of the mass-produced Hanna-Barbera cartoons.
There is a lushness and richness to the backgrounds that matches well-developed characters and some, at times, rather deliciously well-phrased dialogue.
Take for instance the repartee between Secret Squirrel and his sidekick, fez-wearing Morocco Mole (voiced by Paul Frees who also voiced Secret Squirrel’s boss Double-Q of the International sneaky Service) who trade dialogue that is clever and funny and never once accedes to the fact the Secret Squirrel stuffs up more than he doesn’t and that much of his eventual success comes to the inestimable capabilities of his colleague.
That’s not to say that Secret Squirrel is completely clueless.
In the first episode of the first season, “Sub Swiper”, he largely botches all his attempts to get a stolen submarine back intact before some deft mathematical reasoning, which is bang on the money, sees him intercept a bomb and turn it back on the bad guy behind the nefarious thievery.
That scene alone involves some inspired slapstick, clever lines, and Secret Squirrel demonstrating that he may not be the most comprehensively-capable secret agent out there but he does know stuff and is a complete idiot klutz.
I think that mix of clumsy and knowing appealed to me from the get-go on some level.
I like the fact that Secret Squirrel isn’t a complete disaster and that he is grounded in certain ways; true there might be more comedic potential in the fact that someone is an out-and-out incapable mess but I grow tired of that eventually.
Much as I love Get Smart, and even Some Mothers Do ‘Ave ‘Em, both of which characters who created chaotic mayhem wherever they go and who have to be frequently saved by others, I grow frustrated by their ineptitude and their failure who stand wholly on their own two feet.
Granted, that probably entirely misses the inherent humour of that archetype which relies on slapstick and idiocy to generate laughs but I think you have to much more of a visual humourist to find that appealing over the longer term.
The two characters who rounded out The Secret Squirrel Show – Squiddly Diddly and Winsome Witch – followed in much the same vein; they didn’t always get things right, with Winsome’s spells never really working out and Squiddly always failing to escape his home aquarium Bubbleland in any kind of permanently-successful, fame-achieving way but they still managed to be good enough at enough things (Squiddly at wrestling or outsmarting Chief Winchley, Winsome at baseball) that they were appealing to watch.
With each character usually appearing in a cartoon and small show break each, they all got their moment to shine, giving the show, which ran from October 1965 to November 1966 (Secret Squirrel and Morocco Mole were revived in 1993 as part of the 2 Stupid Dogs show), a lovely ensemble feel even though none of the characters ever appeared together.
One interesting facet of Secret Squirrel’s pop culture footprint is how his name has now become a widespread gleefully-fun nickname for all things, well, secret as Wikipedia notes (though it appears the name predates the show):
“The phrase ‘secret squirrel stuff’ is used by people working in U.S. intelligence to lightheartedly describe material that is highly classified, usually as a non-answer to a question.It may likewise be used in a pejorative manner to mean someone who is unlikely to have actually had a job as a special operations soldier, spy or mercenary, or to have performed the actions they claim to. The history of the name ‘secret squirrel’ for special operations forces and spies appears to predate the television show, as one story states that the word ‘squirrel’ was using during World War II as a test to root out German spies. The name ‘secret squirrel’ is police slang for an agent of the U.S. Secret Service.”
However wide his influence might be, and I’m inclined to believe it is considerable, Secret Squirrel is a comedic delight – funny, oblivious, serious and slapstick-y, a hero for the ages who may not get everything right but succeeds enough that he’s inherently likeable and a lot of fun to watch and really is that what you want from a cartoon character?