When trouble is near, I am not slow,
It’s up up up, and away I go!
Powered by the milquetoast voice of 98-pound weakling Wally Cox, “Underdog” flew onto NBC’s animated Saturday morning line-up on October 3, 1964. Like “Fizzies,” a product unveiled around the same time (enabling kids to turn water into soda), it became an instant hit with the target audience.
For kids who were already waxing nostalgic for “The Rocky & Bullwinkle Show,” which ended a five-year run earlier that summer, “Underdog” seemed like the next best thing. The backgrounds were stylized rather than realistic, the animation was simple and a little crude, and there was a slight wise-guy tone to it all. The only thing missing from “Underdog” was the innuendo and inside jokes that made Rocket J. Squirrel fly with college students and adults too. This one was for the kids, and it was almost as if the young audience figured that out. Soon kids across the nation were aping Underdog’s way of speaking in rhymes, or doing impersonations of the Wally Cox voice: “There’s no need to fear . . . UN-derdog is here.”
Unlike “Rocky and Bullwinkle,” though, “Underdog” hasn’t aged well—though, to be fair, it’s the secondary cartoons in this half-hour anthology that can make you cringe a little. Each show opened and closed with an episode of “Underdog,” which typically ran in shorter narrative arcs than the Jay Ward comedy—four episodes, usually, for each storyline. In between, kids got a “Go Go Gophers” and “Commander McBragg” cartoon, both of which can contain elements which can be considered offensive because of their treatment of ethnic groups.
“Go Go Gophers” was really a personified version of the coyote and roadrunner cartoons. Set in the American West, it featured a “tribe” of Gopher Indians, and I use quotation marks because there were only two of those buck-toothed gophers dressed like Indians: Ruffled Feathers and Running Board. Ruffled Feathers seemed manic and demented, speaking in excited garble that was supposed to pass for a Native language. There are also a lot of “Get-ums” and Hollywood clichés. And the chief? Running board always had his arms crossed and had a habit of saying, “Whoopee Doopee!” On the cavalry side there was Col. Kit Coyote, who looked a bit like Teddy Roosevelt and said “bully” a lot, and his laconic sidekick, Sgt. Okey Homa (Oklahoma?), who’s drawl and mannerisms had a distinctly John Wayne look and feel. Another character was General Nuisance, who would visit and put the pressure on the two to increase their efforts to eradicate the tribe. There were many cavalry, but only two Indians, and so it went, episode after episode, with the Indians getting the best of the soldiers in “beep beep” roadrunner fashion. Ironically, if you look past the racial stereotypes and offensive Hollywood conceptions of Native Americans, the “Go Go Gophers” cartoons are probably funnier and more entertaining than the “Underdog” segments.
More racial stereotypes and offensive artwork turn up on the “Commander McBragg” cartoons, which were really a celebration of the American tall tale, told by a very British chap at an Adventurer’s Club who would grab a fellow adventurer and tell an outlandish story of his close calls and fantastic encounters. Often, the exaggerations were obvious even to kids, but you have to wonder if the little ones grabbed onto the fact that as McBragg talked about rhinos in South America, that there ARE no rhinos in South America. But indigenous people are called “natives” and they’d get plenty restless today seeing how the characters are drawn in exaggerated caricature fashion, with big lips and big eyes. As with the “Go Go Gophers” cartoons, if you look past the offensive material you’ll see a tribute to storytelling that’s as fanciful as some of the bedtime stories parents make up for their children.
These two cartoons continued through the first two seasons, but by the third, “Go Go Gophers” had its own show, “Commander McBragg” was dropped, and replacing them were reruns of “Tooter Turtle,” which originally aired as part of “King Leonardo and His Short Subjects,” and “Klondike Kat,” which was a staple on “Tennessee Tuxedo and His Tales.” Neither of them, frankly, is as fun as the ones they replaced.
The main cartoon isn’t offensive at all and still stands up. It features Cox as Shoe Shine Boy, who, like Superman, dashes into a phone booth in order to change into his superhero costume and become Underdog, a hero who, like the much-later “Hancock” and “The Incredibles,” is so focused on saving someone (whether they wanted to be saved or not) that he’s oblivious to collateral damage. His Lois Lane was Sweet Polly Purebred, voiced by Norma McMillan. And his main nemesis? Simon Bar Sinister, who reminded older kids of Crabby Appleton from the old “Tom Terrific” cartoons. This evil scientist kept saying “Simon says . . .,” which again appealed to kids who played that game at school. There were other villains, too—like the wolf-gangster Riff Raff, The Magnet Men, or an alien type named Zot—but Bar Sinister is the one kids wanted to see, because he was to Underdog what Boris Badenov was to Rocky and Bullwinkle.
Each of the three seasons comes in a standard keep case, with all three tucked inside a cardboard slipcase.
Season 1 features 26 episodes on four single-sided discs, including the storylines “Go Snow,” “The Bubbleheads,” “The Great Gold Robbery,” “Zot,” “Fearo the Ferocious,” “Shrinking Water,” “From Hopeless to Helpless,” “The Witch of Pickyoon,” “Weathering the Storm,” “The Goldbricks,” “The Magnet Men,” and “The Phoney Booth Ring.”
Season 2 features 22 episodes on three single-sided discs, including the storylines “The Big Dipper,” “Underdog vs. Overcat,” “The Tickle Feather Machine,” “Riffraffville,” “The Silver Thieves,” “Simon Says No Thanksgiving,” “Guerilla Warfare,” “The Forget-Me-Nets,” “The Flying Sorcerers,” “The Molemen,” and a curious one in which Underdog is bothered by a nagging back pain, “Pain Strikes Underdog.”
Season 3 offers 14 episodes on two single-sided discs, including the storylines “The Vacuum Gun,” “Batty Man,” “A New Villain,” “Round and Round,” “Simon Says Be My Valentine,” “The Marble-Heads,” and “The Just In Case.”
Shout! Factory always does such a nice job of transferring and packaging TV shows, but the source materials they had to work with this time are pretty rough—so much so that there’s even an uncharacteristic disclaimer at the start, warning that the quality can change from episode to episode. Even so, the style of the cartoons is so crude and simple that the rough look seems compatible and you quickly adjust. Episodes are presented in 1.33:1 full screen.
The audio is similarly primitive, with a Dolby Digital Mono sounding flat and slightly scratchy. There’s not much more to say except that here, too, you adjust.
There’s a character feature on Underdog on Disc 4 of the first season, a nice interview with “Underdog” co-creator Joe Harris (who walks us through a never-before-seen storyboard and takes us back in time), and an excellent 18-page full-color booklet that includes an essay on “The History of Underdog” by Mark Arnold, photos, and a complete list of episodes. The episodes are also listed on the back of each keep case, so there’s no excuse for feeling lost.
Also included are commentary tracks, but they’re not exactly a breeze to access. You have to notice an asterisk by episodes and then click on “play.” Then a menu appears where you can see commentaries and select on/off. Offering the commentaries are writer-producer-co-creator W. Watts Biggers, voice actor George S. Irving, producer Treadwell Covington, and animation historian Mark Arnold. “Safe Waif” features Arnold and Biggers; “Moom Zoom” features Wally Wingert and Irving; and “Over the Falls” features Mark Arnold. “Honor at Steak,” a Klondike Kat cartoon, comes with a commentary from Wingert and Irving.
“Underdog” was a cultural phenomenon that elevated Wally Cox’s profile, and for fans it’s still going to be worth buying. But I don’t think it holds up quite as well as the “Rocky and Bullwinkle” material, and it’s because the original audience was kids, not adults. Now that the kids ARE adults, well, it doesn’t have the same effect.