This is the first stop in a multi-blog tour occurring over the next few weeks. You’ll be able to read about the genesis of the stories in Dreams of the Moon where I’m being hosted. You’ll also have an opportunity to meet some wonderful Canadian spec-fic authors here — all part of the dynamic of a blog tour.
Featuring David Perlmutter
TAKING A FUNNY THING SERIOUSLY
By David Perlmutter
I want to tell you about my favorite personal interest and ruling passion as a scholar, the thing I find it hard to live without.
You should know something about me first. I was diagnosed very young with Asperger’s Syndrome, which is considered to be on the high end of the Autism spectrum. People with Asperger’s can function well by themselves and amongst friends and family, and work well when given tasks that they can do, but find it very difficult communicating to others if they don’t know how to, or if they have never met or interacted with someone before. They find it particularly difficult understanding language if it is of a non-verbal nature, and can embarrass themselves in public in consequence of this.
From an early age, I was attracted to animation on television because the majority of the characters were the opposite of who I was. Gregarious, speaking at top volume all the time, easily enraged over things I consider then and now to be trivial. Certain supporting characters came to show me what was considered to be “normal” behavior in society, contrasted with the humorous antics of the lead characters, who deliberately stood out from that “normality” on purpose. So it was a lesson both in how to be “normal”, and how not to, that I needed to have.
And, of course, there was and is a great level of body language and facial expression in animated films, which is enormously useful for anyone deficient in those arts to study. There are limits- nobody actually turns as a red as a beet, for example, when they get mad in real life. But a great deal of what I know now about emotions like sadness, anger and joy was taught to me through the physicality of television animation in particular, and it still teaches me about it as I watch it now. Again, something needed that I can’t get anywhere else.
My parents, to their credit, never denigrated animation to my face, the way many parents before them had, so they let me keep watching. And, as television animation hit a glorious peak of creativity in the 1990s and 2000s, I was extremely grateful for that.
Still, my Asperger’s, coupled with youthful fear of embarrassment, prevented me from speaking much about it to others until I got to university. There, majoring in history, I was encouraged to explore the history of animation and the whole history of the world in which it interacted and continue to interact with through my term papers. And then, to my surprised happiness, I was able to write my MA thesis on the history of television animation — from which my first book on the topic emerged. Hopefully one of many as the years go by.
Yet I discovered television animation, which I admire so much, was not as universally beloved as I thought. Certain individual series and characters were well known, but others were (sometimes unjustly) neglected in the academic world in which I had participated. And the entire genre was sometimes written off as a waste of time, which I still disagree with now.
Why was that?
Because, in spite of the odd “straight” action series floating around, television animation has chiefly thought of as a comic, humorous venture. Therefore, not to be taken seriously, as most things comic in nature are wrongly thought to be.
This was an attitude taken by both the public and academic criticism. Television itself as a whole wasn’t considered to be a serious topic for academic study until the 1970s. Even then, it tended to focus on how people reacted to and interpreted what they saw on the screen (as in Marshall McLuhan’s Understanding Media) rather than trying to analyze each program independently, with the methods of literary and film criticism, which is more the case now.
Scholars of the effect school were particularly concerned with how children interacted with television, as they feared negative consequences on children’s behavior. Such as if they were behaving in a “violent” fashion. By this time, television animation had largely been stereotyped as a medium for children alone, and was aired at times and places only they cared about, such as Saturday mornings. It wasn’t the people doing the studies. For most of the 1970s and 1980s, this led to a heavily restricted form of censorship imposed on television animation — and only television animation — which destroyed a great amount of its creative integrity.
Even with the great creative advances in television animation that would be made in the 1990s and 2000s, the violence purge still has had its lasting effects. Programs of that time, such as The Simpsons and The Powerpuff Girls, have produced memorable episodes grappling with the continually fluctuating concepts of “violence” and “censorship”, and where the overzealous use of both ideas has vast, unforeseen consequences for those who employ them as tactics.
Another aspect of the problem I have discovered, trying to write as both a fan and a scholar of television animation, is that it is hard to try to write serious scholarship about something that’s overwhelmingly about humor. We human beings seem to have a bit of an odd relationship with humor. We all enjoy laughing, but sometimes at different things, rather than the same ones. One person’s belly laugh is another person’s head-scratcher. And the least enjoyable thing about jokes is trying to explain them to people who don’t understand.
Then there are the same sort of ambivalent passive-aggressive relations we have with television and animation on their own. It’s never been entirely fashionable to say that you enjoy watching the “boob tube”, or that you are an “adult” who enjoys an entertainment medium that was supposedly made for “children” only. In the first case, mass communication has often been the target of elitist snobs who want to control “culture”, and television is a prime example of their disdain because it was probably the most “mass” form of communication before the Internet. And because children are denied the right to vote and other forms of citizenship, the things they “want” and “understand” are often decided in absentia for them, without their input. Which explains a few things about the media that is directed squarely at them, at least sometimes.
What I am trying to say by these examples is that television animation is often judged on a prejudicial basis, with people “assuming” they know what it is about, based on second or third-hand knowledge or receding childhood memories, in a way that prevents a meaningful analysis of both historical and contemporary trends from occurring.
Which I find distasteful.
Meaningful, objective analysis of any form of entertainment, which transcends partisanship and bias in both the past and present, is a key step in helping it develop the kind of “respectability” which will allow it to be both studied in the academic realm and preserved positively in the public media memory. Without this kind of analysis, an art form’s worth and value can easily be dismissed, and, therefore, it can be reduced to the status of forgettable ephemera. With the exception, of course, of those who love and care for it, and are willing to prove to those who don’t understand it that it does matter and should be taken seriously.
My position on television animation is different from others chiefly because a) I am a “fan” who has followed and continues to follow television animation avidly and b) I am an author who has written scholarship about the field and will likely continue to do so in the future. In both roles, I am convinced you can only “know” what is going on about these programs by watching them closely and examining the historical literature related to them. You have to be able to sit down through whole episodes to get an understanding of what they’re all about.
And while it isn’t always an easy job, it can be a rewarding one as well.
For starters, if you actually involve yourself in the stories instead of trying to keep track of acts of “violence” or other presumed violations of your sense of “taste”, they can be pretty interesting things.
Clever tales of heroes and villains locked in mortal combat, friendships and family bonds broken and remade over and over again, extremely ticklish allusions and references to real life and media events and things, made in the most unlikely and unexpected of ways. Totally likeable and enjoyable creatures, the kind of people you would want to have as brothers, sisters, friends or lovers, regardless of whether they be humans, animals or other supernatural creatures. And no judgements cast based on race, gender, class etc.- unless you happen to be an evil villain, in which case you’re on your own, buddy.
The kicker is that most of these events are conducted in ways that defy realism rather than accept it, and reinforce the belief that the world would be a better place if these things were real. Animals talk. Children are wise and profound beings, and adults incredibly stupid and short-sighted. All things related to the supernatural and science fiction are frequently accepted as fact rather than denied. And the more of these things that can be played for as many laughs as possible, the better. The worlds created by the animators seem cleaner and fresher than ours in any number of ways, physical and moral.
That’s probably one of the main reasons why I keep coming back. There are people and ways of thinking there that we don’t have here, and which we could most certainly use.
If only real life problems could be dealt with that easily, or real life people that easy to understand. As someone challenged with Asperger’s syndrome, I frequently find truth harder to deal with than fiction- which is why I’m glad that fiction of this kind exists.
But some people still try to doubt its value, or treat it in a schizophrenic way. The Academy of Television Arts and Sciences has been giving worthy animated shows Emmys for years, but you’d never know it watching the telecast these days. The animated Emmys are stuck in the hell of the technical (pardon me, “Creative Arts”) ceremony right now, so a lot of viewers would never even know they exist. Out of sight, out of mind. So how would they even know about them?
That’s just the tip of the iceberg, though. It goes a lot deeper than that.
Back in the 1950s, people actually thought television was like a drug, that nobody could possibly free itself from the desire to constantly watch, regardless of what was on. And what was the supposed entry point for children into this “addiction”? You guessed it. “Cartoons” (a label that now sounds something like a racist slur to me) got the blame. Granted, there wasn’t a lot of original television animation to begin with in those days, but the label stuck.
But this was also the period when the nascent Hanna-Barbera studio was at its peak, with the antics of Huckleberry Hound, Yogi Bear, and, later, the Flintstones. And let’s not forget Jay Ward and his brilliant crew responsible for Rocky and Bullwinkle, which, over time, has become probably the most influential series of its kind, within the genre and the wider world as well.
Still, few were willing to give it much credit for what it accomplished.
In the ‘60s and ‘70s, it got worse. A lot of people who didn’t know a damn thing about what they were talking about accused television animation of being too “violent”. This was ridiculous, considering how it actually was at the time- there were numerous live-action gun-toters then blasting away in prime time, while animation only intended to be funny and exciting without consequence. Yet animation, because it was falsely assumed to be appreciated by children and children only, got blamed. It was forced to go through the artistic equivalent of chemical castration by draconian censorship at the hands of the misnamed “Standards and Practices” department, which turned much of the animation under their watch into a parody of itself simply because it could. No cable or Internet in those days, so if you wanted to produce animation for television then, you had to play by the network’s rules. And, if they wanted it bland and unthreatening, then, by God, you made it so.
Not that nothing of value came out of that time. Lou Scheimer’s Filmation produced much of its greatest work during this time, including its collaboration with Bill Cosby, Fat Albert and the Cosby Kids, which brought new demographics and new storytelling strategies to television animation that continue to reverberate. If ever there was an underrated company doing a yeoman job in this field, it was Filmation.
In the ‘80s, television animation got flack for being part of the rampant consumerism of the time. Somehow, it was thought that basing a show around toys, video games or greeting card characters was too “commercial” for a genre that had been reduced more to edification than entertainment. It is true that some of the shows of the time were like that, but, again, cutting all the chaff away reveals some rather nice wheat hiding there in the shadows.
Again, Filmation thrived, reaping considerable rewards for going off boldly into the new realm of syndication to escape network tyranny, creating the boldly original action-adventure hits He-Man and She-Ra. Alas, the studio fell victim to another kind of tyranny- international corporate politics- when its parent company abruptly closed it down without notice, and it never produced another series.
Finally, in the ‘90s, television animation began fighting back.
The Simpsons came along and fired the first warning shot, and then nothing was the same again.
Nobody expected much of it, it being originally a filler piece on a variety show on a shoestring network with an uncertain identity. But it transcended everyone’s expectations, and became not only a hit prime time program, but a major cultural force. It was highly unusual then for a “mere” animated program to do this, and almost immediately the role and function of animation in television began to change, largely for the better. Opportunities came about, and were seized with great success.
The major shift came when the networks slowly began to abandon television animation and other “children’s” programming, mainly due to declining financial profits, and ceded the field to the cable giants which now largely run the television animation industry- Nickelodeon, Cartoon Network and Disney.
It had been accepted in live-action television since the 1970s that it was both creatively and financially feasible to allow skilled writers, producers and directors to produce programming without corporate interference. Beginning in the mid-1990s with Cartoon Network, and spreading to the others as well, this mode of production now became the dominant one, with the result being the felicitous mode of production which has produced innumerable classics, too many to be fully discussed here. Finally, after quite a long struggle, people in the television animation were able to produce the kind of shows they wanted to make, what they felt was much more worthy of the attention of the audience than anything that preceded it. It not only expected that kind of attention- it demanded it. And, given how people loved what they made then and still do now, it truly was worthy of that attention.
Of course, now, television is not what it used to be. Instead of trying to unite us, it has become part of the problem, breaking us all up into separate audience components. How can television animation, or any TV genre worth its salt nowadays, try to compete with the blizzard of online offerings stealing away the people who used to be loyal towards it?
I, for one, think it will endure. For this reason….
If the diverse group of characters in television animation have anything single thing in common, it is their ability to fight back, physically and/or verbally, against any sort of threat confronting them, for they know this is the only way to overcome any sort of evil in their path. Their creators, and their cable television landlords, are no less formidable in similar circumstances. And outside media competition would just be another obstacle to most of them.
If you understand this, you will know why, while most of mainstream TV is now battered and bloodied, television animation is still standing.
David Perlmutter is a freelance writer based in Winnipeg, Manitoba, Canada. He is the author of America Toons In: A History of Television Animation (McFarland and Co.), The Singular Adventures Of Jefferson Ball (Amazon Kindle/Smashwords), The Pups (Booklocker.com), Certain Private Conversations and Other Stories (Aurora Publishing), Honey and Salt (Scarlet Leaf Publishing), Orthicon; or, the History of a Bad Idea (Linkville Press, forthcoming), and The Encyclopedia of American Animated Television Shows (Rowman and Littlefield) . His short stories can be read on Curious Fictions at Curious Fictions/David Perlmutter. He can be reached on Facebook at David Perlmutter-Writer, Twitter at @DKPLJW1, and Tumblr at The Musings of David Perlmutter (yesdavidperlmutterfan).
 Examples: My book America ‘Toons In: A History of Television Animation (Jefferson, N.C.: McFarland and Co., 2014) and The Encyclopedia of American Animated Television Shows (Lanham, MD: Rowman and Littlefield, 2018.)