Wednesday, February 02, 2011


Hey Hey Hey!

We were all pretty much snowbound yesterday, yet again, so The Wife and I decided to use some streaming goodness to introduce the kids to Fat Albert.

As card-carrying Gen X’ers, we’re old enough to remember when there were only a few channels on tv, and you and all your friends watched most of the same things. We both watched Fat Albert as kids, though we didn’t know each other then. (Chances are that we saw some of the same episodes simultaneously, in our different states, not knowing it. The thought makes me smile.) Now that much of that stuff is available again, through the miracle of the interwebs, we can see it with adult eyes.

Fat Albert has aged pretty well, as these things go.

Yes, there was some visual shock. Bill Cosby was soooo young, though I don’t remember him seeming young at the time. The drawing style was distinctly 70’s -- it looks like a kid-friendly version of the cover of Miles Davis’ On the Corner album. (Back then, musicians recorded music onto vinyl discs that got sold...ah, never mind...) The music was distinctive, and far better than it had any right to be.

We had some gobsmacking moments of nostalgia, of course. The kid who ended every word with “B” cracked us both up (his attempt to say “abdicated” was worth a whole episode), and the theme song hits you right away. The silhouette shot of the group walking is unforgettable, and the junkyard-band bit was just as cool as I remembered. (And the characters! Mushmouth, Weird Harold, Bill and Russell, Albert, Rudy, Donald...each with his own walk. I don’t think Rudy’s walk is even physically possible.)

The acid test, though, was the reception from The Boy and The Girl. They had no nostalgic reason to watch it, so we were curious to see how they’d respond.

They enjoyed it, especially The Girl. They liked the slapstick and the characters, but I noticed that they really picked up on the sweetness of it.

I remembered each episode having a moral, but I’d forgotten just how careful Cosby was to make the dilemma both clear and basically safe. He’d actually interrupt the cartoon to make sure the kids watching didn’t lose the thread of the story. He presented himself as basically busy doing something else, like he just happened to be taking a moment to talk patiently to a kid. It’s a nice move, since it’s much closer to a kid’s real experience of a parent than a tv host who’s doing nothing but trying to entertain. The experience of it felt like having a calm, confident Dad walk you through a story in which some bad things happen, and some silly things, but you know everything will turn out fine. TG loved both episodes that we watched, and wanted a third.

The cartoons the kids watch now are very different. The Penguins of Madagascar is visually magnificent and endlessly clever, but it’s fast-paced and amoral. SpongeBob can be clever and funny, but it’s hardly about learning lessons. Cartoons now are frequently much more laden with adult humor and the requisite postmodern self-referentiality ; the best of them are witty and fun. But they aren’t sweet.

That’s okay, of course; no show has to do it all. Fast-and-clever can be fun. But it was striking to see a show that was so earnest, and ambling, and willing to repeat itself to make sure the kids could follow. They did; TB and TG both got the point, but with enough silliness that it didn’t seem preachy. They enjoyed the stories, TW and I enjoyed the music, and we all enjoyed the slapstick and the amazing styles of each character’s walk. I’d forgotten just how carefully Cosby crafted the show. Almost forty years later (!), it still works. I’d be surprised if the same is true of the Penguins of Madagascar.

Hey hey hey!

That was one of my favorites as a kid. I think I'll go dig it out and force my kids to watch it. :-) We've also been getting DVDs of the Muppet Show. That one's worth it just for Statler and Waldorf.
Cosby has a new cartoon on Nickelodeon or Nick Jr. (I forget which) called "Little Bill." It's not all that silly or funny, but it's very sweet and teaches similar lessons to "Fat Albert." My elder daughter likes it pretty well.

Though "SpongeBob" is the reigning champ in the house, with YouTube playbacks of "Looney Tunes" cartoons rising in the ranks quickly.

Anything to get away from the rozzm frozzm princesses...
My husband and I miss the cartoons of our youth as well, for many of the same reasons. Something happened in the late 90's and children's programming took a nose dive. Looney Tunes has returned to our house via DVD.
Dexter's Lab (late 90s) was pretty good as recent children's shows go. But even my teenager, who was a little guy in the late 90s, noticed the change in children's shows at the turn of the decade. Sometimes I have wondered: Who watches that schlock, and why?

A couple more good (not so old) nostalgia choice - animaniacs, or pinky & the brain.
You're absolutely dead on about everything.

It's important to note that Bill Cosby holds a doctorate of education (EdD or PhD??) from UMass and that has always informed his interactions with children and children's programming, from Fat Albert to the Cosby Show.
The Cosby Show has aged really well too. I still think it's funny, even though I remember almost every episode from beginning to end.

Bill Cosby is great.
Cosby has an EdD and yes, he knows what he's doing. I totally wanted to be adopted as one of the Cosby kids when I was little.
A few months back I started listening to the Bill Cosby standup routines from the early/mid 70's with my son. He is in early gradeschool and adores them. He'll often come home from school and ask to sit on the couch and listen to them over and over and over. Brilliant fun.

Start with "Wonderfulness".
I even had a Fat Albert lunchbox -- remember lunchboxes, the metal kind? -- it's great to hear that other people loved the show as much as I did.
Phineas and Ferb is kinda fast-paced, but it's very, very funny and quite sweet. There is good stuff out there, still, just like always.
My kids have been into Scooby-Doo for about six months now. They like the newer version, but they LOVE the one all of us grew up with. They also really like Tom and Jerry and The Muppet Show.

Another vote here for Little Bill and Phineas and Ferb.
My current favorite kids programming is Avatar: The Last Airbender. It's probably a bit old for TG, but I bet TB would be into it. It's an epic, in the literary sense, but the main characters are kids/teens, and the characterization seems bang-on. There's also a lot of gorgeous world-building, and complicated backstory - it's definitely targeting a more sophisticated audience than Fat Albert, but it's also funny, and sweet, and mostly people who do jerky things get some comeuppance.
Maybe this makes me a bad parent, but I most like the 1930s/40s Donald Ducks (and company) one can find on YouTube (and no, I didn't watch them as a kid :) ). Much more entertaining than the happy-happy that is the current Disney series, short, and for all intents commercial free (though so is Disney tv, at least the one for that age group in the time we watch it).
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