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!