When I was a young child back in the late 70's and early 80's my days were just packed. Between my shift in the Play Doh Factory,
and attending to all those Fischer-Price toys that needed playing with
I barely had time to make it outdoors and get those mud pies made. However, even with my busy toddler schedule I still managed to find time for that golden beacon of every childhood, CARTOONS!!!!!!!
Yes, like any red blooded American kid I watched a ton of em' and whether they were from the current era or from decades past one theme overwhelmingly pervaded, most of these shows focused on one central protagonist. Yes, whether it be a super powered crime fighter defending the world against the forces of evil,
Action is his reward
or a wascally wabbit fighting for survival against a speech impaired hunter
they all seemed to take a solo approach to their endeavors. Occasionally there might a sidekick or two along for the ride,
"Keep to the background, Robin. This is my show."
but still most of the plot revolved around one main character.
As time progressed into the mid 1980's, however, animated characters developed a tendency to travel in packs. Whether it be defending the earth, having grand adventures or just causing general zaniness, characters began taking a group approach to all things cartoonish. And while these teams varied in size and purpose one thing was a near constant, there was always one character who was somewhat lacking in the IQ department, a hapless dolt who's general incompetence, lack or coordination or misguided comments provided our action packed entertainment with a touch of comic relief. So without further ado I welcome you to,
Those Heroic Idiots
A Tribute To My Favorite 1980's Cartoon Dumb Guys
I would like to begin with one of the more obscure cartoon dumb guys, one David L. Kazenbogen of Hibbing, Minnesota more commonly known asBazooka (GI Joe: A Real American Hero)
Growing up in the 1980's with the constant threats of ozone depletion, mutually assured destruction, and Cobra, a terrorist organization determined to rule the world it was comforting to know we had a multi-branch special forces unit dedicated to protecting the interests of America, GI Joe. And while he may not have been as prominent as more familiar Joes like Duke, Snake Eyes Roadblock, Scarlet or Flint
our boy Bazooka was never far behind proudly sporting his #14 New England Patriots jersey (made famous by NFL great Steve Grogan) and ever ready to defend the rights and freedoms of all Americans. While the file card that accompanied the Bazooka action figure attributed several degrees to Mr. Kazenbogan and very clearly sates that he is "a decisive fast-thinker with all the instincts of a natural survivor"
the writers at Sunbow decided to take this character in a slightly different direction by, well by pretty much making him the EXACT opposite of that!!! In the Sunbow cartoon Bazooka was portrayed as a dim-witted but good natured man-child who was often paired with the wise cracking, funk talking, occasionally yodeling mountain trooper, Alpine.
and the other guy is Quick Kick in case you were wondering
So just what does a Special Forces team do with a mentally challenged recruit? Well they put him in change of defusing the bombs or course as Bazooka served as the resident missile expert and explosives specialist.
While Bazooka was featured in several episodes of "GI Joe: A Real American Hero" he is probably best remembered for his role in "Bazooka Saw a Sea Monster" wherein he does in fact spy a great leviathan, which of course turns out to be a mechanical creation of Cobra. Despite being a trusted member of the team, however, Bazooka has trouble convincing his fellow Joes that such a creature exists. That is until Cobra loses control of it and the damned thing runs amuck all up and down the Atlantic seaboard. Consequently, all the other smarty-pants Joes are forced to admit that their slow-witted comrade was right all along. So while the role of missile specialist and explosives expert may seem like questionable occupation for one of limited cerebral function, Bazooka always performed his duties admirably while at the same time providing some much needed comic relief.
Next on my list is another dim-witted American hero who also defended the rights of the free world against a terrorist organization, or he thought he did at least. And this noble lamebrain would be none other thanInspector Gadget(Inspector Gadget)
One might argue that the good inspector does not fit the theme of this article, that he is the single protagonist of his show and is not part of a team at all. Well the fact of the matter is that Gadget was part of a team, he just didn't know it. Inspector Gadget was a cybernetic secret agent whose body had been augmented with a myriad of mechanical devices that he could summon by uttering "Go Go Gadget_________."
"I'm always on duty"
Any resemblance between Gadget and Maxwell Smart is absolutely in no way coincidental as he was voiced by none other than Don Adams, the very actor who played Smart.
His primary objective was to foil the dastardly schemes of Dr. Claw and the terrorist organization M.A.D.
Despite his reputation as a solo crime fighter Gadget did inadvertently use the team approach as all of the actual sleuthing was done by his brilliant niece, Penny and her faithful yet oft ill-fated dog, Brain.
"Penny, are you pondering what I'm pondering?"
Young Penny was ahead of her time in many respects as she possessed intelligence beyond her years and also carried a computer book and wristwatch transmitter which eerily heralded the modern laptop computer and the smart phone respectively. By contrast, Gadget himself spent the majority of the episode following false leads, missing M.A.D agents who were in plain sight and bumbling obliviously into dangerous situations from which he was unknowing protected by Brain. For his troubles Brain was often mistaken for a M.A.D agent by the dimwitted inspector and was chased and occasionally arrested by Gadget . Nonetheless, neither Gadget, nor his boss Chief Quimby
nor the evil Dr. Claw
ever realized that it was truly Penny and Brain who actually saved the day and Gadget was always given credit for the victory in the end.
Natural science has recently discovered that intelligence a trait not found soley in human beings. On this same note cartoon science has proven that the lack thereof is also not confined to the human race as is well demonstrated by our next subjectMungo (Heathcliff and the Cadillac Cats)
When you hear the words orange and black cartoon cat the first name that comes to mind is always, well the first name that comes to mind is Garfield, obviously. But the second name that comes to mind is Heathcliff.
Created by George Gately in 1973 this little orange prankster has stared in Sunday comics, comic books and one previous TV series, but it was not until 1984 that we learned that in the local junkyard in the very same town lived a group of strays known as The Cadillac Cats.
Led by yet another small orange cat, Riff Raff the gang could often be found in the pursuit of food, engaged in battle with other cats for territory or carrying out their latest get rich quick scheme. Although no member of this gang could be described as particularly bright, each looked like a relative genius when compared to the large, slow thinking Mungo. Unlike the rest of the group who were colors that you might find on an actual cat, Mungo was a bit odd in that he sported a coat of purple fur. Speaking with a drawl and often beginning sentences with a drawn out "DUUUUUUH", Mungo usually served as the muscle of the group and ran general errands for Riff Raff along with his compatriots Hector and Wordsworth.
Mungo was most noted for his clumsiness which often resulted in him landing on top of his fellow Cadilac Cats
and given the girth of this fat feline you know that had to hurt.
So prominent was Mungo's penchant for clumsiness that I guess you could say that clumsy was his middle name (or you could if he had actually had a last name), however our next subject did him one better as Clumsy literally was his first name. That's right, I'm speaking of none other than Clumsy Smurf (The Smurfs)
When you live in a society with 98 others who look exactly like you it is very important to develop a unique personality. The most prominent example of this would be the Smurfs who were actually named for their most distinguishing personality trait. In the case of Clumsy, however, I suspect his name was an act of mercy since the names Stupid Smurf, Moron Smurf or Differently Abled Smurf would have been just as accurate. While most smurfs tended to look somewhat alike, some of Clumsey's unique features included his baggy clothing and southern American drawl. Like most other cartoon dumb guys he was generally good natured and eager to help out if somewhat incompetent in his ability to do so. Clumsy was often paired with Brainy Smurf for whom his misguided comments and actions were a constant source of annoyance.
"Papa Smurf Always Says..."
I would say the most memorable Clumsy episode would probalby be the one where he wanted to become Papa Smurf's apprentice and ended up turning himself into a lizard,
but I think my favorite Clumsy moment was the following exchange wherein Brainy asked:
Brainy: "Honestly Clumsy where were you when the brains were handed out?"
to which Clumsy innocently replied,
Clumsy: "Gee I don't know, Brainy. I think I was with you."
I suppose the joke is rather obvious by today's standards, but to my 9 year old self it was pure comic genius.
In the late 1980's Disney decided to recycle some of its classic characters in a series of cartoons which put them in all new roles and situations. Goofy became a suburbanite single dad, Chip and Dale became detectives (and decided to start wearing clothes) the cast of Jungle Book started flying planes and Scrooge McDuck, well he pretty much remained the same miserly old cuss that he had always been. Nonetheless, Duck Tales was a great show and also just happens to be the origin of our next subject,Launchpad McQuack (Duck Tales)
Based roughly on the Donald Duck comics of Carl Barks "Duck Tales" chronicled the globetrotting adventures Donald's Uncle Scrooge McDuck and his three nephews Huey, Dewey and Louie.
The show featured a mix of Barks' classic characters as well as some brand new ones, the most memorable of whom would have to be Launchpad McQuack. Lauchpad was a duck of large stature and a boisterous personality who served as Scrooges pilot and occasional body guard. While Launchpad was a skilled aviator and competent mechanic his one deficiency lied in landing aircraft. However, ever the king of turning a weakness into strength McQuack often used this as a selling point proudly stating, "If it has wings I can crash it." Personally I was never sold on this slogan but it seemed to work on Scrooge because despite his numerous crashes Launchpad consistently remained in the employ of McDuck.
Lauchpad is arguably the most popular Disney Afternoon original character, as Disney clearly had further plans for him beyond Duck Tales. At one point Launchpad was slated to star in his own spinoff series called "Talespin." Anyone who has ever watched The Disney Afternoon knows what ultimately became of the Talespin idea, but for those of you who don't know McQuack's proposed spinoff was retooled as a vehicle for Baloo the Bear of Jungle Book fame. Consequently, Lauchpad instead became the sidekick of the Superhero, Darkwing Duck.
In the spinoff series "Darkwing Duck" Lauchpad served as partner to Darkwing and roommate to his alter ego Drake Mallard. Despite the fact that Launchpad did not hide his identity in his crime fighting adventures with Darkwing no one was ever able to piece together the fact the Darkwing Duck was none other than Launchpad's roomie, Drake. Similarly, Launchpad never received any notoriety for his part in foiling the various supervillans of St. Cannard.
I don't know what it is about cartoon ducks, but it seems that a general lack of respect is their lot in life.
"Well at least Duck Dodgers can land a plane!"
Launchpad designed and piloted Darkwing's plane, The Thunderquack which he miraculously never crashed.
In fact, as best I can remember Launchpad's penchant for crashing aircraft was largely ignored in this series. I suppose plane crashes are only funny so many times.
So whether serving as pilot to a rich miser in Duckburg, or fighting crime with the champion of St. Canard, Lauchpad McQuack was a solid character and IMHO the greatest Duck produced by Disney since The Donald himself.
To find the next subject of my tribute we must travel from the skyways of Duckburg to the sewers of New York City, where we will find every 80's kid's favorite party dude, Michelangelo (Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles)
Named for renaissance artist, Michelangelo Buonaroti,
the original cowabunga kid had to be the most light hearted, fun loving ninja ever known. While the term ninja is most often associated with a silent, serious and disciplined warrior Mikey, by contrast, enjoyed skateboarding through the sewers while loudly spouting obnoxious 1980's slang words such as "radical", "righteous" and of course "COWABUNGA!!!!" While Michelangelo may not have truly been lacking in intelligence he was definitely less mature and less disciplined than his brothers, and was less inclined to apply his intellectual gifts (or in other words the most realistic teenager of the group).
Nonetheless, when it came time to be serious Mikey did prove himself to be a competent fighter and trustworthy companion to his fellow ninja turtles.
Michelangelo was known for wearing an orange mask and his signature weapons were nunchucks,
which he used early in the series. Later in the series, however, for reasons that were never clear to me he abandoned the nunchucks and began using a grappling hook as his primary weapon. I always wondered what brought about this change, were nunchucks for some reason considered offensive or where their motions simply too difficult to animate? Whatever the case Mickey brought some much needed comic relief to the serious business of being a ninja, and that is something I think we can all appreciate.
What 1980's cartoon article would be complete without some reference to The Transformers? Perhaps the most culturally influential action cartoon of the 80's, for better or worse The Transformers has inspired several spinoff series as well as two successful cinema features. In order to explore our next subject, however, we must get back to where the Transformers all began, as a comic book series. One of the most interesting characters in the comics,Grimlock (Transformers)
was an Autobot of rather questionable ethics. In the comics this Dinobot was portrayed as an intelligent but ruthless general who was willing to do whatever was necessary to get the job done. While he shared with his fellow Autobots
the belief that all Transformers were entitled to freedom and autonomy, he often regarded so called lesser creatures such as humans as unworthy of his protection or consideration. While Grimlock respected Optimus Prime as a competent peacetime leader he felt that he, himself, would make a better wartime commander.
He had no reserves about making these feelings known and was not above the occasional attempt make this happen. In a similar fashion Optimus had great respect for Grimlock but was concerned that his beliefs in freedom and autonomy did not extend to non-Transformer sentient beings.
So how do you handle such and ethically questionable good guy in a children's cartoon? Why you turn him into a big lovable oaf of course!! In seasons 1 & 2 of The Transformers Grimlock stayed somewhat true to his comic book self. He was portrayed as much less intelligent than his previous incarnation but still maintained his arrogance and tendency to question Optimus Prime though much less frequently and the two generally had a more amiable relationship. In the cartoon he attempted to replace Optimus only once and this was due to manipulation by Megatron. After this one incident he continued to question Prime but showed no true desire to replace him. So while this Grimlock was not quite up to his comic book self he was still a great character and added much to the show. Sure he provided a lot of comic relief, but he still came off as a serious warrior and someone you wouldn't want to mess with.
"Me Grimlock King"
By the time season 3 rolled around, however, Grimlock had become a pathetic shell of his former self. In this series the once proud Dinobot leader had been relegated to the role of cutesy sidekick. He was often found in the company of other Autobots rather than with his fellow Dinobots and thus his leadership role was greatly reduced and he generally came off as more of a petulant teenager than an arrogant general. Nonetheless, there are many, many reasons to ignore season 3 of The Transformers and if you are willing to do this you will find the Grimlock of the cartoon series was a great character who provided some interesting conflict within the Autobot ranks while remaining appropriate to the target audience.
And finally last, but certainly not least is my #1 favorite 1980's cartoon dumb guy, Ram Man (He Man and the Masters of the Universe)
One of the first action adventure cartoons of the 1980's "Masters of the Universe" was kind of a transitional species between the solo superhero shows of earlier decades and the team approach of the 80's. While the main protagonist was clearly the super powered He Man,
he had a whole team to back him up as opposed to just one sidekick each having unique powers and talents of their own (as opposed to the traditional sidekick who was usually a less powerful/less skilled version of the superhero).
Among this team was the human battering ram who was appropriately named Ram Man. as his name suggests Ram Man's power was the ability to smack things with his head, really hard.
While this peculiar ability seemed to do relatively little physical damage to the man, we are left to wonder if this talent was responsible for his mental state. Whatever the source of his intellectual deficiency Ram Man was generally good-natured and quite competent in his area of expertise and considered a valuable ally to He Man.
Unlike some of the MOTU line who were given only one or two appearances on the show, Ram Man was a staple appearing in many episodes. To me the most memorable Ram Man episode would have to be "The House of Shikoti" which featured a running gag wherein he was unable to correctly pronounce the name of the dark sorceress, Shikoti.
"Uh, Shinutty, Shiboody, Shicootie"
One true credit to Ram Man is that unlike most perpetrators of cartoon violence Rammy actually took responsibility by hosting a PSA at the end of one episode wherein he explained to young viewers the possible consequences of hitting things with your head in real life (though I have to wonder, was this really a big problem in the 80s?) So while you may question his intelligence you just can't question his integrity.
This concludes my tribute to the cartoon dumb guys of the 1980's. Why were they such a constant in children's programming? What was their widespread appeal? Was it simply that they provided some much needed comic relief? Or did they perhaps prove that you don't necessarily need to be the sharpest crayon in the box to make a difference in the world. Whatever the reason they were always there to provides up with some much needed laughter and it is high time these unsung numbskulls were given their due.