Arthritic Tom & Jerry

(C) 1975, Turner Entertainment

For Tom & Jerry fans in the 1970’s, Sept. 6, 1975 was the day the music died.

That date marked ABC’s premiere broadcast of an animation abomination titled The Tom & Jerry/Grape Ape Show. If you do remember this painful entry in the Saturday-morning TV kiddie fest, you probably don’t want to.

The story goes that in the ’70s, Bill Hanna and Joseph Barbera — whose Hanna-Barbera company was by then the go-to source for Saturday morning cartoons — purchased the rights to produce TV cartoons starring Tom & Jerry, the cat-and-mouse duo that had earned them countless Academy Awards in the 1940’s and ’50s. Hanna and Barbera screened several of their classic T&J cartoons for executives at M-G-M (the movie studio that owned the rights to the characters). The execs laughed heartily at the cartoons, then did an about-face and said that T&J’s “violence” would never pass muster with Network Standards and Practices (who were then being hounded by parents’ groups who leaned heavily on sponsors to pressure networks into broadcasting more “uplifting” fare on Saturday mornings).

Given little choice in the matter, Hanna-Barbera proceeded to homogenize Tom & Jerry to the point of unrecognizability. The once-dueling duo was turned into a pair of friends (a la Laurel & Hardy, minus the comedy) who engaged in pointless “adventures.” And Jerry now sported a bow tie that enabled H-B’s animators to “split up” his movements (so that his head and his body could move separately), saving money for the cost-cutting H-B unit.

Initially, the T&J cartoons were paired (in an hour-long format) with the cartoons of an equally witless character named the Great Grape Ape. This was a benign but moronic purple gorilla with a fast-talking sidekick, improbably named Beegle-Beagle (I guess as a salute to the character Nicely-Nicely from the Broadway hit Guys & Dolls. I’m sure that reference got a big laugh from Saturday-morning cereal-crunchers).

After a year, apparently ABC decided to air the characters in slightly more palatable formats. Each set of characters got their own show, which quietly died until Cartoon Network was formed in 1992 and Ted Turner used the Grape Ape segments to fill up his schedule.

In any case, everything that Hanna-Barbera ever learned about gags and comic timing seemed to have been forgotten in these TV-made forgeries. One lyric in the TV show’s theme (about the only enjoyable asset of the series) goes, “You’ll begin with a grin when you first tune us in.” But there’s nothing in the TV Tom & Jerry that ever takes you beyond the grinning stage. H-B went from great comedy routines to which you had to pay attention to get all the jokes, to getting everything telegraphed to the dumbest yahoo in the audience. It’s as though people who never really “got” Tom & Jerry’s comedy were trying to write it.

Amazingly, there appear to be viewers who actually prefer this dumbed-down TV series to the beautifully animated cartoons that inspired it. There is even an entire website devoted to this show. (Click here to view it. The site also provides one example of the Sat.-morning show’s six-minute T&J segments; watch it, and see how long you can tolerate it before moving along to somewhere else on the Internet.)

The TV T&J cartoons are bad enough on their own. What really gets my goat is that they were made by the same guys who worked on these cartoons (in full-animation mode) for 17 years. Somewhere in their heart of hearts, Hanna and Barbera must have felt at least a pang of guilt for taking the fun out of their own creations just for a quick buck.