The 1960s cartoon superhero Underdog, who as a giant balloon flew the streets of New York every Thanksgiving morning for two decades, has had all his adventures collected, in chronological order, in a nine-disc box set released Tuesday by Shout Factory, "Underdog: Complete Collector's Edition." Together with the 6-DVD "Tennessee Tuxedo and His Tales: The Complete Collection," to be released March 6, it will represent, if not quite the totality of the work of Total TeleVision Productions, as much of it as all but a literal few will ever need.
"Underdog," for younger readers who might not recognize the name — and do not let the 2007 live-action film distract you — was an early expression of the '60s ironic-nostalgic mania for old-school superheros. This was the decade that later produced a "Batman" sitcom and a "Superman" Broadway musical.
Like Superman, whose powers he reprises, he has a meek alter ego, "humble and lovable Shoeshine Boy," and a reporter sort-of girlfriend, Polly Purebred, a lipstick-wearing pooch in a tight skirt and heels. When Underdog flies overhead, gawking citizens cry, "It's a plane, it's a bird ... it's a frog," to which Underdog, who speaks always in rhyme, replies "Not plane, nor bird, nor even frog / It's just little old me, Underdog." Wally Cox, who gave him a voice, made (or was condemned to) a career playing mild-mannered milquetoasts, and Underdog, even at full power, remains visually a pipsqueak, his costume hanging loose as if cut for muscles that will never come. This lets him battle villains without ever seeming less than sweet.
And like "The Powerpuff Girls," who borrowed a thing or two from the look and the meat of "The Underdog Show," he has a habit of entering through a wall when a door is available.
Even as a child — admittedly a child who thought unusually much about how cartoons were made and who made them and what made one better than another — I was aware that the TTV cartoons resembled those of Jay Ward without quite living up to what I regarded as Ward's higher standard. Apart from the obvious benefits of copying a successful model, there were systemic reasons for the similarities: Like Ward's "Rocky and Bullwinkle," the TTV productions were sponsored by General Mills — this is the old model, where companies actually commissioned content — and animated by the same Mexican studio, Gamma Productions, created by Peter Piech, an executive producer of both the Ward and the TTV cartoons, for that express purpose.
If these are not the cleverest cartoons in the history of animation — that they are barely animated is beside the point (viz. "South Park,") — they are certainly among the most memorable. Built on repeating jokes and story forms, with catchphrases and theme songs that stick in the head for years and years, they forgo the satire and "sophistication" of the Ward cartoons (which at times seem only incidentally to be for children) for a gentler, sillier storybook lyricism. (Compare the lullaby tones of "Underdog" narrator George S. Irving to the more aggressive work of "Rocky and Bullwinkle" narrator William Conrad.) Though they have their small share of over-junior's-head puns and inside jokes, they tell their stories straight; they are, quite consciously, kids' stuff.
The cartoons that filled out each half-hour of the "Underdog" and "Tennessee Tuxedo" shows fill out the new box sets as well. The "Underdog" collection gives you episodes of "Go Go Gophers" ("Watch 'em go, go, go"), in which coyote cavalry officers attempt unsuccessfully to oust gopher Indians from their land; "The World of Commander McBragg," a series of impossible tall tales each of which lasts less than two minutes (and in their invention and speed are some of the best work here); "Klondike Kat," a kind of "Dudley Do-Right" by way of "Tom & Jerry" (catchphrases: "I'm going to make mincemeat out of that mouse," "Savoir Faire is everywhere!"); and "Tooter Turtle," in which a lizard wizard magically sends a young turtle into various eras and occupations (catchphrases: "Help me, Mr. Wizard!" and "Drizzle, drazzle, drazzle, drome/ Time for this one to come home").
The "Tennesse Tuxedo" set includes episodes of "The King and Odie" (whose original own show, "King Leonardo and His Short Subjects," was the first TTV production), featuring leonine King Leonardo, his skunk minister Odie Cologne and the villains Biggie Rat and Itchy Brother; "The Hunter" (dog detective versus sly fox); and more "Tooter Turtle" and "Klondike Kat."
Although "Underdog" was the bigger success, "Tennessee Tuxedo" is to my mind the better cartoon. Don Adams, soon to become the star of "Get Smart!," voices the titular character, a highly self-confident penguin who gets into various sorts of trouble with his more plainly dimwitted walrus pal, Chumley, in and around the Megapolis Zoo. As they try to increase their fortune or comfort, they are forced in every episode to call for help on "answer man" Phineas J. Whoopee (Larry Storch, doing an impersonation of Frank "Wizard of Oz" Morgan), who will school them in the science or history or technology relevant to their problem — though this knowledge is never enough to overcome their native incompetence. ("Tennessee Tuxedo will not fail" is the penguin's unknowingly ironic battle cry, which is about as ironic as these shows get.)
The pointedly and actually "educational" passages — rare now, when networks cynically define any old "life lesson" as educational to satisfy FCC requirements for children's programming — are well organized and pleasurably informative, even to the adult mind. Mr. Whoopee narrates these, with the aid of his "three-dimensional blackboard": You will learn how telephones and lightbulbs work or used to; how to fix a leaky faucet; and a thing or two about life among the Aztecs and the dinosaurs, among 65 other interesting things. (There are 70 "Tennessee Tuxedo" cartoons in all.)
Each set includes a handful of episode commentaries featuring voice actors and co-creator (and theme song composer) W. Watts "Buck" Biggers as well as a historical featurette. With a few exceptions, the cartoons look and sound terrific.
Photo: Underdog. Credit: Shout Factory.