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Tuesday, December 19, 2006

RIP Joe Barbera (1911-2006)

I should know better than to nap in the middle of the day. I usually wake up feeling like Rip Van Winkle.

I keep odd hours, often writing or drawing until the first sign of dawn. Or engaging in my all-time favorite pasttime, watching cartoons. Meaning, of course, I spend my days in bed. I missed 9/11 that way, though in that instance I suppose I should be grateful.

At about two o'clock yesterday afternoon, I went to lie down. When I awoke at about eight that night, I turned my computer on to discover I was the last person in the known universe to learn that an animation legend had left us. One of the last animators, indeed, to be worthy of the phrase.

Once again, I was a day late and a dollar short, Much as in 1990, when I came within a hair's breadth of meeting Joe Barbera.

At the time I was living in Colorado Springs, Colorado, where I attended college. A cartoonist friend of mine informed me that Barbera himself would be speaking at a gallery in Denver, and wondered if I'd like to go. Silly question--my feet didn't touch the ground for the rest of the day. An aspiring cartoonist myself, I was foolish enough to believe he'd be taken with my work, perhaps even offer me employment. In the back of my mind I knew that was as unlikely as my being crowned the Queen of Sweden, but I would be able to to at least talk to the man who created some of my earliest cartoon memories. He'd get a kick, I thought, out of hearing about my old southern granddaddy, who loved The Flintstones and would bellow "YABBA DABBA DOO!" as loudly as he could--much to my consternation.

I cut class that evening to make the hour-long trip, only to discover Barbera had bowed out, and sent a fellow named Iraj Paran instead. To this day, I don't know exactly in what capacity Mr. Paran worked for Hanna-Barbera, but he dutifully answered my frequent--and in retrospect, annoying--questions. He even looked at my artwork. He wasn't impressed, to put it mildly.

I thought I might get another opportunity to meet Barbera someday--but "someday" never came.

The best I can do now is share my thoughts on his life and work.

I must admit I have mixed feelings about Joe Barbera's output, prodigious though it was. To me, he was very much like the proverbial little girl with the curl--when he was good, he was astoundingly good, and when he was bad--well, let's face it, he could be dreadful. He represented both the pinnacle of animation's Golden Age, and the depths of Saturday-morning inanity. The same man who, with his partner Bill Hanna, had garnered an unbelievable seven Oscars (only Walt Disney had a longer streak) also gave us GOOBER AND THE GHOST CHASERS and FRED AND BARNEY MEET THE SCHMOO.

Yet had it not been for Joe Barbera, there might not have been much TV animation to speak of, good or bad. In 1957, he ventured into territory where only Jay Ward (with his CRUSADER RABBIT series) had dared to tread before him. He might not have been the first to make animation for the fledgling medium, but he made it profitable--and for a few wonderful years, entertaining. Until, that is, the networks and the watchdog groups cast their ever-lengthening shadows.

His detractors called him derivative, his characters merely cobbled together from popular personalities. The last accusation in particular is the most amusing, since the same could be said for most animated characters of the Golden Age and beyond, Bugs Bunny is equal parts Groucho Marx and the Dead End Kids. Daffy Duck incorporated the mannerisms of comedian Hugh Herbert (the "hoo hoos"). The Our Gang shorts inspired Porky Pig. And other animation studios directly copied Warner's, who themselves began by imitating Mickey Mouse (Bosko). The source of inspiration matters less than what the animators did with it--and Joe Barbera did some wonderful things.

He could be classy--MOUSE IN MANHATTAN is as well-choreographed as any live-action Gene Kelly film. He could be bizarre, as with BABY PUSS (of which I've already written in great detail). He could generate mock suspense--who can forget, in DOCTOR JEKYLL AND MR. MOUSE, how menacing Tom looked after swallowing his home-made concoction--only to shrink the size of a gnat a fraction of a second later.

And he could be funny. God, he could be funny. And knew enough to surround himself with funny people, like ex-Warner's staffers Mike Maltese and Warren Foster. I'm a lifelong fan of THE FLINTSTONES, and I can tell you it never got funnier than it did midway through the first season, in the episode "The Hot Piano." Fred, for once, remembers his wedding anniversary (because it falls on trash day, naturally) and plays dumb--easy for him--while Wilma drops every hint short of, in her words, "rice and old shoes." (Such as singing "Here comes the toast, here comes the toast..." when bringing him his breakfast).

He takes the fifty bucks he saved up to the local music store, where he engages in a Jack Benny-like exchange with the store owner. Try and keep a straight face during the scenes in which Barney and the store owner pound out an ever more overblown arrangement of "In The Merry Month of May," while Fred does a slow burn that would do Edgar Kennedy proud.

The writing, as with all the early Hanna-Barbera product, was the snappiest of any program of the time, I'm rather fond of this exchange, between Barney and "88 Fingers Louie", a hood specializing in stolen pianos:

BARNEY: Does it have a guarantee?
LOUIE: Yeah, I guarantee it's a piano....

When asked why he sells his pianos out of a van in an alley, he explains, "I eliminate the overhead and pass the savings on to you!" Great stuff...

This week, I intend, as time permits, to post reviews of what I feel is the best--or the most unusual--of Barbera's work.

I never got to say this to you personally, Joe, but thanks for all the laughs. A tribute in a blog is far less than you deserve.

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