Disclaimer: This site contains racial imagery that may be offensive to some. We, the owners of this blog, include it not only for the sake of preserving these artifacts of our history, but to call attention to the brilliant people who contributed to them--including actors, comedians, and musicians of color

Monday, June 02, 2008

Orphan Toon Musings: The Two Harveys

Gazoo image from Topthat.net; Little Dot image
Korman and Comics: Remembering Two Harveys

by Rachel Newstead

So long, Gazoo....

In reflecting on the recent passing of Harvey Korman, I couldn't help but think how much I took his work for granted--particularly in animation. He was simply there, playing a stock Hanna-Barbera villain (whether comic or serious). Or more notably, The Great Gazoo, the tiny exiled alien from the planet Zatox, charged with "helping" those two Stone Age "dums dums" Fred Flintstone and Barney Rubble. And I didn't even appreciate that at first.

In so many of the sitcoms I saw when I was growing up, it seemed the main character continually harbored a Big Secret. Wilbur Post had a horse that could talk, but he couldn't tell anybody. Darrin Stephens was married to a witch, but couldn't tell anybody. Astronaut Tony Nelson had a sexy genie living with him, whom he kept in a bottle in his living room and...well, you get the idea. At times I felt like yelling at the screen, "Just tell them already and get it over with!"

Inevitably, The Flintstones would succumb to that irritating trend: now Fred and Barney were saddled with a Big Secret--and they couldn't tell anyone if they tried. Gazoo, you see, was invisible to everyone but the two "dum dums" he served (and yes, children and pets--but Dino, Pebbles and Bamm-Bamm, conveniently unable to talk, weren't liable to spill the beans either). This of course set up the kind of awkward situation I had a hard time sitting through, whatever the show: something weird would happen that would cause Fred and Barney to hem and haw nervously to the wives, forcing them to improvise a weak and implausible explanation. It happened so often I came to hate it--but I couldn't completely hate Gazoo, thanks in no small measure to Harvey Korman.

As I've come to discover on numerous occasions, the passage of time can do strange things. Not very long ago I viewed the "dreaded" sixth season of The Flintstones for the first time in years, and discovered it was nowhere near as bad as I remembered. Fred, in the earliest episodes of the series, was a malcontent: grouchy often for no discernible reason, seldom learning from his mistakes. Wilma was caustic and nagging, always ready with a put-down--it makes one wonder why two such people would be attracted to each other in the first place. The sixth season changed all that--now, Fred could be as childish and ill-tempered as ever, but usually would come to realize he was wrong.

Gazoo was often instrumental in helping him realize that: in "Boss For A Day," he gives Fred a chance to live life as his boss does--and discovers after an exhausting, humiliating day that it's nowhere near as cushy as he'd dreamed. Gazoo "helped" not by granting every wish, but by making Fred and Barney reaalize what they really want.

It would have been nowhere near as effective if anyone other than the inimitable Harvey Korman had voiced the character. Korman as Gazoo could, in the course of a single sentence, could be alternately peevish (as in the innumerable times he's awakened from his nap by the "dum dums,") silly (there's a slight giggle to his voice when he tells Fred and Barney, "I'm not only unreliable, but I'm a bit of a kook...") and pompous (you could feel the disgust when he's berating Fred especially.) Gazoo could be sympathetic as well, his normal stuffy-English-butler cadence softening when he somehow manages to do a good deed.

Typically self-effacing, Korman never considered himself much of a voice artist, as he says in a 2004 interview for the Archive of American Television (he starts talking about his work for Hanna-Barbera some 18 minutes in) . But the fact he could do so much with one characterization puts him in the same rank as Daws Butler, Mel Blanc, and June Foray--and the world of animation will be much poorer without him.

Wendy, Little Dot and the Gang

The other "Harvey" about which I have fond memories is Harvey Comics, prompted by an innocent e-mail question from Kevin. He asked me if I'd ever read them, and got back far more than he bargained for.

I definitely read them. Voraciously, in fact. At the age of ten, I had a rather extensive collection of them: Little Dot, Little Lotta (a character that could never appear in comics today), Richie Rich, Wendy, even Sad Sack. (Hey, that's what comes of being a military brat).

Strange as it may seem, I've always had a certain fondness for Little Dot. Often dismissed as a "one-note character" for her single-minded obsession with dots, she was quite real to me; I could relate to people with quirky obsessions, as I had (and still have) a few of my own. At age ten, it was typewriters--anything that printed letters, really: label makers, stamp pads, stencils, mimeograph machines, you name it. I loved the smell of typewriters: that subtle mixture of machine oil and ribbon ink. I loved the clacking of the keys, the ratchet noise of the carriage. I'm quite sure I started writing so I'd have an excuse to use one. Thanks to Little Dot, I felt a little less weird about it--if she could love something as silly as dots, why couldn't I love typewriters?

The Harvey comics celebrated "diversity" before the term was coined--a pretty, "good" witch could live with three evil aunts and the variety of supernatural creatures around her; a "friendly" ghost could live with three, shall we say, more "traditional" ones. A kid who's ridiculously rich could have friends who liked him for himself, not his money.

Yet they could still be disturbingly backward: one Little Dot story made me furious when I first read it nearly forty years ago. One of Little Dot's aunts (she had a surprising number of aunts and uncles, enough to warrant their own comic) was apparently quite the intellectual, and it was interfering with her social life--any potential boyfriend was intimidated by her, as he'd no sooner get two words out before she'd start spouting all sorts of arcane information. Dot showed her she had to "play dumb" to get a man: when she started feigning ignorance, guys started to notice her. In the last panel, Dot winks to the readers, saying that was the truly "smart" thing to do.

Even though this story was dated even then--it must have been written in the fifties and reprinted in the early seventies--it angered me. The whole idea of a woman having to "play dumb" to soothe the male ego was abhorrent to me even at age ten. A little girl who loved dots was perfectly acceptable, but not a grown woman with a mind? That's not a great lesson to teach young girls, and even worse, it gives them the idea they have to manipulate males to get what they want.

Such antiquated thinking, however, was the exception and not the rule--in the Harvey world, the "odd" had a home. In another Little Dot "aunt and uncle" story, she goes to visit an uncle who's a Tarzan type--he lives in the woods, wears an animal skin, and swings through the trees. The folks outside the forest think he's some sort of "wild man", a menace; even Dot has her doubts about him. But when Dot visits his treehouse home, she discovers he's actually a writer, who lives as he does because it helps him write adventure stories. In a Harvey comic book, appearances were deceiving.

They could be adventurous, too. While the "Richie Rich" stories fulfilled my childish fantasy of being able to buy whatever I desired, I also found that his money could take him anywhere. He could fly off to distant lands on a moment's notice in his private plane; more often, though, he found excitement closer to home.

In one story I still vividly remember, Richie and his friend Gloria went exploring in the basement of his mansion, and discover a strange, long-forgoten vehicle--something like a mining car, that ran on rails. They soon learn that it can take them to parts of the mansion they'd never seen before--in different parts of the world. In the end, they discover it was all a dream--or was it? In the last panel, as they're remarking how such a thing couldn't really be possible, we see the long-abandoned mining car, covered in cobwebs, off in a corner.

As with the first Harvey discussed here, Harvey Comics is, sadly, no more. Sales began to lag in the seventies--ironically, at about the time I first became interested in them--and issues were quietly dropped. Occasional digest issues would appear through the eighties, only to completely disappear by 1994.

But just as Harvey Korman will live on in countless movies and cartoons--not to mention segments of the unforgettable Carol Burnett Show--so too will the other Harvey: classic Harvey comics stories are available in bound volumes on Amazon.com. May future generations be entertained as much by both Harveys as I was.


No comments: