HISTORY OF THE SHOW
By Suzanne Muldowney
The Underdog animated-cartoon TV series premiered on October 3, 1964. NBC carried the series from October 3, 1964 to September 3, 1966; CBS took it over from September 10, 1966 to September 2, 1967; whereupon it was returned to NBC from September 7, 1968 to September 1, 1973. The program was created by Joe Harris and produced by Jay Ward Productions. Its best known program was probably Rocky & His Friends. Other characters/shows to this outfit's credit included Tennessee Tuxedo, King Leonardo, Dudley Do-Right, Hoppity Hooper, and George of the Jungle. The main character was a canine superhero (no doubt an imitation of Superman) who had unlimited physical strength, knowledge, sense of goodwill--and also flying abilities. The show was devised as a weekend morning children's entertainment. Any one half-hour segment consisted of four episodes. In the beginning, and for about the first two and a half years, only two of the episodes would feature Underdog; the other two highlighted other characters. The result was that two weeks (two successive weekly installments) were needed to see an entire Underdog story since every story comprised four episodes. Later the format was changed so that an entire four-part story could be covered in one viewing. Only about 30 stories altogether were created, considering the amount of time, listed above, that the networks carried the show. After two or three years, all the stories that were ever to be had been premiered so that viewers saw rerun after rerun. The show entered syndication in 1973. Once it did, it was no longer seen simultaneously nationwide--only in selected regions whose local syndicated stations chose to perpetuate it. Today, The Cartoon Network channel "Boomerang" still airs episodes in their original form while Sony Wonder offers Underdog episode collections flawlessly edited together without the other distractions and some extra features.
THE MAIN CHARACTERS
||Portrait of Underdog upon emergence, showing radiated energy. The flexing of his biceps was his standard "bodybuilder" pose. Drawing by Peter Fitzgerald & Gary Fields|
Underdog may have been created as a talking dog as better amusement for prospective young viewers, who assumedly enjoyed seeing talking animals. As to the breed--Underdog was a hound, accounting for his hairless, light-colored head and dark, long ears.
Underdog was given many of the same powers as Superman, notably the following
Though Underdog supposedly had all these advantages, he was also made to be not very tall, devoid of muscularity, and plain-faced.
Unlike many other fictional heroes whose first adventures explain how they come to be, Underdog was never given any fanciful origin. There never was a TV-episode, or (later) comic book story explaining how he came to be. His coverup identity was Shoeshine Boy, a street-wise bootblack. This way he wore spectacles and exposed his dog tail, but upon changing into Underdog, he shed the glasses and concealed the tail within his suit. Underdog would always run into some private enclosure--usually a telephone booth--to make the change; but, upon emergence, would smash the hiding place to pieces. Moreover, he would always be pictured as radiating light and energy from his body in a series of rays (reminiscent of a child's drawing of the sun's rays) and sometimes stars. Whenever he launched himself skyward or flew at very high speeds, he always left a trail of stars behind him, like the trail of white smoke in the wake of a high-flying plane.
Underdog lifting off. Notice trail of stars.
Boy would speak normally, Underdog always spoke in rhymes. For this reason,
several rhyming passwords came to be, the first of which would be said most
often by him, and was also the way every weekly show opened, showing him in
flight but inclining downward: "There's no need to fear; Underdog is
here!" Another password he said often suggested his sense of duty: When
trouble strikes, I am not slow; It's hip-hip-hip and away I go! Two other
rhyming slogans would be recited by the citizens, upon catching sight of him.
One was used at the conclusion of almost every story; the crowds saying most
of the "guesswork" while Underdog himself often said the last two
Look! Up in the sky! It's a bird-it's a plane-- It's a frog! (A frog?) Not a plane, or a bird, or even a frog; It's just little old me--Underdog.
Of course, the opening line was stolen from Superman's classic introduction. The second rhyming slogan was used as part of a theme song used every week just before the final episode of the day: Speed of lightning, roar of thunder, Fighting all who rob or plunder.
was a color-scheme reversal of Superman's blue suit and red cape--he wore
a red jumpsuit, with a large white "U" on the chest, red boots,
and a blue cape. He also wore a silver ring containing a special revitalizing
agent. The idea was that after exerting himself strenuously, he needed a special
item to restore his powers.( Consider in classical mythology how the Greek
gods--supposedly omnipotent--also had to "recharge their batteries"
after expending energy.) Consequently, he would alert the viewers to his need
"The secret compartment of my ring I fill With an Underdog super-energy pill."
It would never be explained how he would acquire additional pills, especially after having to use one. One odd element of Underdog's background is that he supposedly hailed from Washington, D.C., according to a book on the history of Saturday morning children's television. Since no episode explaining his origin had ever been devised, how was Washington determined to be his "birthplace"? When he was shown flying within city limits, drawn into the animation were very tall skyscrapers--typical of New York, not Washington. The only reference to Washington is in one story in which one of Underdog's chief adversaries plans it as a target for one of his major crimes. Most of Underdog's foes were human criminals, but a handful of the TV plots pitted him against extraterrestrials. Sometimes animals or animal-human mutants were the adversaries.
Sweet Polly Purebred
Polly was Underdog's female sidekick. Creator Joe Harris insists she was based on Marilyn Monroe but Superman purists/scoffers would scorn Polly as being an imitation of Lois Lane. But while Lois Lane was a newspaper reporter, Polly was a television journalist. Half the time she would be shown broadcasting news or interviewing in the manner of any locality's most widely-seen anchorperson. Polly's full name was Sweet Polly Purebred. She too might have been conceived as a dog because she had a dark shoe-button nose; but her wardrobe and especially her hairstyle made her appear strictly human. One distinct weakness in Polly's character was a tendency to become overly involved. This tendency took two directions: firstly, when broadcasting about a given topic, she would editorialize in terms of personal experiences she may have had in line with that topic; secondly, when she ran into trouble and especially when Underdog was needed or had a mishap, she became unprofessionally emotional. Along the lines of the latter, she would summon Underdog by singing her own interpretation of "Oh, where has my little dog gone?" and would croon or even burst into tears--publicly--any time Underdog met with ill fortune. Polly and Underdog interacted in every story, whereas Polly and Shoeshine Boy met rather infrequently, so that Polly never pried into the subject of secret identities. (One distinct reason for Lois Lane's inquisitiveness into the Clark Kent/Superman impasse is that she and Clark Kent are employed at the same site, whereas Polly and Shoeshine Boy are not.) Polly would sometimes go overboard, supposedly to acquire a news item, by bluffing her way into situations not even the brashest of professional journalists would dare; expectedly, she ran into trouble and had to call for Underdog.
Sculpture by Cipriano Studios
If all the characters in Underdog were patterned after Superman characters, Simon Bar-Sinister would have been a clone of Lex Luthor, since both were criminal scientists--and baldheaded. Simon's surname had a queer Biblical ring, since "bar" meant "son of" among the Jews in Christ's time. There is the incident of Christ's using Simon Peter's full name: Simon Bar-Jona. Simon had an assistant, Cad Lackey, who was drawn to look vaguely like Boris Karloff's Frankenstein monster. Together, these two always made efforts to control the world. In each story in which he was the main adversary, Simon Bar-Sinister had a diabolical invention, newly-devised for the occasion. Some inventions were hand-held and could have passed for toys; other times he used more complex machinery. But the common denominator was to make himself master of everyone around, even of the entire world. Simon would always precede a major command with the words "Simon says, from the classic children's game. Especially upon readying one of his inventions for use, and to call bystanders" attention to it, he would wrest attention in this manner.
Riff Raff was a gangster. Though the dictionarial meaning of "riff raff" might be "guttersnipes" or "undesirables," this character's name might have been derived from that of actor George Raft, who frequently portrayed gangsters and criminals in the movies. Riff Raff might be a third example of a talking animal, since the creators of the Underdog series gave him a wolf's face. All of Riff Raff's escapades involved some kind of theft--from bank loot to museum pieces, precious jewels, or valuable shipments. In one story he ransacked a hamlet town and converted it to his own fiefdom from which he could direct his fellow gang members and his "scams."
Of course, the entire show needed "axes to grind," scenarios to build, so that Underdog was needed to "save the day" and, supposedly, the entire world. One notable element was that every story pitted Underdog against a live intelligence--usually human, but sometimes animalian or extraterrestrial. But never was there an adverse situation which could not be traced back to a living being. One story, "The Bubbleheads," involved submarine earthquake activity caused by a machine owned by an underwater civilization. Another, "Weathering the Storm," called for Underdog to battle disruptive weather caused by one of Simon Bar-Sinister's inventions.
of Underdog's adventures were very weak in plot. Though the show and the stories
were created as fantasy and amusement for children, there were outstanding
flaws which outweighed any possible merits. The following weaknesses were
prominent in virtually every story.
Both the beginning and end of every story made Underdog a clumsy, half-witted buffoon. The opening of each show would have Underdog make a flamboyant entrance only to have a mishap such as demolishing a wall, becoming entangled in hanging objects, falling into a hole, etc. And at the end, when he had saved the day and was making his exit, the citizens would recite the password "Look! Up in the sky! . . . . it's just little old me, Underdog," only to have Underdog have an accident before he said his own name. Such slapstick made him less a hero-model and more a cheap laughingstock. Whenever Underdog was summoned due to need, he would enter and exit by damaging some property. There was the unnecessary element of accentuating his coming or going through something noisy such as an explosion; thus, he frequently was made to crash through some surface when entering or leaving. Along similar lines, whenever Underdog had to change himself from Shoeshine Boy, whatever private enclosure he concealed himself in was smashed to pieces upon Underdog's emergence.
Typical conclusion of an Underdog adventure with inappropriately added slapstick.
Both Underdog and Polly were made to be not very intelligent--to the extent that they fell too easily into trouble, notably enemies' schemes. Polly was too reckless in her search for news items (some of which would be handled better by other types of journalism than television) that she had mishaps or--more frequently--was kidnapped by the foes. And Underdog was too eager to come to the rescue, as well as too prone to enemies' traps so that he frequently became their victim; although he always won in the end, his temporary immolations were further means of degradation.
Both Underdog and Polly were too dependent on each other. At the slightest confrontation, Polly would scream for Underdog's aid, sometimes to the extreme of the aforementioned ditty "Oh, where, where has my Underdog gone; oh, where can he be?" And, as mentioned earlier, Polly would become overly emotional anytime Underdog met with significant ill fortune. Underdog, in turn, would spring into action almost always in reaction to Polly's distress calls; whenever she was in a foe's clutches, Underdog was too easily entrapped by that foe in his goal to save her. Underdog responded too much to the calls of one person.
Enemies whose goal
was to rule the world knew nothing of the complexities involved in running
it, would they have succeeded. Moreover, in planning their schemes, they had
very few supporters and very little equipment. Any territory they did manage
to terrorize was hardly a drop in the bucket; yet the news story was greatly
magnified, blown out of proportion. Not only heroes but also the villains
had little intelligence and were hardly showcased in a dignified or effective
The overall plots
were very shallow, unintelligent, and hardly believable; not even a worthwhile
performance by Underdog could redeem them.
The characters' dialogue was very simplistic. Here again was the problem that although the entire show was created for children, it went too far in terms of simplicity, in this case, dialogue. So many other coexistent TV shows--live or animated--had more realistic, but not obscene, dialogue.
There was always commentary and narration by an extra piped-in voice. But this narration, too, was much too simplistic. It was also quite melodramatic, especially when corroborating an enemy attack, ill fortune for the heroes, or the bridge between episodes. The narration took on a cliffhanger tone when an episode was about to end, so as to keep the viewer waiting suspensefully for the next episode: "Can this be true? Have our heroes and the world come to this? What is the bad guy thinking of? How is Underdog going to save this situation? Stay tuned!"
There was, of course, much violence in the hero-villain confrontations, ranging from fisticuffs to gunfire, monsters on the rampage, extraterrestrial invasions, widespread destruction of property, and man-made disruption of nature. Numberless television programs are constantly criticized and/or scrutinized for violence, but because this program was devised for children, and because of the flaws listed above, the violence was another source of degradation. In a nutshell, these were the weaknesses of virtually every Underdog story::
The following are weaknesses found in various stories. Not all stories had the same particular weaknesses--such as those previously explained--but different stories had different kinds of shortcomings. Several stories required Underdog to visit another planet. With his super-powers, he could fly to and from that planet without air, food, or water, or a great amount of elapsed time; but Polly was depicted as accompanying him, with no equipment except the clothes on her back. In reality, she would die in deep space in a matter of minutes. ( There is a similar inaccuracy in Superman IV: The Quest for Peace. Super-villain Nuclear Man kidnaps journalist Lacy Warfield and flies into deep space with her; she is shown breathing heavily and wearing only a standard business woman's suit. She should freeze or suffocate instantly due to lack of air or heat.)
In several stories
involving extraterrestrial invasion of Earth, the aliens themselves were not
that great in number to spread themselves over the whole of Earth simultaneously.
They could attack only a small section, and without reckoning with the many
Earth nations and their various war machines; these myriads of Earth resources
could destroy or decimate the alien forces without Underdog's help.
One extraterrestrial race, "The Magnet Men," was grossly unscientific and unrealistically destructive. The scientific shortcomings were twofold: these aliens" hands were magnets so powerful that from their own planet, supposedly light-years away, they could pull Olympic athletes who wore or used magnetizable metals clear out of Earth's atmosphere; the aliens also had a super-size magnet which was to pull Earth from its orbit toward the alien planet. The unrealistic destruction was that, upon the large magnet's pull, "buildings fell over! Trains fell off trestles! Great ocean liners capsized! The Earth grew colder and colder [upon being pulled away from the sun]! Waterfalls froze! Showers froze! And snow began to cover the world!" Of course, Underdog set everything right, but everything thrown out of kilter was unrealistically set back in place. What about those athletes yanked from their activities? What about all the property damage and people killed from fallen buildings and trains, and capsized ships, or extreme cold? This story was a very bad example.
In two stories, Underdog was put under a magical spell, hampering his powers. Mostly he was left drifting in the sky. But meanwhile, problems were developing, usually with Polly as a power pawn; Underdog broke the spell only as a result of hearing Polly's voice from a great distance.
There were two instances of Underdog's suffering mysterious injuries or illness, and being hospitalized. His being incapacitated was made melodramatic. Doctors and sympathizers flocked around him night and day. But in both cases, the trouble was caused by objects concealed or applied to his clothing; he was never shown having to wear a hospital uniform instead of his own costume, or the mystery would have been solved much more quickly. This was especially true in the instance of "when I bend over, there's a stabbing pain" due to a medieval sword wedged in his cape; he never took his cape off when confined for this injury.
In three stories, Underdog was deprived of his ring, in which he hid his revitalizing pills. The scriptwriters did not give Underdog the sense to remove the pill and conceal it somewhere else, in one of these cases, that Polly deliberately took the ring from him. "Without my super-energy pill, I grow weaker and weaker still." Once deprived of the ring and pill, he indeed steadily deteriorated, almost to the point of death; the situation was made melodramatic and the stories put the whole series in a bad light. Even though he had to revitalize himself somehow in the end, the fact that he was made to deteriorate in the first place questioned his merit as a hero-model. In two stories, Underdog suffered a severe electrical shock. He was treated for it by immersion in substances like water and sand so that the electricity "drained or peeled off," like a banana skin. This treatment was totally incorrect first-aid procedure. "Fearo" was strictly a parody of King Kong. Polly was the primary sore point here since she was part of the hunting expedition and the captive beast's celebrity lady-in-waiting. A professional TV journalist would leave such activities to the experts in those fields, and concentrate solely on reporting the findings.
Another example of main characters, untrained in other professions, yet taking part in those activities, was "Weathering the Storm." Simon Bar-Sinister had in-vented a weather-control machine and, in order to demonstrate it, stowed it aboard a moon-bound spacecraft, replaced the official crew with himself and Cad his assistant, and operated the machine from the moon. Polly, too, was out of place by being aboard the spacecraft with the other astronauts-whom, she found out in time, had been replaced by Simon and Cad. These three had no astronaut training, yet manned a lunar excursion. Civilians aboard spacecraft never came to be until the vogue of the space shuttles.
One story had Simon Bar-Sinister invent an energy pill that surpassed Underdog's. (How did Simon learn that the pills existed?) Underdog insisted upon a series of tests to determine the better pill. When Simon consumed his for a jumping contest, he leaped so high that, according to onlookers, he went into orbit. At that altitude, how could he breathe? In two stories, Riff Raff the gangster had Underdog framed and imprisoned without proper trial or questioning. One of these involved a criminal look-alike, Tap Tap the Chiseler, whom Riff Raff hired to pass for Underdog and make witnesses to their crimes believe that Underdog had turned to crime. In two or three instances, when Shoeshine Boy realized he had to make his change, headed for a phone booth only to find it occupied; instead of looking for another place, he waited for that one booth to be free while other situations were worsening. Not every story has been cited; neither has every fault been exposed. But the examples given should be plenty in showing how the original characters and plots left much to be desired, especially if the main character is to be showcased effectively. Why the insistence on realism and improvement in the future? The answers will be found in the next section.