These aren’t academic histories or encyclopedic entries; rather, they’re personal memories of shows that, through the years, have brought me delight, influenced my way of thinking and doing, left their indelible traces imprinted on me. Think of it as a memoir of my life as seen on TV.
Eventually, there comes a point where a person has to draw the line. For me, it came when we decided to move from a house to a condo in downtown Minneapolis. Lacking the independent wealth that is often a vital component to living downtown, we had to settle instead for a smaller, more affordable place, with one bedroom and a modest storage unit. Thus, the moment of truth. It was bad enough to have a garage full of old stuff; to pay extra money to store it off-site was ridiculous, especially when the likelihood that I would ever go through the stuff was pretty remote.* Therefore, it was time to open the boxes and see what was inside.
*When it came to housing, I had a rule of thumb that continues to this day: it’s one thing to find the home of your dreams and not be able to afford it, but to not be able to fit into it is downright embarrassing.
With the help of a dealer in antique toys (and if you don’t think it’s humbling to think of your own personal toys as antiques, you’ve got another think coming), I came out pretty well in selling my Matt Mason space rockets, electric football games, slot car racing sets, GI Joe dolls, comic books, and other reminders of a misspent youth. Many of the magazines I had were in poor condition and of little value; those got trashed. The TV Guides made the cut, for which this blog is eternally grateful. And then there were the assorted toys that, for one reason or another, transcended the state of life I’d been in when I’d gotten them.
There was, for example, a hand puppet of Alvin the singing chipmunk, one that played the Chipmunks’ biggest hit, “The Chipmunk Song,” when you pulled a string. There was a collection of soap containers in the shape of various cartoon characters, including two different versions of Alvin, as well as his brother chipmunks, Simon and Theodore. There was an old 45 record, a promotion for Green Giant that featured Tennessee Ernie Ford, and I remembered that I’d never listened to that record without turning the speed up to 78, which made Ernie and all the other characters sound like the Chipmunks. There was an Alvin coloring book, an old Give-a-Show projector slide of an Alvin cartoon (the projector itself was long gone) – you get the picture.
When I was a kid, Alvin was my favorite cartoon character. It was probably because of the funny voice, but I suspect that there was more to it than that. Alvin was, in a way, a forerunner to another favorite, Calvin of Calvin and Hobbes. Both had vivid imaginations, both were reasonably intelligent, both were strong-willed, full of mischief, and constantly getting into trouble. Now, I don’t recall that I was a particularly troublesome kid – in fact, I was always kind of afraid of mischief – so it’s possible that Alvin was my alter ego, my version of Walter Mitty.
“The Chipmunk Song” had been a Christmas novelty hit back in 1958, and though the Chipmunks only existed on record, they came with remarkably well-developed personalities – Simon was the intellectual, Theodore the chubby innocent, and Alvin the smart-alec. They first appeared on television as puppets, but it was their 1961 CBS animated show that gave them their modern identity.
What I loved about Alvin, and still do, is that it’s one of the few cartoons that can make me actually laugh out loud, even as an adult. For a character based on a novelty song, Alvin has an extremely developed personality. He doesn’t respond well to authority, he likes to have the last word, and he’s enterprising in search of getting it. He is, in many respects, cut from the same cloth as one of the other great stars of Saturday morning cartoons, Bugs Bunny. And although Bugs’ humor is definitely more sophisticated, geared as much to adults as to children, there’s a cleverness to Alvin’s antics that really works. Case in point: my favorite Alvin cartoon.
The premise: A neighbor’s dog keeps digging up Alvin’s flower garden (the flowers, naturally, spelling the word “ALVIN”). Alvin complains to the neighbor, but the neighbor won’t countenance the idea that “Doggy-Boy” could possibly do something so mischievous. Finding that diplomacy has failed, Alvin decides to take more aggressive action. After Simon tells him about an ad for a silent dog whistle that helps control the dog’s behavior, Alvin rushes off to order it – oblivious to Simon’s warning that some dogs have an allergic reaction to the whistle.
When he gets the whistle in the mail, Alvin can’t wait to use it. And, predictably enough, Doggy-Boy flips out when he hears it. This upsets the neighbor, who complains to Dave that the evil Alvin is torturing his dog. Alvin is, of course, all innocence as Dave tries out the whistle. Hearing nothing, Dave figures the whistle is broken, and that the screwy neighbor doesn’t know what he’s talking about, while in the meantime, we see the dog wrecking havoc with the neighbor. Dave tells Alvin he should get his money back from the manufacturer – only to find that the house is surrounded by dogs attracted by the whistling.
This may not sound that funny on the face of it, but I can’t watch this without laughing. When Alvin decides to order the dog whistle, it’s the equivalent of Bugs saying, “this means war.” And just as Bugs always gets revenge on his adversary, Alvin has gotten back at the jerk of a neighbor and his annoying dog.
For many years, the only evidence that existed of my Alvin passion was the toys, gathering dust in one storage room or another. When NBC revived the franchise in 1978, they replayed thirteen of the original cartoons on their own Saturday morning schedule. In these days before the VCR, this meant I was setting the alarm to get up at 8:00 on Saturday morning, after having gotten up early the rest of the week for college. That should speak volumes about my dedication. It was as funny then as I’d remembered, and for me it’s that funny today.
The remakes – the cartoons and CGI movies that have polluted the landscape in the last few years – don’t hold a candle to the original. Alvin, Simon and Theodore are not kids – they’re chipmunks! And they didn’t have an attitude – even Alvin was a good kid at heart; he was mischievous, not malicious. For whatever reason, the original show has never been released on DVD, save a single segment that was included with one of the wretched modern versions, so don’t even go there. I’m fortunate that the old show was rerun on several stations in the post-VCR era, so I’ve got all 26 episodes (minus some song segments that were deleted to make way for more commercials, natch), and it looks as if that’s going to have to do me for the foreseeable future.
You could argue that of the shows on my list, The Alvin Show is the weakest. You could even make the case that if one had to have a cartoon on that list, Rocky and Bullwinkle would be a better choice than Alvin. Make no mistake – I love the moose and squirrel. But the list is mine, not yours, and somewhere on any list there has to be room for a show that brings back the world of being a kid, and can still make me laugh today. At least that’s good enough for me.
Next week: The show that escaped to the top ten
Last week: The Twilight Zone