TERRY GROSS, host:
A recent DVD box set from Classic Media presents, for the first time, the complete adventures of "Rocky and Bullwinkle and Friends" - hundreds of installments of Rocky the Flying Squirrel and Bullwinkle the Moose, as well as "Fractured Fairy Tales," Dudley Do-Right and Mr. Peabody, the genius dog with a pet boy named Sherman. These prime-time TV cartoons go back about 50 years, and our TV critic David Bianculli says that while watching them all over again, so did he.
(Soundbite of song, "Rocky and Bullwinkle" theme)
DAVID BIANCULLI: The TV cartoon series that most people refer to as "Rocky and Bullwinkle" actually was two shows with two different titles, shown on two different networks. "Rocky and His Friends" came first, in 1959, and when ABC canceled that series after two years, NBC picked up the ball the very next night to present "The Bullwinkle Show," which ran from 1961 to 1964. Both shows were co-created by Jay Ward and Bill Scott, and both were aimed at adults as much as children.
Back then, I thought these shows were just about the best television ever made. Half a century later, after conning my way into watching TV for a living, I still do.
I had just turned six when "Rocky and His Friends" premiered, and the show arrived on TV like a birthday present meant just for me. It was the first TV show I remember staying up late to watch, and waiting eagerly for each new installment to arrive.
Through the years, each 30-minute program had different ingredients, but the same, basic format. A serialized adventure of Rocky and Bullwinkle would open and close each show. In between would be other features -just as warped, and just as funny. During the first season, for example, Bullwinkle would recite poetry or offer little-known facts as Mr. Know-It-All. And Mr. Peabody, the time-traveling talking dog, would set his Wayback Machine, and he and his pet boy Sherman would visit famous moments in history.
And then there was my favorite.
(Soundbite of music)
BIANCULLI: "Fractured Fairy Tales."
(Soundbite of music)
BIANCULLI: These short cartoons were narrated by Edward Everett Horton, who had the most soothing TV voice this side of Fred Rogers. He told -or retold - familiar fairy tales, but with wickedly modern spins.
In this first-season take on "Sleeping Beauty," for example, the voice of the Prince is provided by Daws Butler, who later played Yogi Bear. And when this prince discovered his sleeping beauty, his unique reaction owes its inspiration to a famous theme park that had opened just four years before.
(Soundbite of TV show, "Rocky and Bullwinkle")
Mr. EDWARD EVERETT HORTON (Actor): (as narrator) The prince made straight for the tower rooms.
Mr. DAWS BUTLER (Actor): (as The Prince) Sleeping Beauty! I've come at last. With one kiss, I shall waken you and wait a minute. Awake, she's just another princess. Asleep, she's a gold mine. I can see it now: Sleeping Beauty comics, Sleeping Beauty hats, Sleeping Beauty bubblegum and biggest of all: Sleeping Beauty Land.
Mr. HORTON: (as narrator) Sure enough, the castle was soon made ready as a great tourist attraction. There was Mote Land.
(Soundbite of drums)
Mr. BUTLER: (as The Prince) Have your X coupons ready, please. Have your X coupons ready.
Mr. HORTON: (as narrator) There was Entrance Hall Land.
Mr. BUTLER: (as The Prince) Y coupons, please.
Mr. HORTON: (as narrator) There was Stair Land.
Mr. BUTLER: (as The Prince) That's a Z coupon, folks. A Z coupon.
Mr. HORTON: (as narrator) And, of course, Sleeping Beauty herself.
BIANCULLI: In later years, "Fractured Fairy Tales" would give way to other features, like "Dudley Do-Right of the Mounties." But Rocky and Bullwinkle remained constant, with their adventures pitting them against Cold War spies Boris and Natasha.
I was well into my 20s when I finally put it together that Boris Badenov was a play on an opera called Boris Godunov. But some jokes I got right away, and they still make me laugh. Like the episode where Rocky and Bullwinkle take a wheelbarrow full of box tops - which kids used to save to send in for prizes - and try to deposit them at their local bank.
(Soundbite of "Rocky and Bullwinkle")
Ms. JUNE FORAY (Actor): (as Rocky) Could we have a little service, please?
Unidentified Actor: Why certainly, sir. Arbogast(ph), call the police, the FBI, my wife.
Mr. BILL SCOTT (Actor): (as Bullwinkle) I'd like to start a box top account with your bank
Mr. KEITH SCOTT (Actor): (as Bullwinkle) I'd like to start a box top account with your bank.
Unidentified Actor: Why, yes, sir. What kind? Just checking?
Mr. SCOTT: (as Bullwinkle) No. I really mean it.
(Soundbite of sirens)
Mr. WILLIAM CONRAD (Actor): (as Narrator) Meanwhile, a bevy of law enforcement officers were...
BIANCULLI: Clearly, this is where my love of puns and bad jokes comes from, and my love of satire. And I know I'm not alone. Matt Groening told me once that if not for MAD Magazine and "Rocky and Bullwinkle," he probably never would have had his sense of humor or love of cartoons. And all he did was go off and create "The Simpsons," the longest-running animated series in TV history.
But "Rocky and Bullwinkle" was there first, entertaining us all, and influencing a lot of us. It's a delight to have the entire series in one set, to relive the early days. The animation, especially on the ABC series, is pretty crude - but the humor, time and again, hits it out of the park.
GROSS: David Bianculli is founder and editor of TVWorthWatching.com, and teaches TV and film history at Rowan University in New Jersey.