[2 November 2005]
What the hell was up with kids TV in the ‘80s? Smurfs, Wuzzels, Gummi Bears, Popples. A child of that era, I didn’t have Saturday morning cartoons. We had after-school cartoons, shows that magically came on exactly as we arrived home at 3:30pm. They would run until 5:00pm when the boring news would start and we could head out to the trampoline and pretend our cordial was Gummi Berry Juice.
Those were the days.
The TV shows on DVD revolution allows us to revisit that weird kid-world and, for the most part, it’s as exciting and silly as it was then. Well, until you revisit a long-forgotten show like Heathcliff and the Catillac Cats. After that, you’re forced to wonder two things: why you ever watched something so pointless when there were so many other cool shows on like Jem. And how, if that whole TV-influencing-kids thing is true, after daily doses of the lunatic animal, you didn’t wind up an aggressive social outcast.
Heathcliff (voiced by Mel Blanc) lives with a regular family (two grandparents and their grandkid, Iggy Nutmeg [Donna Christie]). He speaks, but only other animals understand him, he eats fish, hangs out with his buddies, and longs for the attention of the beautiful Sonja (Marilyn Lightstone). Amid this normalcy, his mischievous assaults appear brutal.
Each episode of Heathcliff includes a 10-minute Heathcliff story and 10 minutes of The Catillac Cats, featuring the same gang from Heathcliff’s show only with a different violent leader, Riff Raff (Stan Jones).
The episode titled “May the Best Cat Win” begins with the introduction of Poindexter, a snooty cat just perfect enough to win the local cat show. Iggy assures Poindexter’s owner that his cat (Heathcliff) will prove stiff competition. Cut to: Heathcliff in prank mode. His dog-nemesis, Spike (Derek McGrath), rests comfortably on a pink cushion. Heathcliff swipes it, scaring the dog who jumps in the air and lands on top of his kennel, smashing it to bits. Heathcliff watches this happen, settled on the cushion with a smug grin on his face. Not content with ruining Spike’s day, he bites a milkman’s leg, chugs the milk, and beats up a group of skanky street cats who tackle him for the milk. One of those cartoon clouds encircles the battling animals and we see the odd fisted paw shoot out until Heathcliff loads the lot of them in a trashcan and stands back to pick his teeth, satisfied. Almost. He beats up the milkman one last time.
Heathcliff’s aggression isn’t as upfront as, say, Bugs Bunny shooting Daffy Duck in the face, but its effect is tougher. Unlike Bugs and Daffy (who shared a weirdly friendly rapport), Heathcliff indulges in willful destruction. Take “Smoke Gets in My Eyes”. He decides to pull a prank during a visit to the local firehouse: he wakes the firehouse dog who springs to attention and wakes up the dozing firemen. Heathcliff ends up jumping on the big belly of each fireman before running amok and wrecking the place, laughing gleefully all the while.
I realize this is all meant to be hilarious, but the cat is essentially terrorizing his friends and neighbors. Bugs had reasons for shooting Daffy; Heathcliff chooses random victims, and rarely receives comeuppance. In the firehouse episode, he winds up needing the firemen when his owner starts a fire while sleepwalking. The men want nothing to do with the little bastard and turn him away, until, of course, they see smoke. They save the day, and somehow Heathcliff manages to come out on top.
This cat is like the cartoon world’s Ferris Bueller. He gets into all kinds of wacky situations and gets out of them. but the older one gets, the more one realizes that Ferris was actually a conniving jerk who preyed on his best friend Cameron’s weaknesses for his own enjoyment. When Cameron decides to take the blame for the wrecked car, Ferris lets him, thus getting away with every bad decision he’s made up to that point. Heathcliff is the same way. He wrecks everything, then kicks back while everyone else sorts his mess out.
It’s frustrating that the writers (including Chuck Lorre, creator of Dharma & Greg and the underrated Two and a Half Men) portray the cartoon version of Heathcliff as a pint-sized Pol Pot. The original comic strip character was never so vile. Shout Factory’s new DVD—featuring 24 episodes of the show (it ran for 65)—contains an eight-minute interview with Peter Gallagher, nephew of Heathcliff’s creator, George Gately. Gallagher tells the story of how he wound up drawing Heathcliff and keeping the cartoon in newspaper for over 30 years. It’s during this piece that Gallagher reveals a series of Heathcliff cartoons through the ages. The cartoons are single frame bits with Heathcliff usually doing something silly like walking into a fish shop with a harpoon.
The difference between these drawings and the Heathcliff cartoon has to do with where the reader enters the joke. In the harpoon cartoon, Heathcliff is simply on his way through the door. He’s not inside and he’s not in mid-fish attack. Ostensibly, Heathcliff’s action here is cute. In the animated version, on the other hand, he would walk into the fish shop, grabs the harpoon, and slices fish in two, left and right. It’s not cute. It’s ugly.