John Cawley chronicles the many lives of Scooby-Doo as the character remains a top franchise more than 40 years since its debut.
Scooby-Doo, though canine, seems to have the legendary 9-lives of a cat. Since debuting in 1969, this off-model Great Dane has starred in at least a dozen TV series, a primetime special, several made-for-TV movies, a line of direct-to-video features, and two live-action features. This does not even begin to cover the piles of toys, games, specials, WebPages and more based on his popularity. Nearing his 40th anniversary, Scooby, without a doubt, is one of the key icons of modern animation.
TVLand included the classic, If it werent for you meddling kids as one of The 100 Greatest TV Quotes & Catchphrases." Animal Planet ranked Scooby 13th on its list of the "50 Greatest TV Animals." TV Guide placed Scooby 22nd in its list of the "50 Greatest Cartoon Characters of All Time." Not to mention the dozens of shows that have satirized Scooby and his phenomena, including such recent series as South Park, Family Guy and The Simpsons. Not to lessen Disneys thought, but, at times, it seems to be a Scooby world, after all.
To those who love (and even hate) this comical canine, Scooby and his varied cohorts have been able to survive the decades. Even with shifts in creators, talents, voices, concepts and designs, Scooby continues to generate ratings and sales, as well as gain new fans and charm older ones. What makes Scooby such a resilient character? Some would say luck. (Or, in Scooby-speak, ruck.") But just luck would not allow Scooby to continually rise again, as the proverbial Phoenix, time and time again.
It really goes back to his roots in the 1960s. Saturday morning was in trouble. For several years, the networks had done well in the ratings with action shows like Hanna-Barberas Space Ghost. The trouble was parent groups were getting upset about the violence on TV. The networks and Hanna-Barbera began to move toward literary shows, like The Adventures Of Gulliver and zany humor entries, like The Wacky Racers. None seemed to catch ratings fire. CBS's head of children's programming, Fred Silverman (credited with starting the earlier superhero sensation) suggested Hanna-Barbera develop a mystery show featuring teenagers. Silverman envisioned a mix between I Love A Mystery (a popular radio show in the forties and fifties) and The Many Loves Of Dobie Gillis (a sitcom from the fifties and sixties). In fact, much has been made of the physical similarities of the GILLIS cast and the designs for Scooby.
Writers Joe Ruby and Ken Spears were asked to come up with something. They developed an idea about four teenagers and a dog traveling the country as a rock group that also solved mysteries. As the show developed, they took out the musical element and focused on the gang as just mystery solvers.
Iwao Takamoto headed a team developing the designs and artwork, which was full of haunted houses, monsters and eerie locales. During a recent talk at Cartoon Network Studios in Burbank, Takamoto reminisced about his design for Scooby. There was a lady at the studio that bred Great Danes. She showed me some pictures and talked about the important points of a Great Dane, like a straight back, straight legs, small chin and such. I decided to go the opposite and gave him a hump back, bowed legs, big chin and such. Even his color is wrong.
When it was first presented to the network brass, they rejected it saying the show was too scary! In early interviews, Silverman said he suggested keeping the general concept, but make the dog funny, and make the dog the star. Scooby was given his name due to someone hearing Frank Sinatras (then hit song) Strangers in the Night, in which Sinatra uses the common jazz refrain Scooby dooby doo."
Scooby-Doo, Where Are You? debuted in the fall of 1969 and became an almost instant hit. The combination of humor and mystery, long a staple of films and television, worked as well in animation. In fact, it seemed a perfect combination. Kids got scary monsters and slapstick humor. Parents got the security of the monsters being in costumes, and even some occasional science through the clues the gang discovered. The series became an instant hit.
It should be mentioned that, like the The Stooges, the world is divided by people who like Scooby-Doo and those that do not. Many animation aficionados have accused the series of popularizing the formulaic, low budget animated series. To be fair, mystery series, from Charlie Chan to Jessica Fletcher, are known for formula story-telling techniques. And the series is no less budget restricted than any other series of its time. But, as earlier generations accepted the likes of Jay Ward, a newer generation could see past the limitations of Scooby to the heart of the series. And Scooby had a lot of heart.
The heart of the series can be seen in the way the original characters worked together and respected each other. You have Shaggy, a scruffy beatnik of a character who, with his canine copy Scooby, are equal amounts of cowards and showmen always on the lookout for food. Fred is the upper crust, football hero type who likes to take charge. Daphne is the rich, good-looking girl just along for fun. Velma is the plain Jane with brains character. All are obvious stereotypes from different backgrounds. But, what made the Mystery Inc Gang so fun was the coming together of these different types as equals. There is no reason for the four teenagers to hang together except for their love of mysteries. Such a diverse cast was somewhat unusual, and has been suggested is the key reason behind the series initial and continued appeal.
Any success for the series must surely include the contribution of Hanna-Barbera voice icon, Don Messick. His creation of the Scooby-speak, which was not far from his Astro-speak in The Jetsons, has become as much a character of the series as the artist rendition. In an episode of Cartoon Networks Johnny Bravo, they do a satire of the Scooby shtick. At one point, after Scooby speaks and the gang replies, Johnny asks, You can understand what he says? Messick passed away in 1997 and Scooby has been voiced by various talents since.
After a few years, it was deemed the formula needed some freshening. So Scoobys second life begins as host to guest stars. In The New Scooby-Doo Comedy Movies, Scooby and his friends are joined by guest stars. Mystery Inc ran into such real people as Sonny & Cher, Dick Van Dyke, Mama Cass and Don Knotts, as well as the imaginary worlds of Batman & Robin and Hanna-Barberas own Speed Buggy. Of interest to the formula was the meeting with Jeannie of I Dream Of Jeannie. This would be the first time Scoobys universe would include the existence of magic. The next series, Scooby-Doo/Dynomutt Hour (1976), had Scoobys guests be a family affair with Scooby-Dum and Scooby-Dee being added. His most famous family member, Scrappy-Doo, would debut in 1979.
Scoobys third life begins with Scoobys All Star Laff-A-Lympics (1977). Now, no longer simply a member of Mystery Inc., Scooby and Shaggy become official members of the Hanna-Barbera family. This highly limited animated series had Scooby with an enormous amount of characters from Hanna-Barberas library. Scooby headed up the Scooby-Doobys who battled the Yogi Yahooeys and the evil Really Rottens." In less than a decade, Scooby had risen to equal name value of Yogi Bear, the studios first major animated star.
For the next few years, Scooby would continue to show up in various series that continued to mix the Scooby team. Finally, in 1985, Scooby was given a fourth chance. This time the series was The Thirteen Ghosts Of Scooby-Doo. The series was unique for Hanna-Barbera and even Saturday morning at the time. First, the series had an actual story arc. Scooby and company release 13 ghosts and must spend 13 half hours getting them back in. Their mentor was an animated version of Vincent Price (voiced by Price).
The series, though different, did not succeed. In fact, it apparently put a major dent in the hopes of altering the Scooby mythos. Series producer Mitch Schauer (Angry Beavers) would often joke he was, the man who killed Scooby-Doo. But nothing was farther from reality. Scooby was already being prepped to star in several syndicated features, which began appearing in 1987. With titles like Scooby-Doo And The Ghoul School and Scooby-Doo And The Reluctant Werewolf, it was clear Scooby was in more familiar territory.
Scooby got a fifth life in another attempt to re-direct the property. Following the success of Muppet Babies, Scooby and the gang arrived on Saturday morning as A Pup Named Scooby-Doo (1987). Producer Tom Ruegger (Animaniacs, Batman) strove to bring new life into the property, allowing parodies of the familiar concepts of the original series such as the mindless chases, Velma's brilliance and final discussion of suspects.
Though Pup lasted two seasons and earned an Emmy nomination, the networks and studios felt Mystery Inc was no match for the new generation of animation fans. Disney, Warner Bros. and Steven Spielberg were dominating the scene with new characters. Also, two new networks, Nickelodeon and FOX, were building a new audience. At this point, it appeared as if Scooby had finally run out of Scooby Snacks. Scooby looked to be headed to the pound.
Then, Ted Turner decided to build a network of just animation using his acquired animation libraries. Scooby, along with many other series, began airing daily on cable. And it was obvious to the viewers that Scooby was airing a LOT! Then current network head, Linda Simensky, was asked about the constant running of Scooby on the network. She stated he would be removed when ratings began to fall.
The ratings on Scooby, while possibly irritating classic animation fans who wanted the network to air other shows, attracted the attention of the Warner Bros. studio, which now had Cartoon Network and the Hanna-Barbera library. In 1998, Scooby got a sixth life with the release of Scooby-Doo On Zombie Island, a direct-to-video movie produced by Davis Doi (Swat Kats, Dexters Lab).
For Zombie Island, Scooby and the gang got a definite facelift. First, their designs were made more stylized. (Most noticeable was the ever-decreasing weight of Velma, who began looking as svelte as Daphne!) Then there was an improved production value, which made the characters look as good as anything else on TV. Finally, the idea of men in masks was dismissed, and almost satirized when it became apparent the menace really was zombies!
The success of Zombie Island led to a line of direct-to-video features produced by a variety of talents including Doi, Scott Jeralds (Krypto, Tom & Jerry)and Chuck Sheetz (King of the Hill, The Simpsons). The series continues to this day. Once again Scoobys lasting popularity caught some eyes who decided that Scooby might be ripe for a live-action fling.
Scoobys 7th life became a CGI character surrounded by a live gang with CGI monsters in the feature, Scooby-Doo (2002). The film was a box-office success. A second live-action film was produced, but Warner Bros. desired to make its next Harry Potter film the hot film of the 2004 summer. So Scoobys sequel was released in the less kid-friendly spring season where it performed well, but not well enough for a third entry.
With the continuing success of the direct-to-video titles, and the prospect of a live-action film, the gang came back to TV with a new animated series, Whats New, Scooby-Doo (2002). For his eighth life, the formula of globetrotting mystery solvers was back, but tweaked to allow real monsters and faster action.
Scoobys ninth, and most recent life is another re-visualized TV series, Shaggy & Scooby-Doo Get A Clue! Debuting in 2006, the series put Scooby and Shaggy in the house of Shaggys rich uncle. While there, they must find out what happened to the (now missing) uncle, as well as protect a secret formula from a master criminal. The formula allows Scooby to gain special powers for limited times. Producer Eric Radomski (Xaolin Showdown, Batman) wanted to give the franchise, he said, a 'Shave and a Haircut.' I wanted the series to reflect the graphics of the day. At the moment, the new series only has been picked up for 13 half hours, even though the final episode is a bit of a cliff-hanger.
No matter how the current series stacks up in ratings or seasons, it will most likely not impede this famed food-loving Great Dane. Several have mentioned that the studios are now looking to more modern venues for Scooby and his gang. His next life might be on the Web or on the phone. No matter where his future lives will lead him, he will gain new fans to join the current ones. Luckily, his previous lives are still available on more standard venues from cable to TV to home video. Rooby-Dooby-Do!
John Cawley is a producer of animation (television and features) at Cartoon Network Studios in Burbank, California. Cawley is also a writer ( Dexters Lab, Bugs Bunny, Disney features), an author ( Encyclopedia of Cartoon Superstars, Cartoon Confidential), an editor ( Get Animated!), a publisher ( Faster! Cheaper!), a lecturer and a performer.