Dr. Toon: The More, the Merrier
Audiences seem to love ensemble casts, where quirky main and peripheral characters share the script, the action, and the laughs. Consider some of the TV shows that are judged to be among the most popular, critically acclaimed, and beloved in the history of broadcasting. The first example may have been The Dick Van Dyke Show (1961-1966). The show centered around the efforts of three comedy writers who labored on a series called "The Alan Brady Show," and the ensemble cast of Rob Petrie (Dick Van Dyke), "Buddy" Sorrell (Morey Amsterdam), Sally Rogers (Rose Marie), and Mel Cooley (Richard Deacon) turned in energetic performances based as much on the interactions of their personalities than on any scripted material. There were actually two ensemble casts, since many episodes focused on the home life of Rob Petrie and his wife Laura (Mary Tyler Moore) and son Ritchie (Larry Matthews).
The lessons of ensemble casting were not lost on Ms. Moore, who starred in her own highly successful and much-endeared show from 1970-1977, garnering 29 Emmys along the way. There's no need to elaborate on the great cast which featured Moore, Ted Knight, Betty White, Gavin McCloud, Cloris Leachman, as well as Ed Asner and Valerie Harper, both of whom starred in spin-off series.
M*A*S*H (1972-83) featured a cast with diverse backgrounds, attitudes, and morals all trying to survive the ordeals of the Korean War. Their interactions and influences on each other and at times on the military system they labored under provided opportunities for rich character development. Terrific performances by Alan Alda, Jamie Farr, Loretta Swit and several others made this show one of the most admired - and watched - in television history.
Is there any other bar in America where everybody knows your name? The ensemble comedy Cheers (1982-93) launched so many careers and produced so many memorable episodes that to this day the Bull & Finch Pub in Boston is akin to a national shrine and remains a can't –miss attraction to tourists in my beloved Beantown. Remember Taxi (1978-83) and its 18 Emmy awards? How about WKRP in Cincinnati (1978-82)?
My description of these shows and their stars is progressively shorter, since we want to talk about animation and animated series. The point is, shows with sizeable ensemble casts have been some of the most famous, critically acclaimed, and best-loved in television history. Guess what, readers? The same is absolutely true for animated television series as well. A large cast of recurring, memorable characters has typically led to a high probability of success. Let's check it out.
The first great ensemble cartoon show was undoubtedly Rocky and his Friends (1959-61). A poor ratings draw in its day, the series is today recognized as one of the most sophisticated and satirical shows in animation history. There are perhaps more fans of the show today than in its era. It helped to have a large, funny cast of recurring characters: Rocket J. Squirrel, Bullwinkle Moose, Boris Badenov, Natasha Fatale, Fearless Leader, Gidney and Cloyd the Moon Men, Wrong Way Peachfuzz, Mr. Big and fervid narrator Bill Conrad (who was an unseen character forever shattering the "fourth wall") were an entertaining, hammy bunch who remain memorable today.
As the fallow 1970s and '80s wore on, audiences in the U.S. were discovering the zippy charm of anime (then called "Japanimation"). Some of the first to make their way into the ranks of popularity were series such as Urusai Matsura (1981), various incarnations of Dragon Ball (beginning in 1986) and Tenchi Muyo! (1992). Not coincidentally, these series had numerous and diversified ensemble casts that appeared in most of the episodes. There were few ensemble animated comedies in America during those years, but not to worry; they would return with a vengeance.