ANIMATION WORLD MAGAZINE - ISSUE 4.3 - JUNE 1999
Saturday Morning Fever: The Worst Gen X Has to Offer
book review by Scott Maiko
In 1999, Saturday morning TV no longer exists. Sure, ABC's got its `One Saturday Morning,' and FOX and the Kids WB! have impressive cartoon line-ups on this particular day. However, with the glut of animation -- new and old, classic and crappy -- all over the dial and on countless cable channels, at all times of the day and night, three networks showcasing a few hours of cartoons on Saturday mornings no longer has the impact it once did. Saturday morning cartoons, as we -- men and women primarily in our 20s and 30s -- knew them, are dead. So it's appropriate that some sort of book be published on this pop culture phenomenon while it's still reasonably fresh in our collective consciousness and while most of the major players are still around. Moreover, it's fitting that the authors are from a generation that grew up watching this stuff and appreciate it today. Yet somehow, Timothy Burke & Kevin Burke, the writers of Saturday Morning Fever miss the mark.
In the introduction, the authors write, "This book is a collaboration between an academic and a journalist who also works in the film industry. As such, it's something of a hybrid. There is a lot of scholarly literature on popular culture, much of it very good, and a book certainly could be written about Saturday Morning from that perspective. This is not that book, however...Instead, we've written a gleefully irresponsible book, largely a chronicle of our personal memories and impressions of the kidvid of our youth...we go where our own personal and generational obsessions and interests call us." (pgs. 3-4) To this I ask: Who cares? Who are Timothy and Kevin Burke and why should anyone care about their personal memories and impressions of their childhood cartoon viewing habits? Don't get me wrong. This isn't a personal attack on them, but reading about two random guys reminiscing about old TV is no more interesting than you or me doing the same thing.
Two Parts Make a Whole?
But that's not to say that the whole book doesn't work. They mention the book is a sort of a "hybrid" -- and one section is fine. Yet the larger, more opinionated section is awkwardly grafted onto this and doesn't belong in the same volume. Saturday Morning Fever is divided into two parts: the first part is a history of Saturday morning kids TV, and the second part is the authors' and other contributors' "opinionated take on Saturday morning television..."
This first section of Saturday Morning Fever shines. The Burke brothers have compiled a thorough history of behind-the-scenes Saturday morning TV, riddled with fantastic quotes and factoids, gleaned from countless resources. For instance: In the early 50s, an orthodontist claimed to have diagnosed a new dental problem caused by kids watching TV. Elsewhere, Bill Hanna is quoted as saying that the old theatrical shorts were "harder to watch [than TV's limited animation] because of all that tedious detail." Amazing! Expanded, this section alone would have made an interesting, albeit rather academic, book on its own.
Opinions, Opinions, Opinions...
Unfortunately, the second part of the book is entirely different and doesn't fit, bringing to mind the infamous teaming of Fred & Barney with Marvel's Thing -- it just doesn't make a lot of sense putting them together. We go from cold, hard facts, laboriously researched and woven into an arguably interesting history of Saturday morning television, to random, smarmy, Gen-X opinions. It's not just the Burkes' thoughts we're reading, though -- we're also subjected to memories from contributors to the Usenet newsgroup: alt.society.generation-x.
"It sucked when you got up too early, like at five, and something like Captain Noah was on. He was a fake Captain Kangaroo just for Philly Kids," writes one 'correspondent.'
"I always assumed that Thundarr thoroughly murdilized the bad guy after the last commercial break. He wasn't a mellow dude," notes someone else.
Still another chimes in with "...the commercial kids were always force-feeding Sonny, the Cocoa Puffs bird, in order to get him to go cuckoo, but they always refused to give the Trix rabbit any cereal. We wondered why the rabbit didn't start trying to go for the Cocoa Puffs."
These quotes, presumably gleaned from the Internet, sound like things one might hear shortly before passing out after drinking too much beer in a smoke-filled dorm during the first year of college; or perhaps stuff one would read in some obsessive fanboy's xeroxed zine -- not, however, in a book that sells for $17.95.
A good portion of the book is dedicated to the Burkes offering their own synopses of a number of Saturday morning staples. After reading this section (and Quentin Tarantino's quote on the back of the book), it's clear that there needs to be an immediate and complete moratorium on Scooby-Doo jokes. Yeah, yeah, yeah: Velma's a lesbian, Shaggy's a stoner, Fred was scoring with Daphne -- ha ha ha, hilarious. We've heard this all before; yet this type of humor continues to be the one common denominator in anything contemporary written by screenwriters for unfunny teen comedies, bad stand-up comics, and about 600 college freshmen with their own webpages and too much time on their hands. Enough! Though the Burkes clearly warn us on a few occasions that these are their opinions and may not be for the easily offended, they have no place in this book. First and foremost, their takes on these shows aren't funny. Second of all, they serve absolutely no purpose for anyone not familiar with the show, since the Burke brothers' aim seems to be not to enlighten, but presumably, to entertain by hip, snide remarks cutting down these easy targets. Their description of Land of the Lost is so cluttered with snide references to how bad the show was, that they don't bother to mention that it was live-action or that the dinosaurs were stop-motion. Sure, the authors take pains to note that Saturday Morning Fever isn't a reference book -- it's for people who already know about these shows -- but if you already know about these cartoons, what purpose does this whole section serve? By the end of Chapter Five, I felt as though I was reading rejected material for a Janeane Garafalo routine.
The introduction to Saturday Morning Fever notes that it is not a coffee table book; however, any book with such a strong "remember when...?" feel to it should be awash with countless photos to trigger the memories of its readers. Perhaps its most unfortunate flaw is that this book -- about Saturday morning television! -- features few photographs, and these aren't even stills from the shows, or of the creators, or the various people interviewed. Aside from a pair of recent generic group-shot publicity images of Hanna-Barbera characters, almost all of the book's photos are inexplicably of merchandise based on these shows. There are absolutely no images from the shows themselves! This isn't a book on collectibles, but one wouldn't know that from the photos inside.
If there's any one recurring theme in the book, it's to rectify the terrible perceived injustice that, "Saturday morning cartoons are regarded by most American adults over the age of forty as having marginally more redeeming social value than hardcore pornography..." Cute, but, personally, I don't believe it. Sure, in the historical section, the book does a great job of showing how Saturday morning cartoons in the late '60s and early '70s were vilified by ridiculous watchdog groups. No argument there. But again, this was mostly in the 1970s. Here we are at the end of the '90s -- the wholesale critical skewering of Saturday morning TV is as forgotten as many of the obscure shows the Burkes mention. The authors seem to be saying, 'All you critics and censors and psychiatrists and parent groups were wrong. Saturday morning TV may have been schlock, but it didn't hurt us.' That's fine, but nowadays, who really cares? The last chapter of the book defends Saturday morning cartoons -- but from whom? Who is attacking the Saturday morning cartoons of 25 years ago today?
Aside from its nicely-written and researched history section up front, Saturday Morning Fever is a frustrating read. The conversational tone Timothy & Kevin Burke employ make it sort of like sitting among a group of people who are cracking the same tired jokes about their favorite childhood cartoons. However, it's like a bad dream: you're somehow paralyzed from joining in, and you've just got to sit there and listen for the umpteenth time as they eventually (and inevitably) come upon the brilliant realization -- for the first time! -- that Pufnstuf seems to be the product of some acid trip.
Saturday Morning Fever by Timothy Burke & Kevin Burke. New York, New York: St. Martin's Griffin, 1999. 247 pages. ISBN: 0-312-16996-5. (US$17.95)
Scott Maiko is an LA-based freelance writer having been published in such obscure zines and magazines as MOO juice, Thrift SCORE, Wild Cartoon Kingdom, A to Z, and Snackbar Confidential. Time, The New Yorker, and Variety are but a few of the much more widely-known publications for which he's never written. In his spare time, Scott enjoys writing short, three-sentence-long bios about himself in the third person.
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