It’s funny how perfectly it is possible to remember random blasts of pop culture if they were introduced to your brain at the right moment. Tennessee Tuxedo And His Tales was not the most stimulating syndicated cartoon of its day and age (produced for three years in the early-to-mid sixties and shown daily throughout the seventies at least). In terms of producing actual guffaws, especially from an adult audience, it’s not nearly on par with what Jay Ward was doing with roughly the same technical resources and more imaginative writers. Yet I remember it so well that watching Shout Factory’s new DVD collection inspired an eerie Proustian flashback to our old third-floor TV room circa 1975.
If you’ve never seen an episode, here’s the synopsis of every single one – Tennessee the penguin and his pal Chumley the walrus need to escape from the zoo in order to accomplish some task, get flustered trying to accomplish said task, and go visit their pal Prof. Phineas J. Whoopee for a quick science lesson that allows them to take their ideas to completion. This is followed by an unsatifying climax – even when the get the job done, some crucial detail has gone wrong and they’re still just a couple of schmucks living in the zoo. You wonder why the zoo bothers bringing them back – they’re just going to eat some fish and be out there again the next day, leaving their exhibits unmanned, while unhappy customers demand refunds. In 2012 they would be called out as bad role models for children.
In the era of the first backlash against TV’s brain-deadening effect on the young mind, the team at Total TeleVision wanted a show that could impart useful information from the realm of science, explaining basic things like how rain is produced, or how a steam engine works, in language kids could understand. And they seem to have understood one thing intuitively – kids like repetition. As a young viewer of these shows, I didn’t find the ultra-predictable setups off-putting; it was kind of comforting. I’m pretty sure I liked getting the same show every day, re-written with just enough new information to be interesting. It didn’t matter that they were never getting out of the zoo. It wasn’t laugh out loud funny but it was highly watchable, and if you liked one you liked them all.
Seeing it again after thirty-four years was fun for a while, but the sameyness started to become grating after a few episodes. It might have been more enjoyable if Shout Factory had mixed up these toons with appearances from Underdog and Commander McBragg, which is how I watched them at the time. Having three different sets of characters was good for breaking up the pattern. (I haven’t seen the other two in a while, though I remember Commander McBragg being pretty surreal and reliable with a bad pun to close every show.) But if I had kids, I’d have no problem showing it to them and laughing out loud every time Prof. Whoopee opens his closet door only to get buried by all the junk inside. And since when do cartoons have to work for grown-ups anyway?