Thursday, 31 July 2014

A Bit Of Variety

These days, many animated shows have episodes that play out between 11 minutes to a full half-hour, if anything to fill the required time slot for American broadcasting. Call me a stick-in-the-mud, but there was a time when episodes were no longer than 6 to 7 minutes, just as the original theatrical shorts that were played before the feature-length picture are (and still do, thank goodness).
Of course, it really depends on the type of shows that need a longer time format to tell a full beginning, middle and end, which is understandable. But what I really miss these days is seeing the classic "variety" format.

Just a handful of Bill and Joe's television stars...
To put it simply, a "variety" show is a TV Series with more than one segment, each featuring different sets of characters - Hanna-Barbera and Jay Ward established this format for their made-for-TV shows, which introduced the world to Quick Draw McGraw and Rocky and Bullwinkle among others.

These "varieties" continued as far as mid 2000 with various other channels having a go - Disney Channel (Raw Toonage), Fox Kids (Toonsylvania), Cartoon Network (Dexter's Laboratory) among others. But as time went on, the three-to-five variety format slowly dwindled away to two (Cow and Chicken, Grim and Evil, Pink Panther and Pals), until for whatever reason the other segment would quietly fade away after the first season.

Based on viewing rates, it would depend on which segment / characters proved to be the more popular. And in most cases, along with a lot of luck, some of the more popular characters would be given their own spin-offs. Case in point with Shaun the Sheep, Pinky and the Brain or even Yogi Bear.

    Animani...Totally insane-y!
One of the most recognisable "variety" series has been Animaniacs. Here, Tom Ruegger and his team experimented with and developed a huge selection of characters, each with their own settings yet based with the same "universe". In fact, one episode that remains a personal favourite is the "Animaniacs Stew", which saw the cast-members deliberately "mixed-up".

Even Cosgrove Hall Films got in on the act, bringing to life Vampires, Pirates and Aliens, based on the series of books by Colin Hawkins and Jacqui Hawkins. As the title suggests, it follows three different sets of characters from the seven seas to outer space to the usual "spooky castle" setting.

What I'm trying to say is that these sort of shows are worth watching because there is no "main character" to follow, there aren't any ongoing storylines that interconnect with one another like some soap opera, and we're allowed to jump from various worlds with - if lucky - potential crossovers from one or more segments.

But what's more important is that there is no risk of exhausting certain characters for further seasons down the line. At least with a variety show, the writers and storyboarders aren't shackled to a set local and wind up either repeating themselves or "jumping the shark".

Then again, there have been rare occasions when a creative writing team can still make the most of a limited cast - whether it's 11 minutes of Ed, Edd n Eddy or 5 minutes of Oggy and the Cockroaches, both shows which have managed a sizeable number of episodes between them. But I still stand my belief that a few additional characters and "worlds" would really add some new flavours to television for kids.

In fact, what prompted me to write this blog post came about after reading an interview from Vice President of Warner Bros, Jay Bastian, on the latest Tom and Jerry Show (2014). The show itself isn't too bad, but what rather irked me was this section in terms of "changing things up";

"…we’re also doing something with this show where we’ve got four rotating scenarios. There’s one what we call it the “classic” scenario, where they’re in a house, and they have reoccurring owners…Then we’ve got one where Jerry is a mouse in a lab, where there’s a professor always trying to come up with new inventions whether giving one another super powers or the ability to fly…The same with another scenario where we’ve got Tom is the cat of two witches, and Tom has access to spell books and magic wands that he and Jerry can get into all new trouble with. Then the fourth scenario is cat and mouse detectives, where they’re essentially working together, which they did in a lot of classic shorts to try and solve a mystery…"

And there lies the issue. Four different scenarios, three of which could have gone to entirely different characters, and instead they stuck with the T&J cast. Wasted potential, in my honest opinion. This was why I liked Tom and Jerry Kids for a time because there were different characters to watch, new settings and tales to explore. There wasn't just one cast for two eleven-minute episodes - heck, T&J Kids even gave secondary characters a few lead roles for a change. That, my friends, is how you "mix things up" for better watching, because in some cases watching the same characters for a prolonged amount of time can get quite boring.

...and confidentially, Warner Bros, you already have a cat-and-mouse detective duo. Look through your Hanna-Barbera Library and you may find Snooper and Blabber somewhere.

If ever I'm given the chance to pitch a show one day, I intend to give the old variety format another shot for possible redemption - pretty much how 3D Glasses for Cinematic viewing have made a quiet return to the theatres. The demand might not be as high as it once was, with today's generation turning to action heroes (Ben 10) or overly-weird concepts (Uncle Grandpa), but all I ask is for one cartoon show that offers three or more individual segments to swap between. It'll keep your audience interested and give the production team a lot more to work with.

After all, "Variety is the spice of life."

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