"Never fear...Underdog is here!"
The professional animator talks about creating the world's first canine superhero
"Never fear...Underdog is here!"
Those immortal words shot out from nearly every single existing television set back when NBC premiered Underdog on October 3rd, 1964. It became one of the highest rated shows of its time, and introduced the world to the first-ever canine superhero.
Joe Harris, Buck Biggers, and Chet Stover were working for the Dancer Fitzgerald Sample agency when they created Underdog. Along with King Leonardo and His Short Subjects and Tennessee Tuxedo and His Tales, Underdog served as an alternative to the other children's programming available at the time. Each one of their series was a ratings coup for General Mills, and Underdog, especially, became a cultural icon.
Now, forty-two years later, Walt Disney Pictures is releasing a live-action big screen version of the caped cruisading mutt. To celebrate the film's release, Classic Media is unleashing a three volume set of DVDs entitled The Ultimate Underdog Collection. Each disc contains six uncut episodes from the series original run. They will be released on July 24th, 2007.
Earlier this afternoon, I got a call from one of Underdog's creators, Joe Harris. This was especially thrilling for me because he also created the Trix Rabbit, one of my all time favorite animated characters. It was a real treat getting to talk to Joe. Here is our conversation:
Joe Harris: Hey, Paulington, how you doing?
Pretty good. How about yourself, Joe?
Joe Harris: I'm doing okay.
Do you want to just jump right into this?
Joe Harris: Sure. Get comfortable. Make it a conversation.
Not a problem. From what I understand, you have a couple of The Ultimate Underdog Collection DVDs coming out.
Joe Harris: Yeah. They are coming out on the twenty-fourth of this month.
Can you tell me a little bit about what is on those discs?
Joe Harris: I haven't been involved in the making of the discs. What I know from observing is that it's a bunch of stuff that we did back in the sixties. And there are a couple of things that will be available for the first time. Don't ask me what those things are. I don't know. In other words, if you saw the last DVDs, this seems like the same thing only better.
Only better? Well, all right. Sounds pretty good. Do you know how many episodes will be included on the discs?
Joe Harris: I do not. I don't have that information. I did not work on this. So I don't know what they compiled.
Can you tell me how you came up with the idea for Underdog?
Joe Harris: Yeah. Sure. It's a long story. Do you have the time?
I've got the time if you've got the time.
Joe Harris: I sure do. You've got to go back to 1959. Yeah. I worked in an agency in New York Called Dancer Fitzgerald Sample. It was one of the top advertising agencies in New York. It was on Madison Avenue. Are you familiar with this part of the world?
I'm not, actually.
Joe Harris: You're not? Well, at any rate, we were working there...When I say we, I was the supervisor of animation for all of General Mills' products. This included all of their cereals and sulfurizing flour, and Gold Metal, and all of that. I had two friends. One was an account executive also on the General Mills account. His name was Buck Biggers. I had another friend by the name of Chester Stover, whom we called Chet. And he was a copy supervisor on the same account for General Mills. All three of us were working for General Mills. They had been with the agency for twenty-four years. So, we were it as far as General Mills was concerned. The senior account man said, "The Mills told us that they want to start a program for children. It will be a series that will go on television." So, they said, "Buck, you are the account man here. Go on and get it started." So Buck turned to Chet and said, "You're the coy person, lets get started on writing it." Then Chet came to me and said, "Joe, you are the animator. Get started drawing it up, and get started on the production." That's how it started...(the phone cuts out)
Joe Harris: Hello, you there?
The phone cut out there for a second...
Joe Harris: Oh, sorry. Where did you drop off?
I'm not sure. Just like a half a second ago.
Joe Harris: At any rate, we came up with the first show, which was called King Leonardo and His Short Subjects. Hey, let me know if the same thing with the phone happens again, will yeah?
Yeah. Not a problem.
Joe Harris: So, that show went on the air in 1960, I think. In October. It immediately achieved a forty percent rating, which knocked everybody off their seats. Then the ratings went up fifty, to sixty, percent. The people at General Mills were flabbergasted and delighted because it was the number one show on television. So, we had a great success there. We followed that one with another show called Tennessee Tuxedo and His Tales. Are you still there?
I'm right here.
Joe Harris: Okay. I'm going to be checking in periodically during this story, because I have had trouble with this phone before. After Tennessee Tuxedo and His Tales, we did Underdog. Now, where did that idea come from? We had divided up the work between the three of us. And, mind you, there were only three of us. So, Buck did all of the music for all of the episodes that we did. We did eight shows entirely. Underdog was the third. And Chet was responsible for the words. The script. He and Buck both worked together on the stories. Chet was naturally the head scriptman. I was given the role of creating the characters, doing all of the storyboards for all of the episodes. Also, I had to oversee the production of the animation. The animation was done in Mexico City. It was done at a studio called Gamma. Are you with me? Are you still there?
I'm still here. Can you hear me?
Joe Harris: I can. I'm just checking because I had trouble with this phone yesterday. Anyway, so we are starting with a studio that was actually created in Mexico, and I could go on and tell you stories about that studio for a long time. Let me just say that they didn't even have animation paint to do the cells. So they went to the paint store and used that. It worked for what they were doing. But, at the same time they were doing that, Jay Ward was doing his stuff down there. To get back to the point. Where did Underdog come from? My partner Chet was watching television one night. I Love Lucy was on. And Desi Arnaz had just told Lucy that he was inviting George Reeves over for dinner. And George Reeves was the man who did Adventures of Superman on television. So, Lucy said, "Oh, my God!" She went and immediately made a Superman costume. Then she walked out on the fire escape so that she could come back in through the window and surprise George Reeves. But she never got in because the window was locked. And she was out there all night. As I said, my friend and partner Chet saw this episode. He never watches television, but he just happened to watch it that night. The next day he said, "We've just got to create a super hero. A dog. And we have to animate him in these stories. It's the perfect idea." So, he conceptualized the idea for Underdog. We all loved it, and we started doing the production. And that's where the idea originated.
Where did the expression "Never fear, Underdog is here!" come from?
Joe Harris: That came from the writers. That came from the two guys writing. I was doing all of the production stuff. They were doing all of the writing.
Do you have a favorite episode from the television show?
Joe Harris: This is a toughie. I was working so steadily. Can you imagine? There were only three of us doing this thing. I was working so steadily that all of those episodes went out of my pen onto storyboard panels. By the time I was finished, I was starting the next one. I literally don't remember any of them. And I never did see them on television, because I was too busy working. I really have never seen any of the episodes until the first DVD came out. Do I have a favorite? I don't have a clue because I have only seen a few.
Joe Harris: I know its crazy. You should have seen the hours we were working. Sixteen, eighteen, twenty hours a day. I missed not only the episodes, but I also missed a lot of life for ten years.
How many episodes do you think you guys produced over the years?
Joe Harris: With everything? Out of eight shows, I have no idea. Huh? Wow. We did ten years worth on eight different shows. And I don't have a count for that. Probably somewhere in Classic Media they have a count for that. I really couldn't tell you. I think Underdog went to a hundred and sixty-nine. But I could be wrong.
Now, you worked with General Mills. Did you have a hand in creating any of the Cereal Icons that many of us are familiar with?
Joe Harris: I worked on the cereals, and I actually created the Trix Rabbit. And I wrote that and produced it in New York. And I worked on Cheerios. I worked on Coco Puffs. I worked on Twinkles. Name it, and I probably worked on it. I worked on Kixs.
Quisp and Quack?
Joe Harris: Yeah, I worked on them all. I storyboarded and produced them. I produced them with refugees from Disney. In the 40s they had a terrible fight over at Disney about the Union. The artists wanted to perform a Union, and Walt simply kicked them out. Then he had a battle. Eventually, they did Unionize. And they did win. A lot of them were so disappointed and distressed by what had gone on, that they left and did other things. A lot of them went to New York and formed little animation companies. So, I got to work with some of the best animators in the world because I was doing all of these commercials right down there in Manhattan. I had a great experience. I could tell you some of the names, but I don't know if you are familiar with great animators. I worked with at least a dozen to twenty of them. That was quite a great period in my life. They are great people to work with.
That is really cool. I am a big fan of all the cereal stuff. I always have been since I was a kid. That stuff just sticks with you.
Joe Harris: Yeah. The Trix Rabbit is still going. I invented him in 1958, and he's coming up on fifty years now.
That is really cool.
Joe Harris: Not only that, but his commercial is still exactly the same as I wrote it and produced it. They haven't changed anything. Except the styling has been upgraded. Other than that, it is all the same.
I know this is going back a couple of years, but how did you feel when the Trix Rabbit actually got the cereal? I remember that big promotion they had...
Joe Harris: I had told them not to do that. This is the war between the creatives and the account people. They kept saying, "Why don't you give the rabbit the cereal?" And I kept saying, "Don't do that, because that is the tension in the commercial." I said, "You don't interrupt that. That's like when Li'l Abner married Daisy May." After that, everyone stopped reading it. You have to keep the tension going, otherwise you don't have a story. When they gave the rabbit Trix, everybody wrote in and said, "Why did you do that?" Then they never did it again.
Joe Harris: They just didn't understand. There is always a fight between the marketing executive people and the creatives. The creatives instinctively know what has to be done. But they can't explain it well enough to the marketing people. At any rate, that has been going on for life. As far as I can remember. You just have to explain these things. And people have to learn what the payback is.
Can I ask you about the new Underdog movie that is coming out? Have you had any input on that?
Joe Harris: No. None at all. When it was first proposed, I had people that I was working with in Classic Media who own the property, and I went in and said, "You are going to do what to Underdog? You are going to make him a dog?" They said, "Yup." And I said, "Polly is going to be a dog, too? And your are going to call her Molly?" And they said, "Yup." I had a big to-do about how they were putting this together, and one of them took me aside and said, "Look, Joe...We appreciate your position. You created the original but you are still thinking back then. We want to upgrade it and make it something else. We want to do this in a way that people will appreciate it today. So, please, hang out for a little bit and wait until you see the movie. You are going to love it." So, I said, "Okay. It better be good." Then I thought about it. And they were right. I haven't seen the movie. And I do love Disney. I thought, "They are professional. They will do a good job. Lets see what happens." Other than that, I had no input on the movie.
Have you seen the movie yet?
Joe Harris: No. It is coming out on the 3rd of August, and I am going to the premier in New York.
What do you think about what you've seen so far?
Joe Harris: So far? It looks like Disney. I can't argue with what I've seen, but I have only seen trailers on one website, and I've seen some of the photos and posters that they have done. But that's about all I have seen. If that quality is maintained, then I'm sure that Disney is going to pull it off. Some of the Times critics have said that this may be a smash hit. Other people have said, "This is going to be a bummer!" So, I am ready to say, "Let's see what happens."
Well, Garfield: The Movie was a hit. I'm assuming that they are aiming towards that same audience.
Joe Harris: Yeah, well, I'll tell you, not many of those sixties shows, of which Garfield was not, have made it into profitability. I'm talking about the hundred million dollar level on the return. The Flintstones did it. Scooby Doo did it.
They had The Adventures of Rocky & Bullwinkle movie, too, right?
Joe Harris: That movie didn't do it. Bullwinkle did not make the bucks. George of the Jungle did. And there was one other. There were four of them. Casper, out of all of them. All of those broke the ceiling at a hundred million. But The Adventures of Rocky & Bullwinkle didn't. Fat Albert didn't. of all things, Mr. Magoo didn't. Josie and the Pussycats didn't make it. I guess, from a marketing standpoint, if it hits the hundred million mark it's a success. So, who knows? I don't know. The Times critic is kind of optimistic about it. Other places I have read, and other people I have talked to are not. I'm just saying, I am going to be there on August 3rd and I am going to see what happens.
Do I have time for one more question?
Joe Harris: Go ahead.
What is your opinion of CGI animation taking over the traditionally drawn animation process?
Joe Harris: Inevitable is the only word I can use. God knows they have done some incredible things. You can't argue with Harry Potter. It's a totally different world from cell animation. Of course I love it. Visually it is very stimulating. I have worked on the computer. And it is a tedious and mechanical process. The only thing that I worry about is that it maintains a certain amount of creativity. There needs to be artistry in what is being done. Not just plane crashes or explosions and weird creatures. The people that do it need to have a sense of style. They need to get away from noise and bangs and lots of movement, and get back to characterization. As is done with Harry Potter. You know? That is a perfect example.
Gotcha. That is all the time I have been allowed. I am at twenty minutes exactly. That was great talking to you today.
Joe Harris: You too. I hope that this works for you.
Are you kidding me? This has been great.
Joe Harris: You are in Tulsa, right?
No, I am in Los Angeles.
Joe Harris: Oh, you are in L.A. I got you mixed up. Sorry. Well, that is my former stamping ground out there. So, have a good time and enjoy it.
Hey, you do the same.
Underdog opens August 3rd, 2007. The Ultimate Underdog DVD Collection, Vol. 1, 2, and 3 all come out on July 24th, 2007.
Dont't forget to also check out: Ultimate Underdog Collection, Vol. 2, Ultimate Underdog Collection, Vol. 3