Tuesday, April 15, 2014

The Subversive Genius of Rocky and Bullwinkle

If you’re under 40, you probably believe The Simpsons is the most sophisticated and hilarious animated series ever created. If you are over 40, that distinction still belongs to The Bullwinkle Show, aka Rocky and His Friends, aka Rocky & Bullwinkle. The attention to show titles may have been as haphazard as the quality of the animation, but satire and silliness have rarely coexisted so brilliantly as they did in the adventures of one plucky squirrel and one dimwitted moose. 


The series didn’t get much attention when it debuted in 1959, the same year as Bonanza, The Many Loves of Dobie Gillis and The Twilight Zone. It was animated, which meant it was just a kid’s show, and it was syndicated, suggesting it probably wasn’t good enough for the networks. But like Star Trek it found its audience after being canceled, and remained a television staple for the next four decades.

Created by Jay Ward and Bill Scott (Scott also provided Bullwinkle’s voice), Rocky and His Friends would raise bad puns to an art form and turn obscure historical and political references into punch lines long before Dennis Miller anchored Weekend Update.

The creators assembled an all-star writing team of guys used to being the smartest person in every room they entered – Chris Hayward, Chris Jenkins, George Atkins, Al Burns, Lloyd Turner – and they wrote jokes more for themselves than the kids in the audience. How many 7 year-olds would laugh when Boris Badenov’s boss, Fearless Leader, was described as “Pottsylvania’s answer to Bernard Baruch?” But the parents were laughing. 

When I interviewed Jay Ward’s daughter Ramona, she told me her father always believed that “children need to come forward, and the show should not talk down to them.”

Wossamatta U
You can watch any of the serial-style adventures of Rocky and Bullwinkle and understand what made the show so unique and so special. But the story of Wossamatta U best exemplifies the series’ perfect blend of sophistication, silliness and social commentary.

The tale begins when the regents of financially-strapped Wossamatta University vote to increase revenues by “recruiting the best football team money can buy.”

“How will we pay for it?” asks one administrator.

“How else?” replies his colleague, “We’ll fire a few English teachers.”

Bullwinkle is recruited and given the standard course load for a football player on scholarship, which includes a class in crochet and reading Dick and Jane at the Seashore. When the coach tells quarterback Bullwinkle, “Let’s see you throw one,” Bullwinkle replies, “Throw a game already? I haven’t even practiced yet!”

Boris and Natasha turn up, of course, with plans to clean up by gambling on Wossamotta games. When the money starts rolling in from the football program, the professors make plans to buy new books and lab equipment, but instead the funds are spent on an indoor baseball diamond and a new home for the football coach.

For the final game of the season, between Wossamotta and Boris’s team, the Mud City Manglers, Boris borrows his game plan from the Civil War. He is then accosted by a representative from the “League of Confederate Corrections,” who insists the Civil War be referred to as “The War Between the States.” Rocky and Bullwinkle take on the absurdities of political correctness, decades before the term was even coined. 

After paying homage to the writers I should also mention the enormous contributions made to these shorts by William Conrad’s intense narration (“When our last episode was switched off in utter disgust by 37 million viewers…”) and June Foray, who voiced both Rocky and Natasha.

Here are 5 other classic moments from the Jay Ward canon.

1. A Promo Generates Public Outrage
At the end of one program, Bullwinkle told the kids of America to pull the knobs off their TV sets, so they couldn’t change channels “and that way we’ll be sure to be with you next week.” The following week, Bullwinkle had to tell the 20,000 kids who did so to glue the knobs back on.

2. Fractured Fairy Tales: Sleeping Beauty-land
This series added satiric twists to famous bedtime stories. When they tackled Sleeping Beauty, a handsome prince (who happens to look a lot like Walt Disney) has second thoughts about waking his true love with a kiss. Instead, he turns her into the main attraction at the Sleeping Beauty-land theme park. “Disney loved it,” said Mrs. Ward. 

3. Moosylvania
In this remarkably clever and insightful send-up of government bureaucracy, Bullwinkle campaigns for Moosylvania statehood. When the government declares the region a disaster area, it offers to provide assistance. The first airlift consists of helium, maple syrup and bubblegum.

4. Peabody and Sherman: William Shakespeare
The puns and wordplay in the Peabody shorts were hard to top. When the WABAC machine brings Sherman and Peabody to Stratford-on-Avon, they find Sir Francis Bacon accusing Shakespeare of stealing his plays. When he clobbers Will with a flower pot, Shakespeare angrily yells, “Bacon! You’ll fry for this!” 

5. The Lawsuit That Wasn’t
Durward Kirby, a popular 1950s television personality, threatened to sue Jay Ward over a story in which Rocky and Bullwinkle search for a hat known as the “Kerward Derby.” Ward responded in the press by saying, “Oh, that would be wonderful. Sue us fast because we need the publicity.” That was the end of the lawsuit.

I started this piece by splitting the generations between those who love Bullwinkle and those who love The Simpsons. Of course it’s possible to love them both; Simpsons creator Matt Groening certainly does. Homer Simpson’s middle initial, J, is a tribute to Jay Ward.


  1. No doubt about it, I love both The Simpsons and Bullwinkle & Rocky. How could you not?

  2. The constant intrusions by Colonel Jefferson Beauregard Lee of The League of Confederate Correctors to say "War Between the States" whenever the word "civil" was even hinted was hilarious. At one point two Mud City Manglers were about to set a bomb....

    Sybil: Are yous ready, Gertrude?
    Gertrude: Let's have it, Sybil.
    Colonel Beauregard: Ah-ah. War between the...
    Gertrude: I said "Sybil", not "Civil"!
    Colonel Beauregard: Sorry, ma'am.

    The last frame would cause modern audiences to faint. Using the plans for the Civil War, Wossamotta U takes the South while the Mud City Manglers take the North. William Conrad exclaims loudly while a Confederate flag fills the screen: "in this case, the South won!!!". Immediately after you see Colonel Jefferson Beauregard Lee, smiling with his cigar in his hand, say "in that case you can call it the Civil War!"

  3. With all the content that is now possible to show on TV that would have been forbidden 40 years ago, it's always interesting to me to find examples of content that was acceptable 40 years ago but would be banned today.