Whatever Happened to Total TeleVision productions?
Biggers: No. We made some pitches to some other companies. They were all very nice, but not a lot of them wanted to get into the business. They didn’t want to get into the business of having somebody create shows. It’s another business. General Mills got in there quite by accident at a time when there was nobody doing it, so they were willing to do it. Later, companies just weren’t interested.
Arnold: So were the last shows you made The Beagles or Go Go Gophers?
Biggers: I think they were The Beagles.
Arnold: After you arguably “closed your doors,” since you didn’t really close your doors, what did you and Chet and Treadwell and Joe do next? Did you just go your separate ways and just have this company around or what?
Biggers: Chet and I stayed together. We had a two-year contract with CBS Enterprises to develop shows for them and developed one at Terrytoons. We developed a series called The Hatfields and the McCoys and developed it for Fred with his blessing, but he never would commit at the last minute.
Arnold: And that was also animated?
Arnold: There was a lot of merchandising during the ’70s and the ’80s with Underdog. Did you handle all that?
Biggers: We didn’t handle any of that. We got half the rights. Even now, somebody just put out a new set of glasses for Underdog and a new statue of Underdog, but you go to those companies and you sign with them and they just take off. You don’t do anything.
Arnold: So you didn’t handle merchandising or licensing?
Biggers: No. P.A.T. was handling it. They were called Leonardo at times. I don’t know which ones, but the offices were called P.A.T. and Peter Pieche, and we got half the money.
Arnold: There was resurgence in popularity of Underdog in the ’70s. Did you ever think, “Maybe we should do some new episodes”?
Biggers: Well, in the book, it talks about when Peter came to us and wanted to see if we could sell a new Underdog series. In there is a write-up for that, with new plots and stuff like that. I don’t know what year that was. It didn’t sell, but we came close.
Arnold: How did you feel about the censoring in the ’80s and early ’90s of Underdog episodes where they removed the scenes where he eats the Super Energy Pill for fear of teaching kids about drugs?
Biggers: At the book signing on Tuesday, a guy who asked us to sign a book for him said, “I probably shouldn’t have loved Underdog as much as I did. It made me very sick. I had to have my stomach pumped because I ate a whole bottle of aspirin.” He used them to put in his ring. Mothers wrote in about that, and I suppose all things considered we probably wouldn’t have put that in. But it was a great gimmick because we were looking for an Achilles’ heel. Underdog was too damn perfect! And just like Superman has his Kryptonite. No, it didn’t bother us.
Arnold: I have to admit when I was growing up, I used these little candies called Smarties. Those were what I considered my “Underdog Super Energy Pills.”
Biggers: You were pretty safe! And you probably got energy from the sugar! [laughter]
Arnold: [Laughter] Yeah, I probably just wanted to admit that it did have an influence on me, but not in a negative way! Did you know that there was a Bullwinkle’s Restaurant during the ’80s and early ’90s?
Arnold: They had little robot characters, like at the Disney parks, with Bullwinkle on stage. They had Underdog playing a saxophone.
Biggers: I’ve heard about stuff like that, but it was all P.A.T. Somebody just sent me a menu from a small restaurant in New Jersey that has an “Under Dog on Sweet Polly Pure Bread”! [laughter]
Arnold: [Laughter] That’s pretty good!
Biggers: We didn’t sanction any of that stuff.
Arnold: You sold your properties to Broadway, then Broadway purchased Golden Books, then Broadway sold everything to Classic Media. So now, Classic Media is making a live-action Underdog film with Jason Lee.
Biggers: Right. It’s in Providence, Rhode Island. I think they’re wrapping. Nancy and my daughter visited the set. I was invited, but I didn’t go with them. They went to the set a couple of times, and I don’t have any idea what kind of movie it’ll be or whether it will be a success, but I hope it is a success. At least we get the rights from music, so…
Arnold: That was my next question. Do you still get a piece of the action?
Biggers: Just the music from ASCAP.
Arnold: There’s a Tennessee Tuxedo and a Go Go Gophers DVD out, and they don’t put the theme songs in. On the Tennessee Tuxedo one, they put in a demo version of the theme song. Is that because of paying royalties?
Biggers: That’s all it is. Yeah.
Arnold: I found that disappointing and even told them so.
Biggers: That was pretty shortsighted of them.
Arnold: The theme songs are almost the best part. They were very well written.
Biggers: I appreciate that. I had an enjoyable time writing them.
Arnold: Did you write anything musically before doing all of these shows? Like, did you write any jingles for commercials or anything?
Biggers: I did some jingles for commercials.
Arnold: Which ones?
Biggers: They never got on! I had written a musical and all kinds of stuff, but nothing that had been performed or published, so one of the reasons I enjoyed doing the company is so that I could do the music. I had a lot of ulterior motives in forming the company!
Arnold: Is there a complete listing of all the TTV shows of what aired originally and when?
Biggers: It doesn’t exist as far as I know. If it does, it would have to be General Mills that would have it. They scheduled any way that they wanted to, and they did it station by station any way they wanted to. Underdog was the one on the network longest. Nine years on the network. That set a record for kids’ shows on Saturday morning. Most of it was syndicated. So I doubt you’d find schedules. If you found them, you wouldn’t be able to read ’em.
Arnold: Underdog was usually a four-part story, but I’ve seen some single episodes. Why was that?
Biggers: I don’t remember any single-part episodes, but there were some two-part episodes. That was so that you could end at a certain place, so that they could end when they wanted to so you could get out in two episodes.
Arnold: Are you still in contact with all the people you worked with who are still around? Obviously you are with Chet. Is Treadwell still around?
Biggers: Yes. I don’t talk to him much anymore since he moved to Long Island. He’s in real estate, and I think he wanted to get out of the hubbub. I’ve talked to him I guess once in the last year, and I’ve talked to Joe a couple of times.
Arnold: Are you in touch with some of the voice actors who are still alive?
Biggers: No, because Tread handled the voice tracks. We would decide who we wanted and either have preselected them or have Tread do some auditions and also tape some selections. But we practically never went in there. We talked to the voice people, but they didn’t know us from a hole in the wall. Allen Swift was our first voice selection. We always used him. He was always great. He did Itchy Brother and Odie Cologne on our first show.
Arnold: Do you think he was the longest-lasting, most consistent voice you used for all the series?
Biggers: Absolutely. We were so used to using imitators that when we dreamed up the Hunter, we were going to use a Kenny Delmar impersonator. It was Tread who said, “Why don’t we call Kenny Delmar?” And we called him and he leaped at it. In the movies, they always did a chicken of him [Foghorn Leghorn] and always had some imitator’s voice [Mel Blanc]. He always got sick of that. So, we used Kenny Delmar, and he became a voice of other characters as well.
Arnold: Yes, I know he did McBragg.
Arnold: You tried to always tie in to a celebrity even if you didn’t have the actual celebrity. Are you an old-movie buff?
Biggers: No. There are two things there that go together. One is that when we did our shows, there were mostly one-TV homes. You didn’t think of five TV sets in the house, you thought of one. And you thought we’ve got to do something here that not only appeals to little kids, but also to bigger kids, or they’ll take the TV away from the little kids. And you’ve got to do something if you can that has some appeal for adults. And also, we had to sell to adults. You might not think that’s important, but if they don’t laugh, they don’t think it’s funny, you understand? You can say to them, “Kids will love this!” and if they don’t laugh themselves, they don’t think it’s funny. So, in dealing with those things, we found out that it’s wonderful if you use voices that mothers or fathers had seen in the movies. In other words, not the person but their voice, it gives them a feeling of familiarity and they kind of enjoy it. So we found that was true. It was also easier with older kids, so we developed that and used it, whether they’d seen it on TV or seen it in movies or whatever.
Arnold: For me, it became like a history lesson after a while. I’d have to say that I saw the original Four Feathers a couple of years ago. I said, “There’s Commander McBragg!”
Biggers: [Laughter] C. Aubrey Smith! The other thing was, I did the original presentations for the account executives who were handling the shows for Gordon. I didn’t do them like I was with the company. It was mine. So, I did the presentations, and we had to use voices that I could imitate reasonably, so that was the reason for Ronald Coleman and Eugene Pallette, guys like that, who I could actually imitate. So the first person we got who I can’t imitate was Wally Cox. But it didn’t matter, because everybody knew Wally Cox’s voice so well that it didn’t make any difference.
Arnold: When I was a kid Wally Cox was on Hollywood Squares, and I said, “It’s Underdog! [laughter]
Biggers: He’s been Mr. Peepers and Hiram Holiday, so he’d been on TV a lot. His voice was well known to a lot of people. The other thing was, in that same vein, how we chose names. We had a series called The Hunter. We found that when kids read about a hunter, they thought about The Hunter! That’s where Tennessee Tuxedo got his name. Every time they saw Tennessee in the books or in school or heard about it on the radio, they thought about our character. That’s called “top spin,” and that’s how Underdog got his name. America loves an underdog. It’s hard to read a sports section of a newspaper without seeing the word “underdog”. You hear it on the news all the time.
Arnold: It worked! When I was a kid, I thought that the reason he was called Underdog was that he was wearing his underwear [laughter]. In fact, my brother even called him Underwear Dog!
Biggers: [Laughter] I never heard that one before! That’s even better!
Arnold: Before I knew what it meant, I wondered why he was “Underdog”…why isn’t he “Superdog”? I understood the “dog,” but where does this “under” part come from?
Biggers: Champion of the underdogs of the world!
Mark Arnold notes that author royalties from How Underdog Was Born go to the nonprofit organization Victory Over Violence.
Also Over Underdog
An Interview With Chet Stover, TTV Writer
Mark Arnold: Your book covered everything up to and including the creation of Underdog, but it didn’t talk about later creations like The Beagles or The Colossal Show. What was your participation in everything?
Chet Stover: Well, we were equals. Buck did the music.
Arnold: I know that you’re an artist because you included your artwork in the book, but did you do any of the character design, or did you leave that up to Joe Harris?
Stover: The way that worked was, I talked to Joe Harris. I brought him into the company, and he and I worked together. I would tell Joe exactly what we wanted. For instance, sketching Underdog. And then Joe would do a whole bunch of sketches, and since we worked so far apart, he would mail them. Then Buck and I would go over them and make any corrections. I remember sometimes putting some of his drawings up on a window in a hotel we used to work in, and we’d trace on them, making changes, and then we’d send them back to Joe.
Arnold: Where was Joe located?
Stover: Long Island.
Arnold: When you worked for DFS, did you work for any of the other cereal characters, like Trix Rabbit?
Stover: Well, the Trix Rabbit was a commercial, and I was the creative director on that. Joe designed the Trix Rabbit, too.
Arnold: What animation house did you use?
Stover: I’m not sure. Maybe we used somebody in New York.
Arnold: I remember reading somewhere that the earliest King Leonardo episodes were done through a company called TV Spots. Does that sound familiar?
Stover: No, it doesn’t. I’m not familiar with that at all. On King Leonardo, I did the original drawings, but they’re very crude [laughter]!
Arnold: [Laughter] Aw, they’re not that bad! Did you have a hand with any of the later cereal characters for DFS, or by the time you got Total TeleVision were you totally split from that end of it?
Stover: Yes, yes. I had left the agency, and Joe did too.
Arnold: In a book from Life magazine about the Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade, there was a picture of the Underdog balloon with a blueprint, and it lists Total TeleVision at 366 Madison Avenue. Was that a real address or just a mailstop?
Stover: Well, when we were still working at the agency, you could rent office space for just a day, or you could have it as a mail drop, so that’s what we did a number of times.
Arnold: It seemed like all of the shows were created in sort of a drunken haze. Buck and I had a laugh about this. What is your take on that?
Stover: You sound like my son! They read the book and said, “My God, you did everything with martinis!” [laughter] That was an era in the industry when Madison Avenue lived on martinis.
Arnold: Nothing wrong with it. It’s just foreign today.
Stover: Yes, it’s incredible. I know for a fact that there were times in the agency when there was no use to talk to some guys after lunch because they were out.
Arnold: Did you guys equally create the characters, as you say in the book, or did one person say, “I’ve got this great idea for a show” and everyone just agreed?
Stover: We worked as a team. We created the shows, created the characters.
Arnold: Even the secondary segments like Go Go Gophers?
Stover: Yes, it was all done by us.
Arnold: When I was a kid, I got a comic book called The Colossal Show. On the cover it was copyrighted by Total TeleVision productions. What are your thoughts about that show?
Stover: Actually, I’ve never heard of a comic book about it, but we did present a show to NBC. Mr. Colossal was “Sgt. Bilko”. It was a Phil Silvers type voice.
Arnold: There was one issue of a comic book published through Gold Key or Western Publishing, and it says “Brand New” on the cover.
Stover: I don’t remember doing that at all. We may have had a deal with Western while at DFS. DFS had a deal with Golden Books and all that stuff. I’m very vague about all that stuff.
Arnold: Buck explained that you had a deal with NBC and that at the last moment they backed out.
Arnold: He mentioned that there was pilot actually produced through Terrytoons and not Gamma.
Stover: Yes, Terrytoons. I don’t know how they got involved with that. They operated somewhere out of Westchester County. I remember going out there to do a joint venture with somebody, and they were looking for a way to get back into television.
Arnold: Terrytoons was doing Tom Terrific for television. Did you have any involvement in that?
Stover: No, but I do know that with Tom Terrific there was this guy named Jules Feiffer. He was involved with Terrytoons also, I believe, and that was the only time I met him.
Arnold: How did you get into Terrytoons instead of Gamma? Was Gamma closing its doors at that point?
Stover: I don’t know. I don’t remember how that happened. We didn’t go looking for Terrytoons. It was a whole network sort of thing. Buck and I had an agent who somehow got involved with Terrytoons. I think that’s the way it worked.
Arnold: Buck confirmed that you and Jay Ward were separate companies, but you both shared P.A.T. [Producers Associates for Television] and the Gamma animation studio. I don’t know if you read the Bullwinkle book written by Keith Scott, but he said that Jay Ward so disliked the Gamma animation that by the time he got to George of the Jungle, he had it animated in Hollywood. It seemed like the same thing happened with TTV, but more like by default.
Stover: Gamma was put together by General Mills, and DFS had a hand in it. We had nothing to do with it.
Arnold: After this, you pretty much stopped TTV.
Stover: We had about five or six fully storyboarded presentations, and we never sold anything more.
Arnold: Was it due to not being able to get a single show sponsorship, as Buck implies?
Stover: No, I think basically the networks didn’t want to have anything to do with DFS or an advertising agency, and we had “advertising agency” stamped all over us. That was the day when the agency and the client told the networks what they would draw. The networks didn’t approach us with King Leonardo or Underdog. It worked the other way ’round. We gave the presentation to the agency, and then General Mills went to the network. With the clout they had, they could spend the money on Saturday morning TV and tell the networks what to put on and in what time slot. They worked out some kind of a deal. When Freddy [Silverman] came in, he didn’t want to have anything to do with this, so we had a tough time after that.
Arnold: You weren’t willing to budge and become more like Filmation or Hanna-Barbera?
Stover: We wouldn’t have minded being like Hanna-Barbera, however! [laughter] No, we were sort of settled in the way that we did things.
Arnold: Buck went on to work for NBC after the Total TeleVision days. What did you do?
Stover: Oh, I went on to do a number of things. I worked for a couple of years over at Milton-Bradley and did a couple of their commercials.
Arnold: Did you design any of the toys?
Stover: No. I did all of their advertising.
Arnold: Did you form your own agency?
Stover: No, they had a house agency. I also flew out to Australia and did a series called Around the World in 80 Days. It was a cartoon. I did that for General Mills directly, and it was animated down there.
Arnold: That wasn’t Total TeleVision, either?
Stover: Oh, no.
Arnold: In the ’70s, there was a lot of merchandising of Underdog. You didn’t have anything to do with it, but you received residuals?
Arnold: Were you in contact with the voices?
Stover: Occasionally. That was something Treadwell [Covington] handled. We decided on who the voices would be and got their agents to do that. We didn’t get involved with that. I went down for a couple of sessions.
Theme Main Event
A good theme song transcends its origins, and the great ones survive their host programs. As Underdog is not the only cartoon character with a swinging theme song, we recall some of our other favorites from animated shows (sorry, Batman).
Sammy Lerner, musical director at Paramount Studios, wrote the Popeye theme song for a 1933 Betty Boop cartoon titled “Popeye the Sailor,” which marked the sailor man’s film debut. Indeed strong to the finitch, generations of children know the song even if they haven’t seen the cartoons. It’s become part of our DNA.
The sly, slinky horns perfectly complemented the sly, slinky Pink Panther, whose Henry Mancini-written theme introduced the 1963 live-action movie with a title sequence directed by Friz Freleng, who then went on to direct the animated shorts.
Far from prehistoric, the Flintstones theme, with its insistent percussion and horns melding perfectly with a very modern melody, was the 1960 brainchild of composer Hoyt Curtin, who also wrote theme music for cartoons including Jonny Quest, The Jetsons and Hong Kong Phooey. The memorable lyrics were by studio honchos Hanna and Barbera.
Hands down, the best song ever with “radioactive blood” in its lyrics, the 1967 Spider-Man theme song is arguably a case where the theme music is more entertaining than the show that followed. Academy Award winner Paul Francis Webster wrote the lyrics, and Bob Harris composed the music. On their last album in 1995, the Ramones knocked their cover of the song out of the park.
In 1989, Matt Groening approached composer Danny Elfman about composing the theme to his new cartoon, The Simpsons. Groening gave Elfman some examples of the musical feel he sought, including the theme from The Jetsons and a Remington electric shaver jingle. Elfman recombined these influences and wrought an instrumental theme that has remained fresh and exuberant for nearly two decades.
Honorable mention: SpongeBob SquarePants, Gigantor, Josie and the Pussycats, Jonny Quest, Speed Racer and Care Bears (just kidding about that last one).
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