My earliest recognition and connection with pop culture came at the age of four via “The Banana Splits,” a live-action Hanna-Barbera television show that first ran on Saturday mornings from 1968 through 1970. Revisiting the show again so many years later via the DVD compilation “The Banana Splits Unpeeled,” it is astonishing to see how the program that hypnotized the impressionable four-year-old version of me can still enrapture the current pushing-40 version.
For those out of the loop, the Banana Splits are a quartet of human-sized animals who live in a funky pop-art clubhouse where they play pop music, drive their dune buggies through the rooms, and engage in various acts of lunacy with their furniture (including a fresh-mouthed cuckoo clock that always points out their faults). The quartet consists of Fleegle, a yellow dog and lead guitarist who is supposedly the leader of the bunch but who never seems quite in control; Bingo, a grinning orange ape who plays drums and offers zany commentary on the chaos around them; Drooper, the laid-back, put-upon bass-playing lion who is usually on the receiving end of mayhem (including being swallowed by an omnivorous garbage can or being beaten up–albeit off-screen–by the Sour Grapes Bunch, a gang of little girls in purple mini-skirts); and Snorky, a wooly elephant who played the synthesizer and communicated in what sounds like a Morse Code of bicycle horn honks. Except for Fleegle, all of the Banana Splits wear sunglasses 24/7 (and as a side note, I began wearing sunglasses at age four because of this show and still wear shades, both indoor and out!). Sid and Marty Krofft designed the costumes and set, but had no role in the show’s content.
“The Banana Splits Unpeeled” brings the first three episodes of the 1968-69 season together and it is a riotous, loopy trip. The Banana Splits were a combination of “The Monkees” and “Laugh-In” and engaged in a wild mix of blackout sketches, jokes, surreal sight gags (such as vacuuming the clothing off people in paintings), and music video numbers. The music is surprisingly good (especially the infectious program theme, “The Tra-La-La Song”) and the video sequences were beautifully edited and very funny–in many cases, they were superior to their “Monkees” inspiration. One number, timed to a ballad called “Wait Till Tomorrow,” finds the Banana Splits driving into San Francisco in a red convertible and running amok around Fisherman’s Wharf and Lombard Street. Another number, “Good Day for a Parade,” has them subversively disrupting a Civil War-style military drill procession at an amusement park (and the underlying slam at the military order was clearly subversive for a 1968 kids show!). In several nods to the era, other songs are performed with a backdrop of kaleidoscopic psychedelia which is so outrageous that you’d half expect to see Keir Dullea chasing a monolith across the screen.
Peppered throughout “The Banana Splits Unpeeled” were the Hanna-Barbera cartoon shorts that were included in the original show. These include “The Arabian Knights,” a comic-adventure romp set in a pre-pre-Saddam Baghdad, and “The Three Musketeers,” a curiously dramatic series based on the Dumas warhorse. (Why they didn’t include the more comic “Musketeers” romp of “Yippee, Yappee and Yahooey” is a mystery.) But the best diversion here is the live-action adventure serial “Danger Island,” with its hilariously far-fetched tales of lost treasure, lost professors and lost tribes in a pirate-thick Pacific archipelago. Director Richard Donner helmed those episodes, which included in the cast a very young and handsome Jan-Michael Vincent as “Link” (as opposed to the current version of Jan-Michael Vincent, who could easily play “Missing Link”). Yet the oxygen for “Danger Island” was stuntman-turned-actor Kim Kahana as the slapsticky Chongo, who mixed gymnastic feats of strength with a Jerry Lewis-sense of hammy insanity.
“The Banana Splits Unpeeled” will offer a rich nostalgia kick for those who grew up with Fleegle, Bingo, Drooper and Snorky, and it will also prove to be an entertaining diversion to today’s kiddie generation (especially in view of the icky stuff they are being subjected to on television). With any luck, more episodes of the program (especially the 1969-70 second season, which have not been made available since their initial broadcast) can come back into circulation. And if that happens, then there is real cause for a joyful reprise of “The Tra-La-La Song” among Banana buddies.