BOOTLEG FILES 400: “The Abbott and Costello Cartoon Show” (1967-68 syndicated TV series).
LAST SEEN: Some of the episodes are available on YouTube.
AMERICAN HOME VIDEO: A questionable 1986 VHS release included nine cartoons.
REASON FOR BOOTLEG STATUS: Unclear.
CHANCES OF SEEING A COMMERCIAL DVD RELEASE: Possible, though there is no great call for it.
This week marks the 400th column in The Bootleg Files series. I wanted to pause at this milestone moment and give my deepest thanks to Mark Bell and the Film Threat family for hosting this Friday feature, and to the Film Threat readers for their wonderful feedback and support.
So how am I celebrating the 400th column? This time around, I am bringing back an unusual and long-forgotten blip in the careers of two of the most significant teams in entertainment history: Abbott and Costello and Hanna-Barbera.
During the 1940s and early 1950s, Bud Abbott and Lou Costello were among the popular entertainers in show business. By the mid-1950s, however, their popularity abruptly tanked due to a series of crummy films and their reluctance to embrace new material – after two decades, everybody knew Who was on first! The duo split up in 1957 and Costello continued as a solo performer, making a number of guest appearances on television and starring in the B-grade flick “The 30 Foot Bride of Candy Rock” before his untimely death in 1959.
Abbott, however, chose to retire when his partnership with Costello ended. By 1961, financial problems related to the Internal Revenue Service required that he go back to work. He tried to revive the Abbot and Costello act with comic Candy Candido taking on the Costello role and he appeared in a dramatic episode of “General Electric Theater” opposite Lee Marvin. However, Abbott was not comfortable without his late partner and abruptly went back into retirement.
In 1967, Abbott re-emerged from retirement via the Hanna-Barbera animated TV studio. Hanna-Barbera noted the popularity of cartoon series based on the Three Stooges and Laurel and Hardy, and the studio believed that similar success could be obtained by making cartoon characters out of Abbott and Costello. Abbott was hired to provide his voice for the character inspired by his dapper yet bossy on-screen persona, while Stan Irwin filled in for Costello. Veteran performers Mel Blanc, Don Messick and Janet Waldo were also brought in to handle other character voices.
Of course, this wouldn’t be the first time that Abbott and Costello inspired cartoons: in the 1940s, Warner Bros. imagined the duo as inept cats trying to catch a smart-aleck Tweety Pie and, later, as obstreperous mice taking on a wily feline. For this series, however, the Hanna-Barbera animators used caricatures of the team from the movie heyday, with Abbott as the sharp dresser and Costello as the rumpled slob.
“The Abbott and Costello Cartoon Show” was created as in conjunction with RKO General and Jomar Productions and was sold to local television on a syndicated basis via Gold Key Entertainment and King World Productions. It is not clear why Hanna-Barbera decided against putting the program into the lucrative Saturday morning section of major network television, nor is it clear why so many different companies were involved in the creation and release of the series.
Except for the Costello character’s occasional rueful acknowledgment “I’m a bad boy,” there was nothing in “The Abbott and Costello Cartoon Show” that resembled the team’s classic work in movies or television. Instead, the 156 five-minute cartoons produced for the series followed predictable Hanna-Barbera slapstick tomfoolery, with the characters running afoul of oversized animals, weird monsters and various bad-guys with names like Sinister Dr. Sinister and Swindler the Magician.
Some of the cartoons were bizarre. For example, “Teenie Weenie Genie” finds Abbott and Costello as lamp salesmen in old Arabia. After rubbing a lamp, a giant genie in a diaper appears. The genie explains he cannot do magic because he is too young – he is only 200 years old – and then he goes on a destructive rampage that includes eating a barber pole that he mistakes for a peppermint stick.
“Monsterkeet” has Costello as a would-be Edison who invents a formula that causes objects to grow into gigantic proportions. Abbott wants to dispose of the formula by pouring it into a fountain, but the formula causes the amphibians and fish in the fountain to turn into behemoths that wind up dancing with Abbott and Costello.
“Pinocchio’s Double Trouble” retells the Collodi tale with Abbott as Gepetto and Costello as the wooden boy that comes to life. Abbott winds up saving his wooden creation from a giant “cannibal termite.”
The only genuine fun in these cartoons comes from hearing Abbott’s familiar raspy voice. But he had very little inspired material, and too many of the cartoons placed a surplus emphasis on Costello, with Abbott barely getting screen time. Irwin’s Costello, sadly, was an irritating and puerile fool that was eons removed from the beloved persona that Lou Costello crafted for audiences.
“The Abbott and Costello Cartoon Show” was packaged in 39 episodes consisting of four cartoons. The original run was a weekly endeavor that began on September 1, 1967, and lasted through June 1, 1968. The show initially had no merchandising push to support it, although a company called Charlton Comics later published a comic book series based on the Hanna-Barbera concept of Abbott and Costello.
Although it was never a great favorite with kiddie audiences, “The Abbott and Costello Cartoon Show” was a time-filler staple of independent local TV stations through the late 1960s and 1970s. For Abbott, who did not receive residuals for his classic film and TV work, this series was his main source of income until his death in 1974.
By the early 1980s, “The Abbott and Costello Cartoon Show” fell out of circulation. In 1986, a company called Interglobal Video put out a VHS release called “Abbott & Costello Cartoon Carnival Number One” that consisted of nine episodes. I don’t know if this company properly licensed the cartoons – there was never a second volume. To date, there has been no DVD release of the cartoons. Considering the number of companies involved in the series (as well as the possible input from the estates of Abbott and Costello regarding licensing rights on home entertainment releases), I would assume that the cartoons are tied up in legal knots.
A number of bootleg copies from the series can be found on YouTube, both in English and other languages. However, the real joy of Abbott and Costello can be found in the flesh-and-blood comics and not their animated facsimiles. Anyone who truly loves Bud and Lou would do well to forget about this silly and deservedly obscure endeavor and seek out the genuine treasures that the team created.
IMPORTANT NOTICE: The unauthorized duplication and distribution of copyright-protected material, either for crass commercial purposes or profit-free s***s and giggles, is not something that the entertainment industry appreciates. On occasion, law enforcement personnel boost their arrest quotas by collaring cheery cinephiles engaged in such activities. So if you are going to copy and distribute bootleg material, a word to the wise: don’t get caught. Oddly, the purchase and ownership of bootleg DVDs is perfectly legal. Go figure!