As caddywumpus as this season has been, we’ve been on-again / off-again about whether to cover the movie release schedule this year. On the one hand, devoted fandom lining up at box offices to catch the latest Marvel hero installment or Star Wars chapter is what geekdom is all about. On the other hand, a microscopic son of a bitch just shut down the movie theater industry along with half of human civilization, leaving theater release schedules to whither in delays.
So when Scoob has been re-announced to open for at-home PVOD view (PVOD : Premium Video on Demand) instead of theater release – a first of its kind, historians note – we were now going to tentatively run with our original plan to talk about the Scooby-Doo franchise.
But then another bug is in the system: an author writing for the Smithsonian has, somehow, out Penguin-Pete’d me by posting a history piece tying the paranormal pooch to 1960s’ moral panics and the RFK assassination. Don’t look at me that way, it’s right there in the headline. The author strings together Kennedy’s demise and the Scooby-Doo franchise with, pardon my snark, half-baked research and theories. I was waiting to read that Shaggy was spotted on the Grassy Knoll.
Well, how am I going to top that? Here I am, the guy who tied a modern RPG archetype to conspiracies rooted around the Knights Templar, albeit with better scholarship, and my thunder has been stolen by the greater crackpot. Fortunately, I have a secret weapon: I’m Generation X, and grew up actually watching the franchise.
The Scooby-Doo gang were originally going to be yet another crime-fighting rock band
The late 1960s and early 1970s were completely saturated with rock star cartoon characters who got in adventures and also played gigs. Modern audiences have no grasp of how omnipresent this trope was. Look, every one of these cartoons had a band:
The trend was largely set in motion by The Archies, an animated act produced by Don Kirshner who had a surprise hit with “Sugar, Sugar” (#1 US Billboard Hot 100, 1969). Kirshner, the music mogul who pretty much wrote the book on greedy studio executives exploiting talent (and I’m speaking as a fan of the guy!), seized onto this formula of stuffing nameless session musicians working for scale into stuffy studios to crank out years of tepid pop which would then be lip-synched by stiff cartoon characters at Filmation and Hanna-Barbera during what we still refer to as “The Dark Age of Animation.” Saturday morning cartoons en masse followed suit.
Scooby-Doo was born from that swamp, kids! No kidding, when I heard Filmation was picking up the Star Trek animated series, the first words out of my mouth were “I’m amazed they didn’t give them a band.”
Fred Silverman, who had produced The Archie Show series for TV, was keen to repeat this success, and in the early stages planned the show based on the template from an ancient TV sitcom know as The Many Loves of Dobie Gillis. Dobie Gillis’ beatnik chum Maynard G. Krebs was played by Bob Denver, whom you know better today as Gilligan. You can still see a bare resemblance between Bob Denver and the character of Shaggy. But the band idea was mercifully scrapped.
The mighty iron will of formulaic TV had its way regardless and by the second season of the show, every episode had a canned pop song playing over the show’s signature wacky chase sequences. No band, no problem, but we are filling time with the blood, sweat, and tears of studio session hacks anyway. It was Hollywood in the ’70s; they had to do something with all the flower-power kids wandering down from up north after the acid wore off. Here’s a compendium of Scooby-Doo chases:
So what made Scooby-Doo so popular?
Ah yes, the core of the thesis! I will now add my speculation onto the pile of essays all over the Internet attempting to answer this question again.
Prerequisite: The Nerdist, who shrugs and says “It’s just the right mixture of scary and silly!” Hummm, yes, there is a rather crude vigor to the series elements. True, for many kids, this was their first introduction to horror. The monsters were always innovative, genuinely menacing, but not too much for tots to handle. Diverse Tech Geek concurs: The Scooby-Doo recipe just mixed the elements of comedy, horror, and mystery just so, like the winning Coca-Cola formula. Meanwhile a fairly lively writer at Slate polls a random group to produce shrugs and one more pat “just the right formula” answer.
While you’re at it, tickle your brain an extra twitch with this way-too-deep analysis of Scooby-Doo. That author says Scooby-Doo was the first kids’ show to feature “counter-culture” characters. Please re-consult our above infographic! Wrong, sir!
Yeah, you go ahead and study those writers. They’re groping for the answer, but they weren’t there. I have the answer:
It was “The DARK AGE Of Animation”! REALLY REALLY REALLY DARK!
You don’t have to be very good to stand out from a pile of rotten yak manure.
Even the littlest of us kids, we’d watch the show with some interest for a few episodes until we noticed that every episode told the same story with a different guy in a rubber suit. But the gags were different every time, as were the backstories and actual monsters, so we kept watching for a few more episodes. Then we eventually ignored it, but littler kids picked it up right then.
But EVERY kid in the 70s went through the same experience! Scooby-Doo was rerun until the film reels burned right off the projector, and we watched because THERE WAS NOTHING ELSE.
Look back up there at the band-toon infographic. Did you know Jabberjaw was just Scooby-Doo underwater? Did you see where a different network tried to compete with The Hardy Boys, also a series of mysteries aimed at young adults? Then they had the Chan Clan, based on the ancient Charlie Chan detective franchise, which was also about mystery-solving?
Compared to the rest of animated fare for an entire decade, Scooby-Doo was at least making an effort. I’ve pointed out similar lines of reasoning for why even mediocre Disney movies from the ’70s stand out today. The ’70s sucked THAT BAD! No really, it was disco and leisure suits and swinger’s vans, Nixon and then Ford and then a recession with a gas crisis and Iran taking hostages, and then you’d turn on the TV and get this crap…
You see what Scooby-Doo was competing with? The staff of Mystery, Inc., were our only refuge, because most of our parents refused to share their drugs with us.
Since every kid went through the Scooby-Doo phase, it became a common point of cultural identification. Until the creators had revived the series for younger generations and sure enough, we parked our kids in front of the TV to see how long before they’d notice the same stale pattern. The franchise did eventually switch up its game, even rose to some fairly high quality there occasionally.
Of course the franchise has had its… low moments too.
It’s like circus peanuts. They’re crappy, but they’re crappy in a predictable, comforting way. Come to that, every other Tom & Jerry or Roadrunner cartoon is the same plot over and over again too, but I don’t hear anybody asking how they stayed popular despite their tired formulas.
More on that “winning formula” angle
As I pointed out in my masterpiece Batman essay, superhero stories are really just spawned from detective / crime-fighting / swashbuckling fiction anyway. You can continue right through that to Scooby-Doo and go on to police procedural and detective TV series set in the modern day. There’s a straight line running through Scooby-Doo that starts with Sherlock Holmes and ends at CSI: Miami and Law and Order: Special Victims Unit. That’s just Scooby-Doo for adults, M’Kay?
There is one thing that we have to give Scooby-Doo credit for, and that’s the effective blend of horror and comedy in a kid’s show. That is simply pop culture gold right there no matter how you mine it.
We still love mixing horror and comedy after all this time. Witness the enduring cult popularity of Ghostbusters, The Evil Dead, and Zombieland. No matter how formulaic Scooby-Doo got, it explored from A to Z in the horror canon, witches, zombies, phantoms, werewolves, vampires, aliens and hobgoblins of every description. If it went bump in the night, it was in a Scooby-Doo episode. At the same time, it took all those creepy atmospheres and diabolical spooks and made them palatable with the injection of humor.
The Scooby-Doo franchise has endured this way while spawning memes and tropes (plus way too much perverted fan fiction) over the decades. It’s still an accident of its time, but it has earned its cultural icon status. It has no need of a cult following. It’s just an indelible stamp of Western culture. Scooby-Doo is one more rite of passage we all go through, as our desire for enjoyment merges onto our desire to come to grips with the less enjoyable sides of life.