At 9 a.m. on a recent Saturday, I turned on the TV, prayed for rain and braced myself for a morning's worth of kiddie shows--a one-time-only return to a habit I'd outgrown several decades ago.
What, I wanted to know, had changed since the golden days when the Lone Ranger thwarted evil with a wave of a hand and a hearty "Hi-ho Silver!" or when kids sang "It's Howdy Doody Time!" with at least as much feeling as the national anthem?
To help arrive at the scholarly answer such a question clearly deserves, I was joined by an 18-month-old expert--a sort of Mrs. Miller in diapers. She proved to be useless. Barely into the fourth "Cocoa Pebbles" cereal commercial, the little intellectual snob was asleep, leaving me to draw my conclusions alone.
Truth is, Saturday morning children's programming is not all bad. Some is quite good. A gold star goes especially to CBS's "Pryor's Place," which mixes wholesome themes with genuine, warm humor. Comedian Richard Pryor has a near genius for communicating ideas like respect for senior citizens without the slightest hint of condescension.
One recent show starred Pryor and a marvelous cast including Scatman Crothers and Kareem Abdul-Jabbar.
Applause, too, for "CBS Storybreak," with Bob (Captain Kangaroo) Keeshan. NBC's "Smurfs" is OK too, if your kid's (or your) taste runs toward the cloyingly sweet.
But the bad shows are oh-so profoundly, deeply bad.
For pure stupidity, it's hard to beat ABC's animated concoction called "Turbo Teen." I hope I have this straight: It's about a teen-age boy who finds himself able, when he perspires enough, to sprout wheels through his hands and feet and turn into a high-performance, turbocharged red sedan. Naturally, he speaks via the car radio. His archfoe seems to be some other vehicle named Dark Rider. Dark Rider, Darth Vader--see the point?
So what we have here is "teen becomes machine." Let us hope, at least, for fuel efficiency.
What's really wrong with much of this Saturday morning fare? Except for Pryor and Keeshan, there are few live, talented hosts to add occasional wit and spontaneity. Remember Shari Lewis? Buffalo Bob Smith? Sandy Becker? Mr. Wizard?
The other thing most Saturday programming lacks is what cartoons had in abundance 25 years ago--laughs.
CBS still runs 25- and 30-year-old cartoons every Saturday morning on the "Bugs Bunny-Road Runner Show." A recent program began with an absolutely hilarious Bugs Bunny-Elmer Fudd takeoff of the opera "The Barber of Seville." There are belly laughs here for young and old viewers.
Compare that to "Smurfs," one of the more harmless, if emotionally neutered, current animated programs. Smurfs, for the uninitiated, are little elves very reminiscent of the Seven Dwarfs--complete with names like Clumsy, Jokey and Brainy.
In a recent episode, evil wizard Gargamel creates a Frankenstein-like monster named "Mr. Doofus" to destroy the Smurf village. But Doofus, a right sort of guy, learns to love the Smurfs. But he's some lousy comedian--especially when he talks baby talk like, "Time to go, by-by."
Some things never change, of course. What would Saturday morning be without an endless stream of commercials for Cookie Crisp, Cocoa Pebbles, OJ's, Bubble Yum and Big League Chew? The names may have changed a bit, but these are still the same ultrasugary confections that have helped generations of dentists cover the rising costs of their children's college tuition.
In fairness, the networks have in recent years tried to put in an occasional good word for sound nutrition. ABC, for instance, ran a public-service message in the midst of "Turbo Teen" exhorting youngsters to drink plenty of water. The jingle called it "the best no-calorie drink in all the world."
Well, it's something. But the "drink water" message is no doubt drowned out by the ads for Popsicles and Apple Jacks that inevitably follow within seconds.