Saturday, March 28, 2009

Oh, those Smurfs!!

Like them or not, The Smurfs was a mainstay on Saturday morning television as well as late afternoon syndication for a period of years. The characters were created by an artist named Peyo over-seas and the Hanna-Barbera studio adapted the characters for American audiences. Schtroumpf is the word that was used overseas and it was translated into "Smurf" for America...and it is the Americanized characters of which this blog is about. NBC was the network that aired the program.

The characters, the core line-up, each had distinct character traits...each one was somewhat predictable in terms of what would happen within the story. A lot of the characters interacted with one another peacefully but there were several episodes where there was anything but peace among the village. Usually at the heart of most arguments and the cause of most annoyance was Brainy Smurf. He was the brainiac of the group but often in the stories he'd use his "brains" in a condescending a sort of know-it-all. This characterization allowed him to be at the receiving end of a lot of anger directed at him by others...including the usually gentle, Papa Smurf.

Papa Smurf was the leader of the group. He was never really said to be the father of every single Smurf but a lot of fans and critics seem to suggest it. Some say the "papa" name is just a word that's used to show respect for an older, wiser adult. Smurfette, for years and years the only female Smurf, was created by the wizard Gargamel in one of his schemes to capture the Smurfs.

Gargamel was an evil wizard who lived in a run-down castle/hut who was constantly hatching schemes to capture the Smurfs for his magic potions. He could never find the Smurfs hidden village on his own...but sometimes he was led into the village by accident or just in sheer luck he stumbled onto it all on his own. The running joke was that Gargamel could never find the village once he was tricked into leaving...for example, he could be five steps away from the village but he couldn't find his way back. This irritation prompted him to look at his cat, Azrael, and scream something like: "I almost had them!!! Where is the village...come on...we gotta find it!!! AZRAEL!!!!". In most episodes, as Gargamel and his cat are roaming all over the countryside in search for the Smurf village and getting farther and farther away, you can hear him throwing a fit as the camera shows the Smurfs gathered around laughing as the scene fades to black.

Clumsy Smurf was an accident prone Smurf, always at the receiving end of Brainy's wrath for being "dumb". Clumsy looked up to Brainy but would often out-smart Brainy in his own unique way by using a simple approach to handle a situation within the story which differed greatly from a complex approach from Brainy. A typical exchange would find the two of them standing on the outside of a locked door and Brainy would become the "teacher" and go on to tell Clumsy how to proceed with climbing through the window, giving him step by step instructions, quite certain that the door is locked...only for Clumsy to walk over to the door, turn the knob and say something like: "Gosh, Brainy...we don't have to climb through the window...the door's unlocked." Brainy would look into the camera and slap his forehead or roll his eyes.

Vanity Smurf is just as his name implies...vain. He carried a mirror and wore a pink flower in his hat...often commenting on the state of the plants in his mushroom. All of the Smurf's lived in mushroom houses. He'd also react to the exaggerated macho behavior of Hefty Smurf. Jokey Smurf liked to play practical jokes. Sleepy Smurf was typically dozing off all the time. Grouchy Smurf was a grouch. Farmer Smurf was the village's farmer...looking over the garden. The Smurf's had several allies...Mother Nature was their biggest. She often helped Papa Smurf and gave him advice on all sorts of situations. Johan and Peewit were also allies of the the series became even more popular they added Baby Smurf and a few more female Smurfs and Grandpa Smurf...with a wooden cane and a longer beard...perhaps Papa Smurf's father!? Hogatha, Big Mouth, Scruple are just three of the secondary villains of the series...they, like Gargamel, have this shared hatred for the Smurfs.

The Smurfs ran for an incredible nine years, 1981-1990. The characters spoke English pretty much...and they had their own slang phrases as well. They'd incorporate the word "smurf" into nearly everything they said. "Have a smurfy day!" or "Holy smurfs!!" or "That's smurfy!". Another phrase "i'll be smurfed!" was often said in place of "i'll be darned". "Great Smurf!!" was used in place of "Great scott!!". There was a Smurfs comic book issued on Marvel. There was also a Smurfs cereal...very smurf-a-licious!

The ratings of the series had declined by the late 1980's but the ratings weren't abysmal by any means...but the series went out of production in 1990 simply because NBC wanted to expand their news program on Saturday morning and it ate into a lot of the air-time for animated cartoons on that network. I believe NBC was the second network to rid it's Saturday morning line-up of cartoons and replace it with news programs and live-action teen programs. I think CBS was the first and ABC was the last to rid it's line-up of wall to wall cartoons. Whatever network came first, all three of them plus the Children's Television Act, helped end Saturday morning TV as people in my age group and older remember it. Now, of course, there's a few programs aimed at children that air on Saturday morning but it's nothing like it once was...with every network airing cartoons for nearly 5 hours on Saturday mornings...that'll never happen on network TV again.

In total there were 256 episodes...and because several episodes would contain 2 separate stories, there were in reality 421 stories spread out over those 256 air-dates.

After the show ended production in 1990 it continued to air in syndication in the late afternoons for a period of years until quite a few cartoon franchises became property of Ted Turner in the early to mid 1990's. He purchased the Hanna-Barbera library and as a result all of the syndicated cartoons from that company that were in reruns on network TV suddenly departed network for cable-TV...specifically airing on his Cartoon Network, a 24 hour cable network that would air cartoons from the Hanna-Barbera library. Soon, Cartoon Network became a major cable network and as things are likely to do it started to change. The network became more about original programming instead of airing vintage cartoons. The Warner Brothers cartoons became Turner's property as well during the 1990's. Boomerang was launched to provide a network for the classic cartoons so Turner and company could use Cartoon Network for original programming. Turner owns, partially owns, or at one time owned just about everything...the Hanna-Barbera cartoon library; the Ruby-Spears cartoon library; the MGM library; the Warner Brothers cartoon library. He created the cartoon character, "Captain Planet". Turner's non-animation networks include TBS, TNT, Turner Classic Movies, and the 1990's were a time of severe change in the Saturday morning business...

Behind the scenes of The Smurfs the main voice artists for this series were Don Messick. He gave voice to Papa Smurf as well as Dreamy Smurf and the hisses of Azrael and other sound effects. Paul Winchell was on hand as Gargamel...using the voice he gave to Dick Dastardly. Lucille Bliss was the voice of Smurfette. June Foray voiced Jokey Smurf and Mother Nature. Alan Young was the voice of Farmer Smurf and Miner Smurf. Danny Goldman was the voice of Brainy Smurf. Frank Welker provided the voice of a lot of minor characters in addition to semi-regulars Hefty Smurf and Poet Smurf. Michael Bell voices Grouchy and Handy Smurf while William Callaway voices Painter Smurf and Clumsy Smurf. Hamilton Camp gave voice to Greedy Smurf. I believe there were something like 99 Smurfs in all...

This series utilized the talents of Alan Oppenheimer...he was on hand to voice Vanity Smurf, Father Time, and Homnibus. Jonathan Winters voiced Grandpa Smurf. I think that covers pretty much the main Smurfs that made the most frequent appearances on each episode. Johan and Peewit were voiced by Michael Bell and Frank Welker. Michael Bell voiced a lot of characters and his most popular role is Zan, half of the Wonder Twins, on the late 1970's and 1980's version of Superfriends. Search through my various blog entries to read more about Frank Welker and a lot of these voice artist's.

The series has become available on DVD. It airs on Boomerang, the vintage cartoon network. The series is still popular, or infamous, depending on your viewpoint, some 19 years after it's last first-run episode aired.

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