MEFreberg.jpg

How I Met George Jetson

Fifty years ago tonight, The Jetsons debuted on ABC. It has been a long time since I looked forward to any TV show the way I used to look forward to them when I was ten. Some of that is youthful enthusiasm. Some of it is that my world has grown a lot larger since so no broadcast — including those of programs I write — is that important to my life. And of course, some of it is the technology of VCRs and TiVo which has made the when of seeing a show insignificant. If I wanted to experience the first telecast of a new Hanna-Barbera series, I had to be there at the appointed hour. If I wasn't…well, who knows when or if there'd be another opportunity?

"There" in this case was not in front of the family TV at home. It could have been but The Jetsons was the first series on ABC to be broadcast in color and we didn't have a color TV set. Not everyone did then…but Mrs. Hollingsworth did.

Mrs. Hollingsworth was an elderly widow who lived five doors down from us with a cat and no one else. She was a sweet little old lady, at least towards me, but she had some odd ideas. One I remember discussing with her a few times was her belief that actors on TV had to be a lot like the characters they played. She didn't believe that Vincent Price (to pick but one example she'd cite) was really a mad scientist who tortured women in his castle…but he simply couldn't play such parts if he wasn't at heart an evil, cruel human being. Those articles that said he was a lovely, gentle man had to be lies. Years later when I worked with the lovely, gentle Vincent Price, I told him about Mrs. Hollingsworth and he chuckled and said, "There are more people out there who think like that than you imagine."

TV was about all she had in her life so she'd spent the then-extravagant sum of few hundred extra to have a color set. It seemed like a luxury in 1960 since not a lot of TV programming was even broadcast in color so most of what she watched on that set was in black-and-white. She agreed to let me come down to her home that evening to watch The Jetsons there.

Since she lived alone, she didn't eat well. Whenever we had a holiday dinner at our home — Thanksgiving, Christmas, Rosh Hashanah, someone's birthday (we celebrated everything) — my mother would make up an extra plate and I'd walk it down to Mrs. Hollingsworth. There was no official holiday the night The Jetsons debuted but it seemed appropriate to eat like there was one. My mother made us a brisket and potato pancakes and when I hiked down to Mrs. Hollingsworth's at 6:30, I took her dinner.

The show started at 7 PM and I could have left at 6:55 and made it with time to spare but I wanted to be there early. Just in case. I had a little drawing pad and pencil with me because one of the important things to me about cartoon characters, especially Hanna-Barbera cartoon characters, was that I had to learn to draw them. This mattered so much that I couldn't wait for the probable Jetsons comic book that would be along sooner or later. I had to whip out a few sketches during the show…and indeed, I had Elroy mastered by the first commercial. I still draw him about that well.

I remember being thrilled by the opening shot of the Jetsons' space cruiser bursting onto the screen, then being slightly disappointed that unlike previous H-B shows, it didn't have a singable theme song with rhyming lyrics. I remember recognizing the voice of Daws Butler as (his boy) Elroy and wondering who those other people were. I remember loving the program and wondering how Mrs. Hollingsworth could sit in the next room eating brisket and latkes when she could have been in there with me watching The Greatest TV Show Ever. It was that for me that evening. I loved The Flintstones and other H-B shows but I really loved The Jetsons.

And I remember wondering if they'd ever make an episode in which the Flintstones met the Jetsons. I do not remember thinking, "Gee, maybe fifteen or sixteen years from now, I'll be writing the Flintstones comic book and I'll be able to make that happen." I wasn't that prescient.

Most of all, I remember thinking the show was so wonderful it would last forever. It did and it didn't. Competition from Mr. Disney on NBC drove George, Jane, Judy, Elroy and Astro out of production after one season but the reruns resurfaced on daytime TV and the comic book lived on and the characters endured. Around 1984 when I was working at Hanna-Barbera, one of the execs there called me in and told me they were about to launch a Jetsons revival and Mr. Barbera, knowing of my enthusiasm for the series, wanted me to be the Story Editor and main writer.

I started to scream yes but I'd worked for H-B a while by then. I'd learned it was prudent to not lead with your heart and that you needed to get all the details in advance. (Another writer there advised, "Always get a pre-nup before you fall in love.") The details turned out to include at least two deal-killers for me. One was that they were doing the show for syndication on a shoestring budget. At Hanna-Barbera, they could destroy anything by cutting corners…and they were talking about script fees around a half of the barely-acceptable amounts paid on the Richie Rich series I was then story-editing.

I felt a strong affinity for Bill and Joe but it did not extend to doing charity work for them. And if they paid what they said they were going to pay, they'd get scripts that would require a lot of rewriting…probably by poorly-paid me.

The other problem was that they said they were not out to replicate the old series. The idea was to "modernize" The Jetsons. I asked if that was really necessary, "modernizing" a show set in the future. Someone thought it was. They wanted new supporting characters and a new "look" for that world and edgier humor and lots of alterations I didn't want to make. When I asked the exec about voices, they said they'd be all new. "Most of the original actors are dead," he told me. That was not true. None of them were. He then added, "…and the ones who aren't are too expensive." That was true of Mel Blanc and maybe Daws. Either way, they didn't want to bother with the 1960 cast, which meant they didn't want to bother with the 1960 show I loved…just use its rep and skeleton to build something new.

I thought about the offer for an evening, then passed. As it turned out, they soon realized they didn't want something new. They wanted to make another 41 episodes to add to the original 24 and create a 65-episode package they could strip and syndicate forever. So they'd all blend more-or-less together, they wound up spending a tad more on the animation and scripts (though not enough more), hiring the original voices and making the stories more faithful to the 1960 season. They eventually did not 41 more but 51 more…and I was glad I didn't work on any of them.

It seems to have been a decent revival but this was one childhood fave where I'm glad I kept my distance. If I'd gotten involved, I suspect this article today would have been about all the fights I'd had, many of them with Bill Hanna and Joe Barbera. It's much more fun to be writing about sitting in Mrs. Hollingsworth's den, watching a cartoon show in actual color and just loving every damn thing about it except the theme song. Which I eventually came to also love.