The Duck Test

There’s an old saw used in many places about items passing “The Duck Test”.  It basically says that if something looks like a duck, swims like a duck, and quacks like a duck… well, then it’s a duck, and I don’t care what name you put on it, it’s still a duck.  You can try to pass something off as new and different, but a duck is still a duck.

In 1984, NBC tried their best to pass off The Duck Factory as something new and different.  It was a workplace comedy set in the rather unknown location of an independent (read:  broke) animation outfit called Buddy Winkler Studios.  The denizens of the studio (known colloquially as The Duck Factory) were the creators of that famous cartoon icon, Dippy Duck, and they had a bit of a crisis:  the boss, Buddy Winkler, had just died.  Not that he was well-liked or anything; in fact, the workers all hated him, and the only one who was even slightly heartbroken was the recent Mrs. Winkler (Teresa Ganzel)  She’d married Buddy just three weeks earlier when they met in Vegas (during her performance in a “topless” ice show).  She knew nothing about Buddy, and less about animation, and although she was, in many ways a “dumb-blonde,” just because she lacked knowledge didn’t mean she lacked heart.

That heart is on display when a new animator comes to town, Skip Tarkenton (Jim Carrey, in his first television role).  Skip is the typical wide-eyed innocent, who’s come to LA with a semi-encouraging letter in hand from the late Buddy, and the hope of landing a job.  His unfortunate timing means he arrives, suitcase in hand, just as the funeral procession is leaving the studio.  With no place to go, he ends up tagging along, and the aforementioned innocence allows him to give a eulogy that impresses the widow Winkler into giving him a job… especially when the other help sees the quality of his work.

“I grew up with the message that Mr. Winkler, through Dippy Duck, of course, sent to the youth of America.  That, no matter how many times Dippy was flattened by Irving the Terrible, or kicked in the teeth by Rotten Renaldo, that somehow his good old-fashioned American gumption would always prevail.  So even as I stand here on this sad occasion, that philosophy fills me with hope, knowing that you will pick yourselves up after being kicked in the teeth by his death… dust yourselves off… and face whatever the future brings.”
–Skip, speaking of Buddy at his funeral

Clockwise, from top: Carrey, Dippy, Tarses, Payne, Ganzel, Gilford, Messick, Gilyard, and Lane. The crazies of The Duck Factory

So, Skip lands in the middle of The Duck Factory, and the barely controlled chaos therein.  His fellow workers include veteran animator and director Brooks Charmichael (Jack Gilford); comedy writer and occasional jerk Marty Finneman (Jay Tarses); storyboard artist Roland Culp (Clarence Gilyard, Jr.); level-headed film editor Andrea Lewin (Nancy Lane); absent-minded voice-over artist Wally Wooster (Don Messick); and officious and scheming financial officer Aggie Aylesworth (Julie Payne).  Skip discovers very quickly that this amazing menagerie of people need to be more than slightly crazy in order to create the silliness of Dippy Duck’s cartoons, and that their animated creations can sometimes be much more normal than their creators.

The environment at The Duck Factory was supposedly similar to the famed “Termite Terrace” of Warner Brothers cartoon heyday, the incubator that led to the glory days of Bugs Bunny, Daffy Duck, Road-Runner, and so many more of the classic Looney Tunes comedy shorts.  But while film fans and animation buffs speak reverently about those times and the people involved (like Chuck Jones and Friz Freling), the general public at large knows little about them.  So, while the setting was indeed unique, it was also much more unfamiliar than, say, the bar of Cheers (which preceded the show on Thursday nights).  Crazy doesn’t really seem crazy when you don’t know what normal is supposed to be like….

Skip and Marty

The cast was actually, for the most part, rather well-chosen.  Tarses, as writer Marty, was a well-respected comedy writer in real life, having been the mind behind The Days and Nights of Molly Dodd, in addition to being a co-creator of The Duck Factory.  Tarses has been nominated for 11 Emmy Awards, winning one.  He brought a truth and insecurity to a character that could easily have been a cliché.  Teresa Ganzel, as Mrs. Winkler, must also be highlighted; as another possible stereotypical character, she was seen to be much more than a simple-minded gold-digger.  And Nancy Lane’s Andrea was really the glue that held many of these crazies together, particularly in the apparent love triangle that sprouted from her relationship with Skip and the supposed romance with Skip and Ganzel’s widow Winkler.

Brooks and Skip

Jack Gilford is practically a legend, and his comedic timing and skills come from a lifetime in front of a camera.  As the older, more experienced Brooks, he brought a world-weary knowingness to his character.  The now-deceased Buddy had  browbeaten Brooks into believing he was a shell of the director he’d been, but his faith was slowly restored by Skip’s belief in his work.  Clarence Gilyard Jr.’s Roland was given some thankless storylines, but the actor proved himself an audience mainstay later with two lengthy runs in Matlock and Walker, Texas Ranger.  Perhaps pure comedy wasn’t his strong point, but he was still very competent and showed potential at this stage of his career.

Woody and Skip

Others didn’t fare so well, although to be honest, when you’re surrounded by great people, ordinary sticks out more than usual.  Don Messick as Wally, the voice actor who’s been doing other voices so long he’s forgotten his own, isn’t really an on-screen actor anyway.  Messick was hired particularly for his previous voice work, having done numerous characters for many years.  He originated the voice of Scooby-Doo, Boo-Boo on Yogi Bear, and other iconic animation favorites.  While the voices were excellent, the screen presence was lacking.  And Julie Payne as Aggie was also primarily a voice actress, doing duty as the antagonistic foil for the rest of the cast and being about as two-dimensional as some of the cartoons she’d voiced.  But that was also the role she’d been given.

“I agree whole-heartedly that his talent and star power was wasted on that show. It seems like he was miscast in that straight role.”
The Duck Factory crew member Larry Verne

The biggest crime of The Duck Factory was in making Jim Carrey essentially the straight man to all these comical characters, portraying the wide-eyed newcomer from the mid-west who marvels at the weird world of LA and showbiz.  While later episodes of the series started to allow Carrey’s elastic-faced comic genius to be on display, initially his Skip character was almost overly earnest.  Critics saw promise in the series, but viewers saw a few too many early caricatures and not the fleshed out people who populated other successful comedies of the time.

“Running out of gas was the highlight!  Let’s see… we found out we lost the cable series to another company, and Aggie punched out Mr. Kemper; Roland’s date turned out to be a hooker; Wally lost twice; Marty accepted an award he didn’t even win… the only person who won anything was Buddy!  Brooks got bombed… and Mrs. Winkler fired him, hired him back, and then went home.  All in all it was pretty much a disaster.”
–Jim Carrey as Skip

Mrs. Winkler, why are you and Skip hiding?

The disaster above is a description of the events in one particular episode, but the true disaster was that audiences never appreciated the show.  Following an act like Cheers was hard enough, but the best known “name” at the time was Gilford.  Ganzel was a relative newcomer.  Tarses, Messick and Payne came from other fields.  Gilyard and especially Carrey had their best roles and years ahead of them, and The Duck Factory, while not a disaster, simply wasn’t really complete yet.

What many didn’t realize was that, as an example, the noted and popular Cheers had a similar experience early on, but had received a year’s worth of seasoning by NBC before it became a top-rated success.  The Duck Factory wasn’t allowed that time to grow, and so the series became nothing but wasted potential.  Here was a series with some definite highlights that, allowed to become fulfilled, would have been just as strong as any on television at the time.  With a little more work, The Duck Factory had all the markings of a potential hit, but a canceled show is still considered a failure… and a duck is still a duck.

JIM CARREY (Skip Tarkenton) had one other spectacular success on television, as a regular on the sketch comedy series In Living Color.  He’s been one of the biggest movie stars of comedy, after coming to prominence in the Ace Ventura:  Pet Detective films.  Other features followed, including The Mask, Dumb and Dumber, and Bruce Almighty, plus more dramatic turns in Man in the Moon, The Truman Show, and Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind.  Coming back to animation, he’s done voices (and computerized animation acting) in How the Grinch Stole Christmas, Horton Hears a Who, and A Christmas Carol.

TERESA GANZEL (Sheree Winkler) played the ditzy blonde stereotype character on The Tonight Show with Johnny Carson in sketches over an 11-year run, and was also a featured regular in The Dave Thomas Comedy Show.  In recent years, she’s become a voice-over actress, heard in Monsters, Inc., WALL-EUp, and reuniting with Jim Carrey in Horton Hears a Who.

JACK GILFORD (Brooks Charmichael) had a career dating back to the 1930’s, but was a victim of the House Un-American Activities blacklisting on the 1950’s.  He reemerged on the New York stage, originating the roles of Hysterium in A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Fourm, and King Sextimus in Once Upon a Mattress.  He was in both Cocoon movies, and won an Emmy award for a guest appearance on the children’s series Big Blue Marble.  He passed away in 1990, at the age of 81, due to stomach cancer.

JAY TARSES (Marty Finneman) is better known behind the scenes, producing and creating other series (he also co-created The Duck Factory).  He was the driving force behind The Days and Nights of Molly Dodd, Public Morals, The Slap Maxwell Story, and Buffalo Bill.  His most famous acting role was in the comedy movie Teen Wolf with Michael J. Fox, as his high school coach.  He wrote or co-wrote episodes of The Carol Burnett Show and The Bob Newhart Show, and the movies The Muppets Take Manhattan and The Great Muppet Caper.  His other, most significant creations are his children, TV producer Matt Tarses (of Scrubs and Sports Night) and TV executive Jamie Tarses (former head of ABC).

NANCY LANE (Andrea Lewin) was a member of the original Broadway cast of A Chorus Line, bringing audiences to tears each night as a member of the trio singing “At the Ballet”.  She appeared on Rhoda, Angie, Who’s the Boss?, and My Sister Sam, in addition to receiving a writing credit for an episode of Taxi.

CLARENCE GILYARD, JR. (Roland Culp) was a regular on over a decade of television, first on Matlock as assistant Conrad McMasters, and then as Texas Ranger Jimmy Trivette on Walker, Texas Ranger.  Prior to The Duck Factory, Gilyard had been a regular in the final season of CHiPs.  Movie appearances included Top Gun and Die Hard.

DON MESSICK (Wally Wooster) has a lengthy list of voice characterizations, but some of them include Boo-Boo and Ranger Smith (The Yogi Bear Show), Dr. Quest and Bandit (Jonny Quest), Scooby-Doo and Scrappy-Doo in various incarnations of Scooby-Doo, Papa Smurf and Azrael (The Smurfs), and Hamton J. Pig (Tiny Toons Adventures).  The Duck Factory was one of his extremely few live-action performances.  He and his talented voice left us all in 1997, the victim of a stroke.

JULIE PAYNE (Aggie Aylesworth) had been a member of the early improvisational troupe The Committee, but many of her jobs in Hollywood were as a voice-over actress.  She gave voice to characters in Garfield and Friends and The Tracey Ullman Show.  More recently, audiences might recognize her as Cheryl Hines’ mom in appearances on the HBO comedy Curb Your Enthusiasm.

The Duck Factory saw a limited release on VHS, but no DVDs are available commercially.  There are a few websites which describe the series online, but even those have limited information.  Most of the actors and actresses are really known for other work, and The Duck Factory is almost a footnote in their credits, when it appears at all.  It’s not that they’re embarrassed by the show, it seems that they’ve just gone on to bigger and better things.  That was certainly true of Carrey and Gilyard, and most of the rest have other, more prominent work.  Carrey’s online site has the most information available.

Surprisingly, almost all the acting talent in The Duck Factory went on to do other animation voice-work at one point or another.  Some came from there, obviously, but the rest either sought out that type of job, or were sought out by others for it, due to their association here.  At the very least, there was an appreciation for all kinds of performing, drawn and otherwise, by the cast and crew.  The Duck Factory may not have been a success, but it turned out a number of hit performers.

Was it a great comedy?  Perhaps, if it had been given some room to grow.  Although a show doesn’t necessarily have to be a popular hit to be considered “great”, with this particular cast I’d like to think that The Duck Factory would ultimately be known as such.  A little time and a little more craziness, and everyone would agree that the series would have been known for its quality.  And quality is still quality… just like a duck is still a duck.

Vital Stats

13 aired episodes — none unaired
NBC Network
First aired episode:  April 12, 1984
Final aired episode:  July 11, 1984
Aired at Friday 8/7 Central?  No.  Thursday nights at 8:30/7:30 Central, immediately following Cheers and just before Hill Street Blues.  Wackiness should have worked here, but it just wasn’t up to par with its surroundings during its short run.

Comments and suggestions appreciated, as always.

–Tim R.

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5 comments
  1. John said:

    I would be curious to know if the fact that it didn’t start until April also hurt its chances. Yes, it was following Cheers, but once they got through the May sweeps, the season was over, and Duck Factory still had at least half of its episodes to run through. Back then, that was a very strange time to start a new show.

    • Oddly, they ran the 13 eps pretty much straight through, with no pre-emptions along the way. Starting a show about a month before fall season is announced (middle of May, in the sweeps period as well) means it either performs quickly or it becomes doomed, and I think this one was too slow out of the gate. Going up against OTHER networks “sweeps” shows didn’t help it one bit either.

  2. Too bad this isn’t readily available to see, it sounds like it would be quite fun. I wasn’t aware Carrey had a series like this, and it would be great to see Messick in a live-action role after hearing his voice talent in so many things.

  3. Very late, but some Duck Factory info via St. Elsewhere:
    In the 4th season episode “Cheek to Cheek” cartoonist Jersey Piker (Eric Christmas) complains about going to Los Angeles when they wanted to turn his strip into a TV series, but he found it a “duck factory”
    Throughout the 5th season, Ellen Craig (Bonnie Bartlett) mentions the Dippy Duck Diaper Service.
    In the episode “Getting Ahead” Dr. Chandler (Denzel Washington) treats a patient (Caitlin O’Heaney) who is a deliverywoman for the Dippy Duck Diaper Service. A bevy of her friends come to visit, in costume.

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