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Jonny Quest

The Simpsons just got renewed for their 24th and 25th seasons, and sometime next year they will air their 500th episode.  They’ve been such a continuous force on Sunday nights that FOX built their entire evening around the theme of “Animation Domination”.  But with that singular evening exception, most adults think of traditional cartoons as something reserved for the kiddies on Saturday mornings.  This wasn’t always the case….

“Making cartoons means very hard work at every step of the way, but creating a successful cartoon character is the hardest work of all.”
–Joseph Barbera, animation producer

Jonny Quest

“Animation Domination” meant different things back in the early 1960’s.  Oh, there were still cartoony-style shows, even successful ones like The Flintstones (and to a certain extent, its sister show, The Jetsons).  But in one case, the “Animation” part was different, because instead of the humorous, abstract drawing style seen currently on Family Guy and more traditionally drawn cartoons, this show took its cue from the style of then-current comic books.  Much more realism was shown, even if the plots concerned mad scientists and cannibals.  And, of course, the “Domination” part was both the ratings, and the schemes of the villains who all seemed to want to dominate the world.  Who was called on to help fight for the forces of good each week?  Jonny Quest!

Jonny Quest aired initially (much to the surprise of many people these days) in prime-time, Friday nights on ABC.  Jonny (voiced by Tim Matheson) was eleven years old, the son of a famous scientist.  While clever and inventive, he’s also a bit too inquisitive for his own good, which leads him into intrigue and danger, along with his family and friends.

Family is the aforementioned scientist/father, Dr. Benton Quest (voiced first by John Stephenson, then by Don Messick).  One of the most brilliant scientists in the world, his government and scientific connections often lead to dangerous situations, as nefarious individuals or groups wish to co-opt these scientific discoveries for their own uses.  He’s protective of Jonny (and can hold his own in a fight if necessary), but also knows that he can’t be everywhere all the time, and his work is of vital importance.

An attempt on Dr. Quest’s life is made on the streets of Calcutta, but is foiled by a boy named Hadji (voiced by Danny Bravo).  In gratitude, Quest adopts the orphaned boy, and Hadji and Jonny become best friends.  Hadji might have some mystical abilities (or he may just be a clever fake), but he and Jonny find themselves in hot water often enough that they occasionally need rescuing.

Coming to their aid is Roger “Race” Bannon (voiced by Mike Road).  He’s assigned by the government to be a bodyguard for Dr. Quest and his extended family, especially since Quest’s work and their world travels put the group’s lives in danger repeatedly.  Bannon is the muscle to the brains of Dr. Quest, and together they all find intrigue and mystery at every corner.

For a bit of comic relief, there’s Bandit (“voiced” by Don Messick), Jonny’s pet dog.  Named because of the distinctive raccoon-like “mask” of black on his otherwise white fur body, he’s just as inquisitive as Jonny, and much more prone to finding trouble.  He’s a part of the group too, even to the point of gaining a spot in the opening credits.

The Robot Spy

While the group was based in Dr. Quest’s compound in Florida, their adventures took them all over the world, from darkest Africa to American military bases, and from middle Europe to the wonders of the Orient.  They faced everything from supposedly alien probes to re-animated mummies to pterodactyls, all with a 1960’s sense of style and action-adventure.

During that decade, when there were only three channels available, television was designed to appeal to everyone in the family, adult or child.  Ratings hadn’t been refined enough to measure specific demographics, and a youngster counted the same as an adult as far as the networks were concerned.  Animation was aimed accordingly, as a venue which appealed to everyone in the living room.  And Jonny Quest was a ratings hit, even up against established western favorite Rawhide.

"Race" Bannon, in action

This type of environment was ripe for animation featuring action, adventure, and both kids and grown-ups.  Hanna-Barbera Studios (who had, previously, been known for Yogi Bear and Huckleberry Hound) teamed with Screen Gems to create a new and different type of animated series for prime-time.  Calling on the work of comic artist Doug Wildey, a show was created based on the Jack Armstrong radio adventures, but the rights couldn’t be secured (although parts of Wildey’s test footage made it into the end credits of Jonny Quest).  Wildey’s ideas morphed into this new series, featuring “realistic” characters and settings rich in color and style. Emulating cinematic visualization and more lifelike depictions, his designs would mean a new and different kind of show for television… but could it really be done properly?

Now realize that animation is NOT cheap.  Most animation studios up to that time (such as Disney, M-G-M, and Warner Brothers) had been developed with theatrical features and shorts in mind, and not the small screen.  Drawing every single frame of action means 24 pictures adds up to only a second of finished film… and after subtracting for commercials and repeated credits, each episode of a half-hour series at the time ran roughly 25 minutes.  Doing the math, over thirty-six THOUSAND individual pictures would be needed per show.  That’s far too much time and money to spend on a television series (as many series of the day would only spend thirty-six thousand DOLLARS, or maybe a bit more, to film an entire episode).  And it took more than a dollar’s worth of time, effort, and material to make each individual picture.  There had to be a cheaper way.

Still bodies, with the heads and moving mouths animated separately

William Hanna and Joseph Barbera had opened their own animation studio for television after working for M-G-M for many years.  They were behind the prime-time success of The Flintstones during the previous season, and had developed “limited animation” as a way to save money.  Characters had limited movement, especially of arms and legs, and backgrounds (of a street, for example) were designed to be repeated after so much distance.  Therefore, a sequence of a person running would utilize the same body movements over and over, filmed in front of another repeated picture of a set.  Characters could stand still in a conversation scene, and only their heads and mouths would have to be drawn, as those were the only moving parts in the frame.  Less pictures meant less money spent for filming, and seven minutes of “limited animation” could save as much as 10,000 drawn images (and their associated man-hours) as opposed to using “full animation” methods.

“These guys were used to drawing cartoon type characters, and they’d come in and they were at a loss.  They couldn’t handle adventure stuff.”
–Doug Wildey

The Flintstones got away with this by being more “cartoony”, using caricatures that bore superficial resemblance to real people, and treating the entire enterprise as an “artistic style”.  The style for Jonny Quest was MUCH more realistic, as befitting the more dramatic tone of the show.  Hanna-Barbera coined the term “creative adventure” for their new series, and never referred to Jonny Quest as a “cartoon”.  This realistic, colorful style was much more difficult to do in “limited animation”, and therefore the series ended up being much more expensive than it was originally budgeted.

In fact, according to some sources, EVERY single episode of Jonny Quest came in over budget.  While the show was a ratings and critical hit on Friday nights, a show simply doesn’t stay on the air if it can’t make money, and Jonny Quest was apparently losing it instead.  So, the series was canceled after 26 episodes.

A few years later, CBS was looking for a series to bolster their Saturday morning lineup.  After both The Flintstones and The Jetsons had moved from prime-time to Saturday morning on rival networks, CBS purchased the rights to Jonny Quest reruns to add to their adventure-themed kids programming.  Again a ratings winner, this time the series ran for three seasons, continuing to repeat the original prime-time episodes to an all new audience.

Violence? What violence?

This time, though, Jonny Quest wasn’t taken off the air due to money reasons.  It was time for another set of “crusaders” known as Action for Children’s Television (ACT) to tell America that their children’s television was too violent, and Jonny Quest and its emphasis on “realism” was now an example of their target series.  It didn’t matter that the series was aired in most markets at noon or later, or that the series had originally been designed for adults as well as children.  ACT lumped Jonny Quest in with other, less quality shows, aimed at a much younger audience, and deemed it “unsuitable”.  Therefore, under pressure, the series was replaced with mindless comedy and insipid “message” television.

Fortunately, these too ran their course, and when the furor was sufficiently quieted, Jonny Quest made yet another appearance.  ABC returned it to the Saturday morning airwaves in the spring of 1972, although the “violence” had been edited in many places.  Even as late at 1979 NBC took a shot at the reruns, making Jonny Quest one of the few shows to air at one time or another on all three major networks.  The series was a perennial favorite, known by those who had grown up on it as a kid and remembered fondly by adults who were now in charge of programming television.

New Adventures of Jonny Quest (and Race's daughter!)

Thirteen new episodes were produced in 1986, and joined with the original series run to syndicate to local markets.  A new animated TV-movie aired in 1993 on the USA cable network, and the series was “rebooted” in 1996 as The New Adventures of Jonny Quest on TBS and TNT.  Attempts were made at updating the series, but these new storylines were largely unsuccessful, and while a second 26-episode season of New Adventures was made, some of the more futuristic plotlines of the revamp were abandoned in favor of stories more faithful to the original series.

A show like Jonny Quest really is the essence of “Animation Domination”, as it conquered all three major networks in the ’60’s and ’70’s, and became a cable presence in the ’80’s and ’90’s.  It has developed new followings in every generation since its premiere in 1964, and survived the changing of society throughout.  The adventures of Jonny, Dr. Quest, Race, Hadji, and Bandit are fond memories for numerous fans who grew up on their adventures, and while The Simpsons may be going on 25 years, Jonny Quest has now spent almost half a century as part of our communal consciousness.  And that, my friends, is Animation Domination.

TIM MATHESON (Jonny Quest) was 16 when he voiced Jonny Quest, and co-workers had a hard time believing he was even that old, but the “kid” turned into a respected Hollywood actor.  His lengthy career has included starring in the smash hit National Lampoon’s Animal House and Fletch.  He’s starred on television in The Quest (NBC’s western, not the one on this site by the same name), Tucker’s Witch, and Wolf Lake, plus has played recurring characters in The West Wing and Burn Notice.  He also directs numerous shows, including episodes of Cold Case, Psych, and the pilot for Covert Affairs.

JOHN STEPHENSON (Dr. Benton Quest) was an actor seen often in the very early days of television, but became a constant voice for various Hanna-Barbera productions starting in the 1960’s.  Best known as the voice of Mr. Slate in The Flintstones, he’s been heard portraying various characters in almost every series Hanna-Barbera ever produced.  Still working, he’s been an incredibly good mimic, able to deliver characters “influenced by” many of Hollywood’s greatest actors.

DON MESSICK (Dr. Benton Quest, Bandit) has been featured here before, for his rare live-acting role in The Duck Factory (where, typecast, he played a voice actor!)  He originated the voices of Boo-Boo and Ranger Smith for Yogi Bear, Scooby-Doo in the various incarnations of that franchise, and Papa Smurf and Azrael in the animated adventures of The Smurfs.

DANNY BRAVO (Hadji) only voiced one other animated show, a guest spot on The New Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, but he has a short career on television and film in the 1960’s.  He appeared in the original movie version of The Magnificent Seven, and was seen in The Travels of Jamie McPheeters and Run for Your Life.  His character doesn’t appear in the first episode, and he is only introduced in the second, even though “Hadji” is featured in the opening credits for the series.

MIKE ROAD (Roger “Race” Bannon) was another early television fixture, seen in Buckskin, The Roaring Twenties, Maverick (as fellow poker player Pearly Gates), and 77 Sunset Strip.  As a voice actor, he created the voices for Zandor in The Herculoids and Reed Richards in The New Fantastic Four.  He retired in 1981.

The original 1964 episodes of Jonny Quest were released on DVD in 2004, and while they are slightly edited versions with certain scenes and lines missing, the transfer is excellent and the stories are well worth having, even in this form.  There is a superb documentary chunked on YouTube showing the history of the series, with lots of behind-the-scenes information about the making of the show.  Fan dedication to Jonny Quest is readily evident, with the great ClassicJQ.com site for picture and text, and a stop-motion animation recreation of the iconic title sequence by a dedicated fan on vimeo.com, a still of which is presented below.  (Also check out his Making-of website, showing just how labor-intensive this project of devotion was).

Most people don’t realize that television, especially in the early ’60’s, was a very experimental medium.  It was trying to differentiate itself from movies and radio, where much of its initial creative minds and impetus came from.  Animation was one way to do that, especially combining it with the adventure serials that couldn’t be filmed for budgetary reasons.  Even though animation was expensive, it was still cheaper to draw exotic places and creatures than it was to film them.  In doing so, television was able to create something radio and movies never did, and we all remember it well.

“My biggest kick comes from the individual fans I run into.  Middle-aged men ask me when we’re going to do more Jonny Quest cartoons.”
–Joseph Barbera

Jonny Quest lives on in the hearts of so many, because it was their initial introduction to adventure, whether on Friday nights in 1964 or later on Saturday mornings.  But it touched a nerve, created memories, and gave all of us who were children in those days a hero we could actually pretend to become.  Jonny was just an eleven year old boy, but he was also heroic, and lived a life most of us could only dream about.  He was much closer to being one of us than any superhero could be, and he also needed rescuing sometimes, when he made mistakes.  Jonny Quest was, by far, a dominant role model for more than one generation.  May all our adventures be just as exciting, and his type of “animation domination” live on for a very long time.

Vital Stats

26 aired episodes — none unaired — all available on DVD
ABC Network
First aired episode:  September 18, 1964
Final aired episode:  March 11, 1965
Aired at Friday 8/7 Central?  Oh, so close.  In the 1960’s, networks started their nightly programming at 7:30/6:30 Central, half an hour earlier than they do currently.  Jonny Quest aired on Fridays at 7:30/6:30 Central, leading off the night.  If it had aired a decade later, it would have started at 8/7.

Comments and suggestions appreciated, as always.

–Tim R.

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