Saturday, 6 June 2015

The Appeal of Underdog

Remember how someone got the bright idea to make a live-action version of “Underdog” with a real dog? It came out in 2007, was panned and bombed.

The producers could have avoided all that had they listened to the man who inspired the name of another cartoon character.

Peter Piech was the executive producer of the original Underdog TV cartoons through his part-ownership in Total Television Productions. Prior to that, he was president of Producers Associates of Television, which handled distribution of “Rocky and His Friends,” and had an interest in Gamma Productions, the cartoon studio where “Underdog” and a good percentage of “Rocky” were animated.

Here’s Piech talking about Underdog in this unbylined feature story published in the Rome Daily Sentinel, March 19, 1965. Underdog had debuted the previous October. We can only imagine what the late Alex Anderson would think of Piech getting credit for Rocky being “among his creations.” About the closest he got to creating anything on that show is the character of Peter “Wrong Way” Peachfuzz, whose name—not coincidentally—is close to a certain producer’s. And we’d like to know more about those Farmer Brown cartoons he talked about.

‘Underdog’ Creator Says Children Tough Audience; Not Easily Fooled
"There is no set pattern or guideline for writing humor for children, particularly in cartoons. The only thing we are concerned about is producing a good cartoon sequence.”
The man who made this statement is Peter Piech, executive producer of the color cartoon series, “Underdog” seen Saturdays, at 10 a. m.
One of the most experienced men in cartoon production, Pete has produced approximately 3,000 minutes of cartoons since 1959, more, he claims, than any other animation studio in the world. Among his creations are “Rocky,” “Tennessee Tuxedo,” “Leonardo the Lion,” “The Hunter,” and “Go Go Gophers.”
Pete believes that both children and adults are fascinated by the supernatural and super powers; “Underdog” fits into both of these categories because of his super abilities and the supernatural powers of his enemies.
While he feels that there are no guidelines for writing humor for children, Piech is quick to add that there are definite elements that a cartoon should have to capture their interest and imagination.
“Children are paradoxical in that they are captivated by both the familiar and the unknown,” says Pete. “They know, for instance, that Underdog is always going to catch the bad guy and bring him to justice in the end.
"They also know that he is going to rescue the heroine, Polly, from the teeth of a whirling circular saw or from the beam of villain Simon Barsinister's snow gun. The fact that they know this doesn't make the final rescue any less exciting.”
Kids love repetition, according to Piech, “but a producer can't just come up with one formula and then keep using it indefinitely.”
Pete also maintains that children appreciate the same elements of humor that make adults laugh.
They love Wally Cox as the voice of Underdog because it is very comical to hear such a meek voice coming from such a super-powered hero. They also like the unexpected situation that pops up, and this too is an element in all forms of humor.
Says Piech, “Children today are much more sophisticated than they used to be, and demand more from cartoons than they used to, because they want to use their knowledge more.
It's no longer enough, to give them a ‘Felix the Cat’ or a ‘Farmer Brown’ musical cartoon with singing flowers and cows that kick over milk buckets. “Today's kids are science-oriented and they want to use their knowledge. They can do this while watching Underdog fight the underwater Bobble-Heads and their tidal wave machine, but they can't if all they see is Felix trying to catch a mouse.”
Pete is adamant in his feelings that there are many topics that cannot be animated, and anything that can be done using live actors and live situations should not be done in cartoon form. In cartoons, everything is much bigger than life, very exaggerated.
"Can you imagine Underdog being played by a real dog, like Lassie?” asks Pete. “It would be impossible!
“And it would be just as ridiculous if Mr. Novak was a cartoon instead of a live person.”

Well, Mr. Piech is being a little disingenuous about “Mr. Novak.” It wouldn’t work in animation in 1965 because it was a drama; cartoons were still pretty much comedies then. But he makes valid points elsewhere in the interview.

If you want to learn the whole story behind the “Underdog” show, you can do no better than read Mark Arnold’s book Created and Produced by Total Television Productions. Check out more here.


  1. It should be noted that Peter Piech was 'immortalized' by the creators of Rocky & Bullwinkle, Jay Ward and Bill Scott, in the character name of "Peter Peachfuzz" the reliably Wrong-Way airplane pilot. They could've made a play with the name of the real-life Douglas 'Wrong Way' Corrigan, like they turned Boris Gudunov into "Boris Badenov", but chose instead to poke fun at a company Executive. General Mills (makers of Cheerios and other breakfast cereals) was the sponsor and part-owner of all the Total Television and P.A.T./Ward shows of the early '60s, and you could say Piech was the overseer with his fingers in all the cereal bowls. (And yes, "Created and Produced by Total Television Productions" is good read; I recommend it too.)

  2. I think he meant "Farmer Al Falfa" instead of "Farmer Brown"...

  3. He must've been talking about the Van Beuren Felix cartoons. The Trans-Lux episodes were far more than Felix "catching mice".

  4. Total may have been the first animation studio to really hit it big based on celebrities doing the voices -- lower-level celebs than what today's movies try to hype, but Wally Cox was definitely a familiar name and face in 1964, and it was the appeal of his voicework, surrounded by Total's usual cast of New York-based voice actors, that was a major part of "Underdog" being successful.

    At the same time, Don Adams was showing up in more and more placed by 1963, when "Tennessee Tuxedo and His Tales" debuted, albeit it his main claim to fame with "Get Smart!" was still two years in the future. Take Adams or Cox away from those shows, and they likely would be as remembered today as some of Total's other efforts (which might be recalled by animation buffs, but few others 45-55 years down the line).

  5. "Can you imagine Underdog being played by a real dog?" No, but that didn't stop the perpetrators of that live-action Underdog movie.