I have had a nearly lifelong fondness for Hanna Barbera-produced cartoons of the 1970s and 80s after spending thousands of hours watching them as a child. Although back then my favorites were some of HB's more popular cartoons like The Flinstones, Superfriends and Yogi Bear, I've developed a retroactive fondness in my adult years for some of the lesser Hanna Barbera works of that period.
But today it was two 80s HB cartoons that I watched online: The Shmoo and Captain Caveman. Although I was always rather ambivalent about that titan of Hanna Barbera fandom, Scooby Doo (meaning I watched it nearly every day as a kid but only because it was so ubiquitous, and less excitedly so), it struck me while watching the two Shmoo episodes and single Captain Caveman episode that they were very much made from the Scooby Doo template.
Part of the template is casting. There is always some sort of either talking animal or other quasi supernatural character who acts as both hero and comic relief. In Shmoo's case, he is a kind of shapeshifter who spends most of his (or her) time as a blobby bowling-pin shape, but can take on the form of literally anything. In this episode, Shmoo acted as a tire when the gang's car went flat, and then shapeshifted into a tire jack when a replacement tire was found, as well as a blanket, a pillow, a pogo stick, and a parachute, all of which were part of several life-saving actions. Shmoo also seems to delight in kissing both protagonists and antagonists alike.
What I found particularly astonishing about the Shmoo and Captain Caveman shows, though, was that nobody seems phased by the fact that there is this unearthly being of completely unknown form or origin - he's just a funny pet with almost limitless powers. I shouldn't say completely unknown, though. I've since learned, as I wrote this post and plumbed Wikipedia, that Shmoo began in the venerable Lil' Abner cartoon and has a surprisingly rich history, as the entry delineates:
"A shmoo is shaped like a plump bowling pin with legs. It has smooth skin, eyebrows and sparse whiskers - but no arms, nose or ears. Its feet are short and round but dexterous, as the shmoo's comic book adventures make clear. It has a rich gamut of facial expressions, and expresses love (often) by exuding hearts over its head.
They reproduce asexually and are very prolific. They require no sustenance other than air.
They have no bones, so there's absolutely no waste. Their eyes make the best suspender buttons, and their whiskers make perfect toothpicks. In short, they are simply the perfect ideal of a subsistence agricultural herd animal."
Personally, though, I prefer to restrict my consideration of Shmoo to the 1980s Hanna Barbera cartoon, even if it's just a cheesy formulaic rendition of an actually richer satirical newspaper-cartoon character. It's ultimately this HB formula and the look and style of Hanna Barbera cartoons that I love, not some biographic history of this bowling bowl-shaped blob.
Captain Caveman is less abstract of an entity; he takes on a caricature of a prehistoric man instead of an indescribable morphing blob. But his trusted club has unexplainable powers as well: a series of Flinstones-like small animals come out of the club to provide whatever assistance the Captain needs. In the episode I watched, a small bird pops out of his club in order to bite a padlock off a mummy's coffin, which itself is acting as a secret portal from which a mummy comes and goes.
Besides the lead characters like Shmoo or Captain Caveman, they are routinely part of a small nomadic group of quasi-hip youngsters in their late teens or early 20s. It's always a mix of genders, and usually a racial mix as well. It's a kind of idyllic 70s version of Young America. One member of the group, usually the most cowardly and child-like male figure (Shaggy on Scooby Doo and Billie Joe on Schmoo), has a particularly tight bond with the pet-hero-supernatural figure. Whether it's Scooby or Schmoo or "Cavey" (as Captain Caveman's gang calls him), the title character appreciates the coward's desire to be left alone in bliss without seeking fame and fortune. It allows said title character to not only enjoy that master-dog relationship, but also act in that truly heroic way later in the episode: the role of the reluctant hero who is only utilizing his/her powers in order to save innocent lives. Shmoo doesn't just shapeshift to randomly steal or kick ass, and Cavey has sophisticated judgment despite his prehistoric brain.
There's a line on The Simpsons that also partially explains the template. Lisa says, "If there's anything I've learned from years of watching Scooby Doo, it's to beware of real estate developers." Almost invariably there is an antagonist, revealed at show's end, who is trying to scare people away from some valuable piece of land or discovery. In one of the Shmoo episodes I watched, "The Valley Where Time Stood Still", Shmoo and the kids encounter what seems to be a Texas valley where prehistoric pterodactyls and T-rexes still roam, only do discover it's merely a rancher from the bordering property who has discovered an oil deposit and is seeking to reap its fortunes without the landowner's knowledge by fabricating the appearance of angry dinosaurs (a pterodactyl turns out to be a remote-control glider) and cavemen (guys with long beards and department store leopard skins for loincloths).By setting a multicultural group of youth against greedy devious adults, these cartoons helped act, for all their cheap animation corner-cutting and saccharine, formulaic storytelling, as a kind of ongoing series of morality plays during my youth. More than just heroes and villains, though, the collected Hanna Barbera works of this particular formula, the Scooby Doo template of a small group of youth and their supernaturally talented pet-slash-pal ham fistedly avoiding certain peril and bringing down powerful forces of corruption -- instilled in me the idealistic sense that you can and should take on the powerful with hope of success. It's a nice theme to revisit when you're older and more cynical. Even the 37 year old version of me enjoys taking 10 or 20 minutes now or then to return to the land where backgrounds repeat every few seconds if you're running somewhere, and there's nothing surprising about the having a sexless childlike shifting blob for your companion-slash-bodyguard.