Little does anyone know that Chief Justice Michael Stailey is still the reigning Buck Buck champion of Chicago.
Trick or Treat with Fat Albert!
Not having seen any of the UrbanWorks DVD releases, it's a treat to revisit a show that left such an indelible mark on my childhood. Fat Albert and the Cosby Kids premiered September 9, 1972 on CBS and ran off and on for the next nine years. It was on the strength of this show that I borrowed heavily from the Bill Cosby section of my uncle's comedy albums collection (on vinyl of course). In fact, it was 1967's Revenge that introduced Fat Albert to the world as the 2,000 lb Buck Buck back breaker and one of the world's biggest chickens when it comes to monsters. The success of this album that NBC commissioned an animated special called Hey, Hey, Hey, it's Fat Albert in 1969. The idea was this would serve as the pilot for a new Saturday morning series. But NBC execs were uncomfortable with Bill's educational approach to his stories and passed on the project, which brought him over to Lou Scheimer's upstart animation house Filmation and through them to CBS.
Holiday specials were all the rage back in the late '60s and early '70s. From network series and the likes of crooners Bing Crosby, Perry Como, and Frank Sinatra, to the animagic of Rankin-Bass and Charles Schulz's Peanuts gang, everyone wanted a piece of the action. And while Christmas the was sweet spot, Halloween was just hitting its stride as a commercial powerhouse. So in 1977, with five years under their belt, Cosby, Scheimer, and co-producer Norm Prescott jumped into the game with both Halloween and Christmas prime time specials. Gone were the live-action segments with Bill setting up the story and commenting on the action that were the backbone of the series, replaced by more story development and face time for characters. At the same time, the animation was richer and more detailed, relying less on classic Filmation reuse techniques and more on painted backgrounds, diverse settings, and increased camera movement. These were truly special events, by the standards of the day.
Fat Albert's Halloween Special debuted Monday, October 24, 1977. The story centers on the too-cool-for-school Rudy and his friend Devery (not one of the original Cosby kids) as they attempt to elevate the excitement for Halloween night. Instead of just taking in the latest scary movie (Space Squids) and trick-or-treating, the plan was to target specific "old dudes" in town—Searchlight Johnson, Mudfoot Brown, and Old Lady Bakewell—and scare the Bajeezus out of 'em. Fat Albert is the only one to stand up to the dynamic dimwits by saying it's "not cool" to go around terrorizing folks like that. But, as usual, the cool kids win out and the gang follows along blindly…that is until Devery's plan goes south. In the end, it's the children—Russell and Devery's sister Mabel—who prove to be the most courageous of the bunch, and the gang learns its lesson…all except for Devery, who's punishment will most deservedly fit the crime.
While falling just short of It's the Great Pumpkin, Charlie Brown (1966), the best of The Simpsons' Treehouse of Horror, Gary Larson's Tales from the Far Side (1994), and Garfield's Halloween Adventure (1985), there is a sweetness amid the nostalgia. As a child of the '70s, the biggest concern parents had with Halloween was kids staying out too late, eating candy or treats that weren't pre-wrapped, and getting lured into egging or TP-ing some unsuspecting neighbor's house. The gang here was on their own most of the time, pretty much knew right from wrong, and always learned from the consequences of their bad choices. When their plan to scare old Searchlight backfires, they get kicked out of the movie theatre right before the best part. When scare tactics on old Mudfoot go south, he tricks them out of all their candy, while regaling stories of Halloween when he was a kid. But when it comes to Mrs. Bakewell, they learn that kindness to your elders can be much more rewarding than any short-lived kicks you might get from pranking them.
While the full frame image quality still exhibits a modicum of dirt, the colors truly pop against this mostly nighttime tale. And though the character designs are the same as the series, there's a consistency to their depth and proportion that used to vary wildly from week to week. Still not sure about the decision behind Devery's midriff baring turtleneck, though…unless maybe he was the prototype metrosexual of the day. You make the call. The stereo audio track is equally impressive with Jeff Michael and Yvette Blais kitschy synth score holding up surprisingly well.
In terms of bonus features, Genius Products tosses in two episodes from the series—one from the original CBS run and the other from the 1984-85 syndicated relaunch—both of which preserve Bill doing the intros, extros, and commercial bumpers.
"Prankster" (1972)—The gang tangles with Otis, the new kid on the block, who does his best to pull one over on everyone he meets. I think you know where this is headed. The gang is so taken by Otis' pranks they make him the president of their club, as Fat Albert resigns. But swift justice is in the offing for Otis, when his house of cards comes tumbling down. Longtime fans will smile at the reference to the gang's hero "The Brown Hornet." The image quality is considerably less impressive than the Halloween Special, with obvious inconsistencies and lack of attention to detail. But the story—as interchangeable as they all were—still holds up as a lesson to America's youth. Oh, and before I forget, what was the deal with all the Filmation shows having their characters form a band? Was The Monkees (1966) formula really so impressive that it needed to be imitated?
"The Jinx" (1985)—The gang deals with superstitions when they travel from Philly to the mountains of Pennsylvania to Rudy's aunt and uncle up at their ranch. The weird thing is Rudy's cousin Rick looks and sounds a lot like Otis from "The Prankster." Go figure. The live action segments held the same setup as 13 years previous, with Bill looking slightly older, in a slightly different junkyard, but wearing the same t-shirt. The only major difference were in the characters voices (those not done by Bill) and "Legal Eagle" replaced "The Brown Hornet" as their the show-within-a-show televised hero.
That'll just about do it. While the Halloween Special is not as heartfelt or memorable as Fat Albert's Christmas Special, for those of us who grew up with the series, the disc is a nice little memory jog. But despite its message and presentation, I'm not so sure the kids of today will latch onto it the way we did. I'll have to run it by my nieces and nephews and get back to you. Court adjourned.
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Scales of Justice
Studio: Genius Products
• Two bonus episodes
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