When Appellate Judge Mike Pinsky gets home, his wife and kids usually seem pretty glad to see him.
"It's always easy to knock the system, right up to the moment the first good offer comes in."—Harry Boyle
In the 1970s, Hanna-Barbera was not really known for being on the cutting edge. Its founders may have built their reputations on violent cartoons in which a mouse fought and won against a self-important cat, but the cat was never truly defeated: he was always back as the eternal authority figure in the next cartoon. Jerry's rebellion against Tom never seemed to accomplish real change. The counterculture of the 1960s appeared in Hanna-Barbera form as Shaggy, whose hippy aesthetic was reduced to pure appetite. The real hero of Jonny Quest was the reactionary, he-man bodyguard.
So you would think that a show titled Wait Till Your Father Gets Home would be a validation of middle-class life, a world where father really did know best. The show is structured as a typical family sitcom: easily flustered male authority figure, married to an overly organized and protective mother, deals with a cynical child, a lazy child, and a rebellious, political child. A laugh track (which seems used less as the season progresses) tells you when the punch lines come. The plots are familiar. For example, the first episode: husband drives a female client around town and the wife thinks he is cheating. Keeping up with the neighbors, dealing with job stress—typical "life in the suburbs" stuff. It could be any number of shows. The difference here is that this version is animated.
You might be thinking, "Well, didn't Hanna-Barbera do the domestic life sitcom before? In The Flintstones, whose satire was so mild that the characters now exist primarily to shill breakfast cereal?" But Wait Till Your Father Gets Home reflects a more turbulent America a generation after The Flintstones. The earlier show looked at the Eisenhower years (even as Kennedy was in office), taking its cues from The Honeymooners depiction of working-class life. WTYFGH, a decade later, reflects an America traumatized by the death of two Kennedys and Martin Luther King, Vietnam, and Nixon. These were a chokehold on middle-class suburban life. And Hanna-Barbera was making money from reassuring kids every Saturday morning that everything would be all right.
Which is why WTYFGH is such a surprise. While the initial structure of the show is hardly radical, the content is something else. Consider the episode I cited above: restaurant equipment supplier Harry Boyle (voiced by Tom Bosley, who would later play the father in the ultimate '70s show of nostalgic reassurance, Happy Days) checks into a hotel with a female client when his car breaks down, prompting wife Irma (Joan Gerber) to suspect adultery. But the most interesting part of the episode is Harry's interaction with his paranoid neighbor Ralph (Jack Burns), who objects to a prospective lodge member. Why? Because the new guy is a Jew. In a later episode, Harry tries to prove he isn't a racist by hiring a member of a minority to replace the 70-year-old, mostly blind Jewish driver he had to fire. The hard-working dad of Eisenhower's America is now under the gun.
Wait Till Your Father Gets Home is middle-class domestic comedy with a streak of liberal stridency. Erma Bombeck meets Norman Lear. Political asides are common, even when the plot is not concerned with grinding an axe. In one episode, Harry and Ralph, on their way toward somewhere else entirely, drive by an indecency march protesting the nudity of Michelangelo's David (a gag flat-out stolen by the show's closest descendent, The Simpsons). As the show moves on through its first season (it ran for two seasons from 1972-74), neighbor Ralph Kane begins to look physically more and more like Richard Nixon. And Ralph and his paramilitary "vigilantes" become increasingly creepier—and this in an age before Timothy McVeigh and the Minutemen border patrols. In one episode, Harry is mugged (another standard sitcom plot), leading to maniacal rants from Ralph about conspiracies and non-white criminals—all while toting around a loaded gun and ordering around a private army that seems to increase every episode. When the mugger is given leniency by the judge, Ralph openly threatens to hunt him down.
As in any successful satire though, the other side (in this case, the liberals) gets knocked down a peg as well. Harry's two oldest children (the youngest is a mercenary capitalist, a precursor to Alex P. Keaton) sympathize with the mugger's underprivileged background, and they call their dad a fascist for pressing charges. In the end, of course, Harry's middle-of-the-road approach wins out. The legal system turns out to be fair and balanced, and Harry proves to be the island of instinctive rationality in the midst of a sea of hysterical liberals and dangerous conservatives. Indeed, this may be where Wait Till Your Father Gets Home proves itself a fairly standard sitcom in the end. The exasperated Harry, the good man at the center of social turmoil, always turns out to be right and, by staying the course, he gets through any crisis.
Hanna-Barbera and Warner Brothers have offered the first season of Wait Till Your Father Gets Home in a four-disc set. It is hard to believe that a show willing to actually take risks with its political content (even if its conclusions are pretty safe) was originally created as a one-shot tale for the cheesy Love American Style. The show certainly does not look like other Hanna-Barbera cartoons of the period: its design, by Iwao Takamoto (who also designed more traditional HB fare like Scooby Doo), has the simplified quality of a New Yorker cartoon or a short by John and Faith Hubley. Takamoto is interviewed as part of two featurettes on the DVD set, and he points to Playboy cartoonist Marty Murphy as the source of the show's visual style. The other featurette avoids talking much about the show's artistic side, focusing instead on a checklist of hot topics of the 1960s and 1970s addressed on the show, with commentary by people like Leif Garrett, former California governor Gray Davis, and Gary Owens, none of whom were actually involved in the series (the first two did not even have their career breakthroughs until after the show was over).
While Wait Till Your Father Gets Home does not push the envelope as far as Norman Lear was doing at the time in live action, this is pretty adventurous stuff for a Hanna-Barbera show. The drawback is that the satire in the show is so bound by cultural norms and contemporary points of reference (consider the episode where son Chet debates whether to accept getting drafted or flee to Canada; although Vietnam is never mentioned, it is quite clear why Chet would be so worried) that you may laugh at few of the political jokes. You will smile, though. It is a testament to the quality writing and wit of the show that it can sell jokes that went stale when Jerry Ford was president. There are so few sitcoms today that can say their dialogue and acting raise them up to a notable enough level that it was worth spending so much of our time together talking about it. I can count the number of sitcoms I'd bother to talk about on one hand, which places Wait Till Your Father Gets Home in good company.
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