A while ago, Tuned In Jr. needed to look up a fact for homework, so he went on Google and looked it up. Within a few minutes, he had the information he needed, and as is my wont in such situations, I said in my best Tennessee Tuxedo voice: “Phineas J. Whoopee, you’re the greatest!”
Tuned In Jr. asked what I was talking about, and I explained that when I was a kid, I used to watch reruns of a cartoon called Tennessee Tuxedo and His Tales. The show starred a penguin (voiced by Don Adams) and his walrus friend Chumley, who got into various hijinks that usually involved agitating for better living conditions at the zoo where they lived. (This in spite of the fact that they lived in seemingly spacious quarters, with furniture, electrical appliances and newspaper delivery.) To aid them in their quest, they would always eventually visit their professor friend, Mr. Whoopee (Larry Storch), who would produce his Three-Dimensional Blackboard–the “3D BB”–which would instantaneously deliver information on any subject, complete with illustrations and video. Mr. Whoopee was the Google of his time: hence Tennessee’s trademark thank-you, “Phineas J. Whoopee, you’re the greatest.”
Tuned In Jr. received this explanation with the polite indulgence of all ten-year-olds listening to their insane elderly parents prattle on about the old days. It’s not just that kids his age have new and different cartoons to watch (Chumley, I would argue, is a direct ancestor of Patrick Starfish from SpongeBob). It’s that the central idea of every Tennessee Tuxedo episode–the wondrous fantasy of someone having a magic screen panel that could answer any question on demand–has pretty much been rendered pointless by Google, YouTube and the tablet and smartphone. (The 3DBB, in fact, looks remarkably in retrospect like an enlargeable iPad—see the video, above, which explains how an old CRT TV works.)
I was reminded of this just now when I got a press release announcing a complete DVD box set release of Tennessee Tuxedo, coming out March 6 from Shout! Factory. The show is just the most memorable (at least to me) example of what used to be a common trope in kids’ programming: the “Magic Drawing Board” (Captain Kangaroo) or chalkboard, premised on the fantasy of a simple, friendly device that could come to life an answer a request that in “real life” would require stacks of books and a trip to the library. This was the sort of device, for instance, that Pee-Wee Herman recalled with the “Magic Screen” character in his Playhouse.
You could argue that the old means of finding things out instilled greater research skills: that information was somehow better earned when you had to physically go out and seek it—when information was a place to which you had to make a pilgrimage—and more reliable when you didn’t get directed to dubious Yahoo Answers pages. But even then, when computers were giant industrial machines that scientists used, housed in their own rooms in government labs, we had the fantasy of handheld knowledge screens, and knew that they would represent a kind of magic.
Today, the idea of a magical answer machine still exists in shows aimed at very small children, but by and large it’s become dated. It’s a techno-fantasy that has been retired by the real world, in the same way that movies for grown-ups have had to change to accomodate the spread of mobile technology. (I was reminded of this the other day when watching a DVD of Don’t Look Now, a Donald Sutherland / Julie Christie paranormal thriller that, among other distinctive ’70s touches, turned on a miscommunication plot point that would be nearly impossible to script in an era when everyone has a cell phone.)
Looking back at old episodes of Tennessee Tuxedo (some of which are available on YouTube if you can’t wait for the DVD set), they also seem like examples of a kind of kids’ cartoon that doesn’t exist any more. It’s not that there aren’t “educational” kids’ shows anymore—far from it. It’s that the world of kids’ shows is more bifuracated into shows that are strictly escapist and shows that are so strenuously, earnestly “good for you” (WordGirl, Little Einsteins) that they seem as much aimed at anxious parents as the kids that they’re trying to teach by entertaining.
Tennessee Tuxedo, on the other hand, just looked and felt like many kids’ cartoons of the time–aesthetically and in its tone and sense of humor, there wasn’t much difference between it and, say, Underdog (from the same production studio, Total Television). In those pre-Sesame Street days (before my time, but the reruns were constantly on air when I was a kid), there wasn’t the same sense that “fun TV” and “educational TV” were different genres, with a different tone and aesthetic.
All that said, I couldn’t tell you in retrospect if I learned much of anything from Tennessee Tuxedo and His Tales; I may have learned more from Rocky and Bullwinkle, who taught me about Cold War politics without my really knowing it. But what I did pick up from the penguin and his professor friend was a particular idea of an impossible high-tech future of portable magic screens that would come alive at a touch–one that’s now so ubiquitous that my kids can’t fathom being amazed by it. But even if no one realizes it anymore: Phineas J. Whoopee, you’re still the greatest.