There is need to fear! Underdog is no longer here!
February 21, 2013 8:13 PM   Subscribe

W. Watts "Buck" Biggers, co-creator, producer and writer of Underdog has died at the age of 85.

W. Watts Biggers was an account executive with the ad firm Dancer Fitzgerald Sample in the early 1960s when he and Chet Stover developed Underdog, a cartoon show to promote breakfast cereals for their client, General Mills. The show, with its unforgettable opening theme written by Biggers, debuted in 1964. The show interspersed episodes of Underdog with Tennessee Tuxedo and Go Go Gophers, also Biggers' creations. Wally Cox was the voice of Underdog, a mild-mannered shoe shine puppy, who ran to a phone booth and changed into Underdog whenever TV reporter Sweet Polly Purebred was in trouble (usually at the hands of evil professor Simon Bar Sinister or gangster wolf Riff Raff. In 1995 Biggers sold the rights to Underdog to Lorne Michaels. A live action movie was released in 2007.
posted by plastic_animals (51 comments total) 7 users marked this as a favorite

 
I never watched or liked Underdog that much, but "Simon Bar Sinister" is one of the greatest pun names of the history of mankind.
posted by Joakim Ziegler at 8:15 PM on February 21, 2013 [2 favorites]


I loved Underdog as a kid. I haven't rewatched it as I'm afraid it wouldn't hold up to my childhood memories. That theme still plays in my head.
posted by kanata at 8:23 PM on February 21, 2013 [2 favorites]


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posted by Foosnark at 8:27 PM on February 21, 2013


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posted by zeugitai_guy at 8:36 PM on February 21, 2013




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posted by rahnefan at 8:47 PM on February 21, 2013


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Underdog is one of the first shows I remember watching. I thought it was awesome then and I still think it's awesome now.

That theme song is a classic example of something that's much, much better than it needed to be. For a kids' show theme in the 60's, they could have gotten away with something quick and simple. But the rhymes are amazing, and when that chorus kicks in, it's actually uplifting.

...oh, and here it is covered by Butthole Surfers.
posted by PlusDistance at 8:55 PM on February 21, 2013 [1 favorite]


There's no need to fear...
..Underdog was here.

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posted by eriko at 8:56 PM on February 21, 2013


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And a Big G.

Actually Tennessee Tuxedo had a separate show that started a year earlier (with Don Adams in the title role), inserting a two-minute usually-not-animated lesson on something into each 9 minute cartoon in order to make it fall into "educational" category. The shows were combined in reruns a few years later. His first show was "King Leonardo and His Short Subjects", which started a year after Bullwinkle (and contributed some recycled segments to Underdog & Tennessee). As a kid, I saw Biggers' and Stovers' names and "Total Television Productions" on all three shows (I was such a cartoon nerd).

Underdog didn't so much compete for a timeslot with Bullwinkle but for budget with the sponsor General Mills (who had underwritten Jay Ward & Company from the start). They also used "Gamma Productions" for the physical animation, a company started by General Mills for their sponsored cartoons and based in Mexico to save money. As was obvious in the first season of Bullwinkle, the animators were mostly getting on-the-job training, but by the time Underdog came around, they were as competent as the Americans working for Hanna-Barbera. But I recall Biggers' characters getting onto the packages of General Mills cereals more often than Ward's (I don't think they went to 'product characters' like Trix Rabbit and Lucky the Leprechaun until federal regulations forced them to separate the cereals from the shows)

Another thing they 'borrowed' from Jay Ward was putting 4-minute episodes of the starring character, Underdog, at the start and end of the show, as part of a serialized adventure (although Bullwinkle's cliffhangers were far less dramatic). But Underdog's adventures never ran more than four parts. (A couple Bullwinkle stories meandered for 30-40 episodes)

not to be disrespectful, but I can't help but chuckle at how similar Biggers' "longtime companion's" name was to Polly Purebred...
posted by oneswellfoop at 8:59 PM on February 21, 2013 [1 favorite]


Underdog is why I wanted a shoeshine kit when I was a lad. I was given one, too.

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posted by Curious Artificer at 9:00 PM on February 21, 2013 [3 favorites]


As an extremely small child, I had a Snoopy stuffed animal which I named Underdog.

I was confused. But I did love Underdog.
posted by Sing Or Swim at 9:09 PM on February 21, 2013 [1 favorite]


. ;( used to watch it with my kids. It was a very cute and clever show.
posted by Katjusa Roquette at 9:26 PM on February 21, 2013


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posted by roll truck roll at 9:29 PM on February 21, 2013


oneswellfoop: "they were as competent as the Americans working for Hanna-Barbera."

Well, that's damning them with faint praise.
posted by Joakim Ziegler at 9:48 PM on February 21, 2013 [3 favorites]


My first Usenet handle way back in the 90s was Underdog. People kept thinking it was some political or social statement, but no, it was just Underdog.
posted by happyroach at 9:50 PM on February 21, 2013


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Man, that show was one of the highlights of my Saturday morning cartoon marathons.
Just thinking about it makes me want to get down with a bowl of Coco Puffs.
posted by dougzilla at 10:02 PM on February 21, 2013


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posted by Mblue at 10:02 PM on February 21, 2013


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posted by buzzman at 10:03 PM on February 21, 2013


It is odd. I am reasonably certain I have never seen an episode of Underdog, yet when I clicked the link, the tag line played exactly as I hear it in my head. The pop culture penetration of that line must be tremendous.
posted by jacquilynne at 10:06 PM on February 21, 2013


Though I can't find the clip to share, one of my earliest memories of really being moved by music as a child was with the Spaghetti Western take of the theme in the episode Riffraffville.

My mother didn't like us watching the show because she thought there was some anti-semetism represented in the Simon Bar Sinister character--yet my 40 rear-old brother has a large Underdog tattoo.
posted by sourwookie at 10:06 PM on February 21, 2013


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posted by evidenceofabsence at 10:15 PM on February 21, 2013


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posted by Lukenlogs at 10:20 PM on February 21, 2013


But I recall Biggers' characters getting onto the packages of General Mills cereals more often than Ward's (I don't think they went to 'product characters' like Trix Rabbit and Lucky the Leprechaun until federal regulations forced them to separate the cereals from the shows)

Which is how my generation got robbed of Super Energy Pill Crunch.
posted by sourwookie at 10:32 PM on February 21, 2013 [2 favorites]


Underdog was my favorite show.

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posted by trip and a half at 11:38 PM on February 21, 2013


Having grownup with classics like Betty Boop, Mighty Mouse, Popeye and other older styled
cartoons, I at first had a cool reception for these more minimal and abstracted toons.
But later learned to love them. Bennie and Cecil, Rocky and Bullwinkle, and Tom Terrific
helped ease me into these contemporary masters.

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posted by quazichimp at 11:43 PM on February 21, 2013


Oooo, waaooo, waaooo, waaooo, waaooo, waaooo:

When criminals in this world appear
And break the laws that they should fear
and frighten all who see or hear
the cry goes up both far and near for
Un-derdog! Un-derdog! Un-derdog! Un-derdog!
SPEED of LIGHTNING, ROAR of THUNDER,
FIGHT-ting ALL who ROB or PLUNDER,
UNDERDOG... Ooo-ahh-ahh-ahh-ahh, Underdog. UNDERDOG!
posted by JHarris at 11:55 PM on February 21, 2013 [5 favorites]


Simon says... goodbye.


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posted by Spatch at 12:16 AM on February 22, 2013 [1 favorite]


This was one of the first cartoons I really remember from my days as a kid, on Channel 5 in New York (before it was a Fox station; Saturday mornings before Wonderama).

I still love the theme song.

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posted by mephron at 12:20 AM on February 22, 2013 [2 favorites]


I believe my 42 year old son still has the head of his UnderDog costume from when he was about 9 years old.
posted by HuronBob at 3:14 AM on February 22, 2013


Al Gore has a more recent Underdog costume with Tipper as Polly. He and Tipper also once dressed up as Beauty and the Beast.

I think they should be invited to more conventions.
posted by RonButNotStupid at 5:08 AM on February 22, 2013 [1 favorite]


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posted by Thorzdad at 5:35 AM on February 22, 2013


And now I know where Richard O'Brien got the name Riff Raff from.
posted by still_wears_a_hat at 5:54 AM on February 22, 2013


Another important piece of my childhood gone.

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posted by tommasz at 6:40 AM on February 22, 2013


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posted by Gelatin at 6:43 AM on February 22, 2013


When I was in college, the marching band played both the Underdog theme, and the Go Go Gopher theme. When I was a youngster, I had an Underdog toy built around a flywheel. Spin the flywheel with a zip strip, put it down, and watch it shoot away.

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posted by ZeusHumms at 6:43 AM on February 22, 2013


So, about Underdog --

I got up really early on Saturday mornings to watch what were already, at the time, cartoons over a decade old: Rocky & Bullwinkle, of course, and Tennessee Tuxedo and Underdog. There were a few others, often difficult to differentiate from the fact that their bits were all mixed together. Other shows (or segments) around at the time: the other Jay Ward cartoons Dudley Do-Right, Peabody's Improbable History, George of the Jungle and Tom Slick (oddly I never saw Hoppity Hooper then, and have yet to watch an episode to this day), Leonardo Crashcup, The King and Odie, The World of Commander McBragg, Go Go Gophers and Super Chicken. All great shows in their own way.

But Underdog was unique among them. Starting with the iconic theme song of course, which is one of the great TV themes, the show itself, while funny in places, was actually a lot more melodramatic than the others, and didn't focus on humor. Despite the name "Underdog," the title character was an ultra-powerful hero in the mold of Superman. And despite the limited animation, the show's art style did a pretty good job of establishing his power, using loud explosion sound effects for his actions. (Also -- he was a dog. Most of the characters in the show were humans except for him and Polly, which was never explained.) So, like Superman, the writers would have to invent situations that negated his powers to provide dramatic tension. But while Superman had a general weakness, to Kryptonite, Underdog had a secret source of strength, the secret compartment of his ring with its "Underdog Super Energy Pill." (Hey kids, drugs will make you strong! Where did he get the pill, I wonder?)

It was the same general story structure as Roger Ramjet, now that I think of it, although played for dramatic tension instead of laughs.

It seems to me that the biggest difficulty in creating such a theme song, by the way, isn't so much the writing and composing but in getting the singers to treat a song about a superhero dog fighting crime so seriously.
posted by JHarris at 6:46 AM on February 22, 2013 [1 favorite]


Al Gore has a more recent Underdog costume with Tipper as Polly. He and Tipper also once dressed up as Beauty and the Beast.

I think they should be invited to more conventions.
Funny you mention that. In 2010 one of the San Diego hotels apparently broke from the craziness around Comic-Con, and instead hosted a healthcare convention, keynoted by none other than Al Gore. Hotel management varies, and some people aren't really comfortable with the whole con scene. Sometimes 'things happen' though, and hotel management goes crazy.
posted by ZeusHumms at 6:47 AM on February 22, 2013


Not bird, not plane, nor even frog.

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posted by middleclasstool at 6:57 AM on February 22, 2013


I still have an Underdog Board Game. I don't remember playing it as a kid, but one holiday vacation home from college my friends and I found it and did what any self-respecting college kid would do. We turned it into a drinking game.

I don't remember the rules, but that's the point, right?

It's in awful condition, but still - I'll have to pull that out of the back of the closet tonight and see if I can rustle up a game.

BTW - I do love Underdog - I even went to a Halloween party wearing a giant blue U on my red shirt. It was depressing how the young kids didn't know who the hell I was.

And back to the topic of this thread - I am sad to see one more unsung genius of my youth is gone.
posted by arkham_inmate_0801 at 7:10 AM on February 22, 2013 [1 favorite]


RonButNotStupid: "I think they should be invited to more conventions."

Well, they're separated (if friendly), so I don't know that that would work.
posted by Chrysostom at 7:11 AM on February 22, 2013


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posted by radwolf76 at 7:27 AM on February 22, 2013


From Ta-Neishi Coates' column, in 2010:
Now here is Wu's "Wu-Tang Clan Ain't Nothing to Fuck With" using that very Underdog loop. But not just looping it. They took the loop and beat the hell out of it, dragged it through the streets of Staten Island to get it grimy and threw it off the Verrazano. Don't worry, the loop survived. But what came crawling back to the 36th Chamber wasn't the same loop. It was angry and haunting. It had a wild look in it's eye and it walked with a bop.
posted by stannate at 8:10 AM on February 22, 2013


Footnote to the first comment: Bar Sinister in heraldry indicates bastardy, ergo Simon Bastard.
posted by whuppy at 11:37 AM on February 22, 2013


Man, nothing says middle age like having the people behind your childhood memories start dying off. "Underdog" was one of my favorite cartoons, up there with "Speed Racer" and Looney Tunes.
posted by computech_apolloniajames at 11:39 AM on February 22, 2013


"The Phoney Booths" was such nightmare fuel to my young self, I don't even wanna rewatch.
posted by whuppy at 11:46 AM on February 22, 2013


I remember having an Underdog comic book in which Simon Bar Sinister's dastardly plot involved stealing oranges. Why? Because Underdog speaks in rhyming couplets, and "orange" doesn't rhyme with anything.
posted by dnash at 12:17 PM on February 22, 2013 [2 favorites]


whuppy, your link appears to be broken.
posted by JHarris at 8:04 PM on February 22, 2013


From wikipedia:

"Hence, the name Simon Bar Sinister could be translated as "Simon the Bastard"."

I had no idea!
posted by InsertNiftyNameHere at 12:51 AM on February 23, 2013


whuppy: "Footnote to the first comment: Bar Sinister in heraldry indicates bastardy, ergo Simon Bastard."

Note to self: Read all comments before posting.
posted by InsertNiftyNameHere at 12:53 AM on February 23, 2013


"Hogan's Alley", a magazine about animation, interviewed Biggers a few years ago and just put the interview on their website. Interesting stuff, more for me than most people, showing the relationship between TTV's shows and General Mills and the resources they shared with Jay Ward - not just the physical animation but also business management through P.A.T., a company run by a man named Peter Pieche. Yes, the inspiration for Bullwinkle's "Peter Wrong-Way Peachfuzz" character. It makes you think about whether when they created a six-inch-tall criminal mastermind named "Mr. Big" they might have been thinking of Mr. Biggers.
posted by oneswellfoop at 7:09 PM on February 23, 2013


And I just posted to my cartoon blog (as seen on MetaFilter Projects) a lengthy piece about Buck Biggers and ALL of Total Television's shows titled "Beyond the Underdog". It contains a ton of embedded video clips from King Leonardo to "The Beagles" - if anyone finds the webpage too hard to load, please MeFiMail me.
posted by oneswellfoop at 9:22 PM on February 25, 2013 [1 favorite]


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