Underdog Creator Joe Harris Speaks: The Classic Cartoonist’s Interview
The Classic Cartoonist’s Interview
Nostalgia has been a recurring theme in recent years, and one of the areas delved into was cartoon classics, like perennial rhyming canine favorite Underdog.
Joe Harris, who was pivotal in the creation of cartoon superhero Underdog, shared inside info about the Caped Canine and the process that spawned Underdog. Harris allowed extended time during a phone interview, detailing Underdog's conception and more, as well as some insights into the humans who lent themselves to the classic cartoon project.
The young-at-heart Joe Harris lives in New York, and belies his actual age that bumps up against 80 with a youthful exuberance. Joe Harris stays as busy now as he did while birthing the 1960s Underdog icon, and re-surfaced for interviews when the digitized The Ultimate Underdog DVD Collection debuted. The full-length Underdog film was released soon after.
Shy Superhero Canine: The Origin
Tell me about the people behind Underdog and the cartoon's creative process.
Buck Biggers, Chet Stover and I were working at the New York advertising agency Dancer Fitzgerald Sample in 1960 when we were asked to help sell breakfast cereal for their client, General Mills. Underdog was the coat-hanger upon which the cartoons were (later) draped. Meanwhile, the Trix Rabbit, the Cheerios Kid, the Twinkles Elephant, the Cocoa Puffs Kids' train--and later, the Cocoa Puffs Bird--were created. So, once-removed, the animated characters sold cereals.
How were the animated characters chosen, and what was the process by which they appeared?
Blatant cereal promotion wasn't originally part of the actual cartoon; General Mill's products were only seen in the commercials between cartoon show segments. It was a committee decision that created the cartoon characters for each cereal, and this occurred from a type of backwards process. Underdog originated from an episode of I Love Lucy, where Lucy makes a caped costume out of remnants when Ricky brings home George "Superman" Reeves.
What role did each of Underdog's creators play in the overall animation process?
I was in charge of Underdog's illustration. Chet Stover was a notable conceptualist and the Underdog copy supervisor, and Buck Biggers was the primary Underdog writer and music composer. Treadwell Covington was the master of marketing Underdog.
Several of the creators' names appear as characters in Underdog cartoons. Coincidence?
You noticed that, huh? (laughs)
A few others in the Underdog credits, like Winston Sharples and Shull Bonsall, sound like fictional characters themselves. Were any of those names ever surreptitiously worked into characters in an Underdog episode?
Well, I can't say that happened on Underdog that I know of, but (Biggers, Stover and Covington) sure showed up as characters in my OWN life!
After birthing Underdog at the ad agency, what happened to the associates?
We formed our own production company, TTV, Total TeleVision.
Isn't that the same name as the TV station of Underdog's canine girlfriend, reporter Polly Purebred?
Ha--yes! You are the FIRST one to catch that! It was an inside joke among the Underdog creators.
CGI Process: The New Underdog
What are the processes by which the Underdog movie was made?
Well, it's been kind of a 360-degree process--how the Underdog character evolved from a live-action character in Lucy, to an animated dog, and then in the new movie, it is another live-action depiction. The Underdog movie also used computer-generated imagery, or CGI.
What are your thoughts about the CGI technique used in the movie Underdog, as a premiere modern art method?
CGI has helped to bring some marvelous creativity to life. I greatly admire its use in Harry Potter films and Lord of the Rings. Although I personally prefer more subtle creative means, as opposed to noise and gratuitous explosions, the computer flexibility in many aspects of the entertainment industry not only saves money for on-set action, but also time all-around.
Cartoon History: Underdog's Magic
How does CGI stack up against the creative process for the original Underdog?
Well, we didn't have it as easy! We had a 30-person team and worked on Underdog's production in the former Tompkins Studio in Mexico City, becoming the new home for Gamma Studio. The Mexican government allowed us up to 10 percent of Americans for the Underdog work force, and we took full advantage of that.
We filled in the rest by using area people for Underdog who were willing to work, but they had to be taught from the first step because they had never done this sort of animation work before.
What were the differences in artistic endeavors like cartooning in Mexico vs. the U.S.?
We had a serious lack of resources, so we had to pirate every bit of supplies for Underdog that we could find. We bribed. We stole. From the area art schools we got some items, but we were searching all over for ink and paint, backgrounds, you name it. It was amazing we got the Underdog episodes all done! Finding paint to ink our cells was impossible; there just wasn't any. So, we had to improvise.
Finally, someone went to a house-paint store, and we painted the cartoon cells with house enamel. I kept some of those original cells, and they never flaked or peeled. And, we never missed a network deadline for Underdog.
Wow. What brand of house paint was THAT?
I wish I could remember! (laughs)
Were you alone with the Underdog production in that building, or did you have a other occupants present, too?
General Mills took the building over, and J. Troplong "Jay" Ward produced Rocky & Bullwinkle cartoons there, along with a series of associated minor characters. The Cap'n Crunch cereal character was also created there, by Ward's team. The syndicate actually mixed the Jay Ward stuff up with our Underdog work because we shared the location for the work, and were so closely associated with each other.
In working to animate with untrained artists in a foreign country, what kinds of cultural obstacles occurred that added to the adventure of grinding out Underdog?
Not much of the daily production routine was without drama. The building suffered from area earthquake damage, and there were cracks in the walls you could put your arm through. But, one of the strangest events during our Underdog production involved our toilets. The native people working on animation with us came from rural locations, and had never seen toilets before.
Oh-oh. Is this where Joe Harris says the natives drank from the toilets?
Well, I don't know that they didn't try to drink out of the bowls. But, in the meantime, when they had to go, they peed in the Underdog studio corners!
I bet I have the exclusive on that info. (laughs) With such unsophisticated workers, how did you ever get anything accomplished for Underdog?
Eventually the Underdog cartoonists became skillful artists and developed abilities that were really in demand. They even managed to dicker successfully for higher wages.
So, it became a success story over time. What happened next for Underdog?
After Underdog ended and General Mills pulled out of its sponsorship, (in 1969), TTV folded and each of us branched out individually.
Post-Underdog: Creative Animation+
What projects did Joe Harris undertake after Mexico City?
I was able to work with some of the most talented animators in the business. Bill Tytla of Fantasia, Duane Cowther of Yellow Submarine, Ernie Pintoff of Mel Brooks collaborations, Oscar-winner Gene Deitch of Tom and Jerry, and Chris Ishii of Mr. Magoo were just some of those talents.
A lot of those artists were refugees from Disney, after they were denied by Walt Disney from forming their own union. When the "creatives" exited Disney, their migration led to the formation of United Productions of America (UPA).
So, you were able to move forward without much in the way?
Well, not exactly. Like, there was the time Chris Ishii hired me at UPA. The very next day, the entire place was sold, so there went that idea!
Joe Harris' Creative Path
Joe, you've had an amazing career and have so many stories to share. How did you begin this journey of creativity? What inspired Joe Harris in his formative years?
As a young boy, I was inspired by the comic books, Amazing Stories and Fantastic Stories, but I dreamed more of a career in space travel. I was a junior member of the American Rocket Society, founded by Dr. Robert Goddard, the father of modern rocket propulsion, and it influenced my direction in the beginning.
Did you have subsequent training in rockets or other vehicles?
During World War II, I served in the U.S. Navy; during the Korean War, I trained U.S. Marines. We focused on engine-driven and jet-fueled aircraft.
How in the world did you end up in advertising and cartooning from there?
I attended the University of Miami in Coral Gables, Florida, where they specialize in sail-boating and basket-weaving. (laughs) Eventually, I ended up at Pratt Institute in New York City, where I majored in art studies.
Did you have time for a personal life at all?
Oh, yes. I have been married, and widowed, twice--and have three daughters. My oldest daughter, Joelle, works as an interior decorator; Merrie is involved in "the dark side"--she's in advertising; and Sophie's direction isn't yet determined, as a recent high school graduate. But, I was rarely around much as they grew up--I was working such long hours.
OK, here comes the inevitable question: Did Joe Harris ever have a dog that influenced the depiction or adventures of Underdog?
Well, I have owned a string of dogs, but I don't think they had much bearing on much of anything! I've had an Afghan, two Poodles, Shih Tzu (Shitzu), Lhasa Apso, and a Golden Retriever over the years, but they're all gone now. Some were brighter than others, and some were just dumb.
After Underdog: Children's Books
So, with the emergence of the Underdog movie, and re-digitalization of the original Underdog cartoons, what other projects will we see Joe Harris' name affixed to?
I'm writing children's books! And, illustrating them. The first one is called Narda; it's about a nine-year-old girl, and takes place in the Bahamas, where she is left in the charge of a nanny. Her dad is kind of an absentee father.
Well, that sounds a little familiar!
(laughs) True! But, then my next two books, both for Random House Publishing Group, take different directions. The first one is called The Belly Book, and follows a kind of Dr. Seuss-type theme. It's the first book for children on bellies (it debuted in January, 2008). The other is a book due at Halloween of 2008, and is written all in rhyme, called The Witches' Halloween Ball.
While you show no signs of slowing down, what are your former Underdog colleagues doing now?
The last I heard, Biggers, who is an accomplished musician, was promoting Underdog in an anti-violence campaign in the Boston area. Covington was in the Southampton, N.Y. vicinity, involved in real estate, but I haven't heard anything about Stover--no current info on him has reached me. I'd love to connect with them again!
Meanwhile, Joe Harris' Caped Canine, which still exists in syndication---most recently on the Cartoon Network---is an ongoing symbol of the Macy's Thanksgiving Day Parade, celebrating its 31st year in 2008 as a balloon favorite.
What began as a super-dog cartoon show with the lead voice provided by Detroit native Wally Cox, represented a slightly gentler time in history. Several original Underdog show characters reflected society's enamorment with celebrities, and mimicked "star" personalities like Marilyn Monroe and Lionel Barrymore.
Today, Underdog's logistics have changed. In the post-drug awareness age, it's no longer politically correct for Underdog to assume his powers with the help of a magic pill after ducking into a phone booth to change into a caped ensemble. The transition of a shy shoeshine (boy) dog into a super hero instead now parallels an odd coincidence in real life.
Underdog was heralded as the first Saturday morning cartoon character to make the prestigious cover of The New Yorker magazine. And on his way to a second heroic incarnation, there is another strange twist--this time connected with the voice of the main character, Wally Cox.
Both Time magazine and the biography of Marlon Brando, Brando Unzipped, by Darwin Porter claim that Cox left an odd request--and his ashes--when he died to his childhood intimate, Marlon Brando. Brando saved them until his own death 30 years later, whereupon both sets of ashes were mixed and scattered together--with half dropped in Death Valley and half in the South Pacific.
Apparently, as in the cartoon character's mantra, there really is no need to fear: Underdog really is here. And there. In more ways than anyone originally banked on.