Twisted new roles for 'Toons

The Cartoon Network dusts off the Birdman

August 30, 2002|By Roger Catlin | Roger Catlin,SPECIAL TO THE SUN

Cartoon Network has dusted off one of Hanna-Barbera's worst-conceived superhero characters, Birdman, and given him new life, as was done for Space Ghost before him. Instead of a clueless, argumentative talk-show host, Birdman has been reincarnated as the loopy Harvey Birdman, Attorney at Law.

His cases are those that cartoon fans have pondered for ages: Were Scooby-Doo and his crew stoned all the time? Is that what caused the constant hunger for snacks?

What exactly was the relationship between Dr. Quest and Race Bannon on Jonny Quest?

And barring lingering questions about cartoon behavior, why not make up some dark secrets about the two-dimensional: Yogi Bear sidekick Boo Boo as a masked bomber: the Una-Boo-Boo?

Or Fred Flintstone as a mob boss who hangs out at the Dabba-Doo, a strip club not unlike Tony Soprano's Bada-Bing? And cross this Hanna-Barbera kingpin, and you might end up, as Harvey Birdman did, with the severed head of Quick Draw McGraw in your bed.

Of course, these are the kinds of twisted questions better suited to an older (although not necessarily grown-up) audience.

Hence, Harvey Birdman, Attorney at Law appears late on Sunday nights as part of the Cartoon Network's Adult Swim, a collection of cartoons of interest to older viewers shown on weekend nights. Saturday night's Adult Swim features action programming; Sunday's features comedies. (Other shows in the collection include Cowboy Bebop, Space Ghost Coast to Coast and Aqua Teen Hunger Force.)

Since Harvey Birdman first appeared nearly a year ago, the favorable reaction has led the network to order 20 new episodes, which began last month.

Creators Michael Ouleween and Erik Richter say it's the kind of series they were born to do.

"It is kind of weird," says Ouleween. "I almost feel like when I grew up watching this stuff that I was going to do this. I don't know if that makes any sense, but I would watch Super Friends and go, `Why did they put those stupid sidekicks in?' Like I was already writing then."

He gets his chance now, as in the new episode in which minor super friend Apache Chief sues after hot coffee scalds him.

But Ouleween and Richter don't want to go too far.

"We consider ourselves kind of caretakers of these characters in a way," says Richter.

"Respectful but irreverent," Ouleween offers.

"Yeah," Richter says, "because there are still people who watch these shows - like us - who watch Huck Hound or whatever." "Without irony," Ouleween says.

Therefore, Richter says, "you want to take gentle shots at these characters and not body blows."

Affection for the old cartoon characters is what makes it fun, says Gary Cole, the voice of Harvey Birdman, who says it's "also juicy to put a twisted sense on all of them." Cole is best known for his portrayal of Sheriff Lucas Buck in the TV horror-drama American Gothic. He's also in the just-out One Hour Photo.

"We like to take people and play upon the rumors that people have had for a number of years, like about Shaggy or Race and Dr. Quest," Ouleween says. "And sometimes we like to just come up with something new. But either way, we're left to play with it as we will. And no character is sacred."

"And one of the beauties is that Fred Flintstone is not going to sue you for defamation of character," says Brad Seigel, president of Turner Networks, which owns the Cartoon Network.

But there is little chance for them to spoof studios they don't own, such as Disney. Still, Ouleween muses, "we'd love for this to be the court of arbitration for all cartoons, for all cartoon differences to be settled here."

The two have heard through the grapevine that some of the original animators are "not psyched" about seeing their creations mocked, Ouleween says.

"You're walking this fine line," Richter says. "There are legions of people who love these characters, and the moment Apache Chief is no longer the guy you remember from Super Friends, you're risking something."

What they are doing "is kind of like what Moby does," Ouleween says, referring to the DJ who mixes different sounds together. "We're just taking our culture and commenting on it."

Roger Catlin is a television critic for the Hartford Courant, a Tribune Publishing newpaper.

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