How the moose was made

A fact-crammed history of the "Rocky and Bullwinkle" show and its gleefully prankish creators.

By Mary Elizabeth Williams

Published June 30, 2000 7:10PM (EDT)

Before Bart Simpson told the world to eat his shorts, before Messrs. Beavis and Butt-head huh-uh-huh-huh-ed their way into our hearts, before a song from "South Park" became a full-blown musical extravaganza at the Academy Awards, there was a rodent in an aviator hat and his antlered accomplice. Rocky, Bullwinkle and their coterie of animated cohorts changed the face of television by making the previously kid-centered domain of cartoons hip; they were the guys for whom the phrase "it works on two levels" could have been coined. And in Keith Scott's meticulous history of the unique world that sprang from the imagination of Jay Ward, the two-dimensional sphere never looked so fully fleshed out.

Crammed with photographs, artwork, plot synopses, credits and sidebars on everything from "how cartoons were sold in the late 1950s" to a biographical sketch of the man who voiced Mr. Peabody's Sherman, "Moose" is the bible of Bullwinkle. Here are the stories behind all the best-loved characters from Ward's company of players -- moose and squirrel, Boris and Natasha, George of the Jungle, Dudley Do-Right and lesser-known folks like Crusader Rabbit and Tom Slick. Scott writes like an obsessive fan, because that's what he is. In his introduction, he reveals how Ward's visionary programs changed his life; he blithely confesses he has "yet to meet a fellow enthusiast who can match my not-quite-sane level of worship." Today, he makes his living as a cartoon actor, supplying the voice of his hero Bullwinkle in the new movie version of the moose's adventures.

Though that much zeal for a goofy, crudely drawn ruminant mammal and his pals might seem a tad excessive, Scott winningly makes the case for his devotion. If you're going to be the kind of person whose life pretty much revolves around cartoon characters, they might as well be these guys. Scott's passion doesn't always translate into sparkling prose, however, and the minutia-laden density of "Moose" can make the average fan feel overwhelmed by episode numbers and sponsorship particulars. But finicky detail is exactly what the author is aiming for, and besides, no amount of number crunching can obscure the brilliantly warped, sly pleasure of just about anything Ward related.

Rocky, Bullwinkle and company weren't the first TV stars to break the fourth wall and talk back to their audience; they weren't the first comics to take a gleefully prankish attitude toward corporate bureaucracy and Cold War hysteria, and they certainly weren't the best drawn or most sophisticatedly rendered animation icons. What they were, however, were smartly written cartoon characters that adults could laugh at, a panacea for the sweetness and light that permeated the rest of the cereal-sponsored circuit. Creator Ward, writer/producer Bill Scott (who served as the voice of Bullwinkle and others) and the rest of Jay Ward Productions created a world in which dogs own boys, Tom Thumb is a juvenile delinquent and our biggest threat to national security is a pair of nefarious, inept Pottsylvanians.

Though Bullwinkle's place in the pantheon of comic characters is taken for granted now (they don't ask just any alum of Wossamotta U. to float over Macy's Thanksgiving Day Parade, you know), "Moose" chronicles the rough road to stardom Ward's creations had, from their earliest incarnations (a full decade before Bullwinkle and Rocky premiered) through their early-'60s heyday and up to their present, live-action renaissance in films like "George of the Jungle" and "Rocky and Bullwinkle."

If Scott lacks a thoroughly engrossing writing style, he nevertheless has a talent for amassing terrific anecdotes and revealing memorabilia. Nearly as entertaining as his retelling of the show's best bits, groan-worthiest puns and inspired publicity stunts (including Ward's trip to the White House to petition for statehood for Moosylvania) are the poker-faced responses these high jinks drew from nervous network executives and sponsors. Think "South Park's" Eric Cartman knows how to push the envelope? Imagine writing scripts in the days when a stock comic routine could result in a wrist slap from the network for "out of context cannibalism," and a pyromaniac character called "Stokey the Bear" could make the Forest Service threaten a lawsuit.

When Scott takes a narrative back seat and lets the key players themselves tell the tale, "Moose" takes off like a flying squirrel. The book's greatest delights are its loving reminiscences of characters' best adventures and its cheerful portrayal of a group of bustling creative minds being just as funny as their animated counterparts. The only downside to all this enthusiasm is that "Moose" is very much the work of a reverent fan, and the darker aspects of the story, including Ward's battles with agoraphobia and claustrophobia, are perfunctorily noted and briskly swept aside. (Ward died in 1989.)

But nobody goes looking for an E! True Hollywood Story in a Fractured Fairy Tale. If Scott's greatest sin is a protective awe of his idols, he at least knows enough to keep the focus on the dynamics of the shows rather than the inner lives of the personalities behind them. (Each season of "Bullwinkle and Rocky" gets its own chapter; Ward earns only one.)

While Ward himself -- the subversive cutup who caught flak for mocking Louis Pasteur and writing songs like "Santa Is a Dirty Old Man" -- might not have known what to make of such an encyclopedic, reverent chronicle, he no doubt would have been touched that his misfit cast of characters would merit such attention. And he definitely would have proclaimed Scott's history all the moose that's fit to print.

Mary Elizabeth Williams

Mary Elizabeth Williams is a senior writer for Salon and author of "A Series of Catastrophes & Miracles."

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