The announcement that Ringling Brothers & Barnum and Bailey is shutting down inspired a lot of discussion about the demise of the circus. While it's true that Ringling was, for years, the most iconic big top operation, the American institution will continue.
Of course, it also survives in classic television. In a previous column, I recommended Woody Allen boxing a kangaroo. Besides that memorable variety program, many sitcom and dramatic episodes centered on traveling circus troupes passing through town, while some entire series were devoted to the spectacle. Super Circus with Mary Hartline was a popular kids show spotlighting genuine performances, while programs like Circus Boy (starring a young Mickey Dolenz), The Greatest Show on Earth (with a young -- well, youngish -- Jack Palance) and oater Frontier Circus were fictionalized depictions of the lifestyle and its inhabitants.
Given the news about Ringling Brothers, though, I wasn't in the mood for stories about sad clowns struggling with the bottle or acrobats chasing ringmasters in jealous rages. I looked to the television cartoon to celebrate the circus. Much to my surprise, I found that the world of animation often sees the big top as a sinister place filled with danger and despair.
Casper the Friendly Ghost,"Keep Your Grin Up:" I am going to start by cheating a bit. That's right, folks, step right up and enjoy one of the timeless circus traditions: the bait and switch! In my defense, while the original Casper cartoons were not made for television, they were shown countless times on the small screen, so it's a legitimate starting point for our journey.
Unfortunately, it's not a joyous beginning despite an amusing premise: Casper tries to make a sad hyena laugh. The thing is this hyena is a caged animal being whipped and beaten by his handler for not guffawing on command. It's a little off-putting seen through a modern lens, but, man, even in 1955, this must have been a downer. Even before Casper enters the circus grounds, he gets bummed out when his appearance (or, being invisible, lack thereof) frightens the ticket seller and the rubber man.
The hyena is more pitiful than the lonely Casper, though we never quite know if he's depressed because he's being whipped or if he is being whipped because he's depressed. Our favorite friendly ghost decides to try to make the hyena laugh, and while his intentions are good, you can't help but think if he really wanted to help, he'd, you know, open the cage.
Casper tries everything to get a laugh, including juggling, imitating a seal, and borrowing the props of an act named "Burpo the Fire Eater." Does Ringling Brothers have a Burpo the Fire Eater? If so, I need to get tickets while I can. The young ghost does all but squirt seltzer down his pants, but nothing gets a smile from the downcast hyena. (I imagine Milton Berle is somewhere in the wings furiously scribbling notes for something he can use on the Buick Hour.)
There's a happy ending when the abusive trainer, startled to see a ghost, shrieks, runs out of his pants and off the screen into the audience who are apparently watching this very cartoon. The hyena starts laughing harder than I do at a Honeymooners episode, and only slightly less obnoxiously. There's a lot more pathos in this brief cartoon than I expected, but its limited view of the circus isn't a pleasant one.
The Perils of Penelope Pitstop "Big Top Trap": At the risk of trivializing mistreatment of animals, there are times while watching Pitstop that I feel like that hyena. There are only so many times I can hear Penelope yell, "HAILP! HAILP!" before I feel like dressing up as a peanut and squatting down in front of Jumbo. Yet "Big Top Trap" offers a compelling glimpse of the circus.
At the beginning, we see Penelope perform in the show. The horse she is standing on throws her into a cannon, which shoots her toward a cage containing a wild "Tasmanian cruncha beast." Fortunately for her, she is able to grab the pole a tightrope walker is using and balance herself to avoid dropping all the way into the cage. We can only assume the poor tightrope walker plummets to his death off camera.
When I was in college, I took a class on live performing arts in which the professor, on the day he discussed the circus, told us the single most dangerous routine was the horse act because of the unpredictable nature of the equines. Somehow he left out the part about combination horse/human cannonball/tightrope/cruncha beast numbers. I tell you, between the disappearance of this kind of thing and the inability to replace Burpo the Fire Eater, it's no wonder the circus ain't what it used to be.
Penelope is snatched by her nemesis, the Hooded Claw, and taken to a swamp to attempt to feed her to a carnivorous plant. Her miniature sidekicks in the Ant Hill Mob eventually help her make it back to the tent to complete her performance and save the day, which makes me think that audience must really be getting its money worth considering how long the show must be.
Sorry, Pitstop fans, but even Paul Lynde can't elevate this. The main character is just too dim. In this episode, the Claw, who has been acting as her attorney in his civilian guise while donning a mask and trying to bump her off to get her fortune for the entire series, gets tired of the routine and basically says, "Hey, by the way, I'm your arch-rival who's been trying to kill you," and Penelope refuses to believe him! She's not the brightest heroine out there, folks...but I will admit she is one heck of a circus performer, and she gets shot out of a cannon like nobody's business.
Scooby-Doo, Where Are You? "Bedlam in the Big Top": "Bedlam" is a word that doesn't surprise you at all when you encounter it in Scooby-Doo, much like "hi-jinks." Both elements are in abundance in this encounter, which features the gang investigating a reported haunting of a circus by a ghost clown. The owner tells the team that his performers are leaving en masse because they are superstitious and think the whole operation is destined for trouble. I love the fact that a ghost clown itself isn't what makes everyone leave, but rather the fact that they see its presence as a bad omen.
You don't need a Scooby snack to figure out it's not an actual supernatural entity, but an embittered baddie with a grudge scaring everyone away. Don't underestimate this erstwhile spookster, though; his potent hypnosis overwhelms Scooby and Daphne, making them believe they are performers capable of doing dangerous stunts like tightrope walking and unicycle riding.
Lucky for Scoob, Penelope Pitstop is nowhere around, so he emerges unscathed, but it's interesting to note the callous nature of the show's laugh track. Is Scooby's precarious footing on a high wire really reason for enthusiastic chortles? The lovable canine earns some real laughs at the end after solving the mystery; he and Shaggy surprise the others by making a surprise cameo in the strongman's act and mugging for the crowd in attendance.
The real takeaway is not the exposure of the ghost clown, but the anti-circus performer stance of Scooby-Doo. The show takes pains to establish that any civilian, albeit under a deep hypnotic spell, can do the same alleged skilled feats as a pro. Then Scooby and Shaggy undercut one of the veteran acts by going for cheap laughs at the climax of his routine. Wasn't there a union of some kind to bring heat on Hanna-Barbera for this disrespect?
The Flintstones, Dial S for Suspicion and Circus Business: Several years earlier, Hanna-Barbera had our favorite stone-age family appear in a sixth-season episode called "Circus Business." Fred expresses his interest in buying an ailing circus and is overheard by the anxious-to-sell owner, who apparently believes an idle statement made in public is a binding verbal contract and accepts Flinstone's income tax refund as payment for the whole business.
Much to Fred's chagrin, things are worse than he thought, as all the performers are walking out after not being paid. Pressured by the sheriff to deliver the entertainment as advertised, the Flintstones and the Rubbles do what anyone would do in such a predicament: attempt to put on a show themselves. Their efforts impress the real performers so much that they decide to come back and work for free, proving that circus folk are great people after all...or suckers. I'm not exactly sure what the message is here.
Several seasons earlier, we get another glimpse into the world of the big top in "Dial S for Suspicion" when one of Wilma's former boyfriends, a knife thrower, spots her at a circus parade and gives her passes to the show so he can check out Fred. The parade is another great lost tradition, right up there with Burpo the fire eater and Tasmanian cruncha beasts -- an unparalleled event in which the cast of the show marches down main street and agrees not to let the elephants rampage through everyone's property as long as they buy tickets. Well, that wasn't explicit, but it was kind of implied, no?
Fred happens to be paranoid about Wilma trying to kill him for the life insurance. One reason I love The Flintstones: You just didn't hear a lot of other cartoons utilizing the phrase "double indemnity" in those days. Fred thinks the sudden arrival of a knife throwing beau is part of Wilma's plan, and it's hard to blame him when she "volunteers" him to be the "target" in his act, and then suggests it be done blindfolded!
Considering Fred goes on to star in numerous spin-off shows and cereal ads, you can rest assured Wilma isn't really trying to off her hubby, but the circumstantial evidence is pretty strong for a while. I'm intrigued by the knife thrower, whose suspicious behavior and shady snicker make me wonder if, regardless of Wilma's intent, he really does mean to give Fred a "close shave."
The Yogi Bear Show, Acrobatty Yogi and Jangled Jungle: Let's close our look at the circus with one more double feature from Hanna-Barbera. Oddly, these Yogi and Snagglepuss shorts come back to back on the DVD. If they really aired like that, they must have caused some confusion among young viewers.
"Acrobatty Yogi" sees the bear run away from Jellystone and join the circus in order to woo his would-be love, Cindy Bear. Hey, we've all done something like that at one time or another. (I'll never have to wonder "what might have been" with Bertha the Bearded Lady.) He's offered a job as lion tamer, and I get a good laugh when he's told the first thing he needs to do is learn what to do with a chair, which he triumphantly folds out and sits in.
I don't quite understand why the impresario sees a talking bear and decides, "Hey, I'll put him in with the lion," but he knows how to run his business. Poor Yogi has to jump off a high wire -- it really does seem like anyone can walk those things -- to flee the crazed cat, and when Cindy tries to compliment him, he mocks her and says, "I might have been seriously killed," before taking off and returning to the relative security of Jellystone.
Next up, Snagglepuss is bored with his own routine at the circus. He's asked to step up, down, up, down, and so on, which makes him "feel like an elevator -- a yo-yo, even." The prospect of getting shot out of a cannon is what makes him quit (in the middle of a show, just like Yogi -- how unprofessional these guys are) and head for the jungle.
He thinks he's the king of beasts, but unpleasant encounters with a Tarzan type and a gorilla make Snagglepuss exclaim, "Arrivederci, jungle! Good-bye, even!" He rushes back to the relative safety of...the circus! So, Yogi finds the circus a terrifying, dangerous place, while Snagglepuss finds it a refuge from the horrors of the outside world? Is this juxtaposition a deliberate statement by Hanna-Barbera? An attempt to provide equal time to those who are pro- and anti-circus? Is it a reflection of the fact that the circus means different things to different people?
Either way, I believe our sojourn through television animation's depiction of the circus teaches us several lessons: It's not all fun and funnel cakes, the animals may be treated both better and worse than we suspect, and above all else, next time you attend a show, keep your eyes on the high wire at all times. There's always something going on up there.
Rick Brooks is the proprietor of Cultureshark, a blog in which he uses an often irreverent approach to express his reverence for the classics and the un-classics.