Cartoons, Culture and Copyright

From an NYTimes review of a DVD release: DVD: The Bear Who Was There at the Start of It All

IN a courtroom scene from “The Simpsons” that has since entered into the television canon, an argument over the ownership of the animated characters Itchy and Scratchy rapidly escalates into an existential debate on the very nature of cartoons. “Animation is built on plagiarism!” declares the show’s hot-tempered cartoon-producer-within-a-cartoon, Roger Myers Jr. “You take away our right to steal ideas, where are they going to come from?”

It’s hard to imagine here that the flesh-and-blood producers of “The Simpsons” weren’t pointing their fingers, squarely but affectionately, at the legendary animators William Hanna and Joseph Barbera, and their enduring ursine mascot, Yogi Bear. From his debut in 1958 on “The Huckleberry Hound Show,” Yogi never missed an opportunity to announce that he was smarter than the average bear. He seems to have outwitted a few copyright lawyers along the way: he took his moniker from the celebrated Yankees catcher, of course, and his tilted porkpie hat, his tie, his sonorous voice and his hipster mannerisms from Art Carney’s portrayal of Ed Norton on “The Honeymooners.” And didn’t his anthropomorphic, picnic basket-robbing, park-ranger-outwitting antics suggest the work of another popular cartoon studio, doc?

Despite – or perhaps because of – his many obvious appropriations, Yogi became Hanna-Barbera’s first breakout star, earning his own TV series in 1961 (“The Yogi Bear Show,” newly released on DVD from Warner Home Video). […]

[…] In an uncharitable worldview, it’s possible to see Hanna-Barbera as black marketers of animation, repackaging properties they didn’t create for viewers who wouldn’t recognize knockoffs when they saw them. But it’s far more reasonable to think of them as innovators, who, at the birth of what we now know as American popular culture, while working in a medium that was meant to appeal simultaneously to children and adults, were just discovering the power of the pop-cultural reference. To his youthful audience, Yogi Bear was a funny-talking woodland creature, but to grown-ups, he was a signifier – a wink and a nod that told them they were allowed to be in on the joke, too.

If we’re really going to give credit where it’s due, then let’s acknowledge Hanna-Barbera for establishing a tradition of cultural homage that has shaped animation for the better.