Saturday morning TV: Help! … It’s the Hair Bear Bunch

(image via Flickr (c) Warner Bros)

For a kid who dutifully played by the rules the entire time I was growing up (eldest child; say no more), I sure had a love for cartoons where people or bears or squid or rabbits – or insert creature of your choosing – flouted the regulations with gleeful, mischievous abandon.

It helped, of course, that Hanna-Barbera had a penchant for recycling premises, character types and even the voice actors who gave them life, providing me with an endlessly-subversive parade of cartoons that played on the idea that rules are made to be broken.

Take Help! It’s the Hair Bear Bunch!, which ran for 16 episodes from September 11, 1971 – January 8, 1972, which features, once again, a trio of characters who go all out, on a daily and yes, nightly basis, to break every single that the powers-that-be put in place.

The presiding authority figure in this case is Eustace P Peevly (John Stephenson), the head zookeeper at Wonderland Zoo, who tries in his narratively-convenient ineffective way, to rein his charges in, to little to no effect.

Hair Bear (Daws Butler, echoing Yogi Bear, who he also voiced), leads his pals Bubi Bear (Paul Winchell) and Square Bear (Bill Callaway) on constant misadventures, with the errant threesome constantly sneaking out to party, selling off the zoo, convincing Peevly he’s sick or making an in-zoo TV show using the CCTV or … well, honestly, the list is pretty much neverending (or would be if CBS hadn’t cancelled the show).

What isn’t endless are the riffs on the same time – essentially each plot revolves around the Hair Bear Bunch trying to outwit Peevly at every turn, sometimes successfully and sometimes not (refreshingly, the trio don’t always get their way) – all of which revolve around Hair Bear principally trying to live the life he wants in contravention of the usual rules governing zoo animals.

Interestingly while the other animals, including Bananas the Gorilla (daws Butler again, with tones of Snagglepuss), Slicks the Fox (voiced variously by Paul Winchell and John Stephenson) and Tiptoes the Ostrich (voiced by Paul Winchell), are happy to act as accomplices on numerous occasions, it’s always the Hair Bear Bunch who are the instigators, perpetrators and recipients of punishment for the breaches they commit.

Which makes sense – they are the stars of the show and the ones with the name in the title, and thus, the most fully-developed characters, and as far as Hanna-Barbera shows go, some of the most charismatic narrative drivers ever unleashed on a public apparently eager to vicariously eager to break the rules through the animated TV shows they watch.

While Help! It’s the Hair Bear Bunch! does make use of repeated backgrounds, a staple of Hanna-Barbera who produced cartoons on a mass almost factory-level scale, there is something about the show that feels different and fresh in a way many other shows, cut from the same premise cloth, never quite managed.

Put simply, Hair Bear, Square Bear and Bubi Bear are effervescent fun delights and, while, sure, they bear more than a passing resemablance to the likes of Yogi Bear and Squiddly Diddly, they’re still very pretty distinctive as characters go.

Which, naturally, makes watching them a pleasure in the way that sitting down with Fred Flintstone or Scooby Doo is delightful; they haven’t enjoyed the longevity or popularity of those characters but I think they deserve to, being far more fully-realised than many other identikit Hanna-Barbera cartoon denizens.

That’s likely because they followed in the wake of Yogi Bear, who was the flagbearer for the subversive character trying to always get the best of his authority figure model.

And Yogi did it very, very well, in a way that you couldn’t help but enjoy and in such a way that everything about him was memorable.

I would argue that Help! It’s the Hair Bear Bunch! was every bit as memorable in its own way but suffered from coming in the wake of Yogi bear, a victim of Hanna-Barbera’s predilection for repeating the same format and characters over and over with barely a few tweaks.

It filled screen time sure, and that’s what the animation studio did superbly well – if they didn’t, I wouldn’t remain passionately with some many characters, major and minor all these years later – but it did make certain characters less memorable than others, something even kids notice.

Obviously not as much as adults but they notice, but at the time, and honestly even now, there’s something comforting about slightly different characters doing essentially the same thing.

Perhaps that’s the nostalgia talking, but watching Hair Bear and the gang do essentially what Yogi Bear and Squidly Diddly did before them, doesn’t feel anywhere as derivative as it should.

That’s probably because Help! It’s the Hair Bear Bunch! is a little less derivative than most with characters that possess real personality in a show that seems to have crisper animation that some of its then-contemporary counterparts and some witty, if repetitive, dialogue.

In other words, the template was the same, but the show somehow transcended that, making Help! It’s the Hair Bear Bunch! a true, lasting delight, one that I was more than happy to sit through as an adult, something that can’t be said for some other Hanna-Barbera shows and which speaks to the quality and fun of a show which really should be much more loved than it is.

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