Friday, October 22, 2010

Did your childhood teach you to deal with austerity?

The sun is drifting away and winter is on the horizon. This time of year always makes me nostalgic and frightened. There’s no conflict there: it’s a time of dying and blowing away so we think of things that are gone. And in Canada, it is the harbinger of the long human-lethal season. So naturally my thoughts turn to times gone by simply to avoid thinking about impending winter.

This moment’s nostalgia goes to a Saturday morning animated cartoon called Fat Albert. It was an early seventies creation of Bill Cosby’s back when he was a stand up comedian and long before America became comfortable with the Huxtables.

It’s very alien compared to today’s cartoons (not that I watch cartoons). It exists in a realistic context and that real world is poverty. Just try and sell that to a network, “hey, I’ve got a show about impoverished kids who muck about in a junkyard looking for ways to get by”. Just try and sell that, I dare you. But this show was born in the shadow of the oil embargo that strangled America and left it for dead for many years, you know, the years where America sacrificed its manufacturing industry to save banking profits. I don’t know why I bring that up since today’s children’s shows don’t reflect anything of reality.

You may not remember the day to day adventures of the Cosby kids, but you may remember the specials. There was the Christmas special, where our gang finds a homeless couple having a baby in the dump because they were evicted by their rich landlord. Holy Christian imagery aside, it was a holiday special about the plight of homeless people and detailed the horrific experience of a woman giving birth at a landfill. Then there was the Halloween special. Our gang loves this holiday because they don’t have to feel hungry (they tell us this). After braving a scary house and realising that the old witch is a nice old lady, our gang wanders home sated, feeling jubilant that they got to drink soda pop. So, no ipods, no Xboxes, no extra huge burger king meals, they have reached the pinnacle of childhood excess because they got to drink soda.

Day to day, the fat Albert gang need help in coping with the conundrums they face. Naturally, they get this from a wino who lives in a park, named Mudfoot. He is a recurring character who always helps the kids out. He’s sort of Yoda in ripped clothing with a bottle of wine.

The thing I find most fascinating is that their home base or headquarters is a garbage dump. In the show this is called a junk yard, because, assumedly once upon a time there were junk yards and not just landfills. Most opening shots in the show feature a hollowed out manufacturing city that pans into the dump. Fat Albert and the gang often repurpose the junk they find to facilitate their adventures. In the same fashion they finance several adventures through the activity of collecting bottles, cans and paper to sell to recycling.

In one episode they all want musical instruments. When all their cash gathering attempts fail they create instruments from the garbage they find in the junk yard. They form a band that provides musical interludes throughout the series.

We have to assume their parents have work, though it must pay abysmally considering the state of the kids. Parents are never around. These kids need to navigate the world and learn for themselves. Kinda like the kids in my neighbourhood so long ago. Kids are kids, but kids who are marched from violin class to playdate and back home are not kids Albert or i could relate to.

I think I must be getting old because I get these urges to recount tales of my childhood that seem magical to me and extinct in the modern context. I don’t think my nine year old would relate to Fat Albert the way I do. It’s almost too bad. The world is crumbling fast and I feel like the resourceful imaginative kids from Fat Albert, and Fat Albert’s time might fare better in an uncertain age where wealth dwindles and your violin and videogame skills don’t help you. The Fat Albert kids will cope better with austerity and the economic meltdown that is only just unfolding. hey hey hey.


  1. I don't think I ever watched the Fat Albert cartoons (I'm a wee bit older than you and probably eschewed cartoons in favor of smoking joints in the school yard by the time it was airing), but I agree that today's youth is an entirely different animal from the one that roamed the back alleys and tree lined streets when I was young.The iconic cartoons from my youth are the Charlie Brown Specials, the Halloween one being one my most favorite. "I got a rock."

  2. I don't seem to have ever got past the age of watching cartoons, i am perhaps a little stunted in that way. Though during the age of smoking joints, cartoons were a great supplement. merry melodies was the choice pick for THC enhancement.

    A Charlie Brown Christmas is my fave for the peanuts gang, but i have to watch it alone because it makes me weepy and i have a tough guy image to protect.