Bullwinkle, Rocky, and That Damned Top Hat

What Me Pull a Rabbit Out of My Hat

I’m in the process of making a video about The Rocky and Bullwinkle Show, so I thought I might put some of my thoughts down here. It was an amazing show. It was on for five seasons with highly unequal numbers of episodes. You might be under the impression that this is common today, but it was much worse back then — at least in terms of some shows. The first season had 26 episode, but then the next had 53. And then 33, 21, and 34. That’s a total of 167, although Wikipedia says there were only 163. Who know? It was a lot of television: almost 70 hours!

I suspect that the reason the number of episodes was so chaotic is that the production of the show was similarly chaotic. It was clearly made on a shoestring. And it shows that wit and charm can take you a long way. There are any number of things that just aren’t properly done. I discussed this to some extent last month, Image Inconsistency in Rocky and Bullwinkle. But it is more than that. For example, during the long (1:20) second standard end credit sequence, Rocky’s mouth rarely moves when he’s talking. It’s remarkable that a show of which more than 20% is made up of recycled content didn’t take more care with these parts. But I think they were just too busy pumping out episodes.

By far, the most iconic aspect of the series is exactly one of these “canned” segments, “Rocky, watch me pull a rabbit out of my hat!” It is part of a broader aspect of the series that looks back on older styles of entertainment. We see this in the almost unbelievably brilliant “Dudley Do-Right of the Mounties” and the Rocky and Bullwinkle serials — some of which were as long as 40 “episodes.” But there are also a lot of references to theater. Some are rather subtle like the janitor who has to clean up the parade that sometimes starts “Peabody’s Improbable History.” But mostly, we see a lot of vaudeville, and that is where the “rabbit” sequences come in. Along with them, we see Bullwinkle fail to juggle, sing, dance. But also: the “Mr Know-It-All” sequences mock the “professor” kinds of acts that were common, and as you can see in the film The 39 Steps.

There are five “rabbit” gags, and they ran in the following order during the first five episodes of the series: bear, lion, tiger, rhino, and flying squirrel (Rocky himself). The three middle ones are pretty much the same. Rocky responds, “Again?!” And then, at the end, he says, “Now here’s something you’ll really like!” The differences are just the reveal and the reaction. For the lion, Bullwinkle says, “No doubt about it; I gotta get another hat!” For the tiger, Rocky asks sarcastically, “Wrong hat?” And Bullwinkle says, “I wear a seven and a half!” And for the rhino, it’s just Bullwinkle, “Oh! Don’t know my own strength!”

Since the bear sequence is the first time we — or Rocky — have seen Bullwinkle try the trick, Rocky starts, “And now…” What is especially interesting about this is that Rocky disappears from the screen right after Bullwinkle says, “Nothing up my sleeve!” Was it fixed when they used it again in episodes 5, 12, 19, and for the rest of the run of the show? Of course not! It’s also a bit strange that at the end, Rocky introduces Mr Peabody.

The fifth version — the Rocky sequence — is where the flying squirrel’s impatience finally bubbles over. And it uses an entirely new performance for both characters. Rocky replies to Bullwinkle, “That trick never works!” And Bullwinkle counters, “This time for sure!” On pulling Rocky out of his hat, Bullwinkle says, “Well, I’m getting close.”

None of this is meant as a criticism. I think The Rocky and Bullwinkle Show is an amazing accomplishment. It holds up remarkably well, 55 years later. There are certainly aspects that do not age so well like the racial stereotypes, but even they are generally sympathetic unless you are German or Russian. The main thing, though, is that they let their creativity fly and didn’t get bogged down in the details. There is a lot to say for that.

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