The Pink Panther Problem

In the 1970s, children’s television was heavily occupied by a presence that’s nearly forgotten today; an artifact from the opening credits of a slapstick detective franchise, called the Pink Panther.

Like Bugs Bunny, the Pink Panther was a former smoker. Many cartoon animals smoked in the 20th century.

If you were a kid in the 1980s, the sight of that character reminded you of a piece of Henry Mancini’s distinctive score. This is the Pink Panther Problem.

There were just enough good Pink Panther cartoons to make you tune in when they ran. He was used to sell Owens-Corning fiberglass insulation, because they were the same color, leading my youthful self to conclude that his fur would cut your fingers up if you pet him. There have been many Pink Panther parade balloons and floats. He was kind of a bargain-basement, silent Bugs Bunny. But if you wanted to enjoy his cartoon show, you had to enjoy that music.

It’s just that music, over and over. I myself know it note for note, just from these cartoons, even though I haven’t listened to it in ages. If the flute didn’t hit that high note, it might not grate over repetition like it does. When your dad is hungover in the next room, and Pink Panther is on, you’ve got until the third repeat of that high note to avoid repercussion. One benefit of Pink Panther’s general muteness is that the cartoons work just fine on mute. The sound effects are tinny and fake anyway, especially the odd “PHEWPH” whenever a body hits the floor.

I remember the Inspector Clouseau cartoons as being funny, but not whether there was spoken dialogue. I much prefer the repeated Mancini theme used there, which was “A Shot In The Dark”. John Zorn’s Naked City did a superlative cover of it on their debut album, and it’s a terrific challenge on bass guitar.

This is all stuck in your head now, isn’t it? See the power of the PPP?

If people see that stupid broken walk loop the Pink Panther starts his cartoon with, and they don’t hear that Mancini theme, it feels wrong. The character only half-exists without it. It’s even required in the telling of the old “Dead Ant” joke!

The Pink Panther, in cartoon form, was created by the legendary Friz Freleng and Hawley Pratt (plus, of course, Blake Edwards). His “golden era” was between 1969 and 1979, when David H. DePatie joined in to produce the Saturday morning Pink Panther Show. This was a showcase for the Pink One’s short subjects, which aired first on television, then in theaters.

Also included was The Ant and the Aardvark. This was a standard cartoon animal chase dichotomy, except John Byner from Bizarre did the voices, impersonating Dean Martin and Jackie Mason, respectively. Yes, you read that right. The aardvark talks like a borscht-belt tummler. It was very popular. God only knows why.

At the very start, Pink Panther cartoons had a laugh track, just like Scooby-Doo, Where Are You? and The Brady Bunch. Thankfully this hateful practice was ended early. Laugh tracks on old cartoons were random in their placement, and all spliced from the same half-minute of an ancient recording. Eventually, you hear the same phony laugh so many times, the process has the opposite of the intended effect. Jackson 5, Fat Albert and the Cosby Kids, and anything Ralph Bakshi worked on were the biggest offenders.

In traditional German culture, this is called a “Tusch”. There is literally a musical fanfare that indicates, in Germany, that you are to LAUGH NOW, as hard as you can. It sounds like the whole brass section going, “bum-BUM, bum-BUM, bum-BUMMMM!!!!!” It is not funny at all. You better laugh though, dummkopf!

Renowned animation historian Jerry Beck calls the Pink Panther “Hollywood’s last great cartoon character.” I wouldn’t argue with that. I don’t know if the animated character appears in either of the Steve Martin remakes, because I cannot bear to watch that sort of blasphemy. Inspector Closeau was a sensation because of one man: Peter Sellers. In sports, the number of an athlete is retired when a legendary player leaves the team or dies. Why not do that with beloved characters, in entertainment? Officially retire a role, so that we wouldn’t have to suffer through Old Steve Martin cashing an easy paycheck. Or Ron Howard propping up a prequel about Han Solo that no one gives a fuck about, because the only reason anyone cared about Han Solo was Harrison Ford.

Some flavor-of-the-month actor impersonating Harrison Ford, that’s just as good, right? Isn’t that what you want; a simulation of things you liked before? Isn’t that what “movie magic” is all about? Pandering to your juvenile desires? The only marketing Disney will have to do on a Han Solo movie is to make the guy look as much like Harrison Ford as possible. One single still-frame will spark all sorts of nonsense on the Internet, thus freely promoting the prequel in question. Divisions will form long before the movie hits a screen. Flame wars. Impotent boycotts. Manufactured outrage. Profit.

Just another form of the Pink Panther Problem. If the Pink Panther doesn’t have his theme music… is he still a pink panther?

You be the judge.

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Filed under Animation Analysis, Bad Influences, Faint Signals, Saturday Movie Matinee, Thousand Listen Club