Interview with Lewis Thompson, creator of The Farnsworth and Katz Show, by Milt Steiner (excerpt).
Published in Animation Arts Monthly July 1987, vol. 3, number 8
MS: Another series you worked on at Cinemation was The Farnsworth and Katz Show. Whose idea was that?
LT: Mine. I fully accept the blame.
MS: Why Farnsworth and Katz? Weren’t they a little obscure to adapt to animation?
LT: Not at the time, no. This was before the Millennia vault fire. A lot of people still remembered the films. I grew on a steady diet of Farnsworth and Katz and they really made a huge impact on me. As a kid, my ambition was to be a gag writer for Farnsworth and Katz and the Marx Brothers.. When they all retired, I decided the next best thing was to become an animator. Those films are all live-action cartoons, anyway. If you've ever seen Clock Watchers, you'll see what I mean.
MS: So how did the series come about?
LT: Dean Glover (president of Cinemation, Inc.) brought the staff together right before Danburg Duck was canceled. We knew it was over and he was fishing for ideas to keep the studio afloat. We had some ad work to tide us over, but we needed a series. Leonard Goldenson at ABC was willing to give us a Saturday Morning slot on the strength of Danburg Duck, even though NBC nixed it because of the ratings. Dean brought up the idea of adapting a TV or movie celebrity to animation and the first thing that popped into my head was Farnsworth and Katz. I recall that Kreston Shaw was also a fan and backed me up on the idea. The meeting produced a couple of other ideas, The Mighty Thundaar was one, and Dean had nothing to lose so he gave me the go-ahead try and secure the rights. That was 1960, I think.
(above) Original animation drawing for Beatnik Bobby (1962).
MS: Was it simple?
LT: Not really.. I wasn’t sure who to turn to. Millennia only owned the rights to the old Farnsworth and Katz films, but not the rights to their images so I had to hunt down Farnsworth and Katz and get permission in person.
MS: Were you thinking of getting them involved with the production at the time? Or were you just trying to get permission to do the cartoons?
LT: To be honest, I didn't even entertain the thought of having them involved. I was going to get sound-alikes. Both of them had been out of show business for several years and I assumed they liked it that way… so it wasn’t a serious idea at the time. I found Soupy first and it wasn’t hard since he was listed in the phone book and remained listed until he died in 1979. He was living with his wife Bunny in Woodland Hills, not too far from Buster Keaton’s house where they all played poker. Soupy wasn’t at all like I expected; not like his film personality. He was very pleasant and somewhat subdued. Very witty. I guess I was completely star-struck and ended up spending almost an entire day hanging out at his house, looking through his scrapbooks and talking about the films. At the end of the day, to my shock, he gave me permission to do the series on the condition that he record his own voice and provide script ideas! Not long after that, he picked up the phone and called Bobby Katz who made the same demands. So I got the real Farnsworth and Katz to do the show without even trying! Bunny, who had been in all of the Farnsworth Four pictures, was seemed less enthusiastic and maybe even a little upset about Soupy getting involved with the project. I’m not sure why. She said very little to me during the time Soupy and I were making the show. She contributed her voice a few times, but it was very infrequent. Soupy had to work hard to convince her to come down and participate.
(above) Frame from Scaredy Katz (1964).
MS: You mentioned that Soupy wanted to contribute script ideas to the series. How many of the episodes were actually conceived by him?
LT: Quite a few. I'd say a little over half of the episodes. He was loaded with ideas and after the first couple of seasons, very few were rehashes of anything he and Bobby had done before. Sometimes he would knock out a script, but more often he would simply come up with an idea and either Kreston or I would write the script. Bobby had less creative energy than Soupy, but he came up with a few shows as well; some good ones like Beatnik Bobby and Phoney Dopes. The rest of the shows were written by myself, Kreston Shaw, and Jack Beatty. We gave Soupy a script supervision credit on all of the shows because he really did read every script and made suggestions.
MS: What about the appearance of the characters in the cartoons?
LT: You mean, their costumes? Or..
MS: How did you decide upon how they would look in the cartoons?
LT: Well, that was mostly up to Kreston Shaw. I thought he got their likeness down pretty good. He exaggerated the difference in their heights, of course, for comic effect. And the costumes were a mutual decision. Farnsworth and Katz really didn't have set costumes in their Millennia films. They changed into whatever was appropriate for the roles they were playing, although they did have some common props, like Soupy's carnation. When it came to the cartoons, they needed some standard costumes because we were working in limited animation and we had to recycle the drawings from show to show. Soupy had a costume in vaudeville which was a pretty much a nice suit with a carnation pinned to it. For contrast, he wore this absolutely hideous, mangled, orange checkered hat that he claimed he found in a trash bin outside a theater when he was in his 20s. So that was his costume in the cartoons. For Bobby, we gave him the painter's smock and four-in-hand bow tie from Clock Watchers, where he was a clock-face painter. Both of them parted their hair down the middle on and off screen and no matter what the role so that was incorporated, too.
(above) Original animation drawing for Beatnik Bobby (1962).
MS: Did Farnsworth and Katz like the way they were portrayed?
LT: If they didn't, they never complained. I was hoping Bobby wasn't going to be offended that Kreston drew him as a kind of midget but he never said anything about it. I don't think he was terribly sensitive about his height. He was about 4 foot, 11 inches or so.
MS: Could you tell us a little bit about the recording sessions? I have a copy of the infamous Farnsworth and Katz outtake reel and, from that, I'd guess they were fairly interesting.
LT: (laughs) Oh, so you've heard that, huh? It's pretty risqué, isn't it? Soupy was not happy to hear that there were copies floating around. He thought it would hurt his image. That tape was made as a farewell gift for Soupy and Bobby and we gave them copies right after the last session in 1966. I still don't know how it got out.
MS: Did it hurt his image? Or Bobby's image?
LT: Of course not. I mean, the whole idea of that tape hurting Soupy's reputation was a bit of a joke in itself. The man was a heavy boozer, and I mean that respectfully. (laughs) Everyone knew it. It wasn't a secret. Soupy couldn't keep it a secret! He would go absolutely berserk with hard liquor in him. He was once arrested for pissing on some guy's car outside the Brown Derby. He was arrested quite frequently in the 30s and 40s, being dragged out of speakeasies during prohibition, that kind of thing. Even while we were recording the soundtracks for the show, he would always have a little buzz on. Hell, for all I know, his performances may have depended on it. Lord knows he was a completely different person when he wasn't drinking. Very quiet. But that was who he was and the studios never seemed to care as long as it didn't effect his performances. And when he got drunk in public, which was all the time, he had the advantage of being a comic which made it all seem like some kind of act. As for the cursing, you look at Soupy in those films and you say, there's a guy who must cuss like a sailor off-camera. He was constantly muttering under his breath in the films. If the audio quality was better, I'll guarantee he's swearing a blue streak. With Bobby, those tapes are a little more surprising because of his image. He's such a pleasant, naive guy in the pictures, but he was hardly naive behind the cameras. He was a real ladies man. He married, what.. four, five times? He was no stranger to the bottle, either. Anyway, the tape only really started to circulate after Soupy died. In a way, it's a pretty important document. There are very few private recordings of them.
MS: So, about the sessions...
LT: Sorry. We got off-track, didn't we? The sessions were pretty much what you'd expect from the tape. Soupy was always trying to throw Bobby off by giving him the wrong cues or ad-libbing. Bobby would fight back by trying to crack Soupy up by ad-libbing and making faces. It was hectic and those soundtracks took longer to record than any show I'd ever done before.. or since. They would also lapse into old routines at the drop of a hat. We had to learn not to include lines like "I need change for a five." because it was the cue for one routine or another. Reciting those routines was like breathing to them, and we could rarely work them into the cartoons since we had strict time limits. They'd do it in public, too. Almost unconsciously. And since they had known each other for decades and had been doing routines like "The Broken Watch" for decades, they knew every single nuance and could put every routine over with unbelievable force without even trying. It was amazing to see. Sometimes they'd even lapse into their old physical routines.. the less strenuous ones, of course. Soupy once brought his mallet and spike to a session, concealed in his coat, and when Bobby delivered a pun in the script, Soupy pulled them out and began to pound the spike into Bobby's head just like their old routine. The sound guy in the booth had no idea that this was a part of their act and that it was a trick spike and started yelling "Stop him! He's killing Mr. Katz!". He was pretty shaken up (laughs).
MS: Did you animate around the ad-libs, then?
LT: As much as possible. As I said, we had time limits. Animation is very expensive. We did handle it differently than other studios, though. They wouldn't have kept any of them. It was a very by-the-book kind of thing at the other studios.
MS: I think everyone familiar with the show has noticed the somewhat slipshod production techniques involved. Could you comment on that?
(above) Frames from Scaredy Katz (1964).
LT: Not much to say. Final production was done in Mexico on the cheap. No one was terribly happy about it because of the glitches. The crew down there seemed to have a problem properly registering the cels with the backgrounds for some reason. But we had to use the prints they sent since there was never enough time or money to send them back to be redone. At the time, though, no one ever really mentioned stuff like that. I guess it was because of the quality of the stories and soundtracks.
MS: Industry veterans refer to the Cinemation series and other like them as "animated radio" because of the dependence on audio over the actual animation.
LT: I'd like to say that's an unfair assessment but I can't. Some of our later work like The Mighty Thundaar used a hell of a lot of recycled animation but that was just the state of the industry at the time. Our budgets didn't allow for much else. However, I wouldn't apply the term "animated radio" to The Farnsworth and Katz Show or Danburg Duck. Those were very visual shows. They had good stories and the voice work was naturally excellent but those cartoons wouldn't have worked without good visuals. I've heard those criticisms before, anyway. I don't believe for a moment that Cinemation or any other TV animation studio hurt the medium. Those comments come from purists who don't understand what we had to deal with. Sure, I'd have loved to have done full animation like I had been doing at Screen Gems, especially with Farnsworth and Katz, but we couldn't. That's all there is to it.
MS: How did ABC receive the show?
LT: Leonard Goldenson quite liked it. We tried to persuade him to give the show a prime-time slot like Danburg Duck had because the humor was somewhat adult at times, which was also like Danburg Duck. Not offensive or risque.. well, sometimes (laughs).. but usually just.. mature? I'm sure really young kids didn't catch a lot of references. Goldenson wouldn't budge and the show got a Saturday morning slot which held for, what? Six years?
MS: So the ratings must have been good.
LT: Quite good. Not spectacular, but respectable. We picked up some good sponsors, like Nehi soft drinks and Johnson and Johnson. There was a fair amount of merchandising, too. Games and stuff. It really brought Soupy and Bobby back into the limelight and introduced them to a new generation. To me, that was the biggest reward of the series, giving these guys another chance to make people laugh. They loved it. The success of the series secured Bobby some work at Allied International for a couple of beach pictures. It was the last work he ever did. He died on the set. Soupy said to me later, "At least he died working." For Soupy, even though he didn't want to get back into film, the show helped guarantee him fan mail all the way to the end.
MS: How did The Farnsworth and Katz Show change over the seasons?
LT: For the better, I think. When we started, we looked to the old Millennia films for inspiration, to see what had been done with the characters before. So, for the first two seasons, there were a lot of rehashed themes from the Farnsworth and Katz movies. None of us really knew what else to do at the time. But once we all became used to making the show, we began to play around with the format and introduced all kinds of ideas into the scripts. Soupy apparently just let his mind wander for script ideas. Some were very surreal. He wrote one called Baseball Cards where he's a coach who steals Mickey Mantle's brain and puts it in Bobby's head so his team can win the game. We did everything we could possibly could with Farnsworth and Katz. We landed them on the moon, we even sent them the Soviet Union to meet Kruschev.
(above) Still from Dazed Knights (1966).
MS: Any favorite episodes?
LT: I still think Beatnik Bobby is one of the best. It's one of the first episodes where we started playing around with the formula. Bobby did an excellent job with the beat poetry and the laid-back voice and Soupy's reactions in the studio were priceless. We tried to get some of that in the animation and, as far as I'm concerned, we succeeded. It was a great cartoon.
MS: How did it all come to an close?
LT: The momentum ran out after six years. It was simply becoming less fun than it had been. Honestly, I was ready to try something new, too. Ratings started to drop off and we took the opportunity to close it up. But we weren't canceled. In any case, Soupy and Bobby, who were fairly old to begin with, were now six years older and they lost the drive. We didn't quite recognize it at the time but Bobby was beginning to show signs of illness. I truly regret not getting to know Bobby better than I did. It came as a total shock when he died because everyone had assumed that Soupy would have gone first, being older, and having that drinking problem. I remained good friends with Soupy until he died, though. A year before he passed away, he told me that, in a lot of ways, he preferred the cartoons to the features he made. That's a hell of a compliment!