The Flintstones spoof of Bonanza was the first time they didn't use a laugh track
It was more serious than you may think when the most popular show in the west was called upon to save The Flintstones.
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By the fifth season of The Flintstones, plenty of TV shows had been parodied on the cartoon sitcom: Perry Mason, The Addams Family, Lassie, and Star Trek, to name a handful.
But only one show that The Flintstones spoofed up to this point made the show seriously consider dropping the laugh track, and in the end, ultimately, this spoof became so important, they decided for the first time in The Flintstones history not to use the laugh track.
That show? Bonanza.
When The Flintstones episode "Sheriff For a Day" aired in February 1965, Bonanza was the No. 1 show in the country and a very valued property of NBC. The dramatic Western had climbed to the top of the ratings over five seasons, finally finding its perfect time slot in the 1964–65 season, and sticking as the nation's favorite show for two years.
The Flintstones aired on competing network ABC, and during its first season, the animated series remarkably ranked 18th in the country, besting Bonanza, which was ranked 19th in 1960.
From there, though, The Flintstones slipped against more popular live-action shows in later time slots such as The Andy Griffith Show, The Dick Van Dyke Show and The Beverly Hillbillies. These sitcoms dominated the ratings as The Flintstones hit rocky territory, slipping out of the Top 30 shows.
Then, out of nowhere, Bonanza became the new chief of the channels, the No. 1 show in the country. It only made sense for The Flintstones to take comedic aim at the Cartwrights, trying to lasso in some of their fans for a quick laugh.
In "Sheriff for a Day," the Flintstones and the Rubbles head out west and arrive in a cowboy town, where suddenly it becomes necessary to deem Fred sheriff. Characters named Ben, Hoss, Little Joe, and Adam Cartrock are introduced as the episode's heroes, voiced by veteran voice actors Henry Corden and Allan Melvin.
Of all the Cartwrights, Ben Cartwright most likely had the most distinct voice to mimic, as actor Lorne Greene was nicknamed early in his radio career as "The Voice of Doom" for a reason. Greene's deep voice made him the only Cartwright actor who did voice acting as well as onscreen roles throughout his career.
Fans of classic TV in all its forms will notice many easter eggs throughout this Flintstones episode, from a watering hole called "Kitty's Place" (a nod to Gunsmoke) to Barney Rubble's appearance as "Deputy Barney" (a wink at The Andy Griffith Show). Big screen bonus: The plot is loosely based on the Gary Cooper Western High Noon.
"Sheriff for a Day" culminates in a shoot-out where the Cartrocks ride up on dinosaurs to save the day. And although The Flintstones never again cracked the ratings, it’s clear from what transpires next that the Cartrocks were written into the show and called upon to do everything they could to help lead more fans to the cartoon sitcom in its time of need. This is where the episode gets a little meta:
"Hey, look, Fred, it's those TV stars, the Cartrocks," Deputy Barney says.
"The Cartrocks!" Fred exclaims.
"Well, I reckon we got here just in time," Hoss says.
"How did you know we needed help?" Fred asks.
"We watch your TV show, The Flintstones," Ben says.
"We always help out," Little Joe says. "It's the way of the Western!"