The strange story of M-U-S-H, the M*A*S*H cartoon spoof that nearly ruined its studio
Filmation never made a show for ABC again.
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Animation studios never had to look far for ideas. Many of the beloved cartoons from your youth were thinly veiled remakes of classic sitcoms. Just look at Hanna-Barbera. The production house modeled The Flintstones on The Honeymooners, Top Cat on The Phil Silvers Show, and the Scooby-Doo gang on The Many Loves of Dobie Gillis. Jabberjaw jabbered like Curly from The Three Stooges. The North Carolina twang of Huckleberry Hound reminded many folks of Andy Griffith's folksy manner.
Hanna-Barbera was not alone in recycling flesh-and-blood primetime characters into Saturday morning toons. The studio's primary competition was Filmation, the company behind The Archie Show and The Superman/Aquaman Hour of Adventure. Filmation crafted many direct spin-offs of hit shows, from Star Trek: The Animated Series to Gilligan's Planet.
But in 1975, Filmation attempted something a little riskier and more sophisticated, an outright spoof of TV giants that perhaps went over the heads of kids. A bitter edge ran through Uncle Croc's Block, which cast Charles Nelson Reilly as the crocodile host. Uncle Croc loathed his job, like an actor believing he deserved better, as he presented parodies of Sherlock Holmes ("Sherlock Domes"), The Six Million Dollar Man ("Steve Exhaustion, The $6.95 Man") and I Dream of Jeannie ("Junie the Genie").
And then there was M-U-S-H, another of the six-and-a-half-minute shorts bundled in Uncle Croc's Block.
An acronym for "Mangy Unwanted Shabby Heroes," M-U-S-H satirized M*A*S*H, turning the Korean War dramedy into a cast of canines in some frozen Arctic outpost. The character names were on-the-nose.
Bullseye, Cold Lips, Col. Flake and Sonar were obvious parallels. Far stranger was "Trooper Yoe," the "Trapper" of the bunch who looked like Hoss Cartwright and talked like John Wayne. And then there was Major Hank Sideburns, who morphed the despised "Frank Burns" into a dastardly Mountie with a twirly mustache.
There was real comedic talent behind the voices. Robert Ridgely (Bullseye, Trooper, Sonar, etc.) and Kenneth Mars (Sideburns, Cold Lips, Burns, etc.) did all the work. Mars is best known for his work with Mel Brooks, notably Franz Liebkind in The Producers and as Inspector Kemp in Young Frankenstein. Ridgely, on the other hand, might be most familiar for his final screen appearance, as a porn producer in Boogie Nights.
Filmation Studios co-founder Lou Scheimer enjoyed the results more than viewers. In his 2012 autobiography Lou Scheimer: Creating The Filmation Generation, written with Andy Mangels, Scheimer defended, "M-U-S-H was a good idea for a show because you were supposed to laugh at it, not with it."
ABC did not share his opinion.
"Uncle Croc's Block was in trouble right out of the gate," Scheimer recalled. "The network already hated it, and, when it got some negative reviews and the ratings weren't great, things got ugly."
The network cut the short the hourlong program in half, jettisoning the wrap-around live-action segments. Of the 30 M-U-S-H episodes written, only 23 were finished, some of which were salvaged and bundled with The Groovie Goolies and Friends.
In February of 1976, ABC canceled Uncle Croc's Block. It was the first time in the company's history that Filmation had one of its series axed. "It was also the last time that ABC bought anything from us," Scheimer added.
Oddly, on the financial sheets, the news was better. ABC had paid for the entire season, but only a portion of them was completed. "So, we ended up making more money on not doing the rest of the show than would have ever made on doing the whole show!" Scheimerly said. "Uncle Croc's Block has never been shown in its entirety and probably never will be."