Two years ago, I wrote THIS homage to the original, long-forgotten and rarely seen animated half hour special based on Bill Cosby's "Fat Albert" monologues. At the time, Uncle Phil, Floyd Norman and others filled in the blanks and even suggested the Paley Center for Broadcast Media (formerly the TV/Radio museum) might have a viewable copy in their archives.
Earlier today, I finally managed to carve out a bit of time to stroll on over to the Paley Center and try my luck. Sure enough, after making my way through several galleries currently honoring Warner Bros, (including a generous supply of Looney Tunes and HB art--highly recommended!), a Very Helpful Archivist located the show and set me up in a viewing booth to watch in its entirety, from a 1970 Saturday Morning NBC re-broadcast complete with Mattel toy commercials . After cross checking, I did confirm that the show originally ran a year earlier in primetime on NBC, which also ran Cosby's first sitcom back then. Sadly, after that, the film sank without a trace, eclipsed by the long running but visually uninspired FILMATION/CBS series.
Surprisingly, I remembered a lot about the show, from the opening snowball to the closing sponsor bumper. The fact that it was so unique, especially for its time, may account for the vivid memory (or maybe i am just a particularly avid geek). Still, with more than four decades of distance and three decades of experience in the field, it was engaging enough to make me wish there were a copy to own somewhere.
The loose storyline is made up of bits of what were at the time Bill Cosby's most well known monologues, culminating in a football game with across-town rivals (in the original spoken version it was "Buck Buck", sort of a "dogpile" challenge) where neighborhood joke Fat Albert overcomes a quarrel with Bill and his friends to show up and bring them to victory.
Visually, it may be one of the most experimental and offbeat cartoons ever run on a major network. Director Ken Mundie and his band of independent animators make a point of rendering each scene with as much spontaneity as possible, almost no single movement is animated, timed or assisted conventionally or formulaically. One very unique choice was that the characters faces are less exploited than are their highly expressive figures. The poses and proportions are remarkably gestural, and adapted loosely as possible for whatever purpose fits. Fat Albert in particular exemplifies this technique: making his explosive entrances in impossibly gargantuan form that make the most of caricatured motion and design, before transforming down into a somewhat more "realisitc" size. Long legged "Old Weird Harold" also has the flexibility of model and proportion to make the most of individual gags about his height. More than just about any piece I could name, this 26 minute film embraces the possibilities of xeroxing animators' roughest drawings and capturing them at their most vital. It's too bad that these virtues are exactly what were lost in the translation to FILMATION's assembly line version, although any other outfit at the time would likely have done not much better (visually, DePatie-Freleng would have been a more logical fit, but considering how lackluster that studio's output ultimately became maybe it's all moot).
As a piece of entertainment, it's admittedly middling, never quite as funny or rich as Cosby's actual routines. The pacing is improvisational at its best, but tends toward being sporadic, disjointed and meandering, bordering on dullness sometimes. To its credit, the Herbie Hancock score stitches the gaps together, as does the monochromatic live action footage that make up the backgrounds. The lively visual style looks like a hybrid between the Hubleys and the yet-to-come early movies of Ralph Bakshi. On that note, all due respect to Bakshi, aspects of his best work bear more than a passing resemblance to this FAT ALBERT speical, in technique, style and even a bit of content. One sequence in particular, where the kids animate against actual footage of old black and white live action movies in a dilapidated theater is virtually identical to a sequence in HEAVY TRAFFIC (1973) that critics tripped over each other to heap praise on just a few years later. Another breathtaking scene brings to mind NFBC's 1968 award-winning WALKING, except here it is done freehand without rotoscope, and i might add, at least as successfully. All in all it's a fleeting experiment with cartoony style and content that hints at inspiring alternatives to the usual Disney / UPA / Jay Ward menu of visual monotony that still dominates animation today. For these reasons alone, it deserves better than to be relegated to oblivion and obscurity.