In the 1980s, the producer of Doctor Who was a guy named John Nathan-Turner, and he would routinely attempt to deflect criticism that the show had gone downhill by using the phrase “the memory cheats.” Older episodes were not commercially available in the UK at the time, but the silly man, oblivious to the fact that the complaining parties usually had a full shelf of pirate VHS tapes of Jon Pertwee episodes obtained from traders in the US and Australia and were perfectly capable of seeing old stories for themselves, would honestly try and tell people that his stories were every bit as good or superior to what had come before. It was only nostalgia that made you think otherwise. You philistines.
I mention this today for one reason because, as we wrap up the H.R. Pufnstuf series, it’s not a bad time to look at how the show as a whole stands up to the modern eyes of adulthood. And for another reason: my memory didn’t cheat, it flat-out lied to me.
I came to terms with this part several years ago, but it still completely baffles me. I remember an episode of this show in which the good guys of Living Island have a potato sack race. This does not happen in any of the seventeen episodes of this series, and yet I remember it quite distinctly. There is no “bonus episode,” I’m just completely wrong.
Perhaps it happens in a Whitman Pufnstuf coloring book, or in an issue of the Gold Key comic book series, or maybe – and this really is stretching it – in an episode of Lost Island, about which, more some other day, but it probably never happened anywhere. I will always wonder, however, where in the world that memory came from, and every time I think about this show in any critical way, I’m always a little stumped by this phony memory, and remember John Nathan-Turner’s silly words.
So as for the series finale, it’s a clip show, which was a very common thing to do in the 1960s, especially when you’ve sunk as much money as Sid and Marty Krofft did into this. NBC gave them a budget of one million dollars for seventeen episodes, or about $52,000 apiece. They spent almost twice that, and it shows. There is obviously a lot that they could not do, but the series features several sets and props that were used once and never again, and the Clock People’s oddball house certainly couldn’t have been cheap. I’m amazed that, as stretched as they were, they could even justify dropping a character (Pop Lolly) but his was the weakest and silliest costume, and they probably didn’t want it used in crowd scenes after week seven.
Just look at the title sequence: a day’s filming in northern California someplace, two separate Living Island boats on location, one of which is later used on a stage set with a water tank, and which incorporates at least one puppeteer underneath Jack Wild manipulating those freaky, hairy arms that are seen on screen for about two seconds. Even in 1969 dollars, that title sequence was not cheap.
But didn’t Jimmy ever get home? Wasn’t there a “final episode” of H.R. Pufnstuf? Nope, because that was simply not the way of TV in the sixties. At the time, and for decades to come, the real money was in off-network syndication. The problem was that audiences of the day just stopped watching a show that had a final episode. While that sounds utterly bizarre from our perspective, the apparent first American TV show to have a proper series finale was The Life and Legend of Wyatt Earp, which aired in the late 1950s and had enormous ratings, and a way ahead-of-its-time final arc of episodes: a five-part story set in Tombstone that led to the gunfight at the OK Corral in the last one aired. It then absolutely bombed in syndication, so badly that, six years later, the studio that made The Fugitive fought against the producers’ desire to wrap up that story. The resulting story made for some darn exciting television, but only a handful of UHF stations bought it, costing Quinn Martin Productions a boatload in syndication money they never saw.
And it’s the money that meant there would ever only be seventeen episodes, particularly as the Kroffts overspent so much. In the late 1990s, Marty Krofft claimed (in David Martindale’s Pufnstuf & Other Stuff) that NBC asked for a second season, with a 5% budget increase. But that wasn’t nearly enough to cover their costs. The initial million got NBC three airings of each episode. It was more fiscally sound to take a couple of hundred thousand for the rights to three more broadcasts of each in the 1970-71 season. NBC saved a lot of money, and the Kroffts’ books got closer to being balanced, and the sets at Paramount could be scrapped instead of paying storage fees for months before new episodes went into production.
Besides which, new sets needed to be built at Universal… but more on that in a few days.
Finally, there’s the non-issue of drugs. Seventeen episodes without mentioning it, mainly because I’ve been looking for any honest evidence that the directors and actors were high as kites during the making of this show. Everybody seems to think that’s the case – it fueled a pretty funny parody on Mr. Show called “Druggachusettes: A Sam and Criminy Craffft Production” – but, in the cold light of day, it really isn’t here. Yeah, there’s a hippie tree, and yeah, there are talking mushrooms, but there’s really not one thing here that’s radically or obviously drug-inspired. Even the wilder visuals, like Dr. Blinky’s sneezing house, are the sort of things that would have shown up in a Betty Boop cartoon, or a Bob Clampett Looney Tune a quarter-century or more earlier.
When you’re young, it’s fun to pretend that Sid and Marty were doped up on shrooms, peyote, a quarter-ton of uncut Turkish hashish, and three cases of Jim Beam – only natural things, you understand – when they made this silly show, but the honest fact is that the show was as psychedelic as it is because quite a lot of television made in 1969 was, and it’s as entertaining as it is because the Kroffts, Lennie Weinrib, Hollingsworth Morse, the production designers, the costumers, and all the actors were just tremendously talented people who gave 100% making this program. Even on an occasional subpar episode, H.R. Pufnstuf is utterly watchable, Billie Hayes looks like she’s having more fun being rotten than should be allowed by law, and it’s just tremendous fun to get lost in this good-natured silliness for half an hour.
That would not always be the case with the Kroffts. More on that in a few weeks.
For a pair of really good books about the production of the Krofft series, readers should check out Sid and Marty Krofft: A Critical Study of Saturday Morning Childrens Television, 1969-1993 by Hal Erickson and Pufnstuf & Other Stuff by David Martindale. Martindale’s is the more breezy and light of the two, but I prefer Erickson’s. Admittedly, he quoted me in it years ago, and so I’m biased, mind.