Children's programming is as old as television itself. Programs like Roger Muir's Howdy Doody debuted as early as 1947 and glued kids to the TV on weeknights, allowing moms (and/or dads, no sexism here) everywhere to cook dinner in peace. Today, though, children's shows have transcended their target audience. Rappers namedrop cartoons like Spongebob Squarepants and Adventure Time with a familiarity once reserved for Scarface and Goodfellas. Yo Gabba Gabba! attracts viewers of all ages with their hip musical guests,1 and Netflix recently added entire runs of Nickelodeon Nicktoons to their Watch Instantly service, presumably due to popular demand. The supply of and demand for nostalgia is at least as high as ever, and when children of the 70s think back to the Boo-Berry-addled Saturday mornings of their youth, there’s a good chance they loved at least one show produced by Sid and Marty Krofft.
A crash course on the history of the Krofft brothers: They got their start as puppeteers in the 1950s. Sid worked his way up in the puppeteering world from the circus to the stage, catching the eye of bigshots like Frank Sinatra and Judy Garland, for whom he performed for awhile as the opening act. Along with his brother Marty, he developed a nude marionette show they called Les Poupées de Paris. It became an overnight success and led to a stint on the Dean Martin Show. The Kroffts then staged several successful shows at a young theme park called Six Flags Over Georgia, and founded The Factory, a workshop that costumed, among other famous characters, the Kool-Aid Smiling Pitcher (Oh yeah!). In 1967, Hanna-Barbera commissioned costumes for The Banana Splits from The Factory and The Banana Splits Adventure Hour became the first of many Saturday morning smash hits for Sid and Marty2. The rest, as they say, was history.
Sid and Marty Krofft are best remembered as the producers of wacky, low budget, and colorful variety shows and children’s shows that usually combined live actors with manned life-size puppets in an inimitable (and, though they deny drug use to this day, suspiciously psychedelic) way. Krofft productions could be adequately described as live-action cartoons. Their most famous creation is, of course, the beloved and often-mocked series H.R. Pufnstuf, But the Krofft’s television empire extends far beyond the limits of Living Island. Among other classic series in the Krofft canon such as Lidsville and Land of the Lost, there is Sigmund and the Sea Monsters.
Allegedly inspired by a glimpse of sea life Sid Krofft caught on San Diego beach3, Sigmund and the Sea Monsters rehashes the age-old story of the friendly sea monster. For the sake of those unfamiliar with the tale, here’s the deal: Sigmund Ooze is a sea monster. He and the rest of the Ooze family (Big Daddy, Sweet Mama, Blurp, and Slurp) live in a humble cave in Dead Man’s Point. But the friendly Sigmund is the black sheep of the family. Unlike the rest of the Oozes, he is way more into dancing around and playing volleyball than scaring humans. Sigmund runs away from cave and meets Johnny and Scott Stuart, two friendly surfer chaps who agree to hide him in their top-secret clubhouse. The three put their inter-species differences aside and become fast friends.
However, it’s not all fun and games for the three friends. Between protecting Sigmund from the spiteful Ooze family and keeping him a secret from the grownups (salty housekeeper Aunt Zelda, nosy neighbor Mrs. Eldels, bumbling Sheriff Chuck Bevans, and apparently no parents whatsoever), the Stuart boys have a lot on their plate. In today’s episode, entitled “Mama Redecorates,” Sweet Mama decides to have Blurp and Slurp swap her crummy old furniture for some of Aunt Zelda’s. When Zelda gets Sheriff Bevans (“Dagnabit!”s and all) on the case, the boys have a heck of a time hiding Sigmund from the grownups and dealing with the Oozes. Believe you me; it’s a close call, but they learn some lessons along the way.
Sigmund was a bit of departure for the producers. While their previous shows took place in magical lands like The Bugaloos’ “Tranquility Forest,” Sigmund takes place somewhere in California, judging from all the surfing and the Stuart boys’ Dodger hats. Maybe I’m not looking closely enough here, but the show also seems to have a disappointing lack of the thinly laden drug and sexual references that we have come to know and love (looking at you, magic flute). But don’t fret, Krofft fans! The show’s wooden acting, elaborate costumes, and musical numbers (no song in this episode, unfortunately) will make you feel right at home.
In 2011, when even children’s entertainment is laced with irony and pop culture references, it’s easy to dismiss Sigmund and other Krofft productions with a chuckle and an LSD joke. In fact, it would not be the least bit surprising if a network like Adult Swim (or one like Network Awesome, for that matter) began to rerun Krofft series as fodder for what we’ll call the “late night crowd.” And rightfully so! This is some awesome and bizarre stuff. But the fact of the matter is, from 1973 to 1974, Sigmund was king. The NBC show became massively popular with the Saturday morning crowd, garnering great reviews and creaming its animated competition (ABC’s The Brady Kids and CBS’s Speed Buggy), making Saturday mornings safe for live action again in the process.
Say what you will, Sid and Marty’s body of work has endured for a reason. Their vision of children’s television is absolutely unlike anything else. It deserves to be preserved. The world may never know for sure where the Kroffts got their psychedelic inspiration. When faced with anything as delightfully bizarre and original as Sigmund and the Sea Monsters, it’s better not to ask too many questions.
Sid and Marty Krofft: a critical study of Saturday morning children's television, 1969-1993.
Sid and Marty Krofft: A Critical Study of Saturday Morning Children's Television, 1969-1993.