Roger Ramjet Was A Subversive Cartoon Classic

Before South Park and American Dad, Roger Ramjet was the craziest, most subversive cartoon anybody had ever seen.

I first encountered Roger Ramjet on a Chicago public access station in 1983. It was part of an early morning show apparently aimed at stoner insomniacs. The show came on at five and also included episodes of Lancelot Link, Secret Chimp, that awful Beatles cartoon, and a weather report clarified by some appropriate pop song (“Here Comes the Sun” or“Here Comes the Rain Again”). I was usually up and around that early for some godforsaken reason, and originally started watching on account of Lancelot Link. Always did love that Lancelot Link.

But Roger Ramjet was, well, let’s just say it was a revelation.

Roger Ramjet, “that All-American good guy and devil may care flying fool” (as he compulsively introduces himself) was a none too bright and none too coordinated drug-dependent space age superhero in an ongoing battle against the assorted forces of evil (or more specifically, N.A.S.T.Y.) to preserve the American Way of Life. He was square-jawed, straitlaced, straightfaced, and True Blue if little else (the resemblance to American Dad’s Stan is remarkable), so hyperpatriotic that nearly every time his name is spoken aloud an American flag, a bald eagle, or a rotating ring of stars appears on the screen. After catching one or two episodes, I forgot all about Lancelot Link.

The show was easy to overlook, especially when squeezed between the Beatles and some secret agent chimps with a psychedelic band. The episodes were only five minutes long (maybe seven with the abrasive theme song filling out the opening and closing credits), and were so crudely drawn and animated it might at a glance seem like  something a couple of junior high school kids threw together in their basement one weekend. The shows were so primitive they hardly bothered with niceties like “backgrounds” satisfied instead to settle for rudimentary suggestions of a setting.

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But the writing was so sharp and the voice talent so good, that what it really felt like (if you paid attention) was a spoof of a ‘40s radio serial like Sky King or Gangbusters, complete with a soap opera organ and illustrated by a handful of jerky drawings scratched out by someone’s kid. People who thought Jay Ward’s Bullwinkle and Dudley Do-Right were crude when compared with the output from Disney or Warner Brothers had no idea what “crude” meant.

Check out Roger Ramjet on Amazon

Looking at it today what it reminds me of more than anything are the paper cutout animations of the earliest episodes of South Park. Along with the lo-fi stylistics, the humor was clearly aimed at an adult audience while pretending otherwise. You may not find any child molestation jokes or crass religious cracks in Roger Ramjet, but for 1965 the lightning-fast humor was pretty hepcat and sophisticated, with undisguised satirical references to the Cold War, Central American turmoil, and the Vietnam War (“Hey kids, this is Roger Ramjet, demanding that you stay tuned to this station to see my next adventure,” Roger announces in his commanding superhero baritone. “Or I’ll see to it that all you little rascals are drafted.”).

Mixed in with the topical jokes we also get some highly unlikely name drops, from Noel Coward and Henry Cabot Lodge to James Joyce and  bawdy nightclub performer Rusty Warren, as well as film parodies and  literary nods to the likes of Catch-22 and Catcher in the Rye. It’s also a little less than what you might call racially sensitive by modern standards (consider Mexican revolutionaries The Enchilada Brothers, Beef and Chicken). While a lot of the more timely jokes might be lost in the murk of the almost 50 years since it first aired, there’s plenty of rapid-fire absurdity that’s timeless, from the misspelled title cards punctuating the narration to the self-consciously dumb coked-up adventures.

Bullwinkle aired from ‘59 to ‘64. Roger Ramjet came along a year later and Jay Ward’s influence is undeniable. The difference was Roger Ramjet crammed the equivalent number of bad jokes, references, and plot twists of a typical 8-part Bullwinkle serial into each five-minute episode, both mirroring the rapid-fire screwball dialogue of the ‘30s and the frenetic quick-cut comedy to come along a year or two later in shows like The Monkees and Laugh-In.

The episodes were produced with essentially no budget and were cranked out very quickly by a small team of writers, voiceover artists, and animators with solid day jobs in radio and TV. They were all seasoned pros, some dating back to the days of classic radio, who worked on the show after hours as a way of letting off a little steam and tossing around a few cynical, subversive cultural jabs their day jobs wouldn’t allow.

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The show was created originally by animator Fred Crippen (who went on to work on some pretty dreadful crap like the Extreme Ghostbusters and later episodes of Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles) and Ken Snyder, an ad exec who moved over into producing cartoons. They brought in a remarkable team of voice talent and comedy writers, including Gene Moss (the voice of Smokey the Bear)  Jim Thurmam (who did a lot of kids shows including Sesame Street), Dick Beals (the original voice of Gumby), and the great Gary Owens, a drive-time deejay in LA who would get national recognition soon enough as the on-screen announcer for Laugh-In.

Although they would all get specific credits in the end (crippen as director, Moss as a writer) it was a communal effort, in which everyone contributed to the writing, and everyone, even the executive producer, did a few of the voices. Apart from the regular crew, careful listeners might also catch a few uncredited guest appearances by some surprisingly big names (I’m told Sinatra and Dean Martin appear in an episode, but I’m still looking for that one). Owens was the star, though, as his ability to read the most ridiculous lines in a dramatic deadpan made him the perfect Roger Ramjet.

Together they made 156 episodes (about 150 still exist), which were sold directly into syndication in ‘65 as half hour shows, each containing three unconnected adventures. I can’t say as I’m exactly sure who they thought their target audience was at the time, except maybe each other.

Much like William Conrad in Bullwinkle, each show opened with our narrator, Steve Allen alum Dave Ketchum, setting the mood and the scene (“In today’s depressing episode,” he’d begin with dramatic enthusiasm, or maybe it was an “existentialist episode,” “phlegmatic episode,” “rickety episode,” “hairy episode,” or “ethnic episode”). Then we’re out of the gate at a breakneck pace, with a flurry of gags coming from every direction. “Ramjet rode into Boot Hill,” we’re told,  “where the men were men and the women were men, which can get pretty old after awhile.”

While none of the shows are connected, there are a few recurring characters and locations worth remembering:

Roger hails from Lompoc, an actual California town (“where nothing ever happens, and seldom does”) and takes his orders from General G.I. Brassbottom, a no nonsense military man who “hadn’t had an original idea since he was a civilian.” He’s also assisted by Yank, Doodle, Dan, and Dee, the unusually chubby kids who make up the American Eagle squadron. Like Roger, all the members of the squadron wear their white jumpsuits and flight helmets at all times (Roger even wears his helmet on dates), and in true superhero sidekick fashion, their primary job is to get Roger out of scrapes and make sure his drugs are handy.  

That’s one little detail more than a few casual viewers have taken umbrage with.

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Roger, see, is a pretty hapless character most of the time, but he repeatedly saves the world thanks to a little help from his Proton Energy Pills (PEP), which take five seconds to kick in, then give him the strength of 20 A-Bombs for 20 seconds. Modern viewers seem a little uncomfortable with the idea of a superhero gulping amphetamines in order to function, but all I can say is, well, it was a different time, and hey, it worked for Roger and Elvis both.

The proton energy pills come in handy when dealing with his arch-nemesis Noodles Romanoff, the short, trenchcoat and fedora wearing head of N.A.S.T.Y. (the National Association of Spies, Traitors, and Yahoos). Romanoff may not have a Natasha, but he does have a gang of cronies and thugs who all mumble in unison (save for one, who can’t seem to get the rhythm).

Along with Romanoff and his gang, Roger also has to contend with some lanky alien robots, the Solenoids (voiced by executive producer Ken Snyder), and their repeated efforts to invade the planet in assorted ridiculous ways (in one episode, they begin kidnapping all the Miss America contestants, who “were disappearing faster than co-eds at a Dartmouth weekend”). When not saving the world, Roger found himself competing with the smarmy hotshot test pilot Lance Crossfire (who sounds an awful lot like Burt Lancaster) for the affections of Lotta Love, the fickle Southern belle with a taste for the finer things in life.

Then there are the adventures themselves. Some seem standard superhero fare, but only to a point. Earth is besieged by flying saucer attacks (sort of). Roger’s hometown is terrorized by a werewolf (sort of). Roger plays tennis with a kangaroo, or becomes the first man to surf in space, or, in a personal favorite, attempts to stop the flow of bootleg comic books into America’s drug stores.

Actually, there’s an interesting moment in that one that revealed just how subtle you could be even with animation this unsophisticated. Okay, so Noodles Romanoff, see, is replacing real comics in drug store racks with bootlegs in which popular superheroes are humiliated, all in an effort to destroy the morale of America’s children. After Brassbottom shows Roger a few examples (the issues include “Superman Gets Beat Up by a Chicken!” and “Ratman Stubs His Toe!”) he explains that if this sort of thing continues, “America’s kids won’t have anyone to look up to except YOU, Ramjet.” Then, for just an instant in that crude and jerky style, Roger cuts his eyes toward the camera, revealing in that moment everything we needed to know, namely that it’s what he’s always wanted.

Thirty years on and that still sticks with me.

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In the end, though, the characters and storylines are secondary at best in Roger Ramjet. At heart it’s a matter of trying to keep up with all the lightning-quick jokes and wordplay, the non-sequitors and references. In the five minute span of one cowboy-themed episode I counted nods to at least seven classic Western films, from High Noon to She Wore a Yellow Ribbon, and I suspect I missed a few. It really is such a dizzying blur of dialogue and bad puns and cultural references, sometimes, christ, even just references to old jokes that take the form of bad puns (“Waiter, there’s a spy in my soup” or “how many angels can swim in the head of a beer?”), that absurd as it all is, repeated viewings are a necessity to catch everything.

It’s a bit like having the complete contents of an issue of MAD Magazine jammed onto a single page. It can make your head hurt after a while, but it’s worth it. Whether the density and the pace make it better or worse for stoner viewing is something, I guess, each stoner will need to answer for him or herself. Lots of bright colors, though.

In 1965 there was nothing new about making cartoons with adult sensibilities in mind. Betty Boop and Bugs Bunny were made to be shown as short subjects to largely adult audiences. Jay Ward’s cartoons a few decades down the line were near-revolutionary for smuggling hip, subversive political humor into what had become an exclusively child-friendly format. What made Roger Ramjet so radical was it’s blend of ‘30s radio style with mid-’60s cynicism, as well as its foreshadowing of our shrinking attention spans, a hyper-condensed proton pill of comedy and commentary disguised as just another dumb, low-rent superhero cartoon.

Although it’s barely remembered today, it’s influence is still evident in most any subversive animated show you can name, even if they’ve slowed things down a bit.

This article first ran on February 18, 2015.