Saturday, February 06, 2021

Animation First ’21: A Doonesbury Special

In its pre-Reagan, pre-W, pre-Trump heyday, the comic strip Doonesbury was sort of the nearest equivalent to Colbert and the Daily Show, except people on both sides of the aisle frequently found it funny. Gary Trudeau’s leftwing viewpoint was always readily apparent, but he could still see the humor of his characters’ hippy-dippiness. That was still true in 1977 when he got a call-up for a Peanuts-style animated special. The resulting film made history as the final project of legendary animator John Hubley. On its way to TV sets, it won an award at Cannes and an Oscar nomination, but it has been rarely screened since then. Today, it is rather strange and nostalgic to watch A Doonesbury Special, credited to directors John & Faith Hubley, with Trudeau himself, when it screens through the 15th, as part of this year’s Animation First’s “Wes Anderson Selects” sidebar.

Okay, bad news first—fan favorite Uncle Duke never appears in the special. On the plus side, the residents of Walden Commune finally start to wrestle with the failures of their hippy lifestyle—maybe, sort of. Responsibility-averse stoner Zonker Harris announces that it is time for them to split up and move into condominiums, but everyone knows he is the least prepared to participate in real life.

However, everyone has to admit the whole turn-on-tune-in-drop-out New Left thing just didn’t work out the way they hoped it would. Most of the rest of the special consists of flashbacks to their hardcore activism and hardcore partying days at Walden College, including performances from folk rocker Jimmy Thudpucker, who was fictional, but still released a real-life greatest hits album. There is also a football huddle gag involving hawkish quarterback B.D. and a very high Zonker, which compares favorably with Abbott & Costello routines. Plus, John Sebastian plays a suitably melancholy harmonica solo over the closing credits.

The Hubleys’ animation stays true to the look of the newspaper strip at the time, but in a fluid, surprisingly stylish way. It is definitely a cut above Saturday morning fare. It is also funny, even if you do not share Trudeau’s politics. Clearly, he had enough perspective to understand what the commune mentality looked like from the outside and how cliched the New Left’s buzz words had become. A lot of people have lost the ability to see how they look and sound to those outside their ideological bubbles. Unfortunately, that is how people turn up at “peace protests” with “Bush is Hitler” signs and wind up storming the Capitol wearing viking helmets.

Weirdly, if conservatives come in with an open mind, they might laugh at the special just as much or more than liberals. I make no promises for the newspaper strip, from the 1980s onward. Regardless, the Hubley special is one those weirdly mythical TV events that people hazily remember, but have started to doubt, because it has been so rarely programmed after its network broadcast. It is worth judging
A Doonesbury Special for yourself when it screens online (through 2/15), as part of Animation First.