It’s Bojack Horseman weekend, when we’re all hunched over our televisions binge-watching the newest season of the greatest animated television show since The Simpsons. So what better time to look back at the very first made-for-TV animated show ever, Crusader Rabbit, which kicked off the 67 years of TV animation that led, slowly and inexorably to Bojack? Crusader Rabbit isn’t just Bojack’s ancient ancestor in terms of its medium, it’s also part of a long line of cartoons with jokes pitched at adults as much as children. Without Crusader Rabbit, there's no Rocky and His Friends, without Rocky and His Friends, there's no Simpsons, and without The Simpsons, we’d probably be spending the weekend watching Netflix’s new Puppetoons series.
Crusader Rabbit was the brainchild of Alex Anderson, the nephew of animator Paul Terry. Terry, a former newspaper cartoonist, founded animation studio Terrytoons, where he created Mighty Mouse. More importantly, Terry also pioneered techniques of limited animation, allowing his studio to compete with better-funded rivals like Disney—the Tiffany of animation studios to Terrytoons’ Woolworth’s, according to Terry. Anderson worked at his uncle’s studio—first for an eight-month stint after high school, then later after World War II. When he saw a television for the first time, he realized his uncle’s cheap, fast techniques might make it feasible to move animation into the new medium. Terry was uninterested with Anderson’s pitch of an animated TV show—or, more accurately, worried that Terrytoons’ theatrical distribution partner Fox would drop them if they started doing business in the threatening new medium—so Anderson returned to Berkeley and set out on his own.
At Terrytoons, Anderson had pitched a character called “Donkey Hote” that was passed on by animators who didn’t want to draw donkeys. Anderson changed the character to an easier-to-draw rabbit, but kept the idea of Quixote, and Crusader Rabbit was born. Since the character was unnaturally bold for a rabbit, he paired him with an unnaturally cowardly tiger named Rags. His uncle let him keep the characters for his new venture.
To get Crusader and Rags on television, he teamed up with Jay Ward, a classmate and friend of his going back to grammar school. Ward had returned West from Harvard Business School with plans to get into real estate but was hit by a truck on his new venture’s first day. Anderson approached him while he was convalescing with the idea that they could form an animation studio together, Ward handling the business and Anderson handling the animation. The studio they formed was Television Arts Producers. Producer Jerry Fairbanks originally landed the show at NBC, but the network eventually passed, which meant Fairbanks sold it piecemeal to affiliates. The first one to bite was KNBH in Los Angeles (now KNBC), and on Aug. 1, 1949, audiences were introduced to Crusader Rabbit and Rags the Tiger.
Seen today, what’s most striking about Crusader Rabbit is the great contrast between often-hilarious writing and incredibly limited animation. But the ideas and jokes are better than a lot of television animation that followed, from the very first episode. The opening voice-over is clearly inspired by Disney’s Goofy instructional shorts like How to Play Golf, but while Disney plays a straightfaced narrator against funny animation, Anderson sets the narration askew from the very first words:
Down in Texas, they’re still talking about the rabbit who had come down from the United States to wipe out the whole state of Texas. Obviously, the rabbit must have been Crusader Rabbit, for who else would have thought of such a wonderful idea?
Of course, Anderson couldn’t afford the kind of animation that made the Disney shorts work. Each episode is no more than five minutes long, with 10 to 15 episodes making up a single crusade, and, frame to frame, looks more like a comic strip than motion animation. Crusader Rabbit was dropped into shows like Romper Room (think Itchy and Scratchy on The Krusty the Clown Show), so, because there was no guarantee that audiences would see the episodes in order, each episode begins with gradually longer and longer recaps: By the end of a crusade, more than half of the show is recaps. (Which, of course, means that half of the show was already animated.) And wow, is there ever space-filling: The plot of one episode is, in its entirety, “Crusader Rabbit sits in a waiting room.” But there’s also plenty of inspired lunacy: Rags’ middle initial is “T” for “Larry” (his father couldn’t spell); Crusader Rabbit’s campaign to protect the rabbits of Texas from deportation is resolved when he hooks the rabbits on cream puffs, thus saving the Texas carrot crop.
After 195 episodes, the show collapsed in lawsuits: Jerry Fairbanks had borrowed production money from NBC and not repaid it; NBC foreclosed on the show without letting Anderson or Ward know. Another studio bought Television Arts and, with it, the rights to the character, producing more episodes (in color, this time) in 1956. Two seasons were released on DVD (and can be seen on YouTube), but after yet another legal fight, the later crusades—despite promising names like “Crusader and the Leprechauns” and “Crusader and the Mad Hollywood Scientist”—were never released.
As Crusader Rabbit collapsed, Anderson and Ward created two new characters that would later meet with lasting success: Rocky and Bullwinkle. Anderson managed to purchase the rights from the wreckage of Television Arts Productions and sold a half-interest to Jay Ward for less than $400. When they didn’t sell immediately, Ward returned to real estate while Anderson joined an ad agency. By the time Ward finally sold the show, Anderson didn’t want to move to Los Angeles, was happy in his advertising job and settled for a share of the profits. Rocky and Bullwinkle’s future, like Crusader Rabbit’s, was litigious: Ward registered them for copyright in his name alone, and Anderson had to sue his heirs to be recognized as the co-creator. Rocky and Bullwinkle, like many shows to follow, was hailed for being ahead of its time in its use of sophisticated jokes—but Crusader Rabbit got there first. Without it, animated shows aimed entirely at adults, like Bojack Horseman, might never have come aboud. Anderson addressed the show’s legacy in an interview with the Archive of American Television, saying, “We were criticized—everybody said our humor was too adult for kids. And our feeling was kids are a lot smarter than people admit.”