Of course, it helps if your cartoon actually contains the slightest iota of a reason for adults to find it appealing in the first place. Which is why Duckman did okay but Capitol Critters didn't.
After wisely passing up the mangy, worm-infested horror that was Hound Town, NBC took another stab at the re-emerging prime-time animation market the following year with a pastiche on The Jack Benny Program, featuring an anthropomorphic buffalo named Jackie (Stan Freberg) who hosted a popular variety show. A one-off installment of The Jackie Bison Show aired on NBC on 2nd July 1990. It was intended as the pilot for a potential Simpsons competitor, only it wasn't well-received and the series was not picked up, leaving The Simpsons unopposed in the prime-time animation game until 1992. Nowadays The Jackie Bison Show is yet another long-forgotten obscurity, known only to those curious enough to have done their homework on the subject of early Simpsons-era animations that fell by the wayside.
Like Hound Town, The Jackie Bison Show uses a laugh track, a move which worked out rather poorly for Hound Town but is arguably a lot more justified here, given that it follows a show-within-a-show format and Jackie does indeed perform before a studio audience. To make sense of this pilot, it helps enormously if you're familiar with the format of the The Jack Benny Program, which it mirrors in having an opening and closing monologue in which Jackie appears on stage to address his viewers, and a more traditional sitcom narrative sandwiched in between (confession time: I myself am not a seasoned Jack Benny viewer, although I did watch a small handful of episodes in preparation for this review, so please excuse me if I fail to pick up on any in-jokes which might be obvious to the hardcore fan). If you can't get your head around the Jack Benny spoof, then you may get a tad confused as to where the show-within-a-show begins and ends, as the variety show material initially looks to be interwoven with scenes from Jackie's personal life - in actuality, it's all part of the same package, with Jackie "playing" a version of himself in the story segments of the episode. Unlike Hound Town, which was far too crass and hackneyed to be going anywhere fast, I'd say that the set-up for The Jackie Bison Show actually did have a smidgen of potential. There are a lot of fun things you could do with a show-within-a-show, particularly one featuring spoof newscasts and fake product placement - unfortunately, this isn't very well-realised and the resulting pilot has this weirdly tepid vibe all over. It's not an altogether hideous effort, and at its very worst it makes for pleasant and inoffensive viewing, but as a cartoon comedy it's pretty limp. The visual humour never comes together as it should, the dialogue lacks punch and while that laugh track goes off with merciless frequency, one simply gets the impression that Jackie's live audience are easily amused (actually, even they don't come off as all that enthusiastic - as laugh tracks go, this one sounds curiously muted).
The pilot opens with a short scene featuring Jackie's best friend and show announcer, a chameleon named Larry J. Lizard (Richard Karron), who gives us a concise rundown on Jackie's history while being interviewed by a human reporter (Harry Shearer) looking to dig up some dirt on the bull. According to Larry, he and Jackie met while serving in the army and got their first bite of the showbiz apple participating in one of Bob Hope's USO shows. After leaving the army, Jackie relocated to Hollywood to pursue a career as an entertainer and wound up becoming the first animal to host his own network TV show. The reporter presses Larry to be a bit more sensational in what he reveals about Jackie, but an indignant Larry insists that Jackie is the greatest guy he's ever known and that he's always stood by him, even he checked into the Betty Frog Clinic for "moth abuse". Haha, get it? Moth = Meth, because he's a chameleon, and they're insectivores and all, and...oh wait, you didn't actually find that funny? Well too bad, because 99% of the gags in this cartoon run along those exact same lines - namely, puns alluding to the fact that our main characters are a buffalo and a lizard. Larry cuts the interview short, abruptly declaring that he has a show to announce, but mutters that if he's late again "that big bully'll fire me." Not only is that a totally predictable punchline for rounding off the scene in question, but they also slipped in another of those dratted animal puns, because of course they would. (Note: this is the only portion of the episode which doesn't appear to be part of the show-within-a-show, although it features a laugh track anyway.)
We then cut to the set of Jackie's show which, we are told, is coming to us live "from Television City in Wyoming". Jackie appears onstage, extolling the virtues of a book entitled Achieving Inner Peace and how it's given him a much calmer handle on life, only to immediately undermine this when a telephone starts ringing from offstage and interrupts his opening monologue. As it turns out, the call is from his new lady love, the sensuous Jill St. Fawn (Jane Singer), a play on Jill St. John, who's calling to let him know that her mother is back from Salt Lake City and is eager to meet him. There's a bit of light sexual innuendo (that's how we make it plain that we're gunning for an adult audience, correct?) with Jill telling "Big Jack" that he "can't help but measure up". Big Jack then turns things over to musical performer Nat King Kong (he's a gorilla, obviously) and His Orchestra. The musical performances were a key component of The Jack Benny Program, although here poor Kong only gets to perform a couple of bars of generic jazz before Larry starts plugging one of the show's sponsors, a brand of breakfast cereal called Frosted Flies, of which he is apparently an avid consumer. The show does intermittently dip into announcements for spoof products, which feels like it should have been a golden opportunity for a bit of wild and wacky parody, only here there doesn't seem to be much of a joke beyond the fact that Larry's a chameleon and as such he has an appetite for bugs over conventional cereal. That "not a speck of mosquito" line is a nod to the advertising slogan for Alpo dog food, which claimed to contain "all beef and not a speck of cereal", but I'm not sure if substituting an item with the pertinent equivalent for a particular species of animal automatically constitutes humour in the way it's treated here. Or is the gag that, to the human palate, the thought of downing a bowl of 100% flies would be no less disgusting than a bowl of flies with a few specks of mosquito added in?
With that, it's finally time to kick off the story portion of the show. We rejoin Jackie one morning at his luxury prairie home (want to hazard a guess as to which classic western folk song he's singing as we fade into this scene?), where he's swapping pleasantries with Larry over the breakfast table. Here, we get further product placement for that Frosted Flies cereal, although it's accompanied by a rather curious exchange in which Jackie suggests that Larry cut down on his fly consumption because, "You know what they eat?", and Larry admits that he tries not to think about it - curious, because you'd think they'd refrain from criticism of one of the show's key sponsors. Also present is Franklin (Pat Paulsen), Jackie's pet canary, whose central shtick is that he resents being held in captivity (something he very clearly vocalises to Jackie and co) and is constantly trying to fly the coop. The whole business with Franklin doesn't exactly sit well with me, because he's blatantly as sapient as any other animal in this cartoon, yet Jackie seems to have no qualms about holding him against his will inside a tiny birdcage - suggesting that either Jackie is guilty of kidnap/false imprisonment, or that there's something distinctly unequal about the distribution of rights in this universe. After thwarting yet another escape attempt, Jackie tells Franklin that he's canary and as such should always be happy. Franklin is also the snarker of the household and never misses an opportunity to put Jackie down and, honestly, who can blame him? I see no reason why he should be gracious to his abductor about anything.
Jackie is in good spirits because his relationship will Jill St. Fawn is going well and he's considering popping the question to her. Larry points out that he might be rushing into things and suggests that he's still on the rebound from his ill-fated relationship with Wheel of Fortune presenter Vanna White. Jackie indicates that Vanna broke it off with him because she ultimately wasn't keen on marrying a cartoon bovine, which Larry sympathises with, on the grounds that it wouldn't bode well for their hypothetical offspring - "You know what happens when a person is half-real, half-cartoon?" "You mean like Jerry Lewis?" Jackie quips. Ouch. Larry then suggests that Jill St. Fawn perhaps isn't the best match for Jackie and that there's someone better out there for him. Enter Doris Doe (Rose Marie), Jackie's cervine personal assistant, and Larry winks slyly at the camera. Yep, in the grand tradition of that most gut-wrenching of sitcom cliches, The Jackie Bison Show works in a will they/won't they. Right from the start, we know that we're being conditioned to root for Jackie and Doris as a couple because the studio audience responds with approving applause the instant the latter appears, but the whole set-up leaves me feeling cold. Based on this one installment, Doris seems heavily smitten with Jackie but he barely seems to notice her, so I'm not really seeing what hope they have.
Doris is crushed to learn that Jackie is madly in love with another cervine, but her misery is interrupted by the arrival of the local paperboy, a human kid referred to by everyone else as Felix The Boy (Gabriel Damon). In my opinion he's easily the show's strangest element - not because he's one of the few prominent human characters in a cast predominantly populated by animals, but because he's given a weird amount of significance for a character who barely features at all throughout the course of the pilot. Jackie apparently considers him important enough to include "a visit from Felix The Boy" in the list of upcoming highlights at the start of the show, like Doris he gets an adoring round of applause from the studio audience the instant he appears onscreen, and he even boasts his own line of in-universe merchandise, pausing the story in order to plug the latest addition, a Felix The Boy Swiss Army Watch. Why this character is apparently so revered in the context of the show is absolutely baffling to me, but I'm inclined to assume that there's a massive in-joke that I'm just not getting (maybe Jack Benny fans can help me out here). Felix The Boy also has a dog named Red (who's actually black and white, but perhaps it's a nod to that old chestnut about newspapers) - unlike Franklin, he doesn't vocalise any disdain for being another creature's property, but he seems to have it in for Jackie nonetheless and never misses an opportunity to sabotage his stuff.
Side-note: the newspaper Felix The Boy delivers is called The Daily Gnus, which is one the pilot's few puns that I actually kind of like. Also, I give points for that vaguely amusing sight gag concerning the story apparently unimportant enough to be regulated to page 3.
After Felix The Boy's confusing diversion, we return to the main story and get a drawn-out non-dialogue sequence in which Jackie tries to pull off various ostentatious methods of proposing to Jill St. Fawn (sky-writing, a message on a blimp, etc) only to fail dramatically every time. It's terribly dull and almost entirely pointless, its only somewhat useful purpose being to throw in a bit with a pie vendor which gets echoed again at the end of the episode. At the end of the sequence, Jackie concludes that it would be far safer to invite Jill to dinner and pop the question to her there. This is followed by another of the show's supporting segments, a spoof news update called "Elkwitness News". Corny gags still abound, but there's a smattering of quirkiness to this segment which makes it one of the pilot's more successful skits, notably a spoof traffic update in which migrating animals are warned where to watch out for hunters. The elk anchor promises they'll be back with more later, but sadly this is all we ever see of this particular team.
We return to Jackie's house to find him preparing for his proposal dinner with Jill, while Doris mournfully confides to Larry that she had always hoped that she and Jackie would be married one day. There's a stab at a fourth wall-breaking gag where Jackie slams a door so hard that he disrupts the fabric of the episode, causing the picture to roll up and reveal a group of stagehands gambling behind the set - like so many of this pilot's attempts at zany visual humour, it probably seemed funny on paper but isn't pulled off with the necessary levels of panache. Jill St. Fawn then arrives, and she's accompanied by her mother, Mrs St. Fawn (Jayne Meadows), who seems suspiciously captivated by the many valuable items and works of art on display around Jackie's house. Jackie remains entirely oblivious to the fact that he's being courted purely for his money, but Doris and Larry aren't quite so obtuse and attempt to warn him, while Mrs St. Fawn is off confiding to her daughter that her alimony is about to run out and she'll be darned if they "end up in some petting zoo." Jackie isn't prepared to accept criticism of the woman he's deeply in love with, warning Doris and Larry that they'll both be fired if they attempt to disrupt his proposal, and warning Franklin that he'll be dinner (whoo, dark). When Jill and her mother return, Jackie finally pops the question and Mrs St. Fawn, after inspecting the size of the engagement ring, accepts on her daughter's behalf. Larry attempts to be supportive of his friend's decision, but gets royally spurned when Jackie asks him to be his best man and Mrs St. Fawn scoffs that Jackie should choose someone "higher up on the food chain". Instead of standing by his reptilian friend, Jackie laughs along with her, prompting Larry to figure that he's no longer wanted and to slink dejectedly away, muttering that he's "cold-blooded but not cold-hearted."
In the following scene, we get another of those stabs at zany humour that feels as if it should be absolutely cracking in theory but in practice falls kind of flat, in which Frank Sinatra Jr (playing himself, and in his regular flesh-and-blood form) telephones Jackie to personally berate him for his disloyalty to Larry. Just as Frank is about to offer Jackie advice on how to turn things around, his side of the screen goes on the fritz and cuts out, leaving a message reading SPLIT SCREEN OUT OF ORDER. Jackie is apparently moved enough to contact Larry, and they devise a plan to test if the St. Fawns' devotions are genuine. Long story short, they have Felix The Boy show up (again, he gets an instantaneous round of applause for reasons that elude me) with a paper bearing the headline that Jackie's now broke. Larry and Doris then arrive, disguised as repossession agents, and proceed to start packing away Jackie's stuff, against the buffalo's protests. Mrs St. Fawn and Jill are suddenly repulsed by Jackie (before the former denounces him, there's a pretty odd moment where she's seem crawling across the floor like a worm for some reason) and tells her daughter that she knows of a very rich boxer who just got divorced. "Is it Mike Tyson?" Jill asks. "Certainly not," replies her mother, "Vincent van Dog himself!" Okay, that one kind of works. Jackie is so upset by their betrayal that he starts motioning to sneeze - which, as Larry helpfully explains, is the absolute worst thing that can happen in this universe. He presses a Sneeze Alarm, and we see images of the world outside erupting into an all-out panic - initially, this is done in cartoon form, but as the scene progresses it piles on an increasingly ridiculous amount of stock footage showing terrified humans running and ducking for cover. Then, when Jackie does sneeze, we get footage of buildings blowing up, rocks collapsing onto cars, etc. This, needless to say, is yet another gag built upon a promisingly zany concept that's handled rather perfunctorily in practice. It fails because the energy just isn't there; I'm simply not buying that Jackie's sneezing really is responsible for all this mayhem, even via suspension of disbelief. It's also safe to say that, had the pilot been picked up for a series, then Jackie's earth-shattering sneezes would have become a recurring deus ex machina.
Anyway, Jackie sneezes with such tremendous force that he also expels Jill St. Fawn and her gold-digging mother right out of the building, and sends them flying into the trolley of the pie vendor (I did say that he'd come up again), where they land in a sticky, undignified mess. Larry, who's now well and truly reconciled with his buffalo chum, congratulates him on having pulled off the scheme successfully, but Jackie is disheartened about once again being left without a woman to share his life with. In the story's final punchline, he asks Doris if she's free for dinner tonight, and when she delightedly declares that she is, he flippantly asks her what she'll be fixing. If Jackie is aware of Doris's feelings for him then he's frankly a bit of a jerk.
In the show's closing monologue, Jackie reappears on stage and is joined by all of his chums (Franklin is present, but still confined to his cage). There's a highly predictable bit where they psych him out into thinking that the headline announcing his bankruptcy was genuine, but it isn't long before they're all collapsing in laughter together, and Jackie signs off with the handy warning that drink and stampeding are a bad combination. With that, we bid Jackie farewell forever.
Laugh Track Bafflers:
There are considerably less of these than in Hound Town - few of the jokes hit with what you'd call genuine precision, but for the most part I'm able to grasp the intention behind them. I draw a blank as to why Doris declaring that she'll "rustle up some trail mix" gets a laugh, however.
The Jackie Bison Show is an infinitely more genial attempt at an adult-orientated cartoon than Hound Town - the set-up may be a bit lost on anyone who's not familiar with The Jack Benny Program, but it's bright and cheerful and there's little here that actively rubs me the wrong way. Ultimately, though, it commits the cardinal sin of simply not being very funny. Really now, when you were competing with something as innovative and cutting edge as The Simpsons, you needed to have a lot more up your sleeve than just a string of corny wildlife puns.