by Rachel Newstead
The Flintstone Flyer
Original Airdate: Sept. 30, 1960
Flintstone Firsts: This is the first time Fred gets clobbered with a stone newspaper, and the first time he shouts his famous line, “Yabba Dabba Doo!”
In short: If you try to put one over on your wife, you could take a POW-der (get it?)
Cliché though it may be, The Flintstones was never any better than when it used that old standby, the “battle of the sexes” plot. Clichés become clichés because they work, after all, and that plotline has not only been a staple of sitcoms from The Honeymooners to According to Jim, but, more often than not, their only reason for being. (Home Improvement, for example, ran for eight seasons solely on that premise).
Perhaps it’s appropriate, then, that when television audiences turned on their sets that fateful night of Sept. 30, 1960, this was the episode they saw. Nothing could scream “this is a sitcom, dammit, not a kiddie show!” louder than an episode in which the boys con their way out of a night at the opera with the wives in order to go bowling. (One could just as easily imagine Tim Taylor stripping off a tuxedo jacket to reveal a bowling shirt).
At the same time, it was perhaps the worst thing Bill Hanna and Joe Barbera could have done, as they squandered the tactical advantage they would have gained with critics for attempting something as new and untested as an animated sitcom. Critics live for the opportunity to pounce on anything in television they see as derivative (which, in their view, covers just about everything on the air) and true to form, they went for this episode like sharks after a wounded swimmer. Jack Gould of the New York Times termed it “an inked disaster” (wouldn’t he just?), a quote now cited again and again as the epitome of critical short-sightedness. (Tellingly, in Bill Hanna’s obituary, the Times attributes the offending quote to The New Yorker).
Though said critics were, it sometimes appears, genetically programmed to dismiss any animated effort to which the name “Disney” wasn’t attached, their criticisms weren’t entirely unfounded, either. The series is still finding its way, deciding on its tone, and the tone here at times is more Jiggs and Maggie than Fred and Wilma.
It says a lot for the writers (as before, Mike Maltese and Warren Foster) that they’re able to be so funny despite such dated stereotypes. Where “The Swimming Pool” had been conservative with the jokes, “The Flintstone Flyer” is practically bursting with gags both verbal and physical. As with the characterization, Maltese and Foster are throwing ideas like paper airplanes to see which will fly, and many of them do. A lot more easily than Fred and Barney in this episode, in fact.
It’s Sunday, Fred’s day off, and he anticipates a quiet day in his hammock, reading the paper. Speaking of the paper, there’s a nice little gag about the paper boy hitting Fred with a huge stone slab–the first of many clobberings. Anyone who’s ever been bewildered by the fact the Sunday paper is the approximate size of a Russian novel would find that amusing, surely.
But his long-awaited day of rest isn’t to be; he’s interrupted by a loud “Fore!”, which turns out to be coming from Barney next door. Barney’s trying–and none too successfully–to hit a golf ball with a club. When he finally does manage to connect with it, it lands right in–you guessed it–Fred’s mouth.
Taking the rule “play the ball where it lies” a little too literally, Barney attempts to knock it loose, but Fred knocks him first, with Barney’s own golf club; uncharacteristically, Fred actually hits Barney–all the way back home, yet–instead of merely threatening to. (This sort of open cartoon violence is likely the thing the critics most objected to–Fred’s hostility would be toned down a bit in later episodes).
Fred’s rest gets interrupted yet again as he hears a steady hammering coming from Barney’s yard, which leads to a subtle bit of business I’ve always enjoyed. In an example of pure “cartooniness”, Fred doesn’t climb or leap over the wall separating his house from Barney’s as he did in “The Swimming Pool,” but walks up one side of the wall and down the other, as if gravity hadn’t yet been invented in the Stone Age. Why the series would eventually feature far less of these inventive little moments of cartoon magic is beyond me; they contributed
greatly to the humor of the show.
It turns out Barney’s working on some wooden Rube Goldberg gadget, with gears at the bottom and what appear to be propellers at the top. Making such odd little gadgets is his hobby, he tells Fred, to keep his “nimble little fingers” busy (for some reason, I always liked the way Mel Blanc delivered that line).
The gadget is a sort of Stone Age pedal-powered helicopter, which Barney says–or hopes–will make him the first man to soar off “into the blue.” (“Pterodactyl Airlines” must not have been around yet–oh, the royalties Barney missed out on). At first Fred threatens Barney with a “little invention” of his own–a “rap on the noggin”–but he’s intrigued enough to ask about it anyway. Which brings us to a little bit of dialogue–probably thanks to Maltese–that deserves special mention, as Barney explains how it’s foolproof:
BARNEY: Oh, it’ll work, Freddy friend–on account of the spiggle bolt’s connected to the toggle switch; the toggle switch’s connected to the ratchet rod; the ratchet rod’s connected to the tension <indeciperable>…which in turn is connected to the flywheel…and ZOOOOM! Before ya know it, you’re airborne! Now whaddaya think of my invention, Fred?
FRED: You still insist you’re gonna fly in that crazy contraption?
BARNEY: Just like the birds…
FRED: Now, listen, neighbor–I’m gonna save you a whole lotta work and inventin’! I’m gonna fix it so you won’t NEED that thing to fly in. It works like this: my fist-bone connected wit’ ya jawbone! And ZOOOM–before you know it, YOU are airborne!
Back in his hammock, Fred continues to mock Barney, calling his contraption
a “dinosaur egg-beater”–until, that is, he sees him fly by, doing various aerial stunts in the whirlygig contraption. Then and only then do the limitless financial possibilities start to seep into Fred’s thick skull. When Barney lands, Fred’s so overjoyed, we hear for the first time the exclamation purportedly ad-libbed on the spot by voice man Alan Reed: “Yabba Dabba Doo!”
Fred immediately appoints himself president of their new “corporation”, with Barney vice-president in charge of production (translation: Barney does all the work). Fred even has a name for it–”The Flintstone Flyer”–which trumps Barney’s choice of “Barney-Copter”. Disaster strikes, though, when he takes it for a “trial spin”–it wasn’t equipped to handle a Fred-sized load. He crashes into a ravine before the thing gets an inch off the ground.
Later, a bruised and bandaged Fred, outraged at Barney, “resigns” from the “Flintstone Flyer Corporation.” Barney, as he leaves, offhandedly mentions the bowling match Fred’s supposed to captain that night (we learn this earlier in the episode, when he’s reading the paper) and asks how the injured Fred plans to bowl in his “crash condition”. Nothing short of world annihilation will deter Fred from showing up at the match, of course–but Wilma will, when she reminds Fred about the opera tickets they bought for the evening. Or rather, Barney bought.
We get another critic-unfriendly instance of a knock on Barney’s noggin when Fred stalks over to “opera lover” Barney’s house. (Those little scenes of Fred stomping in anger–in both “The Swimming Pool” and this episode–are an understated yet funny little piece of personality animation, a surprise for a show as minimally animated as this one.) I’m not sure I agree with the critics here–the repetition of the hammer-to-the-head gag actually makes it funnier, at least to me. As we saw in “The Hot Piano”, repetition–timed at the proper moments, that is–often breathes life into what otherwise might be a forgettable gag.
Come time to go to the opera, Wilma and Betty get a little suspicious of Fred and Barney’s feigned enthusiasm (with their “finiculi finiculas”, and what-not) but suspect nothing once Fred starts to go into his “sick” act. Barney, of course “selflessly” volunteers to “baby-sit Fred’s shook-up head” while the wives go off alone.
But there’s a problem–how are they going to get home from the match before the wives do, since they took the car? Simple, says Barney–none other than his reinforced Barney-Copter, equipped to carry fat Fred.
They’re off to a rather shaky start and it almost looks like we’ll have a repeat of the crash, until Fred starts to flap his arms, giving them the extra boost they need. Naturally, Fred re-dubs the handy little machine The Flintstone Flyer.
Cut to Fred and Barney at the bowling alley. Make note of this, folks–this is the first time we see Fred’s fabled “tip-toe” bowling delivery, so well-known it was copied by John Goodman in the Flintstones movie. Barney, however, doesn’t do so well; there are a couple of bits of business in which he lets go of the ball too
soon, only to have it land on Fred’s foot.
A couple of “Flintstones gadget alerts”, incidentally–aside from the monkey-powered pinsetter, there’s the “vending machine” in which a guy inside hands out the drinks (I hope he has a union–those are terrible working conditions).
One thing that occurred to me–if Fred is bowling for his company team, and Barney bowls with him, that would imply he and Fred work at the same place. (Barney couldn’t be an outside “ringer” the way he bowls). But the series has always made clear Fred and Barney don’t work together, even if it’s rarely explicitly mentioned just what Barney’s job is. Another one of those cartoon mysteries, I guess, like the parentage of Donald Duck’s three nephews.
Back now to Betty and Wilma at the opera–Wilma’s still worried about “poor Fred,” so Betty suggests they leave immediately to call home. The nearest place with a phone just happens to be…guess where. Uh-huh–the bowling alley, located just across the street from the opera house. (They have weird town planning in Bedrock…)
They start to wonder what’s up when there’s no answer at home; meanwhile, Fred and Barney happen to notice them at the pay phone.
Cut to Betty, who catches a glimpse of Fred and Barney; fortunately, they duck out of sight in time, and devise a plan to evade the wives with the help of an old broom. Here, we get what perhaps is the funniest scene in the episode, starting at the point the irate Betty and Wilma clobber them with
They turn to reveal they’ve used the broom to make the most unconvincing false mustaches in history. Since the plot requires it, Betty and Wilma fall for it for now, and we get this priceless dialogue, which might be useful to remember for later:
FRED: (in mock German accent) Iss dot der vay you alvays treat your husbands?
BARNEY: (in similar accent): Yah–”Hello, darling POW!?”
FRED: Der average husband can schtand just zo many “Pows”…
BARNEY: Yah, den he takes a POW-der…get it?
Wilma and Betty, embarrassed, decide to go home to check, which means for Fred and Barney it’s a mad dash back to the flying contraption as they rush to be the first ones home. The wives, still suspicious, aren’t making it easy, but Fred and Barney do manage to arrive first. When Wilma and Betty look in on them, Barney appears to be reading poor sick Fred a bedtime story (Barney here makes a reference to the old “Uncle Wiggly” stories, which anyone under forty today is unlikely to have heard of).
Wilma vows to never distrust Fred again–but leave it to Barney to blow the whole cover story when he slips back into his “German guy” persona: “…Let dot be a lesson, never doubt your husbands–or dey might take a POW-der, get it?”
We then get a moment of off-camera violence, as we hear Fred yell, “No, Wilma, not in the head!” followed by various crashing sounds. (Limited animation can sometimes be a blessing in disguise.) Of course, there are some funny lines at the same time, such as Wilma’s “Play that on your fortissimo!”
When we see the boys again, they’re scrambling for the Flyer, narrowly escaping their wives. But Wilma and Betty are patient souls; hours later, we see them playing cards together as they wait for their pooped husbands to land. Barney, sadly, is running out of pedal power, and it won’t be long before he and Fred can look forward to an even more serious walloping. Fortunately, we’ve bid them goodbye by then.
I’ve always felt a bit guilty about liking this episode; make no mistake, it’s quite an improvement over “The Swimming Pool”: by now, Mel Blanc and Alan Reed have started to hit their stride. Their timing is snappier, their delivery funnier; they’ve learned how to play off one another, like a good comedy team. This is especially evident in the scene with Fred and Barney in disguise. Using their considerable talent for dialect, Blanc and Reed take what would have been mundane dialogue in the hands of a lesser performer, and make it not only memorable, but quotable.
The writing, too, has improved by leagues. “The Swimming Pool” had its memorable lines, but “The Flintstone Flyer” is so full of them, it’s impossible to list them all, and they don’t all come from Fred and Barney, as can be seen from this exchange from Wilma and Betty as they’re racing home:
BETTY: What do we say when we ask why we’re home so early?
WILMA: Oh, just say we missed them…
BETTY: Why not tell them the truth?
WILMA: And say we don’t trust them around the corner?
Yet, there’s a…harshness to this episode that doesn’t seem right for the characters. It’s as if co-writer Warren Foster dusted off an old Tweety and Sylvester script and split the “Granny” role among Wilma and Betty, with Fred and Barney in the “Sylvester” role. Granny bashing Sylvester in the head is standard cartoon slapstick; Wilma doing the same to Fred seems too real for this sort of cartoon, not to mention against her nature.
Such is the dilemma when doing an animated sitcom for adults; the writers somehow feel that exaggerated “Wile E. Coyote”-type gags–in which characters are bent, twisted, mutilated, and go through all manner of mayhem, only to emerge whole a scene later–are too “kiddie cartoon”-like for the type of material they’re doing, but they want to have the slapstick anyway. Therefore–and I’ve seen this time and time again inThe Simpsons and Family Guy–they just make the bashing more realistic.
Fred and Barney, unlike Sylvester or Wile E., don’t get flattened like a pancake when hit–we’re made to imagine that it really hurts, and for that reason this episode was always a bit unsettling for me. It didn’t go quite as far as animated programs today–1960s Standards and Practices guidelines wouldn’t have allowed it–but a lot gets left to the imagination. The worst thing for me as a child was imagining the beating Fred and Barney were going to get as soon as their little flying machine landed. That for me very nearly negated the funny things that happened in that very same episode.
I’ve never been able to adequately express why, but there’s something about the character design in “The Flintstone Flyer” that I love. It’s sort of a rounded-off version of Ed Benedict’s angular shapes (Fred and Barney’s hair doesn’t have points, but looks instead like a floor mop). It gives the characters a rather loose look, similar to the style John Kricfalusi would eventually adopt. For some reason I’ve never figured out, no other episode from then on looks quite like this, much to their detriment–and ours.
My reservations about certain aspects of the episode aside, it’s still one of my favorites, second only to “The Hot Piano.” Not bad for a series that was still very much a work in progress.