On Strips: Fearless Fosdick on TV

By | Friday, June 17, 2016 Leave a Comment
Tom Heintjes ‏pointed this out to me earlier this week, and it was one of those jaw-dropping moments for me, so I thought I should share.

OK, so Al Capp debuted his Li'l Abner comic strip in 1934. Much has been written about Capp's and the strip's impact on American culture, and comics in particular. Li'l Abner was wildly popular for decades, and the artist was given a level of celebrity almost unparalleled in the world of cartooning. There have been plenty of books written on Capp and Abner, so I won't belabor those details here.

But I will point out that in 1942, Capp introduced Fearless Fosdick into Li'l Abner. Fosdick was actually a comic strip in the newspaper that was read in the Li'l Abner comic strip. So the Fosdick character was fictional even to the fictional characters of Dogpatch. The Fosdick strip was an obvious parody of Chester Gould's Dick Tracy, and Capp somehow managed to exaggerate all the already exaggerated characters in Tracy.

Here's the part that had me picking my jaw up off the floor, though: this strip-within-a-strip was so popular that NBC licensed Fosdick for its own television show!

Think about that. A comic strip that parodied another comic strip within the context of yet another comic strip was made into a television show. I don't know if my brain can really process how meta that is.

Originally, it was supposed to be a Li'l Abner show. Al Capp's younger brother/business manager Jerry had been convinced this was a good idea and, through a series of connections, found himself talking with puppeteer Mary Chase. The elder Capp had Chase build models of some of his Dogpatch characters and was impressed with her talents, but he felt a marionette show was too small for what went on in the strip and instead granted the license to do Fosdick.

Interestingly, when Chase came back with Fosdick characters, Jerry felt that the three-dimensionality made Fosdick a little too close to Dick Tracy visually. Chase changed the character a bit, most notably swapping Fosdick's fedora for a bowler, and Al brought her changes made it back into the strip!

They sold the series to NBC but, according to producer Charles Guggenheim, NBC didn't know what to do with it. It was aired on Sunday afternoons, got unsurprisingly poor ratings, and was soon axed. Chase went on to do other puppetry work, eventually retiring in 1976. I can't find anything official, but it looks as if she only passed away in 2010.

You can find some of the episodes on YouTube. Here's the fourth one: "Mr. Ditto"


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