BOOTLEG FILES 619: “The Wizard of Id” (1970 animated short based on the long-running comic strip).
LAST SEEN: It is on YouTube and the Internet Archive.
AMERICAN HOME VIDEO: None.
REASON FOR BOOTLEG STATUS: It fell through the cracks.
CHANCES OF SEEING A COMMERCIAL DVD RELEASE: Nope.
For every “Peanuts” or “Garfield” that made the successful transition from newspaper comic strip to film and television productions, there are plenty of other comic strips that failed in their efforts to get off the printed page. This is not difficult to understand: what can be charming and droll in a three-panel strip is often labored and contrived when voices are added and stories are stretched out to greater lengths.
This was the case of “The Wizard of Id,” which debuted in print in 1964. Created by Brant Parker and Johnny Hart, “The Wizard of Id” takes place in a medieval kingdom where incompetence and malcontent feelings reign supreme. Despite the strip’s name, the eponymous Wizard is actually a supporting character who divides his time between creating less-than-spectacular spells and battling with his domineering wife. The main focus is The King, a dyspeptic and diminutive monarch whose indifference to his subjects is matched by their hostility to him. “The Wizard of Id” also boasts a surprisingly large supporting cast, including the bumbling knight Sir Rodney, the inebriated jester Bung, the hirsute dungeon prisoner Spook and his friendly jailer Turnkey, and a bandit named Robbing Hood who usually pockets his larcenous haul rather than dispensing the bounty to the poor.
Much of the pleasure in “The Wizard of Id” comes in sarcastic, observational commentary, with many of the jokes aimed at the humorless monarch’s lack of height and authority. The comic strip established enough popularity by 1969 for Jim Henson to shoot a test short with Muppet characters inspired by The King, The Wizard and Spook (who was transformed into a green hairy being). However, the Henson version seemed more like a “Muppet Show” skit than an adaptation of the Parker-Hart work – corny one-liners delivered with vaudevillian gusto and punctuated with ragtime piano riffs, and The Wizard called attention to the offering as a Muppet endeavor. Whether Henson realized he was the wrong man for the job or whether Parker and Hart objected is not certain, but the concept of a Muppet version of “The Wizard of Id” never went beyond that one-shot short.
In 1970, another crack at adapting “The Wizard of Id” was made by a group of animation veterans: Chuck Jones served as executive producer, Herb Klynn served as producer, Abe Levitow was the director, Bob Ogle collaborated with Hart on the story, and voice performances were provided by Paul Winchell and Don Messick. But despite this surplus of talent, the five-minute animated short “The Wizard of Id” had a deficit of laughs.
In this film, “The Wizard of Id” finds The King wandering through his kingdom and looking with sour disdain at the fun everyone seems to be having. Children are laughing uproariously at a Punch and Judy show, a butcher and a female customer have a merry conversation while a happy dog gets a free bone from the meat-cutter, a peasant gladly pays tax collecting Sir Rodney with all of his cash and personal belongings (including his zaftig wife), and a crowd is entertained by Bung’s street corner juggling act. But when one member of Bung’s audience shouts out “The King is a fink,” the royal leader’s patience frays.
The King has The Wizard create a potion that will put an end to the laughter and joviality of the population. The Wizard does his job with unusual effectiveness, for the next day The King finds a very different realm. The children who once loved Punch and Judy yell angrily at the dolls, the butcher and his customer get into a fierce argument while the once-happy snaps at the monarch, the tax-due peasant clobbers Sir Rodney with a giant mallet, and Bung’s audience physically assaults him. The King returns to The Wizard’s lair and finds that all of the laughs in the kingdom are enclosed in a triangular jar. In the nick of time, Robbing Hood shows up to steal that jar and release the laughs back to the kingdom’s subjects. At night, The King tries to fall asleep, but is kept awake by the laughing of the people and a new call of “The King is a fink” from an unimpressed peasant.
Where did things go wrong? For starters, Paul Winchell’s wonderfully goofy voice does not fit the unamused royal central figure. It also doesn’t help that Winchell uses the same voice for two other characters. In terms of movement, the short feels twice as long as its five-minute span due to lethargic pacing, especially in the poorly conceived butcher shop scenes – the king stands outside of the shop and looks in with a blank expression while a seemingly endless exchange between the butcher and his customers occurs off-camera. The film’s brief forays into violent slapstick feels out of place, and it is especially troublesome to see Bung beaten up by the crowd because he is a harmless and likable soul and the attack is more vicious than amusing.
Not unlike Henson’s experiment, this attempt to make an animated cartoon out of “The Wizard of Id” did not click. The film was not seen until 1971, when it was culled into a Chuck Jones-coordinated Saturday morning show on ABC called “Curiosity Shop.” The short was also sold in the 16mm home entertainment market, and a faded print has turned up in authorized postings on YouTube and the Internet Archive.
“The Wizard of Id” is still running in the remaining newspapers that carry daily comic strips and, so far, there has been no further attempt to bring it to animated life. Perhaps it is best to keep it within the parameters of the three-panel strip, where its humor continues to shine.
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