BOOTLEG FILES 692: “Uncle Croc’s Block” (1975-76 television series with Charles Nelson Reilly and Jonathan Harris).
LAST SEEN: Bits and pieces are on YouTube.
AMERICAN HOME VIDEO: None.
REASON FOR BOOTLEG STATUS: It was considered a bomb in its time.
CHANCES OF SEEING A COMMERCIAL DVD RELEASE: Unlikely.
I genuinely feel sorry for today’s children, as their television viewing choices are too safe and too benign for their own good. Back in the 1970s when I was a kid, television aimed at the school-age crowd was delightfully weird and funky. But even by the standards of that excessive era, there was nothing as truly bizarre as a 1975-76 ABC show called “Uncle Croc’s Block.”
The premise of “Uncle Croc’s Block” was a parody of an old-school children’s television show, with live action hosts who introduced animated segments. The endeavor was presented in a camp, tongue-in-cheek manner in its live action moments. Charles Nelson Reilly starred as Uncle Croc, and he was fitted into a crocodile costume. The premise was that Uncle Croc hated his job, but he carried on with barely concealed his discomfort. He was joined on screen by Mr. Rabbit Ears, played by character actor Alfie Wise in an oversized rabbit costume with a television screen across his stomach. Mr. Rabbit Ears was mostly a straight man to Uncle Croc’s quips. Circling around them was the show’s director, Basil Bitterbottom, played in full-throttle mania by Jonathan Harris (best known as Dr. Smith on “Lost in Space”). The running gag has everyone mangling Bitterbottom’s surname while he looked on at the unfolding show with endless disgust.
“Uncle Croc’s Block” also poked fun at the pop culture of the era. The show had a motorcycle-riding cuckoo clock bird called Cuckoo Kneivel, a shabby cyborg named Steve Exhaustion who was also known as the $6.95 Man (a riff on the character Steve Austin of “The $6 Million Man”), a cranky conjurer called Witchie Goo Goo (Phyllis Diller doing a harsh play on Billie Hayes’ Witchiepoo from “H.R. Pufnstuf”) and a not-sultry Junie the Genie (played by Alice Ghostley, goofing on Barbara Eden’s Jeannie). A post-Bowery Boys Huntz Hall also turned up as Mr. Mean Jeans, an angry takeoff on the Mr. Green Jeans character from “Captain Kangaroo,” and the decidedly nonheroic Marvin Kaplan was Captain Marbles, a rickety takeoff on the comic book Captain Marvel character.
In concept, this should have been the pinnacle of the 1970s television. Really, stop and think of it: Charles Nelson Reilly, Jonathan Harris, Phyllis Diller, Alice Ghostley, Huntz Hall and Marvin Kaplan on the same show? How could it fail?
Well, the big problem with “Uncle Croc’s Block” was not on the camera, but behind the lens. If the show had been produced by Sid and Marty Krofft, the demented geniuses behind “H.R. Pufnstuf” and the Charles Nelson Reilly starring vehicle “Lidsville,” the program would have been guaranteed some wickedly hilarious scripts and produced with an imaginative psychedelic style. But, alas, “Uncle Croc’s Block” was the creation of Filmation, specializing in cheapjack operation known for crummy scripts and threadbare production values. While Filmation would occasionally find its groove and turn out something of value – most notably, “Fat Albert and the Cosby Kids” – its output was mostly weak and forgettable.
Filmation also created the show’s cartoons, and these represented the studio’s nadir. Three animated entries played in rotation: “M*U*S*H*,” a bizarre takeoff on “M*A*S*H*” involving dogs in the Yukon (huh?); “Fraidy Cat,” about a jittery feline who used up eight lives and is desperate to hang on to his final ninth life; and “Wacky and Packy,” about a caveman and his mammoth who somehow time travel into 1970s America. The best thing that can be said about these cartoons is that they are worthless.
But even if one could tolerate the crummy cartoons, the live action segments are bitter ice on the rancid cake. The actors must have been aware of the poverty of their material, as they tried much too hard to be funny, often yelling their lines in Sensurround-worthy volumes and emoting as if the fate of mankind depended on their ability to wrest laughs from the audience. An incessant laugh track was cranked up to cue us on the mirth lines, but that only contributed to the noise pollution generated by the loud cast.
As a 10-year-old when “Uncle Croc’s Block” debuted in September 1975, I was annoyed and confused by how lousy the show was. And I was doubly disappointed because I adored Charles Nelson Reilly, Jonathan Harris, Phyllis Diller and Alice Ghostley from their other television work. But the overpowering awfulness of the show shooed me away from it back then – and revisiting the show now for this column only reconfirmed that the childhood version of me got it right.
But I wasn’t the only one who realized the show had problems. “Uncle Croc’s Block” was originally a one-hour show, but after a month ABC cut it back to a half-hour. Four months later, ABC cancelled the program, an unprecedented move for a Saturday morning kiddie show. The network also ended its affiliation with Filmation as a result of this debacle.
Over time, “Uncle Croc’s Block” was mostly forgotten, although the “Wacky and Packy” cartoons were later gathered into a low budget DVD release. Fans of the show’s cast managed to salvage bits and pieces of the live action segments and some of the “M*U*S*H” and “Fraidy Cat” cartoons for unauthorized posting on YouTube. The entire 16-episode run has yet to emerge, either on commercial DVD or in bootleg video presentations.
“Uncle Croc’s Block” does not fall into the category of so-bad-it’s-good. Instead, it is a shining example of so-bad-it’s-bad. This is one crocodile that you will never smile at.
IMPORTANT NOTICE: While this weekly column acknowledges the presence of rare film and television productions through the so-called collector-to-collector market, this should not be seen as encouraging or condoning the unauthorized duplication and distribution of copyright-protected material, either through DVDs or Blu-ray discs or through postings on Internet video sites.
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