One of the excellent things about being a parent is the endless opportunity to re-live your childhood. In high school, Gumby was mostly the subject of satire… we had grown up watching 1950s/60s Gumby shorts in the 1970s. In the 80s, mocking Gumby was fun because it had been a staple of our own childhoods, even though that staple had already been retro when we were tykes. But while we made lots of Gumby jokes and loved to quote from Eddie Murphy’s 1982 SNL Gumby reprisal, and while I even made a foam Gumby costume for halloween ’82, I hadn’t seen any of the actual episodes since early childhood.
Rented a volume of early episodes recently to show Miles, and was taken by surprise — they’re so completely different from my early memories. I remember “Gumby” as innocent and simple, and it is. But it’s also incredibly surreal, and charmingly/badly produced. The stiffest voice acting you can imagine. Ridiculous plot and prop inconsistencies. The clay in Gumby’s body tearing between the legs and Clokey not even bothering to edit it out. Strange animations scattered throughout the stories for no particular reason… you can almost visualize the animators making it up as they went along: “Hey, what if a musical note jumped out of this red vinyl LP and down Gumby’s throat?” Sure, why not. Spontaneously bizarre.
Everything in the Gumby universe starts with “Gumb___.” Gumby and his family live in Gumbasia. Gumby’s mother and father are called Gumba and Gumbo. Gumba reminds Gumby every time he leaves the house, “Don’t forget to take your Gumbopiture!” — a bizarre reference to a recurring prop — a sort of circular thermometer that measures Gumby’s health relative to his temperature (clay is stiff when cold, runny when warm; Art Clokey seems to have been obsessed with the plot possibilities presented by clay’s thermal properties).
Another recurrent effect I had no memory of: Every time Clokey needed to show fire or smoke (dragon’s breath, burning wheat, steaming pools…), he created the effect by scratching at or burning the physical film (and by the looks of it, dousing it with chemicals from time to time). At one point, Gumby steals a hot rod and starts spinning donuts (I kid you not). The smoke reeling from his tires looks like Clokey just scribbled on the film with Magic Marker. It’s brilliant.
I had completely forgotten the excellent way Gumby gets around. Rather than animating him walking, Clokey just propped him up on one leg and slid him across the floor – an inexplicable one-foot slide/skate move that makes you wonder whether Gumby actually has some kind of undulating foot pad, like a super-fast mollusk. It’s just weird, totally cheap, and totally wonderful.
Nothing about watching Gumby episodes from the 60s while in your 40s matches your early childhood memories. Everything is cheaper, more hokey, more cliche’d, more technicolor. A TV show (even a kids show) being made this badly today would never get signed. These classic episodes would hardly even pass for rough cuts in today’s big-budget TV universe. But the constraints of small budgets allowed Clokey and the animators to think off-the-cuff and improvise like crazy. There were only three channels at the time, and no one cared that it was hokey – maybe that’s what we all loved about it (ultimately, Gumby became a 223-episode series stretching over 35 years).
After a few evenings of watching Gumby re-runs with Miles, I asked him what he thought:
“Well, it doesn’t amount to much, but it’s sure interensting!”