On September 13th, 1969, a gift was bestowed upon the earth. The first episode of Scooby-Doo, Where Are You! premiered on CBS. Today, on the fiftieth anniversary of the character, I would like to branch out a little and take some time to pay respect to my favorite franchise of all time and shed some light on why it might be more important than you think.
Scooby-Doo, Where Are You! was pitched as an alternative to Hanna-Barbera’s grotesquely violent shows like Space Ghost or Birdman and the Galaxy Trio. It went through many variations before resulting in the one we know today, at one point all five members were part of a band named Mysteries Five while Shaggy was named W.W. and Scooby was a sheepdog named Too Much. In other words, there were many ways the show could have gone wrong, and creators Joe Ruby and Ken Spears seemingly explored all of them before finally crystallizing into the show that’d become a hit. On many metrics, the show should not have been a success. Like all Hanna-Barbera shows, it was incredibly cheap. The animation skimped on every margin, with more dialogue scenes being entirely stationary except for mouth movements, and recycling the exact same running animations for the duration of the series. The monaural audio was okay at best and every joke was accompanied by a canned laugh track. And yet, the show had undeniable charm. So the question is: How did Scooby-Doo leverage that charm into the staying power of a five-decade long franchise?
If you ask me, the magic of Scooby-Doo lies within its absolutely perfect formula. The gang are on their way to a vacation at a beach, or a rock music festival, or to visit Daphne’s family. Then, suddenly, the Mystery Machine breaks down! Who could have guessed? Luckily, the van is next to an abandoned castle, amusement park, coffin factory, etc. Asking for directions leads to the revelation that this seemingly nondescript art museum is actually haunted by the ghost of a bipedal dragonfly monster and suddenly we’re off to the races. Shaggy and Scooby will be their natural fraidy selves while Fred and Velma will be determined to solve the mystery, as ghosts aren’t real. Mix and match from a gamut of gimmicks-running in and out of doors, Scooby playing dress-up, Velma losing her glasses, throw in a bubblegum pop song, make sure you unmask the monster by the end and boom-you have a bulletproof formula for an immortal show. It really is perfect-it’s just spooky enough to draw kids in but it’s funny enough to make them feel safe. Plus, the mystery angle appeals to every child’s true desire: to believe they are smarter than the media they are consuming. No kid wants to feel like a kid, so if they can outsmart the show by the end, they believe they are above it. You might discredit Scooby-Doo for sticking to the same formula each time, but it’s no different from something like Law and Order or CSI, other than being a lot more fun.
For five decades, Warner Brothers have taken these five characters and ran with them, for as long as you can think of another monster, you can make another episode. The show has gone through countless iterations, from inviting celebrities like Don Knotts and Mama Cass on the show, to mistakenly introducing a younger sidekick named Scrappy, to ultimately aging down all of the characters for A Pup Named Scooby-Doo. Of course, it isn’t afraid to break the formula, with fan favorite movie Zombie Island introducing real ghosts, or the incredible 2011 show Scooby-Doo Mystery Incorporated, which featured a series-long arc in addition to the monster of the week. The longest gap between series was ten years between Pup and What’s New Scooby-Doo, but within that time WB released some of the most popular direct-to-video movies including fan favorites Zombie Island, Cyber Chase and the Witch’s Ghost. There have been 37 animated Scooby-Doo films plus the two live-action movies with a new theatrical film currently in development. And all the while, with the creation of Cartoon Network, Scooby-Doo has never gone off the air. It’s because of this consistency that he has stayed in the pop culture zeitgeist for so long.
Part of Scooby-Doo’s staying power is how imitable it is. The format is ripe for parody and has been lampooned by everybody you can think of-SNL, Mad Magazine, Robot Chicken, they’ve all done it. In recent years, Scooby-Doo itself hasn’t shied away from making fun of itself like in Mystery Inc. where the characters have become so deconstructed that Fred is more obsessed with traps than with Daphne or Shaggy would rather spend time with his best friend Scooby than acquire a girlfriend. And of course there are the theatrical films which, beyond just being a stroke of genius on writer James Gunn’s part, pick apart the show on every level. The first film is an absolute madcap look at the characters in an edgier context while the second is a lovingly cartoony tribute to the spirit of the show. They’re brilliant movies than honestly get better with age.
Before I get into my conclusion, I have to give special recognition to one part of Scooby-Doo that most people don’t realize is as special as it is. Scooby-Doo has had a lot of great voice actors over the years, including legendary radio host Casey Kasem as Shaggy who was later replaced by Matthew Lillard, who played him in the film. But there is one actor who has been there since the very beginning. Frank Welker has been voicing Fred since 1969. For fifty years, every rendition of Fred in every tv show, every animated movie, every video game, everything, it’s been Frank. And now, he’s finally been replaced. In the theatrical film SCOOB, which is scheduled to be released next year, Fred will be played by Zac Efron. While the franchise clearly has to evolve if it’s going to be around for another fifty years, we surely will have more actors portray the character. But in my heart, there will always only be one Fred.
I can’t remember a time in my life where I didn’t love Scooby-Doo. It’s always been there. It is the single-most important pop culture property in my life. And while I’m sure I’ve succeeded in explaining why the show has stayed around for so long, you may not yet believe it’s special. Let me put it this way. Can you think of another animated show that has consistently had a place in the cultural consciousness for fifty years? I’ll answer that for you, there isn’t one. Even classic cartoon characters like Mickey Mouse haven’t been that consistent. The Looney Tunes were basically radio silent from the fifties until Space Jam. I can guarantee if you asked a kid today if they’ve seen Tom and Jerry, more than half would say no. But every kid has seen Scooby-Doo. To really put in perspective, Scooby-Doo has been around for longer than Star Wars. He’s been sucked inside his own video game, he’s been to moon, he’s hung out with KISS. TWICE. And yet, after all this time, it’s still just as refreshing as when it first came out all those years ago. It might just be the one perfectly timeless show. I know for a fact it will be around for another fifty years and I look forward to seeing where it goes.