CHILDHOOD REVISITED – Eek! the Cat


Eek! the Cat found hilarity in suffering, which is no easy feat.

Eek the Cat

For a cartoon centered around a chubby purple cat that constantly and consistently gets hurt, Eek! the Cat coasts wonderfully on an earnest, endearing sensibility. It physical prat falls and sly references never overshadow the sheer positivity of the show, which makes watching Eek! the Cat a treat and a delight to watch. Creators Bill Kopp and Savage Steve Holland clearly had a distinct vision and commitment to its premise, ostensibly parodying and satirizing the very nature of the “cute helpful animal” icon via Eek himself, yet expressed their quirky, comedic talents within their affection for the characters.

Eek! the Cat may not have been the best cartoon of the 90s, but it was without a doubt the most rewarding, which makes its disappearance from the public conscious all the more disappointing. If I remember correctly, it had a pretty sizable following – and with five seasons under its belt, FOX KIDS felt so as well. It’s a funny, hilarious, and occasionally subversive show that follows its titular character through some of the strangest, most surreal situations, who always approaches every encounter with an infectious optimism. Even when Eek is smashed by a door, crushed by a piano, or blown up by a bomb, he still wills himself to help others, his mantra “It never hurts to help!” guiding him through the pleasure (and pain) of altruism.

Eek! the Cat follows the principle that “the road to hell is paved with good intentions” (even literally, as in “Eek Goes to the Hot Spot,” where by holding a place in heaven’s line for another mischievous cat, Eek is sent down to hell by mistake). The show’s approach to the misery that is life resembles that of another memorable cartoon, Rocko’s Modern Life. Yet while that show focused on life’s malevolent eccentricities with a Fleischer-esque absurdity, Eek! the Cat uses its characters’ inherently helpful nature to push through broader, crazier adventures via a Tex Avery-template, all in the name of saving the day, whether emotionally or physically.

As I’ve mentioned before in previous pieces, cartoon pilots are mostly about setting the tone and comic sensibility of the show, which tends to leave character development lacking, which makes Eek! the Cat’s first episode, “Misereek,” somewhat disappointing. It lacks confidence, but it does showcase some early crackpot, physically gags, where a desperate, hungry Eek tries to get the attention of his family, but ends up bouncing all over the neighborhood in increasingly absurd ways. Other than Mittens (who is fairly out of character), there are no mention of any side characters who will become central to the show’s development (well, there’s the family – Mom, Wendy Elizabeth, and J.B., but as the show goes on they become less important).

“Bearz N’ the Hood” is when the show comes into its own. The line between Eek as a talking pet and anthropomorphic character in world filled with them becomes blurred as Eek tries to get the autographs from the stars of “The Squishy Bearz Rainbow of Enchanted Fun Minute,” only to become the Squishy Bearz’s only ally when they’re on the run from the the law. (The line between “animal as pet,” “animal as animal,” and “animal as legal person” is not just blurred, but utterly irrelevant – trying to understand this is missing the very point of the show.) It’s a great episode, working with what Eek! the Cat does best – subverting yet another batch of cutesy characters (this time, the Care Bears) through a crackpot lens. And even as the show breaks apart that “mascot animal” trope, it still embraces them as real characters trying and eventually succeeding. This isn’t Happy Tree Friends. Eek! the Cat wants to break down the helpful, curious animal character trope and mold it into its own image.

The writers do depict “molding” in a variety of ways, like in “Eek vs. The Flying Saucers,” where a cute alien creature arrives on Earth and Eek tries to show him the beauty of what our planet has to offer. Of course, they encounter the worst of humanity, but even beyond that, the alien is wholly unimpressed when he’s shown “true beauty,” which is kind of a big deal – I don’t think I ever seen a piece of entertainment, animated or live-action, present the natural wonders of Earth with a mediocre shrug. I suppose it’s a moot point though, when the alien reveals himself to be Voltar, a multi-eyed creature bent on destroying the planet. (This is kind of a disappointing reveal – I loved the alien’s blase reactions to the greatest things the world has to offer and wish he was a regular character.) Or take “Cape Fur,” in which Eek’s family finds a cute pink bunny stuck in the rain and bring him into his home. Eek is more than happy to help him, even as the bunny (hilariously voiced by the late Phil Hartman) starts to exhibit obvious sociopathic behavior. Eek doesn’t even entertain the idea that this rabbit is a thief and murderer until he sees a report about him on the news, and his family doesn’t believe him until its almost too late. A Cape Fear parody is the perfect template in which to break down the fluffy helpful animal trope. Then there’s “Catsanova,” in which Eek sees the massively obese Annabelle and falls in love – of course someone like Eek, who sees the best in everything, would be completely blind to Annabelle’s weight (a running gag involves Eek responding “Really?” to everyone who mentions how fat she is). In order to declare his love for Annabelle, however, Eek has to get past Sharky the Shark Dog.

Sharky the Shark Dog

Sharky the Shark Dog is television’s greatest forgotten animated character. A viciously violent yet classically refined canine who only speaks in barks and whimpers, Sharky is one of the few creations that can flawlessly fit the role of protagonist and antagonist, depending on the episode’s needs. Maybe because I have Hannibal on the brain, but Sharky as being both brilliant and destructive reminds me of NBC’s sophisticated monster (exaggerated, of course), which posits him perfectly in the elastic world of Eek! the Cat. He becomes central to the show, especially when the second season drops the 22-minute length episodes and starts with the 2 x 11-minute approach. The show loses the endearing helpfulness of its one-off characters since it can’t really work them in the shorter time length, but after a somewhat rocky start, Eek! the Cat, which is now known as Eek! And the Terrible Thunderlizards, changes its focus to insane adventures and broad parodies, using a number of the characters to riff on pop culture and pop culture tropes. It also “pairs” Eek and Sharky up on these adventures – as both partners and enemies, which works excellently.

The compilation era of Saturday morning forced the shorter length, and Kopp/Holland paired it with a new creation – The Terrible Thunderlizards. Parodying the machismo 80s’ “talking animal” action cartoon, The Terrible Thunderlizards is about three supposedly sadistic dinosaurs released from prison in order to destroy two humans whose very existence threatens to destroy dinosaur-kind. The show really functions along three premises: 1) through the humans, where Bill always finds himself in tremendous pain when Scooter’s comical attempts at human ingenuity goes awry; 2) the Thunderlizards themselves, who, in the midst of their mission to eradicate the humans, find themselves up against the the Thuggasaurs, an evil group of living, fossilized dinosaur bones; 3) the hate/really hate relationship between the Thunderlizards and General Galapagos, which has a broken-domestic quality to it (a hilarious recurring gag involves Galapagos turning to the camera in desperation, deadpanning “We dinosaurs are just doomed” whenever the Thunderlizards screw up).

The Terrible Thunderlizards lack the loose, wild freedom that Eek! The Cat has, but it has enough to function within Kopp’s and Holland’s themes of “comedy-through-suffering” and genre parody/satire. The Thunderlizards come off as tough, cruel, take-no-shit badasses, but over the course of the show it becomes clear that they’re really clumsy, good-hearted wusses with a surprising skillset when they’re focused on the true enemy. Things start off funny enough with a Roadrunner/Coyote-like battle between the Thunderlizards and the humans, where Bill and Scooter’s unlikely escapes are mistaken for military brilliance when the Thunderlizards’ weapons backfire (I love in particular Squat’s panicked tantrums, reminiscent of Bill Paxton’s “Game Over” reactions in Aliens). It’s a template that can’t last on its own, though, so the story mixes in a secondary element, the battle against the inept Thuggasaurs, which soon becomes the primary thrust of the show. It’s for the best, really, as it gives the show a specific genre to lambast, while working to endear the prisoners-turned-heroes. Even as the “heroic” dinosaurs find themselves smashed, crushed, and demolished, the writers understand to ensure their victory against the Thuggasaurs’ typically goofy plans. Hell, the very reason the Thunderlizards were put in prison was because they rescued an injured Thuggasaur; it’s funny to see the writers turn the show from abject parody into comical legitimacy. The Bill/Scooter elements, on the other hand, are amusing enough, although you can sort of feel the writers struggle to do more with it, introducing Babes (a female human of dated women stereotypes), Huckleberry (a dinosaur child that owns them like pets who is strangely dropped from the series), and educated, upperclass primates (which doesn’t go anywhere either.) It isn’t as if the human stuff is bad, per se, but the show gets so caught up with the Thunderlizards/Thuggasaurs action that the humans angle starts to feel perfunctory.

As mentioned, though, Eek! the Cat retools itself within the new 11-minute format, focusing more on inserting its eclectic cast into thin but obvious parodies which not only allows for some wild, absurd gags (most hits, some misses), but allows the characters to… well, I don’t want to say “develop,” but are allowed to be seen in a new light. The show starts to group the cast more frequently, giving the show a new approach by playing around with the comic relationship with each other. “Quadrapedia” is an ambitious musical, where all the characters sing to hilarious rock toons when Eek and Elmo goes on a quest to save Annabelle. “Mountain Groan” is a character free-for-all, where Eek, Annabelle, Elmo, and the Squishy Bearz go camping only to be kidnapped one-by-one. “Paws” is in my top ten, where a mutant goldfish infests Wendy’s kiddie pool, and Eek, Sharky, and Mittens have to set sail to find and capture it. The episode has a lot of fun with spacial distortion, portraying the five-foot pool as a massive, deadly ocean to explore, but the real comic drive is the insane but enjoyable interplay among the characters.

Seasons two and three are at the show’s strongest, really blending the absurdity with great characterizations. “Shark Doggy Dog” is a hoot, with the actual Don Cornelius guest-starring as he develops Sharky into a hit rapper (Cornelius notoriously hated rap music but attempted to soften up to “youths” by making appearances like this). “Eek Sneek Peek” takes an Animaniacs-like approach to telling its audience how a cartoon is made, in typical wacky fashion. “Lord of the Fleas” re-tells Lord of the Flies with penguins, really just so they can have a penguin yell out “SHUT UP, PIGGY” in a hilariously bad British accent. One of my favorites is “Try Hard,” which only uses its Die Hard reference as a locale; it’s really a Professor Clouseau-esque romp as multiple Sharkys try to eradicate a clueless Eek, but they just can never nail him. It’s a tight, physical-comedy focused episode, a massive improvement from the pilot, and has some of the show’s best visuals gags.

Eek! the Cat starts to lose its focus by season four. It never gets bad, but it seems to struggle with plotting, inexplicably moving away from the goofy interplay of its immaculate cast and focusing broadly on the “dog-chase-cat” antics between Eek and Sharky and the parodies/meta-gags/references. Before, it was all about the characters within those parodies/meta-gags/references, but it becomes all about the parodies/meta-gags/references at the expense of the characters. The first few episodes of season four are great – “Valley of the Dogs,” “Pup Fiction,” and “Outbreek” – but you can see the show slowly drop the meticulous plotting for more random, stream-of-conscious pacing. There’s more references to overwrought 90s events – the broken Hubble Telescope, the public’s seeming fascination with Melrose Place – and guest stars start to approach The Simpsons’ levels of uselessness. While Don Cornelius and Mr. T (in Thunderlizards) were perfectly inserted into Eek’s wacky world, the show stops all momentum to more or less heap unearned praise on John Landis, John Walsh, and Weird Al Yankovic, the latter being a particularly waste of a cameo. “The Gradueek” is a particularly late-season highlight, giving Sharky a real, palpable arc of sorts, but its telling that it his real crush, Platinum, is never mentioned. Subsequent episodes are funny but more scattershot; it’s not that they ran out of ideas, so much as they ran out of enthusiasm.

Part of that may be due to the failure of Klutter, which only managed seven episodes before disappearing. The problem with Klutter, which stars a monstrous living pile of clothes that get into silly adventures along with its tween cast, is that the show is immutable. The parody is clear – the anthropomorphic “thing” brought to life to help kids out – but unlike Eek! the Cat or Thunderlizards, Klutter is genuinely helpful and the kids are too “real” to be broken down, physically and metaphysically, and reshaped into something new and subversive. The writers has to play it straight, and the show is at a lost, with long, drawn-out sequences and scenes that pad for time. “The Klutter and I” for example, wastes almost five whole minutes with the kids trying to stay awake while bland TV parodies play over them. Without the ability to put them through a cartoon-physical hell, those attempts to play it straight fail; the situations are wacky and absurd, but the characters can’t match that tone. (One character’s hair color fails to be consistent across episodes.) Klutter isn’t terrible, but it’s unworkable.

Klutter wasn’t the distraction that hurt Eek! the Cat/The Terrible Thunderlizard’s final episodes. It wasn’t even that they ran out stories to tell. It seems more like Kopp and Holland were losing interest in the show and struggled with pushing it in any interesting directions. The fifth season is funny but feels hollow, uncomfortably focused solely on Eek and Sharky (and not their weird partnerships but the lazy antagonisms), which does the show an unfortunate disservice. Removing Mittens, Elmo, Annabelle, and the Bearz from the full scope of the show loses a lot of comic momentum, and even though the energy is still palpable, it leaves a wanting feeling. The final episode, “Rock-Eek 6,” ends with Sharky asking for Adrian (since it’s a Rocky parody through-and-through), and feels fleeting, reference for reference sake. The previous episode, “The Sound of Museek,” feels like the correct finale, with the show’s passion for music and the characters getting together for a genre-smackdown festival for yet-another Timothy ailment. Seeing the abstract band getting back together makes for a nice moment, a proper endgame.

Eek! the Cat revels in its cartoon absurdity, utilizing such icons as anvils, pianos, safes, and especially mallets to harm and maim is characters, whipping them out from the magic worlds that exist behind their backs. It’s a classic cartoon trope, but here, it’s specifically used to – sometimes literally – break apart other classic cartoon genres in order to create something that feels both new and old, familiar and subversive. Eek! the Cat wasn’t the 90s best cartoon, but it deserves to be counted among the best.

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