"Fat Albert's Greatest Hits": He's not Heavy, He's Phat
Fat Albert has built an impressive legacy as the longest running cartoon franchise with an all black cast. The show ran from 1972 to 1984, spawned a few holiday specials, and has lived on in countless reruns. This year the series celebrates it’s successful history with a live action movie and the release of the Fat Albert’s Greatest Hits DVD collection, and season sets seem to be on the way. How have Bill Cosby’s kids held up over the years?
Fat Albert is surely a household name to anyone over the age of twenty. I recall seeing it many a day after school, although to be honest I only watched when there was nothing cool like G.I. Joe on. Even at a young age the most entertaining aspect of the show was not the show’s tired jokes, but poking fun at its rampant cheesiness. The Mystery Science Theater guys would have a field day. For those young’uns who may not have caught the show on TV, the series revolves around the adventures of teenager Fat Albert and his friends who live in an oddly idyllic urban ghetto, to which graffiti and crackwhores are strangers. Each episode plays out like one of those overly melodramatic afterschool specials, with some sort of minor social dilemma that teaches Fat Albert and the gang a valuable moral. A gag pops up here and there, but for the most part these only constitute humor if, like most of production studio Filmation’s staff, you’ve had a significant chunk of your brain removed. This is all intercut with commentary from Bill Cosby, who spends half his time on Mr. Rogers-style sermonizing and the other half on jokes so corny even Fat Albert wouldn’t touch them. And at least in the early years, every episode closes with a song that repeats the day’s moral and seven frames of animation ad nauseam.
What everyone remembers most about Fat Albert is undoubtedly the colorful cast of characters. Fat Albert himself makes up the bulk of the cast, both in speaking lines and in physical mass. Whereas most of his friends appear to be running dangerously low on government cheese, Albert looks like he’s inhaled Star Jones. His bountiful belly shakes with such ferocity when he walks that it threatens to tear right through his trusty old red sweater à la Incredible Hulk. Voiced by Cosby in that trademark deep voice, Albert is the gang’s leader, and generally the most mature and sensible of the lot. Rudy is the group’s player, wealthy and full of himself he swaggers along as if a young Billy Dee Williams. Truthfully, he has about as much game as Richard Simmons, and his groundless cockiness often leads him into a pickle. Mushmouth must surely has one of the most distinctive voices in all of animation. Also voiced by Cosby and possibly modeled after a Filmation writer, he speaks in a barely comprehensible mumble, tortuously stumbling over every word as if he’s chased a glass of Novocain with a shot of paint thinner. Bucktoothed and hunched over, he walks wildly flailing about as if in a constant epileptic fit. Although usually a supporting character, his garbled ramblings never fail to amuse, not unlike certain political figures. The other regulars include Weird Harold and Russell, but only Dumb Donald really stands out with a ludicrously oversize fluffy pink ski mask always draped over his head, as if ever ready to hold up a lingerie store at a moment’s notice.
The Fat Albert’s Greatest Hits collection includes twenty episodes spanning the show’s twelve years run. As most of these follow a similar pattern, I’ll just address the first disc for brevity’s sake. Disc 1 contains five episodes, from the early to mid 70s, which generally could just as easily occur today. In “Lying,” the gang’s friend impresses them with boasts of wrestling alligators and other tall tales, but when the suspicious Russell puts him to the test it turns out he can’t even swim. Thus the dangers of telling falsehoods are exposed. In “Creativity,” Rudy’s boasts of future musical stardom inspire the gang to form the junkyard band, so they do odd jobs to earn money for instruments. When their funds prove sadly insufficient, they end up making instruments out of garbage, proving that you can get what you want even without money. In “Tomboy,” an overachieving girl shows up the gang at sports, so Albert challenges her in a baking contest. In the end both accept that boys and girls can be good at anything. In “Fat Albert Meets Dan Cupid,” the gang competes for the affections of a girl at school. This episode gives some cause to question exactly which way the gang swings. Fat Albert initially goes on and on about how icky girls are, while the rest of the gang decides to spend their last few nickels to see an incredibly mushy romance movie instead of a horror or action flick. Fat Albert is, however, eventually stirred from his apparent homosexuality to fall head over gut in love, much to the amusement of his friends. When things don’t exactly work out as planned, he’s reminded that there’s plenty of other fish in the sea. In “Take Two, They’re Small,” Fat Albert’s cousin Justin, who looks like a distant relative of E.T., gets mixed up with a professional shoplifter, so the gang steps in to put the kibosh on the punk.
As is the case with most Filmation projects, Fat Albert is a very minimally animated affair. Movement is scarce and often repeated. Admittedly, since most scenes consist of the gang standing around chewing the fat, this limitation isn’t particularly bothersome. Apart from the main cast, the art design tends toward realism and, unfortunately, blandness. Given the age of the show, the image quality appears to be relatively good, but there’s certainly room for improvement.
Music plays a large part in Fat Albert. The theme song is an infectious classic that hardwires itself into your brain after a few listens. As I mentioned, each episode ends in a big musical number, which may be intended to save money on animation since they play over a montage of earlier scenes. It’s not exactly my cup of tea, especially the very blunt moralizing, but given the medium, the songs are pretty catchy in 70s groovy kind of way. The rest of the score assails one with a variety of 70s music clichés, which will inspire either nostalgia or revulsion depending on the viewer’s age.
As stated above, Fat Albert is enjoyable not so much to laugh with as to laugh at. There’s an oppressively loud and omnipresent laugh track that thunders on no matter how appallingly bad the joke, and every episode ends with a gag designed to top all those before it for sheer awfulness. Largely they succeed. In big doses this all can become a bit grating, but in small bites one is hard pressed not to laugh at the shameless ineptitude of it all. Here and there a revealing tidbit of pop culture or social commentary sticks its head in. When the gang plays football, one kid pretends to be OJ, only minus the bloody gloves. In “Take Two…,” Fat Albert notes to the gang that kids like them, presumably meaning black, aren’t welcome in the department store without money.
Befitting a franchise of such great stature, there are exactly, oh, zero extras in the set. It’s almost insulting really. They couldn’t even get an interview with Cosby, have him do a couple commentaries? Maybe something on the social impact of Fat Albert on inner city kids growing up in the 70s? Or how it paved the way for further cartoons starring black characters? A lot could have been done here, but this set is apparently the work of a cheapie outfit with little ambition.
If you grew up on Fat Albert, it’s hard to pass up a chance to spend some quality time again with the lovable Cosby Kids. Although the morals within are still every bit as relevant today, the show truly is a product of its time and offers a great snapshot for those who lived it. Also if you’re jonesing for those corny school educational films of old this is a good place to get a fix. Still, a little goes a long way, and I’d have to say I would opt for the single disc “Best of” instead of the box set. Sometimes less is more. But don’t try telling that to Fat Albert.