In the annals of superheroes, there is one such individual who stands head and shoulders above all others, a paragon of virtue and unbridled strength whose belief in Truth, Justice and the American Way makes him noble if a little naïve, of course, this hero is Superman, the last son of Krypton, but in 1964 a cereal company called General Mills sponsored a cartoon about a very similar character, a mild-mannered shoeshine boy who would burst out of a phone booth with the cry of “There’s no need to fear, Underdog is here!” a cry that would make even the most dangerous criminals shake in their boots.
Back in the 1960s, Saturday morning cartoons were basically something that was placed between commercials for toys and children’s cereal and like many others of its kind Underdog was created by an ad agency working for General Mills to help promote their latest products. Total Television, an ad agency founded by Buck Biggers, Joe Harris, Treadwell D. Covington and Chester Stover, were given the opportunity to compete for a much-coveted NBC timeslot but with only one simple guideline “It must be super” and with that inspirational note they began to rack their brains as to what kind of cartoon would fit the bill and the obvious conclusion was to make a superhero show, but what kind of superhero could they make? Buck Biggers had no interest in doing a “straight” superhero and then one night he caught an episode of I Love Lucy that featured George Reeves as Superman and Lucille Ball in a goofy Superman costume, this comedic take on the superhero genre would prove to be the catalyst that would see the birth of the world’s first canine superhero.
Like many cartoons of the day, there was no thought to giving Underdog (Wally Cox) an origin story, he’s not the sole survivor of a doomed planet he’s simply an anthropomorphic canine in a baggy costume with amazing powers, but his similarities to a certain caped wonder cannot be denied. Instead of being a mild-mannered reporter for a great metropolitan newspaper, Underdog’s alter ego would be that of the “humble and lovable” Shoeshine Boy, and no Superman analog could exist without its Lois Lane, so for Underdog, we have Sweet Polly Purebred (Norma MacMillan), an anthropomorphic canine TV reporter and possible love interest if this wasn’t a kids cartoon. The similarities don’t stop there as Underdog’s primary villains Simon Bar Sinister (Allen Swift) is a mad scientist very much in the vein of Lex Luthor and the character of Riff Raff, an anthropomorphic wolf gangster, was very much in keeping with the gangster types that George Reeves would have tackled in The Adventures of Superman back in the 1950s.
What makes Underdog stand out as a hero is that he’s not all that good at his job, and even his success comes at a cost, in the first episode “Safe Waif” he destroys two banks after learning a child is trapped in a safe; the first bank is wrecked because Underdog didn’t both to check if it was the right bank and the second one is destroyed after he blasts through the bank vault and on into the building next door, next he starts a major fire with his X-ray vision, which he then puts out with his super-breath, that in turn, blows the entire building down. And this only begins our hero’s unbridled collateral damage over the course of the series, but whenever someone complained about the damage, Underdog would simply reply “I am a hero who never fails, I cannot be bothered with such details.” Underdog, great superhero, or colossal jerk, you be the judge.
Stray Observations and Trivia:
• When Shoeshine Boy transforms into Underdog he literally explodes out of the phone booth, completely obliterating it. proving that Underdog is a total dick to public service equipment.
• Underdog’s rhyming couplets such as “When Polly’s in trouble, I am not slow, It’s hip-hip-hip and AWAY I GO!” are one of the character’s most unique aspects and set him apart from many superheroes and I’d like to think he was an inspiration for the DC comic character Etrigan the Demon, who also spoke in rhyme.
• Many of the characters are based on popular Hollywood stars, Simon Bar Sinister’s voice is a dead ringer for Lionel Barrymore while his henchman Cad sounds a bit like Humphrey Bogart and Riff Raff is a canine version of gangster actor George Raft.
• On the rare occasion when Underdog had to replenish his powers, he would take an “Underdog Super Energy Pill”, but later censorship would remove this aspect of the character in fear that it would promote drug use to children.
• Like the 1960s Batman television series with Adam West, the Underdog cartoon often ended with a cliff-hanger that would be continued next episode.
An element that should not be overlooked is that this show contains one of the greatest theme songs ever to be written and it’s almost impossible not to sing along with its stirring lyrics, “When criminals in this world appear and break the laws that they should fear, and frighten all who see or hear. The cry goes up both far and near, for Underdog! Underdog! Underdog! Underdog!” Just reading that gets my blood pumping and for that alone Underdog should be listed as one of the greatest cartoons ever produced. Of course, Underdog was not the only star of his show as each episode consisted of four segments, two of them being Underdog while the others would consist of adventures of Go Go Gophers and Klondike Kat as well as Commander McBragg, a pompous britt whose tall tale rival those of the legendary Baron Munchausen, but while these interludes were fun they were clearly overshadowed by Underdog.
Klondike Kat never got a balloon in the Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade.
Underdog was unceremoniously cancelled after three seasons, with General Mills basically saying “Thanks guys, but that’s enough” yet the legacy of this great canine continues for new generations as the 62 half-hour episodes that made up The Underdog Show would live on in syndication to brighten the lives of many more children, unfortunately, things did take a dark turn in 2007 when Walt Disney Pictures released a live-action version where the character of Underdog was portrayed as just a regular dog rather than an anthropomorphic one, and the nicest thing I’ve heard said about this live-action adaptation is that it was “mostly forgettable” and having seen that particular Underdog I now do my very best to forget it ever happened. In conclusion, if you want an evening of pure unadulterated fun track down the original Underdog cartoons and enter a truly whimsical and entertaining world, where a rhyming superhero will not only save the day but possibly steal your heart as well.
Note: The 2007 live-action Underdog movie is available on Disney Plus but do yourself a favour and never watch it as it takes everything that was fun and engaging in the original cartoon and flushes it right down the toilet.
Show Rank - 7.5/10
The Underdog Show remains one of my childhood favourites and its collection of oddball characters and goofy humour still brings a smile to my face and one I love introducing to new audiences.