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Cartoon Universe: The Big Game


Ahh, yes, the Big Game.  No other sporting event is subject to this much hype and scrutiny.  There’s the overblown pregame show that lasts longer than the actual game.  There’s a sure-to-be-spectacular, breathlessly hyped halftime show.  The advertisements are even an event.  The game itself… well, the game itself is usually a boring, lopsided blowout.  Still, it’s a showcase for the best talents in the game:  Tom, Jerry, Bugs, Daffy, Wile E. Coyote…

…well, what’d you think I was talking about?  Football?

The Big Game was an annual production by Cartoon Network’s genius promotions department.  It began as a simple stunt – old Tom and Jerry cartoons edited together and “called” as a football game.  It evolved into a near direct satire of the Super Bowl, the NFL, sports broadcasting, and the excesses of each.  Four were produced, from 1998 to 2001, but the very best example occurred in 2000: Roadrunner vs. Coyote: The Big Game XXVIII.

To watch this broadcast is to witness Cartoon Network, particularly its promotions department, in microcosm.  This, essentially, is why the network was so great in the late 1990s and early 2000s.  It’s a broadcast that appeals to kids, but has so many layers that only adults could get.  Kids could find the mash-up of cartoons into football game funny on its own, but only adults could get the repeated references to NFL-style scandals.  One commentator even makes reference to the movie Road House – not necessarily a film you’d show to children.

But let’s get to the basic idea for the people who, sadly, have never witnessed a Big Game.  Khaki Jones conceived the basic stunt: edited clips of classic cartoons, with the soundtracks replaced with football sound effects and commentary.  This is an intriguing concept on its own, but Cartoon Network nailed the execution from the first broadcast: Pat Summerall and John Madden, the top-tier football commentators, were tapped to call the first “game”, Tom vs. Jerry.

The next year, it just got bigger.  Somehow they managed to convince corporate sibling HBO to produce a pregame show using their Inside the NFL presenters for the next installment, Sylvester vs. Tweety. Fake commercials and even an ersatz halftime show sponsored by (who else?) the Acme Corporation were present in that year’s matchup.

All of this, however, paled in comparison to Roadrunner vs. Coyote.  Cartoon Network had moved beyond simply creating a fake football game, but rather an entire fake event, replete with its own extravagance and history.  The history had become so dense that it merited its own special: The Big Game: A Look Back – yes, a fake documentary on a fake football game.  Jim Huber hosted the overview of the historical cartoon leagues, from the Hanna-Barbera and Warner leagues to the new, merged Cartoon Network league.  The history included a look at the seedy underbelly of the league, such as the inflated salary for Squiddly Diddley that sent paychecks under control, and the crippling player’s strike that resulted in the infamous Inch High Private Eye vs. Trollkins Big Game.

Big Game XXVIII was no less extravagant.  Every single ounce of excess present in the real Big Game was present in Cartoon Network’s version.  Every single inch of the broadcast was sponsored, from the Slate Rock and Quarry Co. Pregame Show to the Spacely Sprockets Halftime Show Spectacular, to interstitial bumpers touting everything from Wayne Enterprises to “Spinach!”  Harry Kalas solemnly narrated a recap of Sylvester vs. Tweety.  Huber returned to give a report on alleged insider dealings between Acme and Coyote, resulting in Acme pulling its longtime sponsorship of the halftime show.  Interviews were conducted with Tom Cat and Joe Montana Mantegna.  Helmut Spassmacher, renowned concert producer, detailed his intricately planned Halftime show which was to feature Tom Jones.

Befitting the game’s stature, the commercials have become events.  Johnny Bravo and Morocco Mole re-enact the famous “Mean Joe Greene” advertisement for Coke.  Rosie the Robot is around to remind everyone to contribute to the Robotic Way, and like its NFL-sponsored namesake, the ad appears about 300 times during the broadcast.

Then, it’s off to Chuck Jones Stadium.  John and Pat warmly greet us and toss to the sideline reporters – Bubba Smith, with a lovably dopey smile, and Scott Hamilton, wondering why in the heck he’s here.  John makes a precise comment about the strength of the Desert Division, which Cartoon Network only started televising in October (the actual date that Cartoon Network got the rights to the Roadrunner cartoons).  The game proved to be a blowout, with Coyote achieving a negative score.  The Halftime Show Spectacular was apparently spectacular, but ruined by a transmission error that resulted in viewers seeing Moltar and Fred Jones man master control for about ten minutes.

This is a classic example of the comic riff in action.  It’s this concept that makes The Simpsons so great – the expansion of the cast and Springfield into a microcosm of America.  It’s how Krusty grew from a simple kids show clown to the show’s case study of the follies of celebrity.  Layers are added to the story, and the joke is taken to its furthest logical extreme.

Sadly, the next year’s Big Game, Bugs vs. Daffy, was generally a step back, lacking the general extensive treatment of the previous effort.  By this time, perhaps, the premise was becoming a bit tired: that effort ended with a half-baked twist ending in which Bugs threw the game in order to relax in paradise.  There was no Big Game in 2002, as the promotions department turned its attention to awards show.

That’s the remarkable part of all this: it was all produced by not the studio, or an outside company, but the division of the network responsible for creating the promotions.  That’s a testament to the creativity that the people programming this network possessed at the peak of its powers and influence.  It’s a sign of just how talented people can be once you let them roam free.