Over the course of its nearly half-century as an active TV cartoon studio, Hanna-Barbera Productions had their share of detractors over its limited animation style, which is kind of ironic considering the abysmal quality of some of its competitors. One thing that everyone agreed on, however, was that the House That William and Joe Built had a knack for creating memorable characters. Not just lead characters, mind you, but also some of TV’s best-loved sidekicks. After all, where would Yogi Bear be without Boo Boo, Quick Draw McGraw without Baba
Booey Looey (shout out to Howard Stern sidekick Gary Dell’Abate), or Fred Flintstone without Barney Rubble? And, as we’ll look at today, where would Dick Dastardly, the mustache-twirling, “double-dealing do-badder” of Wacky Races, have been without his ever-faithful canine cohort, Muttley? Okay, probably still in last place, but anyway…
For those of you who didn’t spend late ’60s Saturday mornings in front of the TV, Wacky Races was H-B’s 1968-70 answer to such big-screen hits as Those Magnificent Men in Their Flying Machines and The Great Race. As in the former film, each episode followed a calamity-filled road race between a group of crazy vehicles, each with its own crazy driver or drivers (Penelope Pitstop, Peter Perfect, the Ant Hill Mob, the Slagg Brothers, et al.) behind the wheel. And each week, like the villainous duo of Jack Lemmon and Peter Falk in The Great Race, Dick Dastardly and Muttley would try to connive, sabotage and cheat their way into the winner’s circle before inevitably failing.
With his early 1900’s driving coat and hat and catchphrase of “Drat! Drat! And double drat!,” Dastardly (voiced by Paul Winchell) was the perfect antagonist for the other racers, but the show’s creators knew that he would need someone to join him in his constant scheming. Their inspiration came from a minor character in the studio’s 1964 feature Hey There, It’s Yogi Bear. In that film, Yogi, Boo Boo and Cindy Bear are pursued by a pair of villainous circus owners who are aided by a dog named Mugger. Mugger, who enjoyed chomping on his master’s arm or leg, not only looked like a prototype of Muttley but also shared his trademark wheezing laugh, courtesy of voice artist Don Messick. Said laugh would, between the movie and Wacky Races, be used by another Hanna-Barbera canine, Precious Pupp.
Unlike his cinematic counterpart, Muttley would rarely chomp down on Dastardly, but he would inevitably find Dick’s hopeless attempts to achieve victory through cheating comical enough to start snickering away. Such laughter would often lead to a bop on the noggin or some other form of retaliation on Dastardly’s part, which would elicit mumbled grousing (“razzin’ frazzin’ Rick Rastadly”) from the peeved pooch. While he would often grumble to himself over some of the tasks he was asked to perform, Muttley would just as quickly start kissing Dick’s hand if he was suspected of talking back. Mind you, Dick would on more than one occasion find himself forced to give his four-footed partner in crime a tummy rub in order to get his way.
Muttley’s role in Dastardly’s diabolical plans ranged from posing as a photographer to blind Penelope Pitstop with his flash camera and infiltrating the Ant Hill Mob as fellow gangster “Smiley” O’Toole to being used as a “basketball” to trip a Rube Goldbergesque trap, but none of his elaborate plots ever managed to work. And while Muttley may have once run over his master with a steamroller and actually cost them a first-place finish once by asking for an autograph just before the end of a race, the faithful canine did on another occasion make what the show’s narrator called “a supreme effort” to push Dick, frozen in a block of ice, across the finish line.
So popular was Wacky Races in CBS’s 1968-69 Saturday morning line-up that the network had Hanna-Barbera produce two spin-off series: The Perils of Penelope Pitstop, which recast the show’s sole distaff driver as a Pearl White-like serial heroine, and Dastardly and Muttley in Their Flying Machines, in which our favorite villains were hapless WWI-style aviators (the war was never specified, which was probably for the best) whose four-member unit, the Vulture Squadron, was trying–and constantly failing–to catch heroic feathered messenger Yankee Doodle Pigeon. Along with a stylish new pilot’s cap and scarf, Muttley also gained the ability to fly by spinning his tail like a propeller and a fetish-like devotion to being given medals by Dastardly for performing the simplest of tasks.
Along with two cartoons detailing the Vulture Squadron’s doomed-to-fail aerial missions, each Dastardly and Muttley episode also featured the “snickering hound” in a solo short, Magnificent Muttley, a lighthearted fantasy segment which featured him in Walter Mittyesque daydreams as a Wild West lawman, a superhero, an astronaut and other roles. Both Dastardly and Muttley and Perils of Penelope Pitstop only lasted one season, and after Wacky Races was cancelled following its second season in 1970, it would be six years before Muttley would return–sort of–to the Saturday morning cartoon scene.
1976 saw ABC’s Tom and Jerry/Grape Ape Show add a new co-star with the arrival of Mumbly, a strangely familiar, blue-haired canine detective who wore a trenchcoat à la Peter Falk’s Columbo but otherwise looked, laughed and (of course) mumbled like Muttley. Mumbly solved one year’s worth of cases on his own and the following season switched from good guy to bad guy as the leader of the Really Rottens on Scooby’s All-Star Laff-A-Lympics. It was never explained if Mumbly was Muttley’s long-lost brother or simply Muttley with a new name. Some have suggested that Hanna-Barbera didn’t fully own the rights to the Wacky Races characters at the time (the series had been co-produced with quiz show producers Heatter-Quigley and was originally conceived as a kids’ live-action game show with cartoon segments). This would explain why Mumbly’s Really Rottens partner wasn’t Dick Dastardly but the very similar Dread Baron.
The real Muttley and Dick Dastardly–still wearing their WWI-era helmets–would return to torment Yogi Bear and his pals in the 1985 series Yogi’s Treasure Hunt and the Fender Bender 500 segment of 1991’s Wake, Rattle and Roll, and appeared in juvenile form in another ’91 series, Yo Yogi! Their elaborate race-fixing schemes, of course, fared no better in these later shows that in the ’60s. Throughout it all, though, Muttley remained loyal to his master, like a true sidekick should. It just goes to prove that man’s best friend, even if that man is a villain, is his dog…snickering or otherwise.