For most people, mentioning Zero Mostel and Gene Wilder in the same sentence can only mean you’re talking about Mel Brooks’ first – and arguably greatest – feature film: The Producers (piss on the Broderick/Lane remake). However, for those raised on the heady PBS offerings of the mid-70’s, and for whom The Producers was just a bit over their heads (but only just), the lethal comedy combo of Mostel and Wilder holds an entirely different place in their cultural psyche: One in which a menacing sorcerer wrecked literary havoc on unsuspecting citizens, only to be foiled time and again by a do-gooder clad in a magic varsity sweater.
The Adventures Of Letterman was a short animated serial that ran as part of the way-too-cool-for-public-television series The Electric Company. It was part Superman, part “Fractured Fairy Tales,” and was- save for a disastrous film adaptation of Ionesco’s Rhinoceros – the only time Mostel and Wilder would ever work together again after they captured lightning in a bottle with The Producers.
Created by children’s author Mike Thaler, and animated by John and Faith Hubley (creators of the nearsighted Mr. Magoo and parents to future Yo La Tengo drummer/singer Georgia Hubley) Letterman ran from 1972-1976, totalling at sixty episodes made. Each vignette consisted of the villainous “Spell Binder” (Mostel) using his sorcery to alter a common word, causing all sorts of trouble for the titular “Letterman” (Wilder) to correct by use of his magic alphabet sweater. Episodes were heavy on puns and wordplay – this was, after all, a reading lesson – and featured a sort of fast moving non-sequetor narrative flow that could easily be considered a stylistic precursor to parts of Cartoon Network’s Adult Swim programming bloc.
For as ahead of the curve as it was, though, The Adventures Of Letterman was also very much still a product of its time. To watch it now, Mostel’s villainous “Spell Binder” character is – as Professor Jack Shaheen, expert in Arab portrayals in mass media, rightly points out – clearly a thinly veiled stereotype, turban and all, that would never make it on PBS today. Meanwhile, Wilder’s titular “Letterman” is himself something of an anachronism: an ivy league-looking jock, decked out in an old-timey football helmet, and letterman (get it?) sweater.
Datedness aside, The Adventures Of Letterman remains a of high water mark for PBS’ programming, and is a rare example of two comedy giants punching way below their weight classes in order to make something fun and educational for da yutes – not just a one-off 30 second interstitial, a’la most of Sesame Street‘s celebrity cameos, but a long running narrative full of whimsical mayhem and slyly hip references.
Oh, did I say two comedy giants? I meant three. The narrator? That’d be Joan Rivers.