H.R. Pufnstuf, which I watched religiously as a kid, is both formulaic and random. Each episode followed more or less the same pattern, with different bits of frantic nonsense filling in the gaps. I remember being pretty cognizant of the strangeness as a child, and I liked it.
When I rail against children’s shows of today, whether the insipid do-goodery of Handy Manny, the assault on logic called Little Einsteins, the alien Telletubbies and Boobah or other kiddie inanity, a little voice in the back of my head—the voice of a tiny jeweled puppet flute—protests. “But Jason, you watched all the Krofft Superstars shows. Aren’t you being a big, fat grown-up meanie hypocrite?”
Hmm. Maybe the flute has a point. Maybe judging these shows from an adult perspective has led me to favor the idiocy of my childhood over the contemporary, for no reason other than nostalgia.
Only one way to be sure; I had to re-watch H.R. Pufnstuf.
I asked my 5-year-old daughter, Anisa, to watch with me. Now, Anisa is not your average girl. Sure she likes princesses and cotton candy and ponies, but she also plays dead and pretends to bathe in blood. She’s always been this way. I remember her as a toddler pretending to breastfeed a stuffed bat. She recently commented, upon seeing the movie poster for Orphan, that the girl looked nice and she thought they could be friends. When she makes up stories, it’s as if she’s channeling Lovecraft. For example: “Once there was a guy who got lost and went to a yucky town and there was a swamp. He saw a monster in the swamp who wanted to pull him into it and make him scummish and stinky. The man tried to escape but the monster grabbed him up with octopus arms and pulled him down and when he came out, the man was an octopus-man and everyone in the town was octopus-mans like him.”
I figured, if any kid I know might appreciate the unholy offspring of The Wizard of Oz and Timothy Leary, it’d be my daughter.
So, we watched as Jimmy (played by Jack Wild, best known as the Artful Dodger in the film Oliver!) and his magic flute, Freddy, traipsed along beside a lake with all the carefree slo-mo of a Summer’s Eve commercial and for no apparent reason decided to hop in the first goofy boat he found. The boat was—gasp—a trap! Out of the sky came a cackling witch the very spit and image of a trailer park Margaret Hamilton, who turned the boat into an evil grabby thing that threatened to drown poor Jimmy. As if life wasn’t already hard enough for a kid with a bowl cut! I speak from experience.
But Jimmy escaped and washed ashore on Living Island and comes under the protection of the mayor, the eponymous Pufnstuf. (Anisa never managed to get the name right. He was Huff-and-puff, Fluff-and-fluff, Hephalump and a few others.)
Hijinks and whatnot ensue in each episode as Jimmy faces Wilhelmina W. Witchiepoo’s never-ending flute-envy. She chases him hither and yon, even through forests inhabited by racial stereotypes. Everything is alive on Living Island, naturally. Alive, talkative and full o’ shenanigans. There’s a lot of dancing and noise. Oh, the noise. Many things go bonk and sproing and yaggity-yaggity-yaggity. Witchiepoo’s machinations invariably fail and Jimmy is free again to celebrate with the Mayor as unspecified creatures strut their funky stuff without provocation, shakin’ what Sid & Marty gave ’em. Pretty much every episode is like this.
As we watched, I’d occasionally pause the DVD and ask Anisa for her perspective.
Jason: What’s this all about?
Anisa: Well, that boy has a magical flute named Fuddy. The witch wants to kill them.
Jason: Kill? Are you sure?
Anisa: Yeah. She wants to kill him with a boat. That’s kind of weird. If I was a witch I’d kill him with lightning. And then I’d trick the flute. I’d say I wanted to play tic-tac-toe, and then when he’s playing I’d throw him in the dungeon!
Jason: And then what?
Anisa. Break him, so there’s blood all over the castle.
(At this point, my daughter had succeeded in what I’d never have though possible. She’d made H.R. Pufnstuf even creepier. We went on to talk about other matters.)
Jason: What sort of guy is the mayor?
Anisa: Hufflepuff is kind of a like Barney, but also like a hamburger.
Jason: I think he’s supposed to be a dragon.
Anisa: Huh? No way.
Jason: Do you like this show?
Anisa: I don’t know. Kinda. I like the broom. I’d like to have a broom like that.
Jason: What do you think of Jimmy?
Anisa: His pants are funny.
Jason: The 70s were like that.
Jason: Never mind.
In the final reckoning, neither of us were all that taken with the show. Anisa liked certain frantic elements but ultimately disparaged Witchiepoo’s lack of genuine, bloodthirsty evil. I got a kick out of the kookiness, in general, and I like easy Davy Jones sort of charm that Jack Wild exudes. They don’t make British child stars like him anymore. But I cringed at the plentiful racism and couldn’t get into the over-the-top psilocybin-vaudeville pace of it all.
Maybe I’m old after all. And I’ll never be as goth as my daughter.