H.R. Pufnstuf, Psychopomp

You may have heard that Nickelodeon is bringing back H.R. Pufnstuf as part of a special on their preschool series Mutt & Stuff! I think the network should run a bit of a trigger warning.

Let me take you back to the claustrophobic television programs of the 1960s and 70s. There was a pervasive feeling, even in the comedies, of being trapped in your life. Think of the end credits for The Flintstones, where Fred is put outside by the cat and pounds uselessly on the door trying to get back in, or George Jetson’s terrifying spin cycle on an outdoor treadmill — “Help! Jane! Stop this crazy thing!” Many Twilight Zone episodes are about suddenly finding oneself in a terrible perversion of reality. It’s the entire premise of Gilligan’s Island: a shipwrecked group of oddballs, living in a paradise they desperately want to escape.

Even if this was not a new playbook, Sid and Marty Krofft, the creators and producers of H.R. Pufnstuf, took that ball and ran with it. Several of their shows are exemplars of the type. The Marshall family — Rick, Will and Holly — are never going to leave the Land of the Lost. Despite the routine nature of their expedition, they are doomed to spend the rest of their televised lives in an alternate world, battling creaky stop-motion dinosaurs and actors in shitty reptile suits. More disturbingly, Mark is never going to escape Lidsville, a land of living hats doing bad movie star impersonations. (He will also be tormented for eternity by Charles Nelson Reilly in heavy green makeup, but that could be seen as a perk.)

The live actor on H.R. Pufnstuf, a child named Jimmy, is shipwrecked on Living Island and befriended by a dragon named Pufnstuf. Many episodes of the series were about the two’s vain attempts to return Jimmy home. There’s a pervasive creepiness to the show— the outsize, flappy-mouthed foam characters; the everything-is-alive conceit of Living Island; the sentient, mobile and menacing trees; the obvious sound stage sets and canned laugh track. Mostly, though, it’s the idea that this fake new world is as inescapable as the grave.

No one from these shows makes it home. The reason, I would suggest, is because they’re dead.

This idea has antecedent in Peter Pan’s dark origins. The book’s author, J.M. Barrie, was influenced to create the book’s character by the death of his brother David, who fell on ice, fractured his skull, and died one day short of his 14th birthday. David, their mother’s favorite, became the first Boy Who Never Grew Up. Barrie was so eager to please his mother that he often wore his dead brother’s clothes and imitated his whistle.

Early versions of Peter Pan have him burying the bodies of children who got lost in Kensington Gardens after closing, or who fell out of their perambulators.

Later, in Peter and Wendy, we read this:

At first Mrs. Darling did not know, but after thinking back into her childhood she just remembered a Peter Pan who was said to live with the fairies. There were odd stories about him, as that when children died he went part of the way with them, so that they should not be frightened. She had believed in him at the time, but now that she was married and full of sense she quite doubted whether there was any such person.

Even though Peter tells Wendy that the Lost Boys all fell out of their prams, Neverland does not appear to be the afterlife. Peter kills some of the Lost Boys off when they begin to overpopulate, and the rest, along with Wendy and her brothers, are ultimately able to return to England.

No such luck for the Marshall family in the Land of the Lost, or Mark in Lidsville, or Jimmy on Living Island. He and his suggestive friend Freddie the Flute are well and truly stuck. Or rather were, until H.R. Pufnstuf was cancelled in 1969, after seventeen episodes. Pufnstuf will forever be Jimmy’s psychopomp, guiding him through, but never out of, his new world.

It’s weird being a kid, but it was especially weird being a kid in the 1970s. There were many subterranean pop culture messages you could catch but not comprehend. (To this day, I still don’t know what “windmills of my mind” means, for a second.) It was a time of existential Atomic Age dread as well as the terrifying freedom of the sexual revolution. All of it came tumbling out at once, with perhaps the most jarring example being Gail and Dale’s version of “One Toke Over The Line” from The Lawrence Welk Show. It was confusing, watching something like that with your elderly babysitter.

No matter how it was presented, clad in slapstick or informed with a laugh track, one of the cultural subtexts of shows like H.R. Pufnstuf was you are trapped here and cannot escape.

The Mutt & Stuff! characters should know what they’re in for. Because Pufnstuf is coming, and he plays for keeps.