Scenes of smoking have been cut from Tom and Jerry cartoons by Turner Broadcasting, following a complaint to Ofwatch, the television watchdog, that children might be given a positive image of smoking .
Tom the Cat is politeness itself as he invites me into his small sitting room in the Twilight Home For Faded Celebrities. Setting up the tape machine, I joke that I had half expected him to greet me in a manner more familiar to his fans; a tennis racket to the face, for instance, or a frying pan to the temple.
“Listen,” he wheezes, as he sits back in his easy chair, “it’s as much as I can do these days just to lift a frying pan, and, trust me, I hung the racket up years ago. Anyway, the execs today don’t want that kinda stuff. Gotta look after the kiddies, right?”
His tone is dripping with sarcasm.
I ask him if he feels sad at modern day revisionism of his act.
“Hell, yeah! It’s like…HELLO?…I did not spend forty years at Hanna Barbera, learning pratfalls with the mouse, just for some snot-nosed kid in a suit, fresh outta high school, to tell me it ain’t funny anymore. I know what’s funny and what ain’t, and I’ll tell you what ain’t: the lily-livered, bleeding-heart liberals, that’s what ain’t!”
But surely, I point out, it’s a very minor change: a couple of cigarettes deleted. Who would know?
He leans forward, his forehead furrowing and chin jutting out aggressively.
“Who would know? I’ll tell you who would know, sonny: I would know, for one. The mouse would know. The scriptwriter who thought the cigarette would be funny, he would know, God rest his soul. The director would know, the producers would know. The crew would know, the millions of people around the world who love the show, they would know. Even the frikken’ dog would know. ” He gestures to a sepia photo on the wall: a pugnacious Spike glaring out from his doghouse. “But I tell you what, Buster, it ain’t the cigarette, it’s the principle. We’re looking at the thin end of the wedge, here. They take a cigarette today, tomorrow we gotta lose the frying pan. We lose the pan, the next thing ya know it’s nix on the tennis racket. These people, they don’t stop. It ain’t in their nature. They spend a lifetime poking their noses into other people’s business, wet-nursing them, telling them what they should think. And, when they win a point, are they happy? Hell no! They just start looking around for the next thing they think we should all be peeing our pants about. They’ve made a career out of it and it’s all they’re good for, so why would they stop?”
He pauses, and very deliberately extracts a fat cigar from his pocket, biting off the end, spitting it out, and shoving the remainder pointedly between his jaws. Wriggling his eyebrows in mock challenge, he mutters through clenched teeth: “Ya gotta light, Mac?”
I shrug, regretfully, and tell him I don’t smoke.
“You’re supposed to say ‘No, but I gotta dark brown overcoat’,” he chides, scornfully. “It’s the old schtick.”
Without warning he lets out a banshee wail, literally jumping out of his skin, his skeleton hitting the ceiling, bony jaws jettisoning the cigar. As gravity takes over, the skeleton hangs in mid-air for a second or so, runs a few paces on the spot, accompanied by a skittering sound-effect, then drops like a stone, each bone re-entering his body in perfect formation. Tom opens his mouth just in time for the falling cigar to wedge itself back between his teeth. Seizing his tail, which – it now transpires – has mysteriously caught fire, he calmly puts the burning fur tip to the end of the cigar, inhales deeply until the end is glowing cherry red, and then extracts the cigar and, holding his tail to his mouth, blows a neat smoke circle around the flame, causing it to be extinguished.
“There ya go,” he says, without losing a beat. “The old schtick. Sit there and tell me that ain’t funny.”
It’s funny, I assure him.
“You’re a good kid,” he says. “I bet you grew up on my programmes, dincha?”
Without wishing to compromise my neutrality, I nevertheless admit that, yes, I pretty much grew up watching him.
“There ya go. And, look see, kid. Guess what? You don’t smoke.”
I see what he is driving at, but am obliged to play devil’s advocate. If you only influence one kid, I say, isn’t that one too many?
He laughs shortly. “I can see it now,” he says. “A gang of you behind the old bus depot with a packet of stogies your big brother paid for. “Hey Jimmy,” says your best mate, “try a cigarette, it’s so cool: Tom from Tom and Jerry smokes them all the time!” And after that, just ‘cus we are sooooo influential, ya go out and find a frying pan so ya can whack the next mouse that skips out of a mousehole. Maybe, after THAT, ya might go find some invisible ink so’s ya can creep up on the bulldog and tie a stick of dynamite to his tail. Jesus H. Christ, kid! You’re livin’ in the real world, here! Get a frikken’ grip!”
Is he suggesting that children are not influenced by what they see on television?
He leans forward, earnestly. “Here’s what I think, kid,” he says, his eyebrows knitting into a scowl of displeasure. “The people I’m talking about, the self-appointed moral minority, they honestly believe the rest of us are morons. They can’t bear the thought that we might not need them to wipe our little botties after we do a pooh pooh. Look at this…” he waves a page of the Ofwatch findings at me, “inappropriate use of a cigar…inappropriate use of a cigar? Who am I? Bill Clinton? I’m telling you: we need to put a stop to these people before they leave us with just the opening title and the circle at the end.”
Yes, I say, but times change. Should programmes not reflect that?
“Sure,” he says, imbuing the word with heavy irony. “Why not? Obviously there’s nothing worth a damn that was created before we all got so PeeCee. Maybe we should change the storylines of all those cowboy and Indian movies, while we’re at it. Oh, I’m sorry: cowboy and Native American movies. Whaddya think? Maybe we should brush out the drinking scenes in “It’s A Wonderful Life”, just in case it makes kiddies grow up raging alcoholics. And “Harvey” too. Hey kid, ya know what? I just realised: Jimmy Stewart, he’s one HELLUVA bad influence! Let’s take him out of any film he ever starred in and replace him with a snot-nosed, uptight, moralising do-gooder in a suit. It should have them flocking to the Box Office.”
He leans back, his anger apparently spent. “Jeez, kid,” he says, “you’ve given me a headache.”
Puffing reflectively on his cigar, he blows a series of smoke rings into the air, the bluey grey clouds dissolving unexpectedly into the slogan “THAT’S ALL FOLKS!”
I figure that’s my signal that the interview is finished, so I thank him for his time and ask him to say “Hi!” to Jerry for me when he sees him next.
“The mouse?” he says. “Sure. He don’t get out as much as he used to, but we sometimes get together and chat about the good times. You want I should say it with flowers? Or should I get something fancy from ACME?”
He has a somewhat sinister grin on his face, so I make my excuses, gather up my tape machine, and turn to leave.
Just as I reach the door, he taps me on the shoulder.
I turn around.
A tennis racket whacks across my face with an elastic twang. My face stretches and splits into a hundred square bars, then zings back into shape, oscillating wildly for a few seconds. Almost immediately, a frying pan fetches me a mighty blow across the temple. My eyes pop out of their sockets on stalks and bluebirds circle my head, twittering loudly. An egg-shaped lump throbs redly where the blow landed.
“For the good times,” says Tom, with a wink. “Be seein’ ya, kid!”
The old schtick. You can’t beat it.