NUDNIK REVEALED!: THE HISTORY OF AMERICA’S LOST LOVEABLE LOSER
By Gene Deitch
Fantagraphics Books $29.99, 128 pages
Our world has seen its fair share of fads, trends, short-lived success stories and one-hit wonders. The voluminous list includes toys (Hula Hoop, Frisbee, Tickle Me Elmo), music (disco, KISS, Psy) and novelty items (ant farms, eight-track tapes, X-Ray Specs).
There are always going to be a few head-scratchers in these categories, of course. Here’s one of them: the sudden rise and fall of the 1960s animated phenomenon, Nudnik.
Gene Deitch, an American-born illustrator living in the Czech Republic, has been trying to resurrect his “favorite and most personal creation” for some time. He’s a nearly 70-year veteran of the animation industry, and won an Oscar for Best Animated Short film for his 1961 masterpiece, “Munro.” Among his other accomplishments, Mr. Deitch directed various “Tom and Jerry,” “Popeye” and “Krazy Kat” cartoons, created Tom Terrific for “Captain Kangaroo,” had a comic strip titled “Terr’ble Thompson” and directed the first-ever animated adaptation of J.R.R. Tolkein’s “The Hobbit.”
In his new book, “Nudnik Revealed!: The History of America’s Lost Loveable Loser,” published by Fantagraphics Books, readers will become reacquainted with Yaramaz Nudnik, a good-natured ne’er-do-well who bumbled and stumbled through life.
Nudnik, which is Yiddish for “boring,” “obtuse” and “pest,” was originally conceived by Mr. Deitch in 1957 when working for CBS-Terrytoons. As the story goes, the cartoonist was showing a CBS network delegation “some new animation on one of our Movieolas” and his “necktie got caught in a whirling sprocket wheel, and I was yanked downward toward the chattering machine!”
The animator fortunately lifted his foot off the pedal just in time. Yet “in the general hilarity of the moment, a new character flashed before my eyes … . He wasn’t yet Nudnik, but he was the core idea of Nudnik, and I quickly came to think of him as a personal extension of me.”
But Nudnik wasn’t a Nudnik just yet. The character was given a “Yiddish-sounding name, ‘Fufel’ for the character that emerged from my adventure at Terrytoons.” Fufel was quickly “Americanized” and became “Foofle.” Mr. Deitch wrote that the “Foofle films, which were actually produced after I was gone, never achieved the charm or humor I had envisioned.” More to the point, “the character, in desperation, transformed into a bear!”
This provided Mr. Deitch with an opportunity to create his own unique character. He combined elements of great comedians such as Charlie Chaplin, Buster Keaton, Red Skelton, Laurel and Hardy, and “especially the raggedy hobo circus clown, Emmett Kelly.” The result was Nudnik.
Why that name, pray tell? According to Mr. Deitch, “as a lapsed Jew, as a never-true Jew, I did not know what the word ‘nudnik’ meant.” Rather, it “just sounded funny to me. I thought it meant a lost soul, an incompetent … absolutely no one in the supposedly Jewish-dominated movie industry ever pointed out to me that a ‘nudnik’ is a bore!” When he found that “many people claimed to love Nudnik, and even thought his name was cute, charming and apt,” he held “to the notion that his name means a totally hapless, hopeless loser.”
In the beginning, Nudnik was far from a loser. In 1964, Mr. Deitch created an animated short film titled “Here’s Nudnik” (originally titled “Nudnik #2”). Produced by William L. Snyder’s Rembrandt Films and distributed by Paramount, it was nominated for an Academy Award. This led to the release of 11 more Nudnik shorts that opened in theaters for feature films.
The multitude of animated stills in “Nudnik Revealed!” reveal a character living in a pantomime world. “In each story,” Mr. Deitch explains, “Nudnik sets out with a simple goal and a hope of success that quickly fragments through an unrelenting series of flubs and disasters, all of which are compounded by his own ineptness.” People evidently loved to watch this goofy-looking character designed “in the tramp clown tradition,” and laughed along with glee.
Sadly, everything came to a screeching halt. “No sooner did Nudnik hit the big screen,” wrote Mr. Deitch, “that the entire idea of cartoon shorts in movie theaters collapsed.” With nowhere to go, and no alternative formats such as VHS or DVD to turn to, interest in the Nudnik shorts quickly died down.
In 1991, Snyder’s son, Adam, revived Rembrandt films and packaged the Nudnik shorts under the syndicated title, “Gene Deitch Presents the Nudnik Show.” A DVD companion to this book is also available. What does this all mean? Maybe, just maybe, we’ll all want a little Nudnik in our lives once more.
Michael Taube is a contributor to The Washington Times.