< And so we continue our survey of the cultural talking dog phenomenon with one of the most popular talking dogs of all time, Underdog, voiced by the late great Wally Cox, and his female friend, Sweet Polly Purebred, pictured in the montage above. Mrs. TD has pointed out to me that the talking dog is an extremely powerful metaphor (and one with literary and cultural antecedents of longstanding.) The basic premise, of course, is that man’s best friend the dog is to be seen, and not heard. The dog is simply not to tell us what it is thinking, even as it observes the goings on, and even as, we suspect, it is more sentient than we would like to credit it for being. The talking dog, is, thus, at its core, an upsetting metaphor: the universe just isn’t supposed to work this way.
Ah, but The Underdog Show improves even upon this. The ultimate metaphor for the downtrodden is duly topped in the Underdog cartoons by, in turn, making that dog downtrodden among dogs, i.e., the underdog.
The basic premise is interesting enough: Underdog’s alter ego, Shoeshine Boy, is a menial worker in an unsung and humble trade. But he is in a position to be out in the open, to be among the first to observe trouble. And when trouble rears its ugly head, such as one of the show’s stock villains (Simon Bar Sinister- apparently a relative of one of our semi-regular commenters, or perhaps mob boss Riff Raff), Shoeshine Boy then would dash into a phone booth, the phone booth would explode (Ma Bell was a monopoly then and presumably could better afford this sort of thing) and Underdog would emerge, with super-human (or super-anthropomorphized canine) powers to save the day. When weakened from his travails, in typical American fashion, Underdog reached for pharmaceuticals– usually a trusted energy pill he kept in his ring.
The metaphors for early 1960’s America just go on… and on… We have Sweet Polly, the Lois Lane stand-in, a/k/a the working professional girl. The villains are, well, villains: nothing subtle or complicated about thousands of Soviet ICBMs pointed at us, is there? The hero is humble, and indeed, virtually invisible unless he is called upon to intervene and save the day, in which case, he does so with decisive and overwhelming force.
And there you have it. Amusingly, Underdog was paired with such other geniuses as Commander McBragg and Klondike Kat, and, IIRC, Tennessee Tuxedo (respectively a braggart ex-naval officer, an incompetent cat policing the Canadian North, and an overachieving talking penguin incarcerated in a zoo), who reflected failings of the established order, even as Underdog, the unsung hero, operated to preserve that order. Indeed, without the contribution and acquiescence of the underdogs of the world, the established order would crumble in the face of villainy. All the dog asks is a living wage and the opportunity to speak, and help, every once in a while.
Needless to say, this was an underdog of his time. Such a challenger to the established order (after all, who are his parents? where does he summer?) would be most unwelcome in the present order. Most unwelcome.