Interlude: Historical edutainment, American-style

28 Feb

Given that one of the major themes of this project has become the different ways British and American media approach children’s TV, I thought it’d be entertaining, if not actually instructive, to take a look at the latter’s most notable attempt to bring history lessons to the smaller set: Histeria!

It all started in 1996, when the US Federal Communications Commission (FCC) finally put their foot down and announced “no really, you guys, we’re serious!” about the Children’s Television Act of 1990. Notably, the clause providing that broadcast stations must set aside three hours each week for children’s programs that have educational content.

Around the same time, Warner Bros. Animation was having a mini-renaissance, overseen by one Steven Spielberg along with veteran kiddy-show writer Tom Ruegger. Thus far the combo had produced the likes of Animaniacs!, Freakazoid, Pinky & the Brain and Tiny Toon Adventures. Not sure how far these penetrated across the pond, but over here their ubiquitousness was such that when Spielberg & co. announced that their idea of fulfilling the new educational-content mandate was a similarly outrageous slapstick take on history, the response from fledgling The WB network was “Sure! Have lots of money and resources!”

The result was the 1998 debut of Histeria!, and it really was quite a show. Featuring a troupe of offbeat types including Father Time, Loud Kiddington and Miss Information (as voiced by a much more respectable cast than their names deserved) and taking full advantage of the fact that nobody was really expecting the creators of Slappy Squirrel to earnestly mould young minds, the show instead scampered cheerfully through ‘fact-based’ skits and songs in very much the same manner as its predecessors, except namechecking historical icons instead of current celebrities.

In fact, it looks familiar on several levels: the relentless barrage of pop-culture references, the song spoofs (notably ‘Trustbuster’ Teddy Roosevelt taking on literal greedy capitalist pigs to the tune of Ghostbusters), the jokes blatantly designed to sail over the younger set’s heads. They refused — in an American context, at least — to be sanitized, and even managed to push boundaries. Including the first last and only sanctioned swearing under the PG-Y rating — because “War is heck!” and “Darn the torpedoes…!” sounded too stupid even for the FCC.

In more direct comparison to Horrible Histories, it was wildly unfocussed, frenetic and unsubtle; the British idea of history as self-deprecating satire just doesn’t have an equivalent in the American psyche, and so the latter never did bother to master the next step, essential to HH’s growing sophistication, of recognizing the funny inherent within the facts themselves. But for all that Histeria! did manage to be decently faithful to its premise, and chuckle-worthy with it…

…so naturally, nobody watched. Also, budget overruns, to the tune of $10 million. Planned for the usual 65 episodes, it eventually only ran for 52, and was essentially given up by its parent network — which really could’ve used a flagship hit right about then. Instead, they quietly let the show languish until 2000, and didn’t bother even to re-run it much past that. Its one unique angle may have proved too awkward to promote to its native audience either as education or entertainment, and it lacked any other established reason to exist (a la the HH books). Shortly thereafter, the whole slate of WB-style silliness would be swamped by the rising new trend of imported anime hits.

Still, Histeria! has a ferociously loyal cult following to this day. As proof I offer the show’s TVTropes page, which you’ll note lists fanfic recommendations. Again, for a series featuring something called The Big Fat Baby. Enter at your own risk.

Or, more reasonably, have this YouTube playlist, which as far as I can tell contains the hilights. Bonus: this odd little mashup that *ahem* marries Henry VIII’s HH song with the Histeria! visuals, with very cute results.

1 Comment

Posted by on February 28, 2013 in The background


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One response to “Interlude: Historical edutainment, American-style

  1. Kate

    March 2, 2013 at 1:01 pm

    I don’t know much about this one but I have seen their Tudors song to the tune of Greensleeves on youtube. I’m assuming Miss Information is the one behind a desk, dressed as an air hostess. And I believe Loud Kiddington crops up on TV Tropes as the page image for No Indoor Voice.
    I didn’t think it was brilliant but it wasn’t terrible either although I’d need to watch more of it to form a real opinion.

    You might also want to check out a pair of Hawaii-based actual history teachers and amateur musicians who have a youtube channel called historyteachers (one word). Their songs are pretty good, especially the Mary Queen of Scots/Jenny from the Block song.


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