Question: What was the first prime-time cartoon?
Answer: Assuming you mean the first prime-time animated network series, Ralph, that would be ABC's legendary Flintstones, which ran for six years beginning in September 1960 (and has been repeated in more places and at more times than I could begin to count). The show pioneered the half-hour animated comedy on network TV, and enjoyed a wave of merchandise sales decades before anyone ever threw on a Bart Simpson "Don't have a cow, man!" T-shirt.
The Flintstones was the fourth animated series created by William Hanna and Joe Barbera (after Ruff and Reddy, Huckleberry Hound and Quick Draw McGraw, all of which were either Saturday-morning or syndicated offerings). And according to Barbera, he and partner Hanna decided to come up with a cartoon for grown-ups after a survey showed that 65 percent of Huckleberry Hound fans were adults. "We wanted to satirize suburbanites for nighttime TV," he told TV Guide in 1960, "but nothing we drew in a modern setting was funny. Finally we put our little man into a convertible with fins fashioned out of tree trunks and a thatched roof for a top. Looking at it, we all broke up, and the situation we were groping for was as simple as that cave people from the Stone Age who think, talk and act modern."
Thus, Fred and Wilma Flintstone, their neighbors Barney and Betty Rubble and the town of Bedrock, county seat of Cobblestone County, population 2,500 and 250 feet below sea level, were introduced to America. And they were a hit with audiences but not, predictably, critics, many of whom noted the striking similarities between Fred and Barney and Jackie Gleason and Art Carney's Honeymooners characters. (To be fair, though, the Flintstones characters behaved pretty much like those on every TV comedy of the day.)
The show took heat for its primitive (no pun intended) animation, and TV Guide critic Gilbert Seldes decried how such a show helped lower the standards of the TV-viewing audience. "I cannot fall back on the consolation that such programs do no harm. They do harm," he wrote in 1961. "They put over the second and third best on people who want the best. So long as the Flintstones exist, some people will turn them on. It's better than nothing. But only the least bit better."
Me, I loved the show, and the recent release of the fourth season on DVD makes me erupt with my own little yabba-dabba-doo.
One other Flintstones' answer for Cathy B. of Wabash, Ind., who asked about the voices behind the characters: Alan Reed and Mel Blanc were the voices of Fred and Barney, though they were brought in only after the first five episodes were done and Barbera had to spend $15,000 to redo the soundtracks because he didn't like the initial voices. Jean Vander Pyl's Wilma and Bea Benaderet's Betty were there from the beginning, though Gerry Johnson handled the Betty duties for the final season. Blanc also handled the Dino duties, while Vander Pyl contributed Pebbles and Don Messick was Bamm-Bamm, newsboy Arnold and Hoppy. And yes, that was Harvey Korman (The Carol Burnett Show) as the Great Gazoo.It's worth noting that there were voice substitutions from time to time. Blanc was nearly killed in a car accident in 1962, and while the show was taped in his bedroom, where he was bedridden in a full body cast, for a full season, Daws Butler and Hal Smith (The Andy Griffith Show) helped out with the Barney work while he recovered. ("The easy thing would have been to replace him, but we kept going and it worked," Barbera said. "Sometimes we'd have as many as 16 people crowded into his bedroom and we hung a mike in front of him.")