Question: I know that all your questions start this way, but please help settle an argument for me. A woman at work says that the Simpsons people stole "cowabunga" from the creator of The Ninja Turtles. But it was really Charles Schulz and Snoopy who took it from the surfer world, wasn't it? Thanks. Don M., Worton, Md.
Televisionary: Well, as these things usually go, you guys are how do I say this artfully? well, you're both wrong, Don. However, you're a bit closer to the truth, chronologically speaking, than your colleague is.
The term "cowabunga" was originally spelled "kowabonga," and it was created by writer Eddie Kean, head writer for The Howdy Doody Show, in 1949. Now, for the following detective work I have to give credit where credit is due. Journalist Jim Mueller put a herculean effort into tracking down the "real" story behind the term for a 1997 Chicago Tribune story, and I'm using his telling of the tale to supplement my own TV powers.
"On Howdy we had a character named Chief Thunderthud," Kean explained to the Tribune, "and [late host] Buffalo Bob Smith rightly thought the old boy needed his own greeting. Movie Indians said 'How!' in those days, you know, but I always felt 'How' sounded stupid and contrived... Our Princess Summerfall Winterspring used 'kowagoopa' as her greeting, so 'kowabonga' seemed logical enough for Chief Thunderthud. At least Bob and I felt 'kowbonga' worked."
The chronology gets fuzzy from there. "Kowabonga," used by the good Chief as both greeting and exclamation, was adopted by U.S. troops in Vietnam and '60s-era surfers (some of whom were one and the same, but no one seems to agree on whether the surfers took the word overseas or it went there on its own). They appear to be the ones who changed it to "cowabunga," which was then adopted by Schulz's Snoopy as his own goofy-footing motto on countless strips, t-shirts, mugs, and calendars, further spreading the word. (Late astronaut Judith Resnik even greeted a NASA employee with it during the prelaunch wait on the morning of the tragic 1986 Challenger disaster, according to transcripts.)
From there, Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles head writer David Wise worked it into Michelangelo's lexicon when it came to Saturday-morning TV in 1987. (Incidentally, a publicist for The Simpsons told Mueller Bart Simpson doesn't really say the word, despite the many viewers who connect him with it most likely they're confusing it with "Aye Carumba!" or "Don't have a cow, man!")
Regrettably, as is the case with many creators of popular terms, there's no financial reward for Kean having coined the word. "I never made a dime off 'kowabonga,'" Kean said. "Although I once bought a telephone listing for my fictitious son, Kowabonga Kean, who has since received multiple solicitations from American Express and Visa."
For the record, The Howdy Doody Show, which ran on NBC from December 1947 to September 1960, left more to the world than that one word. Bob Keeshan cut his kid's-show teeth as Clarabelle the clown before moving on to his own gig as Captain Kangaroo. ("All I've done, including Captain Kangaroo, I learned from Bob," Keeshan said after Smith's death in 1998.) In addition, the term "Peanut Gallery" comes from the show's live studio audience, and I don't have the space to get into the vast array of records, toys, shirts and other merchandise made popular by the series. (I also won't touch the second-grade humor generated by the show's title, which never failed to make us kids giggle no, I'm far too mature for cheap laughs.)