Casper: He Only Wanted to Be Friendly

Question #1: Is Casper the Friendly Ghost cool?

Answer: WRONG! Caspar is WAY cool since Daniel Johnston wrote a song about him.

Question #2: Is he the only cartoon character named Casper?

Answer: NAY! Nor is he even the FIRST one. That honor goes to Caspar Milquetoast, of The Timid Soul, which debuted in 1925.

November 16, 1945 marked the first screen appearance of Casper in a short entitled The Friendly Ghost. As it happens the date falls between the birthday (November 11) and the death date (November 21) of Casper’s creator Seymore Reit. Joe Oriolo did the original art work and design.

Reit had started out at Fleischer Studios, both as a gag writer and artist, and had worked on things like Popeye and Betty Boop. Later he would work on Archie and Little Lulu, and even wrote for Captain Kangaroo and Mad Magazine. By the time of Casper, Fleischer had been swallowed up by its distributor Paramount and had become Famous Studios. In case you’re a newborn, the formula (and it was a formula) for the Caspar cartoons was this: Casper is living in a haunted house where he is mercilessly teased by the much larger bullies, the Ghostly Trio. He subsequently makes friends with some innocent creature, a kitten or something too young to have formed fears (like the little girl in the movie Frankenstein). But when they are in the world together, trying to play or make something, they encounter other people (or sometimes sentient cartoon animals, or even inanimate objects) who see Casper, become terrified and go “A G-G-GHOST!” and then run away or fly away or tunnel away, or otherwise flee in some funny fashion. (This ritual was very much borrowed from Casper in TV shows like The Munsters, The Addams Family, Bewitched, Sigmund and the Sea Monsters, etc.) It is a Chaplinesque predicament for Casper, who invariably sniffs and whines “I only wanted to be friendly!”

Fun facts: the mother of Allison Arngrim (Nellie Olsen of Little House on the Prairie) was one of the actresses who voiced Casper. Jack Mercer (Popeye) voiced one of the Ghostly Trio.

The original Casper cartoons were produced through 1959, although the character and concept were revived many times on television over the ensuing decades. In 1949 Harvey Comics began publishing very popular Casper the Friendly Ghost comic books, as well as spin-offs like Wendy the Good Little Witch, The Ghostly Trio, and Spooky The Tuff Little Ghost, for kids who just couldn’t stomach Caspar. Personally, I have great affection for the cartoons, and I don’t mind repetition in comedy, in fact, I usually prefer it.

In 1995 there was an unwatchable live action/CGI film called Casper. As in most similar attempts it gets nothing right. Ironically, it’s the one version of Casper I’d flee from. Back when I was doing stand-up I had a routine about what happened to Casper, how was he killed? In decades since I’ve heard another comedian do a similar bit. I was too obscure for him to have stolen it from me, but it just goes to show that it’s on people’s minds. Anyway, this film has the bad taste to ANSWER that question. Now THAT is a bad children’s movie.