If you don’t remember the Whatizit?, also known as Izzy, don’t worry. There are gloomier memories from Atlanta’s Summer Games besides its star-farting, stoned-looking anthropomorphized comma, and Olympic mascots, much like Love Day decorations, are designed for disposability.
Much more memorable is The Simpsons’ 8th Season Episode “The Itchy & Scratchy & Poochie Show” which first aired February 9, 1997. Commentary on the season 8 DVD tells how FOX was pushing to stir some media attention by adding a new character, despite the fact that The Simpsons was a still ratings giant, and still cranking out solid satirical stories. Show creators Cohen, Oakley and Weinstein fired back at their bosses by roasting the hoary tropes recycled in every attempt to jazz up a stale sitcom. They hardly bother to disguise the litany of Hollywood clichés they endured that inspired the insipid creation that is Poochie.
Obviously, the Whatizit isn’t a direct inspiration for The Kung-Fu Hippie™. There have been plenty of Brady Bunch-style Cousin Olivers on TV over the years that personify the desperate planing that leads to such hackneyed execution. The Poochie episode is full of jokes about out-of-touch TV executives forcing put-upon animators and exasperated writers to deliver on their panicky scheme for spicing up Itchy & Scratchy cartoons. Poochie is the soulless byproduct of committee thinking, a schmear of surfer and Rasta coated in buzzwords and vague notions about what’s hip and modern.
The Whatizit?, on the other hand, was chosen as an afterthought. In the article, Atlanta Olympic’s CEO Billy Payne admits, “We had so many things to do. Were we raising enough money? Were the stadiums going to be built in time? How are we going to train 50,000 volunteers? All of those had enormously higher importance than the mascot.” The city was overwhelmed by more pressing financial and logistical matters. It wasn’t until their icon debuted at the closing of 1992’s Barcelona games, leaving viewers furrowing their brows and slack jawed, that it became a thing to worry over.
(Skip to 5:57 to go right to the Whatizit?)
Ed Hula, editor and founder of Olympic publication Around the Rings, who was in Barcelona, “I just felt at a loss to exactly what we’re seeing. Like, this is it? This?”
Shuman, “Then we come back to Atlanta, and the letters started coming in. I got the letters. They’re complaining: This is terrible.”
A 1993 Sports Illustrated piece about the games, quotes Matt Groening on the Whatizit?, “A bad marriage of the Pillsbury Doughboy and the ugliest California Raisin.”
…And so, the tinkering began. The Whatizit? got streamlined and became the less in-your-face Izzy. Suggestions to make it louder, angrier and to given a time machine were ignored.
Is there any direct connection to The Simpsons, though?
Behind the scenes, yes.
Film Roman is a giant in the animation industry. They’ve been making licensed cartoons since 1985 and have had a hand in nearly every US animated adaption, from Garfield to Spider-Man to The Critic, ever since. The studio started animating The Simpsons 1992, and are still doing it. In 1995, Film Roman were hired guns on the TV special Izzy’s Quest for the Olympic Rings, as part of the advance Olympic hype campaign. According to the oral history, the cartoon is so bad that the Atlanta organizers had to pay for its broadcast! It was only shown twice, and is so obscure that it can’t be found online—the 2016 digital equivalent to being buried in an unmarked grave. (An interactive CD-ROM featuring Izzy is less hard to track down.)
It’s easy to imagine the animators at Film Roman sharing water cooler gossip with The Simpsons staff, guffawing over the horrible job from Atlanta they’d taken on. Groening and the rest of the creative team saw the Whatizit?’s debut, heard the incessant mocking that followed, and surely chuckled knowingly all the flop-sweat tinkering to try and fix it. The timeline fits, too: Groening was already aware of the Whatizit? in ’93. Animated shows take about a year to produce, Film Roman would have had the Izzy cartoon on their drawing boards throughout 1994; and Team Simpson would have been working on the 1997 season at the same time the media blitz for the Atlanta Summer Games was at fever pitch. Izzy was everywhere, a sore thumb constantly being tweaked in front of the public eye all along the way, until it completely vanished back to its home planet before the closing ceremony.
I think the presence of Springy the Springfield Spring in Season Ten’s “The Old Man and the “C” Student”—which also namecheck’s Whatizit?—shows that Izzy was on The Simpsons’ minds too. While I can’t say with complete certainty that there’s some Izzy in Poochie, it’s just the sort of massive public embarrassment that classic Simpsons did such a great job poking fun at, that I definitely wouldn’t rule it out.
As a strange footnote, there’s some people (at least one) who think the 2004 mascots for the Athens Games, are a swipe off Matt Groening’s Akbar and Jeff characters from Life In Hell…