First and Last: How The Gumby Show’s Atmosphere Became Only Slightly More Normal

Tristan Ettleman
6 min readDec 25, 2023

This is First and Last, an essay series examining my favorite TV show debuting each year through its first and last episodes. The fourth installment features THE GUMBY SHOW, created by Art Clokey. The show ran for one season through 1956 across 22 episodes, the first being “Moon Trip” and the last “In a Fix.”

Gumby was a recognizable figure for as long as I remember. I had a Gumby toy. And in the days of grocery store and pharmacy discount DVD bins full of old TV shows and movies, I was made especially familiar with the claymation creation of Art Clokey through one such release. Although only a few episodes were present on the disc, I was taken in by the strange atmosphere of the green rectangle’s world. As I learned later, that atmosphere changed distinctly across three television series incarnations of Gumby. The first, simply titled THE GUMBY SHOW, is clearly the weirdest, and across its short, one-season life, not much changed in that regard.

THE GUMBY SHOW originated in three places. First, Clokey’s GUMBASIA (1953) short, an experimental work featuring clay shapes moving to music, was an early effort in the artist’s gestating style. Then, an unaired pilot called ADVENTURES OF GUMBY: A SAMPLE was made in 1955. Finally, what became the very first episode of the full show, “Moon Trip,” was shown on the hugely popular kids show HOWDY DOODY (1947–1960). From there, THE GUMBY SHOW took off. At the time, the animated segments starring the actual character were sandwiched by other live action variety segments.

But what’s evaluated here is THE GUMBY SHOW animation, which is really only what is shared and associated with the title. At the time, the 22 cartoons were presented (mostly) in 11 minute segments (neither the premiere or finale though), but when they were released into syndication later in the ’50s, they were broken up into about five minutes long. A much longer series was revived in 1960 and ran only for “one season” yet 87 episodes until 1968. I’ve seen it referred to as both THE GUMBY SHOW and THE ADVENTURES OF GUMBY, but in any event, I regard the ’60s series as something distinct, especially in addition to the one season 1988 return GUMBY ADVENTURES.

Part of the reason for that, besides name and production changes, is the aforementioned atmospheric deviations. The 1950s GUMBY SHOW is certainly the most experimental and unconventional installment in what would ultimately become a whole franchise. It operated without much dialogue and often a spacey soundtrack that, from what I may gather, would offer a trippy experience that could be augmented by certain intoxication. That is immediately apparent with “Moon Trip,” the aforementioned first episode of THE GUMBY SHOW.

A few differences about “Moon Trip” are obvious to people more familiar with later Gumby series. First, the character is of a slightly different design, more blocky and less refined in the face. Throughout the episode, the exact shape of Gumby also fluctuates, by nature of the stop motion process. That wouldn’t really change later, even as Gumby’s design became more streamlined. By the end of the episode, as well, the green boy/man’s later standout sidekick, the horse Pokey, doesn’t appear. He hadn’t been created yet!

A lot of THE GUMBY SHOW’s episodes, including “Moon Trip,” take place in liminal spaces with toys and other miniature objects strewn about, reminding me of the I Spy books. This almost abstract quality is less grounded than the typical white-picket fence setting of the ’60s Gumby, which also seemed to upgrade the character to his own residence and various jobs, instead of the dependent childhood of the ’50s GUMBY SHOW. But Gumby’s parents factor greatly into “Moon Trip.” The boy discovers a spaceship in the toy-strewn space and takes off to the moon. His parents come along and react in shock to this sight. Gumby lands on the moon after the ship is destroyed and flees from a bunch of strange, triangular creatures. He freezes from the cold temperature of the moon, and spotting this from the “Earth” through a telescope, Gumby’s father uses a fire truck’s ladder to elongate into orbit and grab his son, bringing him to a hospital in a hilariously grim scene.

What this synopsis could never hope to communicate is the sheer strangeness of the “vibe” of “Moon Trip.” It proceeds with a pace and lack of explanation that is out of step with modern animation and children’s programming, augmented by an almost avant-garde soundtrack making everything all the more weird. “Moon Trip” isn’t out-and-out funny so much as it’s imaginative and whimsical in an extradimensional, liminal way. It’s a perfect introduction to what THE GUMBY SHOW would accomplish ahead of the more straightforward humor of other series featuring the character.

The 15-minute “Moon Trip” was basically jumbo-sized compared to the usual 11-minute episodes of THE GUMBY SHOW, which also shrunk down to 5 minutes by the end of its life. That is the runtime of “In a Fix,” a finale that echoes some of the qualities of “Moon Trip” even as it falls much more flat. By “In a Fix,” Pokey had indeed been introduced and Gumby’s design became less blocky, but THE GUMBY SHOW hadn’t become much more talky. Indeed, the final episode has zero dialogue, whereas “Moon Trip” had just a couple asides. Like the premiere, “In a Fix” takes place in a pocket dimension of a flat landscape full of toys. No parents factor into this story, as Gumby and Pokey just play tricks on each other as strange creatures cavort around.

“In a Fix” feels almost…pointless, if there is deep meaning to be found in any other episode of THE GUMBY SHOW. But compared to the other vague and almost experimental animations, it does feel listless and without strong jokes or a really affecting, strange vibe like “Moon Trip.” To be fair, though, there is a weirdness present that makes THE GUMBY SHOW finale a fun enough dip into the claymation brilliance of Clokey’s creation, once again augmented by a brilliantly over-the-top soundtrack.

Comparing the first and last episodes of THE GUMBY SHOW does not reveal some kind of truth or development about its characters or “plot” (which was totally episodic and would constantly warp the circumstances of Gumby’s “life,” like having parents). But it does reveal how certain elements, like Pokey and a slight redesign of the title character, would more significantly change the vibes of later Gumby series, even as “Moon Trip” and “In a Fix” operate within an otherworldly space of bizarre images, sounds, and claymation techniques.