‘Mild mannered janitor’ Penrod ‘Penry’ Pooch wears a backwards baseball cap with a purple t-shirt (although strangely, no trousers) and washes the floors at the police station under the supervision of Sergeant ‘Sarge’ Flint. An avid inventor, he spends his time devising new contraptions to make his job easier, and chatting to foxy telephone operator Rosemary. Unbeknownst to his colleagues however, Penry is not all that he appears. When a call comes in to the station from a victim of crime, Penry is secretly taking note before leaving his janitorial duties behind to become the ‘brilliant battler of bad’ Hong Kong Phooey! This heroic hound likes nothing more than to get out on the streets, taking on the city’s baddies in his own special martial arts style.
In a similar but slightly more low-key way than Superman, Penry uses an everyday item to make his transformation, hopping into the bottom drawer of the office filing cabinet as himself, and emerging (eventually - he often gets stuck) from the top drawer as the beloved superhero Hong Kong Phooey, resplendent in a black eye mask and what looks like a red dressing gown. In another Superman-style nod, Penry and Phooey are physically identical apart from their outfit, as well as being the only dogs-with-human-qualities in town, but nobody else seems to be able to make the connection between the two...
As with all good comedy characters, both docile dog Penry and fearless canine Hong Kong Phooey spend a lot of time getting things wrong, misunderstanding situations and generally slap-sticking about. Phooey ends up relying largely on his stripey sidekick Spot, the police station cat, to get him out of sticky circumstances (usually the result of his own creative entrapments) and to help him restore justice. If he does manage to get the right result by himself, it’s usually just a coincidence. With the exception of a few grumbles and snickers when Phooey is capering in the wrong direction, Spot doesn’t speak and never gets any credit for anything he’s done, whilst Phooey is lauded as the hero.
So respected is he that if - or more usually when – he has some kind of accident whilst going about his crime-fighting duties, any city folk that he potentially injures or annoys are actually over-the-moon that he has come into contact with them at all. In the episode ‘Green Thumb’ Phooey mistakes a well-built lady for the criminal he’s chasing and uses his formidable martial art skills to overcome her. Once calm is restored and he realises he’s got the wrong person he apologises to her. She replies ‘Never-the-less, what an honour to have had my expensive hat destroyed by the magnificent Hong Kong Phooey!’
To get round the city to the action spots, Phooey utilises the Phooeymobile, a cute little car with a Chinese pagoda type roof and the kind of special abilities that an action hero needs. It resides, when it’s not needed, in a large rubbish bin outside the station. A quick ‘bong of the gong’ unleashes its capability to convert into many alternative types of vehicle - including a boat, helicopter, pogo-stick, balloon and a stagecoach amongst other things - although whether it will give Phooey the one he wants at the right time is another matter. Whilst en route to the crime scene with Spot, the not-as-experienced-as-he-likes-to-think-he-is Phooey often refers to The Hong Kong Book of Kung Fu to give him tips on how to ‘kapow’ his next adversary with his lightening quick paws and famous ‘Hong Kong Phooey Chop’. It also offers up useful quotes for every occasion: ‘In hot water…pull the plug.’
The distinctive tones of Hong Kong Phooey were voiced by Sherman ‘Scatman’ Crothers, who also sang the show’s funky theme tune (‘Hong Kong Phooey, number one superguy. Hong Kong Phooey, quicker than the human eye. He’s got a style, a groovy style, and a car that just won’t stop. When the going gets tough, he’s really rough, with a Hong Kong Phoeey chop, Hii-yah!’). Scatman was a popular voiceover artist, and he was not only known for Phooey, but for Scat Cat in The Aristocats and Jazz the Autobot in The Transformers. As an actor he appeared in One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest and The Shining and he was also a singer, dancer and musician.
Only 16 episodes of this animated classic were ever made by the formidable team of Hanna Barbera. It went out as a 30 minute double bill (with the exception of the final episode), starting life on Saturday mornings on US channel ABC and running from September 7th 1974 until 21 December that same year. It was then cancelled, but NBC bought the rights and showed the series all over again in between 1977 and 1979. When it was aired in the UK it inspired thousands of children to emulate their incompetent hero, high-kicking and karate-chopping their way happily across the playground at break time.