It’s not every day that a nation wakes up to discover its president is publicly claiming to have never heard of Mr. Magoo or Mr. Peepers. But these are extraordinary times for the United States, and so Saturday morning, its citizens faced a bizarre statement from the president claiming that he was unfamiliar with either of “these characters,” and therefore, could not have referred to Attorney General Jeff Sessions as “Mr. Magoo” or nicknamed Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein “Mr. Peepers.” Case closed! As the internet immediately noted, it seems unlikely that Trump, born in 1946, would have been unaware of children’s pop culture phenomena whose popularity peaked in his childhood and teenage years. But for those of us who, like the president, somehow managed to avoid all knowledge of Mr. Peepers, Mr. Magoo, and the other Mr. Peepers, Donald Trump’s tweet raises a lot of troubling questions. Who is Mr. Magoo, anyway? Who’s Mr. Peepers? Who is the other Mr. Peepers? Why are there two of them? And how likely is it Donald Trump has never heard of any of these people? Unlike so many other questions about Donald Trump and his administration, these have relatively clear answers.
Mr. Magoo, reportedly Trump’s nickname for Attorney General Jeff Sessions, was invented by legendary animator John Hubley in 1949. Hubley was then working at UPA, an animation studio formed by the people who’d left Disney after the bitter animators’ strike in 1941, and the character remained with the studio even when its creator didn’t. Magoo, a short, bald, old man voiced by Jim Backus, was originally conceived as a parody of right-wingers, but eventually became best-known for his poor eyesight and stubborn obliviousness. Shout! Factory released a box set of Magoo’s theatrical shorts in 2014; here’s a clip from 1954’s When Magoo Flew, which won the Academy Award for Best Animated Short Film. Magoo has mistakenly gotten onto an airplane while believing he’s in a movie theater:
And here’s Mr. Magoo causing mayhem in the construction and insurance industries both, in a clip from 1950’s Trouble Indemnity:
Besides being a constant presence at theaters when Trump was between the ages of three and thirteen (Mr. Magoo appeared in 54 theatrical shorts from 1949–1959; five were nominated for Oscars; two won), he was also all over television when Trump was a teenager. Not only were The Mr. Magoo Show, The Famous Adventures of Mr. Magoo, and What’s New, Mr. Magoo? explicitly based around the character, he also starred in a frequently-rebroadcast Christmas special. Mr. Magoo also returned to theaters in 1997, when Leslie Nielsen played him in a live-action film:
The Washington Post broke the news that Trump derisively called Sessions “Mr. Magoo” on March 1.
“Mr. Peepers,” Trump’s alleged nickname for Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein, is slightly more obscure than the omnipresent Mr. Magoo. But only slightly, at least for someone Trump’s age. In fact, there are two completely separate characters named Mr. Peepers Trump might be familiar with, one from his childhood and one from the late 1990s.
The first Mr. Peepers was Robinson J. Peepers, a mild-mannered, bespectacled science teacher played by Wally Cox on the NBC sitcom Mister Peepers. The show debuted in the summer of 1952—Trump had just turned six—and ran for three seasons, going off the air in 1955. Mister Peepers originally aired in New York on Thursdays at 9:30, but by the end of its run had settled into a more child-friendly slot on Sundays at 7:30. Here’s a clip from the UCLA Film & Television Archive’s restoration, in which Cox’s Peepers interacts with his frequent foil, a young Tony Randall:
For a clearer idea of what it might mean to nickname someone “Mr. Peepers,” here’s another clip in which Peepers wins an award from Bird Magazine:
But there’s another Mr. Peepers Trump could have in mind, and this one makes for an even less complimentary nickname: “Mr. Peepers” was also the name of a character played by Chris Kataan on Saturday Night Live. This Peepers, presumably named for his sitcom predecessor, was an evolutionary missing link who communicated in claps and grunts while messily devouring apples. Here’s the character’s debut, in the Sept. 28, 1996 episode hosted by Tom Hanks:
Kattan played Mr. Peepers in 12 sketches between 1996 and 2002. This was a more or less Trump-impersonation-free dead zone between Phil Hartman’s early-1990s Trump and the glory days of Darrel Hammond’s Trump in the aughts, and Peepers didn’t appear on the same night as a Trump impersonation, for whatever that’s worth—maybe the president didn’t watch SNL any of the nights Kattan did the character. And maybe he really has never heard of either of the two Mr.
Peepers, just like he never heard of the one and only Mr. Magoo. Maybe he completely avoided movies and television in the 1950s and 1960s and 1990s and never gave Sessions or Rosenstein any nicknames at all. In that case, he’ll be delighted to know he frequently reminds us of some classic shows of those eras. Specifically, he has Bozo’s hair, Howdy Doody’s fierce independence, and the effortless grace of The Chevy Chase Show, and if we’re all very lucky, his administration will have the staying power of Cop Rock.