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A little over a week ago, a significant confirmation of pop-culture status hovered high above Central Park West and Broadway, televised for an entire nation to see: the Bullwinkle balloon, redesigned with Rocky affixed to the moose's back, returned to the Macy's Thanksgiving Day Parade after a 13-year absence.

Rocket J. Squirrel and Bullwinkle J. Moose's drily satirical cartoon show, popular among adults and children alike, began in 1959 and floated from network to network and time slot to time slot for 156 episodes, until 1964.The show then appeared regularly in reruns until 1973, and it has popped up in reruns off and on for the past 23 years.

In 1991, with much fanfare, Disney released "The Adventures of Rocky and Bullwinkle" on home video. So, like Lucille Ball, Jackie Gleason and Dick Van Dyke, the clever squirrel and his addled moose pal have maintained a place in America's comedic consciousness. But recently they seemed to have gained a new prominence.

In June, "The Rocky and Bullwinkle Show" had its debut on the Cartoon Network, and it has become a popular fixture on that cable channel at 11 on weeknights and at 11 a.m. and 9 p.m. on Sundays, once again reaching beyond the typical cartoon audience.

"It turns out, oddly enough," said Linda Simensky, the network's director of programming, "that `Rocky and Bullwinkle' is in our top five shows among teens, which is an elusive group. They don't seem to be watching a lot outside of MTV and a few other channels."

And this fall, Bantam published "The Rocky and Bullwinkle Book," a glossy collection of plot summaries and quirky facts. (What is Bullwinkle's hometown? Frostbite Falls, Minn., of course.)

"Rocky and His Friends," as the show was called when it had its premiere on ABC, was easily the quirkiest cartoon show of its era. There were cute animals and slapstick to entertain children, but there was something more for viewers of all ages: topical social humor and sophisticated whimsy.

The serialized Rocky and Bullwinkle adventures were usually farcical sendups of the cold war, pitting decent American animals against Boris Badenov and Natasha Fatale, the most dastardly dirty-tricksters of Pottsylvania, a vaguely Eastern bloc repository of totalitarian evil.

In one memorable story, Boris and Natasha sabotaged the United States economy by counterfeiting that most fundamental of American currencies, the premium cereal box top.

In other regular segments of the show, "Mr. Peabody's Improbable History" dismantled the most honored exploits of the past, as Peabody, a wealthy dog, traveled back through time with his adopted boy, Sherman; "The Adventures of Dudley Do-Right" skewered square-jawed heroism, and "Fractured Fairy Tales" and "Aesop and Son" turned age-old stories upside down.

Through it all, the characters, who were drawn in a way that was at once crude and full of droll personality, offered their opinions on plot devices, the show's ratings and the network's censors.

After two years of appearing on weekday afternoons, "Rocky and His Friends" switched from ABC to NBC and became "The Bull-winkle Show." Broadcast by NBC on Sunday evenings at 7, it was one of the first cartoon shows to be broadcast in prime time, following "The Flintstones."

The program's appeal to both children and adults was a key factor in Bantam's decision to publish the new book. "The show has lived on in the minds of those 3 1/2 decades of viewers," said Irwyn Applebaum, Bantam's president. "Everyone has a sense, I think, at any age, that it's a little smarter than it looks, initially, and it kind of sneaks up on you, that gentle attitude that still carries some bite."

While shows like "The Simpsons" have made irreverent animation commonplace, it was virtually unheard of in 1959, when Jay Ward created "Rocky and His Friends."

Actually, Ward, a Harvard Business School graduate who in 1949 had been a creator of "Crusader Rabbit," the first cartoon made for television, did not produce "Rocky" alone; his partner was Bill Scott, a skillful writer and voice actor (the voice of Bull-winkle, no less).

Nevertheless, Ward, who died in 1989, is singled out as the show's guiding force. Neither a writer nor an artist, he devised a creative setting that his staff found invaluable.

Physically, that setting was a modest Los Angeles building - "a strange, little gingerbready house," recalled Allan Burns, a writer for Ward who later was one of the creators of "The Mary Tyler Moore Show."

The building was incongruously situated across Sunset Boulevard from the swanky Chateau Marmont. Jay Ward Productions may have been short on capital, but Ward spared nothing when outfitting his offices.

"Ward created a playpen sort of atmosphere," said Louis Chunovic, author of "The Rocky and Bullwinkle Book," "complete with toys, candy, a popcorn machine and a calliope."

Ward was the ringmaster of this circuslike studio. "It was a wonderful place to work because of the freedom," Burns said. "Jay wouldn't come in and say, `Do such-and-such.' He'd say, `Figure out something you'd want to do.' That was Jay's style. `Be thinking of new stuff.' "

Creative freedom without talent, of course, would not have produced memorable comedy, but Ward had a talent for spotting inventive young writers. He also set the adult tone of "Rocky."

Tiffany Ward, Ward's daughter, who is the managing director of Jay Ward Productions, characterized her father's approach this way: "Some people might have said, `OK, I'm producing a cartoon; therefore, it's for children.' Dad was saying that this is humor, not just children's humor, and he believed with every ounce of his soul that if there was more humor in the world, then the world would operate better."

Burns learned a practical lesson. "Jay's philosophy," he said, "was this: You're not that much smarter than everybody else, so if you do what you think is funny, chances are there's going to be a lot of people out there who are going to find it funny. And don't write down."

Years later, Burns put this philosophy to work as he and James L. Brooks created "The Mary Tyler Moore Show." "We were told by CBS that what we were doing was a little too smart for the room, that we should be doing more sitcomy sort of stuff," Burns said. "And we resisted that. I always knew there would be somebody out there who got it, and lo and behold, people did. I believe that it was a lesson that I learned from Jay 10 years before."

Chunovic says that the show is uncannily relevant today, despite humor linked closely to the events of its times. "There are jokes in `Rocky and Bullwinkle' about welfare," he said. "There are jokes about cable television. There are tons of jokes about venal politicians. There are jokes about the military and the military mind-set. It sounds like it was torn from the headlines, only the headlines were in the early '60s."