This blog post is about how Tom and Jerry got its name, but it’s not really about Tom and Jerry. Not much, anyway.
Of course, you could argue that Tom and Jerry doesn’t belong in The TV Professor. After all, the cartoons started off as movie shorts. That said, the movie shorts have aired on TV a countless number of times, and there have been plenty of Tom and Jerry cartoons made only for TV, as Wikipedia helpfully notes, including The Tom and Jerry Show (1975), The Tom and Jerry Comedy Show (1980-1982), Tom and Jerry Kids (1990-1993), Tom and Jerry Tales (2006-2008) and The Tom and Jerry Show (2014-2021).
Today's "TV Lesson" Breakdown:
Which Came First -- the Drink or the Cartoon?
Anyway, if you’ve ever heard of the drink, a Tom and Jerry, and wondered which came first, the cat and the mouse, or the drink, it was… the drink.
And the cat and mouse were named after the drink. Probably.
And if you're wondering about tom cats, male cats have been called "tom cats" since around 1760, when a book, written by an anonymous author, came out. It was called The Life and Adventures of a Cat, and the male cat was named Tom. Maybe that sealed the deal for calling the cat in Tom and Jerry, Tom, but it was probably the drink that inspired the names.
I had no idea of the Tom and Jerry origin story until recently. I’m sure many of our cosmopolitan readers knew, but I didn’t. Like many of you, I grew up on Tom and Jerry. So did my daughters; I managed to get them hooked when they were young and didn't know how to use the remote, and we watched them together over and over. I had no clue that the famous cat and mouse duo were apparently named after an alcoholic beverage.
So here’s how Tom and Jerry got its name
More on the cocktail in a moment, but Tom and Jerry’s first cartoon debuted in theaters on February 10, 1940.
Throughout the 1930s, MGM, the studio behind Tom and Jerry, became a bit desperate for a winning cartoon formula. After all, Disney had Mickey Mouse. Paramount Pictures had Popeye the Sailor and Betty Boop. Warner Bros., Looney Tunes and Merrie Melodies. But MGM, with all of his musicals and movie prowess, had nothing to be especially proud of in the animation department.
But that changed with Puss Gets the Boot. That said, while that was the first Tom and Jerry cartoon, when it was made, it wasn’t actually an official Tom and Jerry cartoon.
In fact, in the cartoon, somebody refers to the cat as “Jasper.” Jerry's name isn't uttered.
The two creators behind Tom and Jerry, William Debney “Bill” Hanna and Joseph Roland “Joe” Barbera, recognized that the cat and mouse needed names – and they had two in mind: Jasper and Jinx. But the higher ups at MGM apparently weren’t crazy about the names and held a contest within the company to see if there were any better suggestions out there.
John Carr, an animator, reportedly won $50 (around $970 in today’s dollars, according to inflation calculators) for his submission.
Who was Carr? Mostly, all I can tell you, from a couple obituaries that I’ve read, is that he started out as a cartoonist for The New York World and moved to Hollywood in 1930. Ten years later, he was credited for naming Tom and Jerry – and he went onto have a lengthy career with the famous animation studio Hanna Barbera. Carr capped out his career working on The Flintstones. He retired in 1967 and died on August 6, 1974.
Carr liked a good drink now and then (more on that later), and having a sense of humor, he probably thought it would be clever to name the cat and mouse aimed at kids, after a grown up beverage.
That said, by 1940, Tom and Jerry was very much in the lexicon. As good of an idea as it was to go with those names – at least, it’s now impossible to imagine them being called anything else – Carr wasn’t offering up an idea that was completely original.
A little history behind the two names, Tom and Jerry
The drink, the Tom and Jerry, reportedly came about in the 1820s, and it has been said that the drink was named after two characters in an 1820 book written by Pierce Egan with a ridiculously long title: Life in London; Or, The Days and Nights of Jerry Hawthorne and his elegant friend Corinthian Tom.
Soon after, playwright William Moncrieff came out with an adaptation of the book, a play with a snappier title called, Tom and Jerry, or Life in London.
The drink can be made a number of ways, but a Tom and Jerry generally has spiced rum or brandy, or maybe both, as well as eggs or egg whites, and maybe some powdered sugar or nutmeg. There are a lot of different recipes online; it's a popular holiday drink. Many people enjoy it throughout any cold month.
However the drink came about, once people started sampling it, it really took off. If you look through newspaper archives in the 1800s, you can find numerous mentions of the beverage.
For instance, in an April 21, 1875 issue of the "Logansport Pharos," the paper of record for Logansport, Indiana, it was a reported that a man from Southern Indiana, "dressed a linen suit and straw hat, was visiting the various saloons in the city this morning, inquiring for a 'red hot Tom and Jerry.' He found it.” (Local newspapers really were, in many ways, what social media websites are today.)
And while it’s believed that the famous feline and world renowned rodent were named for the drink, unless the descendants of Carr would like to chime in, in the comments section, who is to say for sure?
Because, again, Tom and Jerry, by 1940, was a phrase people had heard before.
For instance, during the 1800s, there was Tom and Jerry smoking tobacco, manufactured by the company Spaulding & Merrick.
Tom and Jerry also became a popular phrase during the 1800s to describe young people who acted, well, riotous and destructive behavior, and so it may be that the animated duo weren’t really named after a drink but some very fitting slang.
Or, Tom and Jerry may have come to mind, if Carr was familiar with the newspaper comic strip, The Teenie Weenies, which ran from 1914 to 1970. There were two twins in the strip who were born and named – you guessed it.
But what’s even weirder is that from 1931 to 1933, RKO pictures distributed some movie short cartoons called – Tom and Jerry. They were two people, one really tall guy and one really short and plump guy. (Later, when these cartoons aired on TV, they were renamed Dick and Larry.)
These Tom and Jerry cartoons, not to be confused with the, uh, Tom and Jerry cartoons, were considered very innovative for its time, though the humans didn’t have much of a personality. Generally, today, animation historians refer to these cartoons as Van Beuren’s Tom and Jerry.
It’s very possible that John J. Carr was thinking of these cartoons, instead of the drink, when he put in his suggestion for names for the cat and mouse in MGM’s internal contest.
After all, one of his employers, Joseph Barbera, had worked on the Tom and Jerry cartoons from 1931 to 1933. As noted, Barbera was one of the creators of these new cartoons starring Jasper and Jinx.
Maybe Carr was trying to impress Barbera or believed his employer might have some say in the winning monikers -- and would particularly like those two names.
Or, for all we know, maybe Carr also had worked on the series and simply liked the names, Tom and Jerry, and tossed them in the hat.
Still, it seems more than likely that Carr was thinking of the drink when he offered up his submission into MGM's contest. He did enjoy his liquor -- too much in at least once instance.
In a newspaper archive, I found an article in the Van Nuys News from November 12, 1931, stating that John J. Carr, 31, of North Hollywood, had been arrested for drunk driving.
As the paper put it, Carr, a “cartoonist employed by motion picture studios, will have a fund of new ideas to depict on the screen after he serves a five-day jail sentence handed to him by Judge Joseph Call in the local court after he entered a plea of guilty to a drink in auto charge.”
Maybe he was drinking a few too many -- well, you know.
Where you can watch Tom and Jerry (at the time of this writing): The cable channel MeTV.com, on Saturday mornings at 8 a.m, EST., and you can stream the cartoons on HBOMax.com. I’m sure you can find it plenty of other places. This cat and mouse are… everywhere.
Articles similar to this one: There’s probably nothing quite like this particular blog post, though you may want to check out this one featuring a Popeye cartoon, in which we discuss the history of wall calendars. I think it’s far more interesting than it sounds, but I won’t be offended if you want to first fix yourself a Tom and Jerry to get through it.