“Bangin’ On A Trash Can…”
One of the defining memories of my ’90s childhood — and many of yours, I’m sure — was waking up at 8 a.m. on Saturday mornings to watch cartoons. Back then, the cartoons on Nickelodeon, Disney, Warner Bros. and all the other cartoon networks were hand-drawn. The humor was palpable and original. The animation was fresh and rarely repeated itself. Looking at the unoriginal and humorless vectored cartoons of today, I often think the creators must have thought their concepts up in the company bathroom. What the hell happened to good cartoons?
There were a lot of cartoons that warranted waking up early on Saturday mornings in the ’90s. Steven Spielberg’s “Animaniacs,” a WB cartoon, was one of the more popular ones. The show followed three quasi-insane 1930s cartoon characters — Yakko, Wakko and Dot — who escape their water tower prison and wreak humor and havoc throughout the WB studio.
The show’s humor leaned heavily on making jokes about the business of the cartoon itself. It also made fun of history, politics and a broad range of educational topics from time to time. While the show’s intended audience was of a younger age, it utilized a surprisingly frequent mix of old-fashioned wit, slapstick and pop-culture humor that appealed to a broad adult audience. The show constantly poked fun at Bill and Hillary Clinton, Suddham Hussein, Steven Spielberg and featured a “Wheel of Morality” which was the producers’ idea to get in good with parents.
Many characters and jokes were based on pop-culture references such as the R-rated movie “Goodfellas,” Jerry Lewis and “The Pirates of Penzance.” Spielberg created other spinoffs of the show with WB. “Freakazoid, ”a cartoon about a young man with the ability to turn into a quasi-insane superhero had humor quite similar to that of the “Animaniacs.”
Another spinoff was “Pinky and the Brain,” which followed the escapades of two lab mice, Pinky and Brain, trying to take over the world. Because the “Animaniacs” material appeals to such a broad audience, viewers who come back to it in their teen and adult years often find themselves catching jokes they did not understand as children.
“Rocko’s Modern Life” was a short-lived Nicktoon that garnered an impressive legion of fans in its four seasons of existence. The series centers on Rocko, a wallaby who emigrates from Australia to O-Town, America, where he is faced with the various challenges of dealing with everyday life. He befriends Heffer, a cow raised by wolves, Filbert, a neurotic turtle, and lives with his semi-intelligent-yet-idiotic dog Spunky.
The show’s reality felt like a parody of real life filled with social commentary and double entendres. The show mixed both satire and the series creator’s wacky sense of humor for a rather surreal experience. “We Own You” is the slogan of the ever-present Conglom-O Corporation, which controls nearly everything in O-town, even City Hall. The corporation’s logo is a martini glass with Earth in place of an olive, an obvious crack at the power of American corporations. Heck is a place where “bad people” go when they die, a place run by a Reaper-esque character known only as “Peaches.” Like “Animaniacs,” “Rocko’s Modern Life” appealed to both a large young and adult audience.
Nickolodeon’s “Doug” found itself an almost cult-like following because of its sheer simplicity. The series followed the day-to-day adventures of Doug Funny, a seventh grader having just moved to the town of Bluffington from Bloatsburg.
The events of each episode focused on the recollections of Doug’s diary entry for the day. Doug experiences a lot of trouble settling into his new home, especially when it comes to finding a place for himself at a school where nobody knows him. He soon befriends the off-kilter Skeeter, develops a crush on Patty Mayonnaise and becomes fast rivals with Roger Klotz. The show made a name for itself by using unusual skin tones, but even more so by portraying the world through Doug’s eyes as an unpredictable and difficult place to understand.
Doug also develops imagined alter-egos — superhero Quail-Man and smooth spy Jack Bandit — in order to help him make the right decision whenever he’s faced with a moral dilemma. Many times, Doug in fact makes the wrong choice and only learns from his mistakes through the help of his friends and family. The show is all about growing up, and while many viewers watched it because it spoke to the pubescent insecurity they were currently experiencing, older viewers found in it a heavy sense of nostalgia about what it’s like to be so unsure and naïve about the world.
Many other cartoons defined our ’90s childhoods — “Rugrats” and “Looney Tunes,”: to name a few. Sadly, today’s cartoons are mere mockeries of what we grew up on: Sonic X, Kim Possible and whatever crimes against humanity the Disney Channel is broadcasting these days. Computer-drawn and lacking in style, wit, education and morality, all of these new cartoons have to offer is 20 minutes of empty distraction from reality. They have no themes for viewers to relate to.
The cartoons of the ’90s were brief gems that changed the concept of the conventional children’s show. Cartoons could be witty as well as silly, educational and entertaining, smart and stupid, so much so that even adults enjoyed them. Each show’s inherent formula had aspects that appealed to viewers of all ages, and raised the Saturday morning cartoon to something more than just hand-drawn characters beating the stuffing out of one another. I think it would be too naïve to hope for last decade’s genius in cartoons to resurface, but at least we got to be the generation who grew up with them.