Hey hey hey, the cartoons are OK

There’s an almost Orwellian poignancy in the fact that mine is probably the very last generation to have the full experience of the Saturday Morning Cartoon, one of the purest childhood joys ever invented.

Sure, kidlets today have their on-demand DVDs, their round-the-clock Blues Clues and Baby Einsteins…but nothing will ever match the sheer bliss of those opening hours of the fresh new weekend, the TV blaring, bright beacon of freedom from responsibility.
You could get away with anything, those mornings. You could get up reallyreally late and stay in your jammies until noon and lie aroundthe couch no matter how nice a day it was outside and eat random hunks of last night’s dessert for breakfast with maybe a pizza chaser and your parents couldn’t do a thing about it because it was Saturday mwah-ah-ha-HAAAAAA…

…ahem. Actually, now that I think about it not much has changed in twenty-five years, here at Shoe Central. So let’s just skip the charming nostalgia, shall we? and head straight to the cartoons themselves.

Because that’s what I’ve been doing a lot of lately, after winning a gift card in an office raffle and subsequently prowling the TV-DVD aisles of my local Rogers Video. All fired up with the zeal of nostalgia for a truly sweet and decent corner of the universe, I embarked on a quest to rediscover my childhood favourites…

…And you know what’s coming next, right?

Let’s just say that if you ever do try going home again, don’t arrive Saturday morning. Especially not clutching a VHS copy of The Funky Phantom. The lame formulas, the lamer gags, the Mack-sized plot holes, the half-baked reliance on ‘celebrity cameos’ (in case you ever wondered how the C-list kept afloat before reality TV was invented)….the animation. Oh, the animation.
‘Bad’ doesn’t quite cover it, really. My ongoing revelation re: my coolness lack hit a positive nadir, with the realisation that I once considered these suckers high art. Well, maybe not high exactly…but I sure didn’t notice Superman’s hair changing from black to blond and back at the time, or ‘the gang’ rushing off to find missing charactersin groups that routinely included the missing character. And these weren’t your local hacks who didn’t know any better – these were the people who made the original Tom’n’Jerry series! For freakin’ MGM!
It purely mystifies me, why Hanna-Barbera aren’t the poster children for Oscar-winning sellouts. (Cuba Gooding, for instance: “Talking dog movie? Hey, you caught an episode of The Blue Falcon/Dynomutt Hour, lately?”)

Oh, and the laugh tracks, I’d completely forgotten those. Laugh tracks in a Saturday-morning cartoon, now there was one of your less intuitive strokes of brilliance. As if the viewership of Sabrina and the Groovy Goolies needed perpetual reassurance that they hadn’t accidentally stumbled into a matinee of Apocalypse Now.

Sure, there were always the exceptions, shining like diamonds among the ruins of my retroactive self-respect: The Bugs Bunny-Roadrunner Hour, no explanation necessary. Scooby-Doo, Where Are You? – the formula template. The sublime anarchy of Rocky and Bullwinkle. The Pink Panther and Friends (the original, not the one with kids attached), in which another genre legend, Friz Freleng, proved you could cut animation corners and still retain cartoon class. And of course The Smurfs…largely as a protest against those recent anti-war cartoons. I’m not saying that those squeeky-voiced  Smurflings weren’t ripe for a maiming – but Clumsy, man! They got Clumsy! [snif]

But still…Woe for my childhood innocence, to be replaced with the realisation that those stuffy mother’s groups may have had a point after all. Although maybe not quite the one they were intending. (To think of all that time spent meticulously editing Looney Tunes to remove, say, two frames of the Coyote actually hitting the ground, that could’ve been so much more productively used to ship Scrappy-Doo to the pound and throw away the key. No, wait – hang the key up juuuuuust out of his scrawny reach. ‘Puppy Power’ this, you little freakazoid.)

In the end, I left Rogers with two discs clutched to my newly-responsible breast…

Fat Albert and the Cosby Kids. Man, I loved that show. I can’t even tell you why a white girl from the suburbs (with a strong dislike for being preached at, to boot) should even have given it a second glance. Maybe I was just too stuffed with pizza by then to get up and change the channel. Or perhaps, on whatever primitive level my intuition had reached by then, I recognised it as real.

It is Bill Cosby’s peculiar genius to be able to create believable characters – on the small screen, at least – untainted by even a speck of his own vastly self-righteous ego, and Fat Albert was possibly the last pure manifestation of the gift (in fact the show was the subject of his doctoral thesis, hence literally spawned that ‘William H. Cosby, Ed.D’ credit in later projects). The original Cosby Kids may have been wholesome, but they were never impossible. As one critic put it, their goodness was their edge, and that still shines through every tech drawback described above, even after all these years.

Ol’ Dr.Cos was even generous enough, back then, to cast his younger self as a mere second banana – albeit an attractive, soft-spoken second voice of banana reason, but that’s understandable. Anyone who grew up surrounded by the likes of Old Weird Harold, Bucky, Dumb Donald (at the time my best explanation for that pink thing over his face was an unfortunate mollusc attack), and especially Mushmouth can be excused for having a touch of ‘everyone’s-crazy-but-me-and-thee’ in their self-image.
What’s less forgivable is the good Dr’s recent attempts to airbrush his own seminal contributions to Ebonics; the series kids’  primitive ‘snaps’ made them famous (“you like school in summer – no class”), but the movie just can’t wait to find a little white girl to  teach Mushmouth proper English.

(Not, I concede, that that particular Kid didn’t need all the help he could get. I seriously think Mushmouth taught me the real meaning of pity, as a preteen: Fish-faced, buck-toothed, sway-backed, pot-bellied, his pants held up by rope – replaced, I note, by suspenders in the movie – you just couldn’t avoid the conclusion that his mom and dad were likely also his aunt and uncle. If the drift is clear.)

…Schoolhouse Rock
. Thirty-year anniversary DVD? You kidding me? For years and years I’d been hoarding the Bill, Interplanet Janet, Verb, Mother Necessity and the rest of the gang in my own private memory corner, certain that I was the only Gen-Xer nerdy enough to cherish educational shorts on Saturday mornings.
Well..no. As it turned out, there’s a massive chunk of North American adulthood out there for whom the Preamble to the Constitution is permanently set to 70’s EZ-rock. (Everybody! “We the Peo-ple, in order to form a more perfect union/Establish justice, ensure domestic tran-qui-li-teeeee…”) Knowing that my favourite cartoon moments included the following, after all, patched up the last rents in my ego:

Conjunction Junction: Featuring of course That Song (“…what’s your function?”), whose chorus reaches giddy heights of catchiness undreamt-of by mortal kidsong. Cute and lively character design’s a bonus (“Get thin OR fat – naw, I wouldn’t do that, I’m fat enough now!”).

I’m Just a Bill: Brilliant characterizations (I can still remember how sincerely I rooted for that ‘sad little scrap of paper’
the first time I saw him as a kid); quite genuinely great bluesy song (don’t even have to quote it, do I?); plus – unique among the America Rock shorts – a clear, complete, 100% angst-free explanation of the subject at hand. Everything just came together for three minutes to create an animated masterpiece.

Verb: That’s What’s Happening!: Hey, I’m just talkin’ ’bout verbs, can you dig it? Obviously inspired by the 70’s ‘blaxploitation’ craze…and somehow translates it to kidlit without losing the adult funkiness, complete with adoring female chorus: “I can question like, What is it?/Verb! You’re so demanding!/I can order like, Go get it!/Verb! You’re so commanding!

Mother Necessity: Not the most indepth exploration of the Industrial Revolution ever – “things were rotten in the land of cotton”, forsooth – but the idea of inventors as impressionable kids is inspired comedy-wise at least. I especially like how, in a tiny perfect burst of real Americana,  they carefully note that Thomas Edison grew up to be “smart – and very rich!”

My Hero, Zero – A perfect example of the SR refusal to condescend to their audience, no matter how hopped up on Corn Pops it might have been at the time. Sweetly melancholy song with an awe-full message (“You can count as high as you could ever go/Forever, towards infinity/No one ever gets there, but you can try…*)  made more of an impression than any lecture from Captain Planet ever could.

Figure Eight – Actually, for some reason a lot of the Multiplication Rock segments leaned towards the offbeat and/or surreal (Three is a Magic Number references ‘the ancient mystic Trinity’, and Little Twelvetoes the base-12 alien blew my preteen mind completely)…but this one’s just plain odd.
I mean – unlike those examples – there really is no inspirational source of creepiness re: the 8x tables. So no point whatsoever to the utter isolation of the charming schoolhouse, that piercingly ethereal vocal…that sweet little skater whose resemblance to Patty ‘Bad Seed’ McCormack I could never be quite sure was coincidental…”If you skate/Upon thin ice/You’d be wise/If you thought twice/before you made another single move.”)

Interjections! – “…show excitement/Or emotion/They’re usually set apart from a sentence by an exclamation mark/Or by a comma, when the feeling’s not a strong…” Now I ask you, what other educational series could work that information into a truly hilarious song? “Hurray! I’m for the other team!”

Unpack Your Adjectives – There was a point, in the impressionable youth of which I speak above, when I really, seriously envied the girl in this skit. Smart, self-possessed, allowed to go traipsing all over the countryside sans homework-happy parents…
Ahem. Another bit of terrific characterization, anyhow, and a noticeably unsentimental (another thing that made this series great) way to get the point across.

Telegraph – I’m kinda meh about the Science Rock series as a whole; after Interplanet Janet – which really is very cute – this is probably the best of the bunch. I like the telegraph line as a metaphor for the nervous system; apparently medical schools have actually requested this segment to show students. The one drawback is that the kid performing the song…well, gives it the ol’ elementary school try, I guess.

…So yeah, there was music and fun. And darned if I didn’t learn something, before I was done – even if
it was only to never, ever give your superhero a sidekick in a pink suit, no matter how many Doctorates it earns you at the time.

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18 Comments (+add yours?)

  1. anonymous
    Jan 01, 2001 @ 00:00:00

  2. rj_anderson
    Feb 11, 2006 @ 19:55:24

    Oh, but you forgot my favorite: “Lolly, Lolly, Lolly, get your adverbs here…”

    And then there was that ugly round yellow guy with the top hat singing the praises of healthy dairy products. Which was not SCHOOLHOUSE ROCK, I know, but was so frequently played during commercial breaks that I came to think of it as a sort of sad SR-wannabe. “I hanker for a hunk-a / a sliver, slab, or chunk-a / I hanker for a hunk of CHEESE!”

  3. shoebox2
    Feb 11, 2006 @ 20:06:35

    Oh, Lolly, of course. D’y’know, the three Lollies are actually all the same singer, Bob Dorough? He also sings all of Multiplication Rock, and as the story goes on the commentary track, the producers were trying to find a tactful way of telling him they were bored silly by his straight vocals…

    Anyway, yeah, I remember the Cheese Guy – as I recall, his other major contribution to the lore was a skit demonstrating how to make freezer pops. Frankly, his big effect on me was to make cheese look so unappetising it was literally years before I could be swayed from safe Cheddar.

  4. shing_
    Feb 11, 2006 @ 20:48:34

    I sadly missed the wonders of the Saturday morning cartoon ritual. What could cause such a travesty, you ask?

    BLOODY CHINESE SCHOOL SATURDAY MORNINGS!!!!!!

    Evil evil people who thought of that particular torture. My parents didn’t switch us to Friday evening Chinese school til it was too late. *still bitter*

  5. kissedbythegods
    Feb 11, 2006 @ 22:05:44

    I think it extended at least a half (quarter? one tenth?) generation beyond yours, since we grew up on Saturday morning cartoons as well. Mind you, the ones that I watched were of the Ninja Turtles and Inspector Gadget variety. I may have been deprived of shows such as Conjunction Junction, but many of my friends certainly were not.

  6. walnut_2
    Feb 12, 2006 @ 12:31:10

    I watched The Jetsons. George Jetson’s disdain for his boss, Mr. Spacely, speaks to me.

    I still love Bugs Bunny, such a clever rabbit.

    Peppy LePew needs therapy. Never mind that he was a sex starved skunk, he chased a helpless cat like she was a piece of meat. He could have at least hunted within his own species.

  7. nia_starr
    Feb 12, 2006 @ 16:54:36

    My experience with Saturday morning cartoons included such gems as “La Abeja Maya” (Maya the little bee) as well as the Smurfs, except in Uruguay & Spain they were dubbed “Los Pitufos”! Oh, can’t forget to mention a cool racing car cartoon called “Mazinger Z”!! I vaguely recall ones like the Jetsons and Tom & Jerry, but I have a sneaking suspicion they were dubbed in Spanish…

  8. solo_1
    Feb 13, 2006 @ 09:40:46

    Growing up in England we did not have a lot of cartoons on Saturday mornings….I guess only having 3 TV chanels at the time had something to do with it! My luverly parents did however splurge for my brother & I to go to the local cinema on Saturdays & watch cartoons there..good times!.

    Add me to the Bugs Bunny love, he still makes me laugh.

  9. shoebox2
    Feb 13, 2006 @ 20:13:27

    Chinese school? [is aware of the need for extreme sympathy, but at the moment is too fascinated to provide it in full] So this would be where you learned the language, or the culture, or…?

  10. shoebox2
    Feb 13, 2006 @ 20:15:32

    Well, that’s heartening to hear, thanks. 🙂 (Nice icon, too!)

    As I recall Inspector Gadget correctly, yeah, it more than qualifies for the Chintziest Cartoon Ever sweepstakes. Gotta love Don Adams’ voice, though…

  11. shoebox2
    Feb 13, 2006 @ 20:23:38

    Hee. Walnut, call me crazy, but I’m getting the distinct impression your workplace environment is less than inspiring?

    <>

    Yeah…there’s the utterly charming story Chuck ‘Pepe’s creator’ Jones tells in Chuck Reducks (vol. II of his life in toonage; like everything he ever touched creatively, highly recommended).

    Seems he woke one morning to discover a lady skunk and her newborn litter had taken up residence under his porch, and naturally assumed that Pepe had sent her “to ze home of ze Joneses…Zey will take care of everythink.”

  12. shoebox2
    Feb 13, 2006 @ 20:24:53

    Maya the Little Bee…now, why should that sound really familiar to me? It wasn’t shown here by any chance, was it? Maybe redubbed into French?

  13. walnut_2
    Feb 13, 2006 @ 22:06:23

    ze Joneses, very cool; I’ll have to find Chuck Reducks’ vol. II in the library.

    A book? Yes, now I remember. I used to read those a year ago. I have shelves full of them to prove it…

    My boss? In truth, we’re very compatible at work. I’m a Taurus and he’s an idiot!

  14. nia_starr
    Feb 14, 2006 @ 10:55:36

    It’s entirely possible that it was imported to Canada. My kids never watched it if it was… Turns out it is a Japanese cartoon based on a 1912 European children’s classic by Waldemar Bonsel. Here is a link:
    Maya the Bee

  15. anonymous
    Feb 17, 2006 @ 12:20:51

    Ahhh Shoe…such fond memories..and yes, add me to the list of Jones/Freleng cartoon
    fans…my fav…Leghorn Foghorn and Miss Prissy..I sssay..

    Walnut..I live with a Taurus..does that make me and idiot? LOL!

  16. shoebox2
    Feb 17, 2006 @ 20:10:44

    Hi, MercuryMoose! Not to worry…(Except, oh crud, I think I deleted your edited comment. Sorry about that.)

    My favourite Foghorn Leghorn cartoon – I havne’t seen it in years, so the details are a little fuzzy – but it involved Daffy as a travelling salesman selling dog-catching gadgets to Foghorn, and the Dog and the little Chicken Hawk teaming up in the end to give him his own back, and somehow the last shot is of Daffy in a bottle. Somebody please tell me I’m not hallucinating all this?

  17. shoebox2
    Feb 17, 2006 @ 20:13:16

    Yeah, I have always adored the Bunny. (Also, for some reason, the Roadrunner/Coyote cartoons. Not sure why, because physical slapstick usually doesn’t hold much appeal for me.)

    When you saw the cartoons at the cinema, were they showing homegrown product or American imports? I know very little about the early UK animation industry, and am intrigued…

  18. solo_1
    Feb 20, 2006 @ 12:53:34

    Mostly American Imports…..UK animation as far as I recall back then was not too prolific..although we had some great ones for small kids that were on around 12:30pm during the week, it was a show called “Watch With Mother” and gave us the wonderfully insane..”Bill & Ben the Flowerpot Men” I can still hear them talking in my head…..

    Another UK classic..which was created in 1965 (at least I think it was) is “Magic Roundabout”…Zebedee, Dougal, Brian (the snail), Ermintrude (the pink cow) and Dylan, (the spacey rabbit) all have a special place in my heart.

    No wonder limeys of my generation are weird…you would be too if you grew up with this stuff….

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