Top Ten: Favorite Cartoons (Childhood Edition)
If you haven’t seen the trailer for I Know That Voice, here you go:
I don’t know when this is coming out, but in honor of its eventual release, I’d like to offer up Part 1 of a two part examination of my favorite cartoons. In this edition, we’ll be looking at my favorite cartoons from when I was a child. A bit of a disclaimer: I’m basing this purely on the longevity of the show in my memory and the sharing of said memories with others of my age group. There’s also the added factor of the show’s impact on my generation and my own sense of humor. This doesn’t necessarily mean that all of the cartoons will be from the 80’s and 90’s, as my generation definitely benefited from reruns of older, “classic” cartoons as well. So, expect a bit of a variety.
Anyway, here’s my top ten.
Okay, technically there are multiple entries, but I like to break my own rules…’cause I’m a rebel? Whatever. The point is that these cartoons fit together categorically because they were all a part of Nickelodeon’s string of toons that were all different in style, humor, and perspective. Rugrats followed the adventures of a group of babies and toddlers, Real Monsters was the shenanigans of young monsters-in-training, and Rocko gave us the adultish day-to-day goings-on of a working wallaby. If you think about it, we got all the stages of growing up in three cartoons! Rocko’s Modern Life always stuck with me more for some reason. Probably because of his little dog Spunky who he endlessly had to look out for and his best friend, Heffer, who was a cow adopted by a family of wolves. Hilarity ensues! Also there was this hippo lady that Rocko always ran into and inevitably ended up offending, usually by landing between her breasts or hitting her in the ass. Cartoons, everybody! But what really set these cartoons apart, though, was the ugliness of the art. Though Real Monsters was purposefully ugly to showcase the premise of the show, I remember Rugrats being especially ugly given that it’s a show about babies. Nickelodeon seemed to be actively trying to separate their style of cartoons from their counterparts at Disney by utilizing a distinctly “off” aesthetic in opposition to the clean lines and striking color palate of Disney.
Again, I would probably include other Disney cartoons like Tale Spin, Chip ‘n’ Dale: Rescue Rangers, and Darkwing Duck because all of these shows were a part of the Disney Afternoon that took a lot of Disney’s familiar characters and placed them in more modern settings. But let’s be honest, we probably remember the theme songs more than the shows themselves. My God, those songs were infectious! Why Duck Tales gets the special mention is purely for one moment during trivia night at a local pub. One of the categories that night was Duck Tales. I’m not kidding, the second the category title was announced, the entire pub, full of mostly college students, went “woo hoo!” in response to the title, which made me very happy! Plus, there’s a lot of satisfaction in getting to write Launchpad McQuack as an answer to a question.
Strange though it is, Ren and Stimpy is probably one of the most influential cartoons of my generation. Think about it, before the adventures of everyone’s favorite cat and dog duo, before CatDog preseumably, cartoons were cleaner and far more straight forward in their humor. Ren and Stimpy essentially broke the mold on what was appropriate for a children’s cartoon, pulverized the remnants, and erected a memorial out of the shattered pieces of what once was. The influence of the gross-out humor emphasized by equally gross and ugly art has followed children’s cartoons to this day. And the show reveled in weirdness. A favorite episode of mine is “Space Madness” wherein Ren slowly and enthusiastically loses his ever-lovin’ mind! It’s fantastic in that Ren’s madness is equal parts hilarious and disturbing. Just watching him consume a bar of soap thinking it’s his “beloved ice cream bar” is enough to make your skin crawl while simultaneously laughing your ass off! Do I even need to mention “Happy, Happy, Joy, Joy”?
7. Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles
The subject of its own head-scratching controversy, the turtles have become quite the fan-boy conversation piece, as Anderson so eloquently opined. That the response to Michael Bay’s possible/probable destruction of a beloved franchise has been so loudly professed speaks to the power of the cartoon and its impact on an entire generation. I remember being a senior in high school and my friend who’d created our senior slide show put the theme song in the presentation, which resulted in the entire senior class singing the theme in front of the assembled student body! What I mostly remember about the show was just how fun it was! Four turtles with varying personalities, which meant ample arguments on the playground over who was the better turtle (Raphael is still my favorite)! Then you had villains like Shredder, Bebop and Rocksteady, and Krang! Oh, Krang, you weird brain-like megalomaniac! Plus, for a show largely geared towards boys, you had a pretty decent character in April O’Neil, the go-getting news reporter that occasionally (read: always) needed rescuing by our heroes. It’s really amazing that a concept for a comic book, that started off as a joke, has lasted this long and continues to inspire such animated responses from its fans.
As a kid I definitely remember collecting X-Men cards in the same way people collect baseball cards or Pokemon. They were probably the first products based on a form of media I actively sought out, too, since trading them on the bus or the playground was a big deal. I also remember trying to pronounce Psylocke and failing miserably, though I guarded my Storm card with my life as she was my favorite at the time. Of all the Marvel cartoons that came out in the early 90s, this is probably the one that most of my generation remembers fondly. Not that Spider-Man and the Fantastic Four weren’t good, but I don’t think they had the same impact as the X-Men, probably due to the fact that X-Men dared to go pretty dark for a cartoon aimed at kids. We definitely got a lot of brooding Wolverine as they laboriously delved into his backstory (Yuriko!!!!), but the exploration of many of the character’s lives and origins made for an ever-widening population of mutants for us to understand and sympathize with. It was really the first time some of the villains (mostly Magneto) were not only tragic characters, but you understood their point-of-view and didn’t necessarily root for the X-Men all the time. And in following many of the storylines from the actual comics (The Dark Phoenix Saga), the cartoon dared to explore issues of racism, equality, and justice without feeling preachy or condescending.
It’s hard to believe that Gargoyles was a Disney cartoon given the darkness (noticing a theme here?) inherent in the characters, stories, and style. But this was basically Disney trying to attract the same audience for Batman: The Animated Series by creating their version of a dark, brooding hero. With magic! And my God is Goliath a brooder in the most theatrical ways! To be fair, if you had the sultry voice of Keith David as your lead, wouldn’t you try to use him as much as possible? What I enjoyed most about the show was not so much the gargoyles themselves as the characters surrounding them. Xanatos (Johnathan Frakes of Star Trek fame) is a really likeable villain/ally and his loyal assistant Owen (Jeff Bennett – one of many roles he plays) is just as likeable despite the acerbic and wooden tone of voice. Demona (Marina Sirtris), Goliath’s former lover, is an amazing villain and the episodes that focused on her centuries-long struggle for survival are some of the strongest in the series. What is especially mindblowing is the use of Shakespearean characters to flesh out the fantastical elements of the show without getting too tongue-in-cheek. Macbeth, oddly enough, ends up being both a credible threat whilst maintaining his status as a tragic hero. Not that the other gargoyles aren’t entertaining. Watching the adventures of Brooklyn, Broadway, and Lexington or getting a life lesson from Hudson definitely serve their purpose, but the show was always strongest when it ventured beyond the insular group of gargoyles into the wider world they found themselves inhabiting.
If you’ve never watched Animaniacs…wait, I don’t understand, how could you NOT have watched it? That makes little or no sense. However, if you happen to be of what I’m hoping is the minority of people that didn’t watch this, then, brother, do yourself a favor and start watching now! Animaniacs was just one of those shows, ya know? It came along at the right time in my life when smart, witty, zany comedy was a necessity to get through the day. Like its predecessor, Looney Tunes, Animanicas was meta-humor before meta was a category to describe cartoons. By brilliantly placing its main characters within the Warner Bros. studio, the show could effectively comment on celebrities and movies in general (with frequent references to producer Steven Spielberg’s penchant for whimsical, awe-inspiring camera shots, “Mr. Spielberg loves this shot!”) with near pitch perfect parodies that entertained kids and adults. In the same vein as The Simpsons, Family Guy, and South Park, Animaniacs pulled from a vast history of comedy and pop culture that makes it just as fun, if not funnier, to watch episodes as an adult and laugh even harder at not only the jokes that went over my head as a kid, but the stuff that actually got past the censors! One example would be the infamous “finger Prince” line. And the songs! The songs in this show were fantastic! I can still, on any drunken night, get pretty far into the “Countries of the World” song that Rob Paulsen (the voice of Yakko) will sing in its entirety, if you happen to ask nicely. And if you’re a fan of musicals, then “I Am the Very Model of a Cartoon Individual” and the entire “Les MiserAnimals” segment will appeal to you. Part entertainment, part meta, part educational, Animaniacs had everything and more, which is probably why it’s staying power is so strong.
Given my history of writing about superheroes, was it a huge surprise that Batman makes the list? This is the definitive superhero cartoon for me and probably my generation. Kevin Conroy and Mark Hamill are the voices of Batman and the Joker, respectively, no matter how many different animated shows and movies try to change up the voices. What was so great about the show, you might ask? What wasn’t great? The opening theme alone sets the tone for the series. It was, again, a dark, grim vision of Gotham City with a film noir sensibility set against the beautiful art deco style of the 30s and 40s. All of this worked together to enhance the crime riddled world of Batman. Even the villains were essential to the show because, as the old adage goes, “a hero is only as good as his villains.” The Joker, Two-Face, The Penguin, Catwoman, Poison Ivy, Clayface, Mad Hatter, and more populated Gotham and gave Batman interesting, charismatic, and damaged foils to fight week after week. This is the show that gave us Harley Quinn, for crying out loud! Can you even imagine the Joker without Harley? Well, I’m sure you can, but their relationship is so…deranged that you can’t help but love how comically tragic they are as a pair. My favorite episodes are usually two-parters since it’s a longer story that lets the characters really shine, so “Two Face” and “Robin’s Reckoning” are episodes I really enjoy, but as a single episode, “Almost Got ‘Im” is probably my favorite. Though I’m never opposed to watching the whole series just for fun.
2. Looney Tunes
Remember when I told you some of these weren’t necessarily from when I grew up? Well here it is. Looney Tunes has probably had the most impact on me as a person in terms of shaping my sense of humor. My mother and her siblings grew up with these cartoons and I was fortunate to grow up in that prime time when Looney Tunes were shown regularly in reruns. And for those who know me, or if you happened to notice it in my writing, I basically operate on a default setting of sarcastic, which is all thanks to the Looney Tunes. Even in dialogue-free segments like Wile E. Coyote and The Roadrunner, there’s a heavy streak of sarcasm and wit running through each cartoon. Just the simple act of a character facing to the side and their eye casually swinging towards the audience for a brief shared moment of “yeah, riiiiiight,” is brilliant! Word play, satire, slapstick, Looney Tunes employed all types of humor to guarantee enjoyment by all. And you can’t deny the brilliance of Mel Blanc as the voice of virtually all the characters! The man was amazing! Add to that the direction of Chuck Jones and it’s all magic on the screen. Though I do love Bugs Bunny, I’ve always been a bit more partial to Daffy Duck. There’s a level of arrogance and greed to him that just makes me laugh, especially when he gets his comeuppance. One of my favorite Bugs and Daffy partnerships is “Ali Baba Bunny” which has Daffy, believing himself a very wealthy little black duck, cries, “I’m wealthy! I’m independent! I’m socially secure!” There’s also “Robin Hood Daffy” that finds Daffy as the titular hero and Porky Pig as the affable Friar Tuck. What does me in every time is Daffy going through the motions of sword fighting and always ending with his bill turned up, even when he’s just talking it through! Plus Porky’s laugh is hysterically infectious. There are a multitude of episodes I could talk about, but it all good, so go watch them on YouTube and prepare to laugh!
1. The Simpsons
Now, before you go saying that I should be including this in Part 2, allow me to explain. Though The Simpsons is still airing new episodes and I am very clearly an adult (mostly), the show’s best years, the seasons that had the most influence, the most quotable lines that I still throw at friends to this day, happened during my childhood and teens. This is a show that I still have to defend to my father that it’s worth watching because, just like Looney Tunes and Animaniacs, The Simpsons showcased multiple levels of humor. If you like physical humor, there’s plenty of slapstick and sight gags. Want something more highbrow? The first few seasons are rife with satire of the American family, politics, education, etc. Like pop culture? Many episodes were devoted to classical works and pop culture references are pretty much the bread and butter of the series now. My sophomore English teacher had us watch the episode “Das Bus,” because the story was structured around Lord of the Flies. The fact that they could slip in a Les Miserables reference into the show at least twice (for two different characters) always tickled me. It’s all there, people! What really grounds the show are the central characters, The Simpson family. You believe that this is a real family. You believe that Homer and Marge really love each other despite her enabling and his idiocy and that Bart, Maggie, and Lisa are as child-like as they are wise beyond their years. But with a cast of hundreds, I have to say that Sideshow Bob is the one I love the most! My most favorite of episodes, hands down, is “Cape Feare” which finds the Simpsons going into witness protection to escape Bob in his endless pursuit of Bart for sending him to jail multiple times. Joke for joke it has everything! H.M.S. Pinafore, German mistranslation, brownies and hockey masks! The rakes! Oh, the rakes are the best thing ever! EVER! And the episode was written by Conan O’Brien, so I can die and go to whatever afterlife exists as there is no way the world can get any sweeter. Apart from marriage, children, and a life well lived, I suppose. But my point remains valid! The Simpsons is, by far, a masterful cartoon, and I will most certainly be enjoying them with my children and grandchildren in the far, far future.
So, there you have it. My Top Ten Cartoons from my childhood. What do you think? Agree? Disagree? Tell me your top ten or any shows you think I might’ve overlooked.
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About Sam (68 posts)
I'm the lead writer for Noise Shark and I handle the creative content as well. And that voice of anger you'll hear emitting from the podcast? Oh, yeah, that's me. I'm so full of opinions it's ridiculous! My interests include movies, television, music, history, comic books...pretty much everything! No stone will be unturned, so expect a wide variety of articles from yours truly.
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