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Tuesday, June 17, 2008

Back When Cartoons Were for Saturday Mornings (and vice versa)

I'd like to talk about cartoons. I'll have plenty to say in a moment about the hideously "zany" antics of the geometric-headed shout-talkers that pass for cartoon children on most channels these days. But I want to start with the cartoons of my youth. I remember as a child getting off the bus and racing home for what we all called our "three o'clock snack." Occasionally, it was warm peanut butter cookies spread out on grocery bags that had been cut open to lay flat on every horizontal surface in the kitchen. Most often, what I recall was cinnamon graham crackers spread with strawberry jam. Oh, how I loved them. (I don't know that you could pay me to savor that combination now, but that's neither here nor there.)

On weekdays, we would take our snacks and retire to the family room to watch TV, which was most often Mr. Ed (everybody now: "a horse is a horse, of course, of course, but no one can talk to a horse, of course, that is, of course, unless the horse, is the faa-aaa-aaamous Mr. Ed") and Scooby Doo. We loved the mysteries The Gang encountered. And for reasons I cannot quite understand, we were always mystified -- even though the answer is always the carnival owner dressed up as a ___ [fill in the blank] using glow-in-the-dark paint.

We weren't allowed to watch TV all afternoon on school days, though, and so after an hour, we would lose ourselves in books or other games. But on Saturdays, well... Saturday morning cartoons were a ritual. This was before cartoons were on 24/7 on multiple channels. This was back when a WHOLE morning of cartoons was a luxury one awaited all week with nearly the same anticipation as a birthday, only gratifyingly more often. We were up early, and we would run into the family room and turn on the giant console TV (really, the box was bigger than the screen), and throw ourselves into our favorites:

Baggy Pants and the Nitwits
Hong Kong Phooey
Super Friends
Loony Tunes

We did dances to their theme music. We knew all the lyrics. We reveled in their plot lines. And when cartoons were over for the morning, we rehashed what we had seen. I don't recall actually playing that we were these characters, though, and I think this point is important, as you'll see in a minute.

One thing that amazes me, as I think back to these cartoons, is their sheer inanity. You will find no "real world" problem solving here. No playground crises navigated successfully, no modeling of positive behaviors, certainly no moral dilemmas about homework or friendship, no resolutions about truth-telling or sharing, no messages about those less fortunate, no enriching lessons of any kind, least of all foreign languages (witness the "chicka chung chicka chung chicka chicka chicka chung" portion of Hong Kong Phooey's theme song; seriously, if you're too young to remember this: the lyrics actually said that).

Instead, we spent hours watching an anthropomorphic dog, who worked as a janitor in a police station, jump into a filing cabinet at the first sign of crisis and emerge as his alter-Super-ego, the kung fu master Hong Kong Phooey. We laughed and laughed and laughed as Wile E. Coyote dynamited, stabbed, and flattened with an anvil himself because the Road Runner was too smart for his traps. Ditto the "poor putty tat" Sylvester who could not outwit Tweety to save his life. We believed that Wonder Woman flew an invisible plane, and we wanted a magic ring that would enable the three of us to be the Wonder Twins so that our power could "ACTIVATE! form of..." anything we wanted.

I can recall absolutely nothing about Baggy Pants and the Nitwits except a scrap of the theme music, so I had to look this one up (everything else comes straight from my memory as if I'd watched it yesterday). Apparently Baggy Pants was a 10-15 minute silent cartoon -- no talking, no laugh track, nothing -- in which a cat appropriated Charlie Chaplin's clothes and gags. Bizarre, right? Then, get this: the Nitwits half of this 30-minute show was based on a sketch from Laugh In where some homely woman gets hit on every episode by a old guy and then bonks him on the head with her purse. Except in the Nitwits, they were crime fighters. Obviously. That's so much more kid appropriate.

And now we come to the point of this rambling animated roll down memory lane: has anyone else noticed how offensive kids' shows have become in the process of becoming more "kid friendly" these days? I don't mean offensive to one's politics or social standards. I think it's pretty clear nothing beats Hong Kong Phooey for racial insensitivity, for example. I mean offensive to one's sensibilities, aesthetic and otherwise, and basic human being-ness. The cartoons on Noggin generally aside, most cartoons for kids seem to me to be characterized by the three v's: volume, violence, and vigor. Everything happens loud, fast, and with a maximum of crashing and burning.

And unlike the stylized violence of Elmer Fudd, Yosemite Sam, Wile E. Coyote, Sylvester, and Marvin the Martian, things actually die fiery deaths in kids' cartoons these days. Transformers and other robots shoot to kill. And shows without death and fire still have a kind of manic violence to their movements that I find frightening: kids shriek past one another at warp speed cackling with evil laughter. Although no one can deny that Loony Tunes cartoons are incredibly violent, the violence in today's cartoons seems to me to be so much more insidious, in large part because it is glorified rather than ridiculed. Violence made Elmer Fudd ridiculous. It makes Transformers powerful. That is a substantial shift in message that should not be ignored.

Even in many shows with no death and violence, I find there is no time to process anything: it's just one electrified image after another. Nothing is beautiful. Precious little is slow. Not one iota is subtle. Can you imagine a cartoon succeeding these days with no sounds?! My nerves feel all jangly after just a moment of these shows, which happens only occasionally as we are channel surfing. What must it do to dull the senses if one watches even an hour of such programming a day?

Perhaps most importantly, kids are the protagonists in many of these shows. Granted, most of the kids look like a speeded up version of a Picasso painting -- all hard angles and blue hair -- but nonetheless, they are recognizably kids, in school, facing kid dilemmas. (Well, kid dilemmas on speed, most of the time.) In all the cartoons I grew up watching, I can't think of a single character who was an elementary school kid. The Scooby Doo gang drove their own van, you may recall. Bad Guys and rescuing heroes were either grown-ups or talking animals -- neither of which were much close to our states of life. Perhaps, had I grown up with two brothers instead of two sisters, we would have tried to drop anvils on each other's heads from high places. But somehow, I don't think so. Whereas my son, if he sees even five minutes of one of the cartoons that runs on the Cartoon Network or any of the other verboten channels in our house, is a violent mess for an hour afterwards. And I think it's because so much of what happens contains child characters who are easier to want to emulate than are crazy coyotes.

Even Dora is not immune to this criticism. Okay, she's cute and multicultural and has good manners and can read a map, but SHE. SHOUTS. EVERYTHING. And SO. DO. MY. KIDS. when they are done watching her show.

I'm not going to go all "TV is evil" on you here. Nor all "things were better back in my day when we had to walk to school everyday in the snow, barefoot, uphill both ways." I just want to put it out there that I think there is much to be said for sensibility, aesthetics, and media that gives a brain a moment to think. Quiet every once in a while. Dialogue that one actually has to listen to in order to understand the plot line. Musical interludes, with no talking at all, that do not also contain the sound of gunfire.

The obvious solutions are not to watch TV, or to watch extremely selectively (again, Noggin gets high praise for most shows), which we do in our house. But I have to wax nostalgic a little for those supremely weird cartoons of my youth that contained not a single manic kid and never set my nerves a-jangling.

And now it's your turn. What do you remember about the cartoons you once watched? How would you compare them to the ones today?

21 comments:

Chesapeake Bay Woman said...

Looney Tunes, hands down, is the winner. I still quote lines from those cartoons that I've seen a million times. I laughed as a child and I laugh even as an adult. There was always subtle humor peppered throughout that only the grown-ups would get. I learned opera by watching Bugs Bunny. Alo some geography. And some pop culture: Ducka you head. Lowla Brigida.

Although I watched others, such as the ones you mentioned, plus Josie and the Pussycats, Grape Ape (cringe), and Woody Woodpecker (with others along the same vein), nothing could hold a candle to Looney Tunes.

Yep, all of the cartoons from today that I've seen just aren't good and don't hold a candle. I will confess to watching Sponge Bob more times than is normal, and I do laugh at some of those, but generally what I'm laughing at is something inappropriate.

Thankfully my children are moving past cartoons...and now I have to worry about the programs geared to young adults. Or is that young delinquents?

Great topic. That's all folks.

Karen said...

Oh, I am *SO* with you on this! It's incredible what they put on for kids now, I find a lot of it offensive even as an adult!
Actually, we don't have a TV, we just never got around to getting one when we got married (during undergrad). Once we'd been without it for a while, we couldn't figure out when we'd ever have time to watch. And after a good month or so without watching TV, you go back and it's amazing how horrible not only the shows but also the commercials are.
I'm not all "TV is evil" or anything, we watch it when we visit family (my dad would fall over if we suggested it go off while we were there) but my kids will definitely be heading for preschool without any idea who "Spongebob Sqarepants" is. Nor do they need to know ... we spend all that time in free play and goofy little projects that we all get a lot more out of than zoning out in front of a screen for an hour. If we ever have desire to watch something, we've got a plethora of DVDs to toss in the portable DVD player - I can quote Finding Nemo both forwards and backwards. Oh, and Grey's Anatomy shows up online on Friday mornings after the first showing Thursday night (hee hee).
Thanks for the great post!

Robin said...

Great post!

I completely agree with the assault on the sensibilities. Thanks goodness for Tivo. I record Mickey Mouse Clubhouse and Little Einsteins and let my 3 year old watch a couple of episodes a day. Other than that, the TV is not on when the kids are awake because most TV is completely inappropriate for kids. And I love that the Disney channel doesn't have "real" commercials. My kids also have no idea who Spongebob is, and he only knows who Dora is because they occasionally put it on at the child care center at my gym.

Great point about how the cartoons we grew up with never had any school aged children in them. I hadn't realized that, but you are absolutely right.

My favorite was also Looney Tunes. My dad loved it too, and that was our thing...sitting together on Saturday mornings watching Looney Tunes. I got my learnin' from Schoolhouse Rock. :)

Juli said...

I was a Smurfs girl. :) I hear that they are making a movie now, and I'm all nerdily excited about it, lol. I have three sisters and we ALL watched the Smurfs with baited breath to see what Gargamel would do next, LMAO!!!! My girls aren't big cartooners, which is FINE with me, but it's a bit disconcerting to have a two yr old and a four yr old who are into High School Musical and Hannah Montana. They're preteens stuck in toddler bodies!!! The only animated stuff they really want to watch is the old school Disney stuff, Cinderella, Snow White, Sleeping Beauty, Aristocats, etc. :)

OHmommy said...

We would be the best of friends in real life.

Our TV is rarely on, if ever. I do like going to the movies and that is a big treat.

When the TV is on I can not stand the blank brainless looks my kids give me. It is quite scary actually. They do watch TV. Usually DVDs to avoid commercials. I recently went to a lecture about media influence in children. The doctor who invented the notion that no one under 2 should watch TV was the head speaker. He was really good. He said, if your child is watching TV you should be there too... watching with them.

Even when i HAVE to get something done around the house.... I throw out the box of stamps or some paper. My kids love tape and glue.

Gosh, don't get me started. There is so much you could do instead of plopping down in front of a TV.

Oh... and I grew up with the Smurfs and Inspector Gadjet. My two favs.

Did I say too much? Probably. Oh well...

Melanie said...

I try to TiVo things and we watch Disney Channel even though there are "tween" shows like Hannah and Corey in the House.

TV is definitely different today. He Man, She Ra, the Quarks, The Smurfs and Jem. Those were things I watched.

I'm really trying to turn off the TV more now that he's home for summer mostly because he's started asking for every toy he sees!

lattemommy said...

I used to love the anticipation of Saturday mornings, much like yourself. Super Friends were probably my favourite (particularly the Wonder Twins!). I had totally forgotten about Hong Kong Phooey till you mentioned him!

My kids watch entirely too much tv, I know this. And I try every day to cut it back, but in truth it's my crutch, not theirs. I just can't get anything done with them hanging off me all the time (which is what they do!). I am going to make an effort this summer to do a huge cut-back.

Excuse me while I go turn off my tv...

Aimeepalooza said...

Ah, I hated them when I was little. I guess I was a weirdo always, but by the time I was 7 I wanted to watch General Hospital rather than strawberry shortcake like my little friends.
My Dad loved the Looney tunes and it totally made me mad. I just thought they were stupid. I enjoyed Laurel and Hardy on Sunday mornings with my Dad, though. The only ones I liked were the Smurfs and a short lived show called the Littles. I was always more excited when ABC ran the Sat morning specials after the "little kids" shows were over.

Kimmylyn said...

Looney Tunes was my favorite.. still is to this day. Though you will find me watching .. actually watching Sponge Bob when my nephews come over.. he just kills me sometimes.. LOL

auds at barking mad said...

Brilliant post!

We rarely watch TV let alone what passes for cartoons nowdays. The Little Imp watches the Wiggles but most of the time that's on DVD. Some of the cartoons on TV now are enough to induce a seizure.

This is REALLY going to date me, but I remember watching, with a great deal of fondness, Little Audrey, the old Bugs Bunny cartoons, (hey that name sounds familiar!), Sigmund and the Seamonsters, The New Zoo Review, the Bugaloos (that song is going to be stuck in my head now, forever!) and so many others. Oh how could I forget Family Affair! And what was that cartoon with the catchphrase, "wondertwins activate!"??? I used to drive my mother nuts running around shouting that at the top of my lungs even though I had no wonder twin, only a 2 year old little sister, to "activate" with!

My kids have no clue what I'm talking about when I mention any of the above, and barely know what Schoolhouse Rocks is all about. SR rocked my Saturday mornings and I can STILL sing....

I'm just a bill.
Yes, I'm only a bill.
And I'm sitting here on Capitol Hill.
Well, it's a long, long journey
To the capital city.
It's a long, long wait
While I'm sitting in committee,
But I know I'll be a law someday
At least I hope and pray that I will,
But today I am still just a bill.

...as well as almost all of the other SR songs. Pretty sad considering on a good day I have trouble remembering all of my kids names at any given moment, but I am the Queen of SR karaoke!

Whilst we aren't anti-TV, I just don't think there's much on for the toddler/preschool set that doesn't make me want to set my ears on fire. Spongebob is one of THE most annoying out there...then comes Dora AND Diego. Oiy!

It seems to me that today's cartoons have a real dearth of anything genuninely imaginative. It's all been replaced with teckie stuff and too much action and complicated plots that, and this is just my opinion, little kids don't need to deal with. I agree with Karen, I find some of it offensive.

TV isn't bad...I think it's just gotten rather stupid!

Tara R. said...

Looney tunes, Underdog, Rocky and Bullwinkle, all those... I don't remember them being as STOOPID as today's cartoons. Some of today's toons wouldn't have made it by the censors for adult, prime time television back then. There are some cartoons that I don't want my kids to even watch (South Park, Adult Swim) it's just too much.

MIQuilter said...

I think tv in general, not just cartoons, is more fast-pace and violent than it was back when we were kids. but then I think the whole world (what with email, cell phones, faxes, etc) is more about how much can be done THIS INSTANT and HOW FAST things can happen and we're all in an information overload mode, even the adults (maybe not all, but surely i know that *I* am). Not having the 2 legged kids, it's easy for us to watch tv while we eat dinner and just have it running for "background noise" (well, often when I'm home alone, it's off - but hubby always needs the noise for some reason). I have 2 rules about it, even though there are no kids in the house. 1) no gore during dinner. 2) no gunfire or fighting at bedtime. Hubby needs tv on to go to sleep and LOVES putting on something with explosions and gunfire... personally, i don't understand how anyone can sleep thru grenades and often i don't fall asleep until the he's asleep and the tv is off, regardless of content.

regarding cartoons specifically, i have a very different memory than MT. Scooby Do was scary as all crap. Partly because I could never wait out the episode to find out that it was always the carnival ride operator in glow-in-the-dark paint that did it and so it always retained that haunted "spookiness" to it. I do remember different favorites though. "It's chilly, willy....... the PEN-guin...." was a favorite of mine. Totally inane and slow-paced. Perfect for me to wind down from a tough day at elementary school to. I think if I had to watch cartoons these days, I'd have to start smoking crack just to keep up with the action.

mommypie said...

You're so right. Thankfully, MP is obsessed with Scooby (who was always MY fave) -- even informing me she was to be called Daphne from here on out. Hmmm.

Scooby and Noggin are about it at the Pie House. Other channels/shows are avoided. Today's cartoons are too grown up.

Aside from Scoob, I loved the 'reality' shows like The Banana Splits and Sigmund and the Sea Monsters -- tried to get MP to watch The Banana Splits the other week, and it held her attention all of 30 seconds. *sigh*

And thanks for the heads up on the LIST -- how crazy is that?!? I swear, it's gotta be a different Mommy Pie.

Amy said...

Ooh, I LOVED Looney Tunes and still do!! And I don't know, don't you think Fred Flintstone was bordering on abusing Wilma at times?? TV is outta control these days. But we don't really watch anything all that violent. We can't get past SpongeBob. UGH!

Lipstick said...

Looney Tunes, the Smurfs, Inspector Gadget, the Jetsons, the Flintstones, Scooby Doo, Speed Racer. I caught some old Tom and Jerry on the other day and it was so much better than the new Tom and Jerry. I really loved the classical music on Looney Tunes. They were just well-done. I loved the Afterschool Specials too! (and Dukes of Hazzard and Macgyver and American Bandstanddr-but I digress). Totally agree that present day cartoons are an assault on the senses.

Laski said...

I miss those wonderful Saturday morning cartoons. They were such a treat. Now, it is hard to find any that are watchable, unless you tune into the classic cartoons on The Cartoon Network (but you have to use caution since there are some that are quite violent).

"the violence in today's cartoons seems to me to be so much more insidious"--so true!

The TV is now seldom on. The day he turned his head toward it was the day it went OFF. I really don't miss it . . .

Sandy C. said...

Thank you!!! I swore I was the only one that couldn't make it through an episode of Dora AND Diego because of all. the. screaming. Drives me nuts.

We're also hoping to make cartoons and TV viewing a treat in our house. Currently I'm trying to place a time limit during the week, and on weekends we're rarely home to watch TV. I find that summer is much easier to get out and about and find alternatives to plopping infront of a TV.

Your cartoon flashback brought back so many memories of my own! I loved looney tunes and tom an jerry :)

foolery said...

So many things to say, I may have to write my own post about it.

We watched cartoons all Saturday morning, which is a LOT more than my kids do now. BUT I am no purist; some days are lazy Boob Tube days, and then some weekends we literally don't turn the set on, even though we are home.

LOVE SpongeBob, but my husband's and my humor runs a bit weird (and our girls' did from quite early, too, so we figured, why not?)

I agree with your astute assessment of the inanity of many old cartoons, vs. today's artificial-yet-familiar scenarios. A prime set-up for modelling behavior that coyotes and mooses just don't invite.

I hate preachy TV far more than stupid TV. Even as a child I "got" that Zoom -- remember Zoom? -- and Sesame Street and The Electric Company were selling ethnic and cultural diversity. While we lived in a very white world, I was not threatened by the idea of different races and cultures, which is a great thing. BUT the omnipresent scenes with two black kids, one Asian, two white kids and one Latino felt artificial to me at a very young age, and oddly robotic. No randomness allowed.

Lastly, my brother recently bought the complete DVD set of Pink Panther cartoons, which his girlfriends 5-year-old LOVES more than anything (we did, too). She is transfixed by the cartoon, and it has no dialogue, and only the theme song. Interesting.

Okay, have hijacked this comment section -- sorry -- so will post about the topic later this week, I think. As usual, MT, great post!

Stacy (mama-om) said...

What I remember about the cartoons we watched was "Tank you tank you to our noble ancestors" -- some line from some show that was a caricature of a Chinese accent and sensibility. My brother and I said it for years!

We (my family now) consume very little visual media -- we don't have a TV and my four-year-old watches Little Bear and Kipper from the library. He is so addicted by the end of the three-week check-out period that I am grateful that we have to return them! But for the most part, I find their content inoffensive.

However, what I've seen of the more "popular" shows, it really irritates me that they're all trying so hard to "teach" some moral lesson or academic information.

Nice post -- thank you!

Mr Lady said...

Tom and Jerry was banned in my house growing up. So was The Road Runner. So were most of the others. My mother thought they were too violent. She forgot that we were humans who could seperate fiction from reality.

I try to be a little more open with my boys. I *try*. I ban shows on stupitity level. (read: Pokemon, etc) I tell them, "Look, you're TOO SMART to watch that crap.

I also tend to ban tv on schooldays, period, so come Saturday, they're so Wii starved that cartoons don't come on until much later.

MommyTime said...

You are all so thoughtful, again, that I'm loving these comments. I've read through them all twice. Foolery -- I'm looking forward to your post on this. And I'm interested to see that so many people agree with me. If that's the case then either, A) we are not a representative subset of parents, since presumably SOMEONE is allowing children to watch these shows; or B) cartoon networks don't know what they are doing.

You all mention so many that I'd forgotten about but also loved: Chilly Willy, Rocky and Bullwinkle, Schoolhouse Rock, Inspector Gadget, and Sigmund the Seamonster. (By the way, Auds, the one you're thinking of is the Super Friends -- collection of superheroes including the WonderTwins who had a magic ring or bracelets (can't recall) that they had to connect to each other in order to morph into other things.)

 

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