The phrase “Saturday morning TV” holds for me a heady nostalgia for a time of which I can only dream. I look at TV listings today, and I see titles like Trollz and Bratz, and it makes me weep. You see, I recall that golden age of the early 1990s when Saturday morning cartoons were more in the vein of classic Bugs Bunny than focus-grouped marketing ploys. Don’t get me wrong: I remember the Smurfs and Transformers. But with the exception of SpongeBob SquarePants, I can’t think of a single cartoon currently in production that is as suitable for adults as it is for kids. It’s almost all junk today.
Fortunately, the DVD gods feel my pain and have seen fit to bestow upon us Animaniacs. The five-disc Volume 1 collection, released this summer'Volume 2 arrives in December'sports 25 classic episodes from early in the show’s 1993-1998 run. Goofy enough for kids to love, it’s aimed more squarely at adults who adore Looney Tunes; the Animanics truly are the heirs to Bugs, Daffy and the rest of the old gang. Wacko and Yakko, the Warner brothers, and Dot, the Warner sister, run rampant through the last 50 years of pop culture. They send up Gilbert and Sullivan'“we are the very model of cartoon individuals,” they sing in one of the many irresistibly catchy musical numbers'and offer cynical deconstructions of Disney films like the classic “Bumbie’s Mom,” which takes down Bambi. Contemporary movies and politics are constant targets, too; the repertoire includes the Goodfeathers, three pigeons with strangely familiar Italian-Brooklyn accents.
Pinky and the Brain'the four-disc Volume 1 is now available, with Volume 2 due in December'spun off from Animaniacs, and was even more inventive, sarcastic and outrageously entertaining. Any halfway-devoted fan of these laboratory mice'one a genius who wants to take over the world, the other an insane but sweet idiot'can name the universally favored episodes: “Tokyo Grows,” a Godzilla parody; the historical epic “Napoleon Brainaparte?; the globetrotting adventure “Around the World in 80 Narfs?; “The Third Mouse,” which likely only exists because Maurice LaMarche, voice of the Brain, does an impersonation that’s even more Welles than Welles; “Brain’s Song,” a riotous look at melodrama as the path to world domination. They’re all here, plus 17 more, and It Is Good.
I can’t think about the Brain without thinking about the rodent who probably could have defeated him, had one of his plans to take over the planet not fallen victim to his own hubris: Danger Mouse, the greatest secret agent in the world. This British series predates Animaniacs but didn’t show up here in the States'where it aired on Nickelodeon'until just a few years earlier. A spoof of all manner of British spy stuff with a healthy dollop of Doctor Who-style science fiction, this is clever fun for Anglophiles and cartoon lovers. The final batch of episodes were recently released in a three-disc set called The Final Seasons.
“’Toons for grown-ups” was obviously a meme sputtering around the zeitgeist at that time, since it was also in 1993 that Beavis & Butt-Head made its debut on MTV. The adventures of these two überslackers were definitely not for kids, but the packaging of the Beavis & Butt-Head: The Mike Judge Collection Volume 3 set'with its illustrations aping Münch, Warhol and Escher 'expects its audience to be smarter than its characters. This set includes music videos, with the boys’ commentary, that haven’t been previously available, as well as the original B&B short “Frog Baseball,” which is truly sick and twisted and, like, cool.
The Simpsons had been around for years already at this point, of course, but perhaps it was the rabid adult following that Animaniacs and Pinky and the Brain inspired'they were among the first online fandoms'as well as the success of Beavis and Butt-head that made room for mid-to-late-’90s toons explicitly aimed at adults. Like The Tick, probably the best superhero sendup ever; The Tick vs. Season One was released on DVD recently and remains as cunning and incisive today as it was a decade ago, when it aired in prime-time on Fox.
Today we’ve got an entire lineup of cartoons not for tender eyes on Cartoon Network’s Adult Swim. But there was a combination of innocence and ingenuity in those old crossover cartoons that kids and adults alike could enjoy, and that has been lost. One need only take a look at Ren & Stimpy: The Lost Episodes, new to DVD, to see how licentiousness isn’t always the path to tickling sophisticated sensibilities. Here are the finished episodes and new episodes produced from proposed scripts that were vetoed by Nickelodeon during the show’s early-’90s run; they finally aired on Spike in 2003. But without the self-censorship required of material intended for kids, these anything-goes episodes simply aren’t as funny as the original show. The best of these wide-appeal toons were undeniably smart but sweetly silly; today’s grownup toons are often merely excuses for boorish sex jokes and crude grossouts. There’s nothing clever'and very little funny'in that.