I’ve often declared my life’s goal to make every day feel like Saturday morning. If there’s anything that makes me regret the linear direction of space-time and ache for the past as all mortals do, it’s that I can never truly recapture what it feels like to be a young kid on a Saturday morning.
Growing up in the 1980s following the FCC’s deregulation of children’s programming, Saturday morning offered a bevy of options for the child who, having woken at six a.m. to enjoy as much of his school-free day as possible, would down three bowls of sugar-loaded cereal while watching colorful talking animals and consequence-free cartoon violence. True, many of the shows were little more than half-hour advertisements for toys (or candy, or Mr. T). Others were genuinely entertaining. But what Saturday morning cartoons really offered children was a time when television catered just to them. No boring adult dramas or shows they weren’t allowed to watch. Saturday morning TV belonged to kids.
And there was something endearing about the ’80s, when the networks seemed willing to throw just about anything into the line-up and see if it stuck. There were classics based on toys, like He-Man, Transformers and G.I. Joe (though they were mostly found in syndication on weekdays). There were variations on time-tested veterans like The All-New Scooby and Scrappy-Doo Show and Richie Rich. There were shows based around celebrities, like Mr. T, Camp Candy and Hulk Hogan’s Rock ‘n Wrestling. And there were a slew of cartoons based on the then-burgeoning world of videogames, including Pac-Man, Q*Bert, Donkey Kong, and even Frogger(!). And then there were the non-cartoon shows, like Saved by the Bell and Small Wonder.
Sadly, the era of Saturday morning cartoons seems to be long gone. In the world of cable TV, where channels like the Cartoon Network, Nicktoons or Toon Disney offer cartoons twenty-four hours a day, seven days a week, there’s no longer anything special about cartoons on Saturday morning. Yes, there’s 4 Kids TV, but that almost feels like a nostalgic nod to the old days, and there are some markets where it doesn’t run at all. And I wouldn’t be surprised to learn that it wasn’t very successful—even cartoons I had thought were doing well, like G.I. Joe Sigma Six, are apparently on hiatus.
In an age of round-the-clock kids programming, videogames, and the Internet, I suppose it’s no surprise that Saturday Morning Cartoons are no longer an institution. Yet some of my best memories are of the times my cousin Mike would stay over on Friday and we’d be up all night playing, then get up early the next morning to catch Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles or The Real Ghostbusters.
In honor of those bygone days, I’ve compiled a list of my favorite Saturday morning shows. This is not intended to be a list of the best shows, just my favorites. The interesting thing I discovered while writing this article was how few shows I actually seem to have watched regularly. I had a hard time even coming up with five. There are lots of shows that came and went over the years that I remember fondly—Hey Vern, It’s Ernest, Gummi Bears, The Smurfs, Teen Wolf, Dragon’s Lair, Beetlejuice, and Alf: the Animated Series, just to name a few—but in researching them, I discovered that many of them lasted a single season or less, and in many cases I barely remember the show at all. So my criteria for selection was based on the level of nostalgia I felt for the show and, more importantly, whether I could remember the plot of at least one specific episode (The Real Ghostbusters barely makes the cut thanks to a vaguely-recalled episode with a ghost called “What”).
So, without further ado, here are my top five Saturday morning shows:
5.) The Real Ghostbusters (1986-1991)
I’m willing to bet there were a lot of kids who had no idea why this show had the curious “Real” in the title. But I did, because I had seen the short-lived Filmation’s Ghostbusters cartoon. Rather than try explain the whole thing in a single subordinate clause, let me lay it all out clearly.
In the 1970s, there was a live-action television show called The Ghost Busters. It was essentially a supernatural-themed parody of Mission: Impossible. The show ran for a single season and sank into obscurity until 1986, when a cartoon company called Filmation (who were behind the He-Man and She-Ra cartoons) bought the rights to the old show. Filmation did this as a rather obvious attempt to cash in on the popularity of those other Ghostbusters—y’know, the ones played by Bill Murray and the likable, pre-Nothing But Trouble Dan Ackroyd.
Filmation’s Ghostbusters did not star the original characters from the live-action show but rather their “nephews,” though Tracy the gorilla returned. The only thing I remember about the show was the totally awesome leader of the bad guys, Prime Evil. He was a blatant rip-off of Skeletor from He-Man (he was even voiced in an identical manner by the same voice actor, Alan Oppenheimer), but he had a really cool character design, especially his face. The show also had some great action figures, which is probably why I remember it more fondly than most kids.
Filmation was perfectly within its rights to produce the cartoon under that title, so when Columbia finally put together its own Ghostbusters cartoon based on the movie, they decided to add the “Real” to the title to distinguish it from Filmation’s ersatz poltergeist police. It turned out to be a pretty good move; the qualifier distinguished the cartoon not only from the pretender, but also from the movie. It became part of the brand.
The Real Ghostbusters was one of the cornerstones of Saturday morning cartoons in the mid-to-late 1980s. The Ghostbusters were gods to kids during those years, and we ate up anything even remotely related to the movie. One of my favorite childhood toys was a rubbery Slimer action figure.
The cartoon was, admittedly, a bit odd. All the major characters went through significant design changes and looked almost nothing like their cinematic counterparts. Ray Stanz became chubby and red-headed; Peter Venkman got a narrow face and an Ace Ventura-like hairdo; Egon went from Harold Ramis’s near-black hair to platinum blond; and Winston—well, he looked the same, really.
The plots generally involved some sort of monster or another. In general, it was a pretty entertaining and well-written show, and a staple of any Saturday morning.
4.) Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles (CBS run, 1990-1994)
From about 1988-1991, my life revolved around the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles. It all started one day when I was home sick from school. My dad ran to the local comic shop and grabbed a few comics for me. I remember it well—in that fateful batch was a Madballs comic and a copy of the Archie Comics Ninja Turtles series. I’d heard of TMNT from my cousins, but hadn’t actually got into them myself…until I read that comic.
To say I was obsessed with the Turtles would probably be an understatement. My parents often went to great lengths to track down specific toys I wanted, but my TMNT phase probably has the best such instances. There was the Great Turtle Hunt, when my father and I drove all over Massachusetts in October to find Ninja Turtles figures, which were then hidden away until Christmas (we found the mother lode at the now-defunct King’s Castle Land in Whitman, MA). Then there was the infamous Ray Fillet, whom my father finally found through his extensive business connections.
Of course, most of this love hinged on the cartoon, which was the source of the action figures and the Turtles zeitgeist in general. The show originally ran in syndication, but when the Turtles’ popularity exploded, CBS picked up the show for its Saturday morning bloc. I remember when, suddenly, I could watch new Turtles episodes every Saturday. The Turtles, previously relegated to the cold wastes of afterschool weekday syndication, were suddenly ready for primetime, or rather, Saturday morning. The new episodes became a much-anticipated weekly event.
The original Turtles cartoon ran until 1994, which is pretty impressive when you think about it. And they’ve never really gone away. A new Turtles cartoon has been running on Saturday morning for almost four years now, and they’ve got a brand-new CGI movie coming out next month.
3.) Garfield and Friends (1988-1994)
As a kid, I was a huge fan of Garfield. I was a bit of a depressive, even in my early adolescence, and reading the endless Garfield books often made me feel a bit better. It wasn’t until I was an adult that I came to realize how commercialized and generally un-funny the Garfield strip was. Apparently it was the predictability that made me feel so secure back then. In retrospect, I probably enjoyed and appreciated the far-better Calvin & Hobbes more than Garfield, but I don’t regret the hours of enjoyment I got out of those books and the cartoon.
Garfield & Friends was based directly on the strip. The “Friends” referred to U.S. Acres, another strip by Garfield creator Jim Davis. I don’t have much to say about Garfield & Friends; it was simply a staple of Saturday morning, something amusing to watch while you played with your toys or something. I remember I’d usually end up going outside before the show was over, since it ran around eleven o’clock or so. It earns its place as my #3 Saturday Morning cartoon primarily because of my strong association between the show and Saturday mornings.
2.) Pee-Wee’s Playhouse (1986-1991)
Okay, now we’re getting to the heavy hitters. The last two on this list are probably the finest examples of what Saturday morning was all about.
Pee-Wee’s Playhouse was a live-action kids’ variety show in the manner of Captain Kangaroo or H.R. Pufnstuf. The star was one Pee-Wee Herman, a bizarre man-child created and performed by Paul Reubens. The character was originally part of a more adult-oriented stage show, but after the success of Pee-Wee’s Big Adventure, CBS offered him his own show.
What can I say about Pee-Wee’s Playhouse? It was like nothing else on television. Everything about the show was wonderfully offbeat. There were all the talking animals, puppets, and furniture. The floor talked, for Pete’s sake! There was the oddly shirtless, well-muscled neighbor Tito in the first season, who was later replaced by the soccer-obsessed Ricardo. There was shameless flirt Miss Yvonne, who swooned when robot repairman Jimmy Smits declared he “has the right tools and knows how to use them.” There was the bizarre cartoon El Hombre with wholly Spanish dialogue (without subtitles). There was connect-the-dots, the King of Cartoons, and the secret word.
Pee-Wee’s Playhouse seemed to have a very definitive cut-off age. I was probably at the upper end of it. Many people older than me tend to view the show as an insane, creepy phantasmagoria, and for them the show and Pee-Wee himself were effectively removed from public consideration by Reubens’s 1991 arrest for indecent exposure. (They usually have fond memories of Pee-Wee’s Big Adventure, but their association with Pee-Wee begins and ends there.) Watching reruns on Adult Swim over the summer, I was struck by how young an audience the show seemed to be targeting; definitely younger than the average Ninja Turtle fan at the time.
That’s not to say, however, that there weren’t plenty of double entendres to reward the intrepid adult who watched the show with their kid. I was actually a bit shocked at how far some of the adult jokes went, though they would fly safely over any kid’s head (as the Mud Show guy at my local renaissance fair put it, “if they’re too young to get it, they’re too young to be gettin’ it”).
Pee-Wee’s Playhouse was easily the most unique show on Saturday mornings and perhaps all of television at the time. I discovered during the Adult Swim run that it doesn’t really hold up for adult viewings—it just targets too young an audience—but it’s a treasured memory from childhood.
1.) Muppet Babies (1984-1991)
In researching this piece, I was surprised to discover that my #1 Saturday morning cartoon show is disliked, even reviled among diehard Muppet fans. I can only assume these are people, older than me, who became fans of the Muppets during the original 1970s run of The Muppet Show. They seem to blame Muppet Babies for the decline of the Muppets’ popularity by commercializing, trivializing, and diluting the franchise. I suspect the decline was more of a natural process; even Disney doesn’t have the cultural cache it once did.
In any event, I had no fond memories of the Muppets’ early days when I started watching Muppet Babies. I was aware of the Muppets and liked them, of course, so it wasn’t surprising I ended up liking the Muppet Babies, too.
Despite what the diehard Muppet fans might say, I think Muppet Babies was the finest Saturday morning cartoon ever. It had everything a kid could ever want: familiar, colorful characters; action and adventure; humor; references to newly-minted pop culture institutions like Star Wars and Indiana Jones; and, for parents, plenty of well-written moral lessons and a heavy emphasis on imagination.
Muppet Babies was all about the power of imagination. The Babies understood how, without buying a single toy or a ticket to a theme park, they could go anywhere they wanted or be anything they wanted to be.
The Muppet Babies were never marketed into the ground like so many Saturday morning cartoons. There were stuffed animals and few fast food tie-in toys, but you never felt like you were drowning in Muppet Babies merchandise like you did with Star Wars or He-Man.
The episode of Muppet Babies I best remember (and I suspect most fans remember) is the one where they re-enact Star Wars, with Kermit as Kermit Skyhopper, Miss Piggy as Princess Piggy, and Gonzo as Gon Zolo.
Muppet Babies won an Emmy, and it was so popular that it had a 90-minute bloc on Saturday mornings for a couple years. To me, Muppet Babies is Saturday morning.
So far Muppet Babies hasn’t been released on DVD, probably because the show used so much footage from movies and other television shows that figuring out the copyright issues is a Herculean task. Here’s hoping they untangle that knot so my kids can enjoy Muppet Babies someday.