Since my Saturday morning cartoons post proved so popular, I decided to go ahead and compile a list of my top ten cartoons of all time. This list is unrestrained by timeslot or, I should mention, relative quality. I make no claim as to this list representing what I think are the best cartoons ever made. That list would be quite different. Today’s list is about the cartoons that have made a significant impact on me or my life at some point.
Anyone who knows me at all no doubt can guess #1 right now, but we’re going to start at number ten.
10.) He-Man and the Masters of the Universe
I’ve written about the history of He-Man on many occasions, so I’ll skip that here. I’ll admit the show was basically a thirty-minute commercial for the toys (much like the next two on the list). Moreoever, the animation was lame (though the backgrounds were often gorgeous) and the writing generally weak.
However, there were exceptions. Few people know that some of today’s best cartoon writers cut their teeth on Masters of the Universe (MOTU). Paul Dini, who would go on to develop Batman: the Animated Series (and is currently writing Detective Comics), wrote some of the MOTU’s most popular episodes (though he makes no attempt to hide his dislike of the cartoon nowadays). Babylon 5 creator J. Michael Straczynski also wrote several episodes.
And that’s about as far as I’ll defend Masters of the Universe. While the likes of Dini and Straczynski managed to slip in a good episode here and there, there’s no question this is the weakest show on the list in terms of overall quality.
And yet, it had heart. The morals at the end of each episode, while often preachy, were still good lessons for young kids. And as I watched the show recently, having picked up the The Best of He-Man and the Masters of the Universe, I found that the show’s images and even its incidental music teased out deep-seated emotional responses from my psyche. I was very, very fond of this show when I was young, and despite more than two decades’ worth of accumulated life experience, I still can’t dismiss He-Man and the Masters of the Universe.
There’s too much to enjoy. There are the goofy plots, especially Skeletor’s harebrained schemes. There are the aforementioned beautiful backgrounds which often serve to highlight the weak cel animation. There are the bright colors and the entertaining blend of science and sorcery, science fiction and fantasy, that made MOTU unique.
I went through a strong nostalgia for MOTU a few years ago and that led directly to the writing of “Stealing LLamas”, a loving parody of the show.
9.) Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles
The second of the syndicated, afternoon-adventure trilogy of cartoons, TMNT was a favorite for several years. I’ve already discussed the show both in my Saturday morning post as well as here, so we’ll just move right along to…
8.) The Transformers
As much as I was into He-Man, my real childhood obsession was Transformers. My love of this franchise ran from about 1983 to 1988, when some pizza-loving anthropomorphic turtles elbowed them out. I returned to Transformers in the early nineties; this latter period culminated in a 200-page fan fiction novel.
Now, as for the cartoon. Most of my nostalgia for Transformers centers around the 1986 animated movie, which was better scripted and animated than the television series and has the dubious distinction of being one of Orson Welles’s last films (dubious for Welles, that is). But I didn’t see the movie in the theater. I’m not entirely sure why, but I suspect it came out during the brief hiatus I took from TF-fandom in the mid-eighties, shortly after my family moved to a new house (I think either Star Wars or Godzilla filled that gap). I caught the movie as a rental a year or so later and the obsession began anew.
As for the original cartoon series: I remember quite a few episodes, particularly the two major Dinobot episodes and the well-known environmental episode “The Golden Lagoon.” I spent many an afternoon after school glued to my television set for half an hour as Optimus Prime and Megatron battled it out for a few measly energon cubes (always with the energon cubes! They looked like rainbow Jell-O cubes to me). It was a typical good guys vs. bad guys show, not particularly better written than Masters of the Universe, though it was targeted to a somewhat more mature audience.
If MOTU was fantasy and G.I. Joe was action, Transformers was science fiction. In my experience, most boys in the 1980s tended to fall into either the Transformers or G.I. Joe camp (the only way to be into both was to have very wealthy—and indulgent—parents). I was decidely on the side of the Transformers; for some reason, I just never got into G.I. Joe. I guess it was just too “real-world” for me.
7.) Invader Zim
The youngest show on the list, Invader Zim was the alien-brainchild of Jhonen Vasquez, an independent comic artist and writer whose most famous work prior to Zim was a comic called Johnny the Homicidal Maniac. The comic was about a kid named Johnny who…murdered people. A lot of people. Viciously. It ran for about six issues, in the course of which the writing became increasingly philosophical and metaphysical in a manner frequently found in the work of young artists (including my Roundhead cartoons when I was in college). While the first issue or two barely rise above the artistic ambition of a junior high school kid doodling a sketch of planes dropping bombs on Nazi robots, by the end Vasquez has created a complex character and even explored a little bit of this thing called the Human Condition©.
An executive at Nickelodeon read Vasquez’s comic about a mass-murdering teenager and thought, “We should get this guy to make a kids’ cartoon.” Thus was born Invader Zim, an animated series about a misfit alien sent to conquer Earth. The tiny, immensely egotistical Zim is oblivious to the fact that his superiors loathe him and deliberately send him to attack what they consider a backwater planet.
Zim spends most episodes hatching a (usually stupid) scheme to conquer Earth. He is aided—or more often than not, thwarted—by his moronic robotic assistant GIR, one of my favorite cartoon characters of all time (“I saw a squirrel! He was going like this!”). His nemesis is Dib, a geeky Goth kid who is the only person in Vasquez’s version of Earth smart enough to recognize the green-skinned Zim as an alien.
The humor of Invader Zim is quite similar to that of its spiritual predecessor, Ren & Stimpy. There’s a high gross-out factor here, but there’s also a lot of the existential insanity and cultural commentary that made the early episodes of R&S so memorable. One of my favorite Zim episodes features Dib desperately trying to escape a “moosey fate”—that is, of being locked in a room for eternity with a moose eating walnuts.
But the best part of the show are the antics of GIR, who is more stupid and insane than Stimpy ever was. Yet he’s so wretchedly adorable!
Much like Ren & Stimpy, Vasquez ran into creative conflicts with Nickelodeon over the show’s gross-out content and violence and, despite its cult popularity, Zim was cancelled after two seasons. It lives on on DVD, and I highly recommend it.
6.) Family Guy
The other relative youngster on the list, Family Guy was a show I (like many people) missed in its original run. It premiered while I was in my busy final years of college (and still priding myself on how little television I watched—at the time, anyway). I saw a lot more of the show years later on Adult Swim and bought one of the DVDs, so I was one of those folks who hopped on the bandwagon late but helped get the show renewed.
Nowadays, I’m as likely to quote Family Guy as I am The Simpsons. But while FG has a strong fan base, I don’t think I know anyone who’s quite as fond of the show as I am. DG will watch it with me, though we often differ on how funny the jokes are (I fell off the couch laughing at the “barf-a-rama” gag in the episode “8 Simple Rules for Buying My Teenage Daughter,” whereas she thought it was incredibly stupid).
Every television show has its standout characters, and in Family Guy it’s Stewie (the baby) and Brian (the dog). Many of the episodes focus on Peter (the dad), but I prefer the Brian/Stewie episodes, especially the “road pictures” they do every so often.
But the best gags are always the cutaways, like the infamous chicken fight or Stewie doing Shatner doing “Rocket Man,” which both go on forever, starting out funny, then becoming not funny, then continuing on so long they’re funny again; or briefer gags such as Peter reflecting on the time he spent living with Superman and the Justice League in the Fortress of Solitude:
Superman: “We must stop Lex Luthor before he irradiates the world’s supply of gold—”
Peter: “Uh hi, uh sorry, I know you got a meeting going on, but um, so we are officially running low on Mr. Pibb and Cheez-Itz, so um, just putting it out there, if you’re heading to the store later, uh, you know, 800-mile drive for me, like 5 seconds for you. Whatever, I’m not here.”
I can see why some people don’t find Family Guy funny. Series creator Seth MacFarlane is clearly a geek, and he seems to have absorbed the exact same pop culture I did growing up and a lot of the jokes reflect that. The Simpsons tends to aim for a bit of a broader audience, whereas Family Guy is willing to throw in an obscure reference to Planes, Tranes and Automobiles or an extended dance sequence with Stewie and Gene Kelly. The jokes often seem to be targeted to a near-microscopic audience and Family Guy is best watched in a group (much like my favorite show ever, Mystery Science Theater 3000).
5.) Looney Tunes
When I was in fifth and sixth grade, my weeknights were spent in a comforting pattern: dinner at six, Looney Tunes on Nickelodeon at seven, Night Court on WLVI 56 at seven-thirty, and homework at eight.
There isn’t a whole lot I can write about Looney Tunes that hasn’t been written a hundred times by better critics. There were so many great things about those old cartoons; the animation, the voice work (especially that of Mel Blanc), the writing, the characters. All of it was pure gold.
My favorites were the Roadrunner cartoons. Something about Wile E. Coyote’s Sisyphean quest to catch the Roadrunner and his endless array of complex devices appealed to me. My favorite short by far was “Lickety-Splat.” In this one, the Coyote first tries to capture the Roadrunner using sticks of dynamites with little wings and propellers attached. The attempt fails, but for the rest of the short, the Coyote keeps coming close to catching the Roadrunner when one of the flying dynamite sticks appears and explodes.
4.) Muppet Babies
I’ve already discussed Muppet Babies in the Saturday morning post, so we’ll just move on to…
3.) Pinky and the Brain
I had the strangest introduction to Pinky and the Brain. While many people are familiar with the concept of the show—two lab rats, one a genius and the other stupid, repeatedly try and fail to take over the world—the first episode I saw (back when it ran on Animaniacs) didn’t follow the usual pattern at all. Called “Yes, Always,” it remains one of my favorite cartoon episodes of all time.
The idea for the episode came about because the voice of the Brain, Maurice LaMarche, was well known for his dead-on Orson Welles impression (when Vincent D’Onofrio appeared as Welles in Tim Burton’s Ed Wood, Burton had LaMarche dub the voice). As a Welles fan, LaMarche was familiar with the famous Welles radio ad outtakes where Welles actually walks out of the studio. Somehow he convinced the Animaniacs producers to build a Pinky and the Brain episode around the outtake, including the Brain going in to the studio to record new audio.
If you’re unfamiliar with the Welles outtake (which I was at the time, and for years after), you have absolutely no idea what’s going on here, plot-wise. Oh, I knew even as a kid that this was some sort of weird metafictional gag, but that was about it. Nonetheless, I cried laughing at this episode. I had taped it and immediately showed it to my parents, who also cracked up. The part where the Brain starts complaining how you can’t start a sentence with “in July” and emphasize the “in”…I always lose it. The actual Welles outtake is even funnier, since Welles’s grumpiness is genuine and the language is raunchier. But hearing it years later, it didn’t have quite the same impact as that first exposure on P&TB.
Of course, I also loved all the other early P&TB episodes. I remember a good number of them: the one where Brain becomes a country singer named Bubba-Bo-Bob Brain and comments to Dolly Parton that “puberty was uncommonly kind to her”; the fantasy episode where the Brain gets crushed by a giant and, when asked if he’s OK by Pinky, responds, “Of course not. Something unpleasant has happened to me”; the episode where the Brain creates a giant robotic suit so he can pretend to be a human, but it’s still just his own tiny little head sticking out, and he has the following exchange with a cabbie:
BRAIN: The television station, please.
CABBIE: You got it. Whoa—hey, if you don’t mind me askin’, bub, uh, what happened to your head?
BRAIN: Nothing. I am a mouse in a large mechanical suit.
CABBIE: Heh heh heh, okay, all right, my fault for askin’, right?
2.) Ren and Stimpy
More than any other show on this list, Ren and Stimpy rocked my adolescent face off. It came out of nowhere on Nickelodeon in 1991, and I was in junior high school, the perfect age to appreciate both the gross-out humor and the more philosophical goings-on that permeated the show.
Like some of the shows mentioned above, R&S gave me at least one “crying laughing” moment. It came in the fan-favorite episode “Stimpy’s Invention,” where Stimpy is forcing the annoyed Ren to try out all his new inventions. One of them is “Stay-Put Socks” which never fall down. At first, Ren is impressed, until he discovers that they work because they’re filled with glue. As the pleased Stimpy walks away to get another invention, Ren trembles in rage before suddenly lashing out, desperately trying to reach Stimpy but unable to because of the socks, his tiny arms and spindly hand reaching out as he screams, “You feelthy swine! I weell KEELL you!!” The scene works because, by that point, the viewer is familiar with Ren and his hairtrigger temper, and the humor lies in his predictable overreaction.
“Stimpy’s Invention” also features the debut of the “Happy Happy, Joy Joy” song (which can now be heard in Sara Lee commercials). The plot involves Stimpy trying to cheer up Ren artificially via his “Happy Helmet,” and some commentators have called it an allegory for antidepressant use. I call it hi-larious!
I know the first season of R&S so well that, when watching the DVD set recently, I got mad when I noticed that a few seconds of footage had been shaved off here and there (for length, apparently, because the show ran on Spike TV and had to be cut for today’s longer commercials. Note to self: hate commercials). I knew every one of those early episodes by heart and loved them all. I got pretty good at drawing R&S at one point, and if I can ever track it down I’ll scan the one-shot comic I drew. It easily represents the pinnacle of my youthful comic book aspirations.
What else can I say about Ren & Stimpy? It singlehandedly rejuvenated television animation from the long darkness of the toy-commercial era. Without R&S there would probably be no Spongebob Squarepants, no Dexter’s Lab, no Invader Zim, no Fairly Odd Parents, and heck, probably no Adult Swim to frighten our metropolitan populaces, since it was R&S’s popularity with college students that proved there was a mature demographic for animation. Ren & Stimpy would be a natural fit for Adult Swim and maybe it’ll show up there one day.
I recently wrote on another website that I thought the best episodes of R&S were the early ones, when there was a fragile, delicate balance between creator John Kricfalusi’s attempts to stretch the boundaries of animation and good taste and Nickelodeon’s concern about keeping the show somewhat family-friendly. Nickelodeon’s attempts at censorship forced the writers to be smarter and, as a result, funnier. When Kricfalusi was fired during the second season, the show became too cuddly and relied too much on lame bathroom humor. And when Kricfalusi got creative control over the show for the Ren and Stimpy Adult Party Cartoon revamp, we got Ren and Stimpy having blatant anal sex. Subtletly, thy name be not Kricfalusi.
But I’ll always have “Space Madness,” where Ren worships a bar of soap and Stimpy hits the History Eraser Button; “Fire Dogs” and Mr. Horse’s famous “No sir, I didn’t like it”; and, of course, Log.
1.) The Simpsons
Anyone who knows me at all could probably guess this would be #1 on my list.
I caught the very first episode of The Simpsons way back in 1989. My parents recently said they thought they’d barred me from watching it initially, given its scandalous reputation upon its debut, but I’m pretty sure they’re wrong, because I distinctly remember cruelly mocking a classmate for whom that was true (haha, Chris! You couldn’t watch The Simpsons eighteen years ago!). Moreover, I know I had all the 1990 action figures by Mattel (which I still like more than the recent Playmates ones). A cardboard cut-out of Bart that I made myself adorned the door of my room for several years. I loved anything and everything to do with The Simpsons. I even had that crappy Bart vs. the Space Mutants NES game that was impossible to beat.
The show has become an American institution during its nearly twenty-year run. I can remember more than one Thanksgiving holiday spent swapping Simpsons quotes with Ed. Quotes from the show are a kind of second language, a geek cipher. Its popularity among college students is legendary. DG, who went to Caltech, told me how you could walk down a corridor of dorm rooms on Sunday nights and hear the show fade as you walked past one room only to be picked up at the next one.
What’s more, the show is just as good in repeats as it is brand-new. Because it’s animated and the writers avoid having too many topical jokes, it manages not to become too dated.
That’s not to say the show doesn’t have its faults. I distinctly remember the episode where the show took a strange new turn. It was “Saddlesore Galactica,” which aired on February 6, 2000. My jaw dropped at the bizarre scene where Homer is accosted by jockeys, who are portrayed as a kind of elf-like subterranean race. Such forays into unreality had always been the province of the Halloween episodes up to that point. There are hints within the episode that the writers were deliberately trying to make a bad episode (Comic Book Guy is shown wearing a shirt that says “Worst Episode Ever”), but after this episode the writers seemed to abandon all concerns about maintaining any sort of a pretense toward a real-world setting. Perhaps this was inevitable. Given the freedom of animation as a form and eleven seasons’ worth of stories, the writers may simply have had nowhere else to go. But I have to say that I’ve never enjoyed any post-“Saddlesore” episodes as much as I have the earlier ones.
My favorite episodes include The Cartridge Family, where Homer buys a gun; and “Homer the Great,” the popular episode where he joins the Stonecutters. The only post-“Saddlesore” episode I’ve considered a classic is “Little Girl in the Big Ten.”
Still, I have high hopes for the movie next year, which is said to have been largely James L. Brooks’s baby (Brooks was largely responsible for what many consider the series’ finest episode, “Lisa’s Substitute”). While I think I’ve been ready for The Simpsons to end for years now, it will still be a sad day when it happens, a day when the phrase “the end of an era” won’t be quite as painful a cliché as usual.
Honorable Mentions: DangerMouse, Spongebob Squarepants, Batman: The Animated Series, Teen Titans, Dennis the Menace, Gaiking, Futurama, Cowboy Bebop, Fairly Odd Parents, Space Ghost: Coast to Coast, Sealab 2021