Last month, it was announced that 25 years’ worth of Nicktoon characters — possibly everyone from Eliza Thornberry to Invader Zim to Ginger to Doug — will join forces in one all-star, ensemble, Avengers-style movie. A lot of these guys were on the airwaves back in the ’90s. Seeing the fan-made promo images made me nostalgic. But it also made me think: Wow. Cartoons in the ’90s were weird as hell.
I watched a lot of TV as a kid. A lot. It’s not because I hated sunlight or human interaction, either. It’s because the cartoons on TV consistently captured my imagination, or left me in a foetal position on the living room floor from laughing so hard. Sometimes they even freaked me out and haunted me. And I couldn’t stop watching. When you look up episodes of these old shows online, one thing is clear: ’90s cartoons were odd. Dark. At times, deeply disturbing. That’s what made them fantastic.
Let’s start with The Ren & Stimpy Show. In 1992, the New York Times dubbed it “the most original thing to happen to children’s television since Pee-wee’s Playhouse” and said it made “the free-form humour of Rocky and Bullwinkle look like a Noh drama”. Concerned parents rallied against it. I was obsessed.
I wasn’t the only one in my house who was, either. My dad loved the show. Every Saturday afternoon when a new episode aired, he ran in from mowing the lawn, cracked open a beer and howled with me at Stimpy showing off his “magic nose goblins” (varicoloured snot globs collected under a table), or at the disgusting close-up stills of the characters, liver spots and yellowed toenails galore. I had a plush Stimpy that proudly declared “They don’t call me stupid for nothing!” when you pulled the hairball-on-a-string from its mouth. “Happy happy, joy joy” became a mantra in the Lufkin household for the better part of the Clinton administration.
The show was edgy and uncomfortable and envelope-pushing. That’s why my dad — and uncle, and older babysitter, and many people in my life 18 or older — liked it, too. In fact, for a lot of people… it was too weird. Too adult. Lots of my friends weren’t allowed to watch it. I could never imagine it being on a kids’ network in 2016.
But Ren & Stimpy was super mainstream and a massive hit for Nick, which is what made it even more nuts. I freely spouted off lines from the show throughout childhood, with little regard to my surroundings or who I was with. For example, as a little kid I’d randomly break out into the jingles for “Log” or “Don’t Whiz on the Electric Fence” in front of the women in my mum’s bunco group, who half laughed, half side-eyed each other worriedly.
In one iconic episode, a musician on a vinyl record (named Stinky Wizzleteats) teaches the boys the “happy happy, joy joy” dance, and suddenly spits out, “I’ll teach your grandmother to suck eggs!” Not exactly an oft-heard phrase, but it sounds pretty, uh, inappropriate, right?
Well, one day not long after seeing that episode (this was early primary school), my dad took me to go see a Power Rangers Live show. We’re in our seats, and at one point, the evil Putty henchmen were evilly looking into crowd, interacting, firing off snide, evil comments, hunting for the Rangers. I decided to be a wise guy, and cried out from my seat: “Ah, go suck an egg!” Yeah, that didn’t go over well — Dad death-grabbed my arm and gave me the “no video games for a month” glare, while the mum in front of me whispered to her own son loud enough so I could hear, “I never want to hear you say that.”
While a public outburst during a performance like mine is rude by itself, it turns out the offensive-sounding term I heard on Ren & Stimpy actually wasn’t bad at all! Apparently it’s an old idiom that means “to try to tell or show someone more knowledgeable or experienced than oneself how to do something”.
Still, at that moment, based on the reactions of the adults around me, I sort of fully realised how crude, and potentially inappropriate, this “children’s” cartoon was. But hey — I thought the show was hilarious! That’s all that mattered to me. Besides, what’s wrong with humour that’s strange or blue or that makes some people uncomfortable — even if it’s a kids’ cartoon?
Another one of my favourites was Rocko’s Modern Life. At first glance, it looked like as goofy or whimsical as any children’s program: A talking wallaby from Australia works in a comic shop and gets into misadventures with his neighbours. Sounds cute! But there were episodes where it got strange, and I was a big fan.
In one episode, Heffer chokes on a chicken bone, goes to hell and meets a Grim Reaper-esque demon named Peaches who has udders for a head and starts spraying milk everywhere. In another, Really Really Big Man’s Nipples of the Future go haywire and strike panicked bystanders in the crowd. One time, anthropomorphic toad Mr Bighead uses a walking, talking, prophetic magic meatball that augurs all the right business decisions to get Mr Bighead rapidly promoted. Bighead and the meatball end up getting married.
I knew that every time I was going to watch one of those shows, I was going to laugh, hard. One of my good friends, to this day, maintains that he nearly wet himself in primary school during one Rocko episode’s “Wacky Deli” segment: a stream-of-thought toon-within-a-toon that features jarringly animated talking cold cuts, plus live-action shots of a manicured hand smashing a picnic meatloaf, all set to polka music. (It was the inane, amateur cartoon Rocko and his own buddies cobbled together, and ended up becoming a hit.)
Nick wasn’t the only place to find stupefyingly inventive and hilarious cartoons in the ’90s. Cartoon Network was starting to take off at that time, too. Remember Cow and Chicken? The slapstick show followed two siblings; he was fowl, she was bovine and they got into weird adventures with a foppish, naked, blatantly Satan-like antagonist, whose rotating aliases often punned off his huge arse, like Major Wedgie or Mrs Barederrière. Oh yeah, they had human parents. Don’t worry about it.
Fast forward to 2000, when I had to wake up at the crack of dawn for high school. I usually ate breakfast in front of the TV, and for some reason, I remember watching a lot of 6am Cow and Chicken reruns on Cartoon Network. I don’t think it was out of nostalgia, per se — I actually didn’t watch a lot of the show when I was younger. But I didn’t want to watch the local news or infomercials, and I was drawn to the at-times-adult humour. So it became a morning ritual. It’s what I watched, and laughed at, while I was half-asleep eating a granola bar.
See, Nickelodeon was pretty much the first television network that was devoted almost entirely to kids’ programming. So when Nick, and later Cartoon Network, wanted to start producing original shows, they gave carte blanche to the animators who wanted to fill these new channels’ airwaves. Those genius artists were folks who grew up on the screwball slapstick of Looney Toons, and were likely reacting to the squeaky clean fare of the ’80s, such as Care Bears or DuckTales.
And so we got the joined-at-the-rump hybrid creature CatDog. Or Action League Now, with its perpetually naked superhero. Or a show that was literally called The Angry Beavers. I’m also just scratching the surface, here. Let’s not forget Freakazoid!, Beetlejuice, The Tick, KaBlam! or Earthworm Jim, which spanned cable and basic channels alike in the US. Looking back, it all felt pretty experimental and daring.
There were dives into taboos and topics that were pretty far out of my primary school scope. It was rare to find an episode of Animaniacs and Tiny Toon Adventures that didn’t reference the politics or pop culture of the day, which probably went over the heads of the young viewers: for example Elmyra having a dance party in her bedroom, then suddenly yanking off her shirt to reveal a cone bra, and exclaiming: “Costume change! — Now I’m Madonna!” Another Tiny Toons episode was banned for showing Buster, Plucky and Hamton getting drunk off beer (in order to show the dangers of alcohol).
At other times, things got borderline sexual. Rocko and his pals frequented a fast food joint that was literally called the Chokey Chicken. Obviously, the masturbation gag was lost on nine-year-old me, but its inclusion hints at just how much of a wild frontier kids’ animation was during the decade. In another episode, it’s suggested that Rocko and his friends stumble upon the Bigheads’ sex tapes.
The tone of kids’ shows in the ’90s swung like a 360-degree pendulum, knocking into territories that were topical, cerebral, frightening, stomach-turning, sarcastic, silly, surreal, non sequitur, flatulent.
These shows had a huge impact on my sense of humour, and served as a gateway to the twisted stuff I found funny later in life: I’m a Salad Fingers fan. My late teens involved a lot of Aqua Teen Hunger Force and Tim & Eric. The lawnmower Mad Men scene is my favourite. It might also be why I love Tim Burton and David Lynch — Eraserhead barely fazed me, which makes sense considering I ate Cocoa Puffs in front of cartoons that had scenes like this:
Sometimes, Nick would air animated shorts during commercial breaks. I don’t really remember most of them, but one scared the absolute shit out of me. Not in a, like, boo-it’s-a-ghost! kind of way, but in a disturbing, existentially sinister way. As in, it kept me awake in my bed at night after my parents told me good night. Friends, I give you “The Killing of an Egg”:
See?! See what I mean? I have a hard time imagining this airing on kids’ TV today. I mean, it was too eerie even for me, but hey — here I am, 30, and I still remember it. When YouTube became a thing, I remember sitting in my university dorm, reaching into the nooks of my memory banks to fish out enough search terms to Google it up. (“Egg”, “cartoon”, “house crashing”, “death”.) It was totally creepy, but I sure as hell never forgot it. I even thought during commercials back in the day, “Where’s that scary egg cartoon? I kinda wanna see it again.”
When I watch cartoons today — which I do pretty often, especially when I’m hungover and eating cold pizza on Saturday mornings — I notice that, while Nick or Cartoon Network may or may not be operating at ’90s-level weirdness levels, there are definitely shows that the oldies laid the groundwork for.
A recent example? The fantastic Adventure Time, which, to no one’s surprise, has armies of grownup fans as well as kids. Not since the ’90s has an animated show on a mostly children’s network so deftly handled fandoms of all ages. Fun fact: Creator Pendleton Ward has said he was inspired by Ren & Stimpy. Even SpongeBob Squarepants — which is technically a ’90s show! And it’s got the weirdness to prove it, with characters like nihilist Plankton with his robot wife, Karen.
I’m very interested in what this upcoming Nickelodeon ensemble movie will look like, especially given the fact it’s going to be mixed with live action, Roger Rabbit-style: Will certain characters be allowed to be as gross and bizarre as they were 20 years ago? Will Stimpy still make loving effigies of Ren out of earwax? Will Filburt still deliver updates about his chronic nausea? And will Daggett and Norbert still love horror movies about crawling killer spleens with thumbs?
One thing’s for sure. Most ’90s toons never patronised their young audiences, and they never dumbed anything down. They knew they were weird and they celebrated it. Whenever I watch my Ren & Stimpy complete collection DVD box set — the same one I asked my parents for on my 21st birthday — I realise, damn. They don’t make ’em like this any more.
Top image: Giphy