Wednesday, April 20, 2005

Oh, The Things You Notice

It seems like whenever I look at a show I liked as a kid, I see something that makes me look at it differently. Whether it's getting more of the jokes than I did the first time (Animaniacs) or realizing the show was so bad it's funny in a campy way (Thundercats), I'm surprised at how my reaction to certain shows has changed since "outgrowing" them.

The one thing I noticed is how kids shows today couldn't get away with the things that shows from the 90's could. Parents would boycott or complain if some stuff was done in cartoons today. What might surprise you is that the things I'm about to describe have nothing to do with violence. They are living proof of the cultural shift in this country that is somehow less PC but a little more restrictive.

The first thing is the not-so-obvious "bias" in Animaniacs (and other WB cartoons of that time period). I have probably mentioned before how much I enjoy watching this show on Nicktoons TV (the cable network). Animaniacs was a very topical, celebrity-centric, Hollywood-centric show. The writing was very savvy and filled with rich dialogue-based humor in addition to the slapstick. As such, a "liberal" bias is clear as day as I watch the show in the overpolitical, right vs. left world of today. This is a show that showed Bill Clinton playing the saxophone in its opening (an opening that was eventually changed...and one that is noticeably absent from the Nicktoons airings). They made fun of known conservatives of the time such as Rush Limbaugh and Newt Gingrich. They even had a hilarious episode (or two) making fun of the FCC mandate that networks show three hours of educational programming for children. I wonder what the reaction would be if a kids show was topical to the point that it made fun of President Bush, Condoleeza Rice, Donald Rumsfeld, John Kerry, Howard Dean or even post-Monica Lewinsky Bill Clinton. The show would probably be hilarious...and never make it to air.

The other thing is an episode of Rocko's Modern Life that inadvertently foreshadowed gay marriage. "Gay" stuff in kids cartoons isn't exactly a new phenomenon. Ren & Stimpy were outed by their creator, John Kricfalusi, who nearly ruined their 90's legacy with the overall godawful Adult Party Cartoon. Most recently, there was controversy about Spongebob Squarepants possibly being gay (and no one mentions "Him" from Powerpuff Girls). I watched this episode of Rocko's Modern Life on Nicktoons TV along with my sister. The story had Rocko, a wallaby from Australia, being the victim of the Immigration Department. He was going to get deported unless he got married. Somehow (my sister and I missed parts of this episode), Rocko decides to do a scheme that has him marrying his friend Philbert. Philbert, a turtle that normally wears very large glasses, dresses up in a wedding gown (with his glasses off) and marries Rocko in front of a judge. Over the course of the episode, Rocko and Philbert act like a married couple. Philbert stays at home and cooks dinner for Rocko. He calls Rocko at work for no good reason. They get into a fight (over something stupid) and Rocko tries to make up with Philbert by bringing a vase of flowers (just as Philbert messes with Rocko's car for "revenge"). All the while, the immigration officer appears in weird places to check up on the "couple." Eventually, Rocko gets his green card and him and Philbert go their separate ways. At the end of the episode, Philbert "hooks up" with a slightly nerdy girl he likes (they were shown liking each other earlier in the episode).

I don't know if the creators of the show were aware of what they were doing at the time (they could have just been being weird...because Rocko's Modern Life is one weird show) but there are other things in that episode that are almost as surprising as the storyline. The judge that marries Rocko and Philbert is enamored with Philbert's voice. She pops up periodically in the episode and asks Philbert to say something. However, the most surprising thing was a subtle reference to diseases. Some of the characters have issues with squirrels on their heads (or in their shell in Philbert's case). There was a jaw-droppingly hilarious scene where Philbert looks for a squirrel removal kit in the "Embarrassing Personal Hygiene Items" aisle in a store. He finds what he needs as others stand around trying not to be noticed. When he leaves, everyone else pounces on the products. This episode would probably never ever make it to air if it were created today (not even on Nickelodeon).

It's funny how each generation seems to sanitize kids TV more and more. While some stuff that aired when I was a kid probably wouldn't air today, a lot of stuff that my parents grew up on certainly wouldn't. No network would dare air uncut classic cartoons for kids mostly because of the violence and racial stereotypes. It's a certainty that there will never be a Baby Slowpoke Rodriguez on Baby Looney Tunes. Robotech, currently on The Anime Network, was one of the first anime shows that many people my age (and a little older) remember. That show killed off characters left and right. In comparison, Cartoon Network buries Gundam Seed, a show that kills off characters as it goes on, on late Friday nights (I always miss it) even though they themselves once showed Robotech in the afternoon.

I wonder if in 10 years if people will wonder how Spongebob Squarepants or The Fairly Oddparents got away with the stuff they did. Some of the best kids shows are those shows that are somewhat subversive, the ones that seem just a little naughty. The fact is that most kids like to be naughty, they enjoy things the things their parents never let them do because their parents never let them do them. I think that kids enjoy shows like Spongebob because it allows them to, for a half-hour or so, see and do things they never could. I'd let my kids watch Animaniacs, Rocko's Modern Life, or even old-school Ren & Stimpy (if it's not too bad) in a heartbeat.

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