I don’t want to plagiarise the opening of Babylon 5, but in the 1990’s was the decade in which almost everything changed in television. It both jumped the shark, (in regards to the OJ trial, the advent of ESPN, and being the last decade without reality shows), and grew the beard (in regards to the rise of quality sci-fi, drama, and animation). Today, I will talk about the latter – the animation of the 1990’s.
It was the decade that saw the end of the Saturday morning cartoon block on the major networks. The weekday afternoon blocks were still going strong, until Warner Brothers decided that they wanted to create their own network. Even then, things were going great, until there was a leadership change at the WB, and the new leaders no longer supported the animation division.
There were three major factors that brought US animation out of its “Ghetto Age” that lasted throughout the 1960’s, 70’s, and 80’s, and into its “Golden Age” of the 90’s. One was the Disney Renaissance – its rebirth of motion picture animation, which funnelled over to the television side. The second was the success of The Simpsons, which brought animation back to “Prime Time.” And the third was the success Ren and Stimpy, which reminded network executives that cartoons were once catered towards adults, and could be once again.
Before Disney’s The Little Mermaid hit the big screens, Disney animation hit the Saturday small screen in 1985 with Disney’s Adventures of the Gummi Bears. The show lasted for six seasons, first on NBC, then to ABC – just long enough to be a part of the syndicated Disney afternoon block. But make no mistake, as good as Gummi Bears was, it was the success of Mermaid, and Beauty and the Beast that brought us Duck Tales, Darkwing Duck, Tale Spin, and yes, even the ill-fated and much derived Bonkers.
The Simpsons first appeared as part of The Tracey Ullman Show, which began in 1987. Initially, the show was a parody of the traditional family sit-com, (e.g. The Cosby Show, which was the #1 show at the time) by just featuring main cast as a dysfunctional family. The show has evolved several times over throughout its long, illustrious run. It expanded its scope to become a satire of pop culture and a mirror of America, just like the show’s creator, Matt Groening, favorite show, The Rocky and Bullwinkle Show. It passed the torch of the dysfunctional family sit-com to its fellow Fox show, Married… with Children. Like Bullwinkle, The Simpsons became a mixture of contemporary, highbrow, and lowbrow humor at the same time. The most three dimension characters on television, were, ironically, two-dimensional cartoons.
Even at its crudest – the longest of Homer’s belches, or raunchiest of Bart’s prank phone calls, The Simpsons could not hold a candle in regards to off-color humor to The Ren and Stimpy Show. When I refer to R&S, I mainly talking about its first two seasons, which were produced by the original creator, John Kricfalusi. The animation aesthetics was a throwback to the Bob Clampett cartoons of the 1950’s, while the style and humor was closer to the X-rated cartoons of the 1970’s, sans the sex. For a cult comedy, it had a wide range of support. (It was mentioned in the seminal 90’s movie Clueless.) Ren & Stimpy, purposely or not, was the godfather of “stoner” cartoons. Without R&S, we probably would not have such alt-humor cartoons such as: South Park (the early years); Aqua Teen Hunger Force, Space Ghost Coast to Coast, and Beavis & Butt-Head.
There was one final contributor to the 90’s Golden Age. That was the creator of Amblin Entertainment, Steven Spielberg. Amblin teamed up with Warner Bros. Animation to create some of the most memorable shows of the 1990’s. In fact, the title screen of these shows would begin with, “Steven Spielberg Presents,” since he was the Executive Producer. So while many kudos may go to Groening, Kricfalusi, Trey Parker, Matt Stone, Mike Judge, and Paul Dini, one could argue that the man most responsible for this Golden Age would be Mr. Speilberg himself.
As for me personally, I started the first half of the decade in college, and finished other half working. I spent a great portion of it without access to cable TV. So there is a gap in the middle of the decade in which I did not watch much television. However, that coincided with the demise of the WB animation block, and before the Cartoon Network’s Cartoon Cartoons Era. The mid 90’s was an ebb between two spikes of great animation.
With all that in mind, here is my list.
The I, Ominbus Top Ten Cartoons of the 1990’s
- 10. Taz Mania
- 9. The Tick
- 8. Freakazoid
- 7. The Powerpuff Girls
- 6. Tiny Toon Adventures
- 5. Daria
- 4. South Park
- 3. Beavis & Butt-Head
- 2. Batman: The Animated Series
- 1. Animaniacs
Honorable Mentions: X-Men: The Animated Series; Fox’s Peter Pan & the Pirates; Bobby’s World; The Pirates of Dark Water.
Next I, Omnibus List: Top Ten Anime series of the 1990’s.
Next Podcast Unlimited List: Top Ten COBRA characters.