Some shows just leave an indelible mark on your life. When friends from a younger generation or even your own beloved hellspawn obsess over the latest TV craze, bring up these shows, cite evidence from my sagacious expositions, and laugh in their faces as you tell ’em how damn inferior their barbarous little tastes are compared to what you had growing up.
Unsolved Mysteries was a documentary-style series that ran from 1987 to 2002 (I refuse to acknowledge the modern day, Robert Stack-less Spike and Lifetime iterations, because nobody can ever replace the dude and… I mean, Spike and Lifetime iterations, the hell you talking ’bout?) during which time there came an unprecedented surge in both involuntary and voluntary bedwetting (according to data extrapolated from my sopping, urine-drenched Ninja Turtle bed sheets). Why was this show so unnerving?
First, the subject matter: UFO abductions and related extraterrestrial tomfoolery, unexplained disappearances, strange phantasmal occurrences, and of course, brutal murders carried out by maniacs with complete impunity. And just as the show’s title suggested, these enigmatic conundrums were never solved come the show’s end credits. In other words, the bad guys always fucking won.
Second, you had this stone-faced bad-ass narrating the entire time:
“If you or anybody you know has any information on the whereabouts of any person that has ever tried to fuck with me, then the title of this show wouldn’t exist.”
The late, very great, Robert Stack. A man whose stoical demeanor and inimitable baritone could have made reading aloud the specials from a breakfast menu downright terrifying.
And finally, the theme music, which sounds like some manic, accelerated progenitor to the X-Files theme. Be warned, do not play this if you live alone, want to sleep in the next 48 hours, or enjoy wearing clean undergarments. For those of you too scared to click, the best way to describe the tune is a perverse coalescence of a circus clown’s elegy and some Lovecraftian monstrosity playing a xylophone (or Chthulian cowbell, perhaps?); once you listen, your mind can never again mend itself:
So why did I continue to watch, even right before bed on a school night, knowing full well in advance the tremulous, teeth-chattering, urine-spritzing ball of cowardice it would leave me as? Hard to say, really. Was it because dear old Dad tuned in each week and I simply wanted to prove my burgeoning sense of bravery and yearning for familial bonding by watching alongside him?
Was it because one episode featured a pre-Dazed and Confused Matthew McConnaughey in what is clearly his finest work to date? (Watch from about 2:50 to 6:30 in the video):
Was it because I wanted to believe that Robert Stack would materialize on my television screen one night and assure me just once that every baffling act of bloodshed depicted on screen had some actual purpose in the grand scheme of the universe and that God actually loved me?
Sure, once in a blue moon a “Breaking News Update,” would flash across the screen and inform people how so and so from a prior episode had been apprehended or that a dude that went missing for forty years after a mysterious “pumpkin fucking” incident on a Wisconsinian farm somewhere was reunited with his third cousin…but even then, Robert Stack wouldn’t crack so much as a hint of a smile in relaying the good news. Matter of fact, he’d look just like this:
“I’m so happy right now I could shit rainbows.”
Then he’d utter an irresolute “Thank you,” and move on to narrating the next act of enigmatic butchery. And the dude probably knew full well I’d keep watching with my spine humped up, hairs standing on end, and hands clutching the armrest of the couch like a panic-stricken housecat, bringing shame to the family name while my father shook his head with utter disdain. Thank you Unsolved Mysteries.
The Ren and Stimpy Show
Ren and Stimpy is one of those rare shows that entrenched itself into my psyche like a strange mental disease and lingered there to this very day, subconsciously influencing my quotidian behavior.
Whenever I amuse myself with some inner monologue comprised entirely of gibberish, laugh at an illogical case of gross-out humor or a person being undeservedly hurt, and express mirth at the prospect of someone having a complete mental breakdown before my very eyes, it’s because I grew up watching stuff like this:
The cartoon, created by controversial Canadian animator John Kricfalusi, first aired in 1991 on Nickelodeon starring the titular odd couple: Stimpy, a dimwitted, but good-natured and loveable cat, and Ren, a capricious, psychopathic dog with a parodic Peter Lorre accent. (Presumably to fit his billing as an “asthma-hound” chihuahua).
I could write several articles reminiscing about favorite episodes (and in fact, eventually will end up doing just that in the near future), but the typical escapade primarily revolved around the oftentimes illogical plans devised by Ren to make their lives easier (and usually with the two masquerading as something other than themselves, such as dalmations for food and shelter in “Fire Dogs,” as babies in the “Big Baby Scam,” or with Ren posing as a mouse and Stimpy as his captor, all for five dollars in “The Boy Who Cried Rat”), with Stimpy reluctantly tagging along until the plan backfired with ludicrous and calamitous results.
But that’s not all.
Other episodes ranged from markedly crazy (“Space Madness,” in which Ren and Stimpy travel into space and try to combat the presages of their own insanity due to extreme isolation there, and “Son of Stimpy,” in which Stimpy believes a gaseous cloud of his own flatulence is actually his biological son) to “why haven’t the creators been locked away in a mental asylum yet?” material. (As in, have you actually listened to any of lyrics in the “Happy Happy, Joy Joy,” song by Stinky Wizzleteats?)
Another recurring theme throughout the series was Ren experiencing successive strings of misfortune until finally snapping and retrogressing into a state of berserk insanity. One of the best examples being this, the aptly titled, “Greatest Cartoon Performance Ever:”
As the series progressed, it seemed as if Ren experienced a psychotic episode at only the slightest provocation, which took away from some of the fun of the buildup, but such was his character’s charm. (And they remained pretty funny nonetheless.) The tantrums also steered away from being exclusively that of blood boiling furor and more lapses into delirium, Ren the strange embodiment of a Nietzschean aphorism, Lady Macbeth parody, and Kricfalusi’s shittiest acid trip all rolled into one:
Though their relationship seemed distinctly abusive and one-sided (evocative of the synergy between WWII-era Terrytoons characters Gandy Goose and Sourpuss, from whom they draw influences), even Ren comes across as an overall endearing character because despite the Ike Turner-like abuse he lays on Stimpy episode after episode, complete with verbal onslaughts to accompany each thrashing (“Steempy, you [insert denigrating comment done in Mexican accent here]”), the two were shown to be good friends, and genuinely caring of one another; evident in episodes such as “The Big Shot,” where Stimpy becomes a Hollywood star, but eventually gives up all his fame and fortune to hang out with Ren again, and “Stimpy’s Fan Club,” where Ren’s only fan letter is a heartfelt one sent from Stimpy himself. This sometimes developed to the point of sly, ambiguously homoerotic connotations, but all joking aside, they were friends to the end, and that’s what mattered most at the end of the day, wasn’t it, kids?
Alright, so sometimes the homoerotic connotations weren’t very subtle. At all.
You’d figure the guy who dreamt up such deranged caricatures and scenarios would resemble some highly disfigured, Toxic Avenger-esque miscreant hunched over a desk, scribbling into a notepad with his head cocked sideways and drool slavering from his chin… but he was just kind of your run-of-the-mill, really nerdy looking guy. Like Steve Buscemi with glasses on. And apparently that’s all it takes; someone with a lot of repressed, almost preternatural bizarreness and plenty of creativity to actualize a world where the ordinary and mundane become the exceedingly perverse and irrefutably inane.
Sure, the contumacious kids of today can always point proudly to their South Parks and their Family Guys, citing their irreverence, cleverness, satirical nature, and downright scandalousness, what with famous actors confining themselves to closets, little kids regurgitating shit from their throat holes and whistle-lisped octogenerian child molestors being all weird and stuff, but when it comes to truly testing one’s boundaries in a purported children’s cartoon, neither one of them has shit on Ren and Stimpy. Disgusting, chilling, warped, and downright gruesome Ren and Stimpy.
Whereas South Park and Family Guy are known for sick and twisted humor of their own, this humor is accompanied by snide, self-cognizant remarks, oftentimes to the point of their detriment. (Did you guys notice how fucked up that was, huh did you, did you?) Ren and Stimpy was content to absolutely revel in its insanity, all while making it look like they weren’t even trying.
The quality of the animation was impressive, but as was the case with several other cartoon series at the time, suffered at first from the disparity of several different studios being tasked with artwork duties. The dynamic movements and appearances of the characters hearken back to the stylizations implemented by Bob Clampett during the Golden Age of Animation for the old Warner Bros. Looney Tunes and Merry Melodies shorts (John K. often cites Clampett as his most obvious and beloved inspiration). Only here, they are homage exaggerated to the nth degree. (With many characters more accurately appearing like Bob Clampett Looney Tunes crossed with any of the demoniac creatures from Hieronymus Bosch’s “Garden of Earthly Delights,” triptych.)
Each movement the character makes can only be described as vigorous; when Ren whips his head around, his body becomes damn near elasticized. Stimpy cannot simply stroll; he bounds, each step trampoline springing him from the ground up. Babies roll up their skinfolds like shirtsleeves, eyeballs pop from sockets redrimmed and vein covered, and brains, along with their central nervous system attachments leap violently from skulls.
And of course, to complete the overall indelible nature of the show’s ambience, there were the sound effects. When Ren talks about snapping off someone’s arms, it’s accompanied by a sound like treelimbs snapping. When characters take falls, you can hear their vertebrae shatter into pieces like glass. Even the show’s most bizarre moments wouldn’t have been quite so bizarre without the appropriate sounds to accompany them. (i.e. Ren devouring a bar of soap like a “candy bar,” complete with myriad crackling sounds in “Space Madness.”)
And of course, another area where the show “shined” most memorably was through its use of excessively detailed, surprisingly accurate, and nightmare inducing close-ups. (Of character’s decaying mouths, bile-encrusted orifices, hairy and cellulite-packed, acne-ridden asscheeks. You name it and they accentuated it.) Like roadkill, you couldn’t avert your eyes from the fascinating grotesqueness. (And whose influence you can see in popular contemporary cartoons, i.e. Sponge Bob).
“Hey children, this is normally where a kid’s show would tell you to remember to floss but you couldn’t actually get a mouth like this even if you imbibed industrial waste for all of the formative years of your life. In other words, this show is severely fucked up.”
John K. was fired from the show in late 1992, stating the primary reason as creative differences, while many of the people involved with the show citing the creator’s inability to work in a timely manner. Nickelodeon moved production from John K’s Spumco to its own in house project, Games studio, but the show only lasted for 3 more years, with numerous critics and fans stating that the quality of the show had deteriorated with the creator’s departure. The show returned briefly under John K’s mantle again in 2003 on Spike TV, under the guise of Ren & Stimpy: Adult Party Cartoon. But even this would prove to be ill-fated. According to Wikipedia: “The series, as the title implies, explores more adult themes, including an explicitly homosexual relationship between the main characters, and an episode filled with female nudity… The show began with the ‘banned’ Nickelodeon episode ‘Man’s Best Friend’ before debuting new episodes. Fans and critics alike were unsettled by the show from the first episode, which featured the consumption of bodily fluids such as nasal mucus, saliva, and vomit. Only three of the ordered nine episodes were produced on time. After three episodes, the entire animation block was removed from Spike TV’s programming schedule.”
Despite this, the show still remains untarnished in my eyes for its unique, bizarre brand of brilliance and for bringing countless laughter into the lives of both myself and my little brother growing up. (Hell, even to this day after having watched a few of the episodes again for reference.)
Other notable memories from the show: Muddy Mudskipper, George Liquor, Log, Magic Nose Goblins, “Don’t Whiz on the Electric Fence,” and “No sir, I don’t like it.”
Mister Roger’s Neighborhood
Can there ever again in the annals of a time be an individual so gentle, so soft-spoken and genuinely entreating to his dear “neighbors” as Fred Rogers? A man who found kids television programming at the time so utterly despicable that he abdicated years of whatever grueling, special forces-esque training one must undergo to become a minister just to set out and fix it… armed with nothing but a wardrobe full of carefully knitted cardigan sweaters and an army of autonomous puppets.
We had to be victims of some elaborate ruse or Andy Kaufman type stratagem. Surely a famous TV host so amicable and benign on camera with a smile so everlasting that it became borderline diablolic in portent harbored some dirty-ass secrets; a heroin shooting deviant at the least behind the scenes, diddling droves of children and flogging the dimpled asses of hogtied and ball-gagged nuns with bullwhips for recreation. (Just look at what Full House did to Bob Saget.)
But no. Mr. Rogers was just as his on-screen persona suggested: an upstanding human being. You couldn’t find an ounce of dirt on this guy if he were in the middle of digging you a shallow grave on the side of a deserted highway. Not to say people didn’t try. After his death in 2003, there were accusations that Rogers was a former military sniper with an extensive kill tally, or that he was covering swastika-pentagram tattoos with his trademark garb, or that his sneakers had been used to kick in the heads of newborns, but they were all refuted as mere urban legends and falsifications.
“Don’t let the humble attire fool you, neighbor. I am all that is man. So manly that a deranged murderer who broke into my house and held me at gunpoint realized the error of his ways, laid down his weapon, and fell asleep in my arms, crying, while I gently tousled his forehead.”
It’s not as if Rogers acted all goody-two-shoed in some contrived fashion just to secure a more lucrative paycheck or to pander to audiences for higher ratings:
Rogers also believed in not acting out a different persona on camera compared to how he acted off camera, stating that ‘One of the greatest gifts you can give anybody is the gift of your honest self. I also believe that kids can spot a phony a mile away.’
Compare that to the modern day celebrity, who fears they might mire away in obscurity if they don’t drive drunkenly into a school bus full of orphans every couple of weeks or whose morally sound onscreen personas are completely antithetical to their real lives of incessant debauchery.
Despite nobody ever learning what it was exactly that Mr. Rogers did during the day before returning home to change into his nice, comfortable sneakers, the man was to be lauded for the gifts of knowledge he shared with children. “For example, one of his famous songs explains how a child cannot be pulled down the bathtub drain because he or she will not fit.” Taken out of context, this quote seems really fucking weird. But who among us can honestly admit that growing up, they didn’t quiver with trepidation at the thought of being sucked down the bathtub drain, fingers clawing in futility at the rusted drain and body spinning in a vertiginous blur into that narrow abyss below?
I’d honestly add even a single, solitary smart assed remark about how Mr. Rogers was too strange to be on the level, or so unabashedly nice that he’d have driven Gandhi to suicide, in an attempt to infuse some more cheap humor, but I just honestly can’t do it. The man instructed people on how to better their lives and brought joy into the hearts of millions. Every damn day. So all I can do is give a silent nod of appreciation for the man.
I’d like to think he’s up there with Robert Stack right now, both of them flashing good natured grins as they unravel all those previously unsolved mysteries in true, good neighborly fashion, Rogers saying “Well, that mystery would never have lasted for even a day had he watched one of my episodes to the end where I stared into the camera and said ‘You make each day a special day. You know how; by just your being you. There’s only one person in this whole world like you. And people can like you exactly as you are.'”
Unlike the other shows on this list, this one isn’t on here because I necessarily think it’s good. It’s because I think making puppets, puppets that resemble hominoids, or puppet-human hybrids this shitty looking ever again should be outlawed:
Jesus. This assemblage of assholes look like a blasphemous amalgam of the Teletubbies, Max Headroom, the scary ass puppets from that Genesis video, the computer-animated zombies that pass for humans in the Polar Express movie, and, the guy in the upper right especially, how your uncle would appear if he was accidently killed in some taxidermic mishap. I wanted to tell you more about and do further research on this show, but fuck it. I can’t stand to look at these damn plasticized ghouls for even one more moment. Go Google them or something.
Oh yeah, and there’s this video:
If your workplace doesn’t condone a video meshed together in such a way that it resembles Lil’ Jon commanding a pink-haired little girl to vigorously grab his genitalia or to “bend her ass to the floor,” then I think it’s safe to say you shouldn’t watch this video at work.
For the down low on the Animaniacs, we turn to our resident animation expert, Mark:
Premiering in 1993 as the successor to Tiny Toon Adventures, Steven Spielberg’s Animaniacs has been often imitated, but never duplicated. The cartoon’s primary “plot” (if you could call it that) revolved around the Warners (Yakko, Wakko and their sister, Dot), who were sealed in the water tower of the Warner Bros back lot back in the 30s because they were too weird. They eventually escaped and all I’m really doing right now is rephrasing the lyrics of the theme song, so I’ll stop.
Animaniacs had a number of stand out qualities that made it one of the most popular cartoons of the early 90s. It was very contemporary, and being set in Hollywood, that meant it was constantly taking jabs at the current cinema and scandals of Tinsel Town. The jokes were written on levels so that you could go back and rewatch an episode every five years and always notice something you “didn’t get” the last time around; because as you got older and smarter, the depth of the humor became gradually more apparent.
Not pictured here: 5 seconds of animation containing 30 sight-gags and hidden references you thought you caught the first time… but didn’t.
But what really made Animaniacs stick out, and this is what its imitators never got, was just how genuinely rebellious it was to the landscape of early 90s children’s animation. Ren & Stimpy was shocking parents with its manic violence and Rocko’s Modern Life was breaking new ground in the area of “slipping as many blow job, sodomy, masturbation and penis-pinching jokes into a children’s show as possible”, but Animaniacs was different. It saw that the television animation industry had become an insipid wasteland of edu-tainment and bland, saccharine nonsense and it wasn’t shy about flat-out telling the kids of the 90s, “We hate this shit as much as you do.”
To challenge the network guidelines of the era that every animated program contain some form of educational content, each episode of Animaniacs would end with the “Wheel of Morality”, which acted as a random delivery system for “informative” lessons while otherwise never making any sense. The creators’ disdain for their animated competition was never particularly subtle, either. The episode “Jokahontas” begins with an absolutely scathing, brutal flogging of Walt Disney animation, from their shallow, formulaic heroines to their business model of churning out the same product every year and raking in tremendous profits.
As much as I hate to utter the phrase, “tell it like it is”, because that’s the easiest way to sound like an asshole… Animaniacs had no compunctions about telling it like it is.
While it was easy for shows like Ren & Stimpy and Rocko to get away with murder because they ran on more easy-going (and less accessible) cable networks, Animaniacs aired on primary stations such as Fox, and later, WB (now the CW). Local stations were notoriously skittish about the content of children’s programming, making the kinds of off-color gags the Animaniacs made all the more surprising because they “got away with it”. You had word play about “fingering Prince” or giving someone “the bird”, not to mention that time the writers decided to parody WWII propaganda cartoons by having the Warners pay Saddam Hussein (thinly disguised as ‘So-Damn Insane,’ I kid you not) a visit in the episode “Baghdad Cafe”. It was startling then and startling now; no kid’s cartoon today would ever do something like that.
Then there’s just the innovative idea of historical revisionism, and I don’t mean stuff like visiting Michaelangelo or Beethoven. Because the Warners were conceived as “1930s cartoon characters hidden away in shame”, they had an elaborate faux history and backlog of “vintage” cartoons the writers could utilize. Beyond that, the writers would occasionally dredge up forgotten Warner Bros cartoon characters of the Merrie Melodies period, such as Buddy, whom they cast in a psychotic, villainous role (in probably his first appearance in 60 years).
Animaniacs wasn’t all good, though. Beside the Warners, there were over a dozen other rotating cast members who got their own segments to fill out each episode. Pinky & the Brain were great and I really liked the whole idea behind Slappy Squirrel (the “forgotten Looney Tune”), but holy shit were most of them awful. The Hip Hippos were never funny, Katie Kaboom was annoying, Buttons and Mindy were the same gag ad nauseum, Rita and Runt were the “prestige” segment that was usually boring, and for the love of god, do you remember that one about Thomas Jefferson’s candle? Eighteen years isn’t long enough for me to forgive anybody for that.
But chances are you forgot about all that shit, because the strong segments of Animaniacs were so good you’ve likely still got the oneliners committed to memory. And unlike Tiny Toons, there was usually at least one genuinely superb segment per episode. Animaniacs was innovative, honest, rebellious and intelligent. Its one of those cartoons you can go back and watch as an adult and never have to wonder “why did I like this crap?” or say “well, you have to be nostalgic for it to enjoy it”; its a strong cartoon that transcends generations.
Couldn’t have said it better myself. (Which is literally why I had him whip that part up for me). Though I’d like to take this time to mention some other enjoyable characters from the show, including the Goodfeathers, a trio of pigeons who parodied various gangster movies and roosted on a statue of Martin Scorcese; Minerva Mink, a large breasted, lascivious mammalian character and fantasy focal point of furries the world over (whose mere description will shamelessly garner this article myriad hits through the outlandish Google searches alone); and Hello Nurse, the aptly named blonde bombshell nurse whose mere presence would cause the Warners to regress into slavering buffoons and the basis for one of the show’s most memorable, Vaudevillian-inspired catch phrases.
Russ is working on instituting a catch phrase into the everyday lexicon of readers around the world. He’ll let you know when he thinks of one. Or is that the catch phrase in itself? #mindblown