Vol 1, Num 2 :: 2002.09.27 — 2002.10.10
*cino’s Jason Vande Brake recently sat down with mediaphile Jason Vande Brake to talk about Saturday morning cartoons.
Is now a strange time for Saturday morning cartoons?
Well, Saturday morning cartoons aren’t the institution they once were. It used to be that you could only watch cartoons in a movie theater or on a Saturday morning on one of the major television networks from 5 to 11 am, or whenever they stopped showing them. Now, with video, DVD, TiVo, and cable channels like Disney, ABC Family, Comedy Central, and Cartoon Network of course, they’re available almost all the time, if you have cable. The sense of a special time set apart from the rest of the week isn’t really there anymore. That was a big deal for me as a kid. A specific special time. Saturday morning is still cartoon time, I mean they’re on TV, but they’re not the only thing. Live-action shows like Saved By The Bell and its imitators, aimed at teens and pre-teens, have definitely taken a chunk of the networks’ lineups. Kids are being pushed toward a more sitcom-y type show. But now they can choose between cartoons, a movie on TNT, old sitcoms on TV Land, or Martha Stewart. They can be as grown up as they want to be. I think kids will be watching Saturday morning cartoons for quite a while, though.
So, which cartoons did you grow up on?
Oh, wow. You want me to name them all?
You remember them all?
I remember a lot! Like I said, they were a big deal! I remember, every fall at the beginning of the new TV season one of the networks, I think it was ABC, would run a prime time special about their new Saturday morning cartoons, and I would just eat it up. I loved every minute of it. There were a few years that I really watched pretty religiously.
Okay, so you’re qualified to do this interview. Let’s have some titles.
Whoo. Smurfs, Transformers, Bugs Bunny and Tweety, The Real Ghostbusters, Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles, Muppet Babies, G.I. Joe, Pac-Man, Kidd Video, Captain N, The California Raisins, Duck Tales, Chip ‘n’ Dale, Dragon’s Lair, Fat Albert, Fraggle Rock, He-Man, Heathcliff, Inspector Gadget, Jetsons, Mysterious Cities of Gold, Snorks, Super Mario, Teen Wolf, Thunder Cats, Scooby Doo, did I say that already?
Scooby Doo, then. That’s all I can think of for now. I know there’s more.
Can you name all the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles and their weapons?
Donatello had the bo, Michaelangelo used nunchucks, Raphael was sai, and Leonardo was katana blade, I think.
And your favorite was?
Well done. Why were cartoons such a big deal for you?
I think cartoons were a big deal for almost every kid. It was a community thing. Water cooler talk for the grade school set! There’s a lot of talk about how TV keeps people apart and makes kids reclusive, that being outside playing sports is so much better, and there’s definitely some truth to that. Everything in moderation, you know? But really TV, and Saturday morning cartoons particularly, brought my friends and me together. It gave us common ground, a valuable shared experience. Just a few days ago Amanda and I were having dinner with our pastor, his wife, and another couple, and we got started talking about the show Trading Spaces on TLC. It turned out we were all fans and it gave us a good thirty minutes of excellent, community-building discussion material! And it occurred to me as we were speaking that it was just like getting together to talk about cartoons as a kid. It’s an excuse to talk, to exchange ideas and thoughts, to let each other know where you’re at, what you like and don’t like. Adults do it with the news or the weather or sitcoms or Trading Spaces. Kids do it with cartoons: discuss what’s cool, what’s in, what’s not, ideas, moral issues.
Yeah. Garfield and Friends, Filled with valuable lessons about the dangers of over-consumption and the rewards of kindness.
What about content? It seems to me that the cartoons I watched definitely had a message. Do you think that affects kids?
I think kids are much more concerned with form than content or meaning. I watched Bugs Bunny for the gags. It was entertaining, funny, and interesting to look at. And it was definitely different than my life experience. That’s what we really want in our art—kids and adults alike—something that will delight us and something new. You can have a film or play or cartoon that contains a terribly deep, important message, but if it doesn’t delight its viewers or audience, give them a new and enjoyable experience, it will accomplish nothing and go nowhere. And delight isn’t the same as “fun” or “entertainment”. I think a philosophical revelation or a new insight or a feeling of empathy, negative though it may be, can produce delight, how did we get on this?
We were talking about messages in cartoons.
Right. Messages are secondary to the real experience. Some cartoons were totally based around one message. Remember that Captain Planet thing on TBS?
Yes! Where all the bad guys just wanted to pollute the earth and Captain Planet and the Planeteers were all about environmentalism and keeping things clean?
Right. I mean, that’s obvious propaganda. I agree with the sentiment, sure, but should a kid be watching it and coming away with an incredibly simplistic understanding of a serious problem like that? Probably not. There are also cartoons completely devoted to merchandising and selling a product.
Don’t all cartoons sell a product since they only exist for the sake of the ads they frame?
That’s just business, though. That’s capitalism. And that’s all over entertainment, not just in Saturday morning TV. It is regrettable that most of what’s being sold is trash, but I guess that’s another interview for another time, with another person, maybe. I was talking more about the cartoon that exists so kids will buy the comic book and figurines and the Happy Meal so they can get the happy meal toy at McDonald’s and go to see the movie and etcetera, etcetera. But you have a point. It’s really the same thing with regular ads, just not taken to the same extreme. Good point. I’ll have to think about that one.
Do you think cartoons have any negative effects on kids?
You don’t really think of that as a kid watching them, but as we touched on, they can demand an undue amount of attention and take kids away from other things they should be experiencing, but that’s true of adults and their media, too. You just have to learn how to watch responsibly, and teach kids to watch responsibly! For some people “responsibly” will mean not at all, and that’s just fine. I think they’ll be missing something, but that’s for each family to decide.
I remember a lot of cartoons that were pretty violent. Not in a real blood and guts way, but more like problem solving through force and violence. Power Rangers, which is not a cartoon exactly, but close, had a lot of kicking and punching and weapons. Granted, the only real victims were the impossibly evil villains, and they usually just exploded neatly and harmlessly. Can you believe Power Rangers is in its ninth season? Whatever. Anyway, I don’t buy the argument that kids will emulate it and hurt their brothers and sisters and kids at school. I think they’re smart enough to know the difference. Or should be. But I would still steer my kids away from that sort of thing, if only for the fact that all fighting and useless action makes for bad entertainment. By and large I think there’s been a movement away from those types of cartoons. G.I. Joe and his kin aren’t around anymore and most of the violence that is present is quite stylized. Or it has to do with wrestling.
Yeah! There are two new cartoons this year that are all about wrestling! One’s called Ultimate Muscle. It looks Japanese. It has something to do with aliens and an intergalactic wrestling tournament with wrestlers from different worlds. Totally bizarre. And there’s another one about a Mexican wrestling circuit. Really strange stuff.
What do you think of people who accuse cartoons of being trite, silly, or worthless?
I’d say much of the time that is certainly the case! But there are some cartoons which may appear worthless to adults, but definitely aren’t. Most people who accuse them of being silly think that everything a kid does should be for the sake of learning. Well, who said kids have to learn that much from cartoons? There are certainly other places to learn! And there are also other ways for kids to learn beside just classroom projects and shows like Sesame Street. Kids learn from experience and cartoons help teach kids how to experience the world. In fact, it allows them to experience the world in a very unique way. Take a show like Teletubbies, which makes little logical sense and is often accused of being simplistic and worthless. I think just the opposite is true. Kids are able to make leaps beyond logic that adults rarely can and shows like Teletubbies, which takes place in an amazing fantasy world of Astroturf, strange designs, giant bunnies, and living vacuum cleaners, help kids develop that part of themselves. Good cartoons stimulate imagination; they don’t substitute for it. I think all the weirdness in cartoons is just great. And it’s not just with new cartoons either. Check out Bugs Bunny and the old Looney Tunes. Weird! I love it. It gives kids (and adults for that matter) a break from their rational selves. It expands experience in a playful, interesting way. I’m all in favor of silly. Picasso said that he spent his whole adult life trying to get back the creativity he had when he was five. I think Picasso would have loved Teletubbies.
So those would be the positive effects of cartoons?
How about today’s cartoons? Any recommendations?
I haven’t had a chance to do as much research as I’d like, but there are a couple shows that stand out. For the preschool crowd, I like Teletubbies as I mentioned, and I think Blue’s Clues is a good show. I’d choose those over The Wiggles and definitely over Barney and Friends. Not that there’s anything horrible about those shows; I just think there are better choices out there. Kids may get bored with them. But I may not be the best judge of what’s stimulating for a pre-schooler anymore. Animal shows like Zooboomafoo are always good, and instructive, if you’re into that sort of thing.
For the older kids, SpongeBob SquarePants is a scream. Hilarious and infused with the appropriate level of absurdity. There’s also another Disney show called Teamo Supremo which is my current favorite. The heroes are three kids named Skate Lad, Crandall, and Rope Girl who work for Governor Kevin and help to guard the state from evil villains. Definitely worth a look if only to hear their individual battle cries. Man, it’s funny. These shows are really smart and don’t talk down to kids. I think kids appreciate that, I know I do. Other interesting shows are Rugrats, CatDog, Tokyo Pig, etc. There are lots of good shows. Check them out, you’ll find what you like.
Any predictions about what the future of Saturday morning cartoons will hold?
Hopefully more cartoons and less sitcom type stuff. I’d really like to see some more shows that really explore and exploit the medium. Lots of interesting visuals. The possibilities with cartoons are just mind-boggling! The animators aren’t tied to the limitations of a set or live actors, they can do anything! It’s pretty cool. I’m optimistic. I think animators and producers will keep trying to understand what kids really want: not just cheap recycled material, but new and challenging stuff. And there will probably be more shows with wrestling.