Year of tha Boomerang: The Death, Resurrection, and Relocation of the Classic Cartoon

Yesterday, we discovered Boomerang.

There we were:  new residents of an unfamiliar home, water on, electricity flowing, internet connected, brand new digital cable box.  Sitting in our underdressed and oversized living room – a papasan, a recliner, a vintage armchair, a rug, and an entertainment center – we flipped with want through the two hundred or so channels SuddenLink provides us in search of the most satisfactory show, the show that best fit the pace of this slow, exhausted Thursday afternoon.

To be honest, there wasn’t much of a decision to be made.  Television programming doesn’t have much of a stronghold on weekdays at the two o’clock hour.  That’s more of a time to read a good book in a hammock, do housework, watch a classic film, exercise, or – better yet – work the second half of your nine to five.  But that’s a whole nother story.

When we discovered that Popeye was even being offered to our spectatorship, we capitalized, and I mean capitalized.  We must have hit it on a particularly good episode, because it was entirely satisfying.  It was the one – I don’t know, maybe you’ve seen it – where Popeye and Olive Oyl are road tripping, and they run into this sort of Bluto-like lady that wants Popeye for her own.  Of course, Popeye isn’t going to hit a woman.  This is Olive’s battle. Sure enough, after being roughhoused by the other woman a while, to the point where she is stuck in a tree stump, Popeye falters and drops his spinach.  It happens to fall right next to the tree stump.  Olive Oyl stretches her free neck out, giraffe-like, grabs the can of spinach with her mouth and swallows the can.  Rejuvenated, Olive breaks free from the stump and flexes her muscles. Small as they are, since she usually has the flailing, twig-sized arms of a hyperbolically helpless woman, they proved effective.  Olive Oyl defeats this woman who can turn a forty-foot bridge around solely with her arms, who can row a boat with her feet, who can power a boat ashore from underneath at speeds exceeding acceptable human behavior.  And she drives the two of them off into the sunset as the victor – Popeye’s woman.

A quick aside – best advertising for a vegetable ever.  My children will certainly watch Popeye growing up.

As if anything could beat that episode, we anxiously awaited what this new channel we had discovered – Boomerang – had in store for us next.

To our excitement, the next program was Yogi Bear.  The theme song tagline of Yogi Bear – “Smarter than your average bear” – is far from being an understatement.  Sitting there and listening to the protagonist of this show speak, I couldn’t decide whether he was a comedic genius or a complete imbecile.  Upon further observation, I believe we decided it was the latter. But what do you want from a bear?  A bear that can speak – that’s pretty awesome.  But a bear that can speak well – well, that’s nearly impossible. But what about Boo-Boo?  That depression-ridden ursine sidekick sure speaks well.  I know he didn’t learn that from Yogi.

Both endings to the episodes felt in some way unresolved.  For instance, in the second episode, the Ranger and Yogi are trying to catch Boo-Boo because Yogi has hypnotized Boo-Boo and convinced him that he is a bird.  Sure enough, Boo-Boo perches up in his sleep and then takes off flying.  The Ranger and Yogi’s final strategy, after all else fail, is to attach a bundle of helium-filled balloons to Yogi presumably just strong enough to lift Yogi, but when he grabs Boo-Boo they’ll descend back to the ground.  So, Yogi floats up with the balloons and grabs Boo-Boo.  They continue floating upward, exchange some quip, and the episode is over.

But how do they get back down to the ground?!

The other one involved an alien Yogi and ended with the same lack of resolution.

We checked the programming for the next day or so.  A lot of the cartoons from my childhood were there – The FlintstonesThe JetsonsSmurfs,Scooby Doo, Where Are You?Looney TunesTom & JerryPink Panther.  I began to ponder the possiblities of a showing of The Flinstones Meet The Jetsons or Scooby Doo Meets the Harlem Globetrotters.  And, quite frankly, I got rather excited about this.

My childhood had caught back up with me, and it got me thinking quite a bit about cartoons.  Read what you want about the channel Boomerang.  Read that it was made to satisfy baby boomers.  But don’t believe it entirely.  Here is the reason Boomerang exists:  it is Cartoon Network’s apology for what Cartoon Network has become.  Cartoons weren’t what they used to be – extensive comic strips, far from being limited to just three or four panels – wholesome, family-friendly, timeless.  (And here I exclude the overtly racist cartoons Warner Bros. et al put out in the twenties, thirties, and so on.)  And because cartoons weren’t what they used to be, Cartoon Network created a channel in the year 2000 to exclusively play the cartoon classics, twenty-four/seven.  And while some of the modern series have creeped their way onto the programming schedule – Two Stupid DogsDexter’s Laboratory,Johnny Bravo – I’d still call it a worthy addition to the television world.

When Disney and Pixar put out Toy Story in 1995, the world of animation changed.  For one, people realized how much they could do with it.  Animation became an increasingly popular art form, and increasingly aimed at children, a departure from the original orientation of the cartoon towards the entire family.  That is not to say that Toy Story itself was not a film for the entire family, because it certainly was.  The departure happened, I would argue, in response to the popularity of Toy Story.

Four years earlier, the Nickelodeon network had introduced a series of cartoons – DougRugrats, and The Ren and Stimpy Show.  Of course,Doug and Rugrats were aimed at children, while Ren and Simpy was a poor attempt to mask an adult cartoon on a children’s network.  It climbed from there – Rocko’s Modern Life (also adult themed), Aaahh!!! Real Monsters,Hey Arnold!CatDogSpongebob Squarepants.  By 1995, Nickelodeon had a stranglehold on modern children’s cartoons.  They weren’t timeless, and they weren’t classic – okay, maybe Rocko’s Modern Life was classic andtimeless – and they weren’t exactly primetime TV like The JetsonsThe Flinstones, the cartoons of yore.  But they were modern, and they caught on.

Combine the craze that Nickelodeon created with these modern cartoons with a competition-driven TV network in the greedy hands of Ted Turner and the realized range of animation that Toy Story helped create, and of course you’re going to see the decline of western cartoonization.

Boomerang is sort of like a cartoon reservation, isn’t it?

Now, I am twenty-two and a half years old.  The first six years of my life preceded the onslaught of Nickelodeon, the forthcoming of Cartoon Network, and the self-destruct sequences, qualitywise, each network eventually fell into.  During those years, and even further along, I watched the shows that I found on Boomerang – PopeyeYogi BearThe FlintstonesThe Jetsons,SmurfsScooby Doo, Where Are You?Looney TunesTom & JerryPink Panther.  These were the staple cartoons of my childhood.  RugratsDoug,Rocko – those all came later for me.  What precedes them in my memory are the classics.  I grew up with the cartoon classics.  I loved the dynamic duos Warner Bros. et al created – I always rooted for Wile E. Coyote to catch the Roadrunner, Tom to catch Jerry, Pepe Le Pew to finally get the girl (cat), Bugs Bunny to escape Marvin Martian, or Elmer Fudd, or Yosemite Sam, for Popeye to defeat Bluto, to win Olive Oyl.  These are the cartoons of my childhood.  I watched Rugrats because I had a younger brother and sister.  At least I like to think that’s why I watched it.

But the real question is, did my younger brother and sister also grow up with the classics?  And the answer is, absolutely not.  How could they have possibly?  My sister was born in late 1988 and my brother late 1991.  Rugrats premiered in 1991 when my sister was not even three and my brother not even alive.  So, by the time my sister had memory, Nickelodeon had already begun its domination with these quality modern children’s cartoons.  These shows appeal more to a, say, rugrat than a mentally slow bear hunting for picnic baskets, and so they opt to watch that instead.  By 1995, my brother’s three and my sister six, and Nickelodeon has even more quality modern children’s cartoons.  Meanwhile, Cartoon Network is about to introduce Cartoon Cartoons to try to catch up and eventually even stop showing Looney Tunes, not unlike Nickelodeon on their network.  And because of the success of Toy Story, more and more people are expressing some artistic vision through cartoons and the audience is getting younger and younger and Yogi Bear won’t be catching picnic baskets for a while.  The year 2000, my sister eleven and my brother eight, Cartoon Network apologetically creates Boomerang to reintroduce all of the classics.  The problem is, nobody knows what Boomerang is and no cable company carries it and it isn’t until 2008 until someone like me even realizes what it is.  Thanks to Space Jam, my brother and sister know what Looney Tunes is, but they certainly didn’t grow up with it they way that I did.

Between my sister and I, there’s a three year age gap.  I got a moderate dose of these cartoon classics growing up, whereas my sister got a very small dose, if any dose at all.  And my brother will stare at you blankly if you try to talk about The Jetsons yet expect you to follow his entire description of The Fairly Odd Parents.

This is a significant realization.  This means that I am on the cusp of a cartoon generation that my brother is on the exact opposite side of.  For my sister, it’s even more complicated.  She’s not on a cusp at all – she’s a product of a transition period, a synapse.  She grew up as Nickelodeon grew up, and that’s the majority of her cartoon intake.

Even more interesting is how long the cusp I’m tailing lasted.  These episodes of Yogi BearThe JetsonsThe FlintstonesSmurfs, etc. that I grew up with are the exact same episodes that my parents grew up with.  Many of these series premiered in the sixties and persevered until the early nineties.  It’s a bond that I share with my parents that my siblings do not, and it makes me think.  It’s not anything profound, but maybe that’s why I feel like the seniors my sister recently graduated from high school with seem so much younger, immature, than I was when I graduated from high school.  I hope that’s the case, because if it weren’t, I think I would feel a little embarrassed about my eighteen-year-old demeanor.

Maybe the new cartoon generation separates me culturally from my brother and sister.  And it makes me wonder, will the culture my cartoon generation grew up with survive these changes?  Will kids still read The Catcher in the Rye in high school and be able to connect with Holden Caulfield?  Will they watch Pinnochio or Peter Pan or Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs?  Will they ever discover The Beatles?

They better.

Regardless of the effect of cartoons on our culture, one has to ask – what’s happened to all the wholesome, family-oriented cartoons in this world?  It’s like someone took a giant sledgehammer and cracked family-oriented cartoons in half.  One half was stronger than the other, and the other is so weak and fragile at this point that it is just about to shatter into a million tiny little pieces. Of course, the strong half is the adult half.  Point in hand:  Adult Swim took place of Boomerang Block on Cartoon Network when it re-launched in October 2004 (wiki Boomerang (TV channel)).  The twenty-year legacy of cartoon sitcom The Simpson’s on Sunday night primetime television speaks for itself.  But King of the HillDariaBeavis & Butthead (the Mike Judge Cartoon Trilogy), Family Guy, and some of the shows on Adult Swim – Aqua Teen Hunger Force or Space Ghost Coast to Coast, for example – are quality modern adult cartoons.

Meanwhile, the other half, the children’s half has become so mind-numbing, so lowbrow that it’s difficult to really accept.  The Grim Adventures of Billy and Mandy?  I don’t think so.  At least Spongebob is surviving.  That episode where Spongebob and Patrick learn swear words cracks me up every single time.

Cartoons aren’t comics anymore, but it’s great to see that their spirit has penetrated digital cable.  Viva Papa Smurf!  Viva Barney Rubble!  Viva Boo-Boo!  You are all immortal, and you shall never die again.


(NOTE:  written 11th June 2008, originally published 22nd September 2008 for CA Jottings.)


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