3 kinds of episodes every '80s/'90s cartoon had
If you think making cartoons these days is rough, what with network television essentially having been made obsolete by the internet and barely hanging on like some disgusting vestigial limb, it’s nothing compared to what it used to be like. Back in the day, cartoons rarely had the chance to actually progress their story in any meaningful way, since the series had to be chopped up for syndication anyway, resulting in, at best, a 65-episode mix of disconnected nonsense, just so the local networks could air the show in any order they pleased without confusing their viewers, who were usually so hopped up on Count Chocula and Pop Rocks that they didn’t know what they were watching anyway.
As a result of essentially being tasked with writing 22-minute toy commercials with censored laser guns, the cartoon writers of our childhoods tended to recycle a lot of plot ideas, to the point that you can actually tell when a show pretty much just added their own characters to stock scripts. Here, I take a look at three scenarios that happened so often during our formative years that it’s a wonder our entire generation isn’t just limited to three kinds of jobs. I mean, other than the only three jobs we actually do have: fast food, barista, and yelling about Dark Souls and Donald Trump on YouTube.
1. The Say No to Drugs Episode
First up, we have the big one: the “getting high” episode. Anti-drug messages were huge in the 1980s as a result of the US war on drugs, and since pretty much all the big cartoons in those days came from the US, it meant that the rest of the world got exposed to just as much anti-drug propaganda as American kids did. Well, aside from the USSR, who just got those nighmarishly surreal Russian cartoons instead, which either had a really low budget or were just designed to break the human spirit at an early age.
The problem with these episodes was that they couldn’t portray drugs in any realistic fashion due to broadcast standards (which also forbade real guns, sexual implications, and human feelings), and so were forced to use all manner of ridiculous substitutes instead, the most common one being glowing crystals for some reason, which could serve as anti-New Age propaganda with just a bit of redubbing. Just replace “Crystal X” or whatever bargain bin space name they used with “dangerous witch ideas.”
Another issue was that since the episodes were supposed to scare kids off drugs, they had to portray the drugs and the dealers as literally the worst people in the world, no matter what kind of show it was, or who the regular villains were. This led to some truly bizarre messages such as the C.O.P.S. episode “The Case of The Lowest Crime”, where the main villain Big Boss (who looks like a slightly thinner Rush Limbaugh), the leader of a crime ring and personally guilty of at least one murder, teams up with the heroes to take down a single drug dealer. Yeah, the main characters who are supposed to be police officers team up with a gang of robbers and murderers just to catch a single dealer.
Even friggin GI Joe jumped on the bandwagon, which had, you know, a terrorist organization bent on world domination. And that was still considered to be less evil than drugs. Just like C.O.P.S., they had to invent a whole new villain just for this story because Cobra Commander just wasn’t evil enough to deal drugs, despite having literally dedicated his life to destroying America with his own hands. Granted, COBRA is probably the only terrorist group in the world who never hit a single person they shot at, but still! In real life, drug sales are how terrorist groups get funding; where the hell is COBRA getting the money for their ridiculous doomsday weapons anyway? Selling Girl Scout cookies? If you think that’s better, you’ve never seen what they do to buyers who try to skip out on the bill.
2. The Wrestling Episode
Speaking of nonsensical spectacles, our next example will be the Pro Wrestling episode. While pro wrestling had been around since the late 19th century, it rose to true pop culture mainstream with the World Wrestling Federation’s national expansion in 1984, with Hulk Hogan (or as we know him today, Racist Muscle Grandpa) as the face of the medium.
While a few wrestling episodes predated the WWF’s expansion, most notably two early Looney Tunes shorts, this new prominence created a wellspring of obvious jokes for cartoon writers. The scenario comes in two flavors: that wrestling is fake and only the buffoonish fans are dumb enough not to notice even though the only real pain anyone in the ring feels is when they trip on their bedazzled feather boas, or wrestling is real and the character who doesn’t think it is gets violently assaulted for it. Or, in the case of the Animaniacs episode “Fake”, both, with perennial series buttmonkey Dr. Scratchensniff on the receiving end.
However, there is a third, rarer scenario, which revolves around one of the characters taking on a wrestler for a cash prize if they can beat him, or more realistically, last a time limit against them. You might recognize that setup from the origin story of Spider-Man. This is one of the few parts that these kinds of episodes actually got right, though true to form, they’re about 50 years too late. Before organized wrestling promotions became common, traveling carnivals would have a challenge where locals could try their luck against a champion wrestler, because TVs weren’t common yet and getting your ass beat at a Dust Bowl county fair was one way to kill an afternoon.
3. The Dieting Episode
While our culture’s obsession with weight loss hasn’t gone anywhere, it had a rather odd focus in the cartoons of our youth, where almost every series would have at least one episode devoted to the topic of dieting (regardless of whether or not any of the characters were overweight in the first place). Now, healthy eating habits might be important, but that’s not what these shows tried to teach you, since the plots invariably revolved around the characters starving themselves and the only exercise they got was complaining about how much they hate vegetables.
Even more ridiculous is The Flintstones episode “Before And After”, which revolves around Fred starring in a before-and-after commercial, which of course means he now has to actually drop the weight they said he did. The goal is 25 lbs. in a month, which, while difficult, isn’t impossible with strict diet and exercise. But since this is a cartoon, the diet involves not feeding him at all, to the point he’s reduced to trying to steal dog food and getting dragged into a support group for food addicts, like an even more cruel version of Biggest Loser. And again, this is a cartoon, so Fred slides right back into his normal levels of unhealthy food habits by the end, which for some reason is seen as a good thing.
Even the friggin’ Smurfs got in on this, having an entire episode about Greedy Smurf having a weight problem, which seems kind of unfair to penalize him for, since his entire identity is wrapped up in what his name is, just like all the other Smurfs. The whole episode is caught up in mocking the poor guy’s weight, which makes zero sense since he still has the same damn body type as everyone else in the little communist mushroom village. Nobody ever gives the psychopath with the bomb packages any crap for following his job description.
And you can’t talk about diet jokes without mentioning Garfield, a franchise where dieting was one of the four jokes they had, the others being torturing dogs, torturing humans, and torturing the poor bastards Jim Davis has been paying to draw his comics for him since 1983. While Garfield might just exist to provide boring quotes for crappy Hallmark cards and bootleg t-shirts, the ’90s series Garfield and Friends was actually of pretty decent quality, though the standard of quality wasn’t exactly hard to beat. What makes the series interesting in this case is that despite its source material, it only had two episodes about dieting, neither of which is centered on Garfield, but rather Jon, the guy who always looks like he’s on the verge of starvation, probably because his friggin’ cat eats all his food.