Diamonds in the Rough

This Week: Children's Cartoons


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One of the most common inebriated-conversation topics of our college years has been the so-called "Golden Age" of children's shows-basically Nickelodeon programming from the mid-'90s. "Salute Your Shorts" and "Are You Afraid of the Dark?" are shared experiences that lend themselves to drunken bonding and wistful reminiscing. Usually these discussions end with the general consensus that "they don't make 'em like they used to" and an impromptu whistling of the "Doug" theme song. But the next morning a frightening thought tends to creep into our throbbing skulls: Were these shows that good or are they covered in the sweet sap of childhood nostalgia? Or were we just drunk?

Trying to clear our heads with a morning cup of coffee, it's easy to recall cartoons that stand the test of time. "Rocko's Modern Life" is a fluorescent example. The show documents the surreal exploits of Rocko (a heavily accented wallaby) and his friends Heffer (a suspender-sporting steer) and Filbert (a bespectacled, neurotic turtle in the mold of Woody Allen). Their bizarre adventures are set to a fantastic score, consisting of dream-like, '50s-era lounge music and frequent use of the tuba-including a memorable theme song by the B-52s. It takes place in the exaggerated consumer paradise of O-Town, where camping entails riding a conveyer belt through the synthetic forest of the local bio-dome. The ridiculousness of suburbanites, especially Rocko's uptight neighbor Ed Bighead, is something kids and adults alike can laugh at-though any parent watching might wince a bit at the conventional white collar suburban lifestyle lampooned so outrageously.

Those of you who entered the "too cool for cartoons" stage earlier than we did may have missed Disney's "Recess," which mocked the adult world in a similar way. Ruling the show's schoolyard are a gang of fourth graders who transcend the traditional narrow-minded comedy of most cartoons. Mikey, the effeminate fat kid, waxes philosophical on chocolate and ballet, while super nerd Gretchen studies the schoolyard like a sociologist. The playground often becomes a battlefield, where serious issues like religion and social codes-ones more likely discussed on the nightly news than the jungle gym-are fought over, their kid manifestations highlighting their actual silliness.

"The Fairly OddParents" does the same, ribbing its adult viewers satirically while spitting out frames of bubble-gum animation. Timmy Turner and his dumb daemons confront bullies, teachers and babysitters per standard children's-show fare. Yet impersonations of everyone from our Governator to Ben Stein set the show apart.. The creators even based Timmy's hometown, Dimmsdale, on San Francisco, which makes flashbacks to the '60s and '70s even funnier for locals.

These shows strike a balance between juvenile humor and sophistication, entertaining the under-10 crowd as well as their babysitters. Often enough they seem like double entendres, almost like there's two completely different senses of humors operating onscreen. The necessity of kid's cartoons is comedy, and the ones we've mentioned provide laughs in spades. Their slapstick gags are funny for all ages, but these shows provide a form of social satire that satisfies the comedic needs of college students. They're not "The Wire" or "The Sopranos," but for a generation that has embraced "The Simpsons" like ours has, they're sure to provide something of interest to all-a diamond in the post-pubescent rough.

Whistle the "Doug" theme song with Nick and Derek at [email protected]

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