Week of Cartoons – Day 5: Muppet Babies (1984)

March 27, 2008


Part 2 | Part 3

FROM JASON’S RUNAWAY IMAGINATION — If you think you’re too manly or cool to watch Muppet Babies, then you’re probably just an asshole with low self-esteem.

Sure, it was about toddlers modeled on felt puppets. So what? Muppet Babies was brilliant because it was the Robot Chicken of its time — and it had a heart of gold.

The Jim Henson Company (operating under the umbrella of Marvel, surprisingly enough), strung together pop references like candy necklaces. The writers spoofed Indiana Jones, Star Wars, Star Trek, Flash Gordon, The Jetsons, Close Encounters of the Third Kind, Back to the Future, Honey I Shrunk the Kids, Adventures in Babysitting, Conan the Barbarian, Lawrence of Arabia, Journey to the Center of the Earth, Oliver Twist, E.T., The Wizard of Oz, Miami Vice, The Lone Ranger, Peanuts, The Twilight Zone, and Family Ties.

And that’s just going from memory. There were a lot more.

In case you missed it, Muppet Babies ran for six years on CBS. At the height of its popularity, the station ran three episodes back-to-back-to-back. Even after the show was cancelled, CBS kept it in reruns until 1992.

The ‘toon followed young versions of Kermit, Piggy, Fozzie, Gonzo, Scooter, Skeeter (Scooter’s twin sister who was invented just for the show), Rowlf, and Animal. Sometimes they were joined by Bunson and Beaker, Bean, and one time by Janice. They all lived in a nursery and were cared for by a faceless woman called Nanny, who wore green-striped, knee-high socks.

Gonzo was by far the best of the cast. His schtick was bringing the bizarre, the red herring-ed, the geeky, and the sci-fi to the show. When everyone else was imagining pretty traditional or mundane things, he was way out in left field with the most oddball and deviant ideas, and I always identified with that.

Imagination is what Muppet Babies was all about. You’d see the Muppets’ fantasies as if they were real, like daydream sequences but with more substance. They would imagine flying through space. They would imagine building their own amusement parks. They would imagine being in dark dungeons or running from monsters — and they would react as if every single situation were real.

Looking back, this show was tremendously liberating and formative to me. The lessons were obvious: Think for yourself. Don’t be embarrassed to have a rich fantasy life. Creativity is a virtue. Childishness and complex, adult ideas can co-exist. It’s okay to be weird. Ideas can be fun and philosophically deep at the same time. Don’t always take things at face value.

Typing this now, I’m starting to realize this cartoon — this silly children’s show — may have had a strong influence on my early cognitive development, and that could explain a lot about why I’m a professional writer today. Imagination is a right-brain function and that hemisphere is associated with intuition, synthesis, creativity, art, emotion, language, problem-solving, and analysis of conceptual relationships. Those are the tools of my trade.

Of course, you can’t talk about Muppet Babies without discussing mixed media. The show would use live-action footage from movies and television — often from old public domain films or documentaries — right along with the animation. One running gag had Gonzo open the nursery closet to find a live action setting behind it, like Dracula or Alex P. Keaton. Internet legend has it that all of these licensed shots are why the cartoon hasn’t made it to DVD yet.

I would buy all of the seasons. Until then, a couple of awesome people have uploaded lots of episodes to YouTube for us to enjoy. Here are a few links:

Where No Muppet Has Gone Before
Out of This World History
Journey to the Center of the Nursery
The Great Muppet Cartoon Show
Muppet Land

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Week of Cartoons – Day 2: The Best of Marvin the Martian

March 24, 2008

marvin01.jpgFROM JASON’S SECRET BASE ON THE RED PLANET — Okay, so I’m cheating. There were only ever five original shorts made starring Marvin the Martian, so a “best of” list is really damned stupid.

Marvin was created by (who else) Chuck Jones in 1948 for Haredevil Hare, which I dislike intensely because the prototype for Marvin’s voice is horrid. It’s a stupid, almost meek voice — not the superior nasal condescension we’ve come to love. You can still watch that episode on YouTube, but I refuse to post it here.

Marvin’s never named in the old shorts; he was supposedly called Commander X-2 around Warner Brothers but his name changed when the company decided to start marketing him in the late 1970s and early 1980s. He had instant appeal to kids like me, who were obsessed with outer space and serialized sci-fi.


Duck Dodgers in the 24th 1/2 Century

Here it is, right at the top — the absolute best Marvin cartoon, and the only one starring Daffy Duck (and Porky, for that matter). The rest star Bugs Bunny, but I think Daffy’s righteous rage is awesome.

The Earth’s supply of Illudium Phosdex, the shaving cream atom, is dangerously low. It’s up to Duck Dodgers to go to Planet X and claim its resources in the name of Earth. The only problem is that Mars sends a certain conquerer as well.

Incidentally, the Martian flag is a red circle on a white background. This proves conclusively that Martians are Japanese. And at 5:53, is that an interociter?


Hare-way to the Stars

Vodpod videos no longer available.

This is the one that gives Duck Dodgers a run for its money. Bugs wanders into a rocket by accident and gets blasted to an Escher-esque world of glass pyramids, antennas, and zig-zagging red space platforms. By a stroke of good timing, he interrupts Marvin just as our Martian legionnaire is getting ready to use Illudium PU-36 to destroy the Earth (it’s blocking his view of Venus).

Apparently, Martians are very long-lived, because Marvin says he’s been working on PU-36 for 2,000 years.

This episode is all about futurist concept art depicted in a very 1960s World’s Fair style. It also features the just-add-water aliens on scooters, which is a priceless sequence.


Mad as a Mars Hare

Astro-rabbit Bugs Bunny is tricked into exploring the surface of Mars and runs into a stubborn native who doesn’t want the red planet befouled by Earthlings. Marvin gets the drop on Bugs but accidentally misfires his time-space gun, mutating Bugs into a Hulk bunny.


The Hasty Hare

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General E=mc² sends Marvin with Commander K-9 on a mission to bring back one live Earth creature to Mars. Bugs Bunny is once again his target and succeeds in the first minute or so in making Marvin say, “You have made me very angry!”

How Buck Rogers can you get, you ask? Well, Marvin and K-9 break out the ACME straight jacket-launching bazooka.

Also, I just want to point out that at the end, when Bugs offers to sell a flying saucer with only 3 billion miles on it, that means the ship has traveled 0.00051 light years. Of course, at its closest, Mars is only 36 million miles from Earth (or 250 million miles at the greatest gap in the planets’ orbits). That means that theoretically Marvin’s ship could have gone from Mars to Earth 83 times already.