Taking a Funny Thing (Like Television Animation) Seriously
I want to tell you about my favourite personal interest and ruling passion as a scholar, the thing I find it hard to live without; television animation. But you should know something about me first. I was diagnosed very young with Asperger’s Syndrome, which is considered to be on the high end of the Autism spectrum. People with Asperger’s can function well by themselves and amongst friends and family, and work well when given tasks that they can do, but find it very difficult communicating to others if they don’t know how to, or if they have never met or interacted with someone before. They find it particularly difficult understanding language if it is of a non-verbal nature, and can embarrass themselves in public in consequence of this. From an early age, I was attracted to animation on television because the majority of the characters were the opposite of who I was. Indeed, the fantasy of small-screen television animation stoked my imagination, and as television animation hit a glorious peak of creativity in the 1990s and 2000s (see Stabilie 2003; Booker 2007), I was extremely grateful and drawn to what I was seeing. Characters were gregarious, speaking at top volume all the time, and easily enraged over things I consider then and now to be trivial. Certain supporting characters came to show me what was considered to be “normal” behaviour in society, contrasted with the humorous antics of the lead characters, who deliberately stood out from that “normality” on purpose. So animation was a lesson both in how to be “normal”, and how not to, that I needed to have. And, of course, there was and is a great level of body language and facial expression in animated film and television, which is enormously useful for anyone interested in those arts to study. There are certainly limits - nobody actually turns as a red as a beet, for example, when they get mad in real life. But a great deal of what I know now about emotions like sadness, anger and joy was taught to me through the physicality of television animation in particular, and it still teaches me about it as I watch it now. Despite publishing in the area of animated television (see Perlmutter 2014; 2018), I have found it hard to engage people in conversation about it for some prevalent and longstanding reasons. This post therefore seeks to embrace the topic of small-screen animation, unpacking perhaps how and why such cartooning has become so personal to me.
Television animation has often been evaluated and judged on a prejudicial basis, with people “assuming” they know what it is about, based on second or third-hand knowledge, or receding childhood memories, in a way that prevents a meaningful analysis of both historical and contemporary trends from occurring. My Asperger’s, coupled with youthful fear of embarrassment, prevented me from speaking much about animation as a subject to others until I got to university. There, majoring in History, I was encouraged to explore the history of animation and the whole history of the world in which it interacted and continue to interact with through my term papers. And then, to my surprised happiness, I was able to write my MA thesis on the history of television animation - from which my first book on the topic emerged. Hopefully one of many as the years go by. My scholarly interest in animation emerged partially due to the difference I perceived between the meanings I took from animation as a child and as a teenager, if not the status animation occupied within traditional academia. I discovered television animation, which I admire so much, was not as universally beloved as I thought. Certain individual series and characters were well known, yet others were (sometimes unjustly) neglected in the academic world I had participated. At times, it was written off entirely. Critical histories of television animation might point to the success of The Huckleberry Hound Show (William Hanna & Joseph Barbera, 1958-61) - which also debuted the character of Yogi Bear - and, later, The Flintstones (William Hanna & Joseph Barbera, 1960-) at the Hanna-Barbera studios in the 1950s and 1960s, or perhaps Jay Ward’s The Adventures of Rocky and Bullwinkle and Friends (1959-64). Lou Scheimer’s Filmation produced much of its greatest work during the 1960s and 1970s, including its subsequent collaboration with Bill Cosby, Fat Albert and the Cosby Kids (Hal Sutherland, 1984-85) which brought new demographics and new storytelling strategies to television animation that continue to reverberate. If ever there was an underrated company doing a yeoman job in this field, it was Filmation. Filmation thrived, reaping considerable rewards for going off boldly into the new realm of syndication to escape network tyranny, creating the boldly original action-adventure hit He-Man and the Masters of the Universe (Michael Halperin, 1983-85) (Fig. 2), and fantasy series She-Ra: Princess of Power (Gwen Wetzler, 1985-86). Alas, the studio fell victim to another kind of tyranny - international corporate politics - when its parent company abruptly closed it down without notice, and it never produced another series. But a turning point was undoubtedly The Simpsons (Matt Groening, 1989-) on FOX. As I have argued in my own work on the history of television animation in the US, “The success of The Simpsons sparked a mini-revival of television animation as a prime-time attraction at the other networks, just as The Flintstones had done during the early 1960s (Perlmutter 2014: 238). Jason Mittell likewise adds that “The Simpsons launched a wave of short-lived primetime animation trying to follow the traditional system of innovation-imitation-saturation” (2004: 81).
Against the far-from-smooth trajectory of small-screen animation described above, television itself as a whole wasn’t considered to be a serious topic for academic study until the 1970s. Even then, it tended to focus on how people reacted to and interpreted what they saw on the screen (as in Marshall McLuhan’s Understanding Media ) rather than trying to analyze each program independently, with the methods of literary and film criticism, which is more the case now. Academics who studied the effects of animated 'violence' ere particularly concerned with how children interacted with television, as they feared negative consequences on children’s behaviour. In his book Drawn to Television, for example, M. Keith Booker argues that “violence has always been a part of the long and distinguished tradition of cartoons in American culture” (2007: 56), with television series such as Beavis and Butt-head (Mike Judge, 1993-97; 2011), South Park (Trey Parker & Matt Stone, 1997-) and, previously, The Adventures of Jonny Quest (Doug Wildey, 1964-65) all important spaces where violent acts persisted. Violence that occurs across a multitude of small-screen cartoons was equated with real-life violence for a number of years, especially in cases whereby children were behaving in a “violent” fashion. By this time, television animation had largely been stereotyped as a medium for children alone, and was aired at times and places only they cared about, such as Saturday mornings. For most of the 1970s and 1980s, this led to a heavily restricted form of censorship imposed on television animation - and only television animation - which arguably destroyed a great amount of its creative integrity. Even with the great creative advances in television animation that would be made in the 1990s and 2000s, the violence purge still has had its lasting effects. Programs of that time, such as The Simpsons and The Powerpuff Girls (Craig McCracken, 1998-2005) (Fig. 3), have produced memorable episodes grappling with the continually fluctuating concepts of “violence” and “censorship”, and where the overzealous use of both ideas has vast, unforeseen consequences for those who employ them as tactics.
Another aspect of the problem with animation on television I have discovered is the difficulty of theorising things that we like and mean a great deal to us emotionally. Trying to write as both a fan and a scholar of television animation, it is hard to write serious scholarship about something that’s overwhelmingly about humour. We human beings seem to have a bit of an odd relationship with humour. We all enjoy laughing, but sometimes at different things, rather than the same ones. One person’s belly laugh is another person’s head-scratcher. And the least enjoyable thing about jokes is trying to explain them to people who don’t understand. Then there are the same sort of ambivalent passive-aggressive relations we have with television and animation on their own. It’s never been entirely fashionable to say that you are an “adult” who enjoys an entertainment medium that was supposedly made for “children” only. In the first case, mass communication has often been the target of elitist snobs who want to control “culture”, and television is a prime example of their disdain because it was probably the most “mass” form of communication before the Internet. As children are denied the right to vote and other forms of citizenship, the things they “want” and “understand” are often decided in absentia for them, without their input. Which explains a few things about the media that is directed squarely at them, at least sometimes. Meaningful, objective analysis of any form of entertainment, which transcends partisanship and bias in both the past and present, is a key step in helping it develop the kind of “respectability” which will allow it to be both studied in the academic realm and preserved positively in the public media memory. Without this kind of analysis, an art form’s worth and value can easily be dismissed, and, therefore, it can be reduced to the status of forgettable ephemera. With the exception, of course, of those who love and care for it, and are willing to prove to those who don’t understand it that it does matter and should be taken seriously.
My position on television animation is different from others chiefly because a) I am a “fan” who has followed and continues to follow television animation avidly and b) I am an author who has written scholarship about the field and will likely continue to do so in the future. In both roles, I am convinced you can only “know” what is going on about these programs by watching them closely and examining the historical literature related to them. You have to be able to sit down through whole episodes to get an understanding of what they’re all about. And while it isn’t always an easy job, it can be a rewarding one as well. There you’ll find clever tales of heroes and villains locked in mortal combat, friendships and family bonds broken and remade over and over again, extremely ticklish allusions and references to real life and media events and things, made in the most unlikely and unexpected of ways. Totally likeable and enjoyable creatures, the kind of people you would want to have as brothers, sisters, friends or lovers, regardless of whether they be humans, animals or other supernatural creatures. And no judgements cast based on race, gender, class etc.- unless you happen to be an evil villain, in which case you’re on your own, buddy. And in an era of ubiquitous online content, this is why I think animation on television will endure. If the diverse group of characters in television animation have anything single thing in common, it is their ability to fight back, physically and/or verbally, against any sort of threat confronting them, for they know this is the only way to overcome any sort of evil in their path. Their creators, and their cable television landlords, are no less formidable in similar circumstances. And outside media competition would just be another obstacle to most of them. If you understand this, you will know why, while most of mainstream TV is now battered and bloodied, television animation is still standing.
Most of the events in television animation are conducted in ways that defy realism rather than accept it, and reinforce the belief that the world would be a better place if these things were real. Animals talk. Children are wise and profound beings, and adults incredibly stupid and short-sighted. All things related to the supernatural and science fiction are frequently accepted as fact rather than denied. And the more of these things that can be played for as many laughs as possible, the better. The worlds created by the animators seem cleaner and fresher than ours in any number of ways, physical and moral. That’s probably one of the main reasons why I keep coming back. There are people and ways of thinking there that we don’t have here, and which we could most certainly use. If only real-life problems could be dealt with that easily, or real life people that easy to understand, as it is on television and in animation. As someone challenged with Asperger’s syndrome, I frequently find truth harder to deal with than fiction - which is why I’m glad that fiction of this kind exists.
Booker, M. Keith. Drawn to Television: Prime-time Animation from the Flintstones to Family Guy (Westport, CT: Praeger, 2006).
McLuhan, Marshall. Understanding Media: The Extensions of Man (New York: McGraw-Hill, 1964).
Mittell, Jason. Genre and Television: From Cop Shows to Cartoons in American Culture (London and New York: Routledge, 2004).
Perlmutter, David. America Toons In: A History of Television Animation (Jefferson, NC: McFarland & Company, Inc. Publishers, 2014).
Stabilie, Carol, ed. Prime Time Animation: Television Animation and American Culture (London: Routledge, 2003).
David Perlmutter is a freelance writer based in Winnipeg, Manitoba, Canada. He is the author of America Toons In: A History of Television Animation (McFarland and Co.), The Singular Adventures Of Jefferson Ball (Amazon Kindle/Smashwords), The Pups (Booklocker.com), Certain Private Conversations and Other Stories (Aurora Publishing), Honey and Salt (Scarlet Leaf Publishing), Orthicon; or, the History of a Bad Idea (Linkville Press, forthcoming), and The Encyclopedia of American Animated Television Shows (Rowman and Littlefield) . His short stories can be read on Curious Fictions at Curious Fictions/David Perlmutter. He can be reached on Facebook at David Perlmutter-Writer, Twitter at @DKPLJW1, and Tumblr at The Musings of David Perlmutter (yesdavidperlmutterfan).