I’m not breaking any new ground by telling you our world’s pop-cultural landscape is liberally littered with remakes, reboots and other works that pay homage to the past. It’s one thing to feel that way about programming for adults, but what does this mean for the children of today? We may groan at Nickelodeon trying to beat the Disney Channel at the pre-fab pop star game with shows like Big Time Rush and Victorious, but it wasn’t that long ago that the generation raised on MTV caught reruns ofThe Monkees. Entertainment is a wildly cyclical thing, and it’s certainly fun to look at how variations on a familiar theme play themselves out over the stretches of time.
With that in mind, it’s worth looking at two shows on Cartoon Network that, while obviously geared toward kids, possess a large enough cultural cache to make you and your friends stop and think for a second. The station’s MAD and The Looney Tunes Show, both recently released to DVD, take two of Warner Bros.’ most consistent avatars of comedy and gussy them up for a generation raised on Phineas and Ferb. But don’t let that fool you: these shows actually work pretty well – for the most part.
MAD, a 15-minute prime-time comedy in the vein of the network’s late-night Robot Chicken, is the second program based on William Gaines’ long-running satirical pulp. Fortunately, it’s the better of the two. (Seriously, think back to MADtv, FOX’s wildly inconsistent sketch show that was somehow on for 14 years. It makes Saturday Night Live‘s lesser moments look like they’re done by a cast full of Bill Murrays.) And unlike MADtv, the show borrows heavily from its source material. From the opening title sequence, heavy on Alfred E. Neuman’s gap-toothed visage among a sea of Fold-Ins, to interstitial skits based on Sergio Aragones‘ gags in the margins of actual MAD pages, the show is really the closest any television producer could possibly get to an animated issue of the magazine in 2011.
Of course, MAD has certainly fallen on hard times lately, giving up joke space for ad space and reduced their publication schedule to once every quarter in 2009 (they’ve since bumped up to six a year. So all the Spy vs. Spy and Don Martin-inspired tomfoolery doesn’t quite elevate the show to the kind of humor you chuckled at from behind your algebra textbooks. The main sketches often aim for the funny bones of today’s kids – that is to say, they aim sort of low. If you didn’t know that Hayley Joel Osment has a sister who’s vaguely popular among Nickeloden viewers or can’t remember what The Jonas Brothers did to make a living, this might not be your show. While there are plenty of great gags mashing up DC Comics’ stable of superheroes with game shows or reality television (Batman grunts his way through an episode of Family Feud, while Superman’s Fortress of Solitude is ruined by the Extreme Makeover team), some of the bits don’t improve past the initial premise, like turning Clifford the Big Red Dog into the Cloverfield monster, or Big Time Rushmore, following the pop-band exploits of our Founding Fathers. (It still hurts that this sketch didn’t riff on Wes Anderson’s film instead.)
Far more successful in its appeal to both kids and adults is The Looney Tunes Show, the latest effort to bring the stars of Warner Bros.’ classic cartoon shorts to a new generation. While Generation X had shows like Tiny Toon Adventures andAnimaniacs building off the classic characters, The Looney Tunes Show goes straight to basics. Bugs Bunny and Daffy Duck (both ably voiced by Jeff Bergman) are inexplicably suburban roommates, and get into all sorts of wacky hijinks out of perfectly normal situations.
It’s fun watching two of the most recognizable archetypes in animated history spin jokes out of the mundane. As usual, Daffy’s smug, self-centered personality creates the conflicts – going to jail for littering at the Grand Canyon, losing a game show centered on knowledge of his best friend – and Bugs’ cucumber-cool persona (augmented with a heaping helping of heavy-lidded glances at the audience) frequently gets them out. A smattering of guest appearances throughout – Fred Armisen as an incredibly laid-back Speedy Gonzales and Kristen Wiig as an unhinged Lola Bunny (the same one from 1996’s Space Jam) – are pretty killer. Overall, the series works thanks to its willingness to put a new spin on old faces – one episode subtly addresses Porky Pig’s consistent lack of pants, while one recasts Yosemite Sam as an annoying houseguest with a fondness for late-period Cheap Trick.
While neither DVD is particularly generous – each is labeled “Season 1, Part 1” and offer maybe four hours of viewing altogether – both are generally convincing proof that there’s nothing too wrong with bringing back seasoned chestnuts of comedy to keep the kids entertained. With any luck, th-th-that won’t be all, folks.