Poe’s Point > Top Five Saturday Morning Cartoons

A version of this article was originally posted on my old website, Biggerboat, on 1/31/2007.

I’ve often declared my life’s goal to make every day feel like Saturday morning. If there’s anything that makes me regret the linear direction of space-time and ache for the past as all mortals do, it’s that I can never truly recapture what it feels like to be a young kid on a Saturday morning.

Growing up in the 1980s following the FCC’s deregulation of children’s programming, Saturday morning offered a bevy of options for the child who, having woken at six a.m. to enjoy as much of his school-free day as possible, would wolf down three bowls of sugar-loaded cereal while watching colorful talking animals and consequence-free cartoon violence. True, many of the shows were little more than half-hour advertisements for toys, or candy, or Mr. T. But what Saturday morning cartoons really offered children was a time when television catered just to them. No boring adult dramas or shows they weren’t allowed to watch. Saturday morning TV belonged to kids.

And there was something endearing about the ’80s, when the networks seemed willing to throw just about anything into the line-up and see if it stuck. There were variations on time-tested veterans like The All-New Scooby and Scrappy-Doo Show and Richie Rich. There were shows based around celebrities, like Mr. TCamp Candy and Hulk Hogan’s Rock ‘n Wrestling. And there were a slew of cartoons based on the then-burgeoning world of videogames, including Pac-ManQ*BertDonkey Kong, and even Frogger(!). And then there were the non-cartoon shows, like Saved by the Bell, Out of This World and Small Wonder.

Sadly, the era of Saturday morning cartoons seems to be over. In the world of cable TV, where channels like the Cartoon Network, Nicktoons or Toon Disney offer cartoons twenty-four hours a day, seven days a week, there’s no longer anything special about cartoons on Saturday morning.

In an age of round-the-clock kids’ programming, videogames, and the Internet, I suppose it’s no surprise that Saturday morning cartoons are no longer an institution. Yet some of my best memories are of the times my cousin Mike would stay over on Friday and we’d be up all night playing videogames, then get up early the next morning to catch Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles or The Real Ghostbusters.

In honor of those bygone days, I’ve compiled a list of my favorite Saturday morning shows. This is not intended to be a list of the best shows, just my favorites.

The interesting thing I discovered while writing this article was how few shows I actually seem to have watched regularly. I had a hard time even coming up with five. There are lots of shows that came and went over the years that I remember fondly—Hey Vern, It’s Ernest, Gummi Bears, The Smurfs, Teen Wolf, Dragon’s Lair, Beetlejuice, and Alf: the Animated Series, just to name a few—but in researching them, I discovered that many of them lasted a single season or less, and in many cases I barely remember the show at all. So my criteria for selection was based on the level of nostalgia I felt for the show and, more importantly, whether I could remember the plot of at least one specific episode (The Real Ghostbusters barely made the cut thanks to a vaguely-recalled episode with a ghost called “What”).

So, without further ado, here are my top five Saturday morning shows:

5.) The Real Ghostbusters (1986-1991)

The Real Ghostbusters

I’m willing to bet there were a lot of kids who had no idea why this show had the curious “Real” in the title. But I did, because I had seen the short-lived Filmation’s Ghostbusters cartoon. Rather than try explain the whole thing in a single subordinate clause, let me lay it all out clearly.

In the 1970s, there was a live-action television show called The Ghost Busters. It was essentially a supernatural-themed parody of Mission: Impossible and was produced by Filmation, who would later go on to create the He-Man and She-Ra cartoons in the 1980s. The show ran for a single season and sank into obscurity until the mid-80s. Columbia Pictures bought the rights to the name “Ghostbusters” from Filmation for the 1984 movie, and when the latter became a hit, Filmation put a cartoon version based on the ’70s show int0 production. It was a blatant a attempt to cash in on the popularity of the film, but hey, Columbia borrowed their title in the first place. [This paragraph was updated to be more accurate. –PG]

Prime Evil

Filmation’s Ghostbusters did not star the original characters from the live-action show but rather their “nephews,” though Tracy the gorilla returned. The only thing I remember about the show was the totally awesome leader of the bad guys, Prime Evil. He was a blatant rip-off of Skeletor from He-Man (he was even voiced in an identical manner by the same voice actor, Alan Oppenheimer), but he had a really cool character design, especially his face. The show also had some great action figures, which is probably why I remember it more fondly than most kids.

Filmation was perfectly within its rights to produce the cartoon under that title, so when Columbia finally put together its own Ghostbusters cartoon based on the movie, they decided to add the “Real” to the title to distinguish it from Filmation’s ersatz poltergeist police. It turned out to be a pretty good move; the qualifier distinguished the cartoon not only from the pretender, but also from the movie. It became part of the brand.

The Real Ghostbusters was one of the cornerstones of Saturday morning cartoons in the mid-to-late 1980s. The Ghostbusters were gods to kids during those years, and we ate up anything even remotely related to the movie. One of my favorite childhood toys was a rubbery Slimer action figure.

The cartoon was, admittedly, a bit odd. All the major characters went through significant design changes and looked almost nothing like their cinematic counterparts. Ray Stanz became chubby and red-headed; Peter Venkman got a narrow face and an Ace Ventura-like hairdo; Egon went from Harold Ramis’s near-black hair to platinum blond; and Winston—well, he looked the same, really.

The plots generally involved some sort of monster or another. In general, it was a pretty entertaining and well-written show, and a staple of any Saturday morning.

4.) Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles (CBS run, 1990-1994)

From about 1988-1991, my life revolved around the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles. It all started one day when I was home sick from school. My dad ran to the local comic shop and grabbed a few comics for me. I remember it well—in that fateful batch was a Madballs comic and a copy of the Archie Comics Ninja Turtles series. I’d heard of TMNT from my cousins, but hadn’t actually got into them myself…until I read that comic.

Heroes in a half-shell

To say I was obsessed with the Turtles would probably be an understatement. My parents often went to great lengths to track down specific toys I wanted, but my TMNT phase probably has the best such instances. There was the Great Turtle Hunt, when my father and I drove all over Massachusetts in October to find Ninja Turtles figures, which were then hidden away until Christmas (we found the mother lode at the now-defunct King’s Castle Land in Whitman, MA). Then there was the infamous Ray Fillet, whom my father finally found through his extensive business connections.

Of course, most of this love hinged on the cartoon, which was the source of the action figures and the Turtles zeitgeist in general. The show originally ran in syndication, but when the Turtles’ popularity exploded, CBS picked up the show for its Saturday morning bloc. I remember when, suddenly, I could watch new Turtles episodes every Saturday. The Turtles, previously relegated to the cold wastes of afterschool weekday syndication, were suddenly ready for primetime, or rather, Saturday morning. The new episodes became a much-anticipated weekly event.

The original Turtles cartoon ran until 1994, which is pretty impressive when you think about it. And they’ve never really gone away. A new Turtles cartoon has been running on Saturday morning for almost four years now, and they’ve got a brand-new CGI movie coming out next month.

3.) Garfield and Friends (1988-1994)

Garfield and Friends

As a kid, I was a huge fan of Garfield. I was a bit of a depressive, even in my early adolescence, and reading the endless Garfield books often made me feel a bit better. It wasn’t until I was an adult that I came to realize how commercialized and generally un-funny the Garfield strip was. Apparently it was the predictability that made me feel so secure back then. In retrospect, I probably enjoyed and appreciated the far-better Calvin & Hobbes more than Garfield, but I don’t regret the hours of enjoyment I got out of those books and the cartoon.

Garfield & Friends was based directly on the strip. The “Friends” referred to U.S. Acres, another strip by Garfield creator Jim Davis. I don’t have much to say about Garfield & Friends; it was simply a staple of Saturday morning, something amusing to watch while you played with your toys or something. I remember I’d usually end up going outside before the show was over, since it ran around eleven o’clock or so. It earns its place as my #3 Saturday Morning cartoon primarily because of my strong association between the show and Saturday mornings.

2.) Pee-Wee’s Playhouse (1986-1991)

Okay, now we’re getting to the heavy hitters. The last two on this list are probably the finest examples of what Saturday morning was all about.

Pee-Wee’s Playhouse was a live-action kids’ variety show in the manner of Captain Kangaroo or H.R. Pufnstuf. The star was one Pee-Wee Herman, a bizarre man-child created and performed by Paul Reubens. The character was originally part of a more adult-oriented stage show, but after the success of Pee-Wee’s Big Adventure, CBS offered him his own show.

Pee-Wee

What can I say about Pee-Wee’s Playhouse? It was like nothing else on television. Everything about the show was wonderfully offbeat. There were all the talking animals, puppets, and furniture. The floor talked, for Pete’s sake! There was the oddly shirtless, well-muscled neighbor Tito in the first season, who was later replaced by the soccer-obsessed Ricardo. There was shameless flirt Miss Yvonne, who swooned when robot repairman Jimmy Smits declared he “has the right tools and knows how to use them.” There was the bizarre cartoon El Hombre with wholly Spanish dialogue (without subtitles). There was connect-the-dots, the King of Cartoons, and the secret word.

Pee-Wee’s Playhouse seemed to have a very definitive cut-off age. I was probably at the upper end of it. Many people older than me tend to view the show as an insane, creepy phantasmagoria, and for them the show and Pee-Wee himself were effectively removed from public consideration by Reubens’s 1991 arrest for indecent exposure. (They usually have fond memories of Pee-Wee’s Big Adventure, but their association with Pee-Wee begins and ends there.) Watching reruns on Adult Swim over the summer, I was struck by how young an audience the show seemed to be targeting; definitely younger than the average Ninja Turtle fan at the time.

That’s not to say, however, that there weren’t plenty of double entendres to reward the intrepid adult who watched the show with their kid. I was actually a bit shocked at how far some of the adult jokes went, though they would fly safely over any kid’s head (as the Mud Show guy at my local renaissance fair put it, “if they’re too young to get it, they’re too young to be gettin’ it”).

Pee-Wee’s Playhouse was easily the most unique show on Saturday mornings and perhaps all of television at the time. I discovered during the Adult Swim run that it doesn’t really hold up for adult viewings—it just targets too young an audience—but it’s a treasured memory from childhood.

1.) Muppet Babies (1984-1991)

In researching this piece, I was surprised to discover that my #1 Saturday morning cartoon show is disliked, even reviled among diehard Muppet fans. I can only assume these are people, older than me, who became fans of the Muppets during the original 1970s run of The Muppet Show. They seem to blame Muppet Babies for the decline of the Muppets’ popularity by commercializing, trivializing, and diluting the franchise. I suspect the decline was more of a natural process; even Disney doesn’t have the cultural cache it once did.

In any event, I had no fond memories of the Muppets’ early days when I started watchingMuppet Babies. I was aware of the Muppets and liked them, of course, so it wasn’t surprising I ended up liking the Muppet Babies, too.

Muppet Babies

Despite what the diehard Muppet fans might say, I think Muppet Babies was the finest Saturday morning cartoon ever. It had everything a kid could ever want: familiar, colorful characters; action and adventure; humor; references to newly-minted pop culture institutions like Star Wars and Indiana Jones; and, for parents, plenty of well-written moral lessons and a heavy emphasis on imagination.

Muppet Babies was all about the power of imagination. The Babies understood how, without buying a single toy or a ticket to a theme park, they could go anywhere they wanted or be anything they wanted to be.

The Muppet Babies were never marketed into the ground like so many Saturday morning cartoons. There were stuffed animals and few fast food tie-in toys, but you never felt like you were drowning in Muppet Babies merchandise like you did with Star Wars or He-Man.

The episode of Muppet Babies I best remember (and I suspect most fans remember) is the one where they re-enact Star Wars, with Kermit as Kermit Skyhopper, Miss Piggy as Princess Piggy, and Gonzo as Gon Zolo.

Muppet Babies won an Emmy, and it was so popular that it had a 90-minute block on Saturday mornings for a couple years. To me, Muppet Babies is Saturday morning.

So far Muppet Babies hasn’t been released on DVD, probably because the show used so much footage from movies and other television shows that figuring out the copyright issues is a Herculean task. Here’s hoping they untangle that knot so my kids can enjoy Muppet Babies someday.

 

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Comments now closed (23)

  • GREAT article. I enjoyed all the shows in your top 5. I'd have to have Dungeons and Dragons in there. I still fill robbed that there was never a final episode of that show.
    Having grown up with The Muppet Show, I was ecstatic when Muppet Babies came out. I thought it was very well done and did the Muppets justice. I've not watched it since it's original run, so I'm not sure if it's held up. Im not sure I want to know.
    I was probably too old to be watching Pee Wee's Playhouse, but I still enjoyed it. I was on an island liking that show. NONE of my friends liked Pee Wee, but I still did. I even dressed up like him for Halloween in the 6th grade.
    My number one cartoon would have to be The Transformers. My brother and I would get up at 5:30 every saturday to watch it on a 15" black and white tv. We would have to take turns holding the antenna so we could receive the signal from the UHF channel. Luckily we survived long enough until it started airing in the afternoons after school. It was and still is my most beloved childhood cartoon.

  • My wife and I have every episode of Pee-Wee's Playhouse on DVD. It's still great fun.

    Muppet Babies was HUGE for me, too, but my all-time favorite Saturday Morning Cartoon is definitely Gummi Bears. No Disney cartoon ever topped it, not even Ducktales.

  • Oh god, I could spend HOURS discussing Saturday morning cartoons. I watched them until WELL into my teens.

    Bugs Bunny & Tweety Show, Ninja Turtles, 90’s Spider-Man, 90’s X-Men, Earthworm Jim, Tazmania, Sylvester & Tweety Mysteries, Reboot, Animaniacs, Freakazoid, Cowboys of Moo Mesa, The Addams Family, Tales from the Crypt, Cadillacs and Dinosaurs, Beakmans World, Megaman, Sonic the Hedgehog, The Tick, Street Sharks, Pinky and the Brain, and my personal favorite Men in Black.

    Aaaaah, memories…

  • Awww man, you got me wanting to blabber away… Nothing was more exciting to me than Saturday mornings. The promise of great shows, the anticipation of toy & cereal commercials, the great jingles before & after commercial breaks, & the promise that from 6am to Noon, not a second would be a snooze. The atmosphere created was just perfect for kids.

    The 5 shows you love were shows I watched, for sure, but there were so many great shows, I'd be hard pressed to narrow it down to 5, however, for my own personal pleasure, & because I like this Poe's Point so much, I'm going to do it anyways. Here goes nothing;

    5-Muppet Babies
    4-The Pirates of Dark Water (Ok, I was 13 when this first aired, but boy, I hung on to Saturday mornings as long as I could)
    3-He-Man & The Masters of the Universe (it was on on Saturdays in Canada, but I believe it was on weekdays down south)
    2-Dungeons & Dragons
    1-Spider-Man & his Amazing Friends

    Poe, great article, as always, & apologies in advance for aping your article. It's your fault anyhow. ; )

  • Wait, was the Winston looked the same comment a "All black people look the same" joke? Because the cartoon character looked nothing like the actor from the movie.

    • I suppose my point was that he didn't get blond or red hair, or a totally different facial shape like Venkman (Bill Murray has a very round face).

      At the time I wrote this article, I just couldn't think of a major feature that distinguished movie Winston from cartoon Winston, but he does look younger, and has no mustache.

      • I'd almost say it was more of an "All white people look the same" ordeal that made them have to make the other 3 so stylized. Appropriately, Winston looked completely normal by comparison which intentional or not manages to fit his role of the Ghostbusters' average joe. Never thought about it, but I think I like that.

  • Kind of off-subject, but I LOVED going to King's Castle Land. I remember actually sneaking in when it first got shut down but all the little dwarf houses and the big dragon slide were still back there. Almost got in a lot of trouble.

    I actually bought a LOT of my favourite childhood toys there, like the black ninja from the Chuck Norris Karate Kommandos line. And ALL of my Ninja Turtles came from a mix of King's Castle Land and Toy Works in Brockton just over the Whitman line (I grew up in Whitman).

    Ah, memories.

    Saturday Mornings rocked. Maybe I'm a touch younger, because my Saturday morning block that I remember most includes X-Men and Spider-Man. Although I fondly remember Garfield, Pee-Wee, Muppet Babies and TMNT (especially TMNT). I never liked Real Ghostbusters. At all. But I loved the toys.

  • Saturday mornings? I'm getting teary eyed myself just thinking of the good times back then! There was nothing like the toy & food commercials! I even recall watching an old videotape I recorded of some old Saturday cartoons, commercials and all, and said to myself that the kids now have no idea. I think I would add on to it Visionaries, Captain Power, Captain N : The Game Master,…man I could go on & on. It was also nice, like you said, that you knew until 11 or 12 it was a kids world and no adult stuff would show up at all. Thanks for bringing up some good memories!! Great list by the way!

  • Poe, you rocked this list straight out of my skull.

    What's funny looking back on these, if how they really seem like they should have been disasters.

    All of these shows were adapted from things that may seem like odd cartoon choices and in many cases similar formulas have resulted in some of the worst cartoons ever. Ghostbusters, Pee-Wee and TMNT had origins that aren't entirely friendly for very young kids and seemed like an odd transition.

    Garfield was a cat who didn't talk. And it worked. Somehow, I remember that show as if it had pretty intelligent humor.

    Muppet Babies had no right to be that good. Muppets without puppets and it's entirely based on a short musical sequence from a film? Seems like a flimsy concept and the onslaught of kid-versions of famous cartoons was pretty unbearable. I don't know how Muppet Babies defied all of that.

  • Anyone remember the Potato-Head Kids? Was that a Saturday Morning cartoon or an after-school cartoon? I honestly can't remember.

  • Great list Poe. I agree with every one on it. Especially Muppet Babies and Real Ghostbusters.

    I'm still holding out hope that one day Muppet Babies will see a dvd release.

    • we may get a best of, but Poe's right there are way too many clips used that would require clearance. The Muppet Show itself is only up to Season 3 on DVD because of all the music clearance and celebrity estate negotiations. These things take forever and sometimes the studios or rights holders deem them not worthy to explore due to finance and time. If we weren't saturated with Muppet merch by Disney this summer when a new movie was out… I wouldn't hold out hope.

  • Great list! You hit every nail on the head! The only one I'd add would be some of the various Mario Bros. cartoons, specifically SMB3 and Super Mario World. Those were reasons for me to get up on a Saturday morning— but none held a candle to the original SMB Super Show with Capt. Lou.

    The great thing is that most of these still hold up fairly well — okay, maybe watching them with adult eyes isn't quite the same, but they still have a certain charm to them.

  • Um… your Ghostbusters facts are a little off. Filmation created the live-action show in the 70's – THEY owned the television rights to that name. Columbia/RCA only had the feature rights to the title. Thats why Filmation was allowed to just call their show Ghostbusters, and Columbia had to use the moniker of "Real". Filmation had the animated series in the works while the movie was being prepped- 2 full years before The Real Ghostbusters series debuted on ABC. 😉 It was a case of same idea in the zeitgeist. It's happening now with all the Vampire stuff and Fairy Tale stuff now.

    • What an extremely minor detail that is in no way simply repeated from Wikipedia in an attempt to be pedantic.

      I'm just glad that Poe identifies this blog as peer-reviewed, so extremely minor details like this are caught and corrected before the brand name of a long dead production company can be harmed. Thank you for your diligence.

      Honestly, good god, how does that even matter?

      • YIKES! Calm down. It mattered to many involved in the situation who still tend to read posts like this.

  • I definitely appreciated Muppet Babies pop culture infused send offs later after the show had sort of run it’s course. I remember one great episode which was the “superhero” episode and some of the characters came out impersonating “ninja turtle” facsimilies where they actually came out of a manhole, were flipping around doing “martial arts”. I think even Gonzo was doing a Batman analog character. I might go as far to say that that episode might have spurred on my burgeoning interest in the actual Ninja Turtles because the craze was just taking off then.

  • For me, the best moment in Muppet Babies was during the earthquake episode:

    "Fozzie, you broke the house!"

  • I gotta give props to the ALF cartoon. While I thought the live-action sitcom was stupid beyond belief, the cartoon was quite clever. AND well drawn! I don't know how it'd hold up to my adult viewing, but I remember it being a cut above the other cartoons of my youth, and I enjoyed it.

  • Never could get into Pee Wee, aside from the occasional viewing with a fascination of the bizarre. I found it jarring then, and I believe still would.

    Muppet Babies are indeed Saturday mornings, although to me, Dungeons and Dragons and Super Friends are right up there. I really love D&D — it's such a shame we never got the kids in action figure form (aside from the rare PVCs).

    I'm glad you made mention of Rock N Wrestling. It was a great show, but one I had completely forgotten about even up to a year ago until I bought a WWE Legends Iron Sheik because I had some vague, nagging memory of the character.

    And if any of you guys want to get an idea of what your Saturday morning schedule was like, check out this site: http://www.inthe80s.com/saturdays.shtml