Explainer: Top 10 kids’ shows with grown-up appeal
Move over, kiddies! Quit hogging the boob tube! Just because some of the best shows on television have been packaged for children doesn’t mean they’re not meant for grown-up eyes. As a matter of fact, a lot of that so-called kids’ fare comes jam-packed with the sort of social commentary and double entendres that only improve with age.
So for those who gave up cartoons before they hit their teens and left the live-action kids’ shows to the little ones far too soon, it’s never too late revisit those former favorites and check out some new additions.
Read on for a list of the top 10 examples of children’s shows with adult appeal.
Today’s secret word is “ages,” as in “Pee-Wee’s Playhouse” packed plenty of entertainment for viewers of all ages. (AHHHHHHHHHH!)
Maybe a portion of “Playhouse’s” mass appeal comes the fact that the man behind Pee-wee Herman, actor-writer Paul Reubens, created the children’s show from the same characters and general premise of his old (and new again) adult stage show. Sure, the Saturday morning humor lacked any blatant eyebrow-waggling adult inappropriateness, but there were enough subtle nods to the 18-and-way-over crowd to keep everyone laughing.
If those nods were too subtle and the wise-cracking, anthropomorphic furniture failed to appeal to some grown-up viewers, no problem. They only had to wait moments for the show’s frenzied pace to showcase something completely different, from a host of surreal gags to musical contributions from the eyeball-centric art collective known as The Residents.
“Playhouse” genuinely offered something for everyone.
'The Muppet Show'
OK, strictly speaking, “The Muppet Show” wasn’t a kids’ show. The prime-time variety act was always intended to draw all ages. (AHHHHHHHHHH!) Still, with a premise focused on the theater-based antics of a troupe of Muppets led by “Sesame Street’s” own Kermit the Frog, the overwhelming initial audience was made up of wee ones all the same.
Of course, it wasn’t long before the vaudevillian antics of the felt and fur cast, combined with steady stream of actors, comedians and musical guests, attracted whole families and even the kid-free folks. After all, where else on 1970s television could viewers catch stars such as Peter Sellers, Bob Hope and Raquel Welch and enjoy Muppet-assisted performances from the likes of Elton John and Alice Cooper? Nowhere.
Throw in an odd assortment of regulars, including a spotlight-obsessed pig and a chicken-obsessed whatever-Gonzo-is, and few could resist “The Muppet Show” charm.
'The Ren & Stimpy Show'
“The Ren & Stimpy Show” found the perfect formula for wide appeal from the very first episode — potty humor, gross-out gags and a constant ick factor. Yes, it seems no matter how old TV viewers get, they never outgrow basic, albeit low-brow, laughs.
When deranged Chihuahua Ren and his slow-witted cat pal Stimpy first debuted in one of Nickelodeon’s founding Nicktoons, they were the only alleged kids’ characters unapologetically devoted to flatulence jokes and “magic nose goblins.”
Given what the college-plus demographic can now find on Adult Swim any night of the week, it’s obvious the animated duo was way ahead of their time.
'Yo Gabba Gabba!'
Muno, Foofa, Brobee, Toodee, Plex and DJ Lance Rock make up the “Yo Gabba Gabba” gang, a fuzzy group (all except for Rock) intended to amuse the tiniest of children.
So what is it that makes a cuddly bunch of singing toy somethings so amusingly engrossing for those of us no longer wearing training pants? Cuteness aside (even though cuteness totally counts) it really comes down to rapid-fire rounds of catchy, danceable tunes and no shortage of guest talent.
“Gabba” is easily the most star-studded kids-and-up offering since “The Muppet Show,” thanks to parent-pleasing visits from Anthony Bourdain, Sarah Silverman, The Ting Tings, Mos Def, MGMT and more.
'The Rocky and Bullwinkle Show'
It’s hard to imagine that “The Rocky and Bullwinkle Show” (first known as “Rocky and His Friends,” then called “The Bullwinkle Show,” and sometimes collectively known as “The Adventures of Rocky and Bullwinkle” for good measure) was ever intended for an under-18 audience. What sort of little ones want their TV time filled with Cold War parodies, fractured fairy tales and the musings of a mostly moronic moose? Just about any sort, evidently, as the program first excelled in the kids’ afternoon cartoon time slot.
Still there’s no denying, the creators of everyone’s favorite moose and squirrel knew they were aiming over most of those tiny heads and making real headway with the rest of the family.
“SpongeBob SquarePants” has the silly and often innuendo-laced under-sea entertainment market cornered. The success of the one-of-a-kind effort seems to be the development of show’s namesake and his Bikini Bottom pals: The well-fleshed non-flesh characters make for an ensemble cast every bit as varied as their prime-time TV counterparts.
There’s the happy-go-lucky SpongeBob, his slightly dim pal Patrick, the poor, put-upon Squidward and a dozen other brightly colored faces that round off the perfect animated escape.
'Rocko's Modern Life'
Watching an episode of “Rocko’s Modern Life” doesn’t feel like watching a kids’ show at all. It also doesn’t feel like watching grown-up fare. In fact, like so many of the classic ’90s Nicktoons efforts, including “The Ren & Stimpy Show” and “Aaahh!!! Real Monsters,” “Rocko’s” world defies any category.
The adventures of Rocko the wallaby and the kind and cruel cast of characters that surrounded him featured enough “nudge-nudge” nods to keep the “big kids” tuned in while the younger crowd could simply enjoy a carefree laughs out loud.
What separated “Rocko’s Modern Life” from other programs that employed the same formula was the top-notch writing. The portions of the show that weren’t aimed at adults weren’t exactly dumbed down for the younger viewers, so the end result was worth watching all the way through for everyone.
Sometimes all a show needs to do to get the attention of an older crowd is present a setup so absurd and an execution so surreal that anyone would find it hard to look away. That had to be what kept viewers of a variety of ages (AHHHHHHHHHH!) glued to each and every one of the old Sid and Marty Krofft shows, including “H.R. Pufnstuf.”
It was the story of a young boy named Jimmy and his trusty talking flute pal Freddy. That odd couple and their constant nemesis, Witchypoo, made for the most sensible characters. The rest were bizarre puppets (not that Freddy wasn’t a bit weird, too), among which was the title-worthy, dopey-looking dragon, Pufnstuf.
Keep in mind these were no soft and pleasing Muppets. We’re talking the stuff of nightmares and altered states and altered state-induced nightmares — in other words, grown-up territory.
'The Adventures of Pete and Pete'
Anyone wondering why “The Adventures of Pete and Pete” grabbed audiences beyond the tot-to-tween masses needs to look no farther than the show’s opening credits — it’s all in there. Mom had a metal plate in her head, the younger Pete sported an impressive girlie tattoo and the rocking theme song was performed by Polaris.
This slice of zany ’90s goodness was another cross-generational offering from Nickelodeon.
'Phineas and Ferb'
Unlike many of the other list-makers, Disney’s “Phineas and Ferb” doesn’t require one layer of laughs for the young'uns and another for the older ones. It works with both audiences for precisely the same reason — nerdy escapist humor doesn’t have an age range. The thought of living in a perpetual summer vacation of our youth and inventing boredom relievers on-demand never loses its charm.
Ree Hines isn’t ashamed to admit she still spends Saturday mornings kicking back with a bowl of cereal and so-called kids’ shows. Follow @ReeHines and share your cartoon confessions.
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