July 9, 2012 at 9:23 AM ET
Who hasn't spent a lazy Saturday morning in front of the TV set, gobbling up sugary cereal while parents get some sleeping-in time? It's a time-honored tradition among kids, who now have a bevy of cartoon shows to choose from airing what feels like 24 hours a day, 7 days a week. But back in the stone age -- okay, the 1970s and '80s, when I was a kid -- nobody had cable, and Saturday mornings were virtually the only time to snag some true kids' programming that wasn't really trying to teach you anything.
So in retrospect, we've got lots of nostalgia for the era. But also in retrospect, a lot of those cartoons ... don't exactly stand the test of time. “Someone once said that everybody’s golden age is when they were 12,” says CartoonBrew.com’s Jerry Beck, an animation historian. “That seems to be true. It doesn’t have to be well-written or well-animated – because they bring us back to that time, and there’s an innocence to them.”
In honor of those well-wasted hours in front of the boob tube, here's a look back at some of the best -- and the worst -- cartoons of past decades. Wonder Twin powers -- activate! Form of: a couch potato.
'Super Friends' (1973-86)
One of the few shows my brother and I could agree to watch together (I had kind of a thing for Aquaman, who could swim with dolphins), "Super Friends" was both awesome and terrible. On the one hand, you got to imagine that there was a Hall of Justice where Superman, Wonder Woman and Batman and Robin (plus their demographically pandering teen cohorts like the Wonder Twins) would just hang out and park the Invisible Jet and, you know, fight the bad guys. On the other hand, the animation is stiff, cheap and repetitive. Like the stories.
'Jem and the Holograms' (1985-88)
Rock stars have lots of adventures, but they're not usually G-rated. But kids love to sing, so some genius decided that an 80s New Wave (sort of) band was just the way to draw a huge audience. (Actually, the whole thing was put together by the toy guys at Hasbro, Marvel Productions and Sunbow Productions -- the latter gave you "G.I. Joe" and "Transformers.") So sure, it was cheesy, but the truly awful thing about "Jem" was that your baby brother could have drawn it better -- and probably learned how to sync the mouths with the words. "Jem" is also enjoying a retro rebound -- the third season comes out on DVD Tuesday, and new collectible dolls are on the way.
'Looney Tunes' (circa 1930-Present)
Stumbling on a Looney Tunes block of cartoons then, as now, is like being wrapped in a warm blanket and handed a bowl of ice cream: You just know things are going to go all right for the next 7 to 8 minutes. Originally made for feature screens and audiences, Looney Tunes were just better written, better drawn and felt like highbrow entertainment after yet another "adventure" on the other super-shows. Wabbit season!
Hanna-Barbera Productions cartoons were never highbrow, but they had a goofy consistency that appealed to kids of many ages, and the enduring nature of "Scooby-Doo," a talking Great Dane with a bottomless pit for a stomach and a fear of everything that goes bump in the night, is a testament to how even at their silliest, cartoons can bridge the generations. Most memorable, oft-repeated phrase: "And we would have gotten away with it if it wasn't for those meddling kids!" We all wanted to be those meddling kids.
By the time Steven Spielberg decided to present us with his "Animaniacs" (the full title of the show was "Steven Spielberg Presents Animaniacs," cable TV was already beginning to dominate the networks when it came to Saturdays. But this often-surreal, well-constructed and witty show captured the hearts of children of all ages. It hearkened back to the earliest days of animation (three of the main characters were allegedly hidden at Warner Bros. since the 1930s, and escaped to get their own show), and were clearly inspired by Looney Tunes.
No matter where you end up seeing them, the joys of short-form cartoons -- even the ones that seem to have been drawn with a crayon by 1,000 monkeys -- endure. Now, where are my Lucky Charms?
What were your favorite childhood cartoons? Which ones do you know aren’t really well-made, but you love anyway? Let us know on Facebook!