Nothing used to bring me such joy as a kid as waking up bright and early on Saturday morning, cereal bowl in hand and full control of the living room television. As my parents stirred awake upstairs, I was able to watch whatever cable channel I wanted, usually picking Boomerang or Nickelodeon or Cartoon Network- the choice was up to me! And depending on what was playing, I usually rotated between those three choices, in this pre-streaming era.

Boomerang played the oldies but goodies; rotating between a block of rerun Hanna-Barbera shorts from the 60s-70s, a block of Looney Tunes theatrical shorts from the ’40s-60s, and finally a block of Tom and Jerry shorts from the 40s through 1967. Boomerang was my personal go-to when I was laid up sick on the couch, as it was the only channel that played cartoons all day, all the time, only breaking rotation for commercial breaks. Cartoon Network had just greenlit many of the winners of What a Cartoon!, a new project for animators to pitch pilots directly to the nationwide audience. Depending on which pilots gained the most views, the executives at Cartoon Network would greenlight them to be made into full shows. The Powerpuff Girls, Dexter’s Laboratory, Courage the Cowardly Dog, Codename: Kids Next Door, Johnny Bravo… the list goes on and on. Nickelodeon grabbed kid’s attention with the iconic green slime and bright orange splats, kids game shows, and of course, Spongebob. Other Nicktoons1 that ran on reruns through my early childhood include Catdog, Rugrats, Rocko’s Modern Life, Invader Zim, and Ren and Stimpy, although they would gradually be replaced by the next generation of cartoons, defined by the art styles of Butch Hartman2, and Klasky and Csupó3, and the many other talented showrunners employed by Nickelodeon.

I had been born just in time for the second children-cartoon renaissance, with the first occurring a generation prior with the first “era” of Saturday Morning Cartoons. Ironically, one half of Boomerang’s programming originates from the first era of Saturday Morning Cartoons- Hanna-Barbara! In its golden era, Hanna-Barbera produced classics like Scooby-Doo, Yogi Bear, Top Cat, The Banana Splits, The Huckleberry Hound Show, The Flintstones, The Jetsons, Johnny Quest, and many, many spin-offs, rip-offs and crossovers4. Competing for a slightly older age demographic was FILMATION, the studio powerhouse of the 1980s that produced the He-Man and the Masters of the Universe and She-Ra: Princesses of Power cartoons. My Little Pony, The Transformers, Care Bears, and G.I. Joe originated as cartoons to market pre-existing merchandise to the audience; all have outgrown their initial marketing roots, expanding to movies, games, and of course, more merchandise. This era lasted three decades (from 1960-1990), and by the 1990s, cartoons had completely changed into something new.

If you were to ask me what caused the second era of Saturday Morning Cartoons to shift so drastically from the first, I’d give you three reasons; Who Framed Roger Rabbit (1989), Ren and Stimpy (1991-1995), and The Simpsons (1989-Present). Cartoons could be more distinctly weird, subtle, dark humored, outlandishly silly, sarcastic, and more fun. Gone were the days of re-used animation found in He-Man cartoons and Hanna-Barbara shorts. The sign of a good Saturday morning cartoon for this era was over-the-top character designs, expressive faces, random plotlines, and visual gags that were silly enough to induce uncontrollable laughter or gross enough to induce gagging, sometimes both. Cartoons were not afraid to slip in more adult innuendos, which flew over the head of many young viewers, myself included. Cartoons were not just created for advertising toys, or greeting card characters, or to appeal to kids anymore.

The 90s and early 2000s were also an era of “lesson-shows”, which would take a pre-existing episode and shoe-horn a message into it, usually having to do with morals or covered common tricky topics among children and pre-teens. The most infamous of this category is the English dubbed version of Sailor Moon, premiering in 1992 to a pre-teen audience, one of the first mainstream Japanese animated series to get a widespread American release. The biggest difference between the American and Japanese version was the addition of the loosely strung “lesson” at the end of each episode, usually missing the mark, or cultural storylines, completely. PBS’s Arthur (1996-2022) would also be guilty of this practice, although the messages at the end of each episode was more organically weaved into the plot, creating a more enjoyable experience for the viewers at home. More kid-oriented cartoon shows followed suite on PBS, following the trail paved by Sesame Street and Mister Roger’s Neighborhood5, creating a safe space on television for younger kids to learn words, letters, numbers and morals.

The era of the restrained lesson-shows only exemplified the need for a new wave of animators and creators, leading to the explosion of different styles and experimentation in the early 2000s. Artists, musicians, and creators continue to find inspiration from modern cartoons, and small studio/indie-run web series, like The Amazing Digital Circus, Lackadaisy, and Ollie and Scoops, are paving the way for the next generation of cartoons for children, young adults and adults. Modern cartoon showrunners are refusing to give up on their ideas, hiring smaller teams to produce content funded by the fans and merchandise, paving the way for even more creativity, expression, diversity, and talent to flourish within the animation industry, no longer restrained by big-name corporation studios.

Saturday morning cartoons have, genuinely, become a thing of the past. With streaming allowing for an ease of accessibility, viewers can easily watch or re-watch cartoons that they grew up on, or modern cartoons, or historical cartoons, or cartoons from all around the globe. Sharing the love for our favorite cartoons have never been easier with the internet, whether it’s reposting clips on Youtube, creating fanart or reading fanfiction, or just being a part of a fandom online or in-person. Cartoons can be watched at any time, any day, by anyone. Even with streaming, however, some of our favorite cartoons haven’t gotten a digital release and streaming costs have been on the rise, making it necessary and important for libraries to provide physical media freely to the public. That being said, Westlake Porter Public Library has an extensive catalogue of modern- and retro- cartoons on DVD and Blu-ray available to be checked out for free, with a library card.

While you dive into the cartoons of the past, and finish that sugary bowl of Lucky Charms, check out Cat’s Picks! sister series, Nostalgic Showcase Presents! Nostalgic Showcase deep-dives into the histories of our favorite defunct studios, exploring the films and series that bring audiences nostalgia, from the past to the present-day. For the entirety of the summer season, Nostalgic Showcase Presents will be covering the studios that brought many of our favorite Saturday morning cartoons, from the 1950s to the early 2000s! You won’t want to miss out!

Check Out Saturday Morning Cartoons at WPPL:

Series Available through SearchOhio:

Read about the history of Saturday Morning Cartoons in It’s Saturday Morning! Celebrating the Golden Era of Cartoons (Book)

Other Shows/Films Referenced in this Article

  1. Name given by Nickelodeon to their cartoon block from 1991-present day, specifically cartoon shows and animated movies created for and premiering on the cable channel. ↩︎
  2. Butch Hartman was the creator and showrunner for many iconic Nicktoons in the early- to mid-2000s, notably Fairly Odd Parents (2001-2017) and Danny Phantom (2004-2007). His style, inspired by the simplistic UPA and Hanna-Barbera cartoons, has been a lasting staple of Nickelodeon cartoons for the past two decades. ↩︎
  3. Arlene Klasky and Gábor Csupó created Rugrats (1991-2004), Aaah! Real Monsters (1994-1997), The Wild Thornberrys (1998-2004), Rocket Power (1999-2004), and As Told By Ginger (2000-2006). Their animation studio, Klasky-Csupó, also worked on the direct-to-video The Wacky Adventures Of Ronald McDonald (1998-2004) made for McDonald’s restaurants. Their style is defined by intentionally squiggly and rounded lines, “ugly” character designs, and unusual camera angles. ↩︎
  4. I recommend checking out this article by ScreenRant to see just how often Hanna-Barbera used the Scooby-Doo formula for many of their other shows, usually with lackluster results. ↩︎
  5. Both Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood and Sesame Street started as live action edutainment variety children’s shows, incorporating animation and puppetry segments, usually revolving around a certain lesson(s) or educational storylines. These PBS shows also promoted a safer, positive outlook on life and community, and pushed for boundless and respectful representation within their cast. ↩︎

Cat B.

Cat has been a part of the WPPL team since 2022, and writes the "Cat's Picks" and "Nostalgic Showcase Presents" series; she enjoys researching defunct and not-so-defunct studios and reading graphic novels in her spare time.