5 Nineties Cartoons That Coudn't Be Made Today
I saw the original Robocop on cable when I was far too young. We're talking no more than 10. I walked into an unsupervised room at my grandma's house just as they were blowing off all of RoboCop's limbs. I popped down, watched until the credits, and absolutely loved it.
Did it screw me up? Oh, unquestionably. Did many kids growing up in the 90s have the same experience? No doubt. The thing is, many of them didn't even need late-night cable to experience their various adult awakenings -- they just needed to turn on cartoons. Here are some 90s toons that were just a smidge too real for their wee audience, and why (for better and worse) they would never work in modern times.
The Ren & Stimpy Show
The Ren & Stimpy Show could have been titled Cronenberg 4 Kids given the sheer volume of close-up body horror the show blasted into the eyeballs of children. This show had plenty of other elements targeted towards the parent who just happened to walk by the TV while their child was making their very first living room meth lab, but it's the show's ghoulish anatomy lessons that would never fly today.
There are too many iconic gross-out moments from Ren & Stimpy to list (see: Ren's teeth falling out, Stimpy's detailed boogers, etc.) that would crash and burn in a Netflix focus group, but here's a quick recap to get the uninitiated get up to speed.
Here we have, on our kids' television program, Stimpy just straight up jabbing a crowbar into a dude's toe, popping a bunch of pus out, and peeling off his toenail for good measure ... all in an extremely tight shot.
Today I'm sure you can't so much as have a character pick their nose without a child psychologist blasting an airhorn. Another hilarious detail is that Ren & Stimpy originally aired during the same programming block as Doug. Goddamn milquetoast Doug. The closest we might get to such an extreme tonal shift now is for a Disney+ stream to accidentally click over to dad's PornHub right after Frozen 2 goes to credits.
Once we break the seal with Ren & Stimpy, we might as well jump in deep. Johnny Bravo, when viewed through the lens of today, may be the trickiest. Sure, it's quite clearly satire, and Johnny is the brunt of the joke, but there is still no way you'd find a show for kids today where the main character is an Instagram Reply Guy.
You almost have to respect how much of an end-of-an-era character Johnny Bravo was. Pure macho sleaze, his character was a man driven only by his id, constantly making unwanted advances at women, only to be rejected and learn absolutely nothing from his behavior. Even though one of the greatest scourges of modern entertainment is the incessant reboot, I'm all in for a Johnny Bravo remake, for no other reason than I would love to see the writers try to make him work. There is something appealing about watching Johnny Bravo finally have to learn about consent and just, you know, not being a sexual predator at every waking moment that could make for an entertaining premise.
I actually believe that a Johnny Bravo-like character would be good for kids to see these days. It just needs only slight differences. He's a dude that lurks in the chat section of streaming videos and incessantly asks the influencer to show her feet. He has to perform horrific odd jobs because his ballooning roster of OnlyFans subscriptions is getting out of hand. Kids need to see the danger of becoming Johnny Bravo 2.0. That dude was a creep before the internet took off; imagine the damage he could do lately. One of the greatest lessons that a kid could ever learn at a young age is to not grow up to become a Johnny Bravo online. This is the perfect opportunity to create a brighter future for young men who have no idea what "sliding into a DM" even is.
The original pitch for Rugrats must have been simple: it's like daycare, except someone just threw a bunch of kids into a room, told all of the adults to leave, and occasionally had weird alcoholics pop their heads in to make sure the kids were still alive.
Though Rugrats was a mostly wholesome experience with some great characterization and heart, it had a few key details that would absolutely never slip through the cracks today. Our first two examples illustrate shows that are mildly impossible by today's standards, but Rugrats warrants analysis because it's scarring in a far more subdued way. The kids on Rugrats may have been little shits at times, but it's the adults who take things to another level.
Absentee parentism is, really, the core message of Rugrats. Though it's admirable to tackle such a subject on morning television, I can't see any way that it would be approached today. We are presented with a situation where these kids are, at most, being checked in on by the degraded shitshow that is Stu Pickles.
Stu Pickles is the sad, overwhelmed, probably drunken father who is tasked with watching the most intelligent babies on the planet. We are presented with an absolutely miserable dude who is falling apart at the seams in front of them. Stu is probably way more accurate than most real-life parents would care to admit, but that is exactly what makes him so out of place in this kind of show. In general terms, these shows exist to whisk us away into a fantasy land that helps us leave our issues for a while. In Rugrats, and especially with Stu, children are reminded that they unequivocally ruin the lives of the nearest adults and turn them into dead-eyed husks.
Rocko's Modern Life
Did you know the Paw Patrol's day job is mopping up the wank booths at roadside XXX shops in rural America? I bet you didn't realize that when the Octonauts aren't doing whatever the hell an Octonaut does, they will do literally anything just to support their Octonaut lifestyle.
Wait, you didn't know that? Well, that's because it's not even remotely true. After all, it would be completely outrageous for a kids' show to feature characters working these kinds of professions ... but not in the 90s, baby!
Yes, the 1990s, a time we saw the lead of a Nickelodeon show pay the bills as a phone sex operator. When it comes to Rocko's Modern Life, there are probably countless adult themes that you have forgotten, but the moment that stands above the rest is Rocko was cranking out some hot phone sex as his day job.
This obviously would never work today, but it just goes to show how free these shows were. How did this even get beyond the first pitch in the writers' room? "Alright, so here's the deal. We're making a kids' show, right? So hear me out, I don't have kids. I actually loathe the idea of it so much that I had my cock sliced clean off a few years back so that I have zero chances of impregnating anything. That said, I'm now running this operation and we need a profession for our latest character. Gene, I loved your initial concept of having Rocko litigate on behalf of the state trying to put orphaned siblings in different households across the world, but it was just a bit half-baked. But don't worry, I got it. The lead in our new show is going to work in a field that our audience will click with -- he's going to make total strangers ejaculate using a few moans on a landline for $50 an hour. And that, my friends, is why I am the CEO of Nickelodeon."
Cow and Chicken
There are plenty of reasons why Cow and Chicken would never work today, but I think it makes sense to focus on one of this era's most notorious missteps: the episode where the show really botched portraying lesbian characters.
Back in the 90s, people were still trying to figure out how to talk about social themes your average episode of Steven Universe can address succinctly in like 45 seconds, so an already shitty show about a cow and a chicken was not where societal breakthroughs occurred.
For Cow and Chicken, the best way to tackle this topic was not with grace, care, or even a basic understanding of homosexual relationships. No, it was to portray lesbians as a pack of roaming women with buffalo masks that eat carpet. In the episode "Buffalo Gals," biker buffalo ladies are given just about every hacky stereotype imaginable (right down to playing softball). While many of the shows mentioned above highlight the grey area between pushing boundaries and driving a steamroller over children's psyches, this episode is the perfect example of why a bygone time went bygone.
Cartoon Network quickly pulled the episode after immediate backlash. I'm all for letting any show explore any theme if they have the chops, but Cow and Chicken just shit the bed on this. And though we certainly don't need a return to a "Buffalo Gals" of cartoon boneheadedness, I do wonder if there isn't just something being lost by kids' animation not having a little bit more bite. This probably explains why there has been a huge decline in phone sex operators since the 1990s.
Top image: ViacomCBS