Think back to the cartoons of your childhood. Where does your favorite character live? If you grew up in the early nineties the answer to that question may bring more than nostalgia; it may bring unease. Craig’s recent post on Nickelodeon’s plans to re-air some of their classics got me thinking about my favorite childhood cartoons. I was always deeply affected by the bizarre home life of my favorite characters. Every show seemed to feature likable protagonists in unconventional homes. The strangeness of the housing situations of the early Nicktoons (and some shows on the outer rim of that programming chunk) speak to an immensity of creativity and a willingness to experiment that was hitherto unheard of in television. If we dig a bit deeper into the original lineup, we can see the progression and eventual decline of nonconformist and nontraditional housing in cartoons!
The Big Three
Yes, the Ninja Turtles lived in a sewer with a rat, but that made sense within the context of the show. What we’re looking at starting with the Nicktoons borders on the absurd. The first official Nicktoon was Doug, which starts the ‘toons off with a relative sense of normalcy. Doug has a nice house in the suburbs with a caring, if absent-minded set of parents (a theme we will see repeat itself again and again). Sure, his sister is obsessed with Shakespeare and his dog suffers from the Snoopy Syndrome (i.e. too smart for his own damn good), but the house is normal and the town they live in is completely typical. Doug, in all its gentle normalness, is actually the outcast of the early Nicktoons.
The next Nicktoon to air, Rugrats, began to skew the world at home a bit more. The families each had a fine home with a corral for the children, but that’s where the traditional aspects of home life ended. The main character, Tommy Pickles (let’s be real here: that’s a classic name), had access to a host of different tools to escape the pen. Of course this is the entire premise of the show, but what a premise to rest a show on! Infants, not yet able to walk with stability, are able to venture forth into the unknown!
The third (and most absurd) Nicktoon to air was Ren and Stimpy. Perhaps the strangest of all the ‘toons, the housing for Ren and Stimpy constantly changed. Just a cursory glance at episodes on youtube reveal them living in a nice two story home, living in a tree eating bark, hitchhiking, and walking around a suburb as they starve to death. Were they homeless? Were they squatters or vagabonds on the run? In one episode they live in a mouse hole! How did their proportionate size change with every episode? These may seem like small points, but by dissecting them we can see an immensity of creativity at work. As we’re about to see, Ren and Stimpy was the psychopathic straw that broke the camel’s back.
With the rise of irreverence and popularity in animation, we enter into a whole new domain of crazed housing. Perhaps most perplexing of all cartoons is the infamous Beavis and Butthead, while not a Nicktoon by any stretch of the imagination, it was the next cartoon to air chronologically. It features a drab, downcast town where the main teenage characters live in a run down house without any parental supervision. They are sex-crazed and completely out of control (in terms of normal society). This is a true breakdown of the traditional housing in comedy (both animated and live action).
Returning to the Nicktoons we have next (the 4th proper Nicktoon) Rocko’s Modern Life. (Full disclosure: Rocko killed me as a kid. To an eight-year-old Giaco there was nothing better on television.) Here we have to look to the town itself to see the absurdity. O-town is a town run by the super conglomerate Conglom-O. We see aspects of mill town or company town life at play in Rocko. The conglomeration looms over all and effects daily life for the citizens: pretty heavy stuff for a show about an anthropomorphic wallaby. Rocko’s home is a fairly normal home, except that it’s in constant flux due to the introduction of consumer goods into the environment. All through the show we see the outside, mass produced world intrude on the inner sanctum of the home. The local government, mass media, and conglomerations all fought to keep the little man down in Rocko. And you know what they say...
Return to Normalcy
Finally we see the beginnings of a return to normalcy with shows like Aahh!!! Real Monsters, where characters lived in a city dump, but as with the Ninja Turtles, it made sense for their lives and was elaborate. Shows like Hey Arnold, CatDog (ugh), and Spongebob Squarepants also edged back to a stable home base. Each housing situation was interesting and varied, but they all lacked that sense of chaos. Even The Wild Thornberrys, a show about a family traveling in an RV around the world, felt far less surreal than the even the mildest setting in Ren and Stimpy.
Shows like Rocket Power would be the death knell for the strange home. Animation turned away from issues of displacement, corporate influence and abandonment and streamlined back into family values, social issues and a stable home life. Want to know if a cartoon is on the cutting edge? Check out the place the main characters call home.