I had a Cartoon Network childhood.
Between the ages of about four and ten, when I was just a kid living in white suburban Oregon, I had access to that most fabled of all American freedoms: satellite television, then very much a novelty in our household. With over five hundred channels to choose from and what seemed to me to be the sum total of human creativity and endeavor, I quickly narrowed down this nigh-infinite selection to just the few choice stations that appealed to my juvenile intellect. Fortunately for me – since I hadn’t yet mastered the fine art of ergonomic channel-surfing – these three or four favorites were all located within just a few channels of each other, no doubt the calculated intention of the television corporations but an astonishing coincidence at the time. Consequently, when I sat down on Sunday evening with my copy of the TV Guide to plan that week’s viewing, I would only have to scan through a very few lines – Nickelodeon, Disney, Cartoon Network and Boomerang – to ensure that I would catch all my favorite shows.
I’m not entirely sure what it was about Cartoon Network that separated it so vividly for young me from its competitors. It’s not like the other stations lacked quality programming – Kim Possible aired on Disney, and Nickelodeon was home to Spongebob Squarepants and a whole slew of kid-friendly game shows where teenagers were doused in slime, forced to eat slime, or (on Legends of the Hidden Temple) pitted against each other in tense races through replica Aztec temples where failure meant – you guessed it – getting dunked in pools of colored slime. Then there were the excellent shows that I only discovered later like the fairly silly The Fairly OddParents or Rocko’s Modern Life which somehow never stuck as much in my mind, their impact perhaps diminished by being forced to compete with established favorites. It’s not clear why other shows failed to take as firm a hold, because in many cases there wasn’t a whole lot that distinguished them from their CN (as we affectionately dubbed it) counterparts – and in the case of Boomerang, which exclusively ran episodes from old CN shows, there was little to no distinction whatsoever.
Whatever the reason, it was the goofy, crazy and frequently disturbing animated fare that CN had to offer that would surface again and again in conversations with my friends on the school playground while we were busy making ourselves nauseous on the tire swing or smacking each other in the face with tetherballs. Perhaps it was their captivating intros – to this day I can still recite the opening of The Powerpuff Girls, fifteen years after I stopped watching it – but more likely it was just the peculiar brand of humor and characters that CN shows possessed. Those cackling corporate executives plotting how to best wring money out of my wide-eyed and vulnerable demographic somehow managed to inject hilarity and absurdity into most of the shows I can remember, with a few notable exceptions – the pointlessly macho and annoyingly repetitive Johnny Bravo chief among them. This humor ranged in intelligence from the devious, dark and clever barbs of Mandy in The Grim Adventures of Billy and Mandy, to the action-hero one-liners of the anything-but-nice Powerpuff Girls, to the moronic utterances of Ed, Edd n Eddy, a trio of brain-dead friends who were commonly shown up by their inanimate wooden pal, Plank. Heck, even Courage the Cowardly Dog, a show memorable for its frankly terrifying caricatures and superbly unsettling story-lines, somehow possessed the sort of absurd humor that was quintessentially Cartoon Network-esque, whatever that was. I was hooked.
It wasn’t all about the fun and games, however. There was a huge level of emotional connection with my favorite characters that bordered (and still borders) on the fanatical and in many cases outshone my “real-life” relationships. One of the saddest moments of my childhood was not having my Game Boy with its precious Pokemon taken away or being suspended from school for being an annoying little brat, but rather when the adorable Terra left the Teen Titans in disgrace having been unmasked as a traitor in the payment of Slade, the primary recurring villain. I spent my time thinking not about girls and homework but rather about the undeserved plight of poor Mojo Jojo and the ill-fated experiments of Dexter from Dexter’s Laboratory. CN was also responsible for my first introduction to anime on its Toonami segment, where, late at night when I was meant to be asleep, I would creep down and be exposed to the likes of Cardcaptors and Zatch Bell! And who could forget the endless hours running through doors connected seemingly by magical teleporting wormholes with Scooby Doo and the gang? That one station was a paradise for a little kid like me, appealing to and stimulating every emotion on my (admittedly limited) spectrum.
Eventually, of course, as time wore on and I grew up, I spent fewer and fewer hours a week plonked down in front of the television and more reading books or in front of that shiny new attraction, the home computer system. The glitzy, enchanted world of wonder that was Cartoon Network began to pall and gradually lose its appeal. I matured, but Cartoon Network stayed the same – Scooby Doo alone ran for nearly ten years after I was first exposed to it sometime in 1996, the same year that Pokemon Blue came out, with hardly any changes (save the introduction of Scrappy “Dappy” Doo, for whom I have the utmost contempt). Nevertheless, it carved out a significant niche for itself in the nostalgia cave buried deep within my brain, nestling comfortably beside other childhood treasures like The Logical Journey of the Zoombinis or the I Spy books. It defined a critical developmental period of my life, and I like to think the good humor of Cartoon Network is at least partly responsible for my fantastic sense of humor today. And, if not, at least I have the memories.