9 Classic Saturday Morning Cartoon Ads from the 1980s
1. “Saturday’s Best, Part I” (ABC, 1979)
And now, a moment of silence as we honor the passing of another once-great institution. As nostalgic journalists reported earlier this month, The CW has become the last television network to cut cartoons from its Saturday morning schedule (NBC got the ball rolling in 1992, followed by CBS and ABC; Fox held out until 2008, when it started running low-cost infomercials instead). Choose your reasons for how we got here: new government rules about advertising aimed at children… DVDs, cable channels and online services offering kids 24/7 access to their favorite cartoons… changing parental attitudes about letting kids sit around watching cartoons all day… it’s all good. I know you can’t fight progress, and I wouldn’t want to go back to a time when I had to a wait a whole week to watch new episodes of my favorite shows… but that doesn’t stop me from getting a little misty-eyed thinking about all those Saturday mornings I spent in front of the TV set, eating my Cocoa Pebbles while lying under a tent made from Pac-Man bedsheets. The end of Saturday morning also means the end of those ads the networks would place in comic books to generate excitement for their new fall line-ups, like this ad for ABC’s “Saturday’s Best” that ran in 1979. “New episodes” of The World’s Greatest Super Friends! “ALL NEW” Plastic Man Comedy/Adventure Show! “ALL-NEW” Scooby and Scrappy Doo! “ALL-NEW” Spider-Woman! Even if you despised Scrappy Doo with the heat of a thousand suns (as all good folk did), that’s a damn impressive line-up of “all-new” shows for a young comic nerd to wake up to every seven days.
2. “Saturday’s Best, Part II” (ABC, 1980)
What a difference a year makes. Thundarr the Barbarian boasted a lot of comic-book cred, with Steve “Howard the Duck” Gerber credited as co-creator and comic legends Jack Kirby and Alex Toth on production design. And if you had your fill of Plastic Man or the Super Friends, you can switch the channel and check out Batman and Godzilla on NBC, or 90 minutes of Looney Tunes shorts on CBS. And who among us didn’t watch the Fonz and the rest of the Happy Days gang and wonder, “Yeah, it’s a fun show and all, but what if they all went on adventures in a time machine?” That was a common trend among Saturday morning shows back then, taking popular shows or characters and putting them in wacky new situations. The Happy Days gang had a time machine, Laverne & Shirley joined the army, the Partridge Family went into outer space, Popeye and friends were sent back to the Stone Age…
3. “Starcade” (CBS, 1982)
…and the castaways of Gilligan’s Island were marooned on an alien planet thanks to the Professor’s latest scheme to get them off the island, because why the hell not. Almost the entire cast of the original series came back to lend their voices to the cartoon (Tina Louise, who played Ginger, bowed out). And of course Gilligan got a cute little alien sidekick because how else are the kids supposed to know when to laugh if there isn’t an adorable little critter doing funny things? I have no recollection of watching either Pandamonium or Meatballs and Spaghetti; maybe I was too busy watching the Incredible Hulk and Spider-Man cartoons on NBC during their time slot. Gotta love how they divided the Looney Tunes shorts up into two “new” shows; I guess to the kids who were first introduced to the Warner Bros. gang back then (like me), they were “all new.”
4. “Saturday’s More Fun” (ABC, 1982)
How big was Pac-Man back in the day? This big. The Super Friends were still on ABC in 1982; they just weren’t the designated buzz-generator that Pac-Man was clearly meant to be. How a video game about a giant dot eating smaller dots became a weekly cartoon and the basis for ABC’s Saturday morning marketing strategy is another of those mysteries of the ages — right up there with the mystery of how a prime-time sitcom like Mork & Mindy, a show that was basically a live-action cartoon thanks to Robin Williams’ antics — got made into an actual cartoon (a show in which Mork and Mindy were re-cast as high school students, and Mork gained a six-legged alien pet). Love the image of Richie Rich on his chaise lounge fanning himself with his money while the Little Rascals stay on their side of the fence: “That’s right, you guys want some of this, don’t you? So… how bad you want it, huh?”
5. “We Got the Jazz” (NBC, 1983)
Oh, you got the jazz, Mr. T. You certainly do. There was no question NBC’s line-up was the one to beat in the fall of ’83; try as I did, shows like The Bisketts, The Monchichis and Rubik the Amazing Cube (which was an even dumber attempt to cash in on an ’80s fad than Pac-Man’s show) just didn’t have the same drawing power as a show starring Mr. T as the coach of a team of teenage gymnasts who traveled the world and solved mysteries. Then you had Alvin and the Chipmunks introducing kids to their high-pitched versions of hit ’80s songs, the Smurfs, Thundarr and his crew defecting from ABC… heck, even Shirt Tales had its entertaining moments. But you didn’t hear that from me.
6. “Be There” (NBC, 1984)
NBC was on a roll in the mid-’80s, with hits like The Cosby Show, Cheers, and Miami Vice building on the earlier successes of shows like Knight Rider and The A-Team. That confidence was obvious in the network’s Saturday morning advertising, too, with this ad borrowing NBC’s “Be There” tagline to show a kid literally “being there” with the stars of each show. And what shows! Kidd Video, which always ended with live-action videos of songs I still catch myself humming today! Mister T! The Snorks, one of many obvious attempts to rip off the Smurfs — only underwater! The Pink Panther and Sons! Even the One to Grow On segments, with NBC stars offering advice about the deep ethical dilemmas faced by kids, still provide us aging ’80s kids with important life lessons that only stars like Soleil Moon Frye or Malcolm Jamal-Warner can provide. Not really sure why they drew their peacock mascot with the crazy eyes, though. Maybe we’re supposed to think the sheer awesomeness of all these shows will drive anyone insane?
7. “Saturday’s the Place” (CBS, 1984)
I’m going to go out on a limb and assume not one person who saw Richard Pryor’s raunchy stand-up comedy in the 1970s ever thought to themselves, “You know what this guy needs to do? Host his own kid’s show on Saturday morning!” Not long after showing us his family-friendly side in Superman III, the comedy legend hosted Pryor’s Place, a Sesame Street-like mix of puppets, kids and characters played by Pryor hanging out on an inner-city set for fun and occasional moral lessons. His show lasted four months before going into reruns; enjoying longer runs were the awesomely fun Muppet Babies, Saturday Supercade (with segments starring arcade characters like Q*Bert and Donkey Kong), the also-based-on-an-arcade-game-with-side-order-of-Knight-Rider Pole Position, and Dungeons & Dragons, a pretty-dark-for-its-time show loosely based on the role-playing game. We shall not speak of The Get Along Gang.
8. “Kids Just Want to Have Fun” (CBS, 1985)
Hey, I wonder which popular song was riding high on the Billboard charts when this ad was approved? The big news this year was the addition of Hulk Hogan’s Rock ‘n’ Wrestling to the CBS line-up, which was funny for so many reasons, starting with the fact that most pro wrestlers at the time were cartoonish even before they appeared on the show. Bowing to parental pressure about violence in cartoons, the wrestlers in the show were divided into “good guy” and “bad guy” teams and went off on wacky adventures, though wrestling fans might have been confused by the placements of the wrestlers on the “good” or “bad” side since the cartoon didn’t keep up with the WWF’s real-life storylines. Muppet Babies and Dungeons & Dragons were the only returning shows, with The Wuzzles and The Berenstain Bears filling CBS’s quote for cute critters. At least, I’m assuming they were cute; I was busy watching Bugs Bunny and Road Runner shorts on ABC during that time slot.
9. “So Long From Burbank” (NBC, 1986)
Now, this was an odd way for NBC to advertise their morning line-up, treating the animated stars of their shows like actual TV executives and actors having a video-conference call. And imagine how far you’d get today trying to show a Smurf holding a cigar; I’m surprised there isn’t a tiny glass of bourbon sitting next to the Emmy. Plus, what the hell are Alvin and that other Smurf doing outside the window? Are they hanging from a ledge high above one of “beautiful downtown Burbank’s” freeways? And Alvin’s smiling about it? Where’s Dave screaming “AL-VIIIIIIIN!” when you really need him?