How the '90s Changed Cartoons Forever

A look back at the decade when cartoons outgrew Saturday mornings.

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Were you a 90s kid, Pokémon cards clutched in hand—or better yet—filed away in a protective binder? Even if you weren't, the wealth of animated television produced in the 1990s no doubt left its mark in your mind.

Fueled by the success of Disney's animated programming and feature films, broadcast networks like CBS, ABC, and Fox began producing animated shows for adults, children, and teens. Cartoons weren't the sole domain of young children and Saturday mornings anymore. It was a strange and formative period for animated entertainment.

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Remember this guy? [Credit: TBS Productions, Inc. and DIC Enterprises, Inc.]

The Cartoon King (and His Donut)

Perhaps the biggest animated hit of the 90s (some would say of all time) was FOX's ace in the hole: The Simpsons.

The Simpsons has grown into the longest-running American animated show, and easily one of the best-loved.

This goofy, supremely suburban sitcom has grown into the longest-running American animated show, and easily one of the best-loved. Tubby Homer, donut held on high, helped prepare the way for other "mature" animated series: the character-driven King of the Hill, the controversy-baiting South Park, and the utterly juvenile Beavis and Butthead.

Of course, bright-eyed, bushy-tailed viewers and their Saturday-morning tendencies weren't neglected altogether. FOX reinforced The Simpsons with an afternoon animation block for children, including hits like Bobby's World, Batman: The Animated Series, and The Tick.

Still, the 90s longed for something more: rudeness.

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This dysfunctional family has proven to be the most popular animated family ever. [Credit: 20th Century Fox Film Corp.]

How Rude, How Odd

Enter Ren & Stimpy, an early example of a cartoon that got away with all the crude, naughty humor it could.

Ren & Stimpy shocked with coarse humor, violence, and sexual innuendo. Parents must have been thrilled.

Previous generations had their Scooby Doos, their Flintstones, and their Jetsons. They had the Gummi Bears. Ren & Stimpy obliterated the conventions of past animation with coarse humor, violence, and plenty of sexual innuendo. Parents must have been thrilled. The raunchy content didn't go completely unchecked—the creator and Nickelodeon constantly fought over censorship issues.

Those fights broadened the scope of children's animation in the long run, ushering in a new generation of cartoons on Nickelodeon. Rocko's Modern Life, Doug, and Rugrats had characters and concepts far removed from the Saturday morning cartoons of old. KaBlam!, an animated sketch comedy show, pushed the medium even further by introducing two animated, bantering "hosts" who introduced skits a la SNL.

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Introduced in 1991, these two characters would change cartoons forever. [Credit: Viacom International, Inc.]

Cartoon Network deserves special mention, of course.

Launched in 1992, the network was the first to focus on cartoons 24 hours a day. It empowered rockstar cartoonists like Genndy Tartakovsky, and more intelligent, self-aware shows found success: the award-winning Dexter's Laboratory, The Powerpuff Girls, and Courage the Cowardly Dog.

Space Ghost Coast to Coast rebooted the 60s Hanna-Barbera classic as a surreal talk show.

Another landmark series, Space Ghost Coast to Coast, rebooted the 60s Hanna-Barbera classic Space Ghost as a surreal talk show, mixing in live-action footage, stoner humor, and completely retooled classic Hanna-Barbera characters.

Even before Adult Swim hit the scene, Cartoon Network was one of the first major channels to capitalize on the booming popularity of Japanese anime. An entire block was dedicated to imported hits like Dragon Ball Z and Sailor Moon, along with complex, adult shows like Cowboy Bebop. Meanwhile, Pokémon quickly stole the hearts of children across America.

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The '90s literally transformed old Saturday morning cartoons into satire for adults. [Credit: Time Warner, Inc.]

Looking Back: A History of Silliness

Though Pikachu was fast becoming every kid's favorite mascot, you couldn't put a certain cartoon rabbit down for the count.

Tiny Toon Adventures ushered in a new generation of Looney Tunes stars attending a school staffed by Bugs Bunny and Daffy Duck.

The Looney Tunes, arguably the most iconic cartoon cast in America, got a major makeover when Warner Bros. joined forces with Steven Spielberg. The first collaboration, Tiny Toon Adventures, ushered in a new generation of Looney Tunes stars attending a school staffed by Bugs Bunny and Daffy Duck.

Clever writing and quality animation led to mainstream success, and also set new standards for cartoon visuals. More Spielberg collaborations followed: the outrageous Animaniacs, Pinky & the Brain, and Freakazoid! These four animated series brought new life to WB, and introduced classic Looney Tunes antics to a new generation of viewers.

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Spielberg and WB used self-referential humor to create a new generation of comedy. [Credit: Time Warner, Inc.]

And who could forget about Disney?

The success of Gummi Bears and Ducktales in the late '80s pushed Disney into the next decade. While the main studio pumped out big hits like Aladdin and The Lion King, Disney Television Animation also labored over original series like Gargoyles and film-to-television shows: Aladdin, Hercules, 101 Dalmatians, and even The Mighty Ducks all became animated series during the 1990s.

We'd make a quip about how much breakfast cereal you'd need to enjoy all these shows, but the Saturday-morning cartoon craze has ended, thanks to Netflix and its ilk. That's good news for everyone: Cartoons are just too fun and too numerous to be kept to Saturday mornings.

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