Pop Goes the Library

Using Pop Culture to Make Libraries Better.

by Sophie Brookover, Liz Burns, Melissa Rabey, Susan Quinn, John Klima, Carlie Webber, Karen Corday, and Eli Neiburger. We're librarians. We're pop culture mavens. We're Pop Culture Librarians.


Fun Friday: Morning Television

My daughter probably watches too much television. And it's a poor excuse, but she is so busy, that sometimes it's nice to have her be distracted for twenty minutes by Dora the Explorer, or Handy Manny, or Little Einsteins or My Friends, Tigger and Pooh. In fact, my daughter is a big fan of all the Playhouse Disney shows (and I have to say we all love Charlie and Lola!), which makes me feel less bad about the fact that she's watching television.

You see, these shows have educational content. They teach shapes, colors, foreign languages, music, sharing, helping others, and so on. And there's something to be said for that. I view these shows for what they can impart to my daughter, not whether I find them palatable as a viewer. And she and I, and her mom, talk about the shows a lot. I can see her taking what she's learned on the show and applying it to the world around her.

I remember little about what I watched for television when I was 2 1/2 years old. I know there was Sesame Street, Mister Rogers' Neighborhood, Readalong (you would not BELIEVE how hard it was to find this show!), Schoolhouse Rock (not really a show per se, but analogous to Emily Yeung or Captain Carlos), and The Electric Company (which is such a 1970s show it's not even funny). And I know that I watched some of those shows more attentively when I was older.

I also know that there was a lot of stuff that I watched on tv that had no redeemable educational content. Stuff like Speed Racer, Battle of the Planets, Sid & Marty Kroft shows, Tom & Jerry/Grape Ape Show (with some dreadful animations), Hong Kong Phooey, Shazam!/Isis Hour, Wonder Woman, and lots of things lost to time. Really, lots of Hanna-Barbara cartoons in the 1970s were pretty bad.

A lot of this stuff is available now on DVD, and this could be a great thing to promote in your library to draw in people my age (35+). I would love to watch some of those shows again, and see if they stood the test of time. I'm not about to buy a DVD set of Thundarr the Barbarian just to be disappointed (even if it did mean I would get to see the episode that got pre-empted by the return of the Iran Hostages in 1981). But seriously, Thundarr's not available that I can tell, so I'm not trying to make some sort of announcement.

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Mr. Nostalgia and Little Miss Back Again

OF COURSE you remember Mr. Men. And Little Miss. Tiny, square paperbacks on a rack in the grocery store's impulse zone. You had to have one every single time you went to that grocery store, too. And maybe your mom started taking you to Price Chopper instead because they didn't have a Mr. Men rack for you to whine about, so you never got that copy of Mr. Muddle until years later, when chasing your other lost childhood dreams on eBay, when you thought to look for Mr. Muddle, but eBay only had cookie cutters, because of course the damn things are still in print after all these years! So you remember Mr. Men.

The 43 Mr. Men books and the 30 Little Miss books haven't actually been continuously in print since they were first published starting in 1971, but they have come back several times in support of various television treatments over the years. The second to last time this happened was in the late 90's, when a pretty lousy Mr. Men and Little Miss show was produced by French children's animation studio Dargaud-Marina, shown on Britain's Milkshake! kid's show block, and then localized for the US and brought into local syndication in the US in 1997. That show wasn't very widely aired in the US, but it was enough to bring the books back into print, just in time for the new parents of the oughts who loved the books as kids in the 70's to see them on impulse racks and buy them for their own kids, finally achieving closure on those old price chopper wounds.

It appears that the closure market has been enough to keep the books in print for the past 10 years. In the meantime, Adam Hargreaves, the son of original author Roger Hargreaves, has kept the series going a bit, creating 6 new Mr. Men and 7 Little Misses, many of them odd promotional tie-ins, such as Mr. and Little Miss Birthday, created for the 35-year anniversary of the first Mr. Men book, which Adam was also responsible for as a little kid when he asked his dad what a tickle looked like.

And now, another new cartoon based in the Mr. Men and Little Miss universe has arrived, and this time, it's really great. The Mr. Men show is produced by Renegade Animation, producers of the quite wonderful and underappreciated Hi Hi Puffy AmiYumi, which attempted to introduce the completely awesome japanese girl rock band PUFFY to US audiences with some success. Renegade also developed the very strange live action / animation hybrid telefilm Re-animated, which spun off the not-exactly-beloved Out of Jimmy's Head. Renegade does a lot of work in Flash, which allows them to cut out overseas tweening studios and produce whole shows in house. Their New Mr. Men show is vibrant, stylish, well-written and fun, and while they may be playing just a little fast and loose with the canon, they've added some fun new ideas into the show. For example, each character now comes complete with a catchphrase ready to infiltrate elementary school conversations; Mr. Bump's expletive of choice is 'Poopity-poop!', and Mr. Rude's catchprase is "You want X? I'll give you X! *loud fart*." The new show also features an awesome title song, which is reminiscent of the awesome theme song from Lauren Child's wonderful Charlie & Lola, written by Søren Munk and Tom Dyson of Northwood.

The new show's sketch comedy format and clever expansion of the already-strong property make for a very funny cartoon, and the show's official blog shows why; the team is taking the property and the funny very seriously, and it's clear that they are engaged in putting out a great product. They're also soliciting ideas from fans in the comments of their blog, and with the perennial appeal of these characters, a Mr. Men and Little Miss character design contest could be a pretty cool library craft program for kids and a hearty does of nostalgia for gen X parents.

As Mr. Nervous says, I think this is the end.

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The Frederatorian Armada

Remember when Hanna-Barbera was brought back from near death in the 90's? Like Mary Elizabeth Mastrontonio in The Abyss? Fred Siebert was Hanna-Barbera's Virgil Brigman. He slapped the life back into the studio by creating the What-A-Cartoon! showcase for new shorts, reorganizing the personnel and modernizing their process, resulting in scads of great shorts that spun off several great shows for Cartoon Network including Cow & Chicken, Powerpuff Girls, and Dexter's Lab.

With the Hanna-Barbera brand saved, Fred then founded Frederator Studios in 1997, and their first project was Oh Yeah! Cartoons for Nickelodeon, another showcase of shorts featuring many of the same animators and directors who had produced work for What-A-Cartoon. Oh Yeah! has spun off 3 series for Nick so far, most notably the wonderfully awesome My Life as a Teenage Robot (created by Rob Renzetti who storyboarded some of the best episodes of Dexter's Lab) and Megahit work of genius The Fairly Oddparents, created by Butch Hartman. Farily Oddparents is Nick's second most-popular show, only surpassed by the mighty Bob l'éponge; it's a powerful mix of wish fulfillment, brilliantly mutated character tropes, mind-blowing voice performances, and a self-aware formula that never seems to get stale, with a seventh season of episodes just beginning to air. The loud characters and slapstick potty moments (Supertoilet!) successfully scare off most adults, but Cosmo and Wanda just kick so much ass on so many levels that you musn't dare write off FOP as pablum.

While Fred excels at pulling together fresh teams for these showcase incubator series, and the newest Frederator project, Random Cartoons, is another installment in Fred's trademark genre. Frederator has also produced the Nicktoons Film Festival, an open call for shorts from animators of all stripes. The best shorts are aired on TV and the possibility of being the next Frederator star looms large for the participants. Fred is serious about crowdsourcing and his methods have brought TV some of the most innovative and hilarious cartoons of the past 15 years.

However, Fred (who was also MTV's first creative director, producer of the early MTV and Nick animated IDs, and savior of Nickelodeon with the Nick at Nite concept) is no one-trick-pony; Frederator's online offerings rival their TV projects, and Frederator gets it right so much more throughly than almost anyone else in the TV business it's a little shocking. For instance, check out one of Frederator's 65 blogs, including Fred's official blog or the Fairly Odd Blog. While it's still unique for a studio to essentially insist that each project has a corresponding blog, the best parts of the Frederator online presence are their web-native projects.

Channel Frederator takes Fred's trademark approach -- welcome all comers -- and ports it online into a channel full of new cartoon shorts that anyone can submit to and a podcast of the best stuff. There's also annual Channel Frederator Awards (voting is now open for the best of 2007) and one truly standout original series of shorts: The Meth Minute 39, by Dan Meth. The Meth Minute can best be described as the Wario Ware of cartoons; short, hilarious, usually inappropriate, steeped in pop references, and with many sets of recurring characters. The latest episode of the Meth Minute features Ultra and the Lazer Hearts, who exist to hang jokes upon the truly outrageous carcass of Jem and the Holograms. One of Meth's most-forwarded shorts is the undeniably NSFW Dog Video Dating, and the first episode, meme-tribute Internet People, became a bit of a meme of its own. Even the Meth Minute 39 is in on Fred's crowdsourcing mission, currently running a contest to find the best viewer-created short using meth minute characters, with a cash prize.

In addition to the awesomeness of Channel Frederator is ReFrederator, a simply amazing daily podcast that features a different vintage cartoon each day, along with some incredibly knowledgable posts. The work the ReFrederator folks are doing is nothing short of miraculous; acquiring, digitizing, and archiving priceless but usually commercially worthless cartoons in a modern format that's simply one of the very best podcasts on the whole dang intertubes.

However, the absolutely best thing that Fred has done recently has been to discover a guy named Pendleton Ward and give him the chance to make Adventure Time. Go watch Adventure Time right now, and be forewarned that the next time you see something really awesome, you just might find yourself using 'ALGEBRAIC!' as an expletive of awesomeness.

Frederator Studios is doing totally RHOMBUS work all over the place; but Channel Frederator is merely the anchor of Fred's newest corporation, nextnewnetworks, which takes Fred's proven old/new media flexibility and mastery and stretches the definition of a video network in a very forward-looking direction, towards nichier audiences and snappier, shorter, more frequent programming. See Ultra Kawaii (so cute it hurts), Threadbanger (for DIY Fashionistas), Vette Dogs (for corvette owners) or Total MMO (for Massively Mutliplayer Online gamers). Fred will rule the world someday, perched atop his shiny red armada of networks and viewer-created content flying in close formation. Submit now and you can say you were a Frederatorian before it was compulsory!

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All Kids Back in the Pool

Last time, I couldn't shut up about Adult Swim's awesome adult-oriented cartoons, but Cartoon Network has also done some really great stuff that is actually intended for kids over the years, creating some truly wonderful series that appeal to kids and adults alike, almost single-handedly pulling children's animation up out of the bottom the barrel where it had languished for the 80's and the early 90's. Shirt Tales, I'm looking at you.

Once Turner had established Cartoon Network with existing content, they began seeking out new animators to produce pilots for potential new series to be full funded and owned by Turner and Cartoon Network. Most of these pilots were shown under the What A Cartoon show, and the life these new talents brought back to the rotting husk of Hanna-Barbera became the driving force of a new generation of properties. A seminal episode of Space Ghost Coast to Coast featured short clips from several of the first new Cartoon Network Projects and had villains from Space Ghost's past vote on which show would be picked up for production. The three shows were Genndy Tartakofsky's Dexter's Laboratory, Van Partible's Johnny Bravo, and cartoon supergenius Craig McCracken's The Powerpuff Girls. All of these shows were eventually put into production and became staples of CN's lineup, but Wunderkind Craig McCracken's Powerpuff Girls became the breakout hit, combining hip newness and formulaic familiarity with truly outstanding writing, in-jokes worthy of the muppet show, outstanding voice acting and some brilliant new characters.

Powerpuff girls peaked in the early noughts with a pretty good theatrical film, but their iconic characters and relatively positive female leads still carry a strong following, especially among the adults who were won over by Jim Venable's (who has a new CD) shockingly modern breakbeat-laden score and Nemesis Mojo Jojo's utterly hilarious and spot-on sendups of the worst expositional speeches of the Superfriend's worst enemies. One of the best episodes of Powerpuff Girls is Meet the Beat-Alls, a Beatles tribute epsiode that likely flew right over the head of anyone born after 1990 but includes some simply brilliant gags, including a girlfriend for Mojo Jojo named Moko Jono, who is a 'performance criminal'. Yes, there is a joke about the number 9.

Dexter's Lab also had an awesome run; not as marketable or cuddly as the Powerpuff Girls, it resonated perfectly with geeks and dorks and nailed the odd-couple dynamics with dweeby honor-student scientist dexter and his ebullient pony-loving sister DeeDee. Tributes to Mecha Anime, Pete's Dragon, Star Wars, Dungeons and Dragons, and countless other relics of 80's culture instantly endeared the show to Gen Xers until a shark-jumping production staff shakeup brought the show to a swift end. One of Dexter's Lab's hidden treasures is found only in some episodes: The Justice Friends, a set of shorts, directed by Craig McCracken, that bring together three of our nation's greatest superheroes (Major Glory, Rock God Valhallen, and the Infraggable Crunk) into a small apartment to face the challenges of everyday life. It's pure genius and also saw the best appearances of recurring McCracken in-joke characters Puppet Pal Mitch and Puppet Pal Clem. Dexter is available on DVD, and the early seasons would be an awesome addition to any DVD collection. One of my favorite episodes is 'Omelette Du Fromage', where Dexter uses a hypnotic learning device and a french language record to study for a test. The record skips, and Dexter wakes up with 'Omelette Du Fromage' as the only thing he is able to say, which of course (SPOILER) leads him to international stardom.

Another pilot from What A Cartoon! that didn't exactly get picked up is Larry and Steve, an early project from Seth MacFarlane that features a dumb guy who sounds almost exactly like Peter Griffin and a cultured talking dog who is just a brown, skinny Brian Griffin. Even though Turner passed on Larry and Steve, MacFarlane was later contacted by Fox and asked to develop Larry and Steve into a pilot that would follow the Simpsons, ultimately becoming Family Guy.

One of the other pilots from What A Cartoon that got picked up years later and is still a bit of an odd surviving standout in Cartoon Network's lineup is John R. Dilworth's Courage the Cowardly Dog, a creepy, edgy, and very unsettling show about an excitable dog, his loving owner Muriel, and her crabby husband Eustace, who live in Nowhere, where lots of weird stuff happens, usually putting Muriel in danger and requiring much yelling and dancing around from Courage. One of the very best things about Courage the Cowardly Dog is a short video with a new theme song by Nerd Rock Supergroup They Might Be Giants. It's stuck in my head; now it's your turn!

After the first wave of new shows were gaining popularity and establishing Cartoon Network as a source of awesome new cartoons for kids, a second wave of shows came down the pipe, the most popular and enduring of which was Ed, Edd and Eddy, a simple show about the interactions of a group of weird kids on a cul-de-sac. With an amazing and in many cases unheard-of voice cast, every archetype of neighborhood kids represented, and a somewhat nostalgic view of what kids do for fun that still resonates with today's elementary schoolers, the Eds pursue scam after scam in hopes of obtaining enough quarters to buy each of them a cheek-stretching jawbreaker. Danny Antonucci is one kick-ass guy (skip to :40), and his rat-finky, rubbery, wiggly ensemble of characters generated a boatload of awesome episodes, ending without really getting stale. Also of note is the show's unique scoring, using a small band of trumpet, trombone, sax, clarinet, bass, drums, and a guy whistling to give the episodes a cohesive, immediately recognizable sound that's definitely outside the musical vocabulary of most elementary school viewers.

In addition to these shows that are no longer being produced, Cartoon Network has three current shows that are very popular with both kids and cartoon geeks of all ages and have introduced characters that will be beloved for decades to come.

First, after Craig McCracken finished PowerPuff Girls, he and his wife and Powerpuff Girls Producer Lauren Faust created Foster's Home for Imaginary Friends, one of my very favorite shows that again combines laugh-a-minute comedy for elementary schoolers liberally peppered with shout-outs and in-jokes for the over-20 crowd. With more outstanding voice acting and one of TV's most convincing and coolest female characters in Frankie Foster, the show tackles some relatively meaty themes about friendship, growing up, marketing, rules and authority without the kids even really knowing what's going on. It's a joy to watch and each new episode is eagerly anticipated by millions of kids. Two seasons are on DVD and there is some really WANT-worthy merch out there... if you're willing to set foot into Hot Topic.

Another great show that just wrapped up but is still in heavy rotation is Joe Murray's Camp Lazlo, about a group of relentlessly positive campers (and their relentlessly negative spoils) at a summer camp that never seems to end (they even had a halloween episode once). Murray was previously responsible for the underappreciated work of genius Rocko's Modern Life (which featured a theme song by the B-52's), about a Wallaby that worked at a Comic Book shop, and many of the character tropes from Rocko make an appearance at Camp Kidney (home of the Bean Scouts of Jelly Cabin) on the shores of Leaky Lake, again nostalgically hearkening back to childhoods that don't really exist anymore, complete with the girl's camp across the lake (Acorn Flats, home of the Squirrel Scouts) and the constant threat of a Bean Scout earning enough badges to graduate to Tomato Scout, which requires an immediate trip off to boot camp. Camp Lazlo isn't on DVD yet, but it's expected soon and is actually a good thing to show kids who will be going to camp because A. it includes the basics like swimming, counselors, off-limits marshmallow shacks and the infirmary, B. it exposes them to personality types they'll be likely to meet at camp, and C. because any real camp will shine in comparison to Camp Kidney.

Finally, there's a new show on Cartoon Network that kicks so much ass it's just amazing it was ever greenlighted. It's called Chowder, and it's about an apprentice to a chef in a weird world where everything revolves around and is named after food. The brainchild of C.H. Greenblatt, who previously storyboarded for Spongebob and Billy and Mandy (and was the voice of Fred Fredburger!), Chowder brings an awesome, schoolhouse-rock reminiscent look and a completely alien set of social norms together and just riffs on the results. Again filled with plenty of in-jokes for grownups (the chef, Mung, adds a huge clock necklace to a soup, explaining that it adds Flava), a real highlight of the show are the voices for Chowder, Gorgonzola, and Panini, done by some truly talented kids that inject so much life and authenticity into the show it's impossible not to smile just listening to them deliver their lines and screams and bellows. Chowder is still in its first season, so no DVD yet, but new episodes air thursday nights, and if you've got cable at your library, a Chowder-watching party with some weird snacks would be a pretty cool event for a school night.

Most of the creators of these show have blogs (although the Foster's blog is apparently abandoned), and if you look at the comments, you'll find scads of Gen X and older cartoon geeks just gushing about what these talented folks are doing. Just because it's on Cartoon Network doesn't mean it's only for kids!

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All Kids out of the Pool

I am a Cartoon Network addict. I didn't used to have an excuse. But then, back in 2001, Cartoon Network launched [adult swim], a block of programming intended for viewers aged 18-34, originally only aired on Sunday nights. Adult Swim has been phenomenally successful, totally dominating its target demographic, revolutionizing programming for this audience, shattering basic cable records, and just generally being awesome. It's since grown to fill every night from 11 PM - 6 AM. Now, my cartoon addiction is hip and grown-up instead of dorky and neotenous. Right? Hello?

Adult Swim knows how to package programming to draw in viewers and keep them coming back; in fact, the programming block has become a sort of resuscitation chamber for good shows previously killed by mishandling or fickle programming executives. Matt Groening's Futurama, Seth MacFarlane's Family Guy, and Brendon Small's Home Movies were all canceled and then picked up as reruns by Adult Swim. Adult Swim's nightly positioning kept the audiences alive and buying DVDs, and before you knew it, Family Guy was back on Fox, Futurama had new episodes in production for Comedy Central, and Adult Swim themselves had funded production of new episodes of Home Movies. All are on DVD, most notably the new Futurama DVD Bender's Big Score, a movie composed of the first new episodes of Futurama since Fox canceled the series in 2003.

Adult Swim's format includes both 15 and 30 minute shows bracketed by simple text card bumpers that give a voice to the block's creators. The bumps show ratings from previous weeks, make fun of dumb posts on the adult swim forums, and drop hints about upcoming programs, having a conversation with viewers and engaging them in the production of the block and the further consumption of the content. These guys know how to talk to an audience that every advertiser wants to reach.

Adult Swim's original programming, much of it produced by Turner's Williams Street production shop, has also become a force to be reckoned with in its highly sought after demographic, producing shows that have pushed the boundaries of sharp writing, cheap production, poor taste, and gratuitous violence. DVD sales for Adult Swim shows have been strong and the sets are loaded with extras; adding some of this stuff to your collection can be an awesome draw for audiences that might otherwise find little of interest on the shelf.

Aqua Teen Hunger Force could be thought of as Adult Swim's flagship show; its cheap, grotesque animation, vivid characters, and brilliant writing set the tone for many of Adult Swim's subsequent programs. In a good way. ATHF Season 5 is airing now, and all 5 seasons are out on DVD plus the 2007 Feature Film Aqua Teen Hunger Force Colon Movie Film For Theaters, which cost $750,000 to make and netted over $5,000,000 in the box office.

Harvey Birdman, Attorney at Law represents characters from throughout the Hanna-Barbera stable of properties when they get into legal trouble, such as when mob boss Fred Flintstone needed to beat a racketeering charge, or when Secret Squirrel got picked up for indecent exposure. Not nearly as gross or over-the-top as ATHF, Harvey Birdman has 3 volumes on DVD and is a worthy successor to early Williams Street breakthrough animated talk show Space Ghost Coast 2 Coast, which was one of Turner's first experiments in producing cartoons for ostensible grownups. Harvey Birdman ended in 2007, but new episodes of Space Ghost Coast 2 Coast are now airing on Gametap, Turner's videogame download service. Harvey Birdman also has a Phoenix Wright-inspired courtroom videogame for PS2 and Wii.

Venture Brothers is my favorite Adult Swim show; loosely inspired by Jonny Quest but also by every action cartoon or superhero trope from the 70's and 80's, Venture Brothers has some of the best writing, characters, voice acting, and animation of Adult Swim's original shows, and it's one of very few AS offerings that has an ongoing story. Seasons 1 and 2 are out on DVD and Season 3 airs this summer.

Robot Chicken is the brainchild of Seth Green, who provides the voice of Chris Griffin on Family Guy, was Oz the Werewolf on Buffy, and played Scott Evil in the Austin Powers series. Seth writes and does tons of voices for Robot Chicken, which is essentially a micro-sketch comedy full of tv parodies performed by stop-motion action figures. There are 2 seasons on DVD, and the third season is currently airing.

Aaron McGruder's Boondocks was also brought to TV by Adult Swim. Like the comic strip, the show is not without its controversy, but the writing is awesome, the voices are fantastic, and every episode just kicks ass. There's one season on DVD now and new episodes still airing.

In addition to Adult Swim's comedy lineup, they also air quite a bit of Anime and are a major player in the economics of Japanese shows getting dubbed into English. Anime that has aired on Adult Swim is guaranteed to have a formidable audience and is much higher profile than the Anime that airs on other networks or is only available on video. The utterly brilliant and incomprehensible FLCL got its US start on Adult Swim, and the huge popularity of the Fullmetal Alchemist juggernaut was driven primarily by its AS exposure. AS was also the first US broadcast of the seminal Cowboy Bebop, and they continue to air the simply amazing Ghost in the Shell: Stand Alone Complex. Cartoon Network also co-funded the production of a second season of giant robot enigma Big O, providing more episodes to a global audience. Most of all, Anime and Manga legend Rumiko Takahashi's Inuyasha, one of the biggest Anime shows in the US and Japan, airs solely on Adult Swim. Finally, two comedic anime, rarely translated for english audiences, have aired on AS: the utterly alien and unmissable Super Milk Chan, and the simpson-like but far more crass Crayon Shin-chan, which has 26 new episodes being translated. All of these shows now have a substantial US audience thanks to Adult Swim, and if they're not already in your DVD anime collection, they should be!

Phew, I knew I shouldn't have started talking about this. There is just too much good stuff on Adult Swim. Next time, I'll blabber about all the great shows on Cartoon Network that are supposed to be for kids!

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