Best Cartoon Universe Part 4: Sesame Street and Warner Bros.

#2 Warner Bros. vs. #3 Sesame Street

Growing up, we never had Sesame Street playing in my house. I think it’s because my parents immigrated to America when I was five, and didn’t understand English well enough to realize that the programming on PBS was meant to be educational. To them, watching some dude prance around in a giant yellow bird costume was probably as big a waste of time as watching G.I. Joe. So I got to watch whatever I wanted—which invariably involved lasers or Tony Danza.

I got exposed to plenty of Warner Bros. animated mayhem (Tiny Toons and Animaniacs especially) but it always kind of seemed like background noise.

Point being: I am not an ardent fan of either Sesame Street or the Warner Brothers characters. So this will be short and sweet, and hopefully less partial.

Overall Popularity

Anywhere between 1950-1995, if you went around asking random people to name a cartoon character, I think the most popular answer would have been Bugs Bunny. Maybe that’s not the case now—animation went through a renaissance, of sorts, in the late 80’s and early 90’s, and adults may think of Bart Simpson or Eric Cartman as their default cartoons.

Nonetheless, for almost half a century Warner Bros. Animation gave shape to most of our cultural conceptions about cartoons. Consider how differently American culture treats animation from a country like Japan, and you can see how significant this shaping has been.

Animation at WB has an incredibly long history—nearly as long as Disney’s. It started, as did Disney’s animation division, as animated shorts to fill in time between movies at the theatre, in 1933. Porky Pig was introduced in 1945, and Bugs Bunny a year later.  As the studios’ monopoly over film distribution began to crumble in the late 1940s and 1950s, the once-ubiquitous short feature began to go extinct. The WB cartoons became television shows, and have been on the tube since.

Everyone, except immigrant kids whose parents didn’t know better, watched Sesame Street when they were young. And everyone still remembers it vividly. But it’s a phenomenon that is still limited to childhood, or remembrances of childhood. The aesthetic concept of cartoons which Warner Brothers basically created suffuses the culture entirely.

Advantage: Warner Brothers

Strength of Nostalgia

I’ll call this a wash. They both inspire lots of it.

Advantage: None

Quality of Programming

Is it fair to knock on a Speedy Gonzalez/Wile E. Coyote segment on Looney Tunes for being predictable? Of course it isn’t. One unerring rule of cartoons is that all of them are in a kind of timeless vortex, sensible to neither temporal nor physical change. You can drop anvils on people from a thousand feet or blow up bombs in their faces, or watch them plummet off a cliff, and they will always be fine. Elmer Fudd will always be stalking Bugs Bunny through the woods, even if he got rich, or got married and bought a house and had three kids, or was made the king over an island of natives at the end of the last episode. Within those bounds Looney Tunes and Merry Melodies are excellent shows.

The Looney Tunes music is priceless. Fully orchestral, with the ever-present tuba blasting a walking double “bum-bum” bass underneath everything, it allows you to appreciate the wild, violent, sometimes seemingly amoral proceedings onscreen without ever fearing your (or more importantly, your children’s) morals are being compromised. It is manic elegance at its best.

Sesame Street sprang from the mind of Jim Henson. It combines his love of wonder with an earnest educational mission. It is remarkable how entertaining the Sesame Street puppets still are, while disposing, almost offhand, basic conceptual principles to their young audience. Nothing in educational programming has ever matched it.

Advantage: Sesame Street

Appeal of main characters/Secondary characters

It’s hard to distinguish between main and secondary characters for both WB and Sesame Street, so I combined them.

The WB list is staggering: Bugs, Daffy Duck, Porky Pig, Elmer Fudd, Foghorn Leghorn, Wile E. Coyote, Speedy Gonzalez, Yosemite Sam, Sylvester, the Tasmanian Devil, Tweety, Michigan J. Frog… and I literally could go on for about twenty more you’d probably recognize, either by name or sight (you could include newer characters like Pinky and Brain, after all).

There are fewer names on the Sesame Street list. But are they any less appealing? Big Bird, Oscar the Grouch, the Cookie Monster, the Count, Elmo, Bert and Ernie, Snuffleupagus, Grover.

Advantage: None

Full realization of universe

Sesame Street is definitely a place. People (and non-people) live there. It’s one of the subtle appeals of the show that you get to feel like you are visiting that place—the same place—every time you watch. Elmo heads over to Oscar’s trash can and waits for his head to pop out. Bert and Ernie come home with groceries under their arms. (Did you know that very early in the show they slept in the same bed, until people started joking about their possible homosexuality?  It’s kind of cute; to think the makers of the show were such innocents they didn’t think that kind of innuendo would begin right away).

But when all’s said and done, the Warner Brothers characters shaped our idea of what a cartoon is. That conception has changed in the past twenty years, but some of the fundamental concepts have been retained. I don’t think Trey Parker or Matt Stone would have quite the same grasp of visual cartoon logic that they do, if Looney Tunes hadn’t established the form.

Advantage: Warner Brothers

So: Warner Brothers 2, Sesame Street 1. I’ll probably wrap up the whole cartoon-universe thing in one more post, sometime in the near future. It’s hard to keep concentrating on the same thing for such a long period of time, as I am discovering.

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About hubzbubz

Currently residing in Brooklyn.
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