Originally, the cartoon short was something that was exhibited in theaters alongside news reels, serials, and feature films. All of the major motion picture companies owned their own theaters and most built up a stable of cartoon stars. This was the era that saw the creation of Mickey Mouse, Bugs Bunny, Tom and Jerry, Popeye, and many more. These characters were stars that rivaled the popularity of the most famous actors of the day. Then it all changed. The government went after studios with anti-trust lawsuits stemming from the fact that they operated as producers and exhibitors for their films. Post World War II saw many, mostly white, families leave the confines of the city for the suburbs taking them further away from those theaters they used to frequent. And then came television. All of the big companies reacted to TV in different ways. Walt Disney rather famously embraced it, while at the opposite end was Warner Bros. which did everything in its power to avoid television.
Eventually, TV took over and it’s remained a staple of the modern household. When the movie-going experience was altered thanks to independent theaters and changing tastes, the cartoon short largely vanished. It was an easy place to trim costs since virtually every studio took a big hit to their bottom-line during this era. Those characters that once flourished though didn’t need to be put out to pasture completely. Instead, they became stars on the small screen as studios packaged them up and sold them in syndicated packages to various outlets.
When I was a kid, there’s no doubt in my mind that the biggest toon stars from that era were the characters owned by Warner Bros. Bugs, Daffy, Porky, Tweety, and the rest were among my favorites, and they were everywhere. Warner Bros. had different packages of shorts it shopped around. What the studio considered the cream of the crop went to the big networks and were shown on Saturday morning. The lesser packages went to smaller, regional, channels and cable. Nickelodeon entered the picture in 1988 and it started off with a somewhat meager offering. Remember Bosko? I sure do and he was seen rather frequently on Nickelodeon’s Looney Tunes show. The show was a huge success for the cable outlet, which had really just begun to go all-in on animation, and when it came time to renew with Warner the channel got a better set of shorts. Remember the “Sorry, Bosko” commercial? I do!
Warner’s cartoons weren’t the only ones out there though as there was a pretty sizable cast coming from MGM. Ted Turner, the famous billionaire who owned the Turner Broadcasting System, set out to acquire cartoons for his cable networks. He would come to acquire Hanna-Barbera and MGM’s cartoons, which had also acquired some smaller outlets like United Artists, and this would lead to the creation of Cartoon Network. Cartoon Network was a place for Turner to air all of the stuff he had acquired, but the channel also had it’s own Bugs and Daffy show too (because MGM bought some, it’s confusing so you should just watch this edition of Nick Knacks on it). Eventually, Turner sold to AOL, which would merge with Time Warner, and basically all of these cartoon stars would come to rest under one umbrella by the time the 90s were over.
This ended up being a bad thing for cartoon viewers. Once Warner controlled everything except for the classic Disney characters, the company started to pull back. Eventually those networks that had been a home for these characters for so long were no longer allowed to air them. Even worse, Cartoon Network had become so full of original content it no longer had need of these characters either. To Boomerang they went, the sister channel to Cartoon Network that few cable providers seemed to carry. Eventually, they would be forced out of there as well as the Cartoon Network What a Cartoon! era shorts matured and made the jump over. Reboots would follow like The Looney Tunes Show and Wabbit, but there was no easy access to the classic, unaltered, shorts that generations had grown up with.
Until 2021. Launched in January of this year on MeTV is Toon In With Me. It was a quiet launch since it took me several months to even know the show existed. Before that, I could not have told you what channel MeTV was in my area or on my cable package. For those in a similar boat, MeTV is a broadcast network with a local affiliate in most markets. It specializes in “Memorable TV” and it’s not unlike a lot of local stations from when I was a kid. Right after Toon In With Me is Leave it to Beaver and I see lots of odds for The Andy Griffith Show, M.A.S.H., and Happy Days. It seems like the type of channel my dad would watch if he was home sick or something.
Toon In With Me is an old school cartoon show with a live-action wrap-around segment. It’s hosted by Bill the Cartoon Curator (Bill Leff) and he is accompanied by a puppet, Toony the Tuna (voice of Kevin Fleming). There is usually a theme for each episode and they end up acting out some skits with help from Fleming and Leila Gorstein. Fleming and Gorstein have a stable of characters to work with that they play and it’s all intentionally corny, but charming. When they’re not on the screen, we get to watch a cartoon!
The stable of cartoons the show has to select from is quite large. There’s Looney Tunes/Merrie Melodies, MGM, King Syndicates, Paramount, and United Artists. Of course, most of this stuff is just owned by one company, but they probably had to do individual deals for each set of characters. Just about every episode though will open with either a Looney Tunes or Merrie Melodies short and often it’s Bugs Bunny. Other cartoon stars shown quite frequently include Tom and Jerry, Daffy Duck, Porky Pig, The Pink Panther, Barney Bear, and Popeye. That’s obviously not exhaustive as you’ll see Tweety Bird and Droopy Dog, but those are definitely the characters I see recur the most. It’s an effective mix, and whatever package they have from Warner is very reminiscent of the one Nickelodeon had for its version of Looney Tunes. That’s both good and bad as I’ve certainly seen plenty of classics that I once watched on Nick, but I’ve also seen some of the not-so-classic I once saw there as well such as Cool Cat and Merlin the Magic Mouse. I’ve noticed the Tom and Jerry shorts definitely favor the Chuck Jones era, but I don’t know if they’re limited at all in what cat and mouse era they can exhibit.
Stumbling upon Toon In With Me has been a tremendous amount of fun in my household. It’s on every week day at 7 AM EST and I set my DVR to record it. It’s become a show that I watch with my kids. During their summer vacation from school I could watch with both, but ever since school restarted it’s become a show I mostly watch with my daughter as she’s in half-day preschool. She’s become quite the little Bugs Bunny fanatic and has even decided to break her streak of Disney Princess Halloween costumes in favor of the wise-cracking rabbit this year. I love sharing these old toons with her, even if she sometimes would rather watch something more modern since she’s not much into Popeye or The Inspector. It makes me wonder just who the target audience for the show is. It’s definitely presented in a kid-friendly manner, but it doesn’t talk down to the audience. The hosts will share viewer mail at the end of every episode and it’s almost always from an adult. My guess is a lot of people in their 30s, 40s, and up enjoy the nostalgic trip the show brings and they’re probably the core audience. Hopefully kids are watching too.
Toon In With Me is a nostalgia lovers dream. The cartoons appear to be mostly unedited, or at least haven’t been edited further than what networks did 30 years ago, and several generations of people have grown up with them and have a fondness for them. I love that the show is here for the current generation of children because there’s a shocking amount of children out there who don’t know who Bugs Bunny is, and the number would be higher if not for the new Space Jam movie. Being on a broadcast station means the show is accessible to everyone with a TV set and a digital antenna, and it looks like the website offers a bunch of clips too, though probably not of the actual cartoons. And if you just want the toons, MeTV also has a Saturday morning block of cartoons including an hour’s worth of Looney Tunes. It’s hard to resist the temptation to just buy a big box of Froot Loops and chow down on Saturday with the cartoons going. Definitely check the show out though if you want more cartoons in your life.