?Impossible though it may seem to anyone weary of the Valtrex-fueled exploits of the Jersey Shore gang, MTV used to be the home of compelling programming. Back in the 1990s, you could tune in to the network and catch classics like 120 Minutes, Austin Stories, The Week in Rock, Remote Control, Idiot Savants, etc. and be guaranteed to see something original. Another noteworthy aspect of this era was MTV’s almost inexplicable commitment to promoting animation. Since the channel debuted in 1981 its commercial bumpers had pushed the animation envelope. This devotion to toons was furthered as MTV began showing shorts like Joe’s Apartment and Henry Selick’s Slow Bob in the Lower Dimensions — a failed pilot for the network — at random intervals.
So when the anthology series Liquid Television began in 1991, it felt like an organic development thanks to the channel’s established love of cartoons. Promising to showcase original works, existing shorts, the occasional music video and other weird stuff that would previously only been seen on the art film circuit, the show was an instant success that paved the way for an animation revolution that we are still in the midst of (it also spun off several series of its own, as you will soon see). Unfortunately, save for a long out-of-print best of compilation, the series is unavailable on DVD at this time. All hope is not lost however. Thanks to the wonders of YouTube, it lives on and is largely as fascinating as ever. To celebrate the 20th anniversary of the show, here’s a look at Liquid Television‘s 20 greatest segments. From the insane to the hilarious and back again, let’s examine some of the most innovative cartoons ever featured on basic cable.
20) Dad, I’m in Jail
In a perfect world, Was (Not Was) would be known more for the above bit of psychotronic insanity instead of their insipid hit “Walking the Dinosaur.” I’m not sure exactly what the intent of this cartoon was, but I suppose it had something to do with inducing nightmares and/or vomiting. Awesome.
19) Koko’s Earth Control
Originally released in 1928, Max and Dave Fleischer’s “Koko’s Earth Control” was given a slight techno soundtrack by the composing team Tomandandy when it was featured in an episode from the series’ second season. Because of the strength of the source material, the aural flourishes seem a bit superfluous. As any animation expert will agree, the inclusion of the segment’s ultimate legacy was to bring Koko out of the inkwell and into the homes of 1990s audiences so that they could be introduced to the character’s numerous charms.
18) Lea Press On Limbs
This spoof of the type of commercials that regularly run during Liquid Television is a brilliant representation of the junk product zeitgeist that was the early 1990s (and still lives on today thanks to the Snuggie and other silly products that have captured our hearts, minds and wallets).
MTV largely made They Might Be Giants. The network so loved their early videos that they often featured them on Post-Modern MTV, 120 Minutes and even AL TV before the fellas ignited the college radio charts (they were featured on Nickelodeon’s long-missed video show Nick Rocks frequently as well, and if any of y’all have their appearance on MTV’s Randee of the Redwoods election special please YouTube it immediately). The point that I am making here is that MTV looked for any opportunity to showcase T.M.B.G. They even shoehorned the video for their cover of The Four Lads’ “Istanbul (Not Constantinople)” into a Liquid Television episode. By combining hand-drawn animation with stop motion footage of a paper-m?ch? cityscape, graphic artists Mark Marek and J. Otto Seibold crafted a video that brilliantly compliments the song’s frantic pacing. I just wonder whatever happened to the model of the Johns creature.
Before Office Space became the movie your co-workers irritate the piss out of you by quoting non-stop, it was a series of animated shorts. The best of which features the now-familiar pain of Milton (voiced by Mike Judge), whose slow-burning fury over being passive aggressively pushed around has rung true with cubicle jockeys the world over. There’s no embeddable link available, so I’m gonna need you to go ahead and watch it here.
15) Cut Up Camera
Point to discuss: Is the above video a biting criticism of the inanity of family television or merely wish fulfillment for anyone who ever wanted to punch Bob Saget in the dick?
14) Winter Steele
Cintra Wilson’s Winter Steele made several appearances on Liquid Television (my favorite is embedded above). In these shorts, the titular character — the toughest puppet to ride a motorcycle since Miss Piggy in The Great Muppet Caper — goes on a search for her long-lost boyfriend. Predictably, mayhem ensues. In the end, the lovers are reunited (sorta) and the fate of the Lita Ford-esque Winter remains appropriately ambiguous.
13) Bobby and Billy
Pre-Beavis and Butthead, siblings Bobby and Billy were bringing animated chaos to the MTV airwaves in a string of adventures that were the perfect antidote to the saccharine morality of Goofus and Gallant. The pair were junior sociopaths who were more likely to pick up whores and murder their soap box derby opponents than to do their homework and keep their rooms clean. Just ordinary kids really. Harmony Konine never wrote for Highlights, but if he did the Bobby and Billy toons would be the result.
12) Running Man
As a budding anime fan whose world was sufficiently rocked by Akira, the above cartoon (originally a segment in the Neo Tokyo anthology film) was a thing of beauty to behold. Its surprising inclusion in Liquid Television was proof that the show was committed to bringing all types of animation from around the globe to MTV audiences. As Patton Oswalt’s recent essay on nerd culture reminds us, today every genre of geekery is accessible instantly. In 1992 when this debuted, not so much. For many an anime-starved teen, when this came on it was a revelation.
11) Uncle Louie
Famed illustrator Drew Friedman made a foray into the world of animation with a number of shorts featuring his Uncle Louie character. Even though the character is a bit of a dick (albeit a lovable one), the Vaudevillian sensibility of these shorts and a distinctive visual style make them stand out. Now if only Friedman would create some animation inspired by his recent Sideshow Freaks book…
10) Miss Lidia’s Makeover of the Stars
For the most part, Liquid Television shorts have a timeless quality about them. A notable exception is this skewering of Sinead O’Connor that was probably already dated by the time it originally aired. But I’ll forgive the its lack of topicality because it is so hilarious. When Miss Lidia dismisses O’Connor’s looks by commenting “such a serious girl to be trapped in the haircut of the funniest stooge,” you’ll find yourself wishing that Pitchfork’s rock criticism was as entertaining. Also, this one gets bonus points for the very Muppety theme music.
9) The Art School Girls of Doom
In the days prior to Rupaul, the only place to see drag queens vamping it up on MTV were in the various Art School Girls of Doom cartoons that blended live action and animation. Having watched the complete run of Liquid Television recently, these toons were the ones that aged the worst. So why are they here? For their cheesy Video Toaster-type effects and their campy humor that would even make Hedwig’s angry inch a little less irritable. Also, like many of the entries on this list, The Art School Girls of Doom would make one hell of a great name for an indie rock band.
8) Stick Figure Theater
It’s a simple idea really: taking audio culled from films, news reports and music videos ad recreating their images using stick figures drawn and animated on index cards. Throughout Liquid Television‘s run, the Stick Figure Theater segments spoofed everything from It’s a Wonderful Life to Madonna’s “Express Yourself.” For this entry, I was torn between using the clip for Hindenburg disaster and what you see above. Obviously, cartoon zombies trump historical tragedy.
These days, Charles Burns is best known for his allegorical graphic novel Black Hole. That’s a terrific read for sure, still my favorite Burns work is Dog Boy. These segments used prosthetics, clever set design and post-production effects to make the live-action filming feel like a comic strip come alive (a similar process was used a few years earlier in the Dick Tracy movie). Unlike Tracy though, Dog Boy didn’t bore the shit out of you. Awoooooo!
Dear Mum, why is a creepy voiceover from a psychotic Australian dude accompanied by stock imagery so compelling?
5 & 4) The Specialists/Stevie and Zoya
Writer and animator Joe Horne created two cartoons for Liquid Television: The Specialists and Stevie and Zoya (more on the latter in a minute). The Specialists was an oddly serialized cartoon that concerned Kitka, Master Mind and Samson, a team of freelance detectives who are better at getting into trouble than gumshoeing. With its rogue’s gallery of oddball villains and pop culture riffs, the cartoon is the spiritual predecessor to The Venture Bros. When viewed through 2011 eyes, Horne’s work here still seems fresh and practically begging for a revival. It would easily be more revered if it didn’t stand in the shadow of his previous cartoon for the series…
“Stevie Washington…the Angry Youth. Born to die! New York’s New York. The turn of the century. All crime!” With these words opened each installment of Stevie and Zoya, a series that became defined by its sometimes sloppy animation and narration (memorably supplied by Russell Johnson of Gilligan’s Island infamy). The stories were often non-sensical — Disco Zombies anyone? — not that it mattered to the audiences who tuned in to see the skateboarding Stevie and his Playboy bunny-eared companion save the world. Stylistic gimmicks abound in Stevie and Zoya; from the incorporation of voiceover errors into the episodes to the Ralph Bakshi-influenced backgrounds and use of Spider-Man-ish cartoon jazz. Somewhat surprisingly, Stevie and Zoya have had two revivals — one in 2004 and one last year. You can see these on Horne’s YouTube page. What the recent shorts lack in Johnson’s narration they make up for in more detailed animation and the same quirky fun that won you over in the first place. Born to die? Maybe not after all.
3) Beavis and Butthead
Back in 1992, Mike Judge stumbled upon a media empire when his Frog Baseball cartoon introduced the world to Beavis and Butthead. The short was an unexpected smash, and it helped pave the way for MTV Oddities (home of The Head and The Maxx), Daria, Cartoon Sushi, Office Space, King of the Hill, South Park, and the various Seth McFarlane comedy vacuums (don’t hold that against Judge though). This summer will see a new batch of Beavis and Butthead episodes that will restore the familiar format with a slight change — now the guys will comment on MTV programming as well as videos. Let the Snooki destruction commence!
2) Grinning Evil Death
Bob Sabitson’s Grinning Evil Death was featured in the very first episode of Liquid Television. Its then-groundbreaking fusion of cel animation and CGI coupled with the script’s sardonic wit helped establish the tone of series. The piece was a primer for the types of cartoons that would follow throughout the show’s run. It is the embodiment of the creativity and talent that Liquid Television was initially put on the air to showcase… and it still plays wonderfully.
1) ?on Flux
When Peter Chung’s ?on Flux debuted in 1991, a few things happened. First off, viewers who missed the chance to lust over Wilma Flintstone, Daphne and the Baroness suddenly had a new animated object of desire. Secondly, sci-fi fans who tuned in were thrown into a dystopian world where nothing really made much sense but was awesome anyway. Lastly, audiences who were just coming down from their Twin Peaks high had a potential new show to obsess over. This isn’t to say that ?on Flux ever approached the mainstream success of Lynch’s TV masterpiece, but it did quickly gain its own equally enthusiastic cult that had plenty of questions. Who was this mute woman? What was she trying to accomplish? Why does she keep dying and coming back to life? Who’s her designer? And so on. Eventually the demand for more stories was so great that MTV spun her off into her own series… and a misguided feature film that is best left ignored. If Grinning Evil Death is the heart of Liquid Television then ?on Flux is the soul. It is the TV equivalent of a fly in an eyelash. Marvelous and confounding, like the best shows tend to be.
Chris Cummins is a pop culture writer and Archie comics historian who has contributed to The Robot's Voice, Den of Geek US, Philebrity, Geekadelphia, Uproxx, and Unicorn Booty. He is the co-producer and co-host of Nerd Nite Philadelphia, and is regularly involved in producing and hosting New York Super Week events. In 2014, Chris began Sci-Fi Explosion, a mix of live performance, trivia and funny clips celebrating the weirdest in science fiction that regularly travels around the United States. He wrote the introductions to the compilations Archie's Favorite Comics From The Vault and (with Paul Castiglia) Archie's Favorite High School Stories. You can find Chris on Twitter at @bionicbigfoot and @scifiexplosion.