Kids today have so many options for mass-produced entertainment. Not only are there 24-hour cable networks dedicated to them, some are even aimed at specific sub-groups such as teens or pre-schoolers. Most streaming services have large sections devoted to children, and some services are targeted directly to families with young ones. And there are video games. So many video games! And you don’t have to leave your house to play them. In fact, with the internet, you don’t have to even leave the house to interact or play with your friends anymore at all!
While I’m sure these kids are not complaining, those of us of a certain age fondly remember a different childhood. Without nearly the same entertainment options, we amused ourselves by going outside with our friends. If you wanted to play video games, you had to actually leave the house to visit an arcade. TV was a vastly different landscape for the huge majority of the population without cable at the time, with most people only receiving four channels through “rabbit ear” antennas attached to their sets. Most of the shows available were for grown-ups, but there were two times of the week that became sacrosanct to generations of kids with limited entertainment options.
The first and most important can even now still bring waves of nostalgia to adults reminiscing about their childhood: cartoons on Saturday mornings. Where kids today overstuffed with leisure activities spend their early Saturdays sleeping in, kids of the past eagerly woke up to plant themselves in front of the TV. From about eight in the morning until noon, characters like Bugs Bunny, Tom and Jerry, the Super Friends, Fat Albert, He-man, the Care Bears, Popeye, G.I. Joe, the Smurfs, Scooby-Doo, and so many more cemented their places in pop culture one bowl of cereal at a time.
The second popular TV option for kids was hosted children’s programming. There were a few nationally broadcast programs. But most were local in origin and often fairly low-budget. Some were on weekday mornings before school and some in the afternoon after school. While they varied in content, they usually featured a single host who became a household name to the kids of the region. There would usually be skits with a regular cast of characters and cartoons. A big part of their appeal was the fact that you could actually visit the set and watch an episode in person since they were created locally. And for those who couldn’t, you could probably at least have your name mentioned on the show on your birthday. (Where I lived in Colorado in the 1970s, Blinky’s Fun Club reigned for over 40 years! That’s me in the upper left with Blinky!)
But as we know, all good things come to an end. Saturday morning cartoons gave way to 24-hour cartoon networks. And hosted children’s programming, especially those produced locally, just faded away. But if there’s something else everyone knows it’s this: don’t underestimate sentimental adults who long to relive their youth!
Aiming directly at those nostalgic adults, MeTV, the #1 all classic television network in the United States, is bringing back the best of our childhoods — at least when it comes to television programming! Earlier this month they debuted two new shows. The first is a three hour block of cartoons on Saturday mornings titled simply Saturday Morning Cartoons. It features Popeye and Pals at 7am ET, The Tom & Jerry Show at 8am ET, and Bugs Bunny & Friends at 9am ET.
The second, and more ambitious, is a return to hosted cartoon programming. The hour long weekday morning show is titled Toon In With Me and airs at 7am ET. It’s anchored by Bill Leff and his puppet pal Toony the Tuna. Between Looney Tunes, Merrie Melodies, and other classic shorts, the characters perform sketches. In one episode Bill hurts his eye, puts on an eyepatch, then starts having other accidents that lead to him ending up as a pirate. In another Toony adds a laugh track to his life that eventually drives Bill crazy. Also included in the cast are Kevin Fleming as a trivia spouting game show host named Mr. Quizzer, and Leila Gorstein as globe-trotting Goldie Fisher who checks in on her pet every week via video chat.
Let’s be upfront here. The comedy is a little corny and the production values not the highest. But if you go in expecting a slickly produced affair with edgy humor, not only will you be disappointed you’d be missing the point! This is supposed to hearken back to the days of locally produced programming — the kind of DIY show kids of the 1970s might remember, not some CGI thing out of the 2000s. And the comedy, while sometimes referencing things only adults may know or remember, is always appropriate to a family audience and fully in line with the “dad-joke” style of humor many of us the show is aimed at are
guilty of known for employing around our own kids today.
One of the great things about Toon In With Me is the show’s obvious respect for the cartoons. This isn’t some stereotypically corporate product looking for the cheapest way to fill an hour of television without any care for the content. The live segments aren’t interchangeable with random cartoons thrown in. The host actually introduces many of them by their title. Several of the episodes feature sketches themed to match the cartoons that were specifically chosen to pair with them. And you won’t see Daffy Duck stretched out or cut off (unless it actually happens in the episode!) since all the shorts seem to be shown in their full aspect ratio. Another sign that the show’s creators are fans themselves? Remember those prime-time Saturday morning preview specials that would air the week before the new season of cartoons was set to premiere that would get you hyped up for all the new shows coming? No? Well, someone at MeTV did because they aired their own prime-time Cartoon Kick-off prior to launching their new shows! That’s deep-cut dedication from true animation lovers!
The “cartoon curator” himself, Bill Leff, sat down with Animated Views to tell us more about the show:
Animated Views: Can you tell us a little about your background?
Bill Leff: I’m a pop culture aficionado and I grew up loving television and cartoons. When I was in college, one of my teachers worked at Second City, and I always thought that would be an amazing experience, so I studied improvisation at Chicago’s Second City Theater, which led to performing stand-up comedy around the country and on TV. In more recent years, I’ve hosted several radio shows in the Chicago market. Along the way I’ve had parts in movies, television shows, and commercials.
AV: How and why were you selected for this role?
BL: This is the cartoon buff’s dream job. I’m a toy fanatic and I collect toys and action figures, and last year MeTV featured my collection for their series Collector’s Call. We kept in touch and they reached out to tell me about this new show they were developing, a throwback show centered around the cartoons we grew up with and love. They asked me to audition and it ended up working because we all had the same sensibility — people who remembered the magic we felt as a kid watching Saturday morning cartoons and the afternoon hosted shows we enjoyed. Saturday mornings were always my favorite part of the week. Camping out in front of my Zenith and enjoying Bugs Bunny and Elmer Fudd while throwing down a bowl of Fruity Pebbles… what’s better than that?
AV: Do you have memories of hosted TV programming blocks from your youth?
BL: I always had a high reverence for Mister Rogers and Captain Kangaroo, but it was the local shows that really inspired me. In Chicago, we had Ray Rayner and Friends every morning, and Bill Jackson’s Cartoon Town after school. I never met either of those gentlemen, but I felt like I knew them. They both taught me so much, and entertained me so generously. It always just seemed like they were having fun, and fun is contagious.
AV: On a recent episode of Toon In With Me, your character slowly turns into a pirate! The cartoons in that episode then all featured a nautical theme. So I assume the selections are actually curated for the show and not just chosen at random?
BL: Some of the episodes are theme oriented — we pick the cartoons and write the original sketches around that. We recently had a show with cartoons that were all about flying and featured planes with Bugs, Tweety & Sylvester and a classic cartoon from Tex Avery. In the original sketches, I shared my aviation fears and Toony and Goldie Fisher who attempted to cure me of my phobia. Themes don’t need to apply to all of the shows however — some of what you will see are just the classics and favorites we all remember watching growing up. MeTV has acquired quite a collection of animated properties. We are just getting started! Picking the cartoons is also a team effort. We have a group of curators who watch the cartoons, and we try and put clever themes and groups together. It’s the ultimate group effort.
AV: Who is the target audience for your live segments? Are they aimed at kids or is it more of a wink and nod to nostalgic adults? Or maybe both?
BL: There is something for everyone in the entire family, but it is aimed primarily at Boomers and roughly people who fall within the 35-64 age range. This is the heart of the MeTV audience. The twist on it is this is the kind of format that Boomers all watched as kids, and it’s as if the show aged with them in terms of the content. The cartoons may bring in some people who haven’t watched MeTV before, but the whole design of this was to produce content that the typical MeTV viewer would enjoy.
AV: Is the format what was envisioned or has Covid forced adjustments to the plan?
BL: We certainly have adjusted the series construct some to Covid restrictions, but the original conceit is there. It’s still a host, a sidekick, a whole bunch of amazing cartoons and some interesting and wacky characters that stop by along the way. Because of Covid we have many of our characters interact through a wall of old televisions rather than in person. This device works well for the concept of the show, but once we get past the pandemic, we’ll likely be expanding our cast performers and bringing the characters together for more face-to-face interaction which will allow the format to evolve even more.
AV: I’m not sure if you’re also involved in the Saturday morning block, but that seems like such an obviously good idea! Why has it not been done by anyone else before!?
BL: Even though I’m not directly involved in MeTV’s Saturday Morning Cartoons block, I will gladly take credit for it. It’s such a good idea. I can’t figure out why it hasn’t been done before. But MeTV has been working on this idea for some time. Weigel Broadcasting’s vice-chairman Neal Sabin is a huge fan of animation, and he wanted to find a way to carry on the tradition of broadcast TV presenting these shows. It was such a happy part of so many of our childhoods, somebody needed to pick up the mantle. And with the pandemic affecting all of us this past year, MeTV knew the time was now to bring back this magic. Now more than ever, we need to escape back to those days.
If you’re looking for an escape for yourself or maybe just trying to introduce your children to the classics, MeTV has your opening. The cartoons on both shows are timeless and just as funny as you remember, while the live segments on Toon In With Me will take you back to a time you may have forgotten you were missing. In a world as troubling as 2021 sometimes seems to be, all of us — adults and kids alike — could use a little loonyness in our lives.
Where can you watch? MeTV is available in over 90 percent of the country for free over-the-air. It’s also available nationwide via cable and satellite providers.