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Cartoon Universe: Wheel of Morality

by on January 25, 2010

Cartoons have had moral messages for as long as the medium has existed, from the explicitly anti-war Peace on Earth in the 1940s to the urban morality of Fat Albert to the cloyingly pro-social Care Bears.  Educational and moral-focused shows such as these have always been a part of the cartoon tapestry, perhaps never more so than in today’s landscape.

The 1980s, however, saw a different trend: the inclusion of little life lessons at the end of programs that could not be considered educational in any way, shape, or form.   These were the Morals, the little segments at the end of the show that informed the audience about the important lesson imparted in that day’s cartoon.  If the episode’s lesson was something like “don’t freak out about German window washers with sinister voices”, then the moral would be about something generic, like “don’t talk to strangers”.

In other words, it was the studio’s attempt to atone for the 22 minutes of mindless violence you just watched.

Even given their admittedly spotty quality, the syndicated and toyetic cartoons of the 1980s marked the beginning of a less restrictive environment around cartoons.  The FCC had loosened its regulations regarding toy tie-ins in cartoons, and syndication removed the strangling influence of the networks’ BS&P departments.  Still, the studios likely feared backlash from parents about these more violent, toy-driven shows.  Thus, to claim the shows had some educational merit, the last segment was given over to a moral.

If you asked Lou Scheimer about He-Man, the first thing he would talk about would be the moral.  In almost every interview I’ve seen, Lou makes sure he brings up the moral segment and claims that it helped add an educational, social dimension to the show.  It’s debatable as to whether his claim has any merit, but at least in Scheimer’s mind, the morals were a very significant part of the show.

The morals in He-Man and its follow-up She-Ra were mostly simple affairs, generally nothing more than a member of the cast addressing the audience directly and explaining what the point of the story was, flashing back to animation from the episode where appropriate.  While some of the morals were generic, the majority of them tied directly into the plot of the episode.

The morals are generally well-thought out and delivered and cover a wide variety of topics.  Moral topics would include “your parent loves you regardless of whether he or she is biological” (“Teela’s Quest”), “always exercise” (“Colossor Awakes”), and “talk decisions over with someone else” (“Dawn of Dragoon”).  There were morals on drug abuse (“The Eternia Flower”) and even one instance where He-Man directly told the audience that this is a cartoon and in real life people die (“Double-Edged Sword”).

Of course, not all of He-Man‘s morals were as insightful.  One notable gaffe occurs in “House of Shokoti” where Ram-Man delivers the important message, “do not ram things with your head”.  That’s the animated equivalent of the “CAUTION: Beverage is HOT” message on cups of coffee.  Another missed opportunity comes in “A Problem With Power”, where He-Man renounces his power after believing he killed a man recklessly.  Man At Arms appears at the end to tell us an important message… about being careful.  In an episode that, to steal from Spider-Man, is about “with great power comes great responsibility”.  I’ll leave it to you to decide what lesson is the more important one here.

The success of He-Man led to more shows of its ilk, most of them descendants of toylines and many of them including moral segments of their own.  Many of them followed the Filmation template of one character addressing the audience, but frequently used variations.  Centurions would limit the moral topics strictly to issues about science, while She-Ra used one character for its morals and attempted to build a Where’s Waldo game around that character.

Some of the cartoons blended their moral into the episode more subtly.  Thundercats was one of those cartoons.  The characters would never address the audience, but each other, and did not suddenly monologue about what we should have learned.  “Berbils”, an early episode, is pretty apt.  Lion-O insists that the Thundercats build their new headquarters themselves.  However, one of the berbils interjects (in really cool, synthesized voice), “We’re friends.  Friends help each other.”  To which Tigra quips, “you know, he has a point”.

With this relative adeptness, it’s surprising that follow up series Silverhawks abandons this technique for the most bizarre moral sequences of the 1980s – the space quiz.  Each episode would end with the bizarre mime Silverhawk answering basic questions about the solar system and the planets.  99.999% of the time, he would get the questions right.  (There were one or two episodes where he, shockingly, gets the answer wrong.)

These segments stand in direct contrast to the Silverhawks series itself, which abandoned all pretense of scientific accuracy.  Characters are frequently shown breathing in space, the Silverhawks have exposed body parts as part of their uniforms, and planets are absurdly close to each other.  It’s a little jarring to move from that to reasonably accurate scientific information, to say the least.

One interesting side note: Silverhawks‘ consultant, responsible for the space quiz segments, was a Dr. William A. Gutsch of the Hayden Planetarium.  Viewers of New York television might have been familiar with him as “Dr. Bill Gutsch” of WABC-TV.  Yes, Rankin-Bass sought the input of the weekend weather guy on Channel 7 Eyewitness News.

Yet perhaps the most recognizable moral of the 1980s is GI Joe’s public safety segments. All of these segments follow the same rigid format.  A kid would get lost, almost get into an accident, or do something stupid.  However, at the last second, a GI Joe member appears out of nowhere at the last minute to save him.  The Joe would then explain the dangers or how to avoid any accident, as the surprised kid would blurt out “Now I know!”  To which the Joe would then reply, “and knowing is half the battle!”  These would deal with subjects such as fire safety, what to do if you get lost, and the immortal “do not swim in a thunderstorm”.

These segments have entered the public consciousness and have been mocked, spoofed, and parodied countless times.  It was referenced in the movie no less than three separate times, and was brilliantly spoofed in an episode of Family Guy.  While it’s referenced in a mocking fashion, it’s become as much a part of the franchise as the basic concept of “GI Joe vs. Cobra”.

It may surprise you to know that these weren’t considered part of the show at all, and DVD releases only include the lessons as special features.  This is perhaps for the best, as it’s probably impossible to find a useful life lesson in the most blatant toy commercials of the 1980s.  A similar series of PSAs was attempted with Transformers, though the concept doesn’t translate as well with giant robots in place of humans with absurdly specific gimmicks.

As cartoons became more creator-driven and less toyetic, the moral waned to the point of nonexistence by the 1990s.  In fact, the reverse was true: cartoons now seemed to rebel against the notion of any educational merit.  Garfield and Friends featured a rather brutal takedown of the concept of the pro-social cartoon in the form of the Buddy Bears, who would preach the lesson of “if you ever disagree, it means that you are wrong”.

The most potent satire of the moral came from – who else? – Yakko, Wakko, and Dot.  Animaniacs would frequently end with the Warner Siblings spinning the “Wheel of Morality” to “add boring educational content to what would otherwise be a purely entertaining show”.  In other words, a direct, and often frank, parody of the Moral – and an easy way to pad out the show.

The upshot is that the randomly generated moral would intentionally make no sense.  “Lather, Rinse, Repeat”, read one moral.  “Elvis is alive in our hearts, his music, and a trailer park outside of Milwaukee”, read another.  One segment had Wakko and Dot cry about having to spin the Wheel before changing their mind when realizing that Fox Kids insisted on including it.  It’s the perfect parody, because it illustrates how absurd the concept is when you think about it.

So, in closing, kids, always approach matters with common sense.  Listen to your elders, don’t ram things with your head, and be careful around flimsy-looking objects.  Pay attention to the morals at the end of those 80s cartoons, because they impart important lessons about life.  So now you know, and knowing is…

…well, I’ll let you finish that part.

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