They Broke the Fourth Wall…and Built New Ones Just To Tear Them Down]
Anyone’s whose grown up watching children’s animation knows something about the fourth wall. Some believe that the earliest attempt in modern cartoons came with Tiny Toon Adventures or Animaniacs. As I’m slightly older, I know better. I could say that Garfield & Friends broke the fourth wall from day one, but I’m pretty sure before the first season was over there were no walls left standing.
That’s kind of remarkable considering the source material. Jim Davis’s Garfield has never been highly regarded by admirers of comic strips. A major Pearls Before Swine arc involved Rat holding his strip hostage and threatening to read a Garfield punchline if his demands were not met, the live action films are such a punchline that Bill Murray made it his last words in Zombieland and I’m pretty sure no one would ever write a comic parody called Nancy Without Nancy. And having read the strips for decades I honestly find it remarkable that one of the most imaginative animated cartoons in history was born from a strip which has been doing the same jokes for more than forty years. Yet from the moment it debuted in the fall of 1988 until it came to an end in the spring of 1995, Garfield & Friends seemed joyously determined to violate every rule not merely of its own source material but every animated series at the time.
To be fair there had been signs of this in several prime-time animated specials in the years before this. Some of the Garfield half-hour shows were traditional animation but even then it broke the rules. Babes & Bullets was a hysterical as well as very accurate film noir parody and homage (Garfield played Sam Spayed) and Garfield’s 9 Lives was even more daring as in featured Garfield in several previous incarnations, some of which went beyond the scope of what you expected from a 1980s cartoon. (Garfield didn’t show up as his traditional incarnation until Life Number 8.) But none of that prepared any one — certainly a nine year old like me — for what you would get from the show almost from the first time we heard the words: “Ladies and gentlemen, Garfield and Friends!”
Garfield seemed determined to violate any rule animation had at the time and create some new ones for the sole purpose of breaking them. In a very early episode Garfield realizes he has forgotten Jon’s birthday and decides to go on a game show hosting by Binky the Clown. (Binky was created almost entirely to give Garfield a nemesis in the first season; like so much of the show he quickly evolved beyond that.) The show is called Name that Fish and from the start its clearly a lampoon that seems very plausible for a 1980s game show. At the climax, in order to win Jon a vacation, Garfield finds himself entering a tank and faced with naming all the fish in it before the water gets too high. At that point Garfield says that this can’t possibly be real and says he has to still be asleep. He then leaps out of the tank, runs out of the studio and to his home — where indeed he is still in his bed. He kicks his bed and wakes up. From this point on every time something like this happens, the show would say something along the lines of “I think I’ll have a dream sequence” and we’d be down the rabbit hole, er, litter box.
If anything the series continued to wink at this with every single episode going forward. At one point when Garfield, Odie and Jon are in a plane that seems certain to crash, Garfield turns to the screen and says: “Kids! Check your TV listings! Make sure we’re still on next week!” As the show went on the other characters were more than willing to acknowledge this. Nermal, in the midst of being mailed to Abu Dhabi would say as he was being sealed up: “I don’t like running gags!” and certain characters such as Floyd the Mouse would openly complain about not being used enough on the show.
This was played out even through recurring features: a sequence called ‘Garfield’s Tales of Scary Stuff!” would be played with Garfield saying: “I love that echo’ to undercut the ominous nature of the reverb. As the series went on Garfield himself acknowledged that he was the star of a television show and seems just as determined to knock the nature of his series existence. Network executives would come on to tell him the problems with his series and would threaten him with cancellation if he didn’t go on with the network’s plans. This would be done is subtler ways such as the acknowledgement than Garfield would treat Odie nicely — ‘until the next cartoon’.
At one point Garfield woke up and realized he’d wandered on to the set of a more action oriented cartoon and tried desperately to find his way back to his old series. In another he would offer the fans a chance to choose exactly what happened in the cartoon that was to follow. In one segment he invited viewers to spot the bloopers (the entire cartoon was just one string of errors). In another the sound effects team quit and he had to hire an unqualified replacement (Odie).
To be clear the show did all this without violating any of the character tropes of the comic strip. Garfield still loved lasagna, did nothing but eat and sleep, and constantly harangued Odie and Nermal. Jon Arbuckle was a cartoonist who was perpetually lovelorn (Liz was someone he only sporadically dated) Nermal was still a revoltingly cute kitty cat and Odie was dumb and never said a word. But the show was always playing with those tropes as far as it could. At one point Garfield became so exhausted and being able to do nothing but eat lasagna and sleep that he staged a revolt and decided to write his own script. The problem was no matter how much of an adventure he tried to write, he kept finding himself eating lasagna and going back to bed at the climax. Eventually he gave up and just went back to business. He continued to deal with the problem of Mondays and the show milked this, once having him have to deal with an endless Monday, another time having him wish Mondays out of existence only to find they weren’t so bad after all.
There was a certain level of character growth in many of the other side characters: Jon’s inability to find love as well as his dullness was milked for quite a bit of laughs that would have been above the average child. (At one point when he asked to name his favorite Marx Brother, Garfield tells us its Zeppo.) Odie never said a word on the show but he managed to become remarkably sympathetic as the series progress, mainly because of his often ridiculous devotion to Garfield through thick and thin.
And the show could often be clever in ways you just didn’t expect an animated cartoon to be. At one point, the show follows Binky after he is fired from his job as a children’s host. He takes a job as a referee as a wrestler but is fired “because he’s so loud the wrestlers couldn’t study their scripts.” He follows through with a series of degrading job before deciding to do what most clowns do when they get fired — ‘run for public office.”
And the series took a lot of fun biting the hand that fed them. I lost count of how many times that they made fun of television. At one point Garfield is forced to watch his broken set and say: “You know what the sad part is? This isn’t that much less entertaining.” At one point Garfield is trying to find something on TV to watch and the only think any show is airing is Kung Fu Creatures on the Rampage 2. (Every time they tune to it, the male lead is saying the title — including the 2.) Eventually they go to a video store (ah the nineties) and by the time Jon gets through with the ID process, there’s only one video left — no guesses as to what. Finally they get desperate enough to go out and watch a movie. They go to local megaplex and have to go Theater 70 (they have to hike there like they’re on a desert voyage) and before they go in Jon desperately demands if the movie inside is not Kung Fu Creatures on the Rampage 2. They get inside and — well, I wouldn’t dream of giving away the punchline.
This was enough to make the show revolutionary in its own right. What made it a work of art was the And Friends. I had never heard of U.S. Acres, another Jim Davis strip that was in some papers in the 1980s and have never seen anywhere at all. Indeed, it may have been just thrown in so the entire show wasn’t only about Garfield. But the segment so quickly took on a life of its own that by the second season the show had been expanded from half an hour to a full hour in length. Apparently kids and adults wanted more of the Friends as much as they did Garfield.
The lead was Orson, a pig who was ostensibly the straight man but that meant little. Orson had such a voracious imagination that every time he read a book the entire barnyard would become one of his pictures of it. Other times, he would act out satires of television and movies — perhaps most famously as a James Bond parody who carried a ‘357 Magnum cream pie.”
Wade was the cowardly duck who had a life preserver with an image of him nearly as active as the duck itself: his fears so manifest they were often numbered in a filing cabinet or in an alphabetized list. Roy the rooster was (fittingly) cocky and arrogant, usually taking advantage of Wade. Bo and Lanolin were brother and sister sheep, twins who were always arguing. Booker and Sheldon were sibling chickens, though Sheldon had never hatched. (Apparently he had read the papers and thought it was safer to stay inside.) They all worked together on a farm and would occasionally face predators such as Orson’s idiot older brothers (who loved to bully him) the Weasel and the Wolf.
If anything U.S. Acres was more imaginative than the Garfield segments, sometimes because there was a greater cast of characters who had more of a personality. The show got a lot of milage out of Wade running around in terror as well as just how casually everyone else seemed to take it. Bo and Lanolin were always have absurdist arguments that had the manor or Beckett:
Bo: “You are so disagreeable.
Lanolin: “You’re wrong.
Bo: “You just disagreed with me!”
Lanolin: “I did not!”
Sometimes they could be even more surreal. At one point before going to bed, Bo said: “I think I’ll count people to help me fall asleep.” Other times the stories could start logically and then go out into absurdity. At one point they started discussing Close encounters went through the first through third and then kept going until they reached fourteen. (When the aliens inevitably showed up, they disagreed about what number encounter they had.)
And often the series would do variations on literary parody. One of my all time favorites was Orson at the Bat, obviously a ‘Casey at the Bat’ parody. This was not only a brilliant parody of the poem but also acknowledged the reality of the situation as one couplet will recognize:
“Kill him! Kill the umpire!” rang out high and low.
But you can not kill a person a children’s cartoon show.”
(At least you couldn’t in the 1990s. Maybe you can now.)
Both shows were willing to break down all the boundaries of traditional animation, not merely when it came to comedy but every so often going into darker territory, certainly for the minds of be even at thirteen.
In one segment Garfield’s next door neighbor is appearing in court. By this time, the show had used his character quite a bit as a frequent victim of Garfield’s stealing other people’s food. The neighbor is explaining to the judge that all of these charges come from the harassment of his next door neighbor’s cat (he never knew his name because of course cats don’t talk) It starts out fairly funny, until the neighbor sees Garfield at the restaurant again. He then tells the judge that the cops who arrested him also looked like cats and the booking officer did too. Then he turns to the judge — who to this point has been human — and she has Garfield’s face. She turns to the jury — which is entirely made up of Garfields, who find him guilty and for not giving the cat all his food, she sentences him to life in prison.
The next ninety seconds were genuinely terrifying as the neighbor is taken off to prison and every figure he sees is Garfield, including the Statue of Liberty and a giant cat fighting off airplanes. In your heart you know this has to be a dream (“a pretty stupid dream’) but the longer it goes on you begin to question whether this poor man has been driven insane by Garfield. We know the kind of behavior he has and the description would seem to have driven past his breaking point. Of course, it is a dream but the viewer’s relieved when he finally wakes up. This segment passed comedy quite a while back.
U.S., Acres did a segment even more unsettling called Déjà vu. The show had made jokes about it before, but this segment took it in a different direction. First we see Roy and Orson playing tennis and Orson pauses, because he thinks this has happened before. Roy says: “Maybe it’s a rerun.” Then the segment repeats word for word.
Orson and Roy walked off and the weasel appears. As always he is looking for chickens and goes into the coop. He too thinks he’s done this before. Then he runs into Wade, who goes into a panic attack.
Roy and Orson keep thinking this is a déjà vu, “the sensation you feel like you’ve done something before, sometimes over and over again.” Roy says: “Sounds a lot like cable TV.” (This was another old joke.) Then they run into Wade who in mid panic attack and learn the Weasel has stolen the chickens.
This is on the edge between comedy but now it starts to get creepy. The Weasel runs into Wade who begins the exact same panic attack,. The Weasel throws the chickens into a bush…and then runs back into the coop where the same chickens are waiting to be stolen again. He runs into that same bush where Roy and Orson are looking for him and repeats the exact same dialogue he did at the start of the cartoon and heads back to the coop for the same segment. By this point the Weasel (and the viewer) are completely freaked out and when the Weasel runs into Wade who does the exact same panic attack, the Weasel runs off in utter terror, trying to comprehend what is happening.
The ending brings no relief. Roy and Orson are playing tennis like they were at the start.
Roy: “You can expect to be beaten again, pig.
Orson: “Well, it’s possible. The past does have a way of repeating itself.”
Orson trails off again. Then we are back to this exact segment and lines. Except halfway through repeating Orson pauses. “The past…does have a way of repeating itself.”
The last shot of the episode is of Roy and Orson, grabbing each other in terror and the music is closer to that of suspense then a kid’s show.
I was fourteen when I first saw that. It freaked me out, with good reason. Several years later I read Stephen King’s short story about this exact experience which he introduced with his idea that to him ‘hell was repetition.” And the thing is I knew that in the next cartoon everything would be back to normal: it’s the nature of animation. But in a sense, it’s not because this cartoon is an enclosed universe and all the characters are trapped in it with no clear way out. Heavy stuff for a children’s cartoon. Hell, it’s heavy stuff for Peak TV.
Garfield and Friends lasted until 1995 when the general slide of Saturday morning cartoons was starting to begin for several of the major networks. As it was the show had lasted eight seasons which in that era was practically forever. And it had shown no sign of losing its edge: if anything, it continued to demonstrate right up to its final season. They actually had both Garfield and U.S. Acres do two part stories that would play out within the course of the hour. And it was still biting the hand that fed it to the end: In 1993, one of the first segments the show aired was ‘Top 10’ , an in-joke that David Letterman had just jumped to CBS.
Garfield has come back in many forms since the cartoon ended in 1995, including a Cartoon Network series in 2005. But none have ever shown even a fraction of the imagination that you could see in a single episode of Garfield & Friends in even its weakest segments. The show was willing to tear down any sacred cow that existed, including its own medium but it was one of the highlights of television and animation that any era has ever had.