The Invisible Repetition of the Cartoon Theme Song

Cartoons are everywhere we turn.

It’s hard to believe the medium of cartoon animation is only roughly 100 years old, given how ubiquitous characters like Mickey Mouse, Scooby Doo and Spongebob Squarepants have become. We have backpacks emblazoned with Dora the Explorer’s face, vitamins made with Wilma Flintstones visage and even entire theme parks inspired by classic animated features. Baby boomers, Generation X and millennials all have cartoons from their youth that they remember fondly, and I posit that the tried-and-true intro/theme song combination that begins every episode plays a heavy role in reinforcing our connection to those viewing experiences.

While I could analyze the excellent intro sequence to Batman: The Animated Series, sadly, it’s already been done (and I highly suggest you click that link), so I’ll move on. One of the most successful cartoons in history, the Looney Tunes still appear in various incarnations even to this day. Predating the first commercially viable TV sets, the Looney Tunes animated shorts debuted in 1930 in theaters on film reels. Because animated features were still relatively new during the World War II era, producers modeled these shorts after existing entertainment structures, most notably Vaudeville and orchestra. Now heralded as one of the most influential cartoons of all time, many Looney Tunes shorts begin with the recognizable (blank) song in much the same way an orchestra would play an opening song before the curtains rose in a play.

In the first second of the intro bumper, we can see the Warner Bros. logo come into focus on the screen as if we were seated in a theater and the lights slowly adjusted in brightness to spotlight the beginning of a performance. Once the WB logo fades off, we then get a close-up of Bugs Bunny, the star and ringleader of the Looney Tunes. What’s important here, which differs from many cartoons intros of today, is that by showing us a large disembodied bucktoothed Bugs Bunny on screen, we’re being told that we’re not in attendance to watch a story necessarily, but rather a character. Then, as if the red rings around his head didn’t already resemble curtains, we see Bugs lift the projection screen right before our eyes, revealing that we’re very much about to watch a tongue-in-cheek, self-aware farce featuring anthropomorphic animals. Bugs lounges on top of his own name, reading “BUGS BUNNY in,” reinforcing that the character is about to get himself into some bizarre antics.

As TV sets became affordable and began to fill homes all across America, studios like Hanna-Barbera ushered in a new era of cartoons as the golden age of animation entered its twilight. With classics like the Jetsons, Scooby-Doo, Where are you? and The Flintstones, the studio gave us countless cartoons classics that became pieces of TV history. Once the most successful, longest-running animated TV series in history (an accomplishment since taken by The Simpsons), The Flintstones popularized many paradigms animated shows still follow today, perhaps most of all the use of a theme song with catchy, unforgettable lyrics.

Before the lyrics begin, we see main character Fred operating his dino-crane for just a split second. The camera then pans to his supervisor as he glances at his watch, waiting to sound the klaxon for ending the work day. But how do we know in these first three seconds that Fred is a construction worker? For one, we see his boss wears a hard hat, but, perhaps more importantly, he is standing next to his office, which has conveniently been labeled “office” on the outside wall. One simple word provides all the context we need for the first few shots of the intro.

And the very first lyric of the show’s theme song is “Flintstones,” a no-nonsense primer to prepare the audience to join the family for their newest episode. After we “meet the Flintstones,” the next line in the song fills us in on the entire pull of the show: “They’re the (not a) modern stone-age family.” This is it; this family is the seminal satire of modern America through the frame of the stone-age. The song culminates in Fred’s catch phrase “We’ll have a yabba dabba doo time/a dabba doo time/we’ll have a gay old time,” injecting a catchphrase that once meant nothing and bringing it to the forefront of pop culture references.

Flash-forward to the ’90s, when dedicated childrens’ entertainment stations like Nickelodeon and Cartoon Network found their stride. Branded as Nicktoons, Nickelodeon’s original programming defined a generation of kids, providing millennials with a group of friends to grow up alongside of in the Rugrats.

The intro theme begins with a drumroll as an airborne diaper falls into place on main character Tommy Pickles’s bare baby bottom. As he regains his balance after this handstand maneuver, the animators pull a clever little trick by panning the camera to Tommy’s 1-year-old perspective, making his living room seem 10 times bigger than it would appear to our adult perspective. We go on a journey with him for just a few baby steps toward his bottle, steps that would seem insignificant to us but are larboriously coordinated by little Tommy. Just before reaching his milk, he takes a tumble to the floor, and we take that sudden plummet with him. We not only see the world from his perspective, we also feel it. As he attempts to touch his lips to the lid of his bottle that is just outside his reach, he is approached by one of his father’s toys (Stu is an inventor), and the camera pans out, revealing that, to Tommy, his living room is actually so large that it rolls over into the horizon because he is so small he can’t see the whole thing from his prone position on the floor.

Perhaps the best part of the whole intro is the very end, when the camera reverses from the baby perspective to that of the adult characters (in this instance, Tommy’s parents Stu and Didi). Didi lifts her son from the floor and sees the whole gang, her son nearest her in her arms, with her niece Angelica beside him, and his three best friends, Chuckie, Phil and Lil in the background. The children only speak to each other when the parents are out of the room, and they take those opportunities to go on adventures. but, when adults are present, they revert to behaving like unsuspecting, harmless babies. To encapsulate this conflict, we see Tommy freeze for a bit on screen, as if he’s mulling over in his head whether he wants to do it or not, and then, after a few seconds, decides to squeeze his milk bottle all over his parents and the camera (us, the viewers), demonstrating how unpredictable his childish behavior really is.