Top 20 Kid Shows From The 80s & 90s
10) Double Dare
In 2001, TV Guide released a list of the top 50 Greatest Game Shows of All Time. “Double Dare” placed #29. Debuting in 1986, and hosted Marc Summers (who ironically later admitted to suffering from obsessive compulsive disorder), “Double Dare” featured two teams of kids competing for cash and prizes. The show involved Summers asking a given team a trivia question, upon which they could either attempt to answer or dare the other team to take a stab at it for double the dollars. If the second team was clueless, they could double dare the first team to answer, allowing them the opportunity to win four times the amount of money. If that team still couldn’t come up with an answer, they could choose to participate in a physical challenge. The challenges were often messy, sometimes involving catching cream filled balloons or some other difficult dare. The team that won the entire game got to compete in the Obstacle Course—a course consisting of eight obstacles and only 60 seconds to complete them all. Everything from digging up a giant nose full of green goo resembling boogers in search of a flag to riding a baby sized tricycle, this show successfully incorporated the need for both trivia knowledge and athletic prowess.
9) Inspector Gadget
Debuting in 1983, “Inspector Gadget” was an animated series that centered on an absent-minded, hapless inspector who worked for the Metro City police department. Oh, and he was also a cyborg who had various gadgets built into his anatomy. That’s the norm, isn’t it? Gadget’s main nemesis was Dr. Claw, leader of the evil organization MAD (though the audience never caught a full glimpse of this wicked man). Unbeknownst to Inspector Gadget, he is often helped by his niece Penny and her dog Brain in solving crimes. What kid didn’t love this show? The ability for Gadget to have helicopter blade propellers emerge from his hat, roller skates appear at the bottom of his shoes, and an instantly inflatable trench coat was one of the most envied abilities by every Generation Y kid in America. Go, Gadget, Go!
8) The Adventures of Pete & Pete
This massively quirky show was one that confused some, yet was beloved by many. The series debuted on Nickelodeon in 1993 and centered on two brothers, both named Pete Wrigley, who lived in the fictional town of Wellsville. The series followed their wild and often bizarre interactions with their friends, family, and even enemies. There was a lot within this often surreal show that appealed to kids across America, namely the underlying theme of overcoming unfavorable odds. The ability to empathize with Pete & Pete’s struggle to prevail over bullying attacks or other dominating authority figures in their lives was always an important component within the show. Another beloved aspect that kept kids coming back was the pure imagination of the program. Events such as a bowling ball attacking a man's jugular, a girl becoming a dot, and a woman having spatulas attracted to the magnetized metal plate in her head were always the norm to the inhabitants of Wellsville. And that was the fun of the show. The idea that the series created an imaginary wonderland full of humor, wit, and absurd premises was the perfect recipe for a classic kids program.
“Maybe this isn’t such a good idea, Tommy!” An all too familiar catch-phrase uttered by fan favorite Chuckie Finster, an anxiety ridden two year old. Premiering in 1991 on Nickelodeon, “Rugrats” was about a group of toddlers who frequently broke out of their playpen in hopes of discovering and deciphering the world around them. Often able to slip away due to an adults’ oversight, these babies were comprised of Chuckie, two twins named Phil and Lil, and fearless ringleader and diapered toddler Tommy. The only foe for these inquisitive babies was 3-year-old Angelica, a spoiled girl who would always bully the rugrats and yet rarely was punished by far too busy parents. The show’s appeal was in the separation of two worlds — adult and child. The perspective of children unable to properly understand their parents’ conversations, and vice versa, was a huge draw for the series. The desire of these toddlers to want to know what lies outside their playpen, and even their house and sometimes neighborhood, created a never-ending quest for answers that kept kids coming back week after week. The characters themselves were also well executed. Though the youngest, Tommy was the schemer of the group and the one that held the clan together. Chuckie was the voice of reason but only due to sheer trepidation. Phil and Lil were twins and were alike in every single way — except when they verbally fought. And Angelica was the sweet-faced villain that the babies had to consistently overcome. The parents of these children, though, did play a significant role. Often oblivious to the true wants and desires of their kids, it was always a mystery to understand how such seemingly responsible parents could be so clueless about their own children. But that was the appeal of the show. These kids lived in their own world, and they were dead set on exploring its surroundings.
6) Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles
Who didn’t love these heroes in a half shell? Based on the 1984 comic book created by Kevin Eastman and Peter Laird, the “Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles” animated series took on a life of its own. Premiering in 1987, and trading in the dark tone of the comics for more light-hearted fare, the show exploded and became an instant hit. Becoming entrenched in popular culture, and teaching young boys and girls across America the meaning of “Cowabunga,” this show took the world by storm. With success leading to movies, video games, toys, and countless childhood Halloween costumes throughout the late 80s and early 90s, the impact of the Ninja Turtles is still being felt today. The Ninja Turtles were certainly a new brand of superhero for a new generation. With four starkly different personalities that sometimes clashed (Raphael, anyone?), the Ninja Turtles were no doubt lovable heroes. With their odd lingo and bizarre origins, kids couldn’t get enough of the green guys who constantly consumed pizza. And yet a hero is meaningless without an equally strong foe. In the diabolical Shredder, the turtles always faced a menacing challenge. Mixing cool with sinister, the Shredder’s intimidating exterior and deep baritone voice was enough to summon any hero. Carefully trained by surrogate father and sewer rat Splinter, and aided by TV reporter April O’Neil, the turtles always found a way to beat the villain.
5) Clarissa Explains It All
This series secures a top five spot on the countdown for many reasons, one of which is that this show helped pave the way for others that came after it. Debuting in 1991 and airing for five seasons, “Clarissa Explains it All” is heralded for being the first Nickelodeon series to feature a female lead. The show helped open doors for shows such as “The Secret World of Alex Mack” and “The Mystery Files of Shelby Woo.” The show earned high ratings for a cable kid’s show and was a headliner on Nickelodeon’s SNICK (Saturday Night Nick) lineup. On “Clarissa,” the show centered on the life of adolescent Clarissa Darling (Melissa Joan Hart) and her attempt to deal with the complexities of being a teenager. The show was unique in that Clarissa would break the fourth wall as she looked directly into the camera and spoke to viewers. The series allowed a rare glimpse into the world of a girl having to deal with everyday problems (an annoying brother, school, teenage crushes). The appeal of the program was certainly in the title. Instead of watching passively, viewers were engaged because Clarissa spoke to them as if they were her longtime friends. And in a way they were. Clarissa willingly allowed viewers into her quirky world that was full of off-kilter parents, a bratty sibling, a loyal best friend, and a bunch of problems that she could only process by explaining them to the audience.
4) Kenan & Kel
Awww, here it goes! The show “Kenan & Kel” debuted on Nickelodeon in 1996 and ended in 2000. Through its 61 episodes, it would usher in catch phrases (“Who loves orange soda? Kel loves orange soda!”) and develop a deeply passionate following for years to come. Kenan Rockmore and Kel Mitchel were very much like a modern day Lucy Ricardo and Ethel Mertz. On “I Love Lucy,” Lucy would find ways to entice her best friend into engaging in ridiculous schemes that often went awry. Ethel would know better and have reservations, but would always capitulate in order to aid her best friend. Kel is analogous to Ethel Mertz — except that he has the brains of Kelly Bundy. And that’s what made the show work. On the series, Kenan is a high schooler who works at a local grocery store called Rigby’s. Kel, a sweet yet foolish young man, is Kenan’s best friend. The show had its two protagonists caught up in self-inflicted shenanigans, fighting for ways to comfortably resolve each problem. The show caught on with viewers immediately. With a theme song rapped by Coolio, and a weekly opening sequence that involved Kenan and Kel playing, literally, to an audience of hundreds before each episode started, this show was unique from anything else on television that was geared to kids. With a mix of excellent chemistry, comedic timing, and slapstick, “Kenan & Kel” easily deserves a spot in the top five.
3) Salute Your Shorts
“Camp Anawanna, we hold you in our hearts, and when we think about you it makes me wanna”...well, you know the rest. The series debuted on Nickelodeon in 1991 and produced just 26 episodes, yet the show made a huge impact on kid viewers. “Salute Your Shorts” was about a group of teenagers who go away to Camp Anawanna for the summer. The cast of characters and funny storylines is what made the show a true gem. Whether it was the intelligent nerd Sponge, the environmentally conscious ZeZe, the rabble-rouser Budnick, the snooty Dina, or the overweight slob Donkeylips, these television characters were some of the most memorable to ever grace Nickelodeon. Seeing these kids undermine authority figures like camp counselor Kevin “Ug” Lee was certainly a highlight of the show. Watching the kids attempt to fit in with each other, though, was just as fun. The early tension and eventual appreciation between Budnick and new camper Michael was unique. Seeing Donkeylips have a crush on the pretty yet self-absorbed Dina was both hilarious and ultimately heartwarming. And don’t forget the episodes themselves. Donkeylips being too fat and slow for a game of capture the flag, yet ultimately becoming the hero? The kids attempting to sneak cheeseburgers into camp without Ug knowing? Budnick telling his fellow campers a ghost story involving Zeke the Plumber, giving the entire camp nightmares? One thing is certainly clear: if you know someone who didn’t like this show, give them an “Awful Waffle!”
2) Are You Afraid of the Dark?
Remember the creepy cigar smoking clown named Zeebo who died in a fire at the circus? Of course you do, as that episode is forever burned into your memory. Very much a “Twilight Zone” for kids, “Are You Afraid of the Dark?” debuted in 1992 on Nickelodeon’s SNICK. The series revolved around a young group of adolescents who met at a secret site in the woods every week to tell each other scary stories. Calling themselves “The Midnight Society,” the storyteller would begin each tale by throwing special sand into the fire, causing the flames to erupt. The episode would then begin and usually would revolve around ghosts, magic, haunted houses, or paranormal phenomena. The show aired for five seasons, ending its run in 1996 before being resurrected in 1999 for two short seasons with a new cast. The original run of the show, though, remains a classic for 90’s childhood television. A show that was scary without being horrifying, it presented creative stories that often involved some kind of moral by episodes’ end. The show also allowed viewers to become completely immersed in the series. Airing weekly on Saturday nights, some kids purposefully would turn out the lights when the show came on. Others would watch with their friends or family, and discuss it afterwards. Others enjoyed it because they felt that, when watching it every week, they too were part of The Midnight Society. Most of all, though, the show tapped into something simple yet inherent in all of us regardless of age—the desire to experience the adrenaline rush of a good scare without fearing for ones’ safety. If you can’t remember whether or not the show accomplished this feat, just watch the opening credits again.
1) All That
By now you’ve realized that Nickelodeon practically had a monopoly on quality kids programming in the 1990s, and this show at the number-one slot is no exception. Often referred to as a kid’s version of “Saturday Night Live,” “All That” is a kids show classic. Responsible for launching the careers of Kenan Thompson, Amanda Bynes, and Nick Cannon, and creating a handful of Nickelodeon spin-off shows and even a movie (Good Burger), “All That” certainly lived up to its name. Debuting in 1994 with its theme song sung by TLC, the show featured memorable characters such as the poorly spoken Frenchman Pierre Escargot, the lactose intolerant superhero Superdude, the hapless Repair Man, and pea obsessed lunch lady Miss Piddlin among countless others. The young actors who comprised the cast of this variety show had impeccable timing and wonderful chemistry. The fact that this was a kid’s show that didn’t lower itself to just toilet humor was a testament to not only the writing staff, but the talent of all the actors involved. The show also featured a famous musical guest at the end of each episode, which ranged from rap to rhythm and blues, and even rock. In 2005, Nickelodeon hosted a 10th Anniversary show that brought back popular “All That” alumni, including Kenan Thompson and Kel Mitchell. The special aired classic “All That” episodes, and even had the alumni re-create beloved sketches such as “Good Burger” and “Repair Man.” The show came to an end in 2005 with a completely different cast. After a television run that lasted a decade, “All That” is a series that has certainly aged well. With old episodes currently airing on the NICK GAS network, “All That” can still make you howl in laughter as if you were a kid again.
What were your favorite kids shows from the 80s and 90s? Make a comment!
Story by Michael Langston Moore
Starpulse contributing writer
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