Kids don’t like weirdness in other kids; they hate it and will fiercely beat it out of each other. They do, however, love and prefer their entertainment to be weird and zany, but palatably cartoony, as possible. This is why kids love cartoons, and why Nickelodeon has done so well with its in-house Nick Toons line in the ‘90s — bizarre cartoons in which creators were left free to create shows as oddball and even dark as they wanted, so long as they were still technically appropriate for children. The first three Nick Toons, debuting in 1991, were Doug (with its multi-colored people and mouth-noise soundtrack), Rugrats (seen from the extremely hazy and unreliable viewpoint of babies), and Ren and Stimpy (not appropriate for children whatsoever). More followed throughout the ’90s, such as Angry Beavers and The Wild Thornberrys, allowing Nickelodeon to fine-tune the weirdness while still making them marketable to kids.
CatDog represents a triumph of the weird meets the fun. It’s about conjoined twin brothers, a two-headed, apparently non-defecating animal, in which half was a cat and half was a dog. And they hated each other, but were forced to get along. So that’s a frequent semi-message. But really, the show was an excuse for classic voice actors to shine and for writers to make subtle jokes about how weird this situation really is, and how it could have possibly have come to be.
Out now on DVD from Shout! Factory, noble guardians and rescuers of overlooked pop culture, is the first half of the first season of CatDog, from 1998. It seems like a test of the market, to oil the nostalgia machine for this Nickelodeon product the way Teen Nick’s “The ‘90s Are All That” has revived interest with the adults who watched Nickelodeon shows when they were kids. The CatDog love seems to be there — as I write this, I’m watching Billy Bob Thornton on Late Night With Jimmy Fallon, who casually mentioned that prior to his work on Puss in Boots, his major voice acting work was in CatDog, which got a huge round of cheers from the studio audience.
CatDog is a little bit lost in the canon of ‘90s cartoons, but it’s a great collection of fun cartoon tropes, closer to old Looney Tunes or Tex Avery stuff more than it is to cynical ‘90s cartoons, what with its direct opposites working together, exaggerated reaction shots, and easily fooled villains. Simply put, it’s about Cat, who is prim and proper, because he’s a cat, and his body-mate brother Dog, who is excitable and id-driven, as he’s a dog. They’re like an old-timey comedy team that hates each other slightly more than they love each other, and that pays off when the two-headed creature fights each other, or itself, as it were. CatDog’s voice pedigree is especially impressive, with names notable to animation nerds: Jim Cummings (the voice of Winnie the Pooh) plays Cat, Tom Kenny (the voice of Spongebob) plays Dog, and other voice actors include Carlos Alazraqui, Billy West, and Maria Bamford.
Another good thing about having kids: if you don’t like the pop culture of the current era, you can expose them to stuff that you liked. Show them CatDog if you’re sick of them watching the same Spongebob episodes for the umpeenth time. It’s just as wacky, knows what kids like, and gives it to them on their own level, if not a little above their level.