The best children’s programming has something for everyone. Great animation astutely blends humor for kids with jokes that even a jaded parent can appreciate. Sometimes, though, a few moments (or entire episodes) deemed too risqué for sensitive audiences slip past the in-network censors, causing minor public relations nightmares. As a result, some programs wind up yanked from the airwaves, only to reappear in a cropped format, while others don’t see the light of day for decades if at all.
Mighty Mouse: The New Adventures – “The Littlest Tramp”
Mighty Mouse originally launched as a mousy knockoff of everyone’s favorite external underpants-clad Kryptonian, Superman. In the late ’80s, famed animator Ralph Bakshi—whose credits include the classic Lord of the Rings animated features and the animation-live action blend Cool World—kicked off a revival of the character. The New Adventures, which lasted all of two seasons, featured notorious Ren & Stimpy creator John Kricfalusi behind the storyboards and used shorter-format segments, which would become standard in later-era cartoons.
One episode in particular garnered a significant amount of unwanted attention in the uptight 1980s. “The Littlest Tramp” includes a brief sequence where the titular hero takes a nice long sniff of a fragrant flower. While watching the episode in 1988, a Kentucky family became concerned that the petals seemed a little too much like “a powdery white substance,” according to Allen Wildmon of the American Family Association. Of course, the real question is: how exactly do all these so-called family-friendly folks know so much about nose candy? Admittedly, the flower does look a little mounded, but it’s clearly pink and petal-like. Either way, amid the feverishly antidrug ’80s, the public jumped all over the show.
It probably didn’t help that Bakshi was also the animator behind the groundbreaking X-rated cartoon Fritz the Cat, despite his legacy as an award-winning children’s animator. Bakshi reluctantly bowed to public pressure, and reedited the episode to remove the contentious scene. From this point forward, Mighty Mouse also made it very clear that he always says no to flowers.
Futurama – “A Tale of Two Santas”
Ah, the magic of Christmas, that merriest day of the year, when we spend time locking down our house, barricading our doors, windows, and chimneys, and waiting for the storm to blow over and the death-stalking Santa Claus to pass us by. Oh, wait, that was just in Futurama.
As joyous as the holiday season is in the 31st century, many fans might recall a time when X-mas came late—by an entire year. Referred to by producer David X. Cohen as the “lost episode,” the third season holiday special “A Tale of Two Santas” brought back everyone’s favorite murderous Kris Kringle, Robot Santa Claus, and his array of bristling weaponry. This time around, though, misanthropic mechanoid Bender winds up taking over for the devious droid, leading to inevitable hijinks. Unfortunately, those of us anxiously awaiting a second round of psycho-Santa-bot—with the bonus prize of Coolio as Kwanzabot—would have to wait a very long time to unwrap their animated present.
It seems that Fox decided the episode was “inappropriate” for its original 7pm timeslot in 2000. Instead, the episode was bumped to December 23rd of the following year, when the network broadcast it at 9pm, the slot they usually reserved for the freakier fare of The X-Files. Of course, if the network had delayed the show any further, Futurama fanatics might have smelled a conspiracy and requested a crossover episode with Mulder and Scully.
Mr. Rogers’ Neighborhood – “Conflict”
Fred Rogers wasn’t particularly topical, typically keeping his messages and episodes relatively timeless. One of the few times he did address current concerns, in the lost “Conflict” story arc from 1983, apparently ruffled more than a few feathers in non-Make-Believe land.
Children of the era lived beneath an ominous shroud, as tensions from the Cold War between the USSR and the US were palpable in the ’80s. Entertainment of the day managed to capture the nuclear fear, with even Mr. Rogers getting in on the action, through a timely yet freaky five-episode arc that saw the Neighborhood of Make-Believe perched on the brink of war.
The tale begins when King Friday and his son Prince Tuesday, fresh off a school history lesson about war, stumble across a mysterious package intended for Rockit factory-worker Corney. Tensions mount after they mistake its contents, fearing that the neighborhood beaver is secretly building a bomb and setting off a week-long narrative about paranoia, misunderstandings, and diplomacy—rendered in all their puppet-y glory. Thankfully, cooler heads prevail, and the situation is diffused, all while teaching kids a valuable lesson about creativity and love triumphing over misunderstandings and mistrust.
The episode also happened to take place roughly a year-and-a-half after the Reagan Administration cut funding for the National Endowment for the Arts, leading to speculation that it was also intended as a critique of hawkish politics versus creativity and diplomacy. Whether accurate or not, PBS pulled the controversial episodes in 1996, and they didn’t resurface until recently. Sometimes, it’s not such a beautiful day in the neighborhood.
Powerpuff Girls – “See Me, Feel Me, Gnomey”
On the cusp of a new millennium and chock full of “girl power,” the Powerpuff Girls combined entertaining storytelling with highly stylized animation. For the most part, the show avoided the kryptonite of controversy experienced by other offbeat animated series from the era, but the pint-sized crime fighters weren’t entirely immune to it either.
Initially intended to wrap up the fifth season, “See Me, Feel Me, Gnomey” was a rock opera, featuring the villainous, Gnome—a role initially (and obviously) intended for Jack Black according to creator Craig McCracken, although the singer and actor was unavailable. A crushing defeat leaves the girls depressed and searching for answers. The tiny terror first appears friendly, promising them world peace, in exchange for giving up their powers. Unfortunately, his idea of world peace is more of a free-will sapped totalitarian state, where the citizens of Townsville turn into a Gnome-worshiping cult.
Although the episode aired in other countries, it wasn’t released in the United States at all. Some claimed it was because of a pro-Communism ideology, especially in light of the red outfits the cult members sport. At the same time, the citizens of Townsville are clearly mindless sheeple, so the episode really reads more like a criticism of easy political answers. Others claimed the episode was banned due to the strobe effects causing epileptic seizures, much like an episode of Pokemon from the late ’90s.
McCracken disputes these claims on his personal blog, though, revealing the real reason behind the pulled episode: “The metal beams in the destroyed buildings looked too much like crosses, and one of the hippies looked like Jesus.”
Tiny Toons “Elephant Issues”
Tiny Toon Adventures, or Tiny Toons, featured a fresh set of anthropomorphic animals, loosely based on classic characters, with Buster and Babs Bunny, as well as Plucky Duck and Dizzy Devil acting as heirs-apparent to their now-professorial forbears, Bugs Bunny, Daffy Duck, and the Tasmanian Devil, respectively. Airing across the country on weekday afternoons and Saturday mornings—boy, do we miss Saturday morning cartoons, both philosophically and entertainment-wise—the show managed to wade close enough to its predecessors to capture the era’s increasing fetish with nostalgia, while remaining novel enough to avoid seeming like a total cash-grab (even though it totally was).
However, one episode from the second season will live on in infamy—while also remaining imprinted in the memories of those watched the segment, before it was chopped from the lineup. The segment, entitled, “One Beer,” was intended as a drinking is a no-no morality play and features Buster, Plucky, and Hamton J. Pig splitting a beer (it seems that Acme Acres Looniversity is a party school. Who knew). The triad grow increasingly intoxicated, making several unwise decisions, including donning stereotypical drunk-wear, trying to talk to members of the opposite sex, stealing a police cruiser, and then drunk-driving off a cliff (yikes!). The episode caused such a stir among the public that the Tiny Toons people yanked it from the airwaves entirely.
Apparently, “One Beer” hit a little too close to the mark.
Beavis and Butthead – “Comedians”
In the slacker-friendly ’90s, Beavis and Butthead were the undisputed kings of moron comedy. Postmodern satirist extraordinaire Mike Judge created the dynamic dumbass duo, who shuffled and giggled their way from MTV’s late-night Liquid Television into a primetime slot on the channel. Each series featured the teens riffing on music videos, in addition to a series of ludicrous adventures enjoyed by the teenage vidiots. However, only three episodes into their run, the program was blindsided by an ethical debate.
In the episode “Comedians,” Beavis and Butthead seek fame and fortune as stand-ups, testing out their comedic stylings at a local funny business. During the segment, Beavis juggles flaming newspapers on stage, accidentally burning the comedy club to the ground. Roughly a month later, a five-year-old boy reportedly watched a rerun of the show and wound up setting his bed on fire while playing with a lighter. Tragically, the fire spread, burning his family’s trailer to the ground and killing his two-year-old sister.
When the story broke, the child’s mother blamed Beavis and Butthead, and MTV came under attack. The network pulled the episode, moving the show to a ten o’clock timeslot, adding a disclaimer, and cutting all instances where the characters chant “fire.” The show itself wound up under the gun for several more incidents, but it was the initial tragedy that reopened the debate on the influences of art and culture on life, and vice-versa.
You Can’t Do That on Television – “Adoption”
Ontario-based sketch comedy show You Can’t Do That on Television made the jump to national Canadian TV then landed on the fledgling youth-based network Nickelodeon in 1981. It proliferated on the burgeoning network, bringing postmodern children’s entertainment into its own and opening an entire generation up to the pre-stardom stylings of Alanis Morissette—for better or worse. The show also kicked off the slime craze that swept through Nickelodeon programming and other imitators throughout the ’80s and ’90s. However, it wasn’t all slime and smiles for the egregiously long-titled TV show.
One particular episode rubbed several adoptees and adopters the wrong way. Appropriately titled “Adoption,” the episode explored and lampooned the concept of adoption in several skits, including one where a father tries to return his adopted child to an agency. Although wary of the content, Nickelodeon decided to air the episode once—probably because the 1987 season only consisted of five episodes. After the hostile response, though, the network shelved the episode indefinitely. “Adoption” did run on Canadian television, but it was missing a sequence where one character cussed (mildly).
For one brief, not-so-shining moment, You Can’t Do That on Television truly lived up to its name.
Steven Universe – “We Need to Talk”
In 2013, Cartoon Network launched Rebecca Sugar’s Steven Universe. As the first animated series solely created by a woman, the show offered a more feminized take on life, including a supporting cast consisting primarily of female characters, despite centering on a young boy.
Framed by the world-rending adventures of the eponymous character and his alien “Crystal Gem” friends Pearl, Garnet, and Amethyst, the Emmy-nominated show often subverts common children’s show tropes of escapism, blurring the barriers between fantasy and reality. Steven Universe also addresses contemporary views on gender roles and doesn’t shy away from sexuality, including a well-characterized lesbian relationship between extraterrestrials Ruby and Sapphire and featuring same-sex relationships as a part of the fabric of daily life—because, well, they are part of the fabric of daily life.
Despite its progressive outlook, Steven Universe has marched along without a hiccup. However, the episode “We Need to Talk,” did not fare as well in the United Kingdom. During one of the show’s musical numbers, the character Pearl shares a very close but sweet dance with Steven’s mother, Rose. Apparently, the scene made the big cheeses at Cartoon Network UK a tad bit uncomfortable. As a result, they pulled the episode, cropping about three seconds of the footage before broadcast. After the move stirred ire from fans, the network claimed their “slightly edited version is more comfortable for local kids.” Best of all, the controversial edit now jump-cuts from the two women dancing right to Greg’s reaction, while strumming his crotch, er, guitar. Now there’s that subtle, English censor humor at work.
Shake It Up – “Party It Up”
Eating disorders are funny, right? Body dysmorphia and other psychological conditions that cause the sufferer to either purge or starve themselves to within an inch of their life, if not to death, are riotously amusing. Well, they are until a popular childhood star who once suffered from them gets involved, anyway.
The otherwise bubbly Disney Channel sitcom Shake It Up!, which aired from 2010 until 2013, starred Bella Thorne and Zendaya. The show followed a duo of two would-be dancers on their misadventures in school and the world, as they sought fame and fortune as professional dancers. During a model soiree sequence in the episode, “Party It Up,” one of the shallow model-types quips at the duo: “I could just eat you up. Well … if I ate.” After the show aired in 2011, singer Demi Lovato took to Twitter with her own not-so-amused comeback, saying: “I find it really funny how a company can lose one of their actress from the pressures of an EATING DISORDER and yet still make joke about that very disease. #nice”
Lovato, who starred on Disney Channel’s Sonny With A Chance, has been public about her own battles with bulimia. After her scathing remarks, Disney Channel PR’s Twitter outlet responded, stating “it’s NEVER our intention to make light of eating disorders!”—before pulling the episode, as well as an episode of another the show, So Random, which Lovato also tweeted about. Both programs were stripped of their insensitive remarks and returned to circulation.