From Homer to Scooby Doo: our love affair with the cartoon

Channel 4 last night listed the nation's favourite animations - we prefer satire to slapstick. Jonathan Brown delves behind the scenes of our top five


1: History's greatest cartoon? Doh!

1: History's greatest cartoon? Doh!

A dozen series ago, during the 1992 presidential election, George Bush senior awarded the animated couch-potatoes from Springfield the ultimate subversive accolade. The ideal American family, he said, should be a little "more like the Waltons and less like the Simpsons". For an out-of-touch Bush, it was a case of "Good night, John Boy", and he lost the election.

Named history's greatest cartoon by Channel 4 last night, beating Tom and Jerry, Bugs Bunny and Mickey Mouse, the Simpsons occupies a unique place in global popular culture.

Blisteringly satirical, funny, uncompromisingly intelligent and political, it is also stupendously popular. Its creators hope that it will run until 2009, completing 20 network seasons to become the longest-running entertainment programme on US television. A feature-length movie is also planned.

The characters, Homer, Marge, Bart and Lisa began life 18 years ago, drawn by Matt Groening and named after members of his family. It was destined as a filler on the Tracey Ullman show. Since then, there have been more than 330 episodes.

Fox's number one show about lives of the blue-collar, middle American family have been screened in more than 90 countries and earned £1.4bn a year for Rupert Murdoch's News Corporation. Murdoch has even "appeared" on the show, playing, naturally enough, a ruthless billionaire businessman. Among previous animated guests have been Elizabeth Taylor, Sting, Tony Blair and Tom Jones.

Its cartoon format has allowed it to challenge race, religion and politics in a way that would never be tolerated in real-life comedy. Channel 4 won a recent bidding war with BBC2 for terrestrial rights to show episodes, and as a result, BBC2 suffered its worst ratings since 1979. The cartoon is watched by 3.5 million viewers on Channel 4.

2: Cat and mouse who made Oscars history

William Hanna and Joseph Barbera's tale of internecine struggle between a murderous cat and his long-suffering victim-cum-tormentor mouse, has earned seven Academy Awards.

Their relentlessly violent, racially dubious animations accompanied some of MGM's most celebrated releases during what is now seen as a golden age of cinema.

The two artists learnt their trade during the Depression era, and were brought together at the studio's legendary animation unit before the Second World War. Although producer Fred C Quimby was initially underwhelmed by their idea for a warring cat and mouse, he gave them the go ahead.

The first film, Puss Gets the Boot, was released in 1940 with Tom called Jasper and a nameless Jerry. They were accompanied by the haunting music of Scott Bradley. A further 161 titles followed which can be divided into three periods.

Gene Deitch faced the unenviable task of taking over from Hanna-Barbera in 1960, and he was succeeded by Chuck Jones between 1963 and 1967. One of the great controversies has been Mammy-Two-Shoes, a black woman's voice only ever heard attached to a pair of slippers and stockings. After appearing in the first cartoon, the character was dropped two years before the Supreme Court declared racial segregation was unconstitutional. But MGM decided to recolour the film and dubbed the old cartoons with an Irish maid, voiced by June Foray, for its reissues. The Cartoon Network redubbed them again with a new set of voices. The series was reprised for television in 1975 but cut little ice with its original fans.

Tom and Jerry won their first Oscar for the patriotic 1943 war-time short, Yankee Doodle Mouse. Their last came in the 1953 Johann Mouse, which set the traditional chases and fights to waltz time. There was critical acclaim when the duo danced with Gene Kelly in Anchors Away and Invitation to Dance. They also teamed up with Esther Williams in the film Dangerous When Wet.

Hanna-Barbera went on to create more than 2,000 characters after Tom and Jerry. They gave the world Quick Draw McGraw, Top Cat, Yogi Bear, Scooby-Doo, The Flintstones and The Smurfs.

3: They killed Kenny, but the show goes on

Approaching its ninth network series in the US, with global television deals, a merchandising empire and an Oscar-nominated film, it now seems hard to think that South Park began life in the nerd world of internet film.

In 1996, The Spirit of Christmas - the story of four foul-mouthed boys from the Colorado town of South Park - was created for a Fox executive to send as a video Christmas card. Made on a budget of just $2,000 (£1,045) Matt Stone and Trey Parker's show depicting a battle between Jesus and Santa Claus over the ownership of Christmas, was never shown on television. After achieving cult status on the internet, the cable TV network Comedy Central offered the animators their own show. The first episode, Cartman Gets an Anal Probe, was screened in 1997.

The stars are Stan, the group's leader voiced by Parker, who vomits when he talks to a girl; his best friend and the butt of all jokes, Kyle, voiced by Stone; Cartman, whose "mother" is an over-sexed hermaphrodite; and Kenny, who is normally killed during each episode.

US political pundits have identified a new breed of " South Park Republicans": twentysomething males who favour rampant libertarianism over liberal sensitivities. Ironically, Parker and Stone's latest offering Team America: World Police was condemned by many on the right for its "anti-Americanism".

4: To box office gold and beyond

Pixar's 1995 Toy Story bridged the gap between children's and adults' cinema-going habits. With its fast pace, humorous dialogue and state-of-the-art computer graphics, it made a family visit to the movies fun.

At the heart of Toy Story was Woody the cowboy, whose role as head honcho in six-year-old Andy's toy cupboard is usurped by the arrival of a Buzz Lightyear doll. Woody is embroiled in a race against time to save his spaceman rival after he causes him to fall out of the window.

Admirers have praised the film's values of loyalty and friendship, which refrained from straying too far into the schmaltzy Hollywood cliché zone.

The follow-up four years later, while more technically accomplished, lacked the soul of the original. A third film is expected this year. However, Disney is said to be working without Pixar. The companies created seven blockbusters, including Finding Nemo and The Incredibles, during a 10-year relationship and grossed $3bn (£1.5bn) in ticket sales, plus millions more in merchandising. But Pixar and Disney split last year, the former unhappy with the 50:50 agreement it had struck with distributors Disney.

5: Ratings failure wins a late-day reprieve

Like THE Simpsons, Family Guy originated from the mighty corporate stable of Rupert Murdoch's News Corporation, depicting a less than savoury view of modern American family life. Unlike its inspiration, it was axed after two years as audiences dwindled.

Creatively, it broke little new ground. The father, Peter Griffin, a toy factory inspector from Rhode Island whose primary claim to fame is having emitted the longest fart in television history, is mis-married to upper-class Lois. Their eldest child is teenage misfit Meg whose hankering for collagen implants does nothing to improve her popularity with the boys. Her brothers are the gullible skater boy Chris, and killer tot Stewie, who is bent on world domination.

First screened in 1999, Family Guy has won a clutch of awards, including two Emmys. So successful was it, that Fox scheduled it against Friends. It was a big mistake. As the audience plummeted there was also controversy. Fox dropped a show called When You Wish Upon a Weinstein over fears it was anti-Semitic.

But Family Guy has earned a reprieve in the US where box-set sales of DVDs reached three million last year. The first series was also watched by significant audiences on the internet. It will now return to the network screen in May, a book of the series has just been published and there is a computer game.

THE TOP 50

1. The Simpsons

2. Tom and Jerry

3. South Park

4. Toy Story/Toy Story 2

5. Family Guy

6. Shrek/Shrek 2

7. The Lion King

8. Spirited Away

9. The Incredibles

10. Bugs Bunny

11. The Nightmare Before Christmas

12. The Flintstones

13. The Iron Giant

14. Finding Nemo

15. Wallace and Gromit

16. Akira

17. Aladdin

18. The Ren and Stimpy Show

19. Who Framed Roger Rabbit?

20. Looney Tunes/Merrie Melodies

21. Princess Mononoke

22. Monsters, Inc

23. Popeye

24. Danger Mouse

25. Pinnochio

26. Beauty and the Beast

27. Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles

28. Beavis and Butthead

29. Spongebob Squarepants

30. Mickey Mouse

31. Dungeons and Dragons

32. Daffy Duck

33. Futurama

34. He-Man and the Masters of the Universe

35. Sylvester & Tweetie Pie

36. Transformers

37. 101 Dalmatians

38. Charlie Brown

39. King of the Hill

40. Wacky Races

41. Samurai Jack

42. Ivor The Engine

43. Spider-Man

44. Pokemon

45. Inspector Gadget

46. Road Runner

47. 2DTV

48. Donald Duck

49. The Little Mermaid

50. Scooby Doo, Where Are You?

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