Kyle Mooney's Many Nostalgic Inspirations Behind 'Saturday Morning All Star Hits!'
The comedian explains what '80s and '90s cartoons and pop-culture moments informed his wacky Netflix series.
With TV always available on demand, gone is the beloved tradition that many millennials grew up with: watching Saturday morning cartoons. Whether it was the amount of sugar in breakfast cereal or the way kids were practically hypnotized by the bright animation and zany product placement, for some, nothing compared to tuning into whatever animated block Fox Kids, Kids' WB, or Nickelodeon had programmed.
Based on the power of nostalgia, it was only a matter of time before some former '80s and '90s kids revisited the goofy period that helps to form a generation's sense of humor and pop-culture lexicon. Thankfully, the person to do it for Netflix turned out to be Kyle Mooney, whose new series Saturday Morning All Star Hits! plays like a taped recording of a vintage cartoon block called SMASH!, hosted by twin cornballs Skip and Treybor (both portrayed by Mooney).
Co-created by Ben Jones of Bento Box Entertainment (the animation studio behind titles like Bob's Burgers) and filmmaker Dave McCary (Mooney's collaborator in the sketch group Good Neighbor and on the 2017 film Brigsby Bear), the show compiles episodes of "children's shows," satirical commercials, and news bulletins about its in-universe stars as if somebody taped episodes of SMASH! on their VCR. One moment, you're watching something akin to Care Bears or Denver the Last Dinosaur (in which you might recognize voice work from the likes of Paul Rudd and Emma Stone). The next, you're seeing a sitcom that looks like Blossom, if Blossom had a Bigfoot character (which is one of a few live-action SMASH! shows to star not just Mooney, but Geraldine Viswanathan and Dylan Sprouse, too). Despite being entirely original, for those who grew up on the TV that inspired SMASH!, it's like dipping a Dunkaroo into a whole neon-soaked world of memories, including ones you forgot you had.
It's not necessarily the Saturday morning cartoons that you may recognize, though. The show never goes fully surreal, but its cartoons explore adult concepts like depression and lack of inspiration. Brotherly tension between Skip and Treybor also plays out, and so does a murder plot, thanks to those tape recordings picking up news broadcasts. The whole thing simply has Mooney sensibilities all over it. The comedian has gained a cult following for his absurdist, Adult Swim-like sense of humor, which dates back to his YouTube sketch days and has aided him as a Saturday Night Live cast member. But SMASH! is like the SNL star's own recess playground in which his taste touches the programming that shaped him.
To create SMASH!, Mooney did a ton of online digging, revisited his own VHS collection, and pulled from memory to make a series that legitimately feels like popping one of your own old tapes in. We spoke to the co-creator and star about everything that inspired the show, from real cartoon blocks that he used to watch while eating his favorite cereal at the time (Cookie Crisp, obviously) to specific behind-the-scenes episodes and vintage PSAs.
The Disney Afternoon
The idea for SMASH! first came about while Mooney and Jones were chatting over coffee. Mooney had been a fan of Jones since his work in the 2000s art collective Paper Rad. In talking about the cartoon blocks they used to love—specifically The Disney Afternoon, or TDA—the two thought to make their own version of the TV hours they watched as kids.
"[Ben Jones] invited me to coffee one day, and we just started talking about stuff we love and cartoons. Specifically, we were talking about The Disney Afternoon, which was this block from the early '90s that had DuckTales, Chip 'n' Dale: Rescue Rangers, Tail Spin, and Darkwing Duck. We were talking about our love for that, and gradually we sort of got into a conversation about Saturday morning cartoons, and even the specifics of interludes within Saturday morning blocks. I think that there's this—sort of somewhat big in certain circles—iconic claymation bumper from the ABC Saturday morning cartoons where they're like, After these messages, we'll be right back. It's a cowboy.
We were just talking about all the stuff we loved and, truly, over the course of just having coffee, we kind of came up with the idea: Oh, we should do our own recreation of a block of Saturday morning cartoons. The stuff has stuck with me since I was a child."
While Mooney did a lot of research online to find old episodes and commercials to reference in SMASH!, he also returned to the source of his cartoon obsession: the VHS tapes he grew up on. With the working VCR he owns and the tapes he saved, he revisited a handful of cartoons that became direct inspiration for animation on the Netflix series, like Create-A-Crittles, Pro Bros, and Strongimals.
"I have a relatively deep VHS collection, which I've moved most of to California. So I didn't always have access to it, but there are some tapes that I had, for instance, that were taped off of our TV from my childhood. It would've been my brothers who taped it, but there's a really great one that has an episode of Popples. It has a He-Man commercial on it, and it is essentially what our show is, with the start-and-stops and the records. So, I definitely had that stuff to look at. I re-watched Cartoon All-Stars to the Rescue on my own VHS in my house.
So, there was some of that, but mostly it was digging online. I'm from San Diego, so our Fox affiliate was XETV Fox Channel 6, and you can go online and basically see an hour of just XETV on Tuesday at 2:00 p.m. with commercials. That stuff is out there—where you could sort of see somebody was just taping hours of TV—and you get to relive and re-experience that TV-watching thing."
A Chip 'n' Dale: Rescue Rangers making-of clip
Almost every "show" on SMASH! is a direct reference to an '80s or '90s cartoon that came before it. Create-A-Crittles pulls from Care Bears, Popples, and the sweetness of Rainbow Brite; Randy is similar to Denver the Last Dinosaur; Pro Bros calls back to ProStars; Mooney's SNL character Bruce Chandling's series Lil' Bruce echoes Howie Mandel's Bobby's World; Strongimals references Thundercats; et cetera, et cetera. The references came from rewatching old episodes of shows, as well as memory—but one vintage behind-the-scenes clip about the making of Chip 'n' Dale: Rescue Rangers provided a basis for how the form of the series would play out.
"One thing we kept on coming back to was there's this pretty good behind-the-scenes promo documentary for the making of Chip 'n' Dale: Rescue Rangers. You get to see the voice actors, you get to see the artists and directors, and it also has, at the end of it, a music video by this group The Jets performing the theme to Rescue Rangers. That was something we definitely kept on going back to, [specifically] for the fifth episode of our series [when we have] Primeline, the fake documentary show. That [Chip 'n' Dale video] was one that I'd never seen, and once we found it, we were like, Okay, we should just do pretty much this. Exactly.
That was a lot of the fun: going back, finding the references that we definitely wanted to take inspiration from, but also finding new things that we'd never seen that were sometimes even more awesome than the stuff that we loved seeing growing up. In doing so, you're not only getting to rewatch all these things that you saw as a child, but you're also finding new things that existed around the same time. It affects your brain in a way that it's like, Oh, this feels familiar, but I'm not sure I've ever seen this.
[Otherwise, in terms of the cartoons themselves that were referenced], it feels pretty much ingrained in us. We watched a ton of stuff, but I think one of our thoughts early on was like, We love these cartoons so much and the imagery has had such a profound effect on us—but sometimes when you put on one of these shows as an adult, it hits in a different way than it did when you were 7. So, the idea was to just use that iconic imagery and tell stories that we could more relate to now. We watched a lot of stuff, but, truly, so much of it is just pulling from memory."
Cartoon All-Stars to the Rescue
One of the funniest bits on SMASH! is a public service announcement that unites pop stars and various cartoon characters against an epidemic that's "ruining the lives of many children"—the amount of kids nowadays saying "shut up." While the All Cartoon Stars Say Don't Say Shut Up! clip may bring up memories of the D.A.R.E. program and Daren the Lion for some, it is actually based on a specific program Mooney rewatched while writing the series.
"The main inspiration was this special Cartoon All-Stars to the Rescue. It was simulcast on every major network in 1990. It has Slimer from Ghostbusters, the Ninja Turtles, Kermit from Muppet Babies, Garfield, and Alf—and they all come together to help the kid stay off drugs, essentially. That was the main inspiration.
It's a special that meant a lot to me as a kid. Blockbuster had some sort of section [that] had these free rentals that were in that world—either PSAs or educational in some way or another—and that was a fun one that I could always just get for free and see some of my favorite cartoon characters."
'90s icons and pop culture
The show feels like a meme page of "Stuff Only '90s Kids Can Remember," and not just because of the cartoons. It's laden with pop-culture touchstones, as Mooney and his team made an effort to look at iconic celebrity moments that have either stuck with them or that they came across while writing the series. Whether it's bad-boy teen star Johnny Rash's single—resembling a particular music video that got heavy rotation on MTV—or the discovery of denim/tie-dye clothing designers and TV hosts Chip and Pepper Foster, who appeared on the NBC series Chip and Pepper's Cartoon Madness from 1991 to 1992, the series is made to match the experience of a child watching TV in the '90s.
"One of the main cornerstones, for sure, was the Joey Lawrence single, ["Nothing My Love Can't Fix"]. I'm pretty sure the music video debuted at the end of a Blossom episode. It could have been a situation where it was a dream or something like that, but that was definitely something we were thinking of.
[Then in terms of the hosts], that was another situation where I was unaware of Chip and Pepper, and we found them and definitely took inspiration from them. If you watch their stuff, it's awesome and it's so representative of the era. It just feels special. It's that sort of thing that doesn't exist on TV, that I can think of, anymore, where it's like this representation of cool dudes thrown into cartoons. That sort of thing affects you as a kid, because it's like, Oh, this is what cool is. This is what rad dudes are.
I think at some point we were like, Oh, it'd be so fun if we just really tried to do TV as a whole. If this is being recorded on cassette, what are some other things we can kind of catch glimpses of? We were just thinking a lot about being kids, and now all of these things are sort of clumped together. And speaking personally in my head, I would be watching Saved by the Bell: The College Years, or whatever, but then you're also hearing about Joey Buttafuoco or O.J. Simpson or whatever it is. So I think we just like the idea of—which I think is the reality—blending these worlds. You're seeing a lot of messed-up things and adult things as a child, if you're paying enough attention."