Collectively, the 1960s for TV animation could be said to start as early as 1958, with the debut of “Huckleberry Hound,” or 1959 with the debut of “Rocky and Bullwinkle” (as “Rocky and His Friends”). As for when this decade in animation ended, I’d say either 1968 (the debut of “The Archie Show”) or 1969 (the debut of “Scooby-Doo, Where Are You?”).
Below are the major trends for the 60s in TV animation. Admittedly a lot of the entries below are dominated by Hanna-Barbera, as they held a huge early influence on TV animation.
Theatrical-style comedic shorts (“Huckleberry Hound,” “Yogi Bear,” “Quick Draw McGraw”)
Early TV animation was strongly influenced by theatrical animated shorts, which were still in movie theaters at the time, albeit waning in popularity. As such, early half-hour TV animation was comedic, and consisted of three shorts per show, starring funny animals. Hanna-Barbera made a name for themselves, and set this standard, with 1958’s “The Huckleberry Hound Show.”
Others soon followed: “Quick Draw McGraw,” “Yogi Bear,” “Wally Gator,” “Magilla Gorilla,” and more. Similar series from other studios also came along, including reruns of actual theatrical shorts—see 1960’s “The Bugs Bunny Show,” which ran in various forms until 2000.
Funny animals started to wane by the mid-60s, with the trends listed below starting to rise in popularity. “Atom Ant” and “Secret Squirrel” marked the final such early-era series by Hanna-Barbera, and those showed signs of the trend that replaced funny animals, the action show.
After the 1960s
Funny animals stayed popular after the 60s, even if they didn’t have the same dominance. The early Hanna-Barbera funny animal characters made various returns during the 70s and 80s in various “reunion” shows, such as “Laff-a-lympics.”
Other funny animals have also come along in following decades. They range from “Jabberjaw” to “Animaniacs” to this century’s most popular funny animal cartoon, “SpongeBob SquarePants.” SpongeBob’s show often feels like a throwback to the type of zany humor seen with Yogi Bear, Bugs Bunny, and others.
The half-hour primetime sitcom (“The Flintstones,” “The Jetsons”)
Much has been written about “The Flintstones,” TV’s first half-hour primetime animated sitcom. The “modern Stone Age” family, debuting in 1960, proved that TV audiences were willing to watch a cartoon with a single half-hour-long story. Not to mention one starring humans (the talking animal appliances aside).
A few other such shows followed, mostly by Hanna-Barbera: “Top Cat” in 1961, and “The Jetsons” in 1962.
After the 1960s
While there were a few sporadic efforts in the 70s, the half-hour primetime sitcom didn’t make a comeback until “The Simpsons” debuted in December 1989. Since then, animated sitcoms have been a mainstay of TV in various forms, from “South Park” to “Bojack Horseman.”
The rise of Saturday morning cartoons
All three networks at the time (ABC, CBS, and NBC) began first-run programming for Saturday mornings in 1962. (I’d link to a schedule, but Wikipedia oddly seems to have deleted their Saturday morning schedules, for… reasons?) Before then, first-run cartoons aired at various hours on TV; Saturday mornings were mostly reruns of older cartoons, or kid-friendly live-action fare (Westerns, etc.).
After Saturday mornings became popular, it became the near-exclusive home for new TV animation for decades. Advertisers had a dedicated audience in that timeslot; meanwhile, the networks had a dedicated spot for children’s programming. Other timeslots, such as Sunday mornings, would occasionally get the networks’ attention, but not to the same degree or success as Saturdays.
This might be one reason why cartoons became seen by some as “for kids.” Saturday morning fare wasn’t known for being creatively edgy or daring, and often faced various limitations on budget, content, etc.
After the 1960s
Saturday morning cartoons remained a key part of the US animation landscape through the 70s and 80s. The late 80s and 90s saw Saturday morning cartoons’ prominence start to wane; the lineup ultimately went away in the 2000s. I’ve previously written about why the concept of Saturday morning cartoons died out.
Action shows and superheroes (“Jonny Quest,” “Space Ghost,” “Spider-Man”)
The 1964 debut of “Jonny Quest” marked a big shift for animation on TV. Until this point, it was exclusively comedic, mirroring most theatrical animation to date. “Jonny Quest” marked the first show that was a dramatic effort. While “Jonny Quest” has its flaws (namely, dated stereotypes), it showed that audiences were willing to watch a non-comedic, more realistically done animated series.
This led to an explosion in action shows: “Space Ghost,” “Birdman,” etc. The superhero craze sparked by “Batman” in 1966 also led to various superhero shows, including adaptions of Superman, Aquaman, and Spider-Man.
Various superhero/action show parodies or pastiches also aired; these included “The Mighty Heroes,” “George of the Jungle,” “Atom Ant,” and “Underdog.”
After the 1960s
The superhero and action show craze fell off in the late 60s due to anti-violence backlash (see below), but superheroes continued on through the 70s (via the “Super Friends”) and through all following decades, up to the present.
Action shows made a comeback in the 80s (mostly in syndication), and are also now staples, though occasionally mixed with humor (see “Steven Universe”). Even “Jonny Quest” saw revivals in the 80s and 90s.
Teen humor and anti-violence backlash (“The Archie Show,” “Scooby-Doo”)
The late 1960s saw a lot of changes in TV animation. As I wrote about the origins of “Scooby-Doo,” this probably came from a mix of reasons:
- A backlash against violence in children’s programming, as seen in the aforementioned superhero shows.
- Changing tastes in programming—with superheroes waning in popularity, especially post-cancellation of “Batman.”
- The rise of noncommercial children’s programming (via PBS predecessor NET).
- Real-life events: 1968 saw the height of the Vietnam War (and resulting protests), plus the assassinations of Martin Luther King and Robert F. Kennedy; that might’ve made some concerned about what kids see on TV.
As such, 1968’s TV season saw various changes in programming. Slapstick shows made a slight comeback with “Wacky Races.” However, the most successful show was “The Archie Show,” starring the Archie Comics characters. Archie took off and had a lengthy run well into the 70s; there was also the hit song “Sugar, Sugar” by the Archies in 1969.
Archie also inspired other shows starring teenagers (versus adults). This led to 1969’s debut of “Scooby-Doo, Where Are You?” Scooby-Doo became an even bigger success than Archie Andrews. The Great Dane became the face of Saturday morning TV for the next decade, and also inspired numerous clones.
Shows starring teenagers had the advantage of youth appeal. Also, by focusing on teenagers, violence was accordingly toned down—no worrying about gun violence among the Riverdale or Mystery, Inc. gangs.
After the 1960s
As I’ve written before, “Scooby-Doo” ran in various incarnations through the late 80s, and has had various revivals since the late 90s. At this point, Scooby’s one of the most famous American cartoon characters, and has eclipsed the rest of the Hanna-Barbera cast.
Similarly, children’s TV animation since the late 1960s shifted to mainly starring teenagers or (especially since the 80s) grade-schoolers. Today, it’s rare to find a children’s TV cartoon that stars adults who aren’t superheroes.
Cartoons made since the 80s have had higher levels of violence, though some pre-70s aspects haven’t quite returned. Even today, realistic firearms are only seen in limited use, and that’s in superhero/action shows.
The 1960s saw the rise of TV animation as something distinct in style and tone from theatrical animation. Cartoons went under a rapid series of changes, as certain aspects became firmly established, changed, or disposed of entirely.