the internet

The Best Cartoons of the Early Internet

Photo: Vulture and YouTube

It might be hard to remember, but there were videos and memes on the internet before there was YouTube. It’s true! Before high-speed streaming was the norm, it was still possible to share funny content with a friend — it just so happened that it was usually an audio file, or a postage stamp–size video, or it was animated in something called Flash.

Thanks to the rise of the iPhone and the ability to create video content in minutes, rather than the months it might take to create a Flash cartoon, the art of Flash animation is quickly becoming a relic of Web 1.0. But that doesn’t mean these early cartoons deserve to be forgotten. To celebrate this strange time for content on the internet, we’ve rounded up some of the funniest shorts from across the animation spectrum: slick production, sketchy line art, remixed material, and everything in between.

Homestar Runner (2000-present)

One cannot write about animation on the internet without writing about Homestar, Strong Bad, and their friends. Beginning in 2000, the world of Homestar Runner grew quickly from short cartoons to weekly email responses to elaborate, dragon-based music videos. The site spread completely by word of mouth, its creators turned down several offers to bring their show to television, and it sold a boatload of T-shirts.

The premise of Homestar is pretty simple: There’s a slightly dopey good guy named Homestar Runner, and a bad guy named Strong Bad. Slowly but surely over the years, Strong Bad came to overshadow the title character, and through his responses to viewer emails, dozens of early-aughts memes were launched, from 20x6, to Teen Girl Squad, to the insanely catchy fhqwhgads.

Homestar and friends disappeared for a bit, but they continue to reemerge from time to time in various forms — most recently as a board game, but perhaps most memorably when they were brought face-to-face with their own mortality as their world of Adobe Flash began to crumble around them. However Strong Bad and pals show up next they will do so with a lot of silliness, a lot of fun, and a lot of consummate V’s.

The Critic (2000-2001)

Today we live in a world where TV shows never die. Arrested Development, Will & Grace, Mad About You, and dozens more have returned long after they’d said goodbye. But in 2000, when new, short episodes of The Critic began to appear on the now defunct, it all seemed impossible. A canceled TV show revived? On the internet?

Length aside, the web version of The Critic was different from the TV version as the focus shifted more toward the parody aspect of the show, cramming in as many topical references to current cinema as possible, excluding beloved side characters like Doris and Duke. We do get a few plotlines from Jay’s dating life, including the implementation of a choose-your-own adventure component nearly two decades before Bandersnatch, but when condensing a half-hour show down to a few minutes, you’re probably going to try whatever you can to keep your audience engaged. In this case, it meant putting the cast of Seinfeld into Death of a Salesman.

The End of the World (2003)

This short, published by Jason Windsor in 2003, is a great encapsulation of what it was like to be online in the first decade of the new millennium. The United States had just invaded Iraq, the sketchy black-and-white style of Flash cartoon was all the rage among the indie online-animator world, and people then, just as now, enjoyed stereotyping the French accent.

“The End of the World” is fast-paced, kind of informative, and while violent and crass, no doubt served as many middle-schoolers’ first exposure to political satire. Unfortunately, the world being on the brink of destruction is a concern that will remain timeless, meaning that even though George W. Bush is sitting in the Oval Office in this short, the concerns expressed within will always feel pretty relevant.

But, just in case you want a fresh take on how we’re all going to die (unless you’re Australian), Windsor released an updated sequel in January 2018 for the Trump era. Check it out if you’re not too “le tired.”

G.I. Joe PSAs (2003)

From What’s Up, Tiger Lily? to Mystery Science Theater 3000, comedians have found that one can repurpose bad content to make good content. One of the first internet memes took a poorly translated Sega Genesis game and turned it into a dance remix, and suddenly “All Your Base” was everywhere online.

In 2003, Fenslerfilm, a Chicago-based video-production company, made some remixes of their own when they dubbed and reedited a number of public-service announcements that ended each episode of the 1980s G.I. Joe cartoons. While not every G.I. Joe remix has aged well, one can see the seeds of future YouTube edits and remixes through the stutter-start pacing and #random humor. It wouldn’t be long before “All Your Base” was replaced with “pork-chop sandwiches!”, “body massage!,” and of course, “stop all the downloadin’!”

Schfifty-Five (2003)

Group X was a band that made recordings that served as the muse for a whole host of animators from Newgrounds, eBaum’s World, and Albino Blacksheep. Despite having accents that traverse the globe, the band calls themselves “Arabian Rap Sensations” and recorded a diverse array of songs that include a cover of the Super Mario theme, one that explores the merits of peanuts as a snack, and the video above about counting.

Perhaps it’s the driving drum beat that makes this cartoon so memorable. Perhaps it’s the simplicity of the stick-figure animation. Perhaps it’s the fact that every number before “schfifty-five” is both really stupid and really fun to say. Whatever it was that caused “Schfifty-Five” to explode the way it did, there now exists a generation of adults who can’t say “two and a half” without chuckling to themselves.

Badgers (2003)

One could hardly write a thorough roundup of early internet cartoons without mentioning Jonti Picking’s 2003 “Badgers” cartoon. One of the internet’s earliest entries into its vast catalogue of weirdness, alongside “Peanut Butter Jelly Time” and “The Hamster Dance,” this short is the earworm to end all earworms. It features 12 dancing badgers, a mushroom, a snake, a driving beat, and lyrics you can memorize in seconds.

Sadly, in a post-Flash world, “Badgers” might suffer a bit more than Homestar does. This is because in its original incarnation, the video looped indefinitely, which meant that as you watched it, one might end up watching the whole thing five times in a row before realizing that it wasn’t going to do anything else. On YouTube this doesn’t happen, although a one-hour version of the cartoon does exist if you want a similar experience. In its Flash form, the first time you navigated to “Badgers,” it was already too late: The song would be forever imprinted upon your brain, destined to reappear any time you heard the word “badger” or “mushroom” for the rest of your days. If you’ve never seen this one, you may not want to inflict this song upon yourself. Consider yourself warned.

Salad Fingers (2004-present)

If you’ve never entered the desolate, weird world of Salad Fingers, it might be tough to explain. It’s not exactly scary; just really, really creepy. It features a protagonist that is mostly impenetrable, obsessed with rusty spoons, and constantly talking to inanimate objects, corpses, and hand puppets. The sound design is as sparse as the post-apocalyptic hellscape that Salad Fingers resides in. And even though everything moves a little slowly here, especially when compared to the fast-paced world of internet animation, there is a level of gruesome detail that isn’t present in any of the other cartoons on this list.

Created by David Firth in 2004, Salad Fingers is one of the few entries on this list that is still producing new material, with the latest episode arriving in January of 2019, and hints from Firth that there’s still more to come.

House of Cosbys (2005)

Rick and Morty is a favorite thing of a big chunk of the internet, but it’s definitely not co-creator Justin Roiland’s first time setting the online world aflame. As part of Channel 101, an amateur short-film festival created by Rob Schrab and Dan Harmon, Roiland created a cartoon series named House of Cosbys in 2005, in which a man creates a machine to clone Bill Cosby and shares an apartment with several of these clones, each of whom has a different attribute, such as Curiosity Cosby or Data Analysis Cosby.

The show blew up, and shortly after the fourth episode of the series was released, Justin and Dan received a cease-and-desist letter. Certainly Cosby didn’t want anything out there that could tarnish his reputation as a family comedian. Channel 101 complied; they took down the videos and “canceled” the show, although the videos had already spread far and wide across the web, and the legacy continued as friends of Roiland produced an “unofficial” fifth episode featuring a representation of Cosby that he wasn’t involved with and, in fact, actively despised. House of Cosbys might have the distinction of being the only way a person in 2019 can enjoy watching the adventures of a character named Cosby.

The Ultimate Showdown of Ultimate Destiny (2005)

Before Captain America: Civil War brought a bunch of diverse heroes together to fight one another, we had internet legend Neil Cicierega’s take on a similar battle. His song, which told the tale of a battle between Batman, Godzilla, Shaq, and many others, was the perfect fodder for Flash animation. Showing us a bloody encounter involving every kind of weapon you can think of, a Transformer, and even Mister Rogers, “The Ultimate Showdown” goes one step further by encapsulating all of the internet of 2005 when it reveals that one of the most successful combatants in this battle royale was the then-omnipotent Chuck Norris.

From “The Ultimate Showdown,” Neil went on to create the similarly catchy Potter Puppet Pals, a number of strange, often-Smash Mouth–related mash-ups, and all manner of baffling and hilarious internet gadgets. But he will perhaps be best known for correctly announcing that Mister Rogers could defeat Godzilla.

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The Best Cartoons of the Early Internet