MTV’s “Liquid Television”: A 25th Anniversary Retrospective
How a fast paced television show consisting of weird animated shorts utilizing various formats and methods of storytelling inspired a generation of future artists, writers, directors and creatives whose material aired on it and who watched it at home
25 years ago today, MTV first aired a highly influential show called “Liquid Television”. “Liquid Television” instantly resonated with a generation of young people and came out at the perfect time to capitalize on multiple simultaneous sea changes in the cultural landscape. I’m going to outline the circumstances under which a perfect storm of influence occurred resulting in “Liquid Television” becoming the catalyst and the inspiration for a new generation of artists, designers, animators, directors and creatives.
As I’ve previously detailed, 1991 was a loaded year where several genres of music began to emerge out of the overly commercial and radio friendly fare that thrived between 1989 and 1990. Not only that but 1991 was ripe for change and innovation in more ways than you know. Back in March 1991, novelist Douglas Coupland wrote the book “Generation X: Tales For An Accelerated Culture” centered around a group of young friends and their views on life and the world. Coupland was dissatisfied with the way his entire generation was lumped in with the previous one seeing as how they grew up under completely different circumstances than they did and didn’t share similar views on the same subjects.
By 1991, it was made clear to anyone in the world of entertainment, marketing or advertising that the same methods that worked just 5 years previous failed miserably with this new breed of young people. They were far more cynical and skeptical than their predecessors. They had grown up with home computers, home entertainment systems, VCR’s, Walkmans and cable television. They also grew up during the John Hughes’ dominated Golden Era of Teen Comedies & Coming Of Age Films between 1984 to 1987.
Music videos came to prominence during this generation’s childhoods and at one point in time Kids America was the lone nationally distributed radio show that aired programming aimed at young people between 1984 and 1987. By the time Radio AAHS emerged to fill that space in 1990 the older kids amongst this age group had already outgrown it and were looking for programming geared towards teens or young adults.
These same kids watched children’s programming like “The New Zoo Revue”, “Electric Company”, “Zoom”, “3–2–1 Contact”, “The Banana Splits Show”, “The Hot Fudge Show” and “The Great Space Coaster” during their lives. They were more than likely watching Sid & Marty Krofft shows like “H.R. Pufnstuf”, “The Bugaloos”, “Lidsville”, “The Land Of The Lost” or “Electra Woman & “Dyna Girl” between 1969 and 1978 or they saw reruns on syndicated television.
These Generation X’ers also might have seen reruns of old Gerry Anderson “Supermarionation” shows like “Thunderbirds” or “Captain Scarlet & The Mysterons”. Since at the time these shows aired no one had VCR’s or were available to purchase or watch these childhood favorites remained locked in the corners of the minds of these same young people who also watched reruns of “The Muppet Show”. These influences would all be present in segments that aired on MTV’s “Liquid Television”.
Beginning in 1991, the tween and teen focused television network Nickelodeon stopped outsourcing programming after building their own studios the year before. They began producing original live action shows filmed in this space such as “Clarissa Explains It All” months after they aired their first 30 minute long special for their popular “The Adventures Of Pete & Pete” series that began as one minute long shorts which were shown periodically between shows since 1989. In addition, Nickelodeon announced they had produced a trio of animated series’ which they’d begin running in Summer 1991, just after “Liquid Television” had already finished its 1st season run.
On June 1st, 1991 Comedy Central emerged after the combination of two floundering channels. They ran programming they appealed to both young people and young college aged adults. Their breakout show which really caught on with the youth was “Mystery Science Theater 3000”, a show featuring a cast of characters watching terrible films while riffing on them thus making them watchable.
The show’s premise was essentially built around the concept of live tweeting horrible television close to two decades before the existence of real time social media. The show became an instant sensation and eventually became a hit for the fledgling network as they were finding their voice. Little did Comedy Central or the creators of MST3K have any clue of the role they were going to play in culture going forward.
MTV was the perfect place to run “Liquid Television” since it was largely blamed for shaping, molding (and some say corrupting) the minds of young people circa 1991. The reality of the matter was the world was changing and MTV only played a role in it rather than being the chief catalyst. Things were designed to be faster paced with quick cuts in hopes of keeping young people’s attentions because children generally have trouble focusing and they wanted to reach that audience in the late 80’s and early 90’s. Nickelodeon employed a similar strategy and won with it.
Not surprisingly they were on the same page since they were both Viacom networks. An unofficial passing of the torch seemed to happen as “Pee Wee’s Playhouse” the show that carried many of the influences from Gerry Anderson, the Kroffts, Jim Henson and others aired its final episode in July 1991. What it began, “Liquid Television” would later expand on.
“Liquid Television” was the brainchild of British writer and television/film producer Japhet Asher. Asher had been writing and producing shows for network and cable television since 21 and he was only 30 at the time his creation first aired on MTV June 2nd, 1991. Asher had been everything from a writer/producer to a visual effects producer to a director so he was able to effortlessly wear different hats for “Liquid Television”.
The show was a combination of multiple animated segments where none of which were related to the previous segment that aired. If something you didn’t like was on, you could tolerate it until the next clip aired. The next clip might be so weird that you stick around to see if anything weirder in this episode could top it. Then you’d see a segment that would blow your mind. Either way, it would be the topic of discussion at school the following Monday. Nothing like it existed. By the third episode you had relegated yourself to watching the entire show top to bottom because you were going to see something that you’d never be able to forget. It helped that Mark Mothersbaugh was in charge of scoring each episode.
“Liquid Television” borrowed from the premise of Spike & Mike’s Sick & Twisted Festival Of Animation that began in 1990 at UC Berkeley and the rising popularity of Japanese anime and manga stateside amongst young people. They employed the philosophy of quick cuts of action from skate videos as well as the energy from rising popular musical genres like Rap, Grunge/Alternative Rock and Trip Hop. When you first see segments like “Stick Figure Theater”, “Soap Opera” or “PsychoGram” you couldn’t help but react.
While segments like “Art School Girls Of Doom”, “Brickface & Stucco”, “Bobby & Billy” or “Dog Boy” didn’t exactly capture most viewer’s attention, ones like “Aeon Flux”, “The Specialists”, “Winter Steele”, “Crazy Daisy Ed”, “Office Space”, “Brad Dharma: Psychedelic Detective” and “Beavis & Butthead” certainly did. Not only that but “Liquid Television” had the good sense to air an English dubbed version of the 1987 Madhouse short by Yoshiaki Kawajiri titled “Running Man” from the anime anthology feature “Neo Tokyo” during its second season in 1992.
This dark, gory anime short fell right in line with the growing interest in the genre stateside as well as entrancing those who grew up on cyberpunk novels by William Gibson or loved Sci Fi films like “Blade Runner”. In many cases, seeing “Running Man” was the necessary impetus needed to finally see “Akira” or one of the many other popular anime films or OAV’s available in America at the time.
Around the same time “Liquid Television” began airing on MTV, Marvel was experiencing a resurgence that began back in Summer 1990 with Todd McFarlane’s “Spider-Man”. Summer 1991 saw the premiere of Rob Liefeld’s “X-Force” #1 and Chris Claremont & Jim Lee’s “X-Men” #1 debuted that October. Comic books were back with a vengeance. The comic book industry comeback was spearheaded by several young creators, pencilers, inkers and writers who were a part of the so-called Generation X.
Even though Chris Claremont wasn’t a Gen X’er himself, the approach he took to writing the new X-Men book seemed like it was tailor made for that particular audience while still appealing to long time readers. The same young people who were playing video games in the arcade and on their home systems were reading comic books, watching “MST3K”, “Yo! MTV Raps”, “120 Minutes”, Nicktoons and “Liquid Television”. It merely completed the cipher.
The influence of “Liquid Television” is deeper than you can even imagine. Mike Judge’s animated “Office Space” shorts featuring Milton (voiced by Mike Judge) eventually became a highly influential live action film in 1999 starring Ron Livingston and Jennifer Aniston. His first Beavis & Butthead short “Frog Baseball” from 1992 became so popular it became a regular segment which branched out into a “Beavis & Butthead” series on MTV beginning in 1993. It then went on to spawn a spinoff “Daria” which became one of the most popular and influential animated series’ of its era.
Joe Horne who did the popular animated MTV shorts “Stevie & Zoya” between 1987 and 1989 (which were re-aired on “Liquid Television”) and the segment “The Specialists” in 1992 for “Liquid Television” went on to work on animated series’ like “Batman: The Animated Series”, “Sonic The Hedgehog”, “The Critic”, “Teen Titans” while directing episodes of “The Boondocks” and the entire run of “Class Of 3000”.
Ed Bell directed the Hip Hop themed segment “The Big City” in 1991 then went on to work on “The Simpsons” & “The Ren & Stimpy Show” as a layout artist before serving in multiple roles including creative art director of HBO’s award wining series “Happily Ever After: Fairy Tales For Every Child”. Peter Chung’s “Aeon Flux” segments were so popular (and disturbing since she seemingly died at the end of each one) that MTV spun it off into its own series. The property was so memorable it was adapted into a live action Sci Fi film in 2005 starring Charlize Theron in the lead role.
In August 1991 Nickelodeon began airing a trio of Nicktoons, namely Jumbo Pictures’ “Doug”, Klasky/Csupo’s “Rugrats” and Spumco’s “Ren & Stimpy Show”. These three cartoons became breakout hits that went onto gain audiences far beyond the children and teens they originally targeted. The combination of these cartoons, the growing popularity of “Liquid Television” and the wider proliferation of cable television led to the formation of the Cartoon Network in October 1992 after “Liquid Television” completed its 2nd season.
The lasting legacy of strange “Liquid Television” segments like “Invisible Hands”, “Buzz Box”, “Cut-Up Camera”, “Was (Not Was)”, “Dangerous Puppets”, “Grinning Evil Death” and “Uncle Louie” was the creation of “MTV Oddities” in 1994 that featured shows such as “The Head” and “The Maxx”. This entire stretch of animated shows that utilized hand drawn animation, puppetry, computer animation and other methods of storytelling inspired waves of Generation X’ers to attend film and art school, pursuing animation, cartooning or graphic design.
When I think about some of the greatest examples of creative expression on television now, I instantly think of animated shows like “Adventure Time”, “Regular Show”, “Gravity Falls” and “Steven Universe”. It’s clear the creators of these shows Pendleton Ward, J.G. Quintel, Alex Hirsch and Rebecca Sugar either grew up with “Liquid Television” or the shows it either inspired or were given a lane to exist merely because of the success of it. It’s insane to think that 25 years after a weird ass TV show aired on a cable network it could’ve had an effect on a generation of young people that didn’t even see it when it first aired. That is the nature of influence and the creative continuum.