Alex is a School of Visual Arts graduate with a passion for media, writing and animation. He writes reviews for film, television and games.
Background and Conception
Animator David Feiss developed the idea for this show after reading a bedtime story to his daughter. Since 1978, Feiss worked at Hanna-Barbera Studios. Following this, Feiss was among many animators pitching ideas for animated shows for What a Cartoon Show!.
As a contrast to the pitch for Dexter's Laboratory and Johnny Bravo, Cow & Chicken was the most "adult" pitch. There's no joke here. To start with, the pilot is titled "No Smoking." Cow must save her brother Chicken from the Devil's domain after he secretly smoked. Smoking in a family show. While it sounds strange, Cartoon Network had no idea who it was yet, so it was considered appropriate for any audience. Nevertheless, the show was picked up by the network after its premiere. After its first season, Cartoon Network renewed the show for three more seasons due to fan requests.
David Feiss also created I Am Weasel as a backup segment to mimic Hanna-Barbera's original format. In the concept, Feiss draws a weasel character derived from his favorite novel, I Am Legend, as well as the nursery rhyme "Pop Goes the Weasel." Using the verse "the monkey chases the weasel," he developed a rivalry between his weasel and baboon characters. The show's theme song is also heavily influenced by the nursery rhyme's tune.
It chronicles the misadventures of two siblings, Chicken and Cow, when they are constantly conned by Red Guy. I Am Weasel tells the story of the idiotic yet jealous I.R. Baboon trying to upstage the beloved and gifted I.M. Weasel.
Surreal and Scenarios and Visuals
If the idea of a cow and a chicken being siblings is weird, the characters and setting around them are also weird. Aside from living with their seen-from-the-waist-down parents and going to school, they eat pork butts and taters and much more. As if that weren't weird enough, they end up in bizarre scenarios. A crucial episode in the series presented Chicken accidentally switching places with a prisoner during a school field trip, and the other episode showed him discovering the girls' bathroom.
Yet, you can't help but laugh at these situations. There are also imaginative and humorous scenarios that draw on folklore and specific one-time characters. One episode shows Chicken molting like he's losing baby teeth, so he believes that a visit from the "Molting Fairy" will earn him money. In another episode, the family is vacationing in Oregon when they encounter a native tribe known as the "Head Hunters." "The Ugliest Weenie" was the only two-parter in the first season, and the show itself was confused as to which part belonged to the format. My personal favorite episodes from these shows usually involve a certain character, which I’ll talk about soon.
There will be those who compare this to Ren & Stimpy, an extremely popular but controversial cartoon at the time. The gross-out and slapstick comedy is the most apparent. Actually, Feiss previously worked on Ren & Stimpy and co-creator John K. didn’t mind if Feiss took much influence from his work. Despite that statement, Cow & Chicken had a distinct identity based on its humor and characters. Sure, the show had recurring jokes and lines that many would find funny or repetitive. Thankfully, the show is self-aware with some nice fourth-wall breaks. As with the previous shows, the show would sneak some innuendos past the standard practices and norms.
In addition to the humor, both shows (especially Cow & Chicken) had similar art direction to exploit the grotesque and offbeat humor. Visually, the character designs are appealingly "ugly" and have a squash-and-stretch animation style. There are some one-time characters that stand out for either creative or questionable reasons. A drill sergeant with weenie arms or people wearing their underwear on the outside will amaze you.
I Am Weasel's first season was originally self-contained and simple enough for the concept alone. As season two rolled around, the show's universe began to connect with its sister show, with some of the characters from the latter showing up occasionally. Not only that but the art style and characters were also reworked. Even though the core of the concept and the characters' personalities remained intact, the latter's personalities were altered slightly. In terms of humor, it heavily relies on slapstick and black comedy rather than the grotesque humor from the main show. Considering the show's setting, the scenarios are creative and surreal. Some of my favorites include Baboon breaking his "phantom foot," Weasel and Baboon living different lives, starring in a cartoon full of clichés, and the series finale influenced by Feiss. I Am Weasel continued as a stand-alone show when Cow & Chicken ended, which was its fifth and final season. Although ambitious and contained what made the former segment great, it was an indication of franchise fatigue.
I admit I wasn't initially intrigued by I Am Weasel. After several years, however, I became more appreciative of its inclusion and quality.
Unusual Yet Funny Characters
No matter what show you watch, the characters will leave such a lasting impression because they are so strange, likable, and hilarious. David Feiss based these characters on either his family or friends.
Cow is the younger sister of the two titular characters, despite her height and weight. She is a caring and loving cow who always looks up to her brother. She can be sensitive and overdramatic at times. Her most noteworthy feature is her alter-ego, SuperCow. SuperCow is able to fly and helps her brother out whenever he gets into trouble. She also speaks Spanish. Chicken is her cynical, sarcastic older brother. Chicken may be criticized for his pranks and actions, but he truly cares about Cow and has a conscience.
By far, Mom and Dad are the most mysterious and strangest Cartoon Network parents. They use their feet as hands and laugh hysterically. We can't see their upper halves. They literally have no upper halves in some episodes, whether they are silhouettes, shadows, or don't blink-you'll-miss-it moments! An episode was shown about how the two met in the army. As we look at the two of them, Mom is the stereotypical housewife that finds bizarre ways to feed her children, while Dad brags about his manliness but sometimes acts effeminate.
There are also Chicken's ugly but loyal best friends Flem and Earl, their loud and strict Teacher, and their cousin Boneless Chicken. For the latter, he is literally a boneless chicken who is deadpan and witty. He is used for comedic purposes due to his body and has a starring role in a couple of episodes. They also have the slow Snail Boy, the delinquent Sow, and the kind and yet misunderstood Black Sheep as cousins.
In I Am Weasel, I.M. Weasel is a pure-hearted and heroic weasel whose gift is admired by all. I.R. Baboon, on the other hand, is the jealous and dimwitted baboon that frequently tries to get attention as Weasel but causes trouble as a result. The first season established these characters as archrivals. From season two on, the two grew closer and more mutually friendly. I.R. Baboon would occasionally act antagonistic, but mostly because of unintelligence and naivety.
There is, however, one character who has been a show-stealer and the best one in both shows...The Red Guy. He has many names: Red, Lance Sackless, Rear Admiral Floyd, Dr. Hineybottom, Walter Jeans B. Gone, Officer Pantsoffski, Mrs. Beaver, The King and Queen of NoPantsLand, and so forth. I could go on! Anyway, The Red Guy is one of Cartoon Network's funniest villains. He continually annoys or threatens the main characters by scheming and scamming them. As well as being flamboyant, the Red Guy bounces with his butt and rolls like a log. Sometimes we feel sorry for him, though it is unclear if he was faking or not. There could be more of him sometimes! He is so devilish that he actually looks like one. Originally, he was The Devil in the pilot. It would almost be a whole section dedicated to him if I had time. To keep it short, I laugh my head off every time he appears on-screen.
The voice acting contributes greatly to convey the humor. Charlie Adler evokes the voices of several characters within the series in a similar fashion to Mel Blanc during the Golden Age. Candi Milo and Dee Bradley Baker sometimes go over the top with their performances. This is one of Howard Morris' last performances as he played a variety of Hanna-Barbera characters. Recurring actors like Dan Castellaneta and Tom Kenny enliven the comedy. For his deep and enthusiastic voice, Michael Dorn is surprisingly convincing as Weasel. Finally, Will Ferell makes an unexpected cameo. It is best not to ask how and when; the sentence speaks for itself.
Carpet Chewing Controversy
Even though Cow & Chicken had its naughty moments, one episode went so far that the episode was banned. "Buffalo Gals" was the name of that episode. Cow basically joins a female biker group. Despite how simple it sounds, it's the context that rubs people the wrong way.
The Buffalo Gals themselves are our first clue. Female bikers wearing buffalo helmets, having short hair cuts, speaking in masculine voices, and the leader having a fixation with Cow. Are you still not convinced? A scared Dad jumps onto Mom for protection as soon as the Buffalo Gals enter the house, literally chewing on the carpet. Surprisingly, that phrase is more disturbing than it sounds. Then they play softball and talk about "pitching and catching."
In conclusion, the Buffalo Gals are portrayed throughout the episode as lesbians with verbal and visual innuendos. While it may sound progressive for its time, the main concern is that this episode depicts lesbians as negative stereotypes for adults and parents watching it. Kids watching this would either be confused or traumatized afterward. Cartoon Network took a long time to depict relationships between female characters in Adventure Time and Steven Universe.
After one airing, "Buffalo Gals" was pulled from reruns due to complaints from viewers and replaced with "Othrodonic Police" from season one instead. Considering Cow & Chicken was originally meant to be more adult, I understand the episode's intent, but I felt it was a stretch and should have been rewritten. For those curious about the episode, it can be viewed online.
Conclusion & Legacy
Cow & Chicken and I Am Weasel are both surreal and funny enough for anyone to expect the unexpected. Even though some would consider it a rip-off of Ren & Stimpy, these shows have their own identity to set them apart. The shows present imaginative and surreal adventures, a book full of strange, yet unforgettable characters and top-notch voice acting. It was sad that Weasel and Baboon continued after the main show ended, but they didn't last very long.
The show was nominated for two Emmys but won a couple of Annie Awards. In spite of the shows' ending, the characters would continue to host Friday programming blocks for Cartoon Network. Chicken and Cow made occasional appearances in other shows including The Grim Adventures of Billy & Mandy, and Ben 10: Omniverse as aliens with Charlie Adler playing both roles. I.M. Weasel recently appeared in O.K. K.O.! Let’s Be Heroes with Michael Dorn reprising his role.
As of 2021, neither show are available on DVD, but all seasons are available for purchase on iTunes. Yes, there are a couple of episodes on a couple of compilation DVDs, but that isn't enough. There are Region 4 DVDs available for residents living down under.
Who knew a cartoon about a cow and a chicken could leave such a humorous impression?