As creative as any animation style or storyline might be, the unfettered soul of a show comes out in its musical episodes. Cartoonists are just disgruntled rock stars at heart. My main criteria for an episode to make this list was that the music helped move along the plot and wasn’t just stand a collection of random songs.
Warning: Spoilers ahead.
10) What’s Opera, Doc? — Looney Toons (1957)
A classic by any standard. The title is a pun of Bugs Bunny’s line “What’s up, doc?” This episode parodies several of Richard Wagner’s Opera. Elmer Fudd’s “Kill de Wabbit” is sung to the tune of “Ride of the Valkyries” from Der Ring des Nibelungen (The Ring of Nibelung). The duet “Return My Love” is to the melody of the “Pilgram’s Chorus” from Tannhäuser. When Bugs dresses as the valkyrie Brunhilde is by far his sexiest outfit.
Elmer: “Oh Brunhilde, you’re so wuvly.”
Bugs: “Yes I know it, I can’t help it.”
In classic opera form, the story ends with a dead Bugs and a lamenting Elmer. He carries his love’s body away and we get the last line from Bugs saying, “What did ya expect in an opera? A Happy ending?”
9) What’s Opera, Arnold? — Hey Arnold (1997)
Making a direct nod to the Looney Tones episode above, Hey Arnold continues the operatic tradition by having the class go on a field trip to see a performance of Carmen by composer George Bizet. The kids doze off and dream of a combination of operas. Gerald strolls through as the barber Figaro from Wolfgang Mozart’s Marriage of Figaro. Harold is the sad titular clown from Ruggero Leoncavallo’s Pagliacci.
Harold: “I’m a big ugly clown-o! A big fat ugly clown-o!”
Arnold dreams playing the officer Don Arnold, Ruth P. McDougal (his crush) plays Ruth McCarmen. We then flip over to Helga’s dream, where she storms in as Brunhilde singing her version of “Flight of the Valkyries” and replaces Ruth. Curly enters the Bull Fighter, leading to a fantastic foam sword fight.
8) Simpsoncalifragilisticexpiala(Annoyed Grunt)cious — The Simpsons (1997)
This episode takes its title from the Mary Poppins song “Supercalifragilisticexpialidocious.” The annoyed grunt part of the title is mean to be read as Homer’s “Do’h.”
The episode parodies the 1964 movie. With Shary Bobbins leading songs are better than the source material. I hated the song “Feed the Birds,” but love its spoof “A boozehound Named Barney.” The best song is the parody of “Spoonful of Sugar” with “Cut Every Corner.” That song helped get me through my senior year of high school and college with this line from the song:
Shary Bobbins: “If you cut every corner they’ll be more time for play.”
Bart: “It’s the American way!”
And it’s pretty hilarious that she gets sucked into a jet engine at the end after the last musical number.
7) Zanzibar! — Rocko’s Modern Life (1996)
This is the first episode on the list with completely original music and lyrics. The plot revolves around the characters trying to clean O-Town and are pitted against seemingly unstoppable corporate pollution. Captain Compost Heap teaches everyone about recycling. Rocko with the help of the other citizens help convince the CEO of Conglom-O to change their ways.
There are plenty of catchy numbers with important messages with such hits as “Spring Cleaning,” “You Can’t Fight City Hall” and “Spelling Song” (Which I always just called the recycling song).
There’s also a super-meta moment when a security guard asks how they know all the words.
Rocko: Uh, this was sort of a spur-of-the-moment spontaneous thing.
Despite all my research, I have no idea why they gave this episode this title. It might be a nod to Xandau, but I’m still uncertain.
6) Mr. Greg — Steven Universe (2016)
Despite being filled with music, Mr. Greg is the only full musical episode of Steven Universe. Steven’s dad, Greg, had written a song called “Like a Comet.” We find out in the previous episode, Drop Beat Dad, that his manager sold the song to use is a burger commercial and recalled “Like a Burger” and gave Greg his long overdue royalty check of $10 million.
Greg is functionally homeless, living out of his van and he sings with Steven about what they could do with the money in “Don’t Cost Nothing.” They decide to take a trip to Empire City and bring Pearl. Pearl and Greg have a strained relationship because Steven’s mom, Rose Quartz, chose to be with Greg over Peral. They go to Empire City and spend their cash freely renting the hotel penthouse and getting tuxedoes in the song “Mr. Greg.”
The best song of the episode by far is “It’s Over Isn’t It,” where Pearl stands on a balcony with a rose unable to accept her situation.
Pearl: You won and she chose you and she love you and she’s gone. It’s over isn’t. Why can’t I move on?
This song is filled with emotion and could’ve easily been a Broadway showstopper. It’s Pearl’s best song after “Do It For Him/Her” from the episode Sworn to the Sword.
5) The Devil’s Hands Are Idle Playthings — Futurama (2003)
This was the original series finale back in season 4 before getting picked up for another three seasons. The title is yet another pun, see a pattern here, of the phrase “Idle hands are the devil’s playthings.”
The plot involves around Fry wanting to get better at an instrument called the holophonor to impress his love, Leela. He makes a bet with the Robot Devil and ends up winning his robot hands, making him a genius at the instrument. Fry writes an opera for Leela, called Leela: Orphan of the Stars. But Leela becomes deaf after a blast from Bender’s bullhorn. Leela makes a deal with the Devil for robot ears so she can hear the opera in exchange for her hand. It turns out the Devil wants Leela’s hand in marriage unless Fry gives back his robotic hands.
Bender: “A use of words expressing something other than their literal intention, now that is irony!”
I can’t you how many times I use that quote when people call someone that happens to be coincidental instead of ironic.
The majority of the music comes at the end of the episode where we see the opera and the final confrontation. With such great lines as sung by the Devil “I will marry her now and confide her to hell/ How droll, how droll!/ Where Styx is a river, and not just a band./ Though they’ll play our reception if all goes as planned/ Unless Fry you surrender my hands!”
The episode ends on a beautifully simple, yet extremely touching note shared between Fry and Leela.
4) LABretto — Dexter’s Laboratory (1998)
The title of this episode is a play on the word libretto, which refers to the text of an opera or other long vocal work. This episode shows us Dexter’s birth and his struggles to maintain his creations while around his destructive, yet loving sister, Dee Dee.
All the songs are originally except for when Dad sings “I Finally Have A Son” which is to the melody of the USC Trojan’s fight son, “Fight On.” Mom sings “Newborn Baby” and we see the cutest version of baby Dexter. When Dee Dee sees Dexter for the first time and sings “I Have A Baby Brother,” she notices his belly button and utters her famous line, “What does this button do?” and pokes him in the gut. Dexter cries and sings Newton’s Third Law of Physics.
Dexter: “For my first observation I’d like to state, for every action there is a reaction!”
In the rest of the musical we see Dexter’s genius in action, inventing things to make his life easier, each time to get destroyed by Dee Dee singing, “Hello, Dear Brother.” Dexter eventually discovers a place for his lab and creates to his heart’s content, until Dee Dee comes in and wrecks it all. The ends as a real opera with a tragic ending with Dexter knowing that he’ll be stuck forever with his sister Dee Dee.
3) Work Hard or Die Trying, Girl — Bob’s Burgers (2014)
In this episode the school is looking for a new musical and opens it up to original student’s creations. This gives Gene a chance to finally bring his Die Hard musical to life, but an annoyingly repetitive intro of singing “Nakatomi” blows his chances. But his ex-girlfriend Courtney get her musical Working Girl, which they call the sister movie to Die hard. Courtney’s dad to get picked when he falsely promises that Carly Simon to show up. (Carly Simon wrote and sang the theme to Working Girl, “Let the River Run.”)
This leads to competing musicals with one on stage and the other in the boiler room. Gene gets frustrated with his actors and decides to do the whole show by himself. They slowly steal the audience away from the main show. When the guidance counselor threatens to shut it all down, the kids work together to combine their musicals. As the kids sing together at the end:
“But until we can live in that imaginary world. We’ll work hard or die trying girl.”
It’s a fantastic medley that really shows off Bob’s Burgers creativity at its finest.
2) Minstrel Krampus — American Dad (2013)
In this Christmas episode, Steve is acting like a spoiled brat about getting gifts and sings the hip-hop song “Bad Boy.” Stan tries takes Steve to see his dad Jack in prison. Jack says that it’s his fault that kids don’t get punished because he was a little boy in Bavaria, he captures Krampus in a copper bot, resulting kids grow up to be awful. Stan finds the pot and releases the demon, who takes Steve to his Beauty and the Beast-esque castle (complete with talking toiletries).
Krampus sings about punishing kids in “You Get the Rod.”
Krampus: “But Steve, oh Steve, you are the worst. Slap that butt with a branch of birch.”
The talking toiletries tell Steve Krampus punishes him because he cares. Steve and Krampus share a soulful duet and become friends.
In the B storyline, Stan uses his CIA connections to get Jack out of jail, but he runs. So Stan and Roger track down Santa to stop Krampus. Everyone knows that Smiths have been on the naughty list ever since Steve shot Santa and the family tried to cover it up.
But it’s the songs in the C storyline, with Haley that will really get stuck in your head. She sings “The Perfect Gift” with Klaus and finds a popcorn tub with three flavors which would be perfect for the family. (I guess Klaus isn’t worthy of a present.) She gets a job at the airport and when Jack shows up Haley sings the reggae song “Family” which convinces Jack to go Bavaria to save the day.
1) Raisin the Stakes — Clone High (2003)
This is the best musical episode of a cartoon all time. The songs are catchy, the jokes are great, and it has an important message.
It makes references to just about every hippy-dippy and/or drugged out movie you could imagine including Joseph and the Amazing Techni-color Dreamcoat, Jesus Christ Superstar, Hair, Tommy, The Wall, The Magical Mystery Tour, Yellow Submarine and more!
The clones attend an anti-drug assembly featuring Larry Hardcore (Jack Black) and learn about getting high by smoking raisins. JFK gets his hands on two scoops from the Pusher and invites all the cool kids to his van to smoke. Abe Lincoln with his girlfriend Cleopatra. He has one puff and goes full hippie, renaming himself Captain Lavender and becomes leader of the raisin smokers with Cleo (now his common-law wife, Rain Melon).
While Abe and Cleo are on the roof about to get to first and a half base (under the shirt, over the bra), JKF bugs out over the moon chasing him and falls through a skylight and into a PTA meeting happening in the cafetorium. This leads Principal Scudworth to use his power over the PTA to have the parents build a fence to keep out the raisins.
Abe’s mom: “Captain Lavender, raisins are building a barrier, and we need to build a wall to break it down.”
Abe leads the kids to tear down the fence in a medley of songs parodying The Who’s “Tommy.” with their song “Higher and Higher.”
Joan of Arc talks to the Pusher and he sings about how the kids only think smoking raisins is cool because their parents and school tell them not do. The Pusher asks how many raisins she wants, and she takes all he has. She saves the day when the parents try to set her on fire, and burn the pile of raisins she’s standing on, getting all the parents stoned. When the kids see their authority figures enjoying it, they stop thinking raisins are cool. One kid then gleefully suggests smoking crack instead. Now that’s how you do an anti-drug message!
Maxwell Bauman is half-way decent Jewish boy from the Bronx. He is Managing Editor of Clash and Editor-In-Chief of Door Is A Jar literary magazine. He is author of The Anarchist Kosher Cookbook from CLASHBooks. You can follow him on Twitter @maxwellbauman