There's nothing quite like a good fart joke to get a kid laughing.
But in a media environment in which kids' programs and advertisers are under scrutiny, even a simple gaseous toot on a show like Nickelodeon's Mr. Meaty can raise a stink.
Mr. Meaty, a puppet show, initially ran on Nickelodeon's TurboNick Website. The series, which has been running on Friday nights but will soon move to Saturday mornings, has been singled out for lacking educational content and for being ever so slightly edgy in the politically incorrect kind of way. Its main characters even work for the greasy Mr. Meaty fast-food chain. Lots of criticism has come from vegetarians. They want Mr. Meaty off the Nickelodeon plate.
But defenders say, let kids be kids.
“We know kids like bathroom humor now and then,” says Marjorie Cohn, executive VP of development and original programming at Nickelodeon. “I don't think Mr. Meaty crosses the line. What we don't want to do is produce the same show all the time. Mr. Meaty has a different tone that is right for that show.”
Not everyone is crazy about that tone, of course, nor about the fact that the teenage characters work in a fast-food restaurant or that its theme song includes the line “All God's creatures, fresh off the grill!”
An online petition called “Destroy Mr. Meaty” argues that the show “has no point except for two mentally disturbed teenagers eating meat and doing disgusting things.”
Common Sense Media recommends parents keep kids younger than 9 away from Mr. Meaty. But even Liz Perle, editor-in-chief at the watchdog group, concedes that there are bigger issues for parents to worry about than kids' watching TV characters flipping (gasp!) burgers.
“We might be being overly cautious, but some characters rely totally on stereotypes, and it's in a fast-food, junky restaurant,” she says. But, she adds, “there aren't drugs or alcohol or tobacco or bad language, and the show does deal with solid teen issues like peer pressure.” (There is that flatulence thing.)
The vast majority of shows geared to kids and young teens are largely sanitized, with educational curriculums sometimes underlying the dialogue or characters. But a few shows produced by 4Kids Entertainment, which programs Fox's entire Saturday-morning block, are also singled out by the Parents Television Council. For example, Fox may say Viva Piñata promotes teamwork, but kid advocates say it promotes violence. Some critics say 4Kids' Yu-Gi-Oh on Fox is nothing more than long commercials for Yu-Gi-Oh trading cards.
Cartoon Network hardly pretends to be anything but entertainment for kids (and young adults). But it too is touting healthy lifestyles, through Rescuing Recess, an outreach program meant to ensure that kids take a break during the school day.
Among Cartoon shows that concern watchdog groups is Codename: Kids Next Door, for its violent images. Also, The Grim Adventures of Billy & Mandy is said to be too dark for children; a character named Grim, for instance, is a skeletal depiction of death.
“If we continue to put expectations on every minute of kids' lives, they'll bust,” says Bob Higgins, Cartoon's senior VP of programming and development. “I think we are an essential outlet to have a break and have some fun. Kids' lives are so structured and regimented,” he adds, “that, if they don't have a place they can go and tune out for a half-hour and laugh, we're going to raise a generation of kids that have to be medicated.”