If you were an ‘80s kid, you couldn’t just watch whatever you wanted when you wanted. You didn’t have the internet, let alone DVR. You might have cable, and by the end of the decade possibly some movies on VHS. Still, there was a plethora of shows out there that kids who grew up in the ‘80s loved. Here are some of our favorite shows that children tuned into – when they aired! – in the 1980s.
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Nickelodeon was only finding its footing in the ‘80s, and it’s first big original program was a sloppy game show for kids called “Double Dare.” After it debuted in 1986 it quickly became by far the biggest show on the network. Marc Summers became one of the first faces of Nick, and we all still dream of running the obstacle course and getting a trip to space camp.
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“You Can’t Do That On Television”
If somebody asks you if you’ve seen “You Can’t Do That On Television,” so not reply “I don’t know.” If you do, much like Moose (or Alanis Morissette) you might get slime dumped on your head. The Canadian import was a popular sketch comedy show for kids starring kids. It basically brought the concept of slime to Nickelodeon from north of the border.
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We know the theme song is already in your head. This show, a Jim Henson creation, focused on the adventures of the Fraggles and the Doozers and their adventures living underground. It was a whole new world of Muppets, replete with catchy songs.
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Speaking of puppets, ALF wasn’t quite as friendly as the Fraggles. Well, at least if you were a cat. The alien from Melmac crashed on Earth and moved in with the Tanner family to turn their lives upside down. It doesn’t necessarily hold up to adult eyes, and it was apparently a miserable show to film for the human actors, but you couldn’t tell that to a kid in the ‘80s.
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Pee-wee Herman didn’t necessarily start as a character for kids, but he certainly became that. Although, it’s not like only children were watching “Pee-wee’s Playhouse.” The bizarre character and his insane world was also appealing to adults who were fans of outré comedy. Whatever level you were appreciating it on, you could find something to enjoy in “Pee-wee’s Playhouse.”
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Why did Inspector Gadget stay employed? The man with machine parts was truly incompetent. At least his daughter Penny and their dog Brain was around to help him, not that Gadget ever figured it out. Hey, as long as Dr. Claw and M.A.D. didn’t get a win who could complain too much?
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The Smurfs as characters existed in comics prior to the ‘80s, but the famed cartoon that spawned their popularity in the United States basically ran the entire course of the ‘80s. The little blue creatures with the very explanatory names got in adventures and taught us some lessons. They also said “Smurf” a ton and eventually spawned two awful live-action movies.
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Speaking of adventures, nobody went on adventures quite like the crew from “DuckTales.” Hey when you’ve got money like Scrooge McDuck you can afford to travel the globe, perhaps to get some more treasures and accrue some more wealth. Of course, the show wasn’t just about a wealthy Scottish duck on the move. He had his nephews Huey, Dewey, and Louie with him naturally.
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“Garfield and Friends”
Hey, what kid who doesn’t like school couldn’t relate to Garfield’s disdain for Mondays? Garfield as a character is a little repetitive for an adult, but kids don’t mind a little repetition, as any parent who has had to watch a movie 100 times in a row can tell you. “Garfield and Friends” was split up between Garfield’s adventures and the gang from U.S. Acres, which is a little more polarizing.
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It’s not all cartoons and shows just for kids. There’s also the family-friendly sitcoms. “Perfect Strangers” was part of the original TGIF lineup in 1989, but the show about two mismatched cousins began in 1986. The broadness of the Balki character was something that could certainly appeal to kids. Don’t be ridiculous!
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“Jem and the Holograms”
Technically, the show was officially just called “Jem,” but everybody knows it as “Jem and the Holograms.” Hey, let’s give the backing band some love, since they aren’t actually holograms. The show is about a woman named Jerrica who, with the help of a holographic computer, becomes Jem, the biggest music star in the world. Also, there is an evil band called The Misfits for some reason.
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If nothing else, “Punky Brewster” taught a group of children not to go into refrigerators. Apparently the Joker never learned that lesson. Punky was one of many orphaned children of ‘80s television. She was literally abandoned while her mom was shopping. And yet, Punky remained optimistic and cheerful, making her a delightful TV friend for kids of the ‘80s.
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“The Muppet Show”
Technically, “The Muppet Show” only aired original episodes until 1981. However, that’s still the ‘80s. Also, if you were around in the ‘80s you remember the reruns of the Muppets’ variety show that aired for years on end. Kermit and the gang were a staple of TV for kids for the entirety of the ‘80s. Plus, we could throw in “Muppet Babies,” the animated show that began in 1984.
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We can only hope kids of the ‘80s weren’t too influenced by Alex P. Keaton. After all, he’s a Reagan-worshipping conservative despite being merely a teenager. The hook of the family sitcom was that his parents were hippies, creating a sense of conflict (that couldn’t override the love they had for each other). It was hard not to be drawn in my Alex. He was played by Michael J. Fox, after all.
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“He-Man and the Masters of the Universe”
By the power of Greyskull, Prince Adam of Eternia could transform himself into He-Man to take on the evil Skeletor. Sure, “He-Man” only existed to sell toys. It was the ‘80s! We didn’t think that was bad yet! And kids weren’t complaining about the superhero with the cool tiger for a pet fighting a skeleton man. They only made two seasons of “He-Man,” but they produced 120 episodes that aired in reruns for a while.
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“The Real Ghostbusters”
“Ghostbusters” was a massive hit in 1984, and naturally they wanted to capitalize on it. Why not make things a little more kid friendly, and also why not make Slimer a friend of the Ghostbusters? The reason the show had to be called “The Real Ghostbusters” was because a different company was trying to make some cash off of “Ghostbusters” by making an animated show based on a forgotten ‘70s TV show called “The Ghost Busters.” Since they had the rights, “The Real Ghostbusters” was born. Kids figured it out.
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“G.I. Joe: A Real American Hero”
There were actually two separate cartoons in the ‘80s with this exact name. They were both based on (and designed to sell) G.I. Joe toys. All the action figures were there in the show about an elite military crew with flashy names and different tics. One of the characters was actually Sgt. Slaughter, who was also a pro wrestler at the time. A wrestler and a G.I. Joe? That’s impressive.
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“Square Pegs” only lasted one season, but it has had an outsized impact on kids of the ‘80s. The story focuses on two female friends, one played by future star Sarah Jessica Parker who don’t quite fit in as high school freshman. At the time, it was considered a fairly realistic, but still funny, look at being a teenager in the ‘80s. Also, Bill Murray was in one episode, which is cool.
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“Head of the Class”
In terms of shows about oddball kids in the ‘80s, “Head of the Class” was more successful. The show focuses on “gifted” students as a high school and their teacher Charlie Moore, played by Howard Hesseman. It lasted for five seasons and 114 episodes, and then two of the guys who played students on the show, Dan Schneider and Brian Robbins, basically built an empire at Nickelodeon starting in the ‘90s.
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We don’t have a specific show here. Maybe you were into “Headbanger’s Ball.” Maybe “Yo! MTV Raps” was your thing. You might have just tuned in for the music video blocks. All we know is that once you hit your tween years in the ‘80s, you were almost definitely tuning into MTV every chance you could get. It was the pinnacle of what was cool in music, and also the pinnacle of what was cool in television. Indeed, ‘80s kids did want their MTV.
Chris Morgan is a sports and pop culture writer and the author of the booksThe Comic Galaxy of Mystery Science Theater 3000andThe Ash Heap of History. You can follow him on Twitter @ChrisXMorgan.