From SpongeBob to Mr. Hankey: 11 of the best original songs from cartoons

Screenshots from L: Home Movies, Charlie Brown Christmas, and Bob’s Burgers. Graphic: Allison Corr.
AVQ&AWelcome back to AVQ&A, where we throw out a question for discussion among the staff and readers. Consider this a prompt to compare notes on your interface with pop culture, to reveal your embarrassing tastes and experiences.

This week’s question comes from The A.V. Club’s Deputy Managing Editor, Caitlin PenzeyMoog:

What’s your favorite original song from a cartoon?

Caitlin PenzeyMoog

My brain tells me to go with any song from Over The Garden Wall, but my heart tells me it’s “This Grill Is Not A Home” from SpongeBob SquarePants. In the second-season episode “Welcome To The Chum Bucket,” SpongeBob is forced to work at the Krusty Krab competitor after Mr. Krabs bets SpongeBob’s contract in a game of cards against the dastardly Plankton. When instructed to make a Krabby Patty in the Chum Bucket’s sterile, laboratory-like kitchen, SpongeBob can only express his melancholy in song. The kitchen appliances may be the same, but there’s a world of difference working for a contemptible boss in place of his friend and mentor Mr. Krabs. I just love how it mimics the separated-lovers structure from a musical, with SpongeBob and Mr. Krabs singing a call-and-response, crescendoing with an echoed “It’s just a greasy spoon,” before the song ends with both voices coming together to sing “without you.”

William Hughes

I have a deep and slightly embarrassing love of TV music, up to and including cutting together a mix CD a few years back culled entirely from televised songs. (Yes, of course the Psych and Terriers themes are on there. Why do you ask?) So picking just one animated earworm as a “favorite” is an exercise in indecision for me. But despite my abiding love for the collected musical works of Rebecca Sugar and The Simpsons, I’m going to have to go with the boring answer and give the nod to a theme song: Brad Breeck’s Gravity Falls theme. Energetic and mysterious in equal measure, it doesn’t just fit the show perfectly; it’s also a piece of music that hits me deep in my emotional core, summoning up a yearning for an age where my dumb young brain could still half-hope that Bigfoots, extradimensional portals, and magic might be real.

Meg Brett

Doug was a great show for many reasons: Doug’s alter-ego Quailman, Skeeter’s frequent honking sounds, and of course, Doug’s artistic and often dramatic older sister Judy. But perhaps most importantly, Doug gave us one of the best cartoon rock bands ever: The Beets. The band was Doug’s favorite, and created in the likeness of British bands like The Beatles and The Who. Though both Doug and The Beets had several good songs, none can top the rock anthem “Killer Tofu.” As a kid, I would bust out some pretty sick air guitar moves and scream “Ah ee ooh, killer tofu!” at the top of my lungs without ever realizing the song was promoting healthy eating. Who knew a song about eating tofu and avoiding fried food could rock so hard?

Clayton Purdom

I need to be honest here. There are probably many better songs from cartoons that I could pick, but the one that has unequivocally brought the most joy in lo these 20 years since its creation is “Mr. Hankey, The Christmas Poo,” from the ninth episode of South Park’s very first season. It’s catchy, it’s informative, it’s extremely cool to bring up repeatedly around the holidays, particularly in mixed company, and it is—most importantly—funny. I’ll brook no argument on this matter: “He’s seen the love inside of you / Because he’s a piece of poo” is an objectively funny addition to the animated musical canon. I could defend here with details from South Park history—Mr. Hankey was originally conceived of as the lead character of the show, and he’s the best manifestation of Trey Parker and Matt Stone’s long obsession with Christmas—but I do not need to. “Flush him down, but he’s never gone / His smell and his spirit lingers on” is its own defense.

Maggie Donahue

As a show about two prodigious, geometrically shaped stepbrothers making the most of their summer while their pet platypus runs off to fight crime, Phineas And Ferb was one of the most creative cartoons to come out of the 2000s. A huge part of that was the music. There’s 104 excellent songs in Phineas And Ferb— “S.I.M.P. (Squirrels In My Pants)”, “Busted,” and the Emmy-nominated theme by Bowling For Soup, to name a few. But if I have to choose just one, it’d have to be the Danny Jacob-led “Ain’t Got Rhythm.” After a tragic accident steals Love Händel drummer Swampy’s rhythm, he leaves the band to work in a place well-suited for an arrhythmic ex-drummer: a public library. But as Swampy stamps books and shuffles through card catalogues, swearing that he’s “lost the beat,” Phineas and Ferb—as well as the library’s foot stomping patrons and shh-ing old ladies— show him how very wrong he is. Far from lacking rhythm, the song is so damn catchy, and the lyrics were good enough to nab it an Emmy nomination for Outstanding Original Music and Lyrics. It ended up losing out to “I’m Fucking Matt Damon,” but at least Swampy found his rhythm again in time for one last Love Händel reunion concert.

Sam Barsanti

My all-time favorite cartoon song, “The Night Begins To Shine” from Teen Titans Go!, technically wasn’t written for the show (even if it was only ever released because of the show), so I’ll have to go with “The Compliments Song” from Home Movies. The series has no shortage of brilliant musical cuts, but none of them are remotely as funny as Brendan Small and H. Jon Benjamin’s screechy tribute to tricking people into doing nice things for you. It’s hilariously annoying, particularly the way Benjamin’s character (Jason, as The Captain Of Outer Space) loses track of the lyrics at the end and slowly starts to fall behind Brendan (as Starboy). In his defense, though, the end of the song is phrased to awkward perfection: “We wish it was different but that’s the way it seems to be, cause you need to compliment because that’s what people need.” Oh sure, the Franz Kafka rock opera is objectively better, but it lacks the utter joy of “The Compliments Song.”

Nick Wanserski

I couldn’t have been more excited when Futurama was first announced. Matt Groening’s love for mid-century science fiction was evident from his earliest Life In Hell strips and it felt like kismet that he and David X. Cohen would develop a show dedicated solely to loving/poking fun at sci-fi. I was a bit worried when the show’s first episode was heavy on place-setting and not particularly funny. Fortunately, the second episode, “The Series Has Landed,” was an immediate improvement; the team visits the theme park on the moon, peaking with Luna Park’s historical reenactment of earth’s first visitors to Luna, “Whalers On The Moon.” Almost more than the song itself, which is a brief five-stanza ditty about the thwarted efforts of a group of particularly adventurous commercial fishermen, is how the scene encapsulates all my favorite things about Matt Groening’s flavor of humor: Half-assed rinky-dink spectacle, crazed-looking singing rodents, and gleeful ignorance. Even Fry, whose sole insight into the actual history of the moon landing comes simply from being alive in the same century it occurred, has his protests shot down by Leela’s dismissive “I don’t see your fungineering degree.”

Baraka Kaseko

I’d be remiss not to mention Bob’s Burgers in a discussion regarding original music from animated television. From a duet about man-on-elephant love, to a handful of pitch-perfect boy-band parodies, any song from the Fox sitcom’s weird, wonderful catalog would probably feel at home on this list, but my favorite track from the bunch has to be “It’s Valentine’s Day” from season six’s “The Gene And Courtney Show.” Unlike the majority of songs on the show, which lean toward goofy and cheerful in tone, “It’s Valentine’s Day” is an earnest and bittersweet ballad. It represents a rare moment of emotional maturity for the middle Belcher child, as a fun, holiday-themed announcement over the Wagstaff School PA system by Gene and Courtney turns into a poetic address after Gene hijacks the set to sing to the students (and Courtney, his former beau) about unrequited love and life after heartbreak. Sure, there are other songs in the Bob’s Burgers catalog that musically outshine “It’s Valentine’s Day,” like “Electric Love” and “Work Hard Or Die Trying, Girl,” but neither of those pack the same emotional gut punch.

Erik Adams

Sam’s right: The Franz Kafka rock opera is the superior Home Movies composition. In fact, it’s several superior Home Movies compositions, and unlike some of my other animated favorites—“Stop The Planet Of The Apes, I Want To Get Off,” Dan Harmon’s flu-awareness Rick And Morty freestyle—those compositions are more than just an ornate joke-delivery system. Presenting Home Movies’ in-house metal band Scäb at their most Andrew Lloyd Webber, the songs express a believably boneheaded teenage take on the author, hitting the encyclopedia signposts (“He’s steel, it’s to the core / Born in 1883, died in 1924”) before lacing in plot points from Kafka’s best-known, insect-related short story. And there’s an impressive stylistic variety to the whole thing, from the Flash Gordon falsetto of the bookends to the balladry of the “living like a bug ain’t easy” passage, which I’ve long contended would make a great New Pornographers cover. The Hank Scorpio theme might be funnier, and I listen to the goofy Bob’s Burgers interstitial “Fracas Foam” (“There’s Jimmy Pesto / He’s so mad”) at least once or twice a week, but I gotta take a stand for Dwayne, his warrior of words, and his tiny little bug feet.

Gwen Ihnat

At the risk of getting pounded for bringing this up months too early, my favorite cartoon song is one written for the 1965 holiday special, A Charlie Brown Christmas. It’s not only my favorite Christmas special, but my favorite holiday album, as the mix of Vince Guaraldi trio’s spare jazz mixed with children’s voices adds a necessary dose of melancholia to the season—like the feeling you get when the days start shrinking and winter adds its moments of bleakness as well as coziness. “Christmastime Is Here” is the perfect song to kick off Charlie Brown’s holiday season; while it elaborates on seasonal delights like “snowflakes in the air” and “carols everywhere,” there’s a pervasive sense of longing: “Oh, that we could always see / Such spirit through the year.” Since I can easily slide into the holiday season with too-high expectations, Charlie Brown’s kickoff song helps keep those aspirations in check, even as I happily get absorbed in the usual December mania.

Alex McLevy

A lot of my favorites are already representing hard here—primarily Home Movies—so it seems fitting to end with a classic, one that still gets stuck in my head at least once a month, and probably has ever since I first heard it 20-some years ago. (Back when I wore an onion on my belt, which was the style at the time.) I refer, of course, to the iconic and eternal earworm known as “The Monorail Song.” The Simpsons was at the height of its powers, Conan O’Brien was in the writer’s seat, and this song from season four’s “Marge Vs. The Monorail” should be Exhibit A for the sheer visual, musical, and structural ingenuity of the series. A note-perfect riff on The Music Man, Phil Hartman’s slick salesman voice was never put to better use than this ode to an expensive, underfunded, and ill-conceived addition to a town with little to no use for it. Of course, if I wanted to convince people of my argument, I probably should’ve written a song, like that guy in the clip.

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