We take the internet for granted. Seriously, imagine having to fill out tax forms by hand and mail them or look at an actual map to travel to unknown destinations. What about spreading humor? Today, memes are the main currency of the internet, providing humor and virality in often unpredictable ways, but it was not always that way. When the internet hit the mainstream in the 1990s, users were met with the idea of being able to create and share their own projects outside of the confines of major media outlets. It was content created by the everyman for the everyman.
A popular vehicle for spreading humor in those days was animation. Typically created in Adobe Flash, these animations were crude, profanity-laced, and often violent. They were also surreal, funny, and highly quotable. They also managed to intertwine juvenile humor with dark subject matter and often had a finger on the pulse of what the ordinary person in that era found both humorous and frightening.
The feelings generated by these animations, followed along with the infectiously quotable dialogue, created a one-two punch of virality that helped to usher in the meme-age. In fact, some of these early internet animations were so viral that they cracked through the computer screen and made it as far as the silver screen. So if you’re here to learn about the early days of the internet or just looking for some nostalgia from a bygone time, here are 10 influential early web animations.
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10 The Dancing Baby
Perhaps the most ’90s thing to ever exist, the dancing baby, was an early 3D animation of a baby doing a cha-cha style dance. The origins are a little murky, but the animation is credited to a group of animators (Michael Girard, Robert Lurye, Tony Morril, and John Chadwick) who were working on a project called Biped that involved the popular 3D animation software Character Studio. From its inception in 1996, the animators knew they had something that was both spooky but impossible to stop looking at. Eventually, the animation was paired with the intro to Blue Suede’s “Hooked on a Feeling,” and the Dancing Baby exploded in popularity.
The Dancing Baby blazed its way through all corners of the internet before appearing on news channels, in commercials, and ultimately in the hit comedy Ally McBeal, where the Dancing Baby appears to Ally as a vision representing her ticking biological clock. The spread of the Dancing Baby was unprecedented at this point and is arguably one of the first examples of something going viral. The Dancing Baby has popped up here and there over the years, mostly as a form of nostalgia for the ’90s, but the original gif has been treated to a hi-def upgrade and developed into an NFT. As for me, I credit the Dancing Baby with reinvigorating Robert Downey Jr.’s career via Ally McBeal. 
Memorable quote: Oogachacka!
9 I’m the Juggernaut B*tch
Two main staples of early internet humor are profanity and randomness. Both make a strong showing in the video “I’m the Juggernaut B*tch.” Uploaded to YouTube in 2005 by Xavier Nazario and Randy Hayes of My Way Entertainment, the video was a dub of an episode of the 1992 X-Men animated series. In the video, we see Randy voice the titular Juggernaut character as he fights Charles Xavier and friends while uttering profanity-laced and sometimes nonsensical lines, including the oft-quoted “Do you know who I am? I’m the juggernaut, b*tch.”
Per their website, the parody dub was created in 2005 to kill time and wasn’t unleashed to the internet until 2006, when they posted the video on their YouTube channel. The video quickly went viral and was so popular that it made it to the silver screen. In the live-action X-Men film X3: The Last Stand, the Juggernaut says the line while fighting Kitty Pryde. By the end of the year, however, the video was removed from YouTube due to copyright issues with Marvel, but it was later uploaded in 2007 by another user, where it has garnered 8.8 million views. As for My Way Entertainment, they are still active and posting on their own channel.
Memorable quote: what else? “Don’t you know who I am? I’m the juggernaut, b*tch!”
8 The End of Ze World
It may seem a little counterintuitive, but the crudeness of early internet animations is what made them so endearing in the first place. This is because these animations were homemade with whatever equipment the artists could find. It was primitive, but it was also for the average Joe just surfing the net. The End of Ze World is a perfect depiction of that.
This short animation features a hypothetical situation of what would happen if all the countries with nuclear weapons started firing them at each other. A dark topic for sure, but this animation was created in 2003, just after the U.S. had invaded Iraq, so war was on almost everyone’s mind. Like all great comedy, though, the video takes a tragic topic and presents it in a comical way by including funny voices, stereotypes, and highly quotable lines.
The video was created by Jason Windsor of Albinoblacksheep. According to him, the animation was conceived with a group of friends reenacting how each superpower would react to nuclear missiles being fired at them. He then went home, created a basic flash animation and voiceover, and sent the video to his friends. At some point, it made it onto the Albinoblacksheep website and then began making its way across the web. While the video was pre-YouTube, the video was uploaded to the site in 2008 and has reached over 14 million views. Jason Windsor didn’t receive much for the video, but it did help advance his career as an animator.
Memorable quotes: “H’okay, so here’s the Earth.” “Fire ze missiles!” “But I am le tired.”
7 Homestar Runner
You had to be living under a rock or had never even seen a computer at the turn of the millennium to not know about Homestar Runner. Even then, you likely heard a Strong Bad quote at some point. That’s just how popular the web series was. The series focused on the life and adventures of the titular characters along with a cast of other interesting personalities. It is hard to give a good synopsis of the show, given that the content was surreal and often parodied various pieces of popular culture. The idea of Homestar Runner was conceived by Mike Chapman and Craig Zobel when they created their own children’s book. While the book was never picked up for publishing, the character lived on when Mike and his brother, Matt Chapman, decided to work on Flash animation and thought it would be a good idea to revive the character of Homestar Runner.
On January 1, 2000, the Homestar Runner website was launched, and the brothers began releasing shorts. It took about a year, but Homestar Runner started gaining traction in 2001 with the release of their first Strong Bad Email episode. Strong Bad, the main antagonist of the series, would boot up his computer and read fan emails, often making fun of their names and grammar while rarely answering any questions directly.
This series, in particular, was so popular that if the Chapman Brothers were late posting any Strong Bad Email episodes, they would end up with a bunch of strongly worded emails asking where the next episode was. The site continued to grow, and from about 2001 to 2009, millions of visitors viewed the website, eventually gaining interest outside of the internet. Joss Whedon often featured references to the web series in his TV shows Buffy the Vampire Slayer and Angel, and the video game Guitar Hero 2 let you play Strong Bad’s song “Trogdor the Burninator” as a bonus song.
Another interesting thing about the series was that it never made any money from advertising. The website maintained enough money to support the brothers with sales of their Homestar Runner merchandise. To this day, the site is still running with plenty of animations, games, and other content to enjoy, all without advertisements. These guys were the real OGs of early internet animations.
Memorable quotes: too many to list. Just go watch it!
6 The Badger Song
Depending on who you ask, this is either one of the greatest or worst achievements in internet animation. It is a 30-second song that, when viewed on the original website, would loop infinitely. If you’re getting vibes of Lambchop’s “Song that Doesn’t End,” you’re on the right track… only more nonsensical. The video features a bunch of badgers with cutaways to a mushroom and a snake in the desert, all the while a dance beat and voiceover provide a song that just describes what is onscreen. It seems silly to try and describe what the video is, considering how simple and ridiculous it is.
The video was created by Jonti Picking of Weebl and Bob fame, and it was released in 2003. The video became so popular that it helped to earn Picking’s website a People’s Choice Award. The video was uploaded to YouTube by Picking in 2008 and has gotten more than 28 million views since then. The video also inspired many fan-made videos of people reenacting the dance that the badgers perform, one of them being mine.
Memorable quote: “Badger (x12), mushroom (x2), a snake, a snake, ohh, it’s a snake.”
5 Salad Fingers
So far, most of the animations discussed have been bright and silly, even if the subject matter has been a little dark. Salad Fingers is the opposite of all that. It’s visually dark and dreary and covers equally dark and creepy topics. Salad Fingers is a thin, green man with a creepy disposition and possibly mental issues. I mean, in the introductory episode, Salad Fingers tells the audience that the feeling of rusty spoons against his salad fingers is almost orgasmic. So yeah, he’s an odd fellow. As of now, 12 episodes follow Salad Fingers through life in the desolate, post-apocalyptic world he inhabits.
Salad Fingers is definitely an outlier on this list, highlighting the creepy and disturbing over humor. Still, we have to look at the time it was released to understand its virality. The first episode was released in 2004. Hot Topic was exploding in popularity in malls across America, emo music was surging, the Nightmare Before Christmas was experiencing a renaissance, and works like Johnny the Homicidal Maniac were becoming cult classics. With that in mind, it’s no wonder that Salad Fingers’s disturbing dystopia has been viewed over 110 million times on YouTube and screened at multiple international short film festivals. The creator, David Firth, has even created a new episode this year, so the creepiness is still going strong.
Memorable quotes: “Hubert Cumberdale, you taste like soot and poo!” “I like rusty spoons.”
7 Happy Tree Friends
Disturbing, but in a totally different kind of way, Happy Tree Friends takes the concept of a children’s cartoon like Tom and Jerry or em>Tiny Toons/em> and moves the needle from cartoon violence to bloody gore. Think Itchy and Scratchy from The Simpsons but with cuter characters and more cruel depravity. The series relies on the cognitive dissonance and shock value of cute cartoons committing and receiving extreme acts of violence. Most episodes begin with the mundane lives of these adorable woodland creatures until an event, like a balloon popping and triggering a bear’s PTSD or a beaver tripping and falling onto his lollipop eye first, causes violence to ensue.
Created by Rhode Montijo, Aubrey Ankrum, and Kenn Navarro of Mondo Media, the first short was released in 1999. The cartoon quickly grew to the point that they were viewed 15 million times each month. The success was so exponential that Happy Tree Friends even got its own television series that premiered in 2006. The show has also won numerous awards, and some of the characters were also featured in a Fall Out Boy music video. Currently, there hasn’t been an addition to the series since 2016, but the show hasn’t officially ended either. So there’s still hope to see a cute woodland creature get mutilated, thank God.
Memorable quotes: the sounds of cute creatures getting mutilated.
3 Charlie the Unicorn
Another divisive entry on the list is Charlie the Unicorn. Like the Badger Song, people tend to either love Charlie the Unicorn or absolutely hate it. After losing almost all his possessions in Hurricane Katrina and moving to Orlando, Jason Steele did not have much to give his mother on her birthday, so he created a unicorn-themed Flash animation. The animation features Charlie, a pessimistic, rough-around-the-edges unicorn who gets approached by two overly cheerful unicorns that tell him they have found a way to get to Candy Mountain. The adventure becomes increasingly nonsensical until the end when Charlie is double-crossed by the two unicorns and wakes up in a meadow where he realizes his kidneys have been removed.
The proud mother posted the animation to Newgrounds, where it gained a lot of traction and was eventually released on YouTube, where it currently has 68 million views from its original upload and 37 million views from its official release. While many people were annoyed by the falsetto-voiced, overly cheerful unicorns, many found themselves identifying with Charlie as he is often annoyed by his compatriots and ends up getting taken advantage of.
The video achieved such a high level of popularity that it even made its way into the music video of Weezer’s song “Pork and Beans.” It is wild to think that such a work of surreal and nonsensical humor could result from such a tragedy as Hurricane Katrina, but given the dark undertones of the plot, maybe the evidence was there all along.
Memorable quotes: “Charlieeee! Heeeeey, hey Charlieee!” “Shun the non-believer!”
2 Gröûp X
This one is more of a collaborative effort among Gröûp X and various online animators. The group bills itself as a Saudi Arabian rap rock group from the fictional town of Cramshananteen. Their music can be described as joke songs featuring vocalists with silly accents over basic drum beats. Unfortunately, that is about all I could really dig up on the group because what really made them blow up were the fan-made music videos that were uploaded to sites like Newgrounds and Albinoblacksheep. Three videos, in particular, managed to go viral: “Bang Bang Bang,” “Schfifty Five,” and “Mario Twins.” Each video was stylistically similar, portraying the band as stick figures and roughly acting out the lyrics to the songs.
Currently, each video on YouTube has over 500,000 views, with the video for Schfifty Five having 10 million views over 15 years. The combination of funny accents, basic drum beats, crude animations, and silly lyrics about only looking for carnal love (Bang Bang Bang), counting all the way to Schfifty Five (Schfifty Five), and how the Mario Bros. are difficult to tell apart (Mario Twins), make the videos quirky, quotable, and extremely accessible. As a testament to the popularity of these videos, the spell check on my computer does not mark the word schfifty.
Memorable quote: “I know how to count all the way to Schfifty Five, and I can do it faster than you can say ‘poopty peupty pants.’”
1 The Spirit of Christmas
The Spirit of Christmas is very similar to the Dancing Baby animation in that the virality of the animation wasn’t about how many people saw it but who saw it and spread it. The Spirit of Christmas is a 1992 animation short made from construction paper and depicts four boys reenacting the Frosty the Snowman story. However, once Frosty comes to life, he begins a violent rampage and ends up killing two of the boys. The remaining boys seek the help of Jesus, who uses his halo to cut off Frosty’s hat. The boys then reflect on the true meaning of Christmas: presents.
The animation was discovered by Brian Graden, a Fox executive who commissioned the creators of the short to make a sequel that he could send as a video Christmas card to his friends. The follow-up featured Jesus and Santa Claus physically fighting over the true meaning of Christmas until the four boys intervene. The video ends with the boys deciding to be Jewish in order to get more presents over the eight nights of Hanukkah.
I have left out a key detail of this story that will give you an idea about why this animation was so influential: the creators of the Spirit of Christmas animations were none other than Trey Parker and Matt Stone, the creators of South Park. The interest from Fox led Trey and Matt to further develop the characters and themes and pitch the show to the network. Unfortunately, the network denied the pitch, notably because of a character that was an anthropomorphized piece of feces.
The animations began to spread via bootleg copies throughout the internet and eventually made their way to Comedy Central, which picked up the show. The first episode of South Park premiered in 1997 and immediately took off, becoming the behemoth it is today. Currently, South Park has 318 episodes, one film, and multiple video games and is still going strong. In many ways, the Spirit of Christmas was a harbinger of the early internet animations discussed above: crude artwork, vulgar but extremely quotable dialogue, and dark humor.
Memorable quote: “Oh my God! Frosty killed Kenny!”