I think about the PBS Kids series Arthur a lot, but I’m haunted by one particular episode: season 4’s “The Contest.” Originally aired on Oct. 8, 1999, the episode relied on a handful of late ’90s cultural references that I, simply put, did not comprehend as the show’s target demographic of small child.
In “The Contest,” Arthur and his pals hear about a contest hosted by their favorite show (an in-universe riff of Arthur itself), asking viewers to send in story ideas that would be made into an episode. Each main character takes a stab at writing a story, and the squad gets together to share their ideas. Each sequence unfolds in a different animation style, treated by the creators of Arthur as an homage to a different show.
To this day, Arthur deals in subtle cultural references and celebrity guests. Yo-Yo Ma, Mr. Rogers, and Neil Gaiman have all appeared on the show as themselves. It’s spoofed Harry Potter, A Series of Unfortunate Events, Tintin, and even Alfred Hitchcock’s The Birds. Yet unlike most of the other pop culture references in Arthur, “The Contest” dealt in adult-themed, almost lewd homages. Only years later, after I caught an episode of Dexter’s Lab on Cartoon Network, did I start understanding what was really going on. But that was the tip of the iceberg.
Now, armed with 20 years more knowledge than I had as a child, I have finally figured out which show each sequence referenced. For anyone else who didn’t understand, here’s a breakdown of Arthur’s weirdest episode.
Buster: “The Day The Earth Was Saved”
Arthur’s alien-crazed best friend Buster comes up with a story about aliens crash-landing on Earth and kidnapping Arthur. The UFO squashes Buster, but the aliens decide not to eat Arthur because his cholesterol is too high. The paper-cutout style and the big heads on tiny bodies evoke the animation-style of South Park. The characters also speak in the same high-pitched, slightly sped up tone as the show’s characters. And on top of that, the alien concept is a nod to South Park’s own series premiere, which saw Cartman receive an alien probe.
At the time the episode aired, South Park had been on Comedy Central for about two years — a year less than Arthur itself. These two ‘90s staples continued on into the 2000s and 2010s. One tackles big issues in kid-friendly ways and the other aims to offend just about everybody. The media landscape might change, but Arthur and South Park, apparently, are forever.
Muffy: “My Life as A TV Show”
Spoiled, rich girl Muffy dreams up a story where she’s a runway model. Stylized like Mike Judge’s Beavis and Butt-Head, complete with exaggerated foreheads and jaws, Arthur and Buster mock her and call her the “fifth Teletubby.” The MTV show premiered a few years before Arthur in 1992, and ran through the ’90s. Beavis and Butt-Head also spawned a spinoff in Daria (which has sadly not been spoofed on Arthur) and returned for one last season in 2011. The show’s lewd humor influenced South Park and is possibly the furthest thing from Arthur’s family friendly approach out there.
Fun fact: this isn’t the only time Arthur parodied the Mike Judge animated sitcom. An earlier episode features a comic and cartoon called Peabrain and Nuthead.
Brain:“Hair Growth Formula”
With bold lines and exaggerated proportions — along with Brain sporting a vague Eastern European accent — this sequence pays tribute to Cartoon Network show Dexter’s Laboratory. It’s the only one of these segments that specifically parodies a fellow kids show instead of one aimed at adults, and fitting, as Brain, the smartest kid in class, would concoct a story where his inventions are foiled by the incompetence of his friends.
Genndy Tartakovsky’s debut series premiered on Cartoon Network in 1995 and ran through 2003. Unlike Arthur, it wasn’t an educational show and just focused on lab hijinks and humor. The series is notable for launching the careers of Seth MacFarlane (Family Guy) and Butch Hartman (Fairly Odd Parents), whose shows would’ve likely been in this episode had it come out 10 years later. That puts the weirdness of this episode in perspective — imagine Arthur parodying Family Guy in 2020.
Francine and Binky: “The Amazing Fight”
This sequence doesn’t parody an animated show, but instead the WWE. (Because this episode came out in 1999, the WWE was the WWF, World Wrestling Foundation, which changed its name in 2003 to avoid confusion with the World Wildlife Foundation.) Sporty Francine and tough guy Binky spin up a story where Arthur goes face-to-face with an animated Hulk Hogan. Just by stomping his foot, he easily defeats Hulk Hogan and then goes up against John L. Sullivan, Floyd Patterson, Barney Rose, and the United Press International (which Binky admits he just copied from the caption of a picture he found).
Arthur: “The Troubled Sister”
The episode’s final sequence is also the reference that eluded me the longest. Rendered in a mostly monochromatic world with shaky outlines, an 18-year-old Arthur speaks to his therapist about his annoying sister. The slow, rambling speech, the setup of a psychiatrist, and the black and white background are all indicative of Comedy Central’s Dr. Katz, Professional Therapist. In fact, the psychiatrist that Arthur sees is Dr. Katz himself — just with Arthur-verse animal ears. Dr. Katz, Professional Therapist premiered in 1995 and initially, all of Dr. Katz’s patients were stand-up comics who recited sets that were then animated. A lot of the dialogue for the show was ad-libbed, making the show a predecessor to better known series like Home Movies and Bob’s Burgers.
All 22 seasons of Arthur are available to buy on Amazon.
Vox Media has affiliate partnerships. These do not influence editorial content, though Vox Media may earn commissions for products purchased via affiliate links. For more information, see our ethics policy.