Comfort Viewing: 3 Reasons I Love ‘Courage the Cowardly Dog’ (Published 2021) (2023)


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The bizarre animated series creatively blended the beautiful with the grotesque, pop culture with pathos.

Comfort Viewing: 3 Reasons I Love ‘Courage the Cowardly Dog’ (Published 2021) (1)

By Maya Phillips


In another life I would have written a book called “Of Monsters and Mutts.” Why? Well, I can’t help my love for scaredy-cat canines who are bedeviled by the scary and supernatural. As a child, I gleefully watched every incarnation of Scooby-Doo I could find, including the original “Scooby-Doo Where Are You?” TV series. So when “Courage the Cowardly Dog” appeared on Cartoon Network in 1999, I was already primed.

But it wasn’t love at first sight. When Courage debuted in an animated short three years earlier, I was only about 5 years old. In it, Courage, who lives in the middle of nowhere with a kind but oblivious old woman and her miserable farmer husband, tries to alert his owners that they are under attack by a red-eyed, laser-gun-toting alien chicken. It doesn’t go so well for the farmer. I was terrified.

That short, created by John R. Dilworth as part of Cartoon Network’s “What a Cartoon!” showcase, was nominated for an Oscar, and the network greenlit a full series, which ran for four seasons. One of Cartoon Network’s early original series, “Courage” mixed horror with dark absurdist humor, giving it an eclectic appeal for preteen and teen viewers.

Having recovered from nightmares of nefarious poultry, I later came to appreciate the show’s brutal and surreal comedy and even found it a comfort — one of the shows I reflexively put on in the background for years. Earlier this year, HBO Max added “Courage” to its streaming roster, and I’m grateful for the distraction. But revisiting “Courage” now, decades later, I can better appreciate all the ways the series distinguished itself in my childhood TV lineup, and the emotional depth beneath its gothic absurdity.

The pop culture references

Don’t you love a good parody? “Courage” playfully ripped off themes, characters and story lines from various regions in the cultural landscape: horror movies, mythology, classic literature and Broadway.

Some of the references I got as a kid: the recurring character, Benton Tarantella, a jeering satire of Quentin Tarantino who’s obsessed with capturing the horrors of humanity with a crude, sensationalist flair; the episode “Demon in the Mattress,” one of my favorites, which was a parody of the “Exorcist”; and the episode “The Hunchback of Nowhere,” an affectionate translation of Victor Hugo’s “The Hunchback of Notre Dame.” (It was another seven or eight years before I read Hugo’s beautifully bleak novel, but the 1996 Disney film gave me enough context.)

But rewatching the series now, I see references to Sondheim in a rhyming episode about a crazy barber; to the Greek myth Leda and the Swan in an episode about an amorous goose god; and to Herman Melville in an episode about a quest to find a “sand whale.” Even Shakespeare and H.G. Wells touch down in episodes of “Courage” — a literary and horror fan’s dream.


(Video) Why Courage The Cowardly Dog got DISCONTINUED in whole world : A Short Documentary | Animation Vibes

The aesthetic and tonal variety

In many ways “Courage” is a sportive grab bag of modes and forms. There’s its unpredictable mix of standard animation and C.G.I. There’s its medley of characters — conniving French ducks and butcher pigs and sneaky cats — along with the occasional human face, uncannily rendered among these animated characters. (Witness, for example, the eyeless, black-lipped floating head of the harvest moon spirit, played by Peter Fernandez.)

And then there are the locales: Courage mostly fights the supernatural in his little desert town, but he also ventures out to the ocean, into space, into Manhattan and into a dystopian future ruled by banana people. (Even the characters’ accents, which unfortunately veer into the stereotypical for the characters of color, are all over the place.)

But it’s this kind of variety in the show’s visuals and character styles that make it surprising, and, at times, patently scary. The landscape shots of Courage’s farmhouse home are often stunning — backlit with warm yellows and oranges or darkened with mystical violets and azures, the moon hanging low and casting shadows. The show had a remarkable handle on bold, synesthetic color palettes to evoke the horror or absurdity or tranquillity of a situation.

But as beautiful as these animated scenes are, there are also plenty of moments of the grotesque: characters and objects with purposely uneven or asymmetrical designs, scenes with projectile ectoplasm and rotting parts and disembowelment.

Even Courage’s large spectrum of scream-styles captures the show’s dedication to variety: He gasps, rolls out his tongue onto the floor, pops out his eyes “Looney Tunes”-style and once even collapses from a sudden heart attack. It’s cruel but also comedic, and it’s indicative of the final reason I love “Courage the Cowardly Dog.”

The pathos

It would have been so easy to make this show a vehicle for juvenile laughs and scares, but “Courage” also frequently took the viewer to a place of pathos. Its view of humanity was often bleak: Many characters are often outcasts, or unstable, or lost, and the horrors that shadow them are the results of vice or misfortune. Not every antagonist is a villain to be vanquished; some, Courage just helps along.


(Video) (Almost) All Courage and Computer Interactions

The episode “Magic Tree of Nowhere,” one of the most heartbreaking of the series, shows a perverse version of Shel Silverstein’s “The Giving Tree.” The tree, which speaks, grants wishes and has an eerie human face, is a gift that Eustace, the farmer, grows to resent because it is a better provider than he is. Courage, in turn, must take on the Sisyphean task of protecting it, even though the tree knows it will be in vain.

Eustace often abuses Courage and frequently ends up being the final landing pad of an episode’s catastrophe, punished for his selfishness, pettiness or greed. But even he is given emotional dimension in episodes like these. In others we learn that his abusive mother had a lot do with why he became the miserable curmudgeon he is.

Of course, Courage is the heart of the show, resignedly muttering, “The things I do for love” whenever he is about to march once more unto the breach. That’s the ultimate comfort: seeing a fictional world full of horror where, despite his fear, a tiny pink beagle always manages to overcome it and single-handedly save the day.

No offense to Scooby and his snacks, but Courage doesn’t need to be bribed or coerced to act, and he doesn’t resolve his frightening predicaments because of selfishness or a hero complex. He does so out of empathy and love, and whatever monsters he faces can never measure up.

A correction was made on

March 8, 2021


An earlier version of this article misidentified the actor who played the harvest moon spirit in "Courage the Cowardly Dog." He was Peter Fernandez, notFred Melamed.

How we handle corrections

(Video) Straight Outta Nowhere: Scooby Doo Meets Courage the Cowardly Dog | Warner Bros. Entertainment

Maya Phillips is a New York Times critic at large. She is the author of the poetry collection “Erou” (Four Way Books, 2019) and "NERD: On Navigating Heroes, Magic, and Fandom in the 21st Century,” forthcoming in summer 2022 from Atria Books. @mayabphillips

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(Video) Courage The Cowardly Dog Was TERRIFYING


What is the darkest episode of Courage the Cowardly Dog? ›

“Perfect” (Season 4, Episode 13)

The series ends with its most terrifying theme yet: perfection. If there's anything Courage is not known for, it's the attitude or personality of a perfectionist.

What was the message behind Courage the Cowardly Dog? ›

Children's media often promotes this romantic notion that facing fears allows people to instantaneously overcome them. “Courage the Cowardly Dog” asserted that fear is okay, and that it is how we respond to inescapable circumstances that defines us.

What is Eustace Bagge's catchphrase? ›

One of Eustace's favorite tricks is to wait until Courage is in relative peace before he utters his catchphrase of "Stupid dog!" and proceeding to pull out a hideous Voodoo-like mask and yelling, "Ooga booga booga!" to frighten Courage half to death.

What does Eustace say about Courage in the intro? ›

Eustace: GAH! Narrator: But creepy stuff happens in Nowhere. It's up to Courage to save his new home!

What is the saddest episode of Courage? ›

Despite its reputation as a comedy/horror show, Courage the Cowardly Dog has several very sad episodes. "The Magic Tree of Nowhere", where the titular tree is killed by a jealous Eustace.

What lessons can we learn from Courage the Cowardly Dog? ›

Courage, the cowardly dog

We learn that no matter what, and how scared you are from anything, you must face your fears and overcome them. Especially, when your loved ones are in danger, you must put aside all your fears and help and stand by them.

What serial killer is Courage the Cowardly Dog based on? ›

David Parker Ray
Victims3+ survived 60+ murders suspected
Span of crimesc. 1957 – March 22, 1999 (Suspected)
CountryUnited States
State(s)New Mexico Arizona
9 more rows

What ended Courage the Cowardly Dog? ›

Why is Eustace so mean to Muriel? ›

He has a dislike for Courage and often likes to scare him to near death or berate him. Eustace also tends to be demanding and often scolds Muriel for not having his dinner ready or just grunts angrily. He is the definition of a grumpy old man.

Does Eustace actually love Muriel? ›

Eustace regularly yells at Courage and calls him a "Stupid dog!" He regularly demeans Muriel as well, but he still does love his wife, as evidenced by his concern for her well-being in a few episodes, like "Demon in the Matteress".

How old is Muriel Bagge? ›

Muriel bagge
HairGray, formerly Black
12 more rows

Did Courage the Cowardly Dog always talk? ›

Courage's dialogue decreased after the first season. This is because the creators at Cartoon Network thought Courage "talked too much" and wanted his dialogue cut short. Lionel Wilson (Eustace) quit halfway through the series due to illness and was replaced by Arthur Anderson.

What was the last episode of Courage the Cowardly Dog about? ›

What episode does Courage the Cowardly Dog stop talking? ›

"Courage the Cowardly Dog" Squatting Tiger, Hidden Dog/Muted Muriel (TV Episode 2002) - Plot - IMDb.

Is Courage the Cowardly Dog kid friendly? ›

Parents need to know that this show isn't appropriate for any child young enough to believe in the reality of a cartoon character on any level. Every episode begins with Courage's owner's husband behaving in a nasty, abusive way to his wife and dog, and overall the show is about as violent and gross as it's possible…

Why did Courage the Cowardly Dog stop talking? ›

Courage's dialogue decreased after the first season. This is because the creators at Cartoon Network thought Courage "talked too much" and wanted his dialogue cut short. Lionel Wilson (Eustace) quit halfway through the series due to illness and was replaced by Arthur Anderson.

Who is Freaky Fred based off of? ›

Cousin Fred in "Freaky Fred", is based on the 'Sweeney Todd (Character)' - the Demon Barber of Fleet Street.


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