Primetime Animation: Cartoons for Adults
By Brittany Frederick
Primetime Animation: Cartoons for Adults
By Brittany Frederick
Cartoons aren’t just for kids anymore. Need proof? Watch a couple of episodes of Animation Block, where you’ll find cannabis-inspired chefs, flesh-eating zombies, and other adult-themed madness. Though adult-oriented animation like Animation Block is somewhat new to the public consciousness, cartoons for mature audiences have been around for decades.
You might consider it children’s fare by today’s standards, but The Flintstones and The Jetsons were the pioneers of mature animation – mimicking the storytelling style of famous primetime sitcoms (The Honeymooners) and proving just as successful in nighttime slots. The trend they started over 50 years ago is going strong and has become a staple of primetime viewing – with or without the kids.
Animation Block – Zombie
1. The Simpsons
You can’t talk about animation without mentioning The Simpsons. Since the late 1980s, the Simpson family and their fellow residents of Springfield have been offering up laughs, pop culture references, and commentary on life in general. The show has won almost 30 Primetime Emmy Awards and has broadcast nearly 500 episodes. This season alone (season 22), the show has tackled topics like the importance of education (“Loan-a Lisa”), being ashamed of one’s family (“Lisa Simpson, This Isn’t Your Life”), and parenting therapy (“Love Is A Many Strangled Thing”). The show has also featured appearances from “mature” personalities like Danica Patrick, Cheech & Chong, Paul Rudd, and documentarian Ken Burns, among others.
2. Space Ghost Coast to Coast
From 1994-2004, Cartoon Network (later Adult Swim) aired Space Ghost Coast to Coast, an animated parody of the talk show genre hosted by the 1960s superhero. However, the modern Space Ghost was nothing like the original one. His interactions with his guests were almost always painfully awkward and sometimes hostile, and they paled in comparison to his dysfunctional relationships with colleagues Moltar, Zorak, and Brak. No one got along. Yet that was fine, because this was a crazy show that involved celebrity interviews edited out of order, titles that had little if anything to do with the episodes, and a strange appreciation for Erik Estrada. Good stuff.
3. South Park
All you need to know about why South Park is on this list is contained in my previous article about the show’s numerous controversial cameos. Any show that repeatedly takes shots at such high-profile targets as Jesus Christ and Muhammad is definitely for adults. The show also includes a character named “Big Gay Al,” a teacher who talks to a hand puppet, the repetitive, gruesome death of a main cast member, and a talking piece of crap.
The minds behind The Simpsons also created future-set sitcom Futurama. Then FOX was stupid enough to cancel it. But it’s okay, because Comedy Central brought it back again. Here’s a show with a smoking, drinking, thieving robot (Bender Bending Rodriguez!), a Robot Devil, a murderous Robot Santa, controversial “suicide booths,” and a character who is his own grandpa (in Philip J. Fry). Aside from these lowbrow jokes, the show is also full of cultural references. The name of main character, Turanga Leela, is a nod to a Messiaen symphony. The Doctor from Doctor Who has popped up. The Head Museum is full of both cultural figures and in-jokes (the head of Leela’s voice actress, Katey Sagal, appeared in one recent episode). Both bold and smart, Futurama is equally as entertaining as The Simpsons.
5. Beavis and Butt-Head
It’s the two slackers on the couch that brought the name Mike Judge into the public consciousness. Although kids loved watching them (and parents hated them as a result), Beavis and Butt-Head’s adventures were never meant for young audiences. One episode sees Butt-Head accidentally shooting down a plane full of pregnant women (with no remorse), another sees them beaten by police after they make off with a ton of money from an ATM. In addition to their shenanigans, the show also gave us the character of Daria Morgendorffer, who got her own series Daria (a memorable show in its own right). In October 2011, MTV is bringing back Beavis and Butt-Head, and early buzz about the new episodes has been positive.
6. Family Guy
Family Guy was just the beginning of Seth MacFarlane’s slow takeover of the FOX network. The Griffin family, their controversial adventures, and numerous cutaway gags have been embraced the world over. The show has seen a dog date humans, a baby try to kill his mother repeatedly, a pedophile in the neighborhood, and a suggestion that beloved Sesame Street characters Bert and Ernie might be gay. Nothing is off-limits on Family Guy, and something is working because the show came back from cancellation, a near-miracle in television.
*MacFarlane is scheduled to reboot The Flintstones for Fox in 2013.
7. Pinky and the Brain
A spinoff from Animaniacs, Pinky and the Brain aired from 1995 to 1998, and the two lab mice still have a fond place in many hearts, mine included. Voice actor Maurice LaMarche (the man behind Brain) told me in a recent interview that he thought the show was written more for adults, and it’s not hard to see why. The animated series gave us hidden messages in the opening credits and definitions of big words in the closing credits. To top it off, there were glimpses of cerebral icons like Orson Welles and Dr. Sigmund Freud. Unfortunately, things went wrong when Kids WB execs started making demands of the show, including the random introduction of another mouse named Larry. The show was retooled into Pinky, Elmyra, and the Brain, after which it died a mercifully quick death.
8. King of the Hill
Perhaps the most underrated animated series, King of the Hill ran from 1997 to 2010, injecting deadpan humor into a depiction of relatively normal life in the fictional town of Arlen, Texas. There were no outrageous characters (although musician Chuck Mangione kept turning up with curious regularity) and no overt efforts to shock the audience (the show was almost always rated TV-PG). Through the first seven seasons, creators Mike Judge (also responsible for Beavis and Butt-Head) and Greg Daniels managed to create character development even within standalone episodes; and unlike many animated series, they acknowledged the aging of their characters. Like its main character, King of the Hill went largely without fanfare. It just did a very good job for a very long time.
This list isn’t anywhere near complete. There are plenty of other animated shows that are geared toward adults including Daria, Robot Chicken, and Celebrity Deathmatch, just to name a few. It’s clear that adult-oriented animation has found a successful place on television. And if these shows are up your alley, then it’s time for you to tune into Animation Block.
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TBrittany Frederick is an award-winning freelance entertainment journalist who reaches millions of people around the world every day with her unique blend of sophisticated analysis, sarcastic humor, and varied life experience. She maintains her own blog (DigitalAirwaves.net) and you can follow her on Twitter (@tvbrittanyf).