Features and Columns · TV

A Brief History of Cartoons for Adults

With ‘Rick and Morty’ set to return this week, we look at the rise of cartoons with adult sensibilities.
By  · Published on July 25th, 2017

With ‘Rick and Morty’ set to return this week, we look at the rise of cartoons with adult sensibilities.

The highly anticipated official Season 3 run for Rick and Morty begins this Sunday, and with that in mind, the question of when animated TV shows geared toward adults took off in popularity came to mind as well. Of course, it can always be argued that people of all ages can enjoy TV cartoons, even if they are directed toward children. However, it seems in the past couple of decades a rich collection of “adult” animated TV series has been established, and that trend seems it will only continue. So, to celebrate the true Rick and Morty Season 3 premiere (even though the first episode has already released) let’s look through adult animated TV classics that have helped pave the way for the quality animated adult television shows that are on today.

Going way back to the 1920’s and 30’s, there had been adult-like cartoons in films. Disney, for example, had a few mildly risque shorts that dealt with themes of alcohol and prohibition, as well as some sexuality. According to a book titled “Forbidden Animation,” by Karl Cohen, there were various Disney shorts that made gags out of the female animals’ underpants (10). There was also Betty Boop, who stood as a cartoon sex symbol in the early 30’s during her debut in Talkartoons. She did not appear on television until around 1955. Her role, as well as the role of many other cartoon characters during the 30’s, had to be tamed down once the Motion Picture Production Code of 1930 also known as the “Hays Code” came into play and began to censor what went through films. While we’re mentioning adult animated movies though, perhaps one the most notorious from the genre is Fritz the Cat which was an animated film released in 1972 in which adult themes were so prominent that it became the first “X-rated” American animated movie.

Aside from these films, however, defining adult in the case of relatively modern animated TV pertains more to stories that deal with adult themes and situations, use explicit language, and make jokes that adults and sometimes teens are more likely to understand. Animated adult shows typically run later in the evening when it is more likely that adults will be watching television, with the exception of re-runs. Therefore, when saying adult, in this case, the label “adult” is not synonymous with “dirty” or “pornographic” but rather just refers to programs that are overall directed toward an older age group.

Though it was not aimed at adults only, The Flintstones should be noted for its spot as the first animated series to premiere in primetime (8-11 PM on weeknights). Premiering in 1960, the show centered around characters who lived in a prehistoric universe whose society very much resembled life in the 60’s. The Flintstones is a classic which appealed to children and adults, with a blend of jokes and stories that both age groups could enjoy. Overall, it was a family show which focused on family life. So, not necessarily an adult cartoon, but its success showed that a cartoon, in general, could run during the evening and thrive.

It is impossible to write a piece on animated adult TV without giving ample credit to The Simpsons. What once began as a cartoon short on The Tracey Ullman Show developed into the longest running TV comedy in history, and will be returning for seasons 29 and 30. Creator Matt Groening had met with James L. Brooks in 1987 to discuss making a series of animated shorts from Groening’s comic strip “Life in Hell.” Instead of offering the comic strip, however, Groening created The Simpsons at the last minute in the hopes of holding on to what he believed was his golden work. The shorts premiered on The Tracey Ullman Show and outlasted it long after the variety show got canceled a few years later. It runs on Fox, which is a major television network, providing it with a more mainstream audience. Is The Simpsons truly “adult” though? In many ways, yes. There are hundreds of jokes and references that would fly over most children’s heads. The show also contains adult situations and explicit language. But The Simpsons can ultimately be viewed as a family show, especially in recent years. Marge, Homer, Bart, Maggie, and Lisa, all make up one of the most lovable families on TV. However, they are far from a perfect family and the show satirizes many conventional themes in typical shows about families. The Simpsons stands as an entertainment icon, to which many creators of other animated comedies both envy and adore. It has done almost every relevant parody and political joke in the book throughout its long run and set the stage (and a high bar) for animated comedies to follow.

Therefore, after The Simpsons stemmed an entire era of animated TV for adults. The 90’s was basically the premiere era of the genre, which definitely helped pave the way for all that was to come years later. Most notable from this decade include Mike Judge’s Beavis and Butt-head, which released in 1993 and was produced by MTV. The concept for this show was simple: two bonehead teenage boys lead pretty ridiculous, yet sort of uneventful lives in which they classify everything as “cool” or “that sucks.”

Other programs from this decade include South Park on Comedy Central, created by Trey Parker and Matt Stone. South Park premiered in 1997 and still runs new episodes today, going on its 21st season this year. Known for its controversial parodies and portrayals, the show has been met with both acclaim and dismay, but while it may not be everyone’s cup of tea, the show is an animated classic nonetheless and is definitely very much adult.

Another of Mike Judge’s creations, King of the Hill also premiered in 1997. This Texas satire produced by Fox ran for about 13 years from its release in 1997 to its end in 2010 and is known for its lead character Hank Hill, a “propane and propane accessories” salesman who acts as a very stereotypical Texan. Futurama which premiered in 1999, is Matt Groening’s second animated TV comedy, which follows a pizza delivery guy who gets transported 1000 years into the future. The show was not met with wide success like its predecessor The Simpsons, but it had a devoted enough fan base to keep it alive after the show got canceled twice. Then Family Guy, premiering in 1999, was Seth MacFarlane’s animated TV creation which was shown on Fox. Also known for its controversial humor and characters with Peter Griffin and family, the show is very popular and has stemmed other spin-off programs like The Cleveland Show.  MacFarlane himself has gone on to also create American Dad!.

During this time were also shows like Daria from MTV and The Ren and Stimpy Show on Nickelodeon. While not exactly an adult cartoon, Ren and Stimpy by today’s standards is much too eerie to be completely classified as “for children.” Though like many of the children’s cartoons of the 90’s, it is loaded with jokes that some parents may deem inappropriate, most of the time fly right past the kids anyway. Today, however, it is becoming more and more prominent for networks to create children’s cartoons that are just as appealing to adults. Take Regular Show and Adventure Time on Cartoon Network, for example.

From these 90’s programs though, it’s clear that most of the adult animated TV series, in the beginning, were comedies. While it may have been a little difficult for producers to foresee success from adult cartoons in general, it was probably even a little more difficult for them to picture adult animation as a medium for other genres like drama too. This is not including all of the Anime dramas that were created during and after this time. The long runs for some of these comedy classics also speak to the relevancy of the programs and the topics the comedies were addressing.

Like The Simpsons created a genre and an era, Adult Swim is and was a key player in providing this genre with a direct audience and fan base. Established in 2001 Adult Swim was a home for many original adult animation programs such as Aqua Teen Hunger Force and Robot Chicken as well as re-runs of shows like Family Guy and King of the Hill. It has even acted many times as a sort of savior for the cancellation of shows. When Family Guy almost bit the dust completely in 2003, it was Adult Swim and its fans who helped it get back to air on 2005. Adult Swim has also acted as a type of experimental platform for adult animation by airing shows like Robot Chicken, which consists of stop motion animated shorts. They have also recently had their own line of mainstream success with Rick and Morty and their revival of Cartoon Network’s Samurai Jack, which became an adult drama rather than a comedy or children’s program.

Today, other platforms have begun to create their own animated adult comedies with shows like Archer on FX and BoJack Horseman on Netflix, both of which have received critical acclaim and run the line between drama and comedy. Fox has continued its tradition as a major network for adult animated comedy with newer shows like Bob’s Burgers. There are also so many others not listed in this article that have also played a part in creating the overall success of adult animated television. All in all, a “cartoon” on TV doesn’t always equal children’s programming. If anything, the past two decades have proven that animation is an effective and popular medium to tell adult-like stories and that there is a want for it, whether it be on a major network or a smaller channel.

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