Cartoons For Adults: The Rise of Adult Animation

The Simpsons x Family Guy

Traditionally cartoons have been for children. Looked down on as little more than adverts for toys and to fill Saturday morning time slots. Even the Oscars, which regularly awards a “Best Animated Feature” received some backlash when it was referred to as “something children enjoy and adults endure”. Despite this, there are several animated shows that are decidedly not for children. Whether they’re tackling adult themes, full of adult humour, or even gore, some of these shows are decidedly not for children

“Eat my shorts”

The Simpsons focus not just on the titular family, but on the residents of Springfield as well // Credit: Disney/Fox

When most people think of animation, they think of Saturday morning cartoons like Transformers, Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles or G.I. Joe, squarely aimed at children, either to sell toys or like Arthur and Bluey, to be educational. Some of these are made for slightly older audiences than others or have a large adult following, such as Adventure Time or the celebrated Batman: The Animated Series. Shows like Ren & Stimpy, Beavis and Butt-head often caused controversy for some of their antics. Over in Japan, however, many anime were adult in nature, showing violence or sexual content, with films like Akira and Ghost in the Shell making anime international and showing there was an appetite for adult animation.

Arguably the first big animated show aimed at adults in the west is, of course, The Simpsons (cue theme tune). Taking the form of a sitcom about a dysfunctional family, the show doesn’t feature adult content, with most episodes rated PG in the UK. Despite the bright colours and physical comedy, it is aimed at adults. Specifically the average middle-class American family (although whether it still does is up for debate). It’s closer to compare it to Cheers, Seinfeld or Friends than to some other animated shows of the era. Like many other animated shows, The Simpsons began as a series of shorts, before being expanded.

“Let’s get weird!”

Rick and Morty has become a pop-culture juggernaut in its relatively short life // Credit: Adult Swim

The success of The Simpsons led to several other animated sitcoms, like King of the Hill, Family Guy and South Park. The latter two of these took advantage of their medium, with Family Guy featuring countless cut-away gags, and South Park going for gross-out and absurd gags. South Park in particular has the kind of humour many would associate with “adult animation”. The ’90s saw a big boom in adult animation, with some of them still running or getting a revival soon. The release of The Bob’s Burgers Movie, from the show of the same name, has renewed interest in the genre.

The rise of streaming services has seen adult animation rise to a new level of popularity, as many platforms look to fill out their content. Rick and Morty, about a mad scientist and his anxious grandson going on inter-dimensional adventures, took the world by storm. The show inspired countless memes and even brought McDonald’s Szechuan sauce back. Netflix’s Bojack Horseman, was nominated for several Emmies, and opened up conversations about mental health and satirized Hollywood while starring an anthropomorphic horse. These two shows, along with Adventure Time have become big hits with millennials thanks to their absurdist sense of humour and complex themes.

Streaming services are also looking toward existing IPs to flesh out their animated content. Mindy Kailing is developing and starring in a Velma series, which is looking much more adult than expected. Amazon recently released an anthology based on its hit The Boys, which features much of the live-action series’ gore and humour. Even the Star Trek franchise has Lower Decks, focusing on the unseen crew of starships, and full of in-jokes and references.

Animation has long been looked down on and will likely continue to do so for a long time but the popularity of shows like these means there is clearly an interest not just from children.

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