Cartoons Are King!
But how long will they rule?
By Ken Lieck

From Gadfly July 1998


It's barely 7 a.m. on a Saturday morning as a bleary‑eyed, sniffling figure struggles towards consciousness. On any given Monday through Friday this would be a Herculean task, but on Saturdays the rise from bed is a giddy delight. The figure fusses about with its baggy pajamas, disentangling them from the twists and turns of a night's sleep and sits up, then stumbles into the living room, where the television awaits. With half‑awake glee, the figure clicks on the set and relaxes into a comfortable chair. A parade of colorful animals dances across the screen, blasts each other with rifles, drops immense objects on each other's heads, then bounces back resiliently for more abuse. Though the figure has seen these antics countless times before, a satisfied smile spreads across his face, soon expanding into out-and-out laughter. As a title card reading "That's All, Folks" appears on the screen and the vibrant critters are temporarily replaced by figures from the "real world" hawking soda and breakfast cereal, the figure's mind wanders to the kitchen, followed by his still not‑quite‑awake body, and a quick rummage through the refrigerator ensues. Another smile appears as he withdraws the object of desire and races back to in front of the TV. As the next cartoon begins, its familiar music dancing through the room, the air is broken by another sound—the "click" and slight hiss of a pop‑topped can opening. The figure sits back to the sounds of shotgun blasts and anvils falling and contentedly sips his beer.

For years, this bittersweet scene was the center of the grown‑up cartoon fan's week. Though fully aware that the short films he watched were made by adults like him, he still had to keep his affections for these bursts of wit and creativity closeted for the most part. When his co-workers raved over the Bulls' latest victory or her office mates chattered over their favorite soap operas, the cartoon fan had to hold back, never daring to chirp in with, "Man, did Bugs do a number on Elmer this week or what!?" Recently, however, things have changed for the better, led by the groundbreaking Simpson family and most recently, the kids of South Park, and yes, people over the age of 12 do crowd around the water cooler to discuss their antics.

To be sure, cartoons for adults have been around as long as the medium. Winsor McKay's groundbreaking efforts in the early days of this century (available on video courtesy of the Smithsonian Institution and others) were often fantasy‑oriented, but by no means child‑centered, depicting strange hallucinatory beasts, trips to the moon in flying houses, and, on a more somber note, the sinking of the great ship Lusitania, which McKay rendered in 1919 with all the effort and accuracy James Cameron would later put into The Titanic's three-and-a-half hours. As cartoons went into larger production, they remained aimed not at children, but at general theater audiences. The eternal Looney Tunes and Merrie Melodies of the Warner Bros. studio were, like most cartoons at the time of their inception, designed to showcase songs featured in the company's lavish musicals. They helped sell tickets to the films, plus their records and sheet music. Granted a freedom rarely seen in any mass entertainment medium, the men of Termite Terrace, as Warner's animation studios came to be called, were given carte blanche to bring forth seven‑minute slices of joy with little interference from the higher‑ups. The great Tex Avery, who created MGM's Droopy the Dog and developed the character of Warner Bros.' Bugs Bunny as we know him, once said, "I [always] tried to do something I thought I would laugh at if I were to see it on the screen, rather than worry about 'Will a 10‑year‑old laugh at this?'"

Some cartoons fell victim to the Hays censorship laws of the 1930s for being too lewd and risque. If Betty Boop was a real person, she might've wound up in jail; instead, she wound up in long pants, and the males in the audience were left with nothing to ogle but Olive Oyl. Since most cartoons tended to spotlight non‑human ingenues, however, the animated shorts remained largely unmolested through their heyday.

Nothing lasts forever, though, and by the mid‑60s, the age of the theatrical cartoon shorts was rapidly coming to an end with antiheroes like the manic Daffy Duck and the blustery, ill‑tempered Yosemite Sam soon to be replaced by docile family fare like the Flintstones and the sadly toned‑down animal antics of characters like Huckleberry Hound and Yogi Bear. Looking over the sea of too‑similar 'toons that lurched out of the Hanna‑Barbera television cartoon stable from the 50s to the 80s (I use this word cautiously; as the Spumco studio, creators of Ren & Stimpy, have warned in their 'Cartoon Dictionary,' "[Toon] is a fake word... invented by big fat people with pimply butts. People who watch 'toons' also listen to 'oosic.'"), it's easy to blame Hanna-Barbera for the death of the cartoon for adults. The truth is, however, that it was the medium of television, with its lower per‑show budgets and high-volume demand, that took the oomph out of animation and left it merely an empty shell of what it once had been.

Hanna‑Barbera can be blamed, though, for what Thundarr the Barbarian creator Steve Gerber says animators in the 70s and 80s referred to as the "nyah, nyah"—as in the formula "take three kids and a nyah, nyah (meaning fill in the blank) and H‑B has a new series." Scooby Doo, The Funky Phantom, Jabberjaw, Speed Buggy and their ilk brought things to a new low, with inane "mysteries" and bargain‑basement animation replacing the humor and magic once conjured up merely by the word "cartoon." Fans who had reached voting age had few highlights to look out for (other than arguing over whether or not Scooby's pal Shaggy was a "stoner") during the sad decades that the "radio with pictures" school of animation was dominant; there were Jay Ward's delightful Rocky and Bullwinkle and George of the Jungle, peppered with references to politics, current events and literature—few kids had any idea what the "Ruby Yacht of Omar Khayyam" was, other than a valuable jeweled boat, but their parents got a chuckle anyway.

And yet onward marched the censors, both official and self‑appointed. (From Spumco's Cartoon Dictionary: "[Censors] are people... whose job it is to go through your favorite cartoons and cut out the funny parts. [They] think that if you watch too many cartoons, you might grow up to be a horrible criminal, or start wars or something. Like Napoleon saw 'Puss Gets the Boot' and wiped out half of Europe!") Though their predecessors had long ago removed the sexuality (and the appeal and career) of Betty Boop, the new puritans had their eyes on other matters: drugs, profanity, satanism. Perhaps the most well‑known case was in 1988 when the Reverend Donald Wildmon accused a certain Rodent of Steel of snorting cocaine on his new Ralph Bakshi‑produced New Adventures of Mighty Mouse. In reality, Mighty Mouse had received a flower girl's last, decaying blossom, which crumbles to dust as he is about to sniff it. Wildmon later returned to the spotlight claiming that Donald Duck used a word that starts with "F" in a 1937 cartoon that Disney had just re-released. Following a brief reported freak‑out by a couple of Wal‑Mart stores, nothing much came of his accusation. Add to this, though, the proliferation of fundamentalists and cable‑access wackos who have bent over backwards to prove that the Smurfs and "My Little Unicorn" are agents of Satan (this author can't completely disagree) and the increasingly broad swipes of the censor's knife, and you've got a largely vapid Saturday morning. Says one writer currently working in television animation, "I knew things were going to hell when I saw a Looney Tunes cartoon on TV a few years ago. It was the classic Bugs Bunny/Daffy Duck 'Rabbit Season! Duck Season!' cartoon, I forget the title, where Daffy keeps getting shot. And they had edited out the actual shooting! All of it! So, inexplicably, Daffy turns

black and his bill is around the back of his head, and he moves it and it moves back, and it made no sense! I could just see some little kid watching that and saying 'This sucks.' And that's a real shame."

Then, beginning in 1989, a three‑prong attack was launched on America from three disparate sources, ensuring that cartoons would never be looked at (or looked down on) the same way again. The Simpsons, Ren & Stimpy and Beavis & Butthead all began airing on U.S. TV screens in rapid succession, each bringing a different and unique brand of humor. It's worth noting that all three started out, like the classic cartoons of yore, as shorts, with R&S and B&B debuting with episodes that ran at film festivals and The Simpsons debuting as a series of vignettes on the then‑young Fox network's Tracey Ullman Show. And just as comic actors in the 30s had complained that they could never compete for laughs with their manic cartoon counterparts, this triple threat quickly was noted as the funniest thing on television.

The Simpsons was and continues to be the key to the success, both commercially and critically, of the modern-day cartoon, as speaking to two very different people working in the field attests. Mark Evanier, a gentle soul and an animator, writer and voice director currently working on a Garfield movie, firmly rests the fate of cartoons for adults on the yellow shoulders of the cartoon goose that scribbled the first golden dollar sign. Evanier notes that "The Simpsons proved there's a market for [animation for adults], and I think it's safe to say we'll see more and more of [these shows] until a whole bunch of them bomb and they stop looking like a decent investment. But King of the Hill and South Park are good shows and as long as the batting average is [high] in that area, the field is wide open." Michael Markowitz, a writer/director at USA network's brash Duckman series concurs: "I couldn't live without The Simpsons twice a day. It's brilliant and still makes me laugh out loud no matter how many times I've seen each episode."

Why do these two (and just about everyone else in America) agree? Unlike its apparent model The Flintstones, The Simpsons' creators have never been satisfied with simply making a cartoon. Or a sitcom. Or with limiting themselves in any way. In the early days of TV, when Rod Serling found that Playhouse 90 couldn't fulfill his need to express his fantastic side, he created The Twilight Zone; so, too, did The Simpsons' team create an annual Halloween show which allowed them to use the crazy ideas that were too far out for the regular series. The rest of the year they used the reality of the Simpsons family and exploited the fantasy that only animation can bring to the screen. The Simpsons, even within the framework of its regular episodes, constantly pushes the envelope. Series regulars the Flanders family offer frequent chances to take potshots at narrow‑minded fundamentalists, and psychedelic drug references appear to be a particular favorite among the show's writers. These normally utilize the show's counter‑culture character Lisa Simpson, who at various times has tripped on nitrous oxide ("Last Exit To Springfield") and on a mysterious liquid at the amusement park Duff Gardens (which resulted in a naked Lisa exclaiming to police, á la Jim Morrison, that she was the "Lizard Queen!"). Of one thing there is no doubt. The Simpsons is, and continues to be, an enormous hit. And it inevitably begat offspring.

There was at first much confusion, with quick debuts and quicker cancellations of cash‑in attempts like the insipid Fish Police, the stiff Capitol Critters and the idiotic Jackie Bison Show (don't ask) as television desperately tried to figure out what made The Simpsons a hit and how to replicate it. Unfortunately, such calculations have always seemed far beyond the ken of TV executives, and after much gnashing of teeth, it seemed as if The Simpsons may have been a fluke—that there was no animation renaissance on the way after all, just one damn good sitcom that happened to be broadcast in bright, primary colors.

But then there was Beavis & Butthead to contend with. Looking back, it's difficult to imagine the trouble this pair of teen idiots caused in their formative years. They were accused of influencing kids to do everything from torturing animals to committing arson before the formerly all‑music channel MTV made the decision to pull several early episodes and tone down the characters a bit. Still, the two refused to be completely castrated and have remained popular, even after creator Mike Judge decided it was time to more or less retire the pair. Beavis and Butthead are, after all, the morons inside us all; they're every stupid mistake we made in our youths and more importantly, they let us pretend it was them, not us, who did those idiotic things. Again, so‑called mature individuals found themselves howling aloud at the antics of a pair of loutish cartoon kids. As Gibby Haynes of the band the Butthole Surfers (who credit their success to B&B) eloquently puts it, "They took 'butthole' out of the bathroom and put it on the dinner table."

It was also during this time that Ren & Stimpy appeared like a bolt from the blue. Ostensibly for kids, this cat-and-dog duo immediately caught the eyes and ears of the older cartoon freak. Lovingly created in an attempt to recreate the furious frenzy of the old theatrical cartoon shorts, Ren & Stimpy brought back the creative anarchy of cartoons' golden age—with a vengeance. Creator John Kricfalusi, fresh on the heels of the failed New Mighty Mouse and a disastrous attempt at reviving Bob Clampett's Beany and Cecil, appeared with R&S out of nowhere on the kids' channel Nickelodeon, much to the chagrin of parents everywhere. R&S fed on every kid's obsession with bodily functions and on every adult's desire to be a kid again, and did so with an amazing level of charm amidst the fart jokes. Still, there were many who didn't "get it," like one TV critic for a daily newspaper who bluntly wrote, "I have never seen a cartoon character retch before, and I hope I never do again." After only a dozen or so shows were produced, Ren & Stimpy unfortunately fell fate to creative differences between its creators and network, and after a couple of seasons of rapidly declining quality, the pair has become little more than a fond memory.

Perhaps the most glorious failure to come from the new animation wars was the brilliantly sarcastic Duckman, the tale of an eternally horny and frustrated duck detective and single father who thinks the world is out to get him (and who generally turns out to be right about that). Ghettoed away at various obscure time slots by the T&A‑oriented USA Network, admittedly probably the only channel who would touch it, the show lasted an ironic 69 episodes before getting the ax this past year.

Another blow to those hoping for a continuing viability of animated television was The Critic, which was dropped by CBS after one season, picked up by Fox as a time‑slot companion to The Simpsons, and then promptly dropped again. Those behind the scenes contend that the cancellation was political; a new "regime" had come to power at the network and had little interest in promoting a fledgling show their forebears had commissioned. While typical in the television industry, this kind of cancellation is especially crippling in the animation field, since such a decision cannot easily be reversed. Though The Critic did indeed build a following (its final rerun on Fox equalled The Simpsons in that week's Nielsens), the fact that a new episode takes nearly a year to produce from start to finish made the idea of bringing it back a distant one. Soon after The Critic's demise, the number of cartoon series that were aimed at kids but reached out to adults also seemed to start thinning. Among the axed were The Tick and its Warner Bros. counterpart Freakazoid; along with The Critic, they continue to rerun ad infinitum on cable channels like Comedy Central and the Cartoon Network (along with low‑cost new animated shows like Space Ghost: Coast To Coast and Dr. Katz). The implied message: There aren't enough cartoon aficionados out there to justify the cost of making high‑quality new cartoons, but by gum, we know there's a solid core of fanatics who'll watch the old ones until they turn blue!

Those fans have found they can often look to today's so‑called "children's" cartoons for quick fixes of mature humor when necessary. The Tiny Toons and Animaniacs regularly made references to Orson Welles, Shakespeare, The Seventh Seal, you name it. When Fox's lovable Eek the Cat (brain‑kitty of B‑movie madman "Savage" Steve Holland) attempted to stop an alien from destroying Earth by noting all its good points, including Woody Allen and the Barbie Twins, a TV Guide article claimed the magazine had found a pre‑censor list including "edible underwear" and "Marilyn Chambers." Twisted Tales of Felix the Cat, a rebirthing of that classic character which lasted two seasons (1995‑96), featured a number of episodes written by the soft‑spoken Evanier. Though the show, especially in its first season, displayed a loving blend of oddball Ren & Stimpy‑type humor (featuring several former R&S artists and directors) and deep nods towards the 30s‑style jazzy anarchy of Felix's earlier adventures, Evanier claims that "Felix probably had a younger audience than you think. As long as Saturday morning is hinged on commercials that target the 2 to 12 age bracket, that's where the shows will point and, frankly, I don't see anything wrong with that. It's nice when you can also entertain older folks, and some shows have quite successfully spanned all ages. But I also hope we never fault a show if it does a good job of entertaining only children." It may be Evanier's good‑naturedness that allowed him to get past the censors with Twisted episodes like the one which featured an effeminate, Judy Garland-loving henchman and a runamuck robot with an unbelievably phallic cannon as part of his anatomy (which even went limp after "shooting"!).

Finally, another bona fide mature cartoon hit came recently from Mike Judge, "father" of the eternally immature Beavis and Butthead. Fox's official description of King of the Hill is astonishingly accurate and even profound, describing the show as "a comedy that takes its own sweet time telling small, real stories about Hank and his world." The show's popularity and charm has allowed it to take on, sensitively and hilariously, subjects ranging from crack cocaine to religion to masturbation. King of the Hill (which is as much the creation of The Simpsons' Greg Daniels as Judge) seems to be Judge's proof that he can create something more substantive than Beavis & Butthead. But it still looked unlikely that the public would accept a full‑on assault á la Duckman.

And then came South Park. The offspring of a profane, hilarious short entitled "The Spirit of Christmas" that had been making the underground video traders' route for a couple of years, the low-budget saga of four foul‑mouthed kids and the sick and twisted town they live in not only drew a mainstream crowd, but also completely blew away all expectations of its creators, its network and everyone else involved. Kyle, Stan, Cartman and Kenny have received so much ink (despite the fact that they're cut out, not drawn) that I don't expect I have to describe the show any further here. Markowitz asserts that "the danger is that all of the resources and talent will be poured into trying to duplicate South Park. It's like after Ren & Stimpy came out, we were inundated with Angry Dogs and Nutty Cats and Pissed‑Off Beavers and Cantankerous Ocelots, and it was just pathetic. And what's really scary is that we're talking about South Park here, which is no Ren & Stimpy."

"The only reason I can think of why a show like South Park is successful," notes Markowitz, "[is] because it's the antithesis of the sanitization of our society. And I'm sure this is unintentional, because South Park isn't long on satire. [It] feeds into a dissatisfaction many of us feel." Far more than even Beavis & Butthead, one definitely has to file watching South Park under "guilty pleasures." And while Markowitz's comments may have the earmarks of sour grapes, he brings up a salient point—South Park is low on true satire and high on low humor, and many doubt it can maintain its current popularity for long. Still, a great ray of hope exists in SP co‑creator Trey Parker's comment to Rolling Stone magazine that if the show continues for a number of years, he hopes to reach the point when people are saying "Wow! Do remember back when this show was about those four kids?" Who knows—in the long run, South Park's demise could come from its creators' refusal (as seen in their all‑Terrence and Phillip April Fools' episode) to follow the expected formula.

Given the irreverent precedents set by South Park and other adult‑oriented cartoons, what can we expect to see in the future? Picture the following: a gleeful mouse witnesses a cat accidentally shooting itself in the head, then giddily launches into a song about the pleasures of smoking marijuana; a cartoon Native American, inadvertently blasted by one of his headdress‑clad cronies, turns to the camera and exclaims, "That goddamned son of a bitch!" It's a guarantee that such images will be out there, but not as a result of Beavis and Butthead's antics. The first example, after all, comes from the 1957 Merrie Melodies short "Gonzales' Tamales," wherein the title mouse Speedy Gonzales belts out a verse of "La Cucaracha" including the line "marijuana por fumar" ("[I have] marijuana to smoke"). The second hails from "The Hardship of Miles Standish" (1940) and the Native American in question mouths the words clearly, though silently. Both of the above tend to elude the censor's knife. But for how long? Will South Park save the animated cartoon... or kill it? I kid you not—Dr. Joyce Brothers was recently quoted on CNN tying the tragedy of a society where kids shoot other kids in with "a cartoon where the same character dies every week." Well, Doctor, if you were paying attention, you'd have noticed that the show in question has already managed an episode with Kenny dying not once but twice! Maybe if you just take a deep breath and relax, one day you'll get to the point where you can look back fondly and say, "Gosh, I remember back when South Park was about those four kids.... "