The evolution of adult cartoons

If you’re like me, you have spent an enjoyable evening or two watching a marathon of Family Guy, South Park or The Simpsons. Be it on television or a streaming site, it’s the perfect way to destress, clear your mind and just pause all the seriousness in life. 

The creators of those and other raunchy cartoons certainly knew that when the shows were in their respective heydays. If anyone doubted the societal effect of cartoons with varying vulgarity, it was proven when each series threatened to be cancelled. Die hard fans of The Simpsons had an uproar of their own when word spread of the possible cancellation of the show in the new millenium. But if you think animated comedies aimed toward adults are long gone, think again. 

It seems there has been new life breathed into the genre in recent years. Fellow Laurier students  remember Adventure Time being almost everyone’s obsession from 2010 to 2014 or so. While its graphics and dialogue were extra mild compared to that of  Family Guy, it did portray things that are synonymous with mature shows, such as same-sex relationships, minor violence and creepy, creepy monsters. After Adventure Time’s  success, there was a palpable shift in the industry–almost a cry for similar content to be made. 

In the age of easy Internet access, #MeToo, social justice warriors and far more left-wing leaders, cartoon series are starting to reflect a shift in general perspective. They portray queer characters, leading ladies, serious issues being discussed and solved, all without coming off as preachy or condescending. Netflix hit Big Mouth is primarily about young adults and their journey through puberty. It gives us all a chance to look back at our earlier years and cringe, but it is also educational and can be comforting to viewers roughly 18 years old and younger. 

“If you’re going to have a cartoon young people love, at least make it educational,” Laurier Brantford student Marilena Herzing says. “If they [the Ford Provincial government] were to repeal the sex ed system in schools, kids aren’t going to learn anything.” 

Katie Gunn, fellow Laurier student, says the current and next generation of young people would enjoy new cartoons as much as we enjoy the classics if creators “tailor them to the times.”  

“You have to play to what’s happening in the world,” says Gunn. When it comes to conservatism and avoiding topics that are considered by some as taboo, Big Mouth, Adventure Time, and other recent series do what Family Guy and The Simpsons did to certain politicians and world issues: poke fun at them. Perhaps the writers of vulgar cartoons ask themselves why issues exist if not to be joked about. “Cartoons can very much be a product of their time,” Paris Lad, Game Design and Development student says. 

Audiences had were hit with nostalgia after getting another taste of mature comedy in cartoons. With this, writers, animators and producers kept coming up with more to keep the legacy going.  

Following Adventure Time, there was Bob’s Burgers, Archer, Rick and Morty and Steven Universe, among others, all targeted towards teens as well as adults. While these shows, especially Bob’s Burgers, commented more so on the lives of young adults in a weird stage of life, anyone can relate and feel strangely comforted in the knowing they are not the only ones with an awkward childhood. 

The original concern the creators of vulgar cartoons faced was who would watch the shows. The content was too mature for young kids, arguably the typical demographic for cartoons. And adults would probably assume it isn’t mature enough for them simply because it was animated. As luck would have it, the genre struck a chord with those sitting between kids and mature adults: university students. 

Yes, university students. Ages ranging from 18 to 25 years old, they are the people who are relatively informed but also delightfully young at heart, the perfect combination to consume a racy cartoon which may address the politics and current events, religion and many other controversial topics. 

Though there is a debate between whether or not cartoons are meant for a specific age demographic. Some see it simply as a way to get a message across, a medium with no underlying meaning. Game Design and Development student Kaelan Dunbar says “I don’t think cartoons are inherently something for children.” 

Paris Lad agrees, “People think that cartoons are very much a children’s media but cartoons are just a medium, they’re not necessarily a genre.” 

Internet access is no small thing to consider when trying to market content for today’s society, since anything that aired on cable can be found online easily. Kaelan Dunbar goes on to say, “Children have access to that kind of programming, it’s always been that way. I used to watch shows like The Simpsons…because I just had access to those channel.” 

Robert Durant, however looks at the idea differently. “I wouldn’t say that it’s no longer a children’s medium. It’s just a more broad medium now, where you can have children’s cartoons and cartoons that are not suitable for children.” 

Lad echoes this thought, saying, “I don’t see it as a big divide between children and adults. It’s more what you want to enjoy and what you want to get out of it.” Adventure Time was a show that was made visually appealing for those that wouldn’t understand it, and otherwise interesting for people who want to get further into that 

“I think parents need to monitor that stuff but I don’t think it’s inherently being marketed as kid material,” Dunbar says. 

One could see vulgar cartoons as having experienced three waves: the first ground-breaking wave, which birthed The Simpsons and Family Guy; the second, experimental wave, which taught an old dog new jokes, from the late 1990’s to the early 2000’s; and a third starting roughly in 2009 and going strong, which is highly reflective of its time, not unlike the first two eras. This third era places significance on coming-of-age, education and societal consciousness. 

With that being said, shows like King of The Hill, Futurama and American Dad were airing when The Simpsons and Family Guy were supposedly coming to an end. However, they received less attention than their iconic predecessors. 

Circling back to content in cartoons, the aforementioned Netflix hit Big Mouth follows teens, both boys and girls, as they navigate changes in their lives, bodies and minds. There is even an antagonist-meets-sidekick creature who personifies puberty and changing hormones. 

Do you think society is progressing when we see depictions of “controversial” things in an easy-to-swallow medium like funny cartoons? 

“I would say so,” Lad concedes. But there was controversy over this itself. Durant says, “I wouldn’t say cartoons are easier to swallow than a live action show.” 

“The content could be the same and really all that’s different is the visuals,” Durant continues. “I don’t think that’s going to change how easy it is to consume the content.” 

But maybe a cartoon has a way of making somewhat taboo topics more enjoyable. Along with some facts about puberty, for example, it also offers bright colours and funny dialogue to perhaps pad the bluntness of the topic. 

“The shows that are coming out now are trying to push not an agenda, but a point and they’re trying to do that the best the can,” Lad says. “With Big Mouth, they’re trying to portray the hormones as entertainingly as possibly without being completely wrong,” referring to the facts about puberty and hormone changes intermingled in the show’s dialogue. 

Cartoons, being bright, cute and easy to watch, are also helping to normalise what was seen as too controversial to portray on television at all. For instance, same-sex relationships are no stranger to Adventure Time and Steven Universe, which both depict two female characters in healthy, happy relationships. Steven Universe even has a same-sex couple getting married in one of its most beloved episodes. 

Essentially, the sky’s the limit in an animated show. A same-sex relationship is the least strange thing about most of the plots one might follow. 

Art imitates life? As far as adult cartoon comedy goes, that’s the only way to make us laugh. 

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