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Cartoons for Grown-Ups: Why they’re here and why we love them

Cast your mind back to 8 years old you on those happy Saturday mornings, joyful in the knowledge that there’s no school today, you’re settling down in front on the TV with your bowl of cereal (extra sugary, just the way you like it). What are you watching? For most of us, it was cartoons – portals to another world where children had secret laboratories and dogs could talk.

They’re lewd, crude, violent and often just plain naughty.

Fast-forwarding to the present day, cartoons are still avidly watched – by adults. What’s more, there has been a surge in the number made specifically for adults – Archer, Boondocks and Metalocalypse to name a few. They’re lewd, crude, violent and often just plain naughty.

Beavis and Butthead

Whilst this feels like a relatively recent trend, the first cartoons-for-grownups were coming out as far back as 1993, beginning with Beavis and Butthead (cited as inspiration for the legendary South Park). Adult Swim, a late-night block of cartoons and live action shows aimed at teens and young adults also has its place in history as a promoter of animation for everyone. It’s Adult Swim that was responsible for the resurgence of shows such as Family Guy and Futurama: now firm favourites, they had both at one time been cancelled by their original networks and then syndicated by Adult Swim. It’s also birthed some fantastic originals, notably Robot Chicken and Aqua Teen Hunger Force.

Animation is a perfect medium of expression in this sense because, unlike live action, there are no boundaries.

The cartoons being made in the present day, however, seem to increasing almost exponentially in what could be termed “offensiveness” (the notable exception is South Park, which will always be the Most Offensive of Them All). Boondocks, featuring an animated cast where the only white character is voiced by Samuel L. Jackson is a pertinent example.


Some of this trend could be attributed to internet culture. 4chan, created in 2003, is the infamous website responsible for pretty much every meme out there. It provided a forum where people could anonymously share their most random and outrageous thought processes, and in doing so, created a new culture of internet communication: one where anything goes. This is evident in the shows being created both on TV and exclusively on the internet. However, the question still remains: Why cartoons?

Animation is a perfect medium of expression in this sense because, unlike live action, there are no boundaries. Do you want your Jewish character to be a perfect caricature? You’ve got it. Your obese family? They can be as obese as you’d like. Unconstrained by the usual issues of casting and CGI, creators can bring to life characters identical to their visions. Parody and subtlety just became a whole lot easier.

The Simpsons

Similarly, the scope for self-referentialism is huge: recent live action shows like Community are heavily self-conscious of being a TV show (“Why are we all in stop-motion?), but it’s The Simpsons which really paved the way in this respect. Touted as the key example of postmodernism in animation, episodes are full of recurring tropes which both makes you laugh and show the writers’ awareness that of the fictional universe they’ve created within the world of TV.

The biggest attraction of cartoons is their light-heartedness.

This lack of limits also brings the potential to create a joke unique to animation, e.g. by allowing for absurd combinations of voice and character: Think of Axecop: Axe-wielding public defender, who just happens to be voiced by Ron Swanson (a.k.a. Nick Offerman). The joke is subtle – it wouldn’t work in “real life”. This also applies to The Simpsons, whose yellow skin would probably be attributed to jaundice in the real world. How boring.

Adventure Time

Along with this zaniness is a certain mindlessness: with everything so “two dimensional” (har har) you can focus on the real task of just enjoying the show. What’s more, most cartoons have only a loose continuity, if any, which means that there’s no compulsion to watch for weeks on end (I’m looking at you, Breaking Bad). This also means everything is kept fun and fresh, as writers are forced to think up new hijinks every episode. For some shows, it provides a great vehicle for topical satire: South Park writers regularly dissect something which was only in the news the week before.

They take me back to those happy Saturday mornings…just with slightly more swearing.

The biggest attraction of cartoons is their light-heartedness more than anything else. Not every cartoon-for-grown-ups is necessarily dark and offensive, and not every cartoon watched by adults is necessarily intended for them. Shows like Adventure Time and Axecop have drawn a huge audience of all ages, not because they’re filled with hidden dirty jokes but because they’re fun and magical, and universally appealing.

As for me, they take me back to those happy Saturday mornings…just with slightly more swearing.

Priya Thethi

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