In a world of animated hilarity, from the harmless hi-jinx of Finn and Jake, to the crude close-to-the-bone slice of family life of the Griffins, the debate of “greatest adult animation” always run high. This week, Matt Hayhow gives us a run-down of a few of his firm favourites…
Beavis and Butthead
Beavis and Butthead is deceptive. It has a reputation for being crude, lowbrow humour, but it’s probably the most intelligent thing to have ever to have come out of MTV. Sure the characters were dumb and reckless and profane, but the show was making fun of the culture that the network it was being shown on was largely responsible for, and end ended up producing some of the sharpest pop-culture criticism of the 1990s. The best part of any episode was of course watching Beavis and Butthead watch music videos and comment on them, like a kind of twisted Royle Family. Its fearlessness paved the way for more brilliant shock humour like South Park.
Rick and Morty
Do you remember that Simpsons episode where the kids do a focus group for Itchy and Scratchy, and come to the conclusion that they want “a realistic down to earth show that’s completely off-the-wall and swarming with magic robots?” THAT’S WHAT RICK AND MORTY IS. Described by the creators themselves as a sort of cross between The Simpsons and Futurama, Rick and Morty is at once a domestic family drama and a spoons-for-trousers crazy high-concept science-fiction show. Like all the best science fiction television, it is driven by ideas and concepts, but what sets it apart is how dark and nihilistic it is. This contrasts beautifully with the colourful, Nickelodeon-style animation and Justin Roiland’s quirky improvisational humour. The detached bleakness of the show sets your guard down for some bitterly emotional punches to the face as well.
Ren & Stimpy
I don’t care if this show was on Nickelodeon in the mornings; there was no way you can call this a ‘kids show’. The show surrounds an anthropomorphic dog and cat, one of whom has the voice of Peter Lorre and the other of Larry Fine from the Three Stooges. It was controversial for not being ‘educational’ like the other Nickelodeon shows such as Doug and Rugrats, and instead dealt in humour that dealt from the suggestive to the carnivalesque and bizarre. Seriously, watching it now it’s amazing to think that it was a Saturday morning cartoon – today it would more likely suit a 2am slot on Adult Swim. Unlike everything else on this list, it’s less of a sitcom and more of a classic animation in the vein of the Warner Brothers or Fleischer studios films. I can’t think of another animator since the Golden Age of Animation that puts as much care and thought into each frame as John K did in Ren & Stimpy. Every facial expression seems to be unique, and some frames, such as the famous horrifyingly grotesque close-ups that Spongebob Squarepants is indebted to, are weirdly beautiful in their detail.
I hate that when you talk about how great The Simpsons is, you always have to specify ‘the first ten seasons’, as it’s generally accepted that at the turn of the century the show declines rapidly. Perhaps not even that – for all the furore and controversy the first season of The Simpsons caused, it’s pretty tame and borderline unwatchable today. But The Simpsons is responsible for some of the best written shows in television history. I’ve been watching The Simpsons for as long as I can remember, and I partially credit it for my scepticism of authority; in Springfield, businessmen are crooked, religious figures are hypocrites, the police are inept, and entertainers are sad and depressed. Perhaps the show’s greatest achievement is being able to balance and flesh out a whole town of different characters, which gives the show near unlimited scope to satirise any aspect of modern life, whether it’s politics, religion, business, the entertainment industry, or domestic family life. In one sense, the show jumps the shark around season 4, and the stories get more and more bizarre and experimental (imagine trying to pitch the ‘Monorail’ episode to TV executives today). But in the process, The Simpsons becomes more than just another family sitcom and transcends into the strange, creative, wry show that a whole generation of comedy writers are indebted to.
South Park is the greatest achievement in the history of television. There I said it. Each episode famously takes just 6 days to make, allowing the show to comment on whatever happened that week. South Park functions as a 23 minute political cartoon, and for many, the definitive word on certain subjects. It was one of the first shows to address 9/11, the Muhammad cartoons crisis, the capture of Saddam Hussein, Obama’s election and re-election and so on. What’s refreshing about it is unlike most political comedy, it does not have a liberal bias. It attacks stupidity and hypocrisy of all kinds, but if anything, it is fundamentally libertarian. If there’s an underlying message to South Park, it’s that you have no responsibility to be tolerant, or not to offend. It’s refreshing to see liberals being kept in check, and whilst I don’t agree with every stance South Park takes, I respect the hell out of their ability to go against the grain.