Let’s just go ahead and say it: cartoons are for kids. It was a form that could be easily and cheaply produced in order to keep kids entertained so their parents wouldn’t have to deal with them. My first inkling of this was when I watched Scooby-Doo as a kid, only to find myself frustrated that Shaggy and Scooby were running pasted repeated scenery in order to escape the monster of the week. This type of “limited animation” with its simple choreography, repeated cycles of movement, stress on dialogue and simple graphic forms was an intentional technique employed by Hanna-Barbera animators to reduce cost and speed up production (Randell-Moon, alt. p.139). This is a really clever way to get around budget constraints and, admittedly, a pretty charming one as well. If only I had known this as a kid maybe I would have been whistling another tune. However, in my adolescence, I came to discover and love a whole slew of animated programming thanks to Adult Swim. It’s also why I was particularly interested in this week’s viewing of Bojack Horseman, F is for Family, and Big Mouth. But first, I want to explain a little bit more of my background with adult animation.
In my formative adolescence, I watched programs like South Park and Space Ghost Coast to Coast, two programs that really shook up my idea of what animated television shows could be. Of course, Space Ghost introduced to me how Adult Swim’s original programming consisted of repurposed and re-edited Hannah-Barbera characters. This is also emblematic of how Adult Swim’s other shows were united by the shared post-modern ethos that played upon the metaphors and tropes of bad TV (Randell-Moon, alt. p, 137). Now, my younger self probably didn’t know all that back then but I did know that it made for some damn funny television.
As a young teen, South Park was unlike anything I had ever seen before with its commitment to politically incorrect humor and “anything goes” attitude as the show mocked countless celebrities and public figures. However, even then it was clear that this was really due to the show’s form of animation, as they didn’t have to worry about portraying people or places in accurate ways. This lines up nicely with scholars Randell-Moon and Randell’s writings on animation as they write that “animation has a particular form of anarchy” as it “operates as a potentially non-regulatory or subversive space by virtue of its very artifice and the assumed innocence that goes with it (Randell-Moon, alt. p.139).” In other words, South Park was more subversive than other shows because it’s use of animation and child characters caught me off guard when the humor became crass and profane, which I loved as a young teen when I felt like everything else was a little too “censored” for my liking everywhere else.
So when it came down to this week’s viewing of Bojack Horseman, F is for Family and Big Mouth, I wasn’t surprised to find out that these programs were tackling issues and topics that I had really only seen in live acted television including addiction, emotional abuse and the ugly sides of puberty. Starting with Bojack, the show has much more in common with Showtime’s Californication than it did with any Saturday morning cartoon I watched as a kid. However, Bojack’s use of animation catches the viewer off guard, like I was when I originally watched South Park, to illustrate points that would be nearly impossible on lived television. Here the showrunners across all three of this week’s programs are able to get away with much more than if viewers were witnessing actors perform these ridiculous actions. This is in part because all three shows are able to build off the frameworks of previous animated works like the Saturday morning cartoons that I mentioned above. You wouldn’t find Big Mouth’s Horny Monster on a show like Scooby-Doo and for good reason, but the show’s use of a depraved character in a format typically used for children creates new meanings and connotations for the viewer, encouraging them to engage with the text. It’s also how this format’s inherent subversive can be utilized to recontextualize issues to the audience.
So if anyone still doubts what cartoons can do, they just might not be paying attention.