By Sam Bruns
There was a time when at a certain age people had to stop watching cartoons. It was a symbol of growing up. The day that you shut off "Tom and Jerry" or the "Looney Tunes," and turned on "M.A.S.H.," "Newhart," or—I shudder at the thought—the news. However, it didn’t take long for a few talented artists to resent that part of their young adulthood. Thus, the Simpson family was born.
Now I’d be lying if I said that "The Simpsons" was the first example of adult cartoons in the history of television. Back when Hanna-Barbera completely ruled Saturday morning television, they made "Wait Till Your Father Gets Home," an "All In the Family" style cartoon series that was short-lived and not very popular. Looking further back you see family-style comedies such as "The Flinstones" and "The Jetsons." Even early "Mickey Mouse" cartoons were enjoyed by children and adults alike when you look back at their acclaim.
What made shows like "The Simpsons" different is that they were designed primarily for a post-adolescent audience, while most of their cartoon predecessors were still writing with all ages in mind. It was 1989 when Homer, Marge, Bart, Lisa and Maggie—along with about one hundred other recurring characters—were given their own half-hour slot on Fox network.
Over the next decade they would not only break into the hearts and home television sets of millions of American families, but they would inspire a myriad of cartoons to come. Now, the show will see its end within the next television year, and though some will say its end is long overdue, it certainly makes you wonder what the program's lasting impact will be and what will happen to adult animation in the future.
"The Simpsons" began like any other family-centered sitcom: a dysfunctional family dealing with the typical problems while a wide array of kooky characters intervened throughout their lives. Even though they had the near limitless creative possibilities that animation can provide, creator Matt Groening continued to portray the show as a loose interpretation of his own family. The characters on the show are even named after his own immediate family.
Over time however, Groening would become one of the first to learn about the power that animation has as a social or political statement. In the Comedy Central documentary "Six Days to Air," "South Park" creator Trey Parker states that their show would not be possible if it were live action, and that an animated show's portrayal of controversial issues and graphic content would be rejected outside of a cartoon world. As Groening began to realize this, he began to push the show even more, tackling issues such as immigration, organized labor, marital infidelity and suicide. He also realized that with a team of talented voice actors and the freedom of animation, he could develop the shows supporting characters in a long term fashion that no one had really done before. An entire town of characters was created, which is probably what allowed the show to run as long as it did.
Within just a few years, there was an entire array of new cartoons that were unique and pushing the envelope. "Beavis and Butthead" portrayed the MTV generation with an irony that went over the head of most teen viewers. "South Park’s" uncanny ability to mock whatever was the height of pop culture at the time was not only impressive because of its wit, but because of how quickly they were able to pull it off. This has made it quite possibly the greatest satire of our lifetime. "The Boondocks" caricatured the relationship between blacks and whites with characters who are based in extreme stereotypes and characters who are extreme realities.
Even today we see boundaries being pushed. Shows like "Bob’s Burgers" explores what it's like for a relatively functional family to juggle money issues and chase dreams. "Rick and Morty" pushes the science fiction and family dysfunction even further and includes numerous themes of abandonment and unhappiness. "Archer" can almost be seen as a character study of social and mentally unhealthy individuals who just so happen to be kick ass spies, and "Adventure Time" does …something. I’m really not sure what it is yet, but its fun as hell. I could go on, but for your sake I will stop here.
As for the future of the industry, time will only tell. The sitcom is on its last legs and at times it even seems that reality shows are coming to their demise. Animation will be harder to kill, but that doesn’t mean its end is outside of the realm of possibilities. Regardless, smart writers and talented animators will continue to work together to solve the world's problems one chuckle and a few tears at a time. We find ourselves in a changing and increasingly unstable social and political climate, so there is bound to be some inspiration there, and who knows what it will be. We do know that these shows have become more than just cartoons to us. Through these cartoons, we have seen statements made, authorities challenged, and hypocrisies revealed. Our desire to keep being kids can’t be shown more clearly than through our need to keep watching cartoons. It's these cartoons that are inspiring us to grow up. This is our generation's medium to laugh at how stupid the world is, and the medium keeps on providing. For now, we simply say goodbye to "The Simpsons," the most recognizable television family in the United States.