Adult animation brings more approachable culture to traditional TV


Raka Sarkar | Senior Staff Illustrator

Almost one million adults between the ages of 18 and 49 tuned into the unexpected season three premiere of “Rick and Morty” earlier this month.

The animated series follows the adventures of an alcoholic mad scientist and his unintelligent, awkward grandson. It aired on Adult Swim, the late night programming block of Cartoon Network, replaying from 8 p.m. until midnight — the only announcement coming from the show’s official Twitter account just as the airing began.

It seems absurd that nearly a million Americans would drop what they were doing on a Saturday night to watch a cartoon, but that they did should show us how popular adult animation is becoming. Although the content is, admittedly, a bit childish, and the humor can be pretty lowbrow, adult cartoons are like nothing else on television or in our culture today. They paint a witty and satirical picture of life and pop culture that clearly attracts large numbers of adult viewers.

Despite the viewership, adult cartoons are often underappreciated for what their oddities bring to television. In critiques, reviews, casual conversation and academia, we either don’t talk about cartoons, or we only mention them in passing — as references to the nostalgia of childhood or the misplaced maturity of “Spongebob Squarepants” jokes. We haven’t made room for adult animation in the public discourse. Isn’t it time we do?

Shows such as “Rick and Morty” or “Squidbillies” — a cartoon that follows a family of anthropomorphic squids who embrace every backwoods stereotype imaginable — are peculiar and strange, there’s no doubt. But they also present new views on the world and on media that traditional television clearly lacks.

A “Rick and Morty” episode from season one highlights the ability for the show to be random yet philosophical and culturally relevant. In the episode, Grandpa Rick builds goggles the family uses to view themselves in alternate realities. When Summer, Morty’s older sister, doesn’t see what she wants to, she attempts to run away. Morty tells her about his own alternate reality, a bizarre one where he and Rick destroy the world. But amid the oddness of the episode, Morty delivers some profound advice that serves as a potent lesson for viewers.

“Don’t run. Nobody exists on purpose. Nobody belongs anywhere — everybody’s gonna die. Come watch TV,” Morty says. Although bleak, the message about a mutual dislike for many aspects of our world resonates with viewers. It’s a philosophical take akin to Kierkegaard or Nietzsche, but told to the average college student in a much more approachable way via a crazy narrative, eccentric characters and artful animation.

This style of programming helps viewers cope with the harsh truths of the world we live in, egging us to disengage for a few hours. But when we don’t take cartoons for what they are — legitimate forms of art — we devalue the intelligence behind the creation and disregard the validity of what they bring to today’s media.

One of the longest running series on Adult Swim is “Aqua Teen Hunger Force,” a show about three anthropomorphic fast food items living together and their “Dirty Jers” stereotype of a neighbor in the projects of New Jersey. With their problems ranging from destructive aliens going through break ups to demonic action figures, the already absurd premise only gets farther from reality through the 11 seasons. Yet, all these characters somehow feel relatable, grappling with real life problems, only slightly extended past reality. Although nobody knows a giant, talking milkshake, everyone knows someone who acts like they’re better than anyone in the room. This reflection of reality through a new lense is exactly why art is made, to help an audience understand the world around them through the creator’s projection, no matter how absurd the median.

I am 20 years old. Some of my favorite television programs include “Superjail!,” “Family Guy” and “Mike Tyson Mysteries” — all cartoons, and all widely considered immature and vulgar to many for making inappropriate jokes and featuring anthropomorphic main characters. While catching up with a friend who graduated from Pitt last year, he told me that he missed me but added, “I definitely don’t miss your stupid cartoons.”

It makes sense why society holds an overall negative view of adult animation. Cartoons are for kids, only to be watched in the pre-high school days of childhood while wearing footy pajamas and eating sugary cereal. Any cartoon-watching that extends past that age, if not done for nostalgic purposes, must be due to poor taste.

Beginning with “The Simpsons” in the late ‘80s, the genre has expanded into “Bob’s Burgers,” “Futurama” and “King of the Hill” — proving that this just isn’t the case anymore. Adult Swim began airing unorthodox, comedic cartoons in 2001, and as it continued to provide strange and bizarre shows and content that couldn’t be found among the prime time channels, the channel has since grown in both success and viewers.

According to the Nielsen Company, Adult Swim is the most-viewed late night cable television programming, beating out “Conan” and “The Daily Show” by nearly 300,000 among adults ages 18 to 49. Late night programming from 11:35 p.m. to 12:35 p.m. — usually including shows such as “Family Guy” and “Robot Chicken” — pulled in an average of 1.2 million viewers a night in 2014, beat out only by Jimmy Fallon’s “The Tonight Show” with 1.7 million. And the success of Adult Swim is due to the collective love for all of its shows, unlike networks with solitary hits such as Comedy Central’s “South Park” or FX’s “The Shield.” These numbers alone should be enough to prove we should be taking adult cartoons more seriously, but they’ve yet to garner enough attention to become respectable throughout society.

Though it can be a turnoff for some, the “tell it how it is” mentality of Adult Swim is what sets it apart.

Adult cartoons are an increasingly popular part of our society. So we might as well respect them a legitimate form of art and expression, and — in the vein of “Rick and Morty” appreciation — grab some chicken nuggets, demand Szechuan sauce with them and enjoy the programming.

Write to Tim at [email protected].