Wednesday, July 1, 2009

From Humble Beginnings: Before They Were (Animated) Stars

A funny thing happened to cartoons in the 90s. While once relegated exclusively for the mindless enjoyment of children, in the 1990s a new breed of animated series emerged with decidedly adult content. TV producers took the basic premise of the animated series and morphed it into a viable means of conveying grown-up themes and humor. These weren't your mother's cartoons. Or perhaps more accurately, they were.

Adult-geared cartoons flourished, and many of these series had long and fruitful runs far outstripping their initial potential. In fact, some of these shows continue to churn out new episodes today, though their adherence to original standards is ultimately questionable. Mind you, what we are about to delve into is a brief smattering of 90s adult cartoons and is by no means intended to represent the full canon. It does, however, represent part of the spark of the novel idea.

Nowadays, blocks of grown-up-geared cartoons air frequently on FOX or Cartoon Network's Adult Swim; if anything, the concept has gotten a smidgen tired. Back in the mid-to-late 90s, however, the concept was but a twinkle in the animators' eyes. The idea was just beginning to bud, and the craftsmanship was at best on the shoddy side. The underlying goal, however, was solid: to bring entertainment to an older audience using animation. Depending on your age at the time of their release. you may have enjoyed or misunderstood these cartoons. Either way, I think we can all agree that a lot has changed since their initial episodes.

The Simpsons

The Simpsons premiered on the Tracey Ullman Show in 1987, though its format was far from the smoothly drawn HD-TV Simpsons of today. The Simpsons began as a series of one-minute shorts focusing on a decidedly dysfunctional family.

Observe, the 16th short from the Tracey Ullman Show:

Sure, it's mildly amusing, but it's hard to believe that this meager offering evolved into a monstrous franchise spanning over 20 years. Obviously the Simpsons had a long way to go before achieving its immense popularity. Incredibly, all of the main character's original voice actors continue to perform their same roles. How's that for job security?

South Park

Though nowhere near as long-running as The Simpsons, South Park still boasts cartoon longevity running on its 13th season. When it premiered on Comedy Central in 1997, it was received as crude, juvenile, foul-mouthed, and dark. Critics noted the sharp contrast between the cute, innocent appearance of the characters and the filth that emanated from their poorly animated mouths. South Park was the first weekly TV series to receive the TV-MA rating, indicating it's intention of reaching mature audiences only. Depending on your definition of mature, this maturity was definitely open to interpretation.

In 1992, Matt Stone and Trey Parker produced the first ever South Park Short, The Spirit of Christmas: Jesus vs. Frosty. The film was presented at a student student film screening at their then-place of higher learning, University of Colorado. Though very, very rudimentary, the characters are shockingly similar to their current forms. They even have a "Oh my God! You killed Kenny!" sequence, only the Kenny in question later becomes the episodic Cartman.

Spirit of Christmas: Jesus vs. Frosty:

In 1995, with a slightly bigger budget, Stone and Parker produced a second Christmas short at the personal request of a FOX executive. It soon became one of the first viral videos, eventually catching the attention of Comedy central and prompting the initial discussion of the series.

The Spirit of Christmas, 1995 version: Jesus vs. Santa:

The actual pilot episode (shown below in its entirety, if you're into that kind of thing) is entitled "Cartman Gets an Anal Probe." Cute, right? Though many of us would hardly bat an eye over this today, at the time of its release it was pretty envelope-pushing.

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Family Guy

I'm sure I'll be burned at the proverbial stake for my heathenry, but I am ready to admit that I have lost interest in the new Family Guy episodes as of late. Pardon me for not worshiping at the feet of the great MacFarlane, but I don't find it particularly funny anymore. It's gotten so gimmicky, it's forgotten its initial, truer, lighter gimmickiness. Okay, so maybe that's a bit confusing, but I promise there is some sort of sense buried in that statement somewhere. After all, I used to be a pretty dedicated fan during the DVD era.

Family Guy is a series that has been through innumerable phases and reformulations. In fact, the animated short that eventually became the series was not Family Guy at all but rather The Life of Larry. Life of Larry featured a slovenly middle-aged man named Larry, his wife Lois (I think we can all see where this is going), his son Milt, and his talking dog Steve. If you watch the short below, you'll see that the animation and character style is distinctly different, but the jokes do get recycled into later Family Guy episodes. I guess some jokes are just too good to waste.

Life of Larry (1995):

I will admit I find it pretty funny when Seth MacFarlane says, "Oh, hi there. You scared the crap out of me."

MacFarlane created a second Larry short, Larry and Steve, for Cartoon Network a year or so later:

The Family Guy pilot came a few years later (see clip below). If you're a fan, you may recognize it as a more crappily-animated version (with a few differences) of the 1999 premiere episode, Death Has a Shadow. As you can probably gather, the characters and flow differ pretty significantly from the current version:


From the creators of the Simpsons, Futurama was a satirical science-fiction cartoon focusing on the life of Fry, a nebbishy pizza delivery guy who falls into a cryogenic freezer in 1999 only to be revived in the year 3000. Let me just clarify that Fry deserves our utmost 90s respect as he is voiced by Billy West, the man who brought us Doug Funnie, Roger Klotz, Stimpy, and the voices of Bugs Bunny and Elmer Fudd in Space Jam. Now that's a 90s resume right there.

Fry and his distant relative Professor Farnsworth (along their robot, alien, and mutant misfit friends) start a shipping company called Planet Express. Over 2000 years, Fry evolved from delivery guy guy. What a journey. The pilot is very set-up heavy as the premise of the show is fairly complicated, but if you stuck with it for awhile there were certainly payoffs. Now is probably also a good time to mention that Comedy Central recently ordered 26 new episodes of Futurama set to air in 2010. Set your phone calendar alarms, people, this is going to be big.

Clip from Space Pilot 3000, the Futurama pilot episode:


I know, I know, Daria was aimed at teens more than adults, but as my favorite cartoon ever I've made the executive decision to place it on this master list. I was in middle school and high school during Daria's run and just toeing the waters of sarcasm, so Daria really spoke to me on an "it's okay to be irreverent, rude, and brutally honest" kind of way. In short, Daria was my kind of girl, though significantly ballsier and more anti-social.

Or rather, in long. In the full-length episodes, we get a well-rounded picture of Daria with all of her character traits and flaws. In the pilot short, however, we get just an eensy taste of the sarcasm to come. As the Daria character premiered on Beavis and Butthead, the pilot short represented the transition from secondary character to star of the show. The show's creator's wanted to pitch the Daria series as completely separate from the juvenile lowbrow humor of B&B and thus sought to emphasize Daria's more biting wit and intelligence in the short. It's by no means as fleshed-out as the actual series (both literally and figuratively, as the pilot was done with crude animation in black and white), but you can gather the general idea:

The 90s showed us that animation geared toward more mature (age-wise) audiences was both a viable and worthwhile enterprise. You have to admire the enduring nature of these series: South Park and The Simpsons are still on the air, and Futurama and Family Guy both did so well in DVD sales and syndication that they were revived from the depths of cancellation hell. Now if only Viacom would see fit to release the Daria* DVDs, all would be right in the 90s cartoon world.

Hint: You can, however, watch the episodes online here. Just between you and me.


Kellie said...

I am a big fan of Family Guy, South Park and Futurama. The Simpsons is okay in my book. It's in the shadow of the others now if you ask me.

Hanako66 said...

I LOVE/loved all of these parents were big tracey ullman show fans and I totally remember the simpsons first christmans--which was what I think was their first feature episode. we were all really excited about it.

Badass Geek said...

Never watched the Simpsons growing up. Still don't get the appeal these days.

Miss HoneyDew said...

I miss Daria! I'd still watch today if it was on!

DocMariaE said...

I single-handedly blame you for reminding me of how much I love Daria and therefore I have wasted a ridiculous amount of time in the past week watching every episode I can find online. I love Daria, I am Daria, thank you for reminding me.

Anonymous said...

Oh, Daria, how I love thee. Why, oh, why hasn't she been released on DVD?

Legallyblondemel said...

I remember "South Park" being SUCH a huge deal when it first came out. It did feel revolutionary in a pop-cultural sense.

All of my love for "The Simpsons" or "The Family Guy", which I too liked at first, has been beaten out of me by the Anonymous Husband, who insists on watching episodes over and over and over again. Both feel stale after a while.

Jaime said...

I loved Daria, but I wasn't allowed to watch it so I had to sneak around to do it.

Andhari said...

I love and breath south park :) Ohhh mr mackeyyy!

Elizabeth Marie said...

I am obsessed with Family Guy, but the DVD's, not so much the new episodes!

Shannon said...

I used to watch Larry & Steve and I never put two and two together! That's crazy.

Kristin said...

The hubs throws on the Family Guy at 11:00 EVERY night. We have to turn it down low because if the baby hears it he wants in on it. Too funny.

Awesome Sara said...

ya know what the second u mentioned daria i was like man i dvds but u already said what iw as going to comment about. great minds baby!!! great minds!!

ReRe said...

oh how is miss Daria!

i love family guy and love when i catch an old episdoe where the voices are a little different and stewie is less gay and more devious. i love him both ways!

Couture Carrie said...

Fabulous post! I adore all these shows, especially Family Guy!

Btw, gave you a shout-out in my post today!


Miss City Folk said...

OMG how could you forget The Critic? Its right up there with Daria in obscure greatness

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