In the 50s and 60s, cartoons were aimed at the younger audience to watch cartoons on Saturday mornings when they didn’t have school. They’d cuddle up in their pajamas with Froot Loops or Cap’n Crunch and devote hours to the Saturday morning treat.
In the midst of that era, however, things shifted, and the first primetime animated show for an adult audience was The Flintstones which aired on September 30, 1960.
Adult animation entertains millions of people a year, from the adults it targets to the younger population.
The Flintstones Sets Records of Firsts
The novel show filled a slot at 8:30 p.m. EST on Friday nights, a time when most of the kids interested in watching Saturday morning cartoons were already asleep, or at least in bed. Not only did The Flintstones mark the first animated show on primetime for adults, but in its third season, The Flintstones became one of the first shows aired in color as opposed to black and white on ABC.
The Flintstones' six-season success was attributed to its formulaic storytelling arc, but paved the prehistoric pathway for its successors.
A comic quip popularized by the 60s classic mimicked real places and celebrities to crack jokes about them or satirize the community. Maybe even to show their talent.
Alfred Brickrock spoofed the legendary director Alfred Hitchcock. Cary Granite represented an ancient Cary Grant. What made this bit so clever was that they based names on rocks. Making it funny, punny, and subtly educational.
The Flintstones seemed familiar because it was. Even though the animation was new, the Sitcom Feel was something the adults (and even children) in the 60s knew. See I Love Lucy, Leave it to Beaver, and the show that The Flintstones drew the most inspiration from, The Honeymooners.
Sitcoms use a repeated formula throughout the length of their programs. They start with a few minutes of comedy to set the tone for the episode, followed by a charming, worldbuilding theme song, more comedic scenes with splashes of heart and emotional undertones, all complete with characters who don’t undergo a lot of changes throughout the sequence of the story. This, of course, changes between series, but characters in The Flintstones all remained pretty loyal to those traits.
When viewers tuned in to the show, they knew what they would get. They met their wives and a pet dinosaur. After a few episodes, they learned that Bedrock was a prehistoric parallel to modern-day America (post-Cold War pre-Vietnam War era).
The Flintstones’ Closest Cousin The Jetsons
The Flintstones revolutionized adult animation as we know it today, leading to the first full-color animated run of The Jetsons. The interesting thing about The Jetsons is they breached into the future, setting their show 100 years after its release, in 2062, and the characters lived in outer space.
Even though The Jetsons lasted one season when it first aired, its creative inspirations benefitted and inspired a swath of futuristic series, even those outside animation.
Did it only air its first season in the 60s because it introduced America to a future they were unaware of and uncomfortable seeing, while The Flintstones led them into a world they knew? Maybe.
Limited access to color TVs is another reason the show didn’t have a long run. When the show aired, most people didn’t have color televisions, so the animation couldn’t deliver its intentions to most viewers, and the viewership decreased dramatically. An article published in Smithsonian Mag states fewer than three percent of the population in 1962 had access to color TV. The ratings might have been different if they had waited ten years to release the sitcom.
The Flintstones balanced this by debuting their original premiere in black and white and then converting to color, providing a more inclusive viewership for the fans.
This piece won’t touch on every single animated program out there because there are far too many. Still, it will reflect on ones that influenced the genre in resounding ways, including the longest-running animated sitcom ever, The Simpsons.
The Simpsons took direct influence from The Flintstones even though it aired 23 years after The Flintstones ended.
As most millennials these days would say, The Simpsons walked so shows like Beavis and Butthead, South Park, and Family Guy could run.
The Simpsons didn't stick to downright controversial humor and dark comedy. Sometimes, it had jokes for the whole family.
Most entertainment lovers know The Simpsons as an American sitcom about a family of cartoonish yellow characters. The cast consists of an alcoholic, absent-minded father, a stay-at-home mom, and a kid who has been in fifth grade for thirty years. Plus, a saxophone prodigy and a mischievous baby who won’t stop sucking on a binky as long as the show stays on the air (it was renewed last year for a record 34th season).
What makes The Simpsons so great is its skillful ability to reference pop culture from all spectrums.
Two standout pop culture references in The Simpsons are the 2001: A Space Odyssey ode and the Psycho portrayal.
For the 2001 Space Odyssey episode, Homer relives most of the main plot points during the film, including eating a bag of floating chips while The Blue Danube dances in the background of the aircraft.
For the Psycho revival, the cartoon mimics the infamous shower scene death with a comedic twist.
Maggie hits Homer on the head with a hammer, causing him to fall to the ground, tearing the curtain on the wall off the hooks. The curtain hits and spills a giant bucket of red paint near Homer’s head, referencing the notable scene where Norman kills Marion in the shower.
Each pop culture reference serves two purposes. To satirize the media and to reference and commend the source material’s outlasting effects. Satire does not have to be in bad taste, and The Simpsons frequently acknowledge the creativity and quality of specific creators while remaining comedic and light.
A more recent example comes with The Simpsons’ short film: When Billie Met Lisa, released earlier this year. The show cast Billie Eilish and Finneas O’ Connell in a three-minute clip where they discover Lisa’s musical talent and invite her to collaborate on a song. The animators based Eilish and O’Connell’s character sketches on their appearances and had the siblings voice over their characters for a new skit.
The importance of braiding The Simpsons and pop culture touchstones boils down to viewership and popularity. The Simpsons is the longest-running sitcom and will continue to air for at least two more years. While it does so, it must find ways to maintain interest and keep viewers on their feet. The sitcom gag is familiar and exciting for a prolonged time, but viewers might need some tweaks and tunes to catch interest after thirty years.
Some other standout moments from the comedy are its one-liners. Need a refresher? “D’oh” is coined by Homer whenever he does something nonsensical or gets in trouble. “Why you little…” is another Homer catchphrase before he strangles (or as he strangles) Bart, and “Eeeeeeexcellent” spans from the evil Mr. Burns, the rich antagonist of the show with billions of dollars and an endless appetite for greed and wealth.
Beavis and Butthead
Who can forget about the two famous knuckleheads of the 90s? Beavis and Butthead emerged in 1993, a few years after the cement of The Simpsons, as a recurring segment on MTV targeted at both teenagers and adults. The show depicted two vacuous characters who loved girls, bad jokes, and music videos. The premise was simple, yet it entranced thousands of viewers, and the show was recently rebooted with another movie.
Beavis and Butthead’s link to The Flintstones is not as direct as The Simpsons,’ but the unique show explored parodies of American life in a way undone previously. The two crass characters from some random town in a random state in the US offered a look into the reality of teenage life in America in the 90s, well, to an extent.
The point of comedy varies from series to series, and Beavis and Butthead attempted and succeeded in turning a hyperbolic lens into the menial lives of two lazy American kids into a show about how not to function in society. Through it, we experienced iconic moments like Cornholio, Beavis and Butthead becoming the music critics we always wanted to be, and a world where the consequences don’t matter, or they don’t care about the consequences.
In a strange way, Beavis and Butthead are the perfect examples of reframing negative situations. When they do a poor job at work, they think it’s hilarious. When they get hurt, they believe it is cool, and the boys don’t frame basic situations in a sophisticated manner, but maybe they have something to say about society. That America, as a whole, is too serious and should resort to watching crappy music videos.
In the tradition of The Flintstones, Beavis and Butthead depicted portrayals of classes not shown often, including super liberals and super conservatives. It is unclear if this changed how America viewed these class types, but it certainly pivoted the directional animated shift.
We can’t talk about crucial cultural animation without talking about one of the most popular, crude, stop-motion animated shows today.
South Park’s origin story is unique and wouldn’t exist if the material the creators pitched the show today. In 1992, Trey Parker and Matt Stone created some cartoon kids with funny voices while still in film school. To pass the time on student film sets, they communicated back and forth with these characters, and as one of their final projects, they were hired to make a short Christmas card film titled “The Spirit of Christmas.”
The Flintstones and The Simpsons relied on humor to entertain families, and Beavis and Butthead stepped into using potty humor, but South Park’s comedy was downright offensive, disgusting, and horrifying, yet people loved it.
South Park traversed many outlets as it tried to land a spot for its show. Most networks wanted it but couldn’t imagine airing the segment. Eventually, Comedy Central picked up the satire for every imaginable class, race, location, religion, and celebrity. The social commentary does not refrain from eking out controversial issues and crafting entertaining storylines around them.
As The Flintstones showed one of the first married couples sleeping in a bed together, South Park soared over the top by depicting one of the first animated kids on television swearing and speaking about taboo topics. However, TV executives decided to censor the show’s nudity, language and violence until 2001.
The catalyst for uncensored swear words on network television came from an episode entitled “It hits the fan.” The episode mirrored the reality of the animated series, and in the 22 minutes of air time, the plot revolved around a show saying the word sh*t. This was the record-breaking moment of the first sh*t uttered on television in both shows. As most children equate using swear words to getting in irreversible trouble, the characters in South Park become ill or killed.
The characters repeat the word 162 times, leading to a breakthrough in censored television.
South Park boomed with the growing political fights and heightened violence in America. One of the reasons the show remained popular was its ability to offer a reprieve from the mess of reality and poke fun at actual happenings. The show might offend sensitive viewers, but it provides a revealing glimpse into humanity.
At its release, South Park offered a plunge into unseen territory. It almost felt like you shouldn’t consume the show, but the interest in how far they’d take the content kept you watching. As time evolved, you connected to these children with their bizarre, elaborate, and offensive ventures as they navigated a world where nothing makes sense.
These paper boys will stick around.
A few years after South Park’s introduction, Family Guy premiered. The original animated show by Seth Macfarlane illustrates a dysfunctional family drawn in a basic format featuring a talking vile baby with a football-shaped head.
Family Guy works because of its excessive use of tropes. For example, Peter Griffin, the useless, selfish, narcissistic only child, can’t complete any task without the help of his wife. Plus, the series’ overuse of cutaways (showing an unrelated plot point or line of dialogue before dramatically cutting away to a different scene) and violence without physical injury made the show recognizable in the industry.
Family Guy and South Park have some similarities in the subject matter. Still, South Park tends to delve further into offensive territory and commentary on political discourse. At the same time, Family Guy uses more slapstick humor and subtle suggestions plotted throughout its episodes.
Despite Family Guy’s less abrasive approach to dark humor, it receives lower ratings than South Park.
Interestingly enough, when Macfarlane finished his film thesis in college, his professor sent the short to Hanna-Barbera, the company that created The Flintstones.
Radical, leftist, black panther, political poet Huey Freeman stars as the protagonist of the 2005-2009 animated show about black life in the white suburbs. Huey’s little brother, Riley Freeman, follows all the new trends and yearns to be a rich, famous legend like his idols Thugnificient, a play on Ludacris, and Gangstalicious, a parody of 50 Cent.
Cared for by their dishonest Grandad, who chases the likes of younger females, Riley and Huey live in a big house in a white suburb. After the kids’ parents die, Grandad uses their inheritance money to purchase their home.
The animation style resembles anime with big eyes, small mouths, colorful clothes, and keen attention to detail, but whether The Boondocks classifies as an anime is unclear.
All the shows mentioned above highlight white life, and The Boondocks portrays a satirical depiction of a black American family by a black American creator. The diversity in this show opened up animation to a world it hadn’t seen portrayed honestly or correctly. But, thanks to The Boondocks, we have more diversity in adult animation today, even though improvements can still arise.
Aaron McGruder perfected the delivery of satire throughout the show. From the ten-year-old identifying as a “reformed terrorist,” the child looking for a get rich quick scheme, the white neighbors obsessed with guns, and a fan favorite, the black yet racist Uncle Ruckus with a self-diagnosed case of revitiligo. “It’s opposite of what Michael Jackson got.”
The Boondocks is more refined than its predecessors and has a different message than South Park and Family Guy. Instead of forcing the audience to gasp and guffaw at the absurdity of the program (shock value), The Boondocks illustrates truth with its content. It’s heavy, but never heavy-handed, and funny without trying too hard.
The show about an anthropomorphic horse premiered in 2014 and lasted six perfect seasons until its bittersweet finale in 2020. Bojack Horseman centers around the eponymous alcoholic horse living on the royalties from a fictional sitcom he starred on in the 90s, Horsin’ Around.
Bojack lives a dead-end life after his success on the sitcom lands him in a dry career spell. He drinks all day, lives with his human friend and sometimes foil, Todd, and sleeps with random women.
Bojack varied from its predecessors by anthropomorphizing animals and treating them like humans. In The Flintstones, we see Dino as a pet who can’t communicate with humans, and in Family Guy, we see a rare case of the talking dog. Bojack throws viewers into a world where humans, half-humans, and whole animals communicate, work together, and see each other as equals. A metaphor for modern-day humanity? Absolutely.
Another thing Bojack nails is the mastery of emotions. Instead of alluding to complex topics, the animation shows Bojack’s intense struggles with alcoholism, drug use, depression, familial neglect, and low self-esteem. Bojack is in no way a hero, he’s a cynical, dishonest, unlikeable character, but he forces viewers to sit with discomfort.
One of the episodes depicts Bojack physically abusing a co-worker, placing the viewer in a tense position. It is not a story arc where the abuser is turned in or loses screen time. Bojack is the show’s namesake, and you watch him for the rest of the series. In all his unkempt and cringy appearances.
We must watch the abuser continue to receive praise and work despite his behavior. A topic Hollywood is all too familiar with.
Bojack also was the first animated show to depict an openly asexual character.
With its surrealist style, dogged approach to complex storylines, and three-dimensional characters, Bojack Horseman is one of the best-animated shows ever created.
The Deep Dive Summed Up
Since the primetime premiere of the first adult animated show, The Flintstones, in the 60s, the avenue for adult animation has transformed. However, none of the current adult animated programs would exist without the philosophical, satirical, and animation techniques used in The Flintstones.
Animation allows us to look through a different lens at society while highlighting the comedic portions of life. And adult animation lets adults indulge in intelligent programs initially aimed at children.
The Simpsons taught us the significance of family, The Boondocks illustrated the importance of solid political satire, and Bojack Horseman shines a revealing light on Hollywood.
Yabba Dabba Doo!
This article was produced and syndicated by Wealth of Geeks.