Adult animation seemed like an interesting topic for an article, what with the recent spate of cartoons targeted at adults. And indeed, its origins and development as a valid entertainment medium proved to be pretty interesting. Unfortunately, it also turned out to be a lot longer than we thought it would be, so this is Part 1. Part 2 will be posted next week, and will pick up where this one leaves off.
Any discussion of adult animation needs to start with a definition of what adult animation means. It doesn’t mean porn. Let’s just get that out of the way right now. It refers to animated features that contain content aimed at an older viewer. Whether it’s content that is deemed inappropriate for minors, like references to sex or drugs, or it contains mature themes that younger viewers just wouldn’t understand.
And while adult animation is typically funny, it doesn’t have to be.
The Early Days
Don’t believe me about that “not porn” thing I mentioned earlier?
Well, the first example of censorship against an animation is PA vs Disney for “Alice Solves a Puzzle” starring Alice from Alice in Wonderland. Apparently the puzzle was how to get drunk during Prohibition, because Pennsylvania was trying to censor references to bootlegging. Also, the bootlegging was being done by Bootlegging Pete, apparently the first appearance of Mickey’s (eventual) eternal nemesis, who has taken on many roles and incarnations over the decades.
Another prominent example of adult animation from back in your grandma’s day is Betty Boop.
Good ol’ Betty was affected deeply by the Hays Code, which basically outlawed morally objectionable material in film. For instance, she was required to wear more clothing, but more importantly, she lost her long time boyfriend, Bimbo, a male dog. Yes, his name is Bimbo, and yes, Betty was dating a dog. Back in the 30’s, implied bestiality in cartoons was wrong.
All Hail King Ralph
After the Hays Code took effect, there weren’t a lot of cartoons aimed at adults. Thankfully, by the late 60’s the Hays code was repealed in favor of the MPAA, and animation could be reintroduced to a new generation of adult viewers.
The biggest maker of adult animation to take advantage of the new laws was Ralph Bakshi. Ralph made several animated films in the early 70’s, but it wasn’t until his controversial Fritz the Cat that he started to gain some real exposure.
Fritz the Cat was the first animated movie to receive an X rating, which as we all know, means this is porn. In fact, Fritz the Cat is not just porn. There is relatively little nudity in the movie at all. It is, however, a stunning satire of the excesses of the 60’s that lampooned sex, drug use, race relations and politics. But it had pre-internet furry scenes, so it got an X. After his release of Heavy Traffic to critical and commercial success, Bashki became the first animator since Walt Disney to have back to back film successes.
However, Bashki’s determination to stretch the envelope ended up biting him in the ass. After his movie Coonskin was mistakenly portrayed as racist, Bashki pretty much stuck with safer work to avoid further controversy. He did a few fantasy movies, including Lord of the Rings, but his final animated film was Cool World, which promised much more than it delivered.
Since Bashki’s heyday, there haven’t been many American made adult animated movies to reach commercial success. Heavy Metal is a notable exception, though it definitely stretches the terms “commercial” and “success.” Most successful modern adult animation is on television now.
And who do we have to thank for that? America’s longest running animated TV show, The Simpsons. The show has evolved over the past 20 odd years, and it’s more family friendly than adult animation, but it definitely explores some themes that are above the average 12 year old’s head. Topics on the The Simpsons have ranged from nudity to suicide, profanity and nearly every vice you can think of dealt with in a humorous, yet mature, manner.
Following the Simpson’s success, came a few other shows worth noting.
The first was a Nickelodeon cartoon, that while meant to be a kid’s show, Nickelodeon had to censor several episodes for sexual innuendo or violence. Ren & Stimpy is fondly remembered by people of all ages now, but at the time, many parents didn’t like their children watching it. Ren & Stimpy isn’t the only cartoon on Nickelodeon to feature adult humor. For instance, the titular character of Rocko’s Modern Life had worked as a phone sex operator and hung out at the Chokey Chicken.
Another cartoon that was geared for the adult, or at least the teenager or young adult, was Beavis and Butt-head.
This was one of MTV’s most famous shows and was as controversial as it was popular. People complained of their children blowing up cats and setting houses on fire because the were emulating the show, thought the show never blew up a cat. There was much fire in the early days though. This is the first cartoon I remember getting a warning prior to it playing that viewers shouldn’t imitate cartoons. Creator Mike Judge later went on to do King of the Hill on Fox, another hit adult animation.
The last big show to come out in this time period was the ever popular South Park. Though technically a month late to be the first true adult cartoon (beat by Spice City on HBO), South Park is the first one anyone remembers. It only aired later in the evening, after most children are assumed to be in bed. South Park has continually pushed the limits of television decency.
It has evolved from a simple cartoon about fart jokes into a more complex satire that mocks current events, celebrities and our culture.
Next Week on Movie Gallery…Part 2!
Next week, we’ll talk about the television network that brought adult animation to preeminence, and also talk about adult animation throughout the world. Japan in particular has made a name for itself for producing outstanding animation that is definitely not targeted at a younger audience. Oh, and Seth MacFarlane might get a mention or two.