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Next Generation Animation

How the Internet changed cartoons

Mark Davis/AFP/Getty Images

One of the promos for Seth MacFarlane's upcoming gig as Oscar host starts, "Hi I'm Seth MacFarlane," followed by a whispered aside, "Ask your kids." Sure, he's winking at the fact that he's easily the least famous host in the Award's history.1 But he is also acknowledging why he was likely offered the job in the first place: to attract a younger audience. Seth MacFarlane, the creator of “Family Guy,” is the reigning king of animated television, and animated television has always had youthful appeal.2

But more than that, MacFarlane is emblematic of twenty-first-century animated television: highly irreverent, extensively referential, so frantically plotted that it can seem completely scatterbrained. Where “Family Guy”’s cynicism and unfocused reference-hopping once felt unique, it has become the norm. (This is helped by the fact that MacFarlane now has three shows on the air.) In other words, MacFarlane was the harbinger of animated television in the Internet age. The Oscars are just catching up. 

In some ways, animated television has been evolving in this direction for decades. As early as the late 1950s, Hanna-Barbera started airing wholesome, simple cartoons like “Huckleberry Hound” and “Yogi Bear,” which set the stage for the slightly more adult “Flintstones” (the show took its cues from sitcoms). The rise of cable television in the late ’80s and early ’90s made room for more nuanced animated programming. The maturity of the content varied, but these shows were appealingly elaborate. A parent could appreciate the adept storytelling of “Rugrats,” while shows like “Animaniacs” and its spin-off “Pinky & the Brain” went further, including jokes clearly directed at parents. (The former included a Goodfellas parody in every episode, titled Goodfeathers.) A step beyond that were “Ren & Stimpy” and “Rocko's Modern Life,” which incorporated a very adult irreverence. And all of these shows were following “The Simpsons,” of course, the program that demanded animation be respected as television (and art) of the highest level. Then, the early aughts saw the rise of Adult Swim—Cartoon Network's nighttime programming block, which was created to appeal to older teens and stoned college students.

Adult Swim went on define the offbeat, unorthodox tone of a lot of contemporary animated television. To survey the current state of animated television, I asked my 14-year-old brother to make me a list of recommendations. His list included “China, IL,” “Superjail!,”Black Dynamite,” “Metalocalpype” and others—all Adult Swim shows. All these shows were expertly executed, richly drawn, and complete madness—sacrificing character to concept, and indulging in extremes of excess. More than anything, these show are maximalist. They feature surreality, fart jokes, sarcasm, poop jokes, parody, and violence. The episode of “Superjail!” that I watched bounced rapidly between scenes: At one moment a whimsical yet sinister Willy Wonka–esque prison warden plans to clone a certain psychopathic prisoner 10,000 times over, the next moment, all those clones are murdering each other. Then out of nowhere, the soundtrack shifts and identical twins appear, trying to befriend these psychopaths. They’re soon gone, though, and a storyline involving the prisoner’s baby takes center stage, in which he falls out the window and eventually finds himself playing the part of the ball in a giant, dangerous pinball machine. All of this happens in 30 seconds. And this pace never lets up for the entirety of the episode's eleven minutes. (Thankfully, these shows tend to have short runtimes.)

The jam-packed pacing of the latest generation of animated television is one of its most distinguishing features. Fox, in attempt to leach some of Adult Swim's popularity, is developing a new late-night block appropriately called ADHD. The acronym stands for Animation Domination High-Def, but suggests a lot more. These shows are competing with an Internet-trained attention span, so speed is king. Gone are slow builds and delayed payoffs.

Internet culture has seeped into animated television in more than just the speed at which these shows unfold: The TV equivalent of the hyperlink has made its way into cartoonland. A recent episode of “Family Guy,” for example, knocked out references to "Monty Python," Nathaniel Hawthorne, “Bob's Burgers,” “Breaking Bad,” “The Wire,” and the band Blue Suede before the opening credits were even finished. Such shows trade in rapidly shifting stimuli and obscure references. Audiences can always pause the DVR—or, more likely, just open another tab on their browser to look up obscure reference with Google.

There are exceptions, of course: The FX network’s “Archer” and Fox’s “Bob's Burgers.” “Bob's Burgers,” especially, will sacrifice references and the break-neck pace to develop its universe and the relationships within. The show pulls off brilliant, slow-burning, character-rooted bits that run against the genre's current de rigueur alacrity. In a recent episode, the eponymous Bob decides he wants to teach his daughter Tina how to drive in an empty parking lot. Tina eventually hits a parked car with an uneventful thud after a full minute of build-up (twice as long as it takes “Superjail!” to cycle through maybe 20-times as many plot points). This pacing and innocence often leave the show feeling less like its peers and more like first-wave animated shows like “The Flintstones” and “The Jetsons.” “Bob's Burgers,” however, is not nearly as popular as “Family Guy.” And considering the latter's creator is hosting the Oscars, it appears the zeitgeist is also in his favor.

Right now, a teenage boy in Omaha or Reno or wherever has a baker's dozen tabs open in his browser—two games, two social media sites, Gmail, Google, three Wikipedia pages (two for homework, one for something random—like zippers), three porntubes, and Hulu, Netflix, or maybe Adult Swim's video player. He's probably watching an animated show and occasionally pausing to look up a reference to some Rick Astley B-side. These shows are integrated into these sorts of Web habits. They must move quickly, because little Jonny wants to know the difference between several different types of zippers and might leave at any moment. They push the limits of reference obscurity, because the video's playing an inch from a search bar. If the thought of watching something like this sounds unenjoyable, actually watching probably won’t be any more fun. We used to say: If the music’s too loud, then you’re too old. Now it’s: If the animation is too fast, the characters too weird, then this new type of animation isn’t for you.

Jesse David Fox is an associate editor at New York Magazine's Vulture blog. Follow @JesseDavidFox.

  1. MacFarlane is the first host in the show's history to not have starred in his own TV show or movie. He has obviously done voice work in successful movies and TV shows, but many have never seen his face before.

  2. Routinely five Fox animated shows—"Family Guy," "The Simpsons," "American Dad, "Bob's Burgers," "The Cleveland Show"—will be in the top ten scripted shows among teens.