There is hardly a medium of media less understood or valued than cartoons. The word itself, cartoon, has a sort of juvenile connotation; those who don’t understand the comedic freedom it allows see it as a genre beholden to cheap laughs and gimmicks.
And sure, there’s been plenty of bad cartoons over the years. That’s true of anything, really. But when a cartoon becomes more than just animation (drawn or computer generated), and becomes a creative satire with characters and stories that we love– without any of the limitations of the real world– something truly amazing is created.
For many of the recent generations, cartoons have become something of a unifying factor. You may meet someone for the first time, and say “man, how good was Rocko’s Modern Life?” or: “Nothing beats the original animated Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles.” Or for the more serious cartoon viewer: “The Tick was the best show no one knew about.”
Perhaps this all can be attributed to a sort of collective nostalgia millennials and previous generations share. Maybe we all just love cartoons because they were such an integral part of our expanding imaginations as kids. Even if that is true, there are some cartoons that over the years have proven their comedic (and storytelling) genius. It’s hard to just pick the 5 best cartoon comedies; there’s so many incredible ones left off. It was challenging enough ranking just 5, let alone opening up the can of worms that is a list much bigger than that. That being said, this list is the elite; the cartoon comedies that changed our lives for the funnier.
5. Adventure Time (2010–Present)
Despite being incredibly new in comparison to many great cartoon comedies, Adventure Time has launched itself into contention as one of the best cartoons ever made very quickly. Originally created by and for Cartoon Network Studios alongside Frederator Studios, Adventure Time has absolutely exploded onto the scene in 2010, and hasn’t stopped growing since. With a deft touch, the creators and creative team blended old school tropes and, well, cartoonish themes with a very adult, subtle, and sometimes absurd sense of humor that is borderline impossible not to like. They have a lot of fun with the concept of classical storytelling, as the protagonist Finn sees himself as a Hero, and Jake the dog as his sidekick, complete with an evil Ice King (one of the funniest characters on the show), princess bubble gum, and anti-hero vampire chick Marceline. However, that classical storyline is turned on its head with very real, everyday thoughts and feelings of the characters, despite the fantastical nature of the show.
In fact, one of the most amazing aspects of the show is its serious side; every few episodes, a story laden episode that reveals the fact that the world they live in is in fact the rebuilt world of an apocalyptic society (ours) before them. It’s impossible not to stress to someone who hasn’t watched the show how entertaining and deep the show is outside it’s very cartoonish exterior; the ability of the show to change gears from hysterical to serious and thought provoking is rare. This is one of the best shows around today and will stand as such for a long, long time.
4. Archer (2010–Present)
Another newcomer to the game, Archer is unbridled, unrestrained, and unbelievably funny. Spearheaded by the near-perfect voice acting cast, notably H. Jon Benjamin as Sterling Malory Archer, Jessica Walter as Malory Duchess Archer, and Judy Greer as Cheryl Tunt, the show depicts a 2-bit, low budget Spy Agency that is regularly ruined by those working for it. It is unabashedly tongue in cheek as it berates the spy-movie genre, but even more than that, the show is a flawless mix of absurdity and realism kicked into overdrive by character-driven humor. Like so many good comedies, the show gets funnier and funnier the closer they draw you in to the characters and their flaws (Seinfeld, anyone?) The ridiculous, egotistical momma’s boy that is Sterling Archer is really made whole by Jon Benjamin, (if you don’t know him by name, you’d recognize his voice immediately) and his stubborn acts of childlike stupidity and joy are somehow perfect in the show. You would never want Archer’s character to be any different– both for comedy purposes, and simply because you start to love the idiot. This is one of those shows that took some convincing to sit down and watch, but as soon as you get into it, the humor is unstoppable.
3. Family Guy (1999 — 2003, 2005 — Present)
If ever there were a spiritual successor to The Simpsons, this is it; and nothing could have ever done the legacy they created more proud. The now incredibly well-known, charismatic creator of the series, Seth MacFarlane, knew he didn’t have to reinvent the wheel; he just had to make it his own. Family Guy has achieved that and much, much more. As much as we hail The Simpsons as the progenitor of so much great cartoon comedy, especially the mature satire cartoon comedy, Family Guy has become that landmark show for future generations to learn from as The Simpsons was before it.
From a 10,000 ft. view, Peter Griffin, his patient wife and troubled kids are not all that different than Homer Simpson and his family. But for those who love the show, they feel worlds apart in style, humor, character, and pace. The show basically made the cut-away famous, and their ability and frequency to dispense humor far outside their home to our real world, whether it be topically or just in breaking the fourth wall, is legendary. The show has a knack for blending your basic side splitting antics, expectation reversal, absurd and off-color humor, and character driven humor fluidly in just about every episode. This is perhaps the best show ever at surprising the viewer into laughter– making you shake your head at how hard they push the boundaries while you struggle to regain your breath from laughing. And despite it all, The Griffins, friends, relatives and townsfolk feel so real that the loyal viewers would feel actual loss if they show ended tomorrow. They may have suffered the ignominy of being cancelled once, but don’t sweat the small stuff; keep doin’ what you do.
2. The Simpsons (1989 — Present)
Welcome to the gold standard. This is what made it all possible. It’s hard to believe that the show started 25 years ago, and has aired 549 episodes. Its longevity is a testament to the resounding presence it has in the world of television, media, and comedy. The Simpsons single-handedly validates the value and worth of all animated comedy, basically for the rest of time; after all, how else could a show about the same people, the same age, experiencing all different kinds of eras, social problems, and themes exist without the medium that is the cartoon? Where it is far more tame in the realm of absurdity than its successors– it mostly stays in the bounds of a reality, albeit a fake reality– it certainly captured the imagination and affection of viewers with the hijinks of the loveable failure that is Homer Simpson. Whether it be going to space, or touring with the Smashing Pumpkins, or becoming a monorail conductor, Homer certainly didn’t live the normal life– and we loved him for it, despite the fact that he is an idiot who would be under-qualified to operate a cash register.
But The Simpsons had a much farther reaching scope than just comedy; despite the fact that its humor was spectacularly dialogue driven and character fueled, some of its finer moments were in its underlying satire on modern America. The episode entitled “Homer’s Enemy”, a compelling story of a hard-working, come-from-nothing young man named Frank Grimes manages to get a job at the power plant– only to be blown away by the incompetence, incredible good fortune and shortsightedness of one Homer Simpson. His plan to reveal Homer as a liability and an idiot backfires, and Frank Grimes dies after a panic-driven state of dementia. The episode ends as he is quickly forgotten about over Homer’s comic idiocy. Not only is the episode absurdly funny, but it offers a scathing view into Homer as being the enemy of good America, so to speak, and shows a grim future for hard-working Americans who will never get their just desserts. It’s that level of fluid storytelling and comedy genius that has defined The Simpsons as one of the greatest shows, not just cartoons, in history.
1. Futurama (1999 — 2003, 2008 — 2013)
Never was there a more under-appreciated, funnier, more loveable animated comedy than Futurama. Many of you may be up in arms that Futurama fills the #1 spot over Simpsons and Family Guy, but based on the quality of the show, not the fan favoritism, Futurama deserves to sit atop the mountain.
Just watch the episode “Insane in the Mainframe” and try not to die from a lack of oxygen to the brain. It’s one of countless classics that simply cannot be beat in the realm of absurd satire. The concept of the show is simply flawless– what better platform to work from than a loveable young idiot from the 20th century hurled a thousand years into the future where he is, well a loveable idiot in the future. It allows the creative team to write about anything, anyone, anywhere, anytime, and allows them to make up literally whatever they want– after all, who knows what’s in the depths of space?
Like all of these shows, the motor that drives them is the characters, and there’s isn’t a more diverse, funnier, and more complete cast of characters than those in Futurama. Without waxing poetic about each character and how entertaining they are in their own right, even if there wasn’t a whole universe to play in around them, just know that Futurama is the perfect blend of dialogue humor of the Simpsons, with the off-color absurdist-situational humor of Family Guy all while perfectly playing into each character’s personalities. And you have to give the creative team credit, they knew what to do with a wide open universe. From living space balls to gargoyles to Omicronians and Richard Nixon’s head in a jar, the show does not fail to make use of the expansive comedic palette they gave themselves. If you haven’t watched this show, you need to. You will be oh-so glad you did.