When you hear the term “adult cartoon,” you probably think of contemporary favorites like Rick and Morty, BoJack Horseman, or South Park. There’s a definitive archetypal kind of animation that’s targeted to not-kids. The shows generally share a simple or even crudely-drawn aesthetic, hyper-creative storylines, and a decidedly adult flavor involving sex, drugs, and even the occasional masturbating alien.
Collectively, we tend to see the recent surge in adult animation as something of an anomaly for the format. Long associated with Saturday morning cartoons and childish fairy tales, our Disney-fied brains tend to think of animation as a form of entertainment best suited to those who haven’t hit puberty.
But the lesser-known side of lewd cartoons is this: For much of animation’s history, it was primarily for grownups.
Here’s how adult animation was born, died, and reincarnated as the foul-mouthed drawings you love today.
Decades before Pixar broke our hearts with WALL-E and Nickelodeon filled our brains with Rugrats, animation was a fledgling, humble art form. The earliest animated films were super short and featured vaudevillian antics, like this guy drawing a bottle of wine and causally lifting it off his easel:
These videos were mainly intended for an adult audience, as animation scholar Nichola Dobson notes in her book Historical Dictionary of Animation and Cartoons. While the cartoons of the 1920s were relatively tame, they still peddled largely in adult themes like sexuality, alcohol and even marital difficulties.
But the early 1930s really put the “adult” in “adult animation.” This was the “Pre-Code Era,” or the last few years before Hollywood began systematically censoring material deemed “improper.” And boy, did those rascally animators enjoy their final hurrah.
In this period, animation embraced “wildness and wickedness,” according to animation scholar Karl Cohen, which meant it featured lots of women being undressed (see this excellent YouTube compilation if you’re so inclined), people getting blitzed on laughing gas, and loads of dancing skeletons. For example, in the 1933 Walt Disney horror short “The Mad Doctor,” Pluto is viciously tortured by a mad scientist, while Mickey is attacked by an army of skeletons. Both the imagery (creepy) and content (creepier) feels decidedly unlike the usual Disney fare that ’90s kids grew up with.
But dancing-skeleton enthusiasts would probably despair in the mid-1930s, when animation became a whole lot tamer. That was thanks to the introduction of the Hays Code which censored all movies, including animation, from 1934 to around 1968, though it became mostly obsolete in its final years. In cartoons, this meant banning everything from little boys sticking out their tongues to pants-less cows.
As a result, much overtly-explicit “adult content” was squeezed out of cartoons. However, animation still mostly existed in the form of cartoon shorts that played before feature films, often along with newsreels. As such, these shorts were still expected to appeal to both children and adults.
In fact, publisher Martin Goodman, who founded the company that became Marvel Comics, notes that mainstream animation of the ’40s and ’50s still contained sophisticated humor, pop culture references, casual violence, sexuality, and jazz. Goodman sees this as proof that, despite the heavy censorship, animation was still largely intended to please adults. Animation was even used in America’s World War II propaganda, which featured Donald and Daffy Duck urging God-fearing citizens to pay their taxes, collect scrap metals, and generally pummel the Nazis.
But children’s cartoons were about to ruthlessly take over and drastically transform popular conceptions of animation. That was thanks to the widespread proliferation of television in the ’50s and ’60s. TV allowed studios to target kids specifically, which they did through less sophisticated “limited animation,” a technique popularized by Hanna-Barbera in the ’50s. Animators would reuse large parts of the same frame over and over again, rather than redrawing them as they had painstakingly done in the past. The result was far cruder and less artistic than your typical Disney fare of previous decades. Meanwhile, a dying studio system slashed their animation departments, meaning the end of intricately-drawn animated shorts. All of this led to what animation scholar M. Keith Booker calls “a widespread perception in the television industry that animated programs could succeed only as children’s fare on Saturday mornings.” This perception would continue for several decades, yielding some definitive, if child-friendly, stinkers.
But all was not lost. The ’80s rolled around, and MTV entered the picture. The channel’s first creative director Fred Seibert saw cartoons as the best visual analogy for rock ‘n roll, and started employing edgy animators to do the now-famous interstitials.
The channel also showed groundbreaking music videos featuring bold animation. This all helped to start breaking down the perception that animation was just for kids. Then, in 1989 animation returned to primetime with The Simpsons, which combined the classically-neurotic sitcom family with sophisticated pop culture references and complex storylines.
Around the same time, MTV bolstered its animated slate, introducing the anthology show Liquid Television, which created a home for bizarre adult animated shorts, eventually birthing both Beavis and Butt-Head and Æon Flux. These successes were followed by The Head, Celebrity Deathmatch, Daria, and Fox’s King of the Hill, all of which featured decidedly adult — or at least, late-adolescent — humor.
Arguably, the emergence of the profanity-laden South Park and Family Guy sealed the deal. Adult animation was back in full force. Cartoon Network responded by launching the adult animation programming block Adult Swim in 2001, and you know the rest. We got classics in the form of Robot Chicken, The Boondocks, Aqua Teen Hunger Force, Moral Orel, the UPN-originated Home Movies and, eventually, Rick and Morty.
Adult animation in recent years has skewed increasingly dark and complex, with shows like BoJack Horseman exploring depression, Rick and Morty exploring nihilism, and Archer exploring sex, drugs, and lots of deep-cut cultural references. BoJack Horseman creator and show-runner Raphael Bob-Waksberg predicted in 2018 that “You’re going to see even more in the next five years, [including] a larger diversity of the kind of things we would call adult animation.”
So clearly, the idea of animation being for adults is far from a new phenomenon. Rather, there’s a rich history of animation being targeted at an older-than-grade-school audience. Today, the ravenous adult animation audience can enjoy the nostalgia of Saturday morning cartoons while perversely reveling in content that feels so very unlike what animation is “supposed” to be. The irony, of course, is that animation never really was as predictably childish a format as we might assume.