Throwback; Sex, Drugs and the Surreal: Nineties Cartoons by Callum Costello

Written by TV

“Open your eyes Morty!” In a time of cartoon renaissance it feels fitting to throwback to a time where warped realities and moralities were a staple of television animation. In the nineties there were a slew of debauched and surreal cartoons populating primetime television that paved the way for modern day classics such as Rick and Morty, Bojack Horseman, Archer and Bob’s Burgers. From the counterculture of MTV, to the goofiness of Cartoon Network through to the experimental weirdness of Nickelodeon, we can retrospectively appreciate what a golden chapter in the history of animation the decade was.

Some notable admissions; obviously The Simpsons was at the peak of its powers. I’m also going to overlook classics such as King of the Hill, South Park and Doug, as well as younger audience stuff such as Rugrats, Hey Arnold and all the superhero stuff (Batman the Animated Series, X-Men etc.). The Warner Bros and Disney stuff too; (Animaniacs, Duck Tales etc.) – instead focusing on cult classic stuff that is a product of it’s time.

First, MTV, who before the reality television era was determined to carve their corner of the market out by experimenting with programming that fit with its aesthetic. In the early nineties they put out avant-garde classic Aeon Flux; a dystopian thriller that cashed in on the breakout success of anime juggernaut Akira. A few years later MTV struck gold with Mike Judge’s Beavis and Butt-Head – a subversive and juvenile reflection of the emerging grunge culture. Beavis and Butt-Head became a cornerstone of the MTV programming and image for the rest of the decade as well as popularising an animation style that would be imitated and explored for years to come. Credit due also to later decade hit Daria which was ahead of its time in both style and content.

 “A surreal masterpiece, it’s style and risqué humour opened the market for cartoon content”

Before Beavis and Butt-Head though, there was Nickelodeon’s The Ren and Stimpy Show. As much an anomaly now as it was at the time, Ren and Stimpy found a place in Nickelodeon’s programming despite being favoured by older audiences. A surreal masterpiece, it’s style and risqué humour opened the market for cartoon content aimed at those between the early morning and late night age brackets. Nick would continue to invest in alternative animated content for years after, and are too often overlooked despite having the likes of Rocko’s Modern Life, and CatDog.

King of nineties animated entertainment though is undoubtedly Cartoon Network, who launched a litany of classics in the second half of the decade including Dexter’s Laboratory, Cow and Chicken, The Powerpuff Girls, Johnny Bravo, I Am Weasel, Ed, Edd n Eddy and Courage the Cowardly Dog – all cartoon greats that defined the television childhood of a generation whilst finding appreciation amongst older audiences too. They refined the experimentation and style of their competitors to create highly polished and successful programming that nearly twenty years later still holds up as both quality entertainment and gorgeous art. They, along with the work of MTV and Nickelodeon, laid the groundwork in
contemporary animation which made it easy for older audiences to fall for the Rick’s and Morty’s of this world. Those suffering a post R&M hangover could do far worse than revisiting some of these classics.

(Shout out’s also to ‘Duckman’ [Sky], ‘The Tick’ [Fox] and ‘Pinky and the Brain’ [Warner Bros], as well as early noughties releases ‘Samurai Jack’ [Cartoon Network] and ‘Action League Now’ [Nick].)

Last modified: 6th October 2018

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