Once upon a time animated cartoons were considered the domain of children or the young at heart, the pervading recollections of most being older family-friendly fare such as The Flintstones and The Jetsons, or more ubiquitous and mildly subversive recent series such as The Simpsons, South Park and Futurama.
But boy, how things have changed in recent times. New animated series Brickleberry began airing recently in Australia on cable for the first time, and one only had to survey the opening scene of the first episode to see how much things had changed: it began scanning a vast vista of an arc-load of wild animals having kinky sex, culminating with a blood-spattered park ranger beating a bear to death with a shovel. The jury may be out on whether Brickleberry is actually any good – many pundits bemoan its puerility and similarity to Family Guy – but what's fascinating about the show is its complete lack of morals (it's awesomely disgusting), which makes one realise just how much the boundaries of taste have shifted in the animation world in the last couple of decades.
It's hard to believe in hindsight that The Simpsons was initially deemed to be cutting-edge because of Bart's mildly rebellious streak
Of course, controversy in animation is nothing new (we should note at this juncture that we're focusing primarily on US titles, even though 90 per cent of all animation is from Japan). It's hard to believe in hindsight that The Simpsons was initially deemed to be cutting-edge because of Bart's mildly rebellious streak – Bart T-shirts were banned at schools, because his penchant for back-chatting his folks and espousing the values of underachievement made him a bad role model – and that South Park once seemed thrilling due to its willingness to tackle taboos such as racism and sexuality (although to be fair they've continued ramping it up, and their depiction of Muhammad a few years ago earned the writers credible death threats). Even Beavis & Butthead were considered a threat by many moralists in their day, and while Family Guy has a hack at just about every line there is to cross, its scattergun nature means that they rarely push any one thing too far.
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Obviously a lot of early animation now seems crass by today's standards – episodes of old faithfuls such as Betty Boop (Making Stars (1935)), Popeye (You're A Sap Mr Jap (1942)) and about a dozen Bugs Bunny featurettes all seem completely racist in hindsight, although that's more a reflection of the prevailing morality of yesteryear rather than any overt intention to push society's buttons. You could continue ad infinitum in this regard; the whole premise of Speedy Gonzalez, for instance, was the racial stereotyping of Mexicans as drunk and lazy, to the point that it was taken off the air altogether in the '90s, and has recently returned with a disclaimer: “The cartoons that you are about to see are products of their time. They may depict some of the ethnic and racial prejudices that were commonplace in American society. These depictions were wrong then and they are wrong now.”
Yet while the old faves such as The Simpsons are far from redundant, it's the new breed of animation which has really started to push the envelope, perhaps fuelled by a perceived lack of enforcement of decency standards in the United States by the Federal Communications Commission, which has allowed competing TV networks to run rampant with their programming. Here's just a handful of the main offenders (if you take offence at such things):
Possibly the raunchiest of the animated shows, based upon the oedipal issues of the titular suave and self-centred spy, and his cohorts at the spy agency ISIS which is run by his mother. Surprisingly highbrow – contains references to Tolkien, Melville and Chekhov – but also groin-grabbingly lowbrow.
Adult Swim (2005-present)
Razor sharp race relations satire involving the African-American Freeman family moving to a whitebread suburb of Chicago. Features Uncle Ruckus – the incredibly racist, black, white supremacist – and won a Peabody for a particularly daring episode about Martin Luther King Jr. Uses the N-word more than Django Unchained.
Adult Swim (2006-present)
Follows death metal band Dethklok, incredibly popular (the planet's seventh largest economy) despite their somewhat naff music (which features prominently) and proclivity for killing their fans. Everything they touch turns to shit, and the humour is indelibly black. Beloved by metal fans for obvious reasons.
A vengeful cop wields an axe to mete out his peculiar form of justice. Incredibly surreal and random – possibly because co-created by a 5-year-old – as evinced by episodes such as Zombie Island... In Space in which Hitler forces a captive scientist to create a zombie army. Absurd and illogical, wears thin after a while.
Cartoon Network (2010-present)
A weird, surreal romp ostensibly aimed at kids but far more popular amongst adults (Matt Groening is an avowed fan, and Tyler The Creator name-checked it in Yonkers). Beyond trippy – one episode features bears holding a rave in a giant's stomach – and Henry Rollins voices a rainbow-coloured unicorn. Pretty much enough said...
Adult Swim (2008-present)
Based in a psychedelic prison located in a volcano, which is itself housed in an even larger volcano. Abstract characters and plots, and graphic violence is the order of the day, often showed in horrific detail with massive body counts par for the course. Definitely not for the faint of heart.
The Belchers run a restaurant, and their escapades contain plenty of toilet humour, smut and innuendo, tied together by a strange sense of familial ethics. Dry and deadpan, although critics have decried it as “vulgar” and “crass”– perhaps because its subject matters include child molestation, jock itch and transsexual hookers.
Purposely drawn like the comic books of yore, these kids' behaviour is more akin to Porky's than the gang from Riverdale High. Quite literate, with the anodyne characters grounded in reality – eating disorders, bullying, neurosis, sex hang-ups, sexting – with a bleak undertone which verges on depressing.
Comedy Central (2010-2012)
Revolves around Mark Lilly, a social worker in an alternate reality NYC inhabited by humans and all manners of monsters. Mark's roommate became a zombie to pick up a chick with an undead fetish, and his girlfriend/boss is a succubus. Visually spectacular with droll, offbeat humour.