A Hopefully Useful Timeline of Animated Sitcoms

Self-evidently, the writing of history is vital because it tells us what happened before we were around to witness events. Sometimes, however, it is also useful because we don’t mark important developments that happen during our own lives. I can only make vague guesses, for example, about when I adopted various technologies: the personal computer, e-mail, the internet, cell phones, then smart phones, then social media. These all made their advent during my lifetime, but if you ask me WHEN, my usual strategy is to look up when it was invented, and then try to suss out how long it took me to adopt it, which is usually somewhere in the middle of the pack. Today happens to be the natal day of Matt Groening (b. 1954), who I’ll go ahead and assert is the crucial figure in the development of the prime-time animated television sit-com. It’s a mainstream and omnipresent form now, and I imagine it’s likely that young people will assume they’ve always been around. But, no, most of its evolution occurred during my lifetime. It’s something to be celebrated — the explosion of a new FORM. It doesn’t happen as often as it did a century ago, but it does still happen. I found it a fun exercise to identify the key moments of this recent history and organize them into a timeline.

Animation is of course several decades older than television. The early glory days of the form were the 1930s and ’40s, when animated shorts were shown in cinemas as part of programs that also included feature-length presentations, newsreels, and so forth. While they had obvious appeal for children, much like live action comedy shorts of the sort we’ve written about in profusion, they weren’t solely for kids. The humor was for all ages, and some of it was even targeted toward grown-ups. By the mid 20th century various factors contributed to a change in public attitudes, however. One is that Walt Disney began making animated features, many of which were based on fairy tales, and he began to frame his product intentionally as “family entertainment”. Two, is the advent of television. When TV came in, with its round-the-clock cycle of programming and its dependence on advertising revenue, the folks on the back-end developed a strategy of targeting time slots to specific markets. And this was when the mentality that “animation is for kids” developed. Saturday morning became a kind of cartoon ghetto for the networks, though some local stations also showed animated shows on weekday afternoons in the after-school slots. There were combinations of kids shows, as well as vintage shorts from earlier decades. To an overwhelming degree, this was the landscape when I was a kid.

Hanna-Barbera (whom I wrote about here) were one of the principal studios creating new original animated programming for kids. But they were also one of the first to experiment with animated prime-time shows for grown-ups. Their first one The Flintstones (1960-66), based largely on The Honeymooners, was the the first such endeavor, followed by The Jetsons (1960-62), Where’s Huddles? (1970), and Wait ’til Your Father Gets Home (1972). Less overtly Jay Ward’s The Adventures and Rocky and Bullwinkle and Friends (1959-1964), though usually presented in the kids’ time slots was definitely geared to audiences of all ages, with witty topical references, wordplay, and eye-winking double entendres designed to go over kids heads and make their eavesdropping parents laugh. Another ostensible kids show that seems relevant is Bill Cosby’s Fat Albert and the Cosby Kids (1972), which aired Saturday mornings, but was cleverer than most, as it was based on the routines of the famous (now disgraced) comedian. Also related were the satirical creations of Ralph Bakshi, such as The Mighty Heroes (1966) and his 1972 feature film adaptation of R. Crumb’s underground comic Fritz the Cat (1972).

But ultimately those various experiments were one-offs and outliers. Some of them ended up being evergreen franchises, but none of them caused a revolution. The form of the prime-time animated sit-com for grown-ups did not as yet catch fire, and most people assumed it never would. Groening proved the pivotal figure. We hasten to point out that we were very much familiar with his work prior to his breaking into television. His underground comic Life in Hell, which had debuted in 1977, ran in the Providence New Paper when I was growing up, and in the Village Voice when I moved to NYC. It’s main characters were a bunch of rabbits and a couple of dudes in fezzes named Akbar and Jeff who seemed to be gay. Polly Platt was a fan; she shared the comic with James L. Brooks, who then brought Groening on to create animated sequences for The Tracey Ullman Show in 1987. This is where the characters of The Simpsons debuted, and this is why Dan Castenellata and Julie Kavner are among the cast, for they were cast members on Ullman’s show. Nancy Cartwright, Yeardley Smith, Hank Azaria and Harry Shearer were added and it debuted as its own stand-alone prime time show in 1989, making it one of the longest lasting shows in television history (yes, somehow, it is still on). Marcia Wallace (of The Bob Newhart Show), SNL‘s Phil Hartman, and Kelsey Grammer were among the popular recurring voice-over actors, and once the show caught on, major Hollywood film and TV stars, singers, athletes, another celebrities began to make guest appearances, just as Ann-Margret, Tony Curtis, and others had on The Flintstones. The Simpsons drew a lot from the latter show, especially in the form of beer drinking, donut eating working stiff dad Homer Simson who seems like a descendent of the caveman Fred…now employed in a futuristic job at a nuclear power plant, which connects him in a sort of satirical way to George Jetson (The Jetsons dating from that optimistic time when it seemed like technology would make a utopia of the future, and not the dystopia that ensued). Another Flintstones echo was baby Maggie, who has her antecedent in Pebbles. The mischievous devil Bart Simpson seems inspired by Beaver Cleaver, though much naughtier. The fact that Marge is a fulltime housewife also seems to connect the show to all those classic ’50s sitcoms, although in a much more subversive way. At the time, I very much associated The Simpsons with that other cynical Fox anti-sitcom Married…with Children, which had premiered in 1987.

As successful as it was (and it was a monster success), as with The Flintstones, the advent of The Simpsons by no means portended any revolution or Renaissance of the form. But, betimes, other shows emerged in its wake; the true tidal wave began about a decade later. This is far from a comprehensive list; it’s just a few of the tent poles, and the ones I happen to know about or have watched. Have suggestions for other shows I “missed”? Write your own blogpost!:

Ren and Stimpy (1991-95): A co-worker turned me on to this show during its original run and I gave it a shout-out in my book No Applause, because its two main characters, a cranky Chihuahua and a dumb cat, seem to have their antecedents in classic vaudeville and movie comedy teams like Laurel and Hardy and Abbott and Costello. Frequent Howard Stern guest Billy West did the voices. It was created for Nickelodeon by  John Kricfalusi though he was later fired from the program. A signifier of the show is its extravagant grotesquerie. It is a very high energy program.

Beavis and Butthead (1992-97, etc): Beavis and Butthead was Mike Judge’s first big success. Like SNL‘s Wayne and Garth sketches, and the Bill and Ted movies, both of which came into being in 1989, it focused on a pair of moronic teenage boys who seemed to have endless free time on their hands for idiotic escapades. It aired on MTV, back when the network was still mostly showing music videos. Young people liked it because they recognized the characters. Older people used it as a kind of satirical bellwether. There was something about the visual (and aural) minimalism that spoke aesthetically to what it was lampooning. In retrospect we see foreshadowing for Idiocracy (2006).

Life with Louie (1994-98)

Louie Anderson’s semi-autobiographical animated show started out as a prime-time series on Fox before moving to a Saturday morning kids’ slot. While it has some things in common with classic live action shows like Leave it to Beaver and The Wonder Years, it was also innovative in that the main character was a real person, one whom audiences knew and loved in a adulthood. I would speculate that it was at least a partial inspiration for later shows as Everybody Hates Chris and F is for Family (below).

The Critic (1994-95): The hysterical Jon Lovitz starred as the title character in this short-lived show, which like The Simpsons was produced by Gracie Films and featured Nancy Cartwright. The show was very funny but perhaps a little insular for the masses.

Pinky and the Brain (1995-98): I was briefly a fan of this show and its clever writing. It started out as segments on Animaniacs and then was given its own primetime spinoff series on the WB (to compete with The Simpsons), and then got demoted to a Saturday morning kids time slot. I loved the ritual of it, which reminded me of Warner Brothers’ Coyote and Roadrunner cartoons. The titular characters were a couple of laboratory mice. In every episode The Brain (Maurice LaMarche) tries and fails to take over the world with various plots, schemes and inventions. The pleasure for grown-ups is enhanced by the fact that The Brain is voiced to sound like Orson Welles, with perhaps a soupcon of Peter Lorre thrown in. Pinky (Rob Paulsen), like many comical sidekicks, is stupid and clumsy and always wrecks everything.

South Park (1997-present): Now things begin to take off. Trey Parker and Matt Stone’s South Park was the first show to truly replicate Simpsons level success. Airing on Comedy Central, it went much farther than The Simpsons in pushing the envelope on forbidden language and behavior. Indeed, I must say such a thing can backfire. The first episode of the show I ever saw was the “Christmas poo” episode, which I found so appalling it practically gave me nightmares, and I embargoed the show for a long time thereafter. But I eventually gave it another chance and found much to enjoy on the show. It’s both innovative and resonant on several fronts. The all-kid cast reminds me somewhat of Peanuts. But Parker and Stone do all the voices themselves, which hearkens back to the earliest days of animation (people forget that the first of Mickey Mouse was Walt Disney himself). And the interesting, 2-D presentation and movement of the characters recalls the Victorian cut-out techniques of Terry Gilliam. These guys have been crossing the line for a quarter of a century now!

King of the Hill (1997-2010): Mike Judge moved from Beavis and Butthead to King of the Hill in 1997. I was a HUGE fan of this show in its early years, loved it way more than its predecessor. In its way, it’s another sort of landmark — instead of being more extreme, it’s more realistic. Judge himself played the main character, suburban Texas propane salesman Hank Hill. Pamela Adlon voiced his son Bobby, another favorite character of mine on the show, a chubby, non-athletic kid whose existence is bewildering to the more conventional gender normative working class grown males in the neighborhood (a situation to which I can relate). At any rate, I’ve grown into a huge Mike Judge fan, based on this show and stuff he’s done subsequently like Office Space (1999), Idiocracy (2006) and Silicon Valley (2014-2019).

Family Guy (1999-present): I would never claim that I have never laughed at Seth McFarland or that he isn’t a borderline genius in multiple art forms but still, for whatever reason, I’ve never been a huge fan of his shows, and this is in spite of the fact that Family Guy is set in working class Rhode Island (my own background) and that, like me, MacFarlane has roots in New England going back to the Mayflower. In order of preference I like his voice-overs best, followed by his writing, then his cartooning skills. Honestly, his visuals are pretty humdrum. His best innovation, and it’s a huge one, is the nifty trope of the cutaway joke — seems like a pretty epic comic invention, possible only in animation, and it’s usually funny. Otherwise, I find what he does kind of facile and derivative, including the anthropomorphic dog and the verbal baby. My favorite character on the show is the wife Lois, voiced by Alex Borstein, with echoes of Edith Bunker.

Futurama (1999-2003, 2008-2013): Matt Groening’s second hit show ran on Fox for its first leg, and on Comedy Central for its revival. The show borrows the Rip Van Winkle conceit of Woody Allen’s Sleeper and takes some ideas from The Jetsons but expands the imaginative universe about as far as it can go. I’ve only seen it a few times, but thoroughly enjoyed the episodes I watched. I was especially impressed to notice that the Lovecraftian-faced character of Dr. Zoidberg has the voice of George Jessel, an in-joke by voice-over genius Billy West, who did several of the main characters. I am also a huge fan of Katey Sagal from Married with Children, who plays Leela.

SpongeBob SquarePants (1999-present): This hysterically funny cartoon may seem “for kids”, but it’s too cleverly written and drawn to allow children to hog all the enjoyment — and a good portion of its long run has been in prime-time, anyway. It was developed by ocean loving Stephen Hillenburg for Nickelodeon, and it is infused with as much nautical kitsch as it can bear, and it can bear a lot. As the lead character, Mr. Show’s Tom Kenney invests his character with maximum obnoxiousness. Other key voices include Bill Fagerbakke of Coach as Patrick (the starfish), and Clancy Brown of Carnivale as Mr. Krabs.

Adult Swim (2001-present): This showcase for naughty short animations has been a great platform for those seeking to go on to bigger things, and has definitely played an important role in the prime-time animation revolution.

American Dad (2005-present): This was Seth MacFarlane’s second hit show after Family Guy, created as a response to the Bush administration. It’s a satire about conservatives and it concerns a CIA officer and his family. Like Family Guy, it reflects the influence of All in the Family. The most impressive thing about this show (to me) is the theme song “Good Morning USA”, penned and sung by MacFarlane.

The Boondocks (2005-2014): Aaron MacGruder developed The Boondocks as a comic strip initially in the late ’90s, about a suburban black family. When it came to TV by way of Adult Swim, the lead character of Huey, a politically aware, unhappy tween, was played by Oscar winning actress (and director) Regina King!

Archer (2009-present): I’ve only ever been dimly aware of Adam Reed’s spy parody Archer but it’s been on for a dozen years so I figure I’d better include it. The look of it reminds me a little of Johnny Quest. Besides Reed himself the cast has included the late Jessica Walter and 30 Rock’s Chris Parnell. The main character is played by H. Jon Benjamin, who also plays the main character on…

Bob’s Burgers (2011-present): This one and the ensuing couple are shows I watched with my kids (some of the more kid-oriented earlier ones are too, but these three were ones they chose, recommended and shared when they were older, which seems significant). I love the way this one is drawn, Created by Loren Bouchard, it concerns a family-owned business at what seems to be the Jersey Shore. The aforementioned H. Jon Benjamin plays the mustachioed Bob, but I find myself more heartily amused by the wife Linda, voiced by the male John Roberts. Also in the cast are stand-up comedian Eugene Mirman and Kristen Schaal, who’s on too many shows to name, including….

Bojack Horseman (2014-2020): Kristen Schaal voices many characters on Bojack, but the main cast are Will Arnett as the the titular equine, along with Amy Sedaris, Alison Brie, Aaron Paul (of Breaking Bad), and Paul F. Tompkins, which may be the most stellar cast of an animated TV series in history. This Hollywood satire was created by Raphael Bob-Waksberg and designed by Lisa Hanawalt. The show was presented on Netflix.

F is for Family (2015-2021): Comedian Bill Burr created and stars in this show. I binged most of the first season soon after it premiered and really loved it for many of the same reasons I loved King of the Hill. But it holds other charms for me. Burr is about my age, and grew up in the same lower middle class kind of milieu, and the show depicts the era we grew up in, so there is nostalgia and recognition in the world it depicts. Also, Laura Dern and Sam Rockwell are in the cast! So at some point I’ll undoubtedly go back and watch the rest, because I liked what I saw.

Now: one question I can’t refrain from asking. Are shows like these a cause or a symptom of two modern phenomenon I really detest: 1) infantilized adults and 2) children being massively exposed to inappropriate vulgar content? That’s certainly a debate, but let’s save it for another time. I’ve been working on this post for ten hours and I’m ready to drop kick my laptop, hurt my toes, hop on one foot, and then fall out the window onto a passing truck that dumps me into the landfill. And really that sort of behavior is best left to the professionals.

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To learn more about entertainment history, please see No Applause, Just Throw Money: The Book That Made Vaudeville Famous, and for more on classic comedy please read Chain of Fools: Silent Comedy and Its Legacies from Nickelodeons to Youtube.