Happy 20th anniversary, South Park.
We respect your authority. But you are not the best adult cartoon of all-time.
Our editorial staff recently debated and eventually voted on television’s 20 best adult animated series.
And by “adult,” we don’t just mean R-rated hijinks: we mean shows written for adults, which means more than a few random f-bombs. These are sketchy tales that riff on politics, drugs, relationships and even death.
With, admittedly, some talking poos.
Below, our list of cartoons with decidedly grown-up sensibilities. (FYI, we used Wikipedia’s List of Adult Animated Series as our eligibility guide, except for #20, which should totally be on there.)
20. Regular Show (2010-2017)
This show is about your friends who dropped out of college but continually make you wonder, “I wonder what they're doing now?” Let me tell you: they are working at a community park and pretending that hot wings are weed. And somehow, that knowledge makes the world a better place. Also, they are animals and one sleeps on a trampoline. But that might not be too far off from how you knew them freshman year.
19. Home Movies (1999-2004)
The genius of Home Movies isn’t that it’s drawn very well, has a particularly intriguing storyline or even that it necessarily goes where no cartoon has gone before. Nope, what makes it great and continuously funny is the Seinfeld-ian collection of recurring characters who keep popping in and out of the world the three movie-loving protagonists (Brendan, Melissa and Jason) inhabit. You have the guitar-playing metalhead Duane, the ambiguous duo of Walter and Perry, and down-on-his-luck-but-always-up-for-a-drink Coach McGuirk (voiced by a pre-Archer and Bob’s Burgers H. Jon Benjamin, who does multiple other voices in the show).
18. Sealab 2021 (2000-2005)
An early effort from the Archer team and featured in the debut Adult Swim lineup, Sealab 2021 is the perfect adult cartoon on paper. By repurposing animation from a ‘70s Hanna-Barbera kids’ show (Sealab 2020), the older audience gets a dose of nostalgia tempered by the skewering of an erstwhile educational program. As the bungling leader of the underwater station, Captain Murphy can’t stop crew members from dying or the lab from exploding over and over — but he’s the lovable idiot anchor for that absurdity. Which is why once Murphy’s voice actor Harry Goz passed away during the production of season 3, the show didn’t survive much longer.
17. Futurama (1999-2013)
It was supposed to be the next Simpsons. Fourteen(ish) seasons and three networks later (Fox, Cartoon Network and Comedy Central, respectively), it never did quite pan out as planned (see instead: Family Guy). Still, show creators Matt Groening and David X. Cohen created a universe (the year 3000) filled with all kinds of memorable side characters that bore the kind of satirical punch you’d want from a sci-fi cartoon.
16. The Flintstones (1960-1966)
There’s no denying Fred Flintstone’s cultural imprint: without him, there would be no Homer Simpson, no Hank Hill, no Peter Griffin. He’s the paunchy middle-class lout who started it all. But where arch gender stereotypes and jokes fall with a heavy note of self-awareness on those shows, in The Flintstones they seem less benign. As a relic of a bygone pop-culture era, The Flintstones holds up. As a readily rewatchable show, it does not.
15. Family Guy (1999-present)
Love it or hate it (the writing staff may or may not be made up of manatees), Seth MacFarlane's arch take on family sitcoms pushes boundaries: it’s a program on network TV (Fox, no less) that’s unabashedly pro-pot, pro-choice and atheistic (albeit hit or miss on small issues like gender, race and sexuality). It also featured the grossest scene in cartoon history.
14. Space Ghost Coast to Coast (1994-2008)
The entire surreal, anti-humor ethos of Adult Swim extends from this 1994 cheapo talk show, which repurposed characters and even animation cels from a terrible ‘60s kiddie cartoon. Sample plot line: “Moltar gets his chance to host the show while Space Ghost illegally copies the new Radiohead album.”
13. Robot Chicken (2005-present)
When 30 Rock was still on, Splitsider found one episode had an average of 11.64 jokes per minute. Seth Green and Matthew Senreich’s Robot Chicken is assuredly higher. Coming in at under 12 minutes a pop, the episodes use stop motion to enact just about every pop-culture parody imaginable. And the list of real celebrity guest stars looks like the credits of a Lord of the Rings movie. This blend of cameos and bite-sized sketch comedy also hit just at the right time, premiering the same month YouTube was founded.
12. Rocko's Modern Life (1993-1996)
I’m sure that if my mother had been paying attention to what was happening in this show, she would have put the kibosh on it without hesitation. From the sexual innuendo (did Rocko moonlight as a phone sex worker?) to the bleak portrayal of adult life we all had to look forward to, Rocko’s was definitely not something for impressionable youngsters. And yet, there we were, watching it. Which is what made it so good.
11. BoJack Horseman (2014-present)
Former sitcom star/horse BoJack lives in a world of delusion, excess and selfishness. The show is, all at once, an existential nightmare (season 3 ends on a near-suicide), relationship drama and brilliant Hollywood satire. It’s about wallowing in the past while also mocking nostalgia.
10. Daria (1997-2002)
Daria famously got her start as a student on Beavis and Butthead, but the tones of the two shows couldn’t be more different. Ever deadpan, she commiserated with us on the common hell of high school as well as the dysfunctional family unit that tries so hard to look normal. In short, Daria was the angsty teen’s answer to the Disney Channel and Saved by the Bell, allowing us to laugh at the absurdity of pop culture, as well as social status and the sick, sad world that’s obsessed with it.
9. Beavis and Butthead (1993-1997, 2011)
Beavis and Butthead was hardly the first show to mock the culture that the very network it aired on was promoting, but it was certainly the most blatant. Also, it did it in the most low-brow, GWAR-loving, TP-for-my-bunghole way possible, and that’s why we love it. Although Beavis and Butthead were clearly awful people, as an audience member, you kinda rooted for them. Because everyone else was somehow worse.
8. Bob’s Burgers (2011-present)
Put Archer’s voice into the body of a has-been running a failing burger joint, add in a progressive, creative family comprising one sociopath, one closeted gay and one future over-sharer on social, plus a cheating wife (does anyone else think Linda is cheating?), and you get the perfect storm. Also: a daily dose of excellent burger puns.
7. The Ren & Stimpy Show (1991-1995)
Nowhere in the book of good parenting will you ever see Ren & Stimpy as recommended viewing for growing, healthy children — a fact made more amusing when you take into account the cartoon had its Nickelodeon debut on the same exact day as Rugrats and Doug. No, creator John Kricfalusi had a different animated vision. Even by today’s standards, show us a guy who can watch this show — in all of its extreme close-ups and obsessions with bodily functions (barf, nose goblins and “what is that smell?”) — without cringing, and we’ll show you a guy with a few screws loose. Also, who remembers Powdered Toast Man? What a riot.
6. Aqua Teen Hunger Force (2000-2015)
An anthropomorphic milkshake, box of french fries and meatball living together, complete with a hot hip-hop theme song. One has to wonder how many times the creators were asked, “How high were you?” But the potentially half-baked premise turned into the longest running original series on Adult Swim. One could attribute this to Master Shake, Meatwad and Frylock being embodiments of the id, ego and superego. Or maybe it’s just fun to watch talking foodstuffs take out their aggession on Carl, their neighbor.
5. King of the Hill (1997-2009, possibly 2018)
“Dammit, Bobby!” The perfect dad scold from the Ultimate Dad/purveyor of propane accessories, Hank Hill. Between his tearful adoration for good girl Ladybird, his wife Peggy’s tenacious sense of competition and self-righteousness, and the running implication that Bobby might be a little undercooked, Mike Judge (Beavis and Butthead) moved seamlessly from the idiot children of suburban adults to the homes that bred them, and gave us another fictional town to laugh at ... yet recognize ourselves and neighbors in.
4. Archer (2009-present)
Described by creator Adam Reed as “James Bond meets Arrested Development,” it has all the uncomfortable jokes and rapid-fire callbacks of the latter while being a near-perfect parody of the “world’s greatest secret agent” tropes that have dominated movies and TV for decades. It’s funny to watch a narcissistic casanova with an Oedipus complex (and tinnitus) sabotage himself at every turn. It's a prime example of the kind of machismo that everyone else in the room is laughing at, but the person themselves never catch on to. Case in point: He loathes his cohorts, yet they solve all his problems, while he in turn creates more for them.
3. Rick and Morty (2013-present)
The best part about being the smartest man in the room is that you can live without consequences ... in that room, at least. That’s Rick. He’s also terrible, and his own worst enemy. A good watch if you dig sci-fi, and a great one if you dig putting people in their place, Rick and Morty is a completely demented family affair for dreamers, realists and functional alcoholics alike. Everyone wins. And loses.
2. South Park (1997-present)
Now 20 seasons removed from its pilot (“Cartman Gets an Anal Probe”), South Park remains as relevant and watchable as ever. Why? An unparalleled ability to evolve. Early seasons of the show were all dick-and-fart jokes, portraying the school-day dilemmas of a foul-mouthed quartet of third graders. But in later seasons, the show would become an of-the-moment medium for subversive cultural commentary, lampooning everything from racial politics to sex education to stem-cell research. The show is so committed to topicality, in fact, that the production crew sometimes finishes episodes just hours before they broadcast, as evidenced by the 2011 documentary 6 Days to Air.
1. The Simpsons (1989-present)
Yes, it’s pretty much sucked since season 11 (including the movie). But those first 11 seasons changed television. A typical throwaway gag is “homoeroticism in football.” Musical episodes were built around public transportation (“Monorail!”) and Planet of the Apes. A running subplot involves a clown’s sidekick trying to kill a little boy — imagine a network pitch meeting about that before 1989. And the show’s best line, amongst thousands, is undoubtedly “To alcohol — the source of, and solution to, all of life’s problems.” This is what happens when you bring together an Ivy League-educated writing team, the most celebrated director in television ... and Matt Groening, a schlubby dude who started out drawing pitch-black indie comics about anthropomorphic bunnies.