Cartoons are currently enjoying a golden renaissance. Fueled by artists and writers who grew up watching some of the most influential cartoons of all times, new shows that capitalize on childhood wish fulfillment have revolutionized the medium in the past decade. Explicit cartoons like Bojack Horseman, Rick and Morty, and Archer are all aimed almost exclusively at adults. Surprisingly, there has been a history of crossover between cartoons for kids and cartoons for adults. Not in that characters between the two realms interact, but in that many shows that are primarily known as kid features were secretly always aimed at a more adult audience. Now this doesn’t just mean that a kids show has adult themes, as that does not an adult show make.
For example, Steven Universe contains many mature undertones but primarily for the purpose of teaching kids about tolerance and relationships. Conversely, Family Guy likes to portray itself as an adult show, but its humor is very childish and overly graphic. Meanwhile, there are shows like South Park which are seen as childish and immature but actually contain some of the most relevant social commentary on television. With these paradoxes in mind, here are 15 children’s cartoons that are secretly not for kids.
Though it had very graphic humor Beavis & Butt-Head was very much a show for kids and young adults. There wasn’t much humor to be found beyond the titular characters’ weird laughs, body humor, and sheer stupidity. The spin-off Daria on the other hand, chose to be a much more adult and classy, dealing with the issues facing both adolescents and suburbans through the lens of an already-jaded teen girl and her artistic, ambivalent social circle.
Most of the show centered around Daria’s deadpan delivery and scathing criticisms of the world around her, but it wasn’t afraid to get deep and force its protagonist to confront very real and very sensitive issues, something its predecessor never even attempted. Through stylized animation and a genuinely good heart, Daria marked itself as a more adult alternative to the stoner-fueled Beavis & Butt-Head.
Created by the legendary team of Bruce Timm and Paul Dini and produced by Steven Spielberg, Freakazoid! was a show about a superhero lunatic powered by overexposure to the internet and gifted with a wacky wit that was perfect for kids. The show was a laugh riot for all ages, but it certainly held more significance for grown-ups because of the commentary it was making about the rapidly growing world wide web.
To people who had grown up without it, the internet must have seemed to be a magical place where all information was freely available. But too much of it, as the show demonstrated, could turn one into an insane, occasionally obnoxious person with too little a grasp on reality. No doubt this show influenced some parents to limit their children’s exposure to the early internet.
13 SAMURAI JACK
Rightfully hailed as one of the best cartoons of all time, Samurai Jack first aired on Cartoon Network. The show started off with a time-displaced samurai facing off against the comically evil demon Aku and partnering with talking, British dogs. Though that set up makes it sound like an exciting kids show, the cartoon slowly revealed itself to be more methodical than the average serial. Its humor was witty, its writing was sharp, and its animation was never anything less than stellar.
The show’s specialty was its long fight scenes with almost zero dialogue, which were almost always done to show off both Jack’s impeccable skills and the quick, gorgeous animation. While it’s clear children could watch and enjoy the show, it was clearly meant for a more adult audience. Why else would it be placed on Adult Swim for its long-awaited season five return?
12 THE SIMPSONS
Though considered to be fairly tame by today’s standards, there was a time when The Simpsons was the funniest, most graphic, most adult cartoon on television, so much so that it caused legitimate political strife and then helped to alleviate the tension by handling it in a mature, adult fashion. Though never explicitly obscene, it always tried to push the envelope when it came to satire and commentary.
Today, the show is seen as very much a family show, with certain episodes being specifically for kids. However, the tone and style of the show hasn’t actually changed all that much from its first few wildly successful seasons. It’s the world and sensibilities surrounding the show that have caused its primary demographic to change, not the show’s quality or direction.
11 THE TICK
Based on the parodical superhero of the same name from New England Comics, The Tick followed the adventures of an over-the-top character who satirized everything about comic culture. Portrayed as a sort of superhero Don Quixote, the Tick could be enjoyed on a surface level by kids while adults, particularly those who were in the know about the comic industry and superhero tropes, could laugh at the commentary about their culture.
The Tick has subsequently been remade into two live-action shows to distance itself from the young demographic and appeal more to older viewers. Which makes sense considering that kids who grew up with the cartoon would now be old enough to enjoy it for a different reason and adults who loved the original can still find things to be entertained by in more recent adaptations.
10 GRAVITY FALLS
Gravity Falls is what happens when an artist grows up watching some of the best cartoons ever made, grows up, and say ‘hold my beer.’ Orchestrated by the great Alex Hirsch, Gravity Falls, the serialized tale of Pines twins Dipper and Mabel navigating their way through the bizarre titular town, was a kids cartoon that appealed mostly to adults around Hirsch’s age. Hidden in the sincere humor and heart of the show is a dedication to '80s awareness and a loving emphasis on nostalgia.
This includes making jokes and references to arcade games, David Lynch, occultism, and other fads that lived and died in the '80s. Even the sci-fi and fantasy aspects of the show borrow heavily from imagery and symbolism of the era. Though this feels like it should date the show, it actually makes it a sincere treat for anyone old enough to remember when such things were relevant.
9 ROCKO'S MODERN LIFE
He worked at an adult phone line, for goodness sake. Despite its stilted animation, low budget quality, and subdued voice acting, Rocko’s Modern Life is primarily known for its plethora of subtle and not-so-subtle innuendos. The writers were apparently given an unprecedented amount of leeway by Nickelodeon studios as an experiment, resulting in love hotels that offer hourly rates, crotch-grabbing bears, and seductive cow-milking all being shown to children.
On top of that, a not insignificant portion of the show was ripped-off almost directly from Monty Python’s Flying Circus. Putting aside the debate as to whether or not that constitutes plagiarism or an homage, only adults who were well-versed in the classic bits and sketches of off-beat British humor could get and enjoy the references.
8 ADVENTURE TIME
Obliquely, Adventure Time is for kids. Adults can certainly enjoy its zany imagery, off-kilter comedy, and awkward dialogue, but its lack of character progression and nonsensical irrelevance makes it pretty clear that, with the exception of a choice few episodes that deal with loss, Alzheimer’s, and trauma, it isn’t supposed to be taken all that seriously.
However, the adult themes take place in the backdrop of the show where, as shown in flashbacks, the magical and insane world of the show is actually a post-apocalyptic landscape reformed and mutated by what can be assumed to be nuclear war. With that context, suddenly every joke and wacky antic the show perpetuates becomes a very desperate cover up of unimaginable tragedy. Though it isn’t brought up much in the show, once you know the truth it becomes hard to forget.
7 THE LION KING
It’s an animated movie. It counts as a cartoon. With that out of the way, The Lion King, the pinnacle of Disney’s '90s renaissance, is perhaps the most adult story ever told watered down and animated, so kids could enjoy it. At this point, it’s no secret that the movie is loosely based on Hamlet, often considered legendary playwright William Shakespeare’s greatest work.
The parallels of a prince dealing with the loss of his father and being instructed by a supernatural force to take vengeance on his usurper uncle run deep through both. But only one features Matthew Broderick as a talking lion. Obviously, Disney wasn’t going to recreate Hamlet and pray that kids would understand it, many adults have trouble following it after all, so they made the most accurate reproduction they could while being as kid-friendly as possible.
6 SPONGEBOB SQUAREPANTS
The show is about an excitable, child-like sea sponge who works as a fry cook, can’t pass his boat license test, and lives in a pineapple house. With a set up like that, how can it not explicitly be for kids? Simple: Spongebob Squarepants has more innuendo per episode than almost any other cartoon, including some cartoons that are meant for adults. From quick one-liners about not dropping soap in the shower to Spongebob’s nose being routinely mistaken for another bodily appendage, the show has never shied away from or been oblique about its heavily adult subtext.
Perhaps the dirtiest joke that it ever aired was a scene in which Spongebob is enraptured by an image on his tv of an actual, real life sea sponge. When his pet snail enters the room, he quickly changes the channel and insists he was just watching sports as opposed to graphic imagery.
5 THE REGULAR SHOW
The best way to describe Cartoon Network’s The Regular Show is that it’s a more child-friendly version of a sitcom. Instead of dealing with working class living however, Regular Show just follows the casual, nine-to-five lives of two best friends, a bird named Mordecai and a raccoon named Rigby, and their continual search for love, entertainment, and an escape from boredom. Though this often leads them into typical kids show hijinks, the core of the show is just the two of them and their circle of friends dealing with being themselves.
As the show went on, it got more and more irrelevant, seemingly following the journey of the main characters as they settled into and became more comfortable with their place in life. While kids could certainly continue to enjoy the show’s zaniness, adults would get more out of it from its laid-back tone and reassuring themes.
4 AVATAR: THE LEGEND OF KORRA
The original Avatar: The Last Airbender was a spectacular kids show with quality writing, crisp animation, and important values which imparted the basics of Asian philosophy, culture, and martial arts to a young audience in a very consumable format for that demographic. Its subsequent spin-off Avatar: The Legend of Korra was much of the same, except it was meant to subtly teach kids the essentials of prominent political movements instead.
However, the show had a more grown-up feel than its predecessor, a result of having an aged-up protagonist, and dealt with much more adult themes such as relationships, trauma, and self-examination. Almost inadvertently, the show turned from a kids show that adults could watch to an adult show that kids could watch. Unfortunately, this also distanced the show from its intended audience and it had to wrap its final season online.
3 THE REN & STIMPY SHOW
A show about a dumb cat and an insane dog living together probably sounds like it should be very kid-friendly. And while it certainly aimed at such a demographic, The Ren & Stimpy Show was anything but. It’s humor ranged from overly-violent physical comedy to barely-veiled innuendo with little room in between for anything that could safely be consumed by a younger audience.
The frantic animation and absurdist writing received critical praise, but often put the show runners at odds with the Nickelodeon censorship board, forcing them to fight for subtle jokes like Ren forcing Stimpy to beg for him to finish sawing a log across his back in a suggestive manner. That particular joke ends with Ren rushing off when Stimpy asks if he wants to cuddle afterwards. Because subtlety, you see.
2 BOB'S BURGERS
This might seem like a random entry in this list as Bob’s Burgers, a character-driven show about a wacky family led by the titular chef patriarch, is a fairly simple show hidden in Fox’s Animation Domination between the Simpsons and Family Guy juggernauts. The characters are all suitably zany, the animation is par for the course, and the tone comes off as fairly generic, almost like an animated Modern Family.
But the crux of the show is that, despite their many passions, nobody in the family is particularly talented and their dreams of a better, more successful life are probably not going to come true. That doesn’t matter to them though because they still have each other and are capable of being happy despite not achieving their goals. If that’s not an important lesson for the adults today and tomorrow, then what is?
1 THE ANIMANIACS
Steven Spielberg’s The Animaniacs is pretty much the reason this list exists. Apart from featuring some shockingly adult humor, including the legendary ‘fingerprints’ joke, the show featured scathing political and social commentary that was virtually non-existent in cartoons at the time. Hilariously mocking everything from the political theater to celebrity idolatry to gender norms to the very concept of art and structure, it’s astounding what the show managed to slip past censors. The show became so notoriously adult that it ended up make jokes about how incompetent its own censors were!
There was not a single sketch, bit, or character that wasn’t there for adults to bust a gut over while their kids enjoyed the moving colors. What more can be said? They’re the Animaniacs, they’re zany to the max, they have pay-or-play contracts, there’s baloney in their slacks, you’ll laugh till you collapse, and those are the facts.