From Saturday morning classics to Japanese anime, cartoons have had a long and strange journey to what they are today. Originally airing on prime time TV, cartoons eventually moved to early Saturday mornings and in doing so, gained the reputation of being for children. Much like comic books, they went from being enjoyed by everyone, to being solely consumed by kids. For about thirty odd years, every animated show was made for and aimed at younger audiences. They were either educational, humorous and/or action packed. But then, little by little, shows started becoming more mature.
MTV had an entire block of edgy content, which inspired kid friendly alternatives. There was Batman: The Animated Series, which was lauded by critics and audiences alike and of course The Simpsons, which was the first to get the ball rolling. It was the dawning of a new age and for the first time, the public perception started to change. Soon, it was not only ok to admit you liked cartoons but it became socially acceptable. Fandoms of fancy pony shows could be formed by grown men and actual celebrities could come out as otaku.
Cartoons had become mainstream and not only that, they became amazing. Some of the best written shows within the last fifteen years have been cartoons. The evolution from crudely made shows of the past involving claymation or still images with human mouths super imposed on top of them to current shows that include everything from suicide to abortions, has been insane and I for one can’t wait to see where they go from here. This list honors cartoons humble origins as well as the shows that have and continue to move the medium into newer and better directions.
This is The 100 Greatest Cartoons of All Time.
20. Dragon Ball Z (1996-2003)
You know those arcade games that were needlessly hard just to gobble up your precious quarters? Well, this the animated equivalent to that but instead of punishing difficulty, it’s stretched out battle scenes that last entire episodes and instead of pocket change, it’s your entire afternoon. There’s few anime or any TV show for that matter, that has the cult of reverence that this show has acquired. Consisting of well over 300 episodes, the saga of Goku and his quest to rid the world of evil, is a gargantuan adventure that may take half of your lifetime to complete but it’ll be worth it.
19. DuckTales (1987-1990)
Duck Tales incorporates two of my biggest bugaboos (the rich ass 1% and ducks with Scottish accents) but still found its way high atop of my list. How did this happen? Is it his tophat? Does the shit tap into a deep seeded desire I have to swan dive into some money? I have no idea but what I do know, is that none of the Disney animated classics of the 90’s (Darkwing Duck, TailSpin, Chip and Dale: Rescue Rangers) would exist without it and it’s still the best of the bunch.
Following the globe-trotting treasure-hunting money-making adventures of a multi billionaire and his three nephews, DuckTales is kinda like the anti Indiana Jones. Scrooge McDuck doesn’t explore tombs or pyramids or ancient civilizations in order to better understand culture or to teach his nephews some lessons. He does it simply to make more money. He already has an endless supply but he just wants more. In any other show, he’d be the villain but since he’s so fucking awesome, you never not root for him.
18. The Adventures Rocky and Bullwinkle and Friends (1959-1965)
Debuting one year before The Flintsones, this was the first cartoon that not only appealed to children but their parents as well. Layered with in jokes and pop culture references for the adults and loaded with plenty of silly humor aimed at children. It’s like the Neapolitan ice cream of cartoons. Except minus the chocolate because that’s the worst. Shots fired.
Comprised of different segments including the titular moose and squirrel, the incompetent Russian spies Boris and Natasha, the equally incompetent Dudley Do-Right as well as the ne’er-do-well Snidley Whiplash. There’s also the time hopping Peabody and Sherman and probably the best segment: Fractured Fairy Tales.
Although the animation was choppy and unpolished, that never seemed to bother anyone. Some critics even referred to it as “a well written radio program with pictures.” Which goes to show how well written the show actually was. When kids can close their eyes and still follow the story, that’s a show firing on all cylinders.
17. The Ren and Stimpy Show (1991-1996)
Based on the numerous behind the scenes problems including the creator getting fired off of his own show because of missed deadlines, constant complaints of violence and offensive humor and the show switching networks, it’s a miracle it even exists. Ren and Stimpy is about a hyper violent Chihuahua that sounds like a cocaine addicted Peter Lorre and his best friend who’s a dim witted house cat that talks like Larry Fine if someone replaced his bones with rubber.
What the two do from episode to episode is a bit hard to explain considering there’s hardly a plot but imagine if Rocko’s Modern Life was way more subversive and was animated by PCP addicted worker monkeys and you’re in the right ballpark. Just like an unwanted prom night dumpster baby, the show refused to die and was highly controversial but damn was it entertaining to look at.
16. Death Note (2006-2007)
The director of the recent live action adaptation actually quit Twitter upon receiving copious amounts of death threats. I would never support that level of harassment, I am, however going to use that fact to describe how rabid the fan-base of this show is. Is. Present tense. Even though the show ended a decade ago, and only had two seasons, the fans are just as obsessed today as they were when it originally premiered. The show is about a genius high school student named Light who finds the aforementioned “Death Note” and quickly discovers that if he writes the name of anybody in the book, they will die within seven minutes.
It doesn’t take long before he decides to become the ultimate vigilante god and tries to create a utopia free of crime. Obviously things get a bit complicated when a detective named L decides to take on the case. It turns into a brilliant cat and mouse game that constantly keeps the viewer on edge. Anime is a hard thing for most to jump into but Death Note is one of those that appeals to any demographic.
15. SpongeBob Squarepants (1999 – )
This will be the most controversial cartoon placement on the list. I feel like the tide has turned on Spongebob where the younger generation is pushing against it to seem cool and the older generation has already forgotten how much they loved it but there was a time that this was the heir apparent to Mickey Mouse and Bugs Bunny. SpongeBob has taken up the mantle passed down from the legends of the past and he’s successfully held it for almost 20 years.
I know it’s hip to hate on the sponge but you can’t deny the cultural impact he’s had. Nickelodeon is essentially the SpongeBob network now and they’ll continue milking that sea cow till it dies. The younger generation will love it as much as you did when you were younger and you’ll be as baffled by as you are now.
14. Beavis and Butt-head (1993-2011)
Starting as a short film called Frog Baseball that originally aired on MTV’s Liquid Television, Beavis and Butt-head had its proper debut one year later in 93 and lasted four years. This is ground zero. A show about two stupid ass slackers cracking wise and watching whatever video MTV wanted to plug became the impetus for everything that came after. There’s no South Park, no Rick and Morty, no Adult Swim without Beavis and Butt-head.
The slacker version of Statler and Waldorf (those two cranky ass puppets slinging insults in The Muppets), these two were a voice of a generation. If they said something was cool or sucked, that was the gospel. It wasn’t cool to like a band they ragged on and you definitely went out and bought a Metallica or AC/DC shirt to be hip. Generation X had no idea what it was doing or where it was going but at least we had these two to lead the way.
13. Rick and Morty (2013 – )
Take the sci-fi shenanigans of Futurama and add the bleak nihilism of Bojack Horseman, shake till your hands get carpal tunnel and voilá, you got yourself a Rick and Morty. I tried to be objective as humanly possible when compiling this list by weighing influence against nostalgia and determining what kind of impact and longevity it had but when a show is as good as Rick and Morty is right out of the gate, there’s no reason to wait to put it as high as it is.
Almost every episode is better than the last, with episodes alternating between heartbreakingly realistic to insanely funny. Since Rick Sanchez is not only the smartest man in the galaxy but across all alternate dimensions, his unique world view comes off as cold and uncaring but there’s a level of sadness and deep love for his grandson that hides just below the surface.
It’s a show I can dedicate hours upon hours discussing because every episode can be dissected and examined to find layer upon layer of hidden jokes and references to future episodes. It’s an intricate Russian nesting dolls-esque show of visual jokes and callbacks and Justin Roiland improving whilst drunk as fuck. One layer overlaps into the other to create the perfect storm of comedy. It’s a masterpiece and it’s only getting better.
12. The Flintstones (1960-1966)
The Rocky and Bullwinkle Show might’ve gotten there first, but it was The Flintstones that brought the cartoon to prime-time. If Beavis and Butt-head was instrumental in paving the way for the controversial aspect of animation, The Flintstones are clearly the precursors to everything.
Clearly borrowing heavily from The Honeymooners, The Flintstones is essentially an animated sitcom. Cartoons before this were either a collection of shorts or had a vignette format but The Flintstones bucked the trend. This was a legitimate TV show airing on prime-time and it was a massive hit. It was destroying almost every other show on the air. Which is mind boggling. A cartoon was the most watched TV show in America at one time.
11. Scooby-Doo: Where Are You! (1969-1970)
I bring up influence a lot on this list but the importance of some cartoons can’t be understated. Scooby-Doo introduced an entire generation of youngsters to the wonderful world of procedural horror. There was shows about arresting bad guys and there was shows about defeating monsters but this was the first one to merge the two like the most delicious Reese’s peanut butter cup.
There was an honest to god spike in cops 10 years after this show aired and many believe it was because an entire generation wanted to become detectives from watching this show. Which is admirable but ultimately a waste of time because anyone who’s seen an episode of Scooby-Doo: Where are You! knows, that all you need to catch a crook is a net, a pulley system and maybe a skateboard or bucket. And it was always old man withers.
What are some of your favorite cartoons? Do you think any of them will make the top 10?