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.
30. Futurama (1999-2013)
Created by Matt Groening in between rounds of counting his excessive mound of Simpsons money, Futurama was essentially his brilliant idea to take The Simpsons and set it in space. Because when you exhaust every punchline imaginable, the only logical step is to set that shit in space. A place Homer has only been to a couple of times, max. Futurama is about a pizza delivery guy named Fry, who’s cryogenically frozen and awakes 1000 years into the far future.
A future of mutants, aliens and affordable suicide booths. He eventually partners up with a sexy cyclops and a smart ass robot and they get into the wildest adventures. I’m talking Cra-zy. They even meet a bodyless Beck. That’s how crazy their adventures are. Some of the later seasons get a bit shaky but it’s one of the few animated shows to have a perfect ending. Oh and that episode about Seymour destroys my tear ducts every time.
29. Aqua Teen Hunger Force (2000-2015)
Some of the cartoons on this list are brilliantly written dramas, Some are childhood favorites seeped in nostalgia and others are just stupid. I can’t really defend or explain the appeal of ATHF and I loathe the phrase “It’s not made for you.” If you don’t like this show, I completely understand. The main character is an unlikable asshole, the neighbor is a jerkass and the talking mound of meat speaks like a baby with a mouthful of marbels. I get it.
But on two separate occasions, this show made me laugh so hard, the beverage I was drinking (milk the first time, Pepsi the second) came shooting out of my nose. No other TV show has done that before or since. It’s stupid anarchy that Adult Swim has tried and failed to recapture time and time again.
Number 1 in the hood, G.
28. Justice League Unlimited (2004-2006)
This spot is for both Justice League and it’s direct sequel Justice League Unlimited. I didn’t see the point in separating them considering there’s so much bleed over from one show to the next. Before Kevin Feige had the brilliant idea of creating a connected cinematic universe of superhero films, Bruce Timm did the exact same thing but in animation. He took Batman: The Animated Series and Superman: The Animated Series and put those characters and that universe in Justice League.
Obviously there were shows about superheroes before Justice League, Superfriends beat them to the punch over twenty years previous but this was the first time a show was made up of elements of multiple other shows.
It was fanboy heaven but the show never sacrificed quality for nerdgasms. It didn’t rely on nostalgia or the novelty of its premise to coast along. It told compelling stories, involving almost every DC character imaginable. It’s almost ironic how bad the DCU is when the heavy lifting was done for them years and years ago. Just follow the blueprint this show created because it’s perfect.
27. Animaniacs (1993-1998)
I feel like I’ve already covered this show extensively because I constantly reference it in regards to its amazing spin off or it being the crown jewel of the animated Spielberg collection but that’s how great it is. Its shadow looms over the vast majority of the kids programming of the 90’s. Because it didn’t just appeal to kids but adults as well.
Telling the mostly fictionalized account of the Warner Bros and their sister, the crazy antics of Yakko, Wacko and Dot were also accompanied by a slew of side characters with their own segments. It was a variety show in the same vein as Looney Tunes but updated for modern audiences. It kept the amazing character designs of its precursor but added an extra level of wacky the original never dreamed of. Animaniacs is a perfect throwback to the wildness of a Tex Avery and Chuck Jones but adding enough to stand not on their shoulders but side by side as equals.
26. Popeye (1933-1957)
If I were to ask you (as in the royal you) who the most popular cartoon character of the 30’s was, I guarantee most of you would answer Mickey Mouse. Maybe some of you would say Betty Boop or Felix but the correct answer was Popeye. There was a time where he was bigger than the mascot of the biggest film company working today. Something about this spinach chomping ol’ sailor resonated with the audiences of the day. Maybe he represented the working class? The little guy, who has to constantly fight for the things he wants. Maybe it was that delicious ass spinach. I have no idea But suffice it to say, Popeye was a hit then and his legacy has endured for generations. And if you don’t like the live action film starring Robin Williams, I don’t like you.
25. King of the Hill (1997-2010)
Created by Beavis and Butthead mastermind Mike Judge and the future showrunner of The Office Greg Daniels, King of the Hill is a portrait of an all American propane salesman and his family living in Arlen Texas. One of the only shows on this list that could easily be done in live action, the humor is subtle and the situations are always realistic. The characters are so well developed, that they feel like real people. You knew a Bobby Hill growing up. You know at least one Dale, probably a couple of Boomhauer’s and if you don’t know a Bill, odds are, it’s you. It doesn’t feel like a cartoon in the typical sense. It feels more akin to an early Errol Morris documentary. King of the Hill is king of the cartoons.
24. Bob’s Burgers (2011 – )
The show centers around the Belcher family who own and operate a burger restaurant. Bob and his wife Linda and their three kids Gene, Louise and Tina. Gene likes to eat and fart and will usually be seen playing and singing a song he just made up. Usually about those two things. Tina likes ponies, zombies, butts, and writing erotica about a combination of the three. She’s also painfully awkward (in the dictionary sense, not the “OMG, Becky is wearing the same shirt as you, that’s so awkward” sense) and has a crush on her neighbor named Jimmy Jr. Louise is a violence loving, bunny ear wearing 10 year old that will usually accompany Gene on whatever stupid scheme he’s cooked up purely out of boredom. With its amazing cast of characters and clever humor, It’s the closest a cartoon has come to recapturing that old simpsons magic. Oh and H. Jon Benjamin is in it. So, automatic win.
23. Tom and Jerry (1940-1958)
Two of the longest lasting animated characters in history, this duo has been entertaining audiences for decades. Winner of 7 academy awards, Tom and Jerry follows the patented formula of a thing trying to eat another thing and fucking up severely. Wile-E Coyote tries to eat the roadrunner and blows himself up because he refuses to buy American, Ralph the wolf tries to eat the sheep and Sam the dog stops him, Sylvester tries to gobble up Tweety bird and that old lady with the broom whaps his ass. It’s a well worn story but Tom and Jerry have been doing it better than anyone else for almost 60 years.
22. Neon Genesis Evangelion (1995-1996)
When it comes to mech driven anime, there’s none better than Neon Genesis Evangelion. Interweaving religion, philosophical themes and psychology, Evangelion tells a complex narrative that rewards as well as confounds. Its story is almost as impenetrable as the best of Lynch but never too weird or confusing to alienate potential viewers. It’s about a teenager who not only has to deal with the task of piloting a robot to fight angels but the emotional and spiritual toll it takes on him. He’s an emotional wreck who has father issues and feels alienated by everyone around him. It’s a character study that just so happens to involve massive amounts of violence towards angels.
21. Space Ghost: Coast to Coast (1993-2011)
The show that helped launch Adult Swim into the cultural phenomenon it is today. Space Ghost: Coast to Coast was an animated talk show that took childlike glee in confusing every guest that appeared on the show. Years before Eric Andre would use weaponized absurdism to agitate his celebrity guests, Space Ghost was bewildering not only the guests but the viewers as well. It’s hard to imagine a world before Jackass and before hipsters discovered irony but Space Ghost, along with his pals Zorak, Moltar and Brak (who got his own spin off), were there first.
What are some of your favorite cartoons? Maybe they will show up later in the list!