We’ve Lost the Fine Art of Satire in Animation

Animation used to serve up tons of satire in years gone past. Where has it gone and what have we lost as a result?

animaniacs hollywood

Believe it or not, but I’m in the process of watching Animaniacs at the moment. The show is on Netflix and what’s more surprising than how well it’s held up, is just how good of a satire on Hollywood it actually is. In fact, it’s far from the only early-90s show that took aim at authority and the establishment. Pretty much any one that you can think of did exactly the same.

In the intervening years, either by way of generational change, or just increasing conformity, we’ve lost that desire to mock. Cartoons today are safe. They may proffer to highlight social justice issues, or even raise awareness of important causes, but they do so in a neutral inoffensive manner.

C’mon, nobody ever accomplished anything by being inoffensive. If you want to change the world, you need to get dirty up to your elbows. You cause a bit of a ruckus. You make a racket that directs attention to your cause.

Satire is a tried and tested method of doing just that. The Simpsons is a family sitcom that set out to poke fun at all the established family sitcoms out there. The show stood out for being animated, but making the characters and their dynamics different made it shine. The show quickly discovered that going one further after society leaders began to denounce it. If you’re going to be ridiculed anyway, why not make fun of those attempting to do so?

We’ve since lost that ambition. Shows (even web series) are focusing more on entertainment. My article for Animation Scoop last week laments the need for a contemporary Ralph Bakshi, but really, we need more than that. Animation and cartoons in general are the perfect vehicle with which to mock the deservedly mockable.

Politicians, silicon valley wonks, terrorists; all are so very ripe for plunder yet remain untouched. Even the Simpsons has lost its formerly hard edge. Has western society embraced a degree of political correctness that emasculates satire? It seems that way doesn’t it? Of course provoking unwanted responses isn’t helping, as the Charlie Hebdo attack of last year proves. Not everyone enjoys having their faults and weaknesses exposed and many are wont to seek revenge on those who do.

Yet animation’s unique place in the entertainment and art spheres means that it can tackle such complex issues without losing its humurous appeal. Satire is the most accessible way of doing so, and it’s a shame it seems to have vanished form contemporary shows and films. Here’s hoping it comes back.

6 thoughts on “We’ve Lost the Fine Art of Satire in Animation

  1. SOUTH PARK is still able to deliver sharp, pointed satire. Their previous season was one of their best in years – tackling disparate issues such as political correctness, gentrification, and “sponsored content” and weaving them seamlessly into the story arc.

    1. Great point! South Park does depend on a sense of immediateness though. They create each episode in six days, which is unrealistic for most studios. Still, they are by far the best animated show keeping the tradition alive.

  2. I’ve held the same sentiment for a while. South Park seems to be the only one doing satire right these days and Animaniacs is pretty much the Citizen Kane of the genre. It hugely benefited from a large and diverse cast of characters, reflective of the huge team behind it, that could cover a large number of topics like pop culture, Hollywood culture, classic cartoons, domestic life, etc. Also, it was one of the only shows that could push the envelope and still be accessible to the entire family, something I believe few or no other shows before or since have been able to achieve, save maybe for Animaniacs’ sister shows from the WB Silver Age.

    However, while I believe there’s enough subject matter in this day and age to make any sharp mind salivate at its comedic potential, it’s really hard to continue to do it the way Animaniacs did, and almost impossible to aim it at general audiences, because of the highly-charged, highly polarized environment we’re living in. Writers are understandably squeamish about current events, and in addition there’s also the lightning-quick pace at which culture moves these days that makes it hard for you to make something that won’t be considered “dated” in as little as a few months (again an advantage to South Park’s aforementioned 6-day turnaround). Despite that, there’s a bit of a cushion in the fact that satire is not necessarily exclusive to pop culture (nerd culture and urban life are rife with potential).

    Other than South Park, there’s some pretty good satire on the Internet as well, and I believe MAD on Cartoon Network was the last great media satire we had. Still very entertaining in their own rights, but I think replicating Animaniacs’ quality and success is the creative equivalent of the four-minute mile. Animaniacs itself is an excellent time capsule for the unique attitudes and tastes of the 90s.


  3. In terms of hard-hitting satire and political comment in animation it would seem hard to beat the 1974 Danish series, “The History Book,” by Jannik Hastrup and others.

Leave a Response

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.