Treva is a pop culture fan who has been writing about the entertainment world for over a decade.
When it comes to adult cartoons, the '90s was definitely a boom decade for this now-popular genre. The era of adult animation started back in the Stone Age with The Flintstones, but it was a prime-time animated series that debuted at the end of the '80s that would spark the '90s race for animation domination.
From cartoons aimed at the teens of the '90s who were growing out of their old kiddie favorites to prime-time animated shows for adults only, let's revisit the decade of slap bracelets, Spice Girls, and CD players by reflecting back on some of the best adult animated series of the era.
1. 'The Simpsons'
What's to say about this American treasure that hasn't already been said? It isn't just one of the most popular adult cartoons of the '90s, but an all-time prime-time favorite. The Simpsons can now boast that it is television's longest-running primetime scripted series, and there's some great comfort in knowing that we can still spend our Sundays settling in on our couches to watch the Simpson family's latest couch gag. We can also thank The Simpsons for inspiring other animators to attempt to replicate its success after its 1989 debut.
Homer, Bart, Marge, Lisa, and Maggie have become America's favorite dysfunctional family with their limitless number of adventures, which range from the mirthful to the meaningful and even the macabre. So when it comes to the best cartoons of the '90s, it's hard to top this one. After all, the Simpsons have already done everything!
2. 'The Critic'
The Critic is one of the many adult cartoons that would air on FOX during the '90s and beyond, as the network attempted to duplicate the success of The Simpsons. However, the rather depressing life of an overweight film critic just didn't seem to appeal to audiences as much.
Nevertheless, I still look back on this as one of the best adult cartoons of the '90s because I love all of the show's clever movie references and parodies. To this day, I occasionally laugh to myself when I think of legendary filmmaker Orson Welles (voiced by Maurice LaMarche) saying "green pea-ness" in an advertisement for Rosebud Frozen Peas. The bit was inspired by a real ad Welles recorded in 1970.
If you're a big film buff, this is one of the adult cartoons of the '90s that you'll definitely want to revisit. Trust me; it doesn't stink.
3. 'Dr. Katz, Professional Therapist'
Here’s an adult animated series for all the intellectuals out there. This Comedy Central show’s squiggly animation might make you feel like you’re losing your mind, but don’t worry; its unique approach to cartoon comedy is just what the doctor ordered. Much of the show’s dialogue between its main characters is improvised, which is unusual for an animated series.
The Comedy Central show's main draw was the therapy sessions between Dr. Katz (Jonathan Katz) and guest comedians, like future sitcom star Ray Romano. However, Katz’s interactions with his family members, friends, and his acerbic assistant also provided plenty of laughs. Dr. Katz introduced the world to the baritone voice of animated comedy icon Jon Benjamin, and working on the show was one of the early gigs of Bob’s Burgers creator Loren Bouchard. Bouchard and Dr. Katz co-creator Tom Snyder would go on to work together again on the next cartoon on this list, and they’d bring Benjamin along to do voice work. Here’s one more fun fact about the influential series: Late Stars Wars star Carrie Fisher voiced Katz’s ex-wife.
Read More From Reelrundown
4. 'Home Movies'
This is probably one of the most underrated cartoons of the ‘90s. Like the next series on this list, it's notable for being aimed at adults, even though its main characters are kids. It's about a boy named Brendon and his two friends, a down-to-earth girl, and a nose-picking boy who really needs to come back down to earth. The three pals are major cinephiles, so their favorite pastime is making homemade movies together. These short films are all highly entertaining, but my personal favorite is definitely the Franz Kafka rock opera that the group worked on in "Director's Cut."
The kids' soccer coach (voiced by Jon Benjamin) is one of the funniest characters on the show, a short-tempered, alcoholic failure at life who acts like a middle-aged frat boy. Brendon is more mature than his mentor, bringing a different kind of funny with his sarcastic wit. After Home Movies lost its home at UPN, it became one of the animated series of the ‘90s that helped shape Adult Swim into the cultural phenomenon that it is today.
5. 'South Park'
Like The Simpsons, this is one of the most enduring adult cartoons of the '90s. However, it's less family-friendly than the beloved FOX show; Comedy Central's longest-running animated series takes social satire to the extreme by being extremely vulgar.
South Park courted controversy by making the main characters kids who often found themselves dealing with very adult situations, and it immediately got a lot of negative attention for its vulgar approach to comedy after it began airing in 1997 (Who can forget what those aliens did to Eric Cartman in the first episode?). However, critics' complaints couldn't keep this quirky animated series from continuing to delight viewers throughout the first two decades of the new millennium. We still love watching Cartman get what's coming to him, Kenny dying, and Towlie getting high, and it looks like we could keep learning somewhat questionable life lessons from the residents of South Park for years to come.
This adult animated series of the '90s was truly ahead of its time, as evidenced by the fact that Comedy Central decided to resurrect the FOX phoenix from the ashes in 2009.
In a future inhabited by aliens, celebrity heads in jars, and alcoholic robots, a loser pizza delivery boy from the past learns just how much things have changed since he fell into a cryogenic chamber: anchovies are extinct; Christmas sucks; and the sewers are inhabited by a mutant race.
For a comedy, some episodes of this show could be surprisingly moving. Just try watching "Jurassic Bark," the tearjerker about Fry's dog with a deceptively humorous title, without a box of tissues on hand. Episodes focused on Fry and Leela's relationship were also excellent, but the show wasn't entirely focused on serious subjects like love and loss; its sci-fi send-ups were always hilarious, like the episode about a powerful alien who is a little too obsessed with Star Trek. The extraterrestrials were often highlights of the show, including the Omicronians who threatened to destroy Earth over an interrupted broadcast of an Ally McBeal parody titled Single Female Lawyer.
This incredible animated series came back from the dead once and was just as good as I remembered, so here's to hoping that it will do it again.
7. 'Family Guy'
This is another adult cartoon that can thank the popularity of its reruns for its resurrection.
With a premise similar to that of The Simpsons, it seemed like this animated series would be panned by fans of the other show as nothing but a cheap imitation. But with a murderous baby obsessed with matricide (ah, the good ol' days of Stewie), an even bigger buffoon than Homer as a father, a wife with a promiscuous past, a sarcastic talking dog, an incredibly clueless son, and a pitiable daughter who serves as the family punching bag, Family Guy stole our hearts and warped our minds in a way that The Simpsons never could.
Family Guy became one of our favorite cartoons of the '90s with its excessive use of pop culture references and flashbacks, its often dark humor, and its pageantry in the form of Stewie and Brian's over-the-top musical numbers. It also turned viewers on to the music of country legend Conway Twitty, and it introduced a whole new generation to the joy that was late Batman star Adam West. Let's just hope that we can rely on our favorite family guy teaching us family values for years to come.
8. 'Celebrity Deathmatch'
This violent but very funny MTV series was unique because it used claymation to bring its famous characters to life. The creative cartoon pitted celebrities against each other in fights to the death, and its wacky match-ups have now become a late '90s time capsule of sorts. Some of the biggest stars of the era faced off against each other in the Celebrity Deathmatch ring, including singers Alanis Morisette and Jewel, Cruel Intentions costars Neve Campbell and Sarah Michelle Gellar, talk shows hosts Rosie O'Donnell and Oprah Winfrey, and sitcom stars Jerry Seinfeld and Tim Allen.
Viewers tuned in to the show to root for their favorite celebrities to win—and to watch the rich and famous folk that they weren’t so fond suffer horrific deaths at the hands of their rivals. Celebrities could be sliced to pieces by vinyl records, roasted on a giant grill, or infected with mad cow disease. It was a bizarre spectacle that could sometimes be difficult to watch, but it was so popular that rapper Ice Cube is trying to reboot the series for modern-day viewers. Fun fact: Ice Cube emerged victorious in a celebrity death match against Ice-T and Vanilla Ice in one episode of the show.
9. 'The PJs'
This is another show that used stop-motion animation to bring its characters to life, and it takes place in the same universe as Futurama; In one episode, a picture of Fry can be spotted on a missing persons poster in the background.
The PJs main protagonist is Thurgood Orenthal Stubbs, the superintendent of a housing project. Thurgood is usually cranky and snappish, and his reluctance to do his job is the source of many of the show’s comedic moments. However, his crusty old man act belies his kind heart and concern for his community, and he’ll occasionally try to help improve his tenants’ dwellings by facing off against the evil government employees of the Department of Housing and Urban Development.
Long before Cleveland Brown got his own spinoff show and The Boondocks taught us that “you can’t tame the white supremacist power structure with cheese,” The PJs became one of the first adult animated series to feature a cast of mostly black characters. It had a big name as a selling point in series co-creator Eddie Murphy, who voiced Thurgood. However, reviews of the cartoon were mixed. It received some criticism for reinforcing negative stereotypes, an allegation which co-creator Larry Wilmore rebutted. According to the future Daily Show star, many of the characters were based on people from his own life.
It was unfortunate that the short-lived series stirred up so much controversy, because it was a lot of fun to watch. Thurgood’s interactions with tenants and other colorful people in his neighborhood, including a slang-speaking street hustler and a crazy crackhead, created plenty of laugh-out-loud moments, and many of the characters were likable and multi-faceted. The show also found humorous and biting ways to criticize the government’s treatment of minorities, giving it an underlying political message that was important for viewers to see.
Many people who watched The PJs likely had no clue what life in the projects is like, so it was a good thing that the show made it to TV; for these viewers, it humanized a slice of American society that is often either ignored or demonized. And for those who were living in Thurgood’s world, it let them know that someone out there felt their pain and hadn’t forgotten them.
10. 'Beavis and Butt-head'
This is one of the adult cartoons of the '90s that was aimed at slightly younger adults. It appealed to America's MTV-loving youth by giving them two oddball losers to laugh at: a couple of blundering, metal-loving nimrods whose only real skills were critiquing music videos and recognizing words and phrases that were double entendres.
What made this animated series so popular with teens was the fact that Beavis and Butt-head were high schoolers, and their cartoons featured slightly more adult subject matter; the dimwitted duo was always attempting to procure alcohol, find parties, and "score with chicks." It may not be the smartest animated series of the decade, but it definitely had a lasting impact on our culture; I know people that still quote "The Great Cornholio".
How could a Beavis and Butt-head spin-off be so smart? Daria Morgendorffer is almost an exact replica of her character from her parent animated series, except she's moved to another town and doesn't have to put up with the boy buffoons anymore. Instead, she has to deal with a clueless cheerleader and her equally ignorant jock boyfriend.
Daria is a smart, sardonic high school student forever annoyed and perplexed by her superficial younger sister, idiotic classmates, and well-intentioned but imperfect parents. Daria is definitely a pessimist, being a fan of the show Sick Sad World and prone to talking about how much she hates basically everything. She's a brilliant student and deep thinker, but she's also extremely unmotivated, choosing to spend most of her time making snarky comments about her own sick, sad world.
This cartoon reality resonated with '90s teens who felt as if they didn't fit in with the superficial world around them, and it's one of the only adult cartoons of the '90s to feature a female lead for girls to root for. Sadly, this is something that the world of adult animated series could still use more of today.
12. 'King of the Hill'
This is another '90s cartoon that can be considered a Beavis and Butt-head spin-off. Hank Hill's Texan gentleman character closely resembled that of Tom Anderson, the poor neighbor that Beavis and Butt-head loved to terrorize. Hank Hill is a more fleshed-out character, however: a good ol' boy concerned with keeping his lawn green and well-groomed, drinking beer with his buds, and selling propane (and propane accessories).
I've got to admit that, as a Texan, I might be a bit biased when I say that King of the Hill isn't just one of the best-animated series of the '90s, but of all time. I know I've met plenty of Peggys, Bills, Dales, and Boomhauers in my day, as well as loads of Luannes and Hanks, so I love just how true-to-life this all-American animated series feels. It taught us that the basis of a good friendship is cold beer and conversation consisting of one-syllable words, and you don't deserve to eat if you ask for your steak well-done.
13. 'Mission Hill'
This short-lived WB series aimed at young adults entering the professional world should still resonate with millennials today. The show’s main protagonist, Andy French, is a twenty-something cartoonist who is struggling to find a decent-paying job after graduating from college. Instead of putting his degree to work, he’s working at a waterbed store. The underachieving Andy ends up in an unconventional living situation when his geeky underage brother Kevin moves in with him and his two roommates, his laidback best friend Jim, and a hippie chick named Posey.
Essentially, the show is about the struggle to transition into adulthood. Andy doesn’t really get motivated to grow up and get a real job until he becomes unemployed and discovers that Jim has already become a successful executive at an advertising agency. While he tries to get his life back on track, his younger brother struggles with issues that high schoolers face, like fretting over SAT scores and dealing with bullies.
The series is notable for featuring TV's first male same-sex kiss, and here’s another a fun fact about the show: One half of the gay couple that often appeared on Mission Hill was voiced by Tom Kenny, who is best known for voicing Spongebob Squarepants.
One of my favorite Mission Hill episodes is when Kevin discovers old VHS tapes (yep, they were still a thing then) documenting the time his older brother appeared on America’s original reality show, MTV’s The Real World. We learn that Andy was asked to join the cast after one of the original housemates got killed by a bus (while arguing with Andy), and he decides to play the role of the obnoxious d-bag of the show. He eventually regrets his decision to join the cast, but when he can’t escape the MTV cameras, he has to turn to his pals for help. They win the battle against reality TV, but lose the war; a great animated series like Mission Hill couldn’t survive longer than 13 episodes, while terrible reality shows still thrive on MTV.
14. 'Space Ghost Coast to Coast'
Cartoon Network paved the way for some of our favorite Adult Swim cartoons to come with this bizarre spoof talk show starring the ghost host with the most, a former Hanna-Barbera superhero who used to fight super-villains in space.
Space Ghost featured extremely awkward celebrity interviews, which were sprinkled with plenty of bizarre banter between Space Ghost and his villainous bug sidekick Zorak. There were also appearances by everyone's favorite big-mouthed buffoon, Brak (his musical numbers were the best). Space Ghost was definitely one of the weirdest adult cartoons of the '90s, but what made the surreal series so great was just how unpredictable and truly bonkers it was.
If you thought that Sonic the Hedgehog’s teeth looked creepy in that movie trailer, just wait until you see a duck with incisors. The depraved Duckman was the original funny anthropomorphic animal, making viewers laugh two decades before Netflix would introduce them to Bojack Horseman.
Eric T. Duckman was an incompetent private eye whose personal life was a complete mess. The misshapen yellow drake often engaged in sexually deviant behavior; he was an irresponsible father who was a terrible role model for his three kids, and his dead wife forced him to live with a sister-in-law who absolutely despised him. The arrogant, foul-mouthed yellow foul was pretty terrible all around, so it’s fitting that he was voiced by Jason Alexander, who is best known for playing horrible human being George Costanza on Seinfeld. But like many of today’s Seinfeld-inspired sitcoms, it’s the main character’s bad behavior that made him so fun to watch. It also helped that the show’s villain was also perfection, an evil genius named King Chicken who was voiced by The Rocky Horror Picture Show star Tim Curry. Part of what made the dynamic between King Chicken and Duckman so great is the latter was bisexual and was openly attracted to his rival.
So from the best prime-time cartoons of the '90s to late-night animated series that forever changed the way we view cartoons, making a childish genre an adult one was a brave step that has paid off for a lot of animators—and for adult viewers that will always be young at heart.
Treva Leigh (author) on July 26, 2019:
Thanks! It's still one of my favorites, too, so I hope it stays on a long time.
Mikey Karlovsky on July 26, 2019:
Great article! But It is kind of funny that Family Guy premised in 1999, and it still a great show!