May 1, 2020   5 mins

A 14-year-old boy and his grandfather are having an argument in a tavern. Like most family squabbles, the dispute is trivial, and it arouses (like most family squabbles) an indignant, pubescent fury in the boy, Morty, who storms off to the loo. There, he meets a stranger, who puts his hands on Morty’s shoulders and tells him to “just go with the flow”.

Morty tries to wriggle free, but the stranger’s grip tightens. Growling into his ear to “let this happen”, the stranger thrusts Morty against the bathroom sink and then into a bathroom cubicle. Morty’s cries for help go unheard — it is only when he throws a lucky punch that the stranger is caught off-guard, and ends up head-first in the toilet, unconscious.

If this scene makes for difficult reading, viewing it is not much easier. But it is also extremely funny — principally because the assailant is an oversized, anthropomorphic jellybean. Still, this is quite heavy stuff for a cartoon show — a far cry from the light-heartedness of The Simpsons— and yet it is becoming the new norm in animated comedy. Edgy content including substance abuse, sexual impropriety and depression have all come to define the latest wave of adult cartoons, which are flourishing in an industry that, ironically, can no longer take a joke.

Save for a few small but ultimately inconsequential acts of insurrection, a culture of conformity has quietly swept through comedy. The fear of losing one’s career to a bad joke or a past transgression has left comedians afraid to take on risky material, and forced directors to leave the genre altogether. Just look at Will Ferrell’s career, an actor who went from Blades of Glory and Anchorman to films like Daddy’s Home and Holmes & Watson, to track comedy’s precipitous decline. With a few exceptions, Hollywood hasn’t made a genuinely funny film in the last 10 years.

Adult cartoons are filling this comedic vacuum, thanks to shows such as F is For Family, which centres on a dysfunctional 1970s Irish-American suburban family; Bojack Horseman, a talking horse dealing from the fallout of his TV career; and Rick and Morty (which returns to screens on Thursday), whose eponymous characters travel to different galaxies for a series of zany adventures. By refusing to subscribe to the narrowing confines of ‘acceptable’ comedy, they are fronting a counterculture that is providing a safe haven for disaffected comedy fans around the world.

To some degree, cartoons have always played this role. Shows such as South Park and Family Guy revel in causing as much outrage as possible while also airing on mainstream networks. That is largely due to the form: cartoon characters are detached from reality in a way that actors are not, allowing them to push harder against the boundaries of acceptable discourse. It would take a brave actor to sing ‘I need a Jew’ or play the Queen killing herself, particularly in today’s hyper-politicised, knee-jerk climate.

Shock is a common currency in adult cartoons. But when overused, it becomes redundant and ineffectual. So in its singular pursuit of controversy, South Park regularly strays into this territory: jokes can come across as crass and boorish, and viewers grow numb. But as we follow the lives of Frank Murphy and Bojack in F is For Family and Bojack Horseman, this shock is deployed for pathos, not humour, which gives these two-dimensional characters a more 3-D feel.

Both protagonists, haunted (and taunted) by memories of poor life decisions decades earlier, are deeply unhappy: this manifests through depression in Bojack and rage in Frank. The latter even strikes his children. In one confrontation with his son, this anger unravels to reveal a deep self-loathing. On confronting his son about failing school, Kevin retorts that he hates school, and Frank responds: “Well I hate my life but I keep on doing it; I’ve got a mortgage, I’ve got dependents and I’ve got to go downtown every damn day to run that airport.” Dismissively, Kevin replies: “Please, you’re just a baggage handler”, before Frank squares up to him and says: “What the fuck did you just call me?”

Taken out of context, there is not much humour in this scene. If anything, it is an all-too-real display of what goes on behind the closed doors of a family home — so much so that we might forget that we are watching a cartoon. And yet, it is this visceral sense of the real in the unreal — this cartoon realism — that makes the show so funny.

Similarly in Bojack Horseman, never mind that the character is a talking horse, he still suffers from human vices — narcissism, substance abuse, and sexual infidelity. Over entire seasons, we watch the side effects of this destructive behaviour play out. So, for instance, when an old friend dying of terminal cancer refuses to accept Bojack’s apology for abandoning him many years ago, our hero is left without closure. Throughout the remaining seasons of the show, the shadow of incidents like these hang over nearly all of his interactions with other characters. And in refusing to exculpate Bojack, the writers ask us the same questions of its protagonist as they do of our own culture: will we forgive Bojack and more importantly, should we?

Neither Bojack Horseman nor F is For Family provide any kind of moral guidance. Part of their appeal is that they are non-didactic, which is rare today. In recent years, late night comedy shows like the BBC’s The Mash Report and SNL have sounded more like political rallies than satirical programmes. Since 2016, opening monologues have descended into virtue-signalling rants attacking Brexit, Trump and pretty much anything mildly Right-wing. Even figures inside the BBC have expressed their displeasure at pastiche shows like The Mash Report, describing it as “self satisfied, self adulatory, unchallenged Left-wing propaganda”.

Of course, there are clear commercial incentives at play — audiences are typically urban, liberal and middle-class and networks will cater to that — but it is a troubling indictment on the health of our comedic culture when clapping during these shows is more common than laughter.

That is not to suggest that Trump and Brexit aren’t fair game. It might be low-hanging fruit, but those sides won and comedy’s golden rule is to never punch down. Yet while there is a tacit acknowledgement of the political ascendancy of the populist Right, it is a different story when it comes to the cultural power of the progressive Left.

Some comedians, like Dave Chappelle, have tried to address this. In his  ‘Stick and Stones’ special on Netflix, Chapelle went after some of the Left’s shibboleths: the LGBTQ community, the #MeToo movement and cancel culture. His reward was a vicious backlash calling him “cruel”, “transphobic”, “misogynistic”, saying that he had “lost his comic touch” (in spite of winning a Grammy for the performance). The chasm between critics and audience could not have been more stark on the review aggregator Rotten Tomatoes: the former giving the show a 0% rating while fans gave it 99%. Chapelle survived the criticism, but as he wryly noted in the special, “this is the worst time ever to be a celebrity”.

Adult cartoons are an igloo of shelter in this blizzard of hysteria. Even so, cracks do appear. Most notably when Apu Nahasapeemapetilon, an Indian-American character from The Simpsons in the character was removed from the show because of its negative perpetuation of South Asian stereotypes. The cancellation of Apu marked a new step in the culture wars: that cartoons, like words and people, could be removed from the public sphere as easily as they entered.

With 2.5 million people expected to tune in to the mid-season return of Rick and Morty next week, the show’s success could serve as an example for others to follow. The health and vigour of the adult cartoon industry shows that the appetite for comedy remains as strong — if not stronger — than ever. For now, the comedy industry is on life support. It is cartoons that are keeping it alive.

is UnHerd’s Newsroom editor.