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Monday, February 25th, 2013

'The Simpsons' and the Birth of the Modern Animated TV Comedy

This post is brought to you by Out There, airing Fridays at 10:30/9:30c on IFC.

Sure, there were plenty of primetime animated series before The Simpsons, but they were few and far between in the late '80s and the influential Fox show singlehandedly led the charge in bringing cartoons back to primetime (and adult audiences) after over a decade-plus absence. The Flintstones was the first significant animated comedy to air in primetime, debuting on ABC in 1960. After it went off the air in 1966, there wasn't another one until another Hanna-Barbera series, Wait Till Your Father Comes Home, which aired in syndication from 1972 to 1974 and didn't have an indelible impact upon the TV landscape like its predecessor (Flintstones) or successor (Simpsons) did.

When The Simpsons debuted in 1989, having spun off from a series of popular animated shorts on Fox's The Tracey Ullman Show, there hadn't been an animated series in primetime –or one geared at adults – since Wait Till Your Father Comes Home. In the 1980s, animation was thought to be only for children, but the overwhelming popularity of The Simpsons spanning audiences of all ages proved there was an audience for animated series in primetime. As with any success in the entertainment industry, The Simpsons inspired its fair share of imitators, but it also led to talented people like Mike Judge, Matt Parker, and Trey Stone getting the opportunity to create their own shows. While before 1989, there was no market for animated fare for adults, Fox now has an entire two-hour block on Sundays (and is planning a 90-minute Saturday block), Pixar movies regularly get nominated for Best Picture alongside live-action films,  and Adult Swim has built itself into a popular cable channel through (mostly) animated shows.

While The Simpsons inspired a boom of animated shows in the 1990s, the first wave made by the big networks (debuting in '92 and '93) was largely unsuccessful. CBS launched a Hanna-Barbera-produced series called Fish Police, based on a film noire-esque comic book about some, well, fish police. Steven Bochco co-created Capitol Critters, about a bunch of rodents living in the walls of the White House, for ABC. CBS tried again with Family Dog, a sitcom from future Simpsons and Pixar mastermind Brad Bird. All three shows lasted less than 10 episodes each, demonstrating that it would be harder than it looks for the big networks to replicate the success the fledgling Fox network was having with The Simpsons.

On cable, the post-Simpsons wave of animated comedies fared much better than ABC and CBS's early '90s attempts. Comedy Central's Dr. Katz, Professional Therapist, USA's Duckman, and Cartoon Network's Space Ghost Coast to Coast were cult hits, but MTV's Beavis and Butt-head was the first animated show in the wake of The Simpsons to become a big deal in 1993. Beavis and Butt-head's cheap animation style would pave the way for future shows to cut costs at the expense of appearances. While The Simpsons rankled conservatives, Beavis and Butt-head kicked up a much bigger dirt cloud of dust, with critics attacking the crude humor and dangerous behavior exhibited by its two lead characters.

Simpsons writers Al Jean and Mike Reiss and producer James L. Brooks made the next big network attempt to create an animated sitcom in 1994 with The Critic on ABC. Following the adventures of movie critic Jay Sherman (voiced by Jon Lovitz), the show lasted one short season on ABC and another short one on Fox before being canceled.

1997 saw the debut of two long-running animated shows that still stand as two of the biggest post-Simpsons successes in the field – King of the Hill and South Park. Created by Beavis and Butt-head's Mike Judge, King of the Hill was the first legitimate animated network hit since The Simpsons, and it took the networks nearly a decade for it to happen.  South Park, from newcomers Trey Parker and Matt Stone, helped turn Comedy Central into an influential cable network and the show is still running today, set to debut its 17th season this fall.

The tail end of the '90s saw the warm reception of South Park and King of the Hill renew network executives' faith that a popular non-Simpsons animated show could actually happen, causing them to greenlight a whole slew of new shows – some of which disappeared in the blink of an eye, others which are still with us. Amongst the onslaught of animated shows launched in 1999 were Family Guy and Futurama, both of which were canceled but later revived and are still going, while the WB's Mission Hill and The PJs and UPN's Dilbert were all canceled without ever being brought back from the dead.

It took a decade for a major network to find an animated show even a fraction as popular as The Simpsons, and by 1999, Fox had three of them in King of the Hill, Futurama, and Family Guy. All the other big networks' attempts to create an animated hit had failed up to that point, leaving Fox in a position of power in the field as the new millennium began.

Check back tomorrow for Part Two of our history of animated comedy, covering the rise of Seth MacFarlane and Adult Swim in the 2000s and the current animated sitcom landscape.