The Best Adult Cartoons to Entertain Your Inner Man Child
It’s well past time to acknowledge that cartoons aren’t exclusively for children anymore. Not only are there animated shows that have been arguing this for decades—much, much longer than the typical kid-friendly series—the last few years have also seen the rise of many cartoons specifically targeted for adults.
And we’re not just talking about the MTV shows of old that leverage gore and gross-out humor (though that subgenre has its own place in the history of adult cartoons). Rather, notable animated TV series that are smart, satirical, and self-aware, where themes like the struggles of everyday living and existential dread are par for the course.
That's not to say every show’s a dramedy that will have you questioning your personal beliefs and values; many adult cartoons are very much light-hearted entertainment with just a sprinkling of pop culture references that are likely to fly over kids’ heads.
Below, we round up some of the best animated TV shows aimed at grown-ups.
(We're not including anime in this list as that’s a different genre altogether.)
THE BEST OF CLASSIC ADULT CARTOONS
These cartoons broke the mold when they came out with decidedly adult-oriented content at a time when cartoons were heavily marketed toward kids. While there are arguably better series today, the pioneers are still worth watching.
1| The Simpsons
There’s no denying The Simpsons’ place on this list. While the last few seasons haven’t been as funny or biting (it becomes harder to think of fresh ideas after 30 years), its influence is undeniable. Not only did it give birth to iconic characters and quotes, it also paved the way for almost every other show on this list. Did you know that The Beatles' Yellow Submarine was a big inspiration for creator Matt Groening?
2| South Park
Another mainstay, South Park infamously thrives on controversy, diving deep into satirical and critical commentary on many topical issues. It’s tongue-in-cheek and irreverent to the extreme, and while some may argue that this adult cartoon is offensive for the sake of being offensive, it remains one of television’s longest running shows.
3| The Ren & Stimpy Show
Many ‘90s kids will probably remember this TV series as a slightly traumatizing, grotesque, absurdist show about an emotionally unstable, high-strung chihuahua and an incredibly dim-witted cat. It was weird, it was violent, and it practically hit the audience in the face with its off-color humor and slapstick comedy. But this adult cartoon is a critically acclaimed cult classic for a reason: Its unique viewing experience leaves a lasting impression.
4| Family Guy
Many dare call Family Guy the spiritual successor of The Simpsons—you know, if The Simpsons wasn’t very much alive and still showing. Creator Seth MacFarlane has made no secret that he was inspired by the legendary show. This initially drew unfavorable comparisons, but eventually, the Griffins carved their own space in the zeitgeist. The outrageous characters and self-referential humor have won the show enough acclaim and die-hard fans to get it through a couple of cancellations.
A spin-off of the Beavis and Butt-head series, Daria centers around the eponymous protagonist and her many snarky, misanthropic observations about everyday suburban living. Gloriously sardonic and apathetic, Daria’s deadpan delivery echoed the sentiments of the grungy, eye-rolling teenage generation of the '90s.
Nerdy in-jokes abound in this satirical sci-fi sitcom, which follows the exploits of the time-displaced slacker Philip J. Fry and the rest of the misfit crew of the Planet Express Ship. But interstellar misadventures and hijinks aren’t the only things this adult cartoon has to offer. Thanks to its snappy dialogue, surreal humor, a romance you can't help but root for, insightful societal commentary, and occasionally heart-wrenching storylines, Futurama might just be Groening’s best work—a tall order considering he's got The Simpsons under his belt.
A NEW GENERATION OF ADULT CARTOONS
In the early aughts, a different breed of adult cartoons started to emerge. They weren’t just sitcoms that happened to be animated, or cartoons that relied heavily on sexual innuendo and graphic violence. These shows were proudly adult cartoons that made use of the format to depict a wide range of grown-up themes.
This anachronistic, reference-heavy action comedy stars the self-proclaimed world’s greatest spy Sterling Archer, code name Duchess. A James Bond-esque manchild who works for the international spy agency ISIS (complete coincidence, we kid you not), Archer’s early adventures alongside his equally dysfunctional fellow agents are full of intrigue and wackiness alike. Rapid-fire dialogue, sly wit, strong character development, and excellent use of callbacks are hallmarks of the series, which has managed to stay uniquely cohesive despite a divisive genre change in the seventh season, and even more radical self-contained stories after that.
2| BoJack Horseman
We wish we were a fly on the wall when show creator Raphael Bob-Waksberg pitched BoJack Horseman. After all, who would have thought a show about an anthropomorphic washed up '90s sitcom star would prove to be such good entertainment? You’ll need to push through a shaky start, but once BoJack hits its stride, it just goes from strength to strength. A story about struggling with one’s inner and outer demons—from depression to addiction and everything in between—this oddball adult cartoon about a horse(man) is stunningly relatable, nuanced, and human.
3| Rick and Morty
Imagine Back to the Future’s Doc Brown and Marty McFly, then turn up the crazy meter to 11. Because on paper, that’s what Rick and Morty seems like—a sci-fi cartoon following the intergalactic and reality-bending adventures of mad scientist Rick Sanchez and his trying-so-hard-to-be-a-moral-compass grandson Morty. Subversive and kind of horrific and vulgar plotlines, a seamlessly interwoven family drama, and a nihilistic core philosophy bring an undeniable depth to the series. Add to that protagonists who make you question your humanity, and you’ve got a smart, darkly comedic, and completely original show.
4| Bob’s Burger
A family and workplace comedy, Bob’s Burger has a lot more heart than the others on this list. Centered on the Belcher family and their struggling hamburger joint, this adult cartoon is a clever, funny, and endearing show that doesn’t rely on shock humor or gross-out factor to keep viewers’ attention. Instead, it utilizes its own brand of mundane ridiculousness, strategic musical numbers, and stellar character dynamics to create something truly enjoyable every episode.
5| The Venture Bros.
One of the crowning achievements of Adult Swim, The Venture Bros. follows naive and incompetent twins Hank and Dean, their amoral, frustrated super scientist father Rusty, and their burly bodyguard Brock as they go on unsubtle parodies of Jonny Quest adventures. Seven seasons in, the series has extensive and complex world building, well-fleshed out characters numbering in the dozens, and underlying themes of failure and frustration, all propped up by well-executed genre references.
6| Robot Chicken
Essentially a stop-motion version of SNL, Robot Chicken is a sketch comedy that will lovingly warp all your innocent childhood memories. Sharp, fast-paced, and seemingly unafraid of taking things too far, this adult cartoon mocks all things pop culture. No one and nothing is safe, from the most beloved characters of famous movies and TV shows to the latest toys and games. At one point or another, they’ll likely get roped into a raunchy and hilarious skit.
We’d be remiss to not mention the shows that straddle the line between adult and children’s cartoons. These are animated series made for kids, but features envelope-pushing content, which even the most jaded adult finds interesting.
There was the groundbreaking Batman: The Animated Series, which defied conventions with its complex themes and film noir aesthetics. The story of the tragic and noble hero Samurai Jack resounded so profoundly with its audience that there was still clamor and excitement for its wayward final season, even if it was released more than 10 years after it left the air.
There are also a few very notable examples from recent years. Adventure Time and its nearly nonsensical brilliance has captured the attention (and imagination) of audiences of all ages. Steven Universe struck a chord when it started to explore LGBTQ topics, refusing to shy away from bold storylines and character arcs. The paranormal delight that is Gravity Falls boasts endearing, quirky characters and an underlying poignancy, while the enigmatic Over the Garden Wall is evocative in the best way possible as its spooky blend of mood and atmosphere will have you question everything you see.