Cartoons have long been associated with kids, ever since the days of Steamboat Willie in 1928 to the Disney princesses of the mid-20th century. Yet, there's been a recent boom in adult cartoons.
In the 90s, animated television started experimenting and branching out, hoping to target older audiences. We started seeing subjects and situations that were previously taboo: mental illness, substance addiction, sex and relationships, parenting.
Between Adult Swim, FX, Netflix, Hulu, and other streaming platforms, adult cartoons have become more widely accessible, with options for everyone from stoner audiences to those who just want an easy-to-watch, post-work TV binge with mature themes.
Whether sitcoms or dramas, adult-oriented television has new dimensions when it isn't bound by the limitations of live action. Here are my picks for the best animated TV shows for adults!
13. Archer (2009)
Created by Adam Reed
Starring H. Jon Benjamin, Judy Greer, Chris Parnell
Animation, Action, Comedy
145 episodes (14 seasons)
Adult cartoons love meta references and Archer is chock-full of it. Adam Reed first established his love of meta and adventure comedy in his Adult Swim show Frisky Dingo, which he built upon with Archer following Frisky Dingo's cancellation.
Archer stands out for its comic book visuals and its satirical motif of espionage and Cold War aesthetics woven throughout. Its actual time setting is vague and hard to place, but falls somewhere between the 1960s and 1980s—you know, the era of James Bond.
Sterling Archer (voiced by H. Jon Benjamin to much critical praise) is the main 007-esque secret agent. Except he lacks the grace, brains, and sobriety of a real Bond spy. But he certainly has the ego!
12. King of the Hill (1997)
Created by Mike Judge and Greg Daniels
Starring Mike Judge, Kathy Najimy, Pamela Adlon
Animation, Comedy, Drama
259 episodes (13 seasons)
Almost every American sitcom—animated or not—revolves around an idea of what the average American family might be like. Perhaps a suburban everyman father and his pesky kids, or a dysfunctional nuclear family and their annoying neighbors.
King of the Hill followed in the footsteps of earlier 90s sitcom The Simpsons, and the two shows often nodded to each other with subtle references. But the Hill family looks a little more like real humans than their yellow Simpson predecessors.
Mike Judge and Greg Daniels (who also worked on The Simpsons) conceived King of the Hill while Judge was still making Beavis and Butt-Head (another adult cartoon that I recommend checking out).
King of the Hill depicts the working-class life of Hank (voiced by Mike Judge) and his family as he drinks beer on his ranch lawn and sells propane. It sounds a bit meh, but King of the Hill garnered critical acclaim and a cult following. Most shows only clinch one or the other.
11. Big Mouth (2017)
Created by Andrew Goldberg, Nick Kroll, Mark Levin, and Jennifer Flackett
Starring Nick Kroll, John Mulaney, Jessi Klein
Animation, Comedy, Romance
71 episodes (7 seasons)
When you really think about it, most cartoon caricatures don't really look like humans at all. From talking horses (BoJack Horseman) to cut-out animation (South Park), it can all be quite... strange. And Big Mouth is one of those shows that distorts its characters' features.
In fact, Big Mouth makes this exaggerated character design a staple part of the series, which is itself named after the characters' big mouths, which is in turn inspired by the creators' childhoods.
As Big Mouth is a coming-of-age sitcom about the woes of puberty, it makes sense that parts are drawn from the animators' own experiences. As Nick Kroll once put it: "I physically just had a big mouth. If you look at a picture of me from that age, I'm like two-thirds mouth [...] But also I had a big mouth because I was a bit of a wiseass."
Nick Kroll voices 13-year-old protagonist and late bloomer Nick, who—alongside his middle school friends—navigates teenagerhood with the help of invisible "hormone monsters."
10. F Is for Family (2015)
Created by Bill Burr and Michael Price
Starring Bill Burr, Laura Dern, Justin Long
Animation, Comedy, Drama
44 episodes (5 seasons)
Another sitcom, another everyman father. But Frank, King of the Murphy, is far more uptight. Voiced by co-creator Bill Burr, Frank is a Korean War veteran with a hot head and fragile masculinity. He's the epitome of insecure, stiff-upper-lip, working-class men.
Ah, the American Dream. Just what Frank was promised but deprived of in this perfect satire of 1970s American suburbia. He lives with his wannabe feminist wife, stereotypically moody teenage son, "princess" daughter, and other awkward pre-teen son in Pennsylvania.
It seems our end is always self-made, and Frank manages to rage himself into rock bottom again and again. It's his ultimate hamartia, shared by many emotionally ignorant men of the era.
Masculinity and gender roles play a huge part in F Is for Family, but its allegorical nature is made digestible with breezy comedy. Had it been live-action, F Is for Family would probably be depressing to watch...
9. Adventure Time (2010)
Created by Pendleton Ward
Starring John DiMaggio, Jeremy Shada, Tom Kenny
Animation, Action, Adventure
283 episodes (10 seasons)
Adventure Time is unusual because it was originally made for kids, but ended up attracting older viewers. Its absurdist nature meant that teenagers could appreciate the show more than children, and adults eventually joined the bandwagon for its complexity, irony, and humor.
Its mind-bending and space-invading vibe, populated by colorful creatures around one central human protagonist, is what makes Adventure Time the perfect show for any Rick and Morty fan.
Alongside Finn (voiced by Jeremy Shada) is his companion Jake the Dog (voiced by John DiMaggio). Dogs are, after all, man's best friend!
Together, the two explore the post-apocalyptic Land of Ooo, which originated as a Nicktoons short film that went viral in 2007. Insane how different the pilot looks to the actual show!
8. Daria (1997)
Created by Glenn Eichler and Susie Lewis Lynn
Starring Tracy Grandstaff, Wendy Hoopes, Julian Rebolledo
Animation, Comedy, Drama
65 episodes (5 seasons)
Daria, King of the Hill, and Beavis and Butt-Head are all linked not only by time frame but by animator Mike Judge. Tracy Grandstaff reprised her role as Daria from Beavis and Butt-Head, taking center stage as the protagonist of her own show.
Of course, Daria was polished up from the amateur visuals of early Beavis and Butt-Head. And Glenn Eichler and Susie Lewis Lynn were responsible for creating Daria, which was an immediate MTV hit.
Daria herself is smart, sarcastic, and cynical—a great symbol of the 90s feminist surge among teens. (Think Lindsay Weir, Kat Stratford, Donna Pinciotti, and Lisa Simpson, whose bedroom even has a Daria poster in the episode "Bart vs. Itchy & Scratchy.")
She's a straight-talking, anti-social high schooler, and like most of our picks, acts as a satire of American suburbia, especially the dynamics of high school and values of a consumerist society.
7. Futurama (1999)
Created by Matt Groening
Starring Billy West, John DiMaggio, Katey Sagal
Animation, Adventure, Comedy
140 episodes (7 seasons)
Hardcore fans of The Simpsons are usually horrified by the increasingly popular opinion that Futurama is better.
Both shows were created by Matt Groening (which you can tell from the animation styles) but people who love The Simpsons often ignore Futurama's existence. You know, a lot like how Harry Potter stans tend to deny the Fantastic Beasts films.
However, Futurama is a great show in its own right, bagging six Emmy Awards and extensive critical acclaim. It's a workplace sitcom—like Parks and Recreation or The Office—but set in the year 2999.
In 31st century New York, a pizza delivery guy wakes up after falling into cryogenic pod that frozen him for a thousand years. Fry (voiced by Billy West) is like a dumb sidekick given his own show, who now works alongside mutant-humans at Planet Express.
6. Family Guy (1999)
Created by Seth MacFarlane
Starring Seth MacFarlane, Alex Borstein, Seth Green
418 episodes (22 seasons)
Family Guy is a love-it-or-hate-it kind of show. Most of the hate it gets is generated by offensive jokes—ranging from homophobic to anti-Semitic—but fans will argue that that's the entire point of Family Guy: to satire and critique American culture.
Seth MacFarlane's controversial sitcom is a metafiction about the Griffin family led by Peter Griffin, a bumbling, overweight, and somewhat obnoxious blue-collar worker.
Although he's well-intentioned, viewers may find Peter to be more annoying than the average sitcom father. But again, that's sort of the point. You can see him (and other characters) appear in several crossover episodes of various shows.
Despite all its backlash, Family Guy still reels in millions of viewers to this day and was the first cartoon to be nominated for a Primetime Emmy since The Flintstones!
5. Bob's Burgers (2011)
Created by Loren Bouchard
Starring H. Jon Benjamin, Dan Mintz, Eugene Mirman
270 episodes (14 seasons)
Following its rocky start, Bob's Burgers grew into a beloved modern sitcom that blends home with the workplace. The title refers to a family hamburger restaurant in New Jersey, where the Belchers get into all kinds of antics and trouble.
Bob's Burgers might not be as witty or satirical as the other picks on this list, but its characters are far more likable than the ones in, say, Family Guy. It's also less absurdist than most adult cartoons and considerably less crude as the seasons go on.
Bob (voiced by H. Jon Benjamin, the same voice behind Sterling Archer in Archer) is the overworked father to socially awkward Tina (voiced by Dan Mintz), musician wannabe Gene (voiced by Eugene Mirman), and mischievous anti-hero Louise (voiced by Kristen Schaal).
4. South Park (1997)
Created by Trey Parker and Matt Stone
Starring Trey Parker, Matt Stone, Isaac Hayes
327 episodes (26 seasons)
It might have (roughly) 10-year-old protagonists, but South Park is not made for kids. Stan, Kyle, Eric, and Kenny (who dies every episode before inexplicably reappearing) are foul-mouthed 4th graders residing in a small fictional town in the Rocky Mountains.
Funny enough, it's actually the kids who are the voice of reason in South Park. They might swear a lot, but they aren't nearly as irrational as their parents, hyperbolic of the panic-prone recklessness of the West.
The gang's exploits are championed by dark humor, surrealism, slapstick gags, and sarcasm, with a typical boyish fondness for the scatological. Because of this, some people find South Park uncomfortably vulgar while others find it hilarious.
South Park is known for a lot of things, but most of all its profanity. Trey Parker and Matt Stone bleep out the curse words so it can be aired on Comedy Central, which they make a point of in "It Hits the Fan" where they bleep 162 words to ridicule TV censorship.
3. BoJack Horseman (2014)
Created by Raphael Bob-Waksberg
Starring Will Arnett, Amy Sedaris, Alison Brie
Animation, Comedy, Drama
77 episodes (6 seasons)
Drunk cartoon characters are everywhere in modern TV. (Think Barney Gumble, Bender, Rick Sanchez.) They're usually there as the comic relief sidekick or problematic anti-hero, much as they are in live-action shows. (Think Frank Gallagher, Charlie Parker, Klaus Hargreeves.)
But BoJack Horseman (voiced by Will Arnett) takes the biscuit for best cartoon addict, with "best" meaning that he's funny, relatable, and heartbreaking all at the same time.
BoJack headlines Netflix's first animated Original as a washed-out ex-actor from a famous 90s TV show. He's a character of self-loathing and addiction, with avoidant detachment, childhood trauma, and abandonment issues. But he's also half-horse and cracks a good joke.
Creator Raphael Bob-Waksberg reimagined the standard sitcom for BoJack Horseman and gave rise to a new TV trend known as "sadcom." This recent hybrid genre takes subjects like depression and the dark side of pop culture, only to package them up in comedy.
2. Rick and Morty (2013)
Created by Dan Harmon and Justin Roiland
Starring Justin Roiland, Chris Parnell, Spencer Grammer
Animation, Adventure, Comedy
61 episodes (6 seasons)
Spend a few minutes scrolling through Etsy or Amazon and you're bound to come across something related to Rick and Morty. From personalized posters to ashtrays to rolling sets, Rick and Morty merch is the adult equivalent of Barbie or Paw Patrol.
Rick and Morty is also a frequent top pick amongst stoners for funny background television—which is interesting because even sober viewers may find it hard to keep up with the show's trippy, fast-paced, and outlandish storytelling.
At the center is Rick Sanchez, a humorous alcoholic twist on the mad scientist archetype. (Did you know Rick was created as a parody of Back to the Future's Doc Brown, played by Christopher Lloyd? Lloyd then portrayed Rick in a live-action meta short by Paul B. Cummings!)
The burping, dribbling, sociopathic inventor can surf the multiverse with his array of space gadgets, but his sidekick through all of those adventures is his dim-witted grandson Morty.
1. The Simpsons (1989)
Created by Matt Groening
Starring Dan Castellaneta, Nancy Cartwright, Harry Shearer
759 episodes (35 seasons)
The Simpsons is the oldest and longest-running show on our list, and the one that literally everyone has heard of (and most likely seen). Although The Simpsons is kid-friendly, its TV-PG and TV-14 ratings mean half the jokes will fly over the heads of younger viewers.
Bursting with innuendoes and smart jokes that wiggle around the censorship board in clever ways, The Simpsons was pretty much an overnight hit for Fox when it debuted.
This dysfunctional yellow family populates a satirical yellow town called Springfield. Creator Matt Groening and his team of animators use the Simpsons and townspeople to poke fun at America, balanced with lovable characters and heartfelt moments.
Following their 90s boom, when The Simpsons merch flooded every store, the sitcom dwindled in viewers due to Flanderization (a process named after one of the show's own characters, Ned Flanders). In spite of this, the show is still on the air, defying all odds.