From 'BoJack Horseman' to 'Rick and Morty': Inside the Rise of Animated Comedy

Rick and Morty, Bojack Horseman, Archer, The Simpsons, Bob's Burgers_Split - Publicity - H 2018
Courtesy of Turner; Courtesy of Netflix; Courtesy of Fox(2); Courtesy of FX

Nearly a century ago, visionaries like Walt Disney, Max Fleischer and Tex Avery created a world where cartoons helped bring joy — and information — to people of all ages. But it would be impossible for them to imagine how animation has grown and evolved in today's Peak TV landscape where entire seasons are streamed in a day, viewers interact with creators on the regular and the definition of comedy has stretched far beyond the days of Disney's talking animals.

"I don't know if animation is a style," BoJack Horseman creator and showrunner Raphael Bob-Waksberg tells The Hollywood Reporter. "It's a format. Saying someone's a fan of animation is as silly as saying someone's a fan of live action. That can mean anything."

Bob-Waksberg's critically hailed Netflix comedy (returning Friday with its fifth season) is building on a trail blazed by shows like Fox's The Simpsons and FXX's Archer and has helped the genre break free of the stigma that came with cartoons like The Flintstones and The Jetsons. The genre, which also includes Emmy-winning comedies Bob's Burgers and Rick and Morty, continues to explore darker subjects (like gun control and abortion) that reflect issues in the world today.

Bob-Waksberg is but one of a handful of proven hitmakers who have seen their value and demand skyrocket in the past year as streaming services continue to bulk up their animated offerings. Bob-Waksberg is adding to his Netflix slate with Tuca and Bertie, starring Tiffany Haddish, and Amazon's Undone, with the latter set to bow next year as its first half-hour adult animated comedy. Bob's Burgers creator Loren Bouchard recently renewed his overall deal with studio 20th Century Fox TV for what sources say is an eight-figure salary increase. He also landed a two-season, straight-to-series order for Central Park, Apple's first animated comedy. Rick and Morty co-creator Justin Roiland, fresh off an Emmy win and massive 70-episode renewal for the Adult Swim comedy, also earned a two-season order for Solar Opposites, which will join a Hulu library that includes Bob's Burgers, Family Guy and South Park.

The push comes as streamers have turned their focus to building up animation after helping to drastically change the market (and cost) for live-action scripted originals and stand-up comedy specials. Animated comedies continue to be in high demand as they are typically cheaper to produce than live-action scripted originals, can better accommodate busy stars juggling multiple projects and are more prone to co-viewing among families. The latter tends to be of particular appeal to streaming services.

"You're going to see even more in the next five years, [including] a larger diversity of the kind of things we would call adult animation," Bob-Waksberg says. "There are networks that are interested in taking chances and reaching audiences on things [that] maybe they wouldn't before. I hope that leads to more opportunities for different types of people that earlier would not have been welcome in this industry or format. I am doing what I can to expand the tent and bring up other people and make sure we are telling different kinds of stories. I'm hopeful that trend continues."

So how did we get to this point? While the 1990s saw shows like Fox's The Simpsons — which in April broke the TV record for the most episodes of a scripted series — Family Guy and Comedy Central's South Park revive the dormant genre, cable television helped further the experiment.

"We didn't know that Adult Swim was going to happen," says Archer showrunner Adam Reed, who worked on series including High Noon Toons and Sealab 2021 with the outlet when it was a nascent three-hour block on Cartoon Network. "We thought, 'This is something new and crazy that hasn't been on TV before.' None of us could believe that somebody was going to let all of this stuff be on TV."

Bob's Burgers creator Bouchard, who started his career at Comedy Central working on Dr. Katz, Professional Therapist, credits the freedom networks allowed at the time for fueling the genre's creative spark.

"In the '90s, working on cable meant working at a much smaller budget, often not in L.A. and not necessarily making a lot of money," he says. "It felt like, in a way, the early internet. It was a little more free. You could find a very small audience, but if you cultivated them and took care of them, and you were on the network that wanted to fill a slot late at night, you could survive." Bouchard also had his own experience at the fledgling Adult Swim, which picked up his comedy Home Movies after its cancellation at UPN. "You were very much working in a vacuum. So as a result, it was the executives to a large degree who would tell you everything you needed to know as far as feedback. That was really meaningful."

With the change in creative freedom and network support came a shift in tone. The 9/11 terrorist attacks happened days after Adult Swim launched as creators across every genre explored themes and grief in their work. And then there's the internet and YouTube, which changed how video was consumed and paved the way for more experimental types of programming. Creators began to experiment by going beyond stories about animated families and taking on subjects and themes that were rarely discussed.

"You're going to get different kinds of animation for different kinds of audiences," Bob-Waksberg says of the themes explored today and what's likely to come next. "Traditionally, adult animation has been for the young male audience. There's no reason why that should be. As that starts to pry open, you're going to see more experimentation of [whether] we can have animated shows for different types of audiences."

That includes greater opportunities for other voices in the genre. Ahead of season three, for example, Rick and Morty added four women to its writers room, creating a 50-50 male-female split. On Amazon's Undone, Bob-Waksberg is teaming with BoJack's Kate Purdy, who won a WGA Award for her work on the Netflix comedy.

"There's a lot of women who have not had animation made for them or by them who are being underserved," he says. "There are people of color who are being underserved by animation. The audience is there, and I think they're underserved, and that's really exciting."

Even with traditional family-based animation, there's room to grow. Bouchard created Bob's Burgers out of his perceived lack of shows that talked about the dynamics of what he calls "blue-collar creatives."

"That seemed very natural to me as a kid and I think it has something to do with my parents and where they were coming from: the Bohemian period. Just because they came from blue-collar families didn't suggest to them that they weren't supposed to pursue creative activities," he says. "The 'blue collar' character often gets limited. When that character gets presented, they're somehow supposed to be a lump who comes home, sits on the couch and isn't curious, doesn't read books and isn't interested in making things. I grew up around a different take on that, and I like putting that on TV. I think that's a more interesting character to look at."

As more networks and streaming services begin to deliver live-action scripted series that program to typically underserved audiences, animated fare is following suit as the forum offers a better opportunity to experiment with style, tone and take greater risks — like deviating from its own formula. That's something Reed decided to do midway through Archer's run. The spy comedy began traveling to different locations — and through time — all with the same cast of characters. "Animation lets us do stuff we could never, ever afford and wouldn't look as good, even if you spent a lot of money on a live-action thing," Reed says.

Bob-Waskberg, who hadn't worked in animation before BoJack, was less adventurous when he started, but that wound up helping to keep the series about talking animals grounded. "I was really scared of things that were too cartoony … [but] what I quickly discovered is the cartoonishness of the show was not a hindrance; in some ways, the cartoonier you go with the show, the realer and more grounded you can go, which is somewhat counterintuitive," he says.

Bouchard has perhaps played the most with creativity, to the point of casting men to read for women's roles. "We [enjoy] the fact that you could control the unique relationship between the voice and the character," he says. "That's something live action can't do. Part of what we wanted to do was have control over what you hear and what you see; sometimes they're not the same thing. [We want to] have a 40-year-old man play a 13-year-old girl and not have it be the joke. We're not doing that because that's the joke. We're doing that because Dan [Mintz, voice of fan favorite Tina Belcher]'s voice really lends itself to that characters."

And those great risks have netted some great rewards. Shows like BoJack Horseman, Bob's Burgers and Rick and Morty have helped the genre be taken a bit more seriously than it was during the days of The Flintstones. "People talk [about] Rick and Morty in the same breath as they do Veep," Reed says. "One happens to be drawn, but the writing and the creativity underneath it are all the same. It's a strange thing, and also a good feeling."