The most middling and yet possibly most essential animated series of the ’90s, Beavis and Butt-head deconstructed (or perhaps completely destroyed) Generation X through two completely sociopathic teenagers obsessed with sex, music videos and anything else they might deem to be “Cool” in any given scenario. Both voiced by series creator Mike Judge, they bumble through their hometown of Highland, Texas (and sometimes beyond) without anything resembling parental guidance, giggling and grunting uncontrollably at any word that might have the vaguest sexual or scatological context as they hatch moronic schemes and get into surreal adventures, many of them involving the destruction of property or enraging some adult with their amoral antics. Both maddeningly tedious and pure genius at the same time, Beavis and Butt-head could be seen as the animated funhouse mirror version of Richard Linklater’s Slacker, another loosely structured portrait of wandering ’90s Texas youths; however you want to look at it, it most definitely doesn’t “suck,” almost in spite of itself. The series, which originally ran from 1993-1997, was resurrected in 2011 — and, somehow, doesn’t seem to have aged a day.
Mike Judge’s more accessible but no less subversive (in its own, quiet way) animated series centers on the Hills, a middle-class Methodist family in the suburban town of Arlen, Texas, and its slow-witted but well-meaning patriarch, Hank (voiced by Judge). Unlike its deranged cousin, Beavis and Butt-head, King of the Hill is a more laid-back, naturalistic comedy, finding humor in the mundane as it practices the fine art of the pregnant pause; it’s also considerably less mean-spirited than B and B, often coming across as more of a “dramedy” as the introverted, conservative Hank struggles to express himself and keep up with the advances of the modern world as he appreciates the finer things in life: his lawn, propane (he’s the assistant manager of Strickland Propane, which sells “propane and propane accessories”), the Texas Longhorns and the Dallas Cowboys. The list of guest stars from over the years is extremely impressive, with Brad Pitt, Meryl Streep, Alan Rickman, Johnny Depp, Renee Zellweger, Reese Witherspoon, Jeff Goldblum and many others lending their voice talents at one point or another; Tom Petty (of Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers) joined the cast in later seasons as Elroy ‘Lucky’ Kleinschmidt, the boyfriend/husband of Hank’s niece, Luanne (voiced by the late Brittany Murphy, who died three months after the airing of the last episode). The series ran from 1997-2010, currently making it the third longest-running animated series of all time, behind The Simpsons and South Park.
Brendon Smalls’ fitfully brilliant series chronicled the adventures of an eight-year-old named Brendon Smalls (voiced by Brendon Smalls), a filmmaking progeny who lives with his divorced mother Paula and adopted baby sister Josie and spends most of his free time making movies in his basement with his friends Melissa and Jason; he also occasionally sits on the bench at soccer games, getting into philosophical conversations with his hard-drinking, short-tempered soccer coach, John McGuirk. A loosely structured, heavily improvisational comedy, Home Movies started to fall apart as early as the second season (when it traded the grungy “Squigglevision” of the first season for more traditional flash animation) as the various scenarios got more strained and Brendon’s movies more unrealistically outrageous; by the fourth and final season, you could practically hear everyone on the production team groaning every time they had to do one of these things. Until then, though, Home Movies, which ran from 1999-2004, made for some clever entertainment, with the adult-child relationships in particular handled with impressive wit and insight; the series’ ace card was, not surprisingly, H. Jon Benjamin, who voiced arguably the two best characters: the delusional but ultimately good-hearted Coach McGuirk and the neurotic, occasionally creepy Jason.
Mainstream animation (or almost mainstream animation) started to go stark raving mad with this series created by John Kricfalusi for Nickelodeon. The Ren & Stimpy Show (its official title, though it’s rarely referred to as anything other than just Ren and Stimpy) focuses on Ren Hoek, a psychotic chihuahua, and Stimpson J. Cat, a good-natured, dimwitted feline, two best pals who get into all sorts of bizarre adventures that often involve frantic action and loud noises. There had never been an animated series quite as crazy and as, well, extreme as Ren and Stimpy before, at least not this side of the Atlantic; the show inspired all sorts of controversy due to its dark humor, sexual innuendoes, extreme violence and just plain frenetic-ness — indeed, watching it might make you feel like you’re going to have a complete nervous breakdown at any second. It’s not all just sound and fury, though — Ren and Stimpy, which ran from 1991-1996, is fiercely creative, a sort of delinquent younger brother to other animated agents of chaos such as Woody Woodpecker and Wile E. Coyote that revealed the world of animation to be a rather dangerous one.
While some seasons have certainly been better than others (by far, actually), South Park has been going strong since 1997, causing almost every celebrity and political figure on the planet to tremble in fear as they pray they won’t make Trey Parker and Matt Stone‘s long list of targets for humiliation (and often spot-on criticism). The adventures of four eternal fourth-graders — Cartman, Stan, Kyle and Kenny — in the constantly snowbound mountain town of South Park, Colorado were originally vessels for poking fun at small-town conservative America, complete with alien abductions and disastrous hunting trips; by the end of the first season, however, no current event (or those participating in them) was safe from the show’s particularly brazen (and often foul-mouthed) form of scathing satire. Over the years, Trey and Matt have ridiculed and criticized just about everything you can think of with an educated intelligence that gives (sometimes reluctantly) a certain credibility to their outrageous antics; indeed, South Park remains not only one of the funniest but also one of the smartest shows on television, animated or otherwise. As long as there is stupidity in the world, Comedy Central will keep renewing it — and we’ll keep watching it.