When Netflix’s animated comedy BoJack Horseman premiered its third season last year, I made the somewhat foolish mistake of marathoning all 13 episodes in one sitting, perched on my bed, laptop across my legs, ready to laugh. And laugh I did. The show was as funny as ever, featured the best sight gags in the medium and managed to walk a fine line between highly specific Hollywood industry satire and jokes about talking animals. Still, by the end of those few hours of masterful television, I was emotionally exhausted. I’d seen enough of the show to know that this was its forte - that slow moving descent into quiet devastation that hits you hard before you realize it’s even happened - but nothing had prepared me for that kicker in the final two episodes. Reader, I laughed, I cried.
Comedy has forever been defined by its relationship to the tragic. Laughter can so frequently be found in the darkest recesses of life, so it’s no surprise that we’re prone to turning even the bleakest prospects into a punchline. In the past decade, with television become more prestigious and the networks more open to breaking the funny mould, comedies have taken greater risks in prizing the sadness as much as the laughter. TV previously prefered clear definitions between comedy and drama in its programming, as if any blurring of the two would scare audiences, but now that space between them is more liminal than ever, and the results have been fascinating.
Nowhere has this been more evident than in the expanding field of animated comedy. While The Simpson quietly chugs on and South Park struggles with getting old, the perception still exists, at least in North America, that cartoons are just for kids to be mindlessly entertained by in the gaps between dinner and naptime. Yet across the board and age range, animation has been dominating the scene in experimentation, scope and sheer nerve. This generation of kids gets to grow up with quietly revolutionary fare like Steven Universe and Adventure Time, while their parents have series using the innocuous medium for epic tales of sadness, madness, depression and hope.
Season 4 of BoJack Horseman premieres in the middle of the third season of Rick & Morty, and the pair make for an absorbing double bill, each capable of eliciting tears of laughter alongside aching melancholy. Rick & Morty is the sharpest sci-fi subversion on TV, while BoJack Horseman is a dream for every geeky kid who secretly loved reading Variety, but the pair are similar in their approaches to the realities of being unhappy.
BoJack, a washed up star from a cloying family sitcom named Horsin’ Around, starts the show looking for his next big break, which he hopes will come from the writing of his memoirs. As the show evolves and he finds himself clawing back up the Hollywoo ladder, from winning a Golden Globe to landing his dream job in a biopic of Secretariat, he is continually confronted with the reality that none of it makes him happy, and that might be partly his own fault. A man/horse used to the forced neatness of sitcom life, where everything is resolved in 21 minutes or less and the audience laughs along, cannot contemplate the possibility that, even if he tries to prove otherwise, he may just be a bad person.
Rick Sanchez, greatest scientist in every universe, faces a similar quandary. While he’ll never fully admit his emotions, he’s happy to project all his problems onto his family and force them along on his heavily intoxicated adventures. Morty and Summer, his grandkids, grow to love these escapades, even though it’s obvious it’s going to shatter their psyches one day. Rick can go out of his way to prove that he doesn’t give a shit about his family, and his actions are often very clear on that front, but even he can’t hide his marginal affection for them, or at least his increasing co-dependence. If BoJack is a bad person working to be a good one, Rick is a bad person realising, with a degree of horror, that he may have some good in him.
Rick & Morty is a proud sad cartoon that feels right at home on Adult Swim, the Cartoon Network adult-focused programming block that has been carving out a fascinating niche for itself for over a decade (BoJack Horseman is an Adult Swim show in all but name). Their style is its own mixture of sharp turns, subverting expectations, emotional turmoil and straight-up bonkers twists. So many of their shows start out with simple enough premises - often something that seems engineered to directly appeal to their target audience of millennials up at 2am with the munchies - that slowly reveal themselves to hide great ambitions and even greater challenges. If you can make those challenges a teensy bit horrifying, then all the better. Rick & Morty nailed that formula, but it follows it proud footsteps.
Take its most obvious forefather on the network, the sinfully underrated The Venture Bros. What begins as a basic one-joke comedy about the silliness of Johnny Quest and similar boy adventurer tales has become one of the richest, most rewarding shows on TV, one with an expansive mythos of superheroes, sci-fi, fantasy and metafiction that takes every one-off gag and weaves it into the story, giving every seemingly pointless character a rich backstory, motivation and connection to the expanding ensemble. Where Rick & Morty is more frenetically irritated with the genre it still loves, constantly pointing out how wildly damaging it would be to live like a sci-fi hero, The Venture Bros. is fonder of its trappings, delighting in injecting the fantastical with the mundane, like the never-ending battles between heroes and villains being dictated by a tiered bureaucracy of unions, guilds, freelance consultants named Dr. Henry Killinger, and an almighty Sovereign who may or may not be David Bowie.
All those mean digs at the silliness of that very specific genre morph into a dense meditation on failure and the ways parents can’t help but force their kids to be exactly like them. The cycle of fatherly neglect has crushed more than one generation and probably set the Venture brothers themselves down questionable paths in life. It, as well as Rick & Morty, confronts the emotional cost of fantastical sci-fi capers. Cloning sounds great until you apply it as a means to cover up shoddy parenting and multiple deaths of your own kids. Imagine the cost that puts on the heads of the children. It’s no wonder Dean went emo.
A lesser known Adult Swim property that’s similarly potent in its execution to both Rick & Morty and BoJack Horseman is Moral Orel, a stop-motion animation by Dino Stamatopoulos, a former writer on Dan Harmon’s Community an executive producer of Charlie Kaufman’s Anomalisa. The first season is a relatively straightforward and very mean parody of twee Christian programming for kids - it was described rather reductively as ‘Davey & Goliath… meets South Park’ - wherein a devout Christian boy named Orel Puppington, growing up in the Bible Belt, desperately tries to live a pious life but finds himself following the rules of his fundamentalist faith to the most extreme conclusions.
By the second season, the show had dramatically changed gears and focused more on the darkness of its character, particularly Orel’s intensely damaged father. The third and final season is especially devastating, managing to deconstruct notions of the nuclear family, the appropriation of faith for selfish means, familial abuse, and the smothering realization that some people will never be happy. Plenty of comedies take digs at religion, but few have captured the pain of having faith, wanting to put it to good use and finding yourself impotent from the ways said faith is hijacked for lesser means than Moral Orel.
I’m still stunned the show got away with it, but that’s a big Adult Swim marker too - how the hell do any of them get away with it? Eh, they’re only cartoons, I guess.
Then again, even The Simpsons pulled this off once in a while, such as the moment Homer has to say good bye to his mother before she goes back on the run and the episode ends with him looking up at the stars. Futurama crushed the hearts of a generation with Seymour’s death. Hell, South Park stuck the knife in deep with the self-reflective episode of Stan getting older and realising everything is (literally) shit. The use of Landslide by Fleetwood Mac suggested a degree of mockery, but a shocking amount of sincerity still worked in execution. How many live-action comedies could do a Terri Schiavo episode and make it land?
Animation’s a good medium for sadness. It lulls you in with vibrant colours or a limitless canvas or a DIY charm, careful to conceal the cold heart truths you barely notice until you’re suddenly very sad and in need of a hankie. Sometimes, we’re more willing to listen to uncomfortable facts when presented to us in a manner that challenges our expectations. A comedian on stage or a YouTuber looking into the camera can covey immense detail and complexities, but there’s still a part of us that shirks away from the possibility of being lectured. Put those words into the voice of a cartoon horse and things change.
BoJack Horseman has done this numerous times but never so acutely as with their Bill Cosby parody. The joke is obvious, and you can see it coming a mile away, but the parallels seem more palatable when the Cosby stand-in is a talking hippo. Diane faces the wrath of the media not for uncovering or reporting on the allegations against the Cosby-esque TV show host but for merely pointing out that they exist (this scene also names a number of real life male celebrities who have been accused of assault or harassment). Where Hannibal Buress was celebrated for cracking the Cosby jokes that revived that case for a new generation, Diane is smeared and dismissed as a hysterical bitch. Any step she takes to try and do the case justice, from talking to alleged victims to finding a publication willing to report it, is knocked down at every step because the accused is simply too big to fail. Even Diane’s own husband has a card in play that he would lose should Diane continue her work. In the end, she stops her case because it’s obvious people won’t listen to her. There’s no moment of dogged journalistic determination where she decides to keep going against the odds: The reality is that powerful men tend to get away with bad things, and they revel in that power.
The focus of Rick & Morty tends to lean more towards the tropes and expectations of pop culture, particularly in sci-fi and fantasy, but with a similar scalpel-like precision to extracting the discomfiting truth at the centre. I’m sure there’s a Cartoon Network pitch for this show as a kid friendly adventure where a kindly old scientist takes his grandkids on amazing trips across the universe to save the poor aliens. Rick Sanchez has no interest in saving anyone if he can help it. Not only is his amoral cynicism the driving force of the show, it may be the only thing holding the universe together, and that stifling misery traps his family in a never-ending cycle they may not even wish to escape. It’s not as if the options for Morty and Summer pre-Rick were any better: They’re already both destined to turn into more aggressive versions of their parents, one an emotional leech whose self-pity has rendered him useless, the other an alcoholic who barely holds back her rage at her husband or resentment towards her dad for abandoning her. So much of the show works hard to pretend nobody cares, which makes it that much more effective when you’re watching a marathon of episodes and suddenly realize how much you do care about these awful people.
The trick with a good sad cartoon is to keep the balance right. These shows are still ostensibly comedies and must remain consistently funny in order for the poignancy to work. Fortunately, they’re still hilarious and finding new heights for the humour. Maintaining that while committing to the existential bleakness of their respective worldviews is another matter altogether. Where both BoJack Horseman and Rick & Morty succeed is in their true, wholehearted sincerity. It may not always take the shape of such, but rest assured, these are shows written by people who would ultimately like their creations to be happy. Misery still needs hope. As a wise baboon once told BoJack, ‘Everyday, it gets a little easier. But you gotta do it everyday, that’s the hard part. But it does get easier.’