For those of us who grew up in the 1990s, one thing was certain, we would never be considered “too old” to watch cartoons. As both cable and network stations began adding more and more teen and adult-friendly animated programs, we stayed glued to the sets, whether we were trying to figure out what was going on in Aeon Flux, mimicking Butt-head with a “huh, huh, huh” or falling out of our seats with laughter during The Ren and Stimpy Show.
Below are six '90s cartoons that made an impact. We limited the list to series that were aired on U.S. television during the decade and attracted older audiences.
6. Aeon Flux
Aeon Flux, a segment of MTV's influential Liquid Television that morphed into a half-hour program, was unlike anything on U.S. television at the time. The look was part French comic book, part anime, a sexy sci-fi set in a future marked by innovation and violence. The show's influence was most obvious not on the small screen, but in nightclubs. By the end of the 1990s, you were bound to see outfits inspired by Aeon Flux, and similarly-minded anime Ghost in the Shell, out on the town. That racy, futuristic cyber look is still pretty popular within certain scenes. Then there is the show itself. To this day, there's always the chance that you'll notice a brief flash of Aeon Flux on the big screens as techno pumps through the speakers.
5. Space Ghost Coast to Coast
Space Ghost Coast to Coast first aired on Cartoon Network in 1994. Its premise, a spoof of a talk show hosted by a Hanna-Barbera character dating back to the 1960s, was unique. With guests ranging from mainstream actors to indie musicians, the show hit upon an eclectic range of pop culture touchstones. Its success was, in many ways, responsible for the birth of Adult Swim. Its retro-modern mash-up style led to shows like Harvey Birdman, Attorney at Law and Sealab 2021 and amongst its spin-offs is Adult Swim staple Aqua Teen Hunger Force.
4. Beavis and Butt-head
Remember when MTV used to play videos during cartoons? Despite their penchant for idiocy, Beavis and Butt-head weren't that different from many children of the '90s. They sat on the couch and watched videos, all the while trying to one-up each other with smart ass commentary. They were a sign of what was to come from Mike Judge, ridiculous characters who were somehow, sort of relatable. During the course of the show, the cartoon duo popularized bands like White Zombie, gave new life to Black Sabbath's classic “Iron Man” and tormented classmate Daria until she finally got her own brilliant spin-off. Beavis and Butt-head then set the stage for Judge's skillful, and sometimes frightening, social commentary, from King of the Hill to Office Space to Idiocracy.
3. The Ren and Stimpy Show
Pulling together The Ren and Stimpy Show, Doug and The Rugrats to launch Nicktoons was probably one of the smartest programming moves Nickelodeon ever made. By 1990, the cable network had been on the air long enough where viewers who were growing up with the channel were now approaching their teens and ready for something a little more mature than standard kids' programming. While Doug and The Rugrats were both great series, The Ren and Stimpy Show gets the nod here for being so bizarre. Do you remember “Space Madness” from the first season? Ren's “oh my beloved ice cream bar” bit is still a trip. Ren and Stimpy brought back both the look and sound of vintage cartoons and rode the line between childhood fun and the sort of grown-up entertainment that requires a little more thought.
2. The Simpsons
Yes, the history of The Simpsons goes back to the 1980s and, yes, the show continues to this day, but the longest-running animated comedy became a pop culture phenomenon in the 1990s. Think about all the times you've quoted The Simpsons in conversation (“Tastes like burning” or “Doh!”) or the moments when you've automatically compared someone to a character like Comic Book Guy or Ned Flanders. The success of The Simpsons inevitably led to more prime time cartoons that mixed slice-of-life humor with pop culture references. Most importantly, though, The Simpsons brought us Conan O'Brien.
1. South Park
Some of you who grew up in the '90s might recall a scruffy, animated short called The Spirit of Christmas. The precursor to South Park went viral before “going viral” was part of the vernacular, when passing something along to your friends still meant copying a copy on VHS. When Matt Stone and Trey Parker brought the adventures Kyle, Stan, Cartman and Kenny to Comedy Central in 1997, they managed to maintain the raw sense of humor and spot-on satire of the holiday special. More than a decade later, Stone and Parker have remained on the edge where other shows of the era have either gone off the air or grown far less relevant.