Animation is best when someone of any age can enjoy it, and the best way to achieve that is by mixing intelligence with humor (no, not like the Big Bang). Few things are better than getting to laugh and feel smart at the same time, or watching a character do something so unexpected even the smartest among us would never see it coming. And sometimes it's nice to see a show that manages to be funny and deal with real problems. Well, here are eleven TV shows that have done and continue to do all of those things in one way or another.
11. The Rocky and Bullwinkle Show
This show was a pioneer of intelligent animation back in the early '60s, full of clever humor and a generous use of puns. Rocky and Bullwinkle frequently butted heads with their Russian-caricatures of enemies in ways that both children and adults could enjoy. The humor may come off a little aged or tired today, but that's only because we've seen the style of humor used in Rocky and Bullwinkle before. What many fail to realize, though, is that this show was blazing a trail. What's more, it also incorporated Peabody's Improbably History, which just saw an on point revival. It may not always appeal to modern audiences, but no one could deny that it took brains to make this show as good as it was.
For the pre-teen of the early '90s, Doug was like a TV Torah. No other show dealt with the kinds of problems adolescents faced on a daily basis with the same mix of humor and earnestness. Like the king of awkward kids, Doug stumbled through middle school and offered something different to every age group. He showed the younger crowd what to watch out for in the future, offered the pre-teens someone they could empathize with, and gave adults a window into their youth. Such a feat would be impossible without sharp writing and a real enough humor that the stories didn't feel exaggerated. And while few people got tricked into hunting for nematodes, everyone could relate with a similar story. That's what made Doug such a smart show.
If Doug was the teenage old testament, Daria was the new. In what can be described as nothing short of perfect timing, Daria started in 1997 only a few years after the original run of Doug ended. This offered the now slightly-older Doug crowd a similar experience, but with the kind of dry sarcasm they'd need to survive high school without going insane. And even though it was a Beavis and Butthead spin-off, the humor was infinitely more subtle and witty. This show basically obliterated all its competition too and rose to be not only one of the highest rated shows on MTV, but also one of the most cherished, clever cartoons of all time.
8. Death Note
When it comes to anime, few are as well-known for extreme mental-acrobatics as Death Note. The story of a teenage boy finding a book that can kill anyone whose name is written in it doesn't immediately sound like it lends itself to anything other than rampant slaughter of bullies — but Light Yagami is not your average high-school kid. Instead of using it for petty revenge, Light tries to create a utopian society where he punishes the wicked with death as "God." But even that plot doesn't necessitate smarts. Where things get super sharp is how Light dances with Interpol and the genius detective L. Light joins the investigation team and pulls off some pretty insane feats of ingenuity to avoid detection. There are plenty of other witty anime out there (and please share them below!), but this one is straight cerebral.
This show is loud and raunchy, but that doesn't mean it isn't smart or clever. In fact, despite a regular air of rampant chaos running through the series, each episode is jam-packed with all kinds of references on everything from classic literature to popular music. You either have to be the most cultured person alive or have google open to understand every joke that gets cracked in any given episode. And what is perhaps most impressive is that all these references fly by a) without most people noticing and b) without making the show any less hilarious.
6. The Boondocks
Having started off as a comic strip, it makes sense that this show does an excellent job of fitting both subtle humor and biting criticism into most half-hour episodes. The Boondocks has also seen its fair share of controversy, which is often a signal that the writers are hitting some nerves worth hitting. This show isn't afraid of tearing anyone down in a way that cuts right to the heart things, and it's also smart for the expert way in which its characters are used to make fun of everything. Every character pulls their weight when it comes to creating a smart but funny TV episode, but they do it in a way that seems natural. The Boondocks characters don't need to break the fourth wall or use internal narrative to make their points. They just use good characterization.
5. Family Guy
A lot of people deride Seth MacFarlane for using base comedy and tangential cut-away gags in his most popular series, but you'd have to be as stupid as Peter Griffin to call Family Guy anything short of clever. The show picks its share of low-hanging fruit and is happy to indulge in the extremely idiotic humor, but there's something innately special about the way the show does it. In fact, it's Family Guy ability to take something that isn't funny, use it in a bit, and make your stomach hurt form laughing so hard that makes it stand out. But even if it wasn't capable of doing that, MacFarlane does an excellent job of satirizing all kinds of things in any given episode. Brian does most of the work in that department, but Lois, Stewie, Meg, Chris get their fair share — and even Peter gets to point out the earnest truth from time to time. So even though Family Guy occasionally gets stuck up its own ass and falls flat, it has been, on the whole, one of the most clever cartoons around.
I'm sure a lot of people would rather The Simpsons be here instead of Futurama, and it certainly is a smart show. Still, Futurama edges it out for having just as much brains with even more heart. Not that The Simpsons doesn't have its moments, but any character on that show pales in comparison to Phillip J. Fry. His stupidity allows everyone else's intelligence to shine by contrast, creating some of the funniest moments in cartoon history. And even when the show isn't relying on character relationships for humor, it manages to be smart in the background. All of Professor Farnsworth's inventions are funny but clever takes on future science, and the show actually has this whole, involved number thing. And any time a show is so beloved that network executives will bring it back from the dead means it has to have been doing something right.
3. Looney Tunes
Much like Rocky and Bullwinkle, the Looney Tunes pioneered much of the main-stream animated humor that's used to make us laugh today. But unlike Rocky and Bullwinkle, the legacy of the Loony Tunes has become so deeply ingrained in societies collective memory that few people can go through childhood without knowing and loving Bugs Bunny and the gang. And it was the show's humor that earned its lasting place in history. The thing about the Looney Tunes was that it was smart and simple at the same time. By mixing slap-stick violence with things like simple reverse psychology, the Looney Tunes dug their way into our hearts. And at the time, the jokes didn't have to be referential or satirical in anyway. Audiences were just as happy to watch an anvil get dropped on Wile E. Coyote as they were to watch "What's Opera, Doc?" But the Looney Tunes did both anyway, and they did it damn well.
It kills me not to give Freakazoid its own spot on this list, but it takes a back seat to the king of witty cartoons aimed at children. Animaniacs is easily more clever than most anything that's ever been on television, and it can and will make people of all ages laugh more consistently than almost any other show on TV. It cannot be overstated how great show is. From its large and diverse cast to the dozens of educational musical numbers, Animaniacs almost pulls double-duty as a comedy holy grail and a decent substitute for history class. Despite being more than 20 years old now, the show's jokes have hardly aged and that will probably never change. If you've managed to go without watching this show yet, stop what you're doing and get the fuck on it.
1. South Park
As if any other show could round out this list. South Park's creators Matt Stone and Trey Parker are the kind of satirical masterminds that come around once every few generations. The kind of humor they (as well as the other writers) spew out in almost no time at all just makes their work even more impressive. But regardless of whether you like the show or not, South Park is the most topical thing on the air every week, expertly dismantling everything from simple pop culture to the most complex political dilemmas. And though the show didn't start off as a vehicle for the sharpest and most hilariously raunchy humor on TV, it certainly has evolved into an unstoppable force.
But these ten shows certainly don't encompass the entirety of smart television, so feel free to share numbers 11, 12, and onward in the comments.