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12 Things I Learned about Writing from Watching Cartoons

We all grew up on Saturday morning cartoons – and regardless of generation, we likely watched a bunny outsmart Mr. Fudd, or a giant bird outsmart the incorrigible Wyle E Coyote. But, let’s be honest, beyond learning not to shop at ACME for murder weapons or not to trust talking rabbits, these cartoons weren’t exactly educational.

But the last 20 years have seen amazing growth in what I like to call “adult” cartoons. Complex, hilarious shows with fantastic character development and story arcs, that are finally educational – and not in the traditional Barney or Sesame Street sense, but educational for storytellers and writers. Here are just a few of the best and why they are so awesome:

The Simpsons

Ya, ya, I know you guys have already heard about this one. And I wouldn’t recommend watching anything beyond Season 9, because of terrible plot lines like this. But the older I get, the more I have begun to understand the political nuances and references scattered throughout those first few seasons. I get something new out of The Simpsons every time I watch it. And as a theater and film major, parody episodes like A Streetcar Named Marge and Rosebud greatly enhanced my ability to understand the real versions.

My Fave Episode (at least at the moment): “You Only Move Twice.” This James Bond parody makes me laugh every time I watch it.

“Homer, I’ve gotta go, there’s a problem upstairs…Somebody ate part of my lunch!” – Hank Scorpio

A Writer’s Takeaway: There are so many things to learn from Simpsons writers.

  • you can write comedy that actually means something.
  • we all have wacky and unconventional families, so write about them!
  • audiences love repetition.

Futurama

Calling all Simpsons fans…this show is “crantastic”! It definitely has the parodies and political references that are so prevalent in The Simpsons (Nixon’s head is President of Earth) but the writers connect the episodes in a larger plot arc that is far more complex. Some episodes even contain very intricate sci-fi, with roots in real science. But the real gem is the character development in Futurama. There are at least four episodes that are heartbreaking (like the first two minutes of Up kind of heartbreaking) which is pretty amazing for a 21-minute animated show that is supposed to be a comedy. There’s also an operatic episode that includes a deal made with the Robot Devil – honestly, how could you not love this show?

My All Time Fave Episode: “Brannigan, Begin Again.” Pretty much because Zapp Brannigan and Kif might be the greatest duo comedy has ever seen.

“Leela, save me! And yourself, I guess…and my banjo…and Fry.” – Bender

A Writer’s Takeaway:

  • Don’t underestimate your audience.
  • They can handle complex storylines that develop over several years and reference jokes from seasons earlier (a la Arrested Development). In fact, that’s how you develop hardcore fans.

Archer

This is definitely not your typical Saturday morning cartoon; there’s swearing, sex, murder and some pretty offensive humor. But wow is there subtext: pop culture, news references and cult culture. And some of the more obscure references are insanely high-brow (like George Orwell’s “Animal Farm” and Chekov’s theatre rules). Similar to Futurama, there’s a female lead who kicks serious ass and characters that are deeply complex, but what really brings them to light is the fantastic voice acting and next level cartoon animation, giving the characters a range of very realistic reactions and expressions.

My All Time Fave Episode: “Placebo Effect”. What other animated “bro” comedy has taken on a cancer diagnosis and somehow made it touching and insightful?

“I never thought I’d say this, but I really miss the Zima.” – Archer

A Writer’s Takeaway:

  • Write what you love. If your humor is wacky and maybe a little raunchy, there is probably someone out there who will love it too.
  • Don’t try and conform, it will just make your writing feel forced and stale.
  • If you let your personality shine it will at the very least be unique and surprise people.

Bojack Horseman

In the same vein of Archer, the main character Bojack is deeply flawed and deeply damaged. And although Bojack is just as wild and adult-themed as Archer, its frequent motifs are at the other end of the spectrum, predominately loneliness and pain. Like a reverse Breaking Bad, Bojack, a washed-up horse actor (yep, you read that correctly) recognizes that he is a total jackass, but wants to redeem himself. But redeeming oneself when you’ve spent a lifetime of fame being shallow and drug addicted, isn’t easy.

My All Time Fave Episode: “Let’s Find Out”. As all Bojack episodes, this starts out with a light premise and ends in a serious unraveling of the characters.

“I’m J goddamn D goddamn Salinger, and I want rain!” – J.D Salinger (voiced by Alan Arkin)

A Writer’s Takeaway:

  • Drama doesn’t have to be death and despair and comedy doesn’t always have to be fart jokes.
  • Mixing the two ensures you keep your audience on your toes.
  • And stakes don’t have to be high to write either genre.
  • Sometimes the funniest and the saddest things come from just getting through life.

So get back in touch with your inner child and watch some cartoons. As a writer you should be constantly looking for places to be inspired and all these shows will certainly deliver something you’ve never seen before.

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