Network television is in the midst of a major toon-up. There are already more cartoons in prime time than ever before, and the number will double by the time the season ends in May.
Last week, we saw the successful launch of "Dilbert" on UPN. Tonight, after the Super Bowl in one of the great showcases of network TV, Fox will debut yet another animated series, "Family Guy." Earlier in the month, Fox premiered "The PJs" from Eddie Murphy, which quickly became one of the most-talked-about shows of the year.
Fox alone will soon have five animated series on its prime-time schedule -- more than on all the networks combined at any one time in television history. In addition to "The Simpsons," "King of the Hill," "The PJs" and "Family Guy," Fox will add "Futurama" in March, a look at life in the year 3000 from Matt Groening, who brought us "The Simpsons."
"Am I comfortable with the amount of animation on our network? Absolutely," said Doug Herzog, the new president of entertainment at Fox.
"If we continue to get the kind of animation that we have gotten to date, absolutely. Look, at some point, we don't want to be only animation, but we'll figure out how to use this stuff as long as it works."
Dean Valentine, the CEO at UPN, says he feels the same way. His network will be adding "Home Movies" to its schedule on April 26 and a yet-to-be-named series that Valentine calls a "female South Park." Of all the new cartoons, "Home Movies," which includes the voice of comedian Paula Poundstone, was the one that most impressed critics on the recent winter press tour in Los Angeles.
Combine all that network activity with established cable series like "South Park" and the "Squiggle-vision" of "Dr. Katz" on Comedy Central, and you have the makings of a golden age of animation, say Hollywood producers and network executives.
They may be right. But all that squiggles is not necessarily golden.
The producers, executives and voice actors stress the freedom that animation offers.
"You can get away with a particular type of comedy that's difficult when using flesh and blood actors," says Herzog. "I mean Bart Simpson can say and do things that wouldn't be accepted if ... Macauley Culkin at that age was saying them. And that's a great advantage."
Seth Green, one of the voice actors on "Family Guy," agreed: "You can do things that you can't do on a conventional TV show. Your characters are allowed a lot more freedom to be silly, outlandish or ridiculous, because people don't associate them with actual people. So, it makes it more of ... a fantastical thing. And I think people are excited to have very funny things that are outrageous on television."
In principle, such freedom sounds good. But when you hear, for example, one of the kid characters on "South Park" refer to Kenny's mom as "a dirty Jew," it makes you wonder whether some of the animators have thought about the social responsibility that might come with all that freedom.
An older and wiser Groening, for example, says he now regrets some of the attitude he injected into Bart Simpson on such matters as underachieving in school. Mike Judge, the creator of "Beavis and Butt-head," said the same thing in an interview last year about his sexist characters.
Viewers of "Family Guy" get an Aunt Jemima and two Jew jokes in the first few minutes tonight. Executive producers Seth MacFarlane and David Zuckerman, both in their 20s, say they are not trying to "shock" or "just be funny" with such jokes. They believe the jokes have "underlying value," though, they were not able to specify that value.
In fairness, there is value in the freedom to be "fantastical," as Green put it. Both "Dilbert" and "Family Man," for example, feature talking dogs that are smart and funny as they mock and trick their human "masters." The cartoon dogs are contemporary, TV versions of trickster figures found in the most ancient folk tales and legends of virtually every culture. Talking animals are a lot easier to sell in animation -- though Wilbur and Mr. Ed did OK in their day.
But artistic freedom is not the reason for the boom in animation. When did network executives start loving artistic freedom, anyway? No, what networks love most is money. And, like most television trends, this one comes down to dollars and cents.
Job one for network executives these days is to fill out their prime-time lineups with less expensive forms of programming, like "reality" programs. While animation can be expensive, most of what we are seeing these days -- like the shaky-looking Squiggle-vision of "Dr. Katz," cost less than half what a live action show costs to make.
"You know, I come from a world where 'South Park' is done on a desktop, basically. And 'Dr. Katz' was done on a desktop. 'Beavis and Butt-head,' too," said Herzog, who previously ran MTV and Comedy Central.
"You can do animation in a pretty inexpensive way," he added. "So, the idea is to try and find some shows you can start off at a reasonable price [to produce]."