The Resurgence of Absurdism: Animation and the Neo-Absurdist Movement

Absurdism was an artistic movement with roots in 19th century existential philosophy. At its core, Absurdism aims to express its realization of existential meaningless through art that displays characters and situations that are impossibly and surrealistically fantastical. It was a major movement in early-mid 20th-century Western theater. Perhaps the most well known Absurdist play is Samuel Beckett’s Waiting for Godot. This play is about two characters that are infinitely waiting for a mysterious figure named Godot. They hope, in futility, that today will be different, that today Godot will arrive. Recently the play was mounted on Broadway starring Patrick Stewart and Sir Ian McKellen. Not too long ago, Godot was satirized on The Late Show with Stephen Colbert.

By the 1960’s in North America, it became clear that the newest and most prominent performance medium was film, and live theater would have to take a back seat.

Okay, sidebar. This is a contentious statement. This sentence could be the thesis for an essay in and of itself, but just think about it. The 1960’s are literally called the Golden Era of filmmaking in Hollywood. While Old World nations had a tradition in live performance art, the New World didn’t really have that, and with geographically large and dispersed populations coupled with industrialization – film as the go-to medium just made sense. Rather than separate communities establishing their own low budget theater companies, or paying the expense for higher budget theater communities travelling from town to town, you’d have one building that could import high-quality cinematic performances for a fraction of the price. Hollywood boomed, and a lot of people made a lot of money. If I ever write an essay about this topic, I’ll supplant this sidebar with a link.

A lot rode on a single cinematic production, and because of this most films followed traditionally successful performance genres like musicals and realistic dramas. More experimental genres like Absurdism took a back seat for now, but as the American entertainment industry would evolve into the 21st century, Absurdism would again see its time in the sun, and this time in a completely new form of media: animated television.

Animated worlds have never adhered to the rules of real life. Rabbits can’t talk, mice don’t wear gloves, but these anthropomorphic characters could not possibly be classified as Absurdist. Their worlds still made sense, and they certainly did not deal with the existential questions of the human condition. They were for children after all, and kids don’t typically ponder their place in the universe. At least not yet.

The next step towards Absurdism in animated television didn’t just come form The Simpsons, it came from a specific episode. The Simpsons had always been an odd show. It is among the first animated programs meant for adults, and its yellow skinned characters with bulging eyes always got up to ridiculous antics. In the early episodes, however, they handled matters and challenges that resounded with the American middle class. This changed with Marge vs. The Monorail.

This episode in the fourth season (written by Conan O’Brien) brought the series closer to the Absurd and marked a tone shift for the entire series that would become the Golden Age of one of the most successful television shows in the history of broadcast television. There wasn’t consensus about the episode’s quality in the beginning as Yeardley Smith (Lisa) said it was, “truly one of our worst – we [the entire cast] all agree.” This directional change would go one to solidify The Simpsons as one of the most influential works of media in modern times.

The Simpsons went on to be the major influence of almost every subsequent adult oriented animated program, to the point where “The Simpsons did it,” has become a prevalent Meme. Shows like Family Guy, Futurama, and South Park can all trace their lineage back to The Simpsons in one way or another. These shows exhibit elements like bawdy humour, pop cultural references, and commentaries on modern American society. While these shows would often jump into zany and preposterous plotlines, they seldom left the realm of satire.

There was something else happening in animation intended for adults.

There was an emergence of animated programming that was really weird. This is best exemplified by Aqua Teen Hunger Force – a show that was about a vaguely anthropomorphic fast food meal deal with super powers. Despite their supernatural abilities, the show wasn’t really about fighting crime, it was mostly about how the trio would deal with the strange things that kept happening to them. These strange events would run the gamut of how to pay their rent, to having awkward interactions with spacefaring super beings.

This was one of the most well known shows on Cartoon Network’s programming block called Adult Swim. Adult Swim is responsible for other surreal programming, such as Metalocalypse, The Venture Bros, Assy McGee, and of course Rick and Morty.

Rick and Morty is the first and best example of the Neo-Aburdist movement happening in animation. The show’s premise is simple enough. An alcoholic mad scientist and his simpleton grandson constantly find themselves participating in high concept sci-fi rigmarole. Their adventures have brought Rick and Morty to a planet undergoing a Purge, going through interdimensional customs, and a Mad Max inspired post-apocalyptic world. Despite the silliness, the main theme that ties the entire world together is the existential question of “if there are infinite dimensions, if there are infinite version of me and everyone I know, then what’s the point of life?” Here’s Morty summing it up:

Another example of Neo-Absurdism in animation intended for adults is Bojack Horseman. This show is about Bojack Horseman, a former star of a family oriented sitcom from the nineties – think Bob Sagat from Full House. The main difference is that Bojack is a horse. In fact, about half of the world’s population seems to be different breeds of anthropomorphic animals. This brings up a lot of questions, but the audience quickly learns that this is not the point of the show. It, again, is about our existential position in the world. Bojack is constantly left examining his place in the world and how he’s influenced those around him. More often than not, he deals irreparable emotional damage upon those he cares for most.

Neither of these programs simply place their characters in strange and absurd situations, instead they make them the agents of their absurdity. The characters in both programs are absurd heroes who understand that their respective worlds are swirling miasma of chaos, and they both react by becoming perpetrators of the chaos in their universes. They are the heroes of their stories in that they are the protagonists of their narratives and they affect change in their surroundings, but by inducing chaos and absurdity into the lives and worlds that surround them, they are constantly creating existential dilemmas in their wakes.

Rick will destroy and manipulate different worlds and civilizations according to his whim. On the other hand, Bojack accepts that he is a negative and chaotic force on those closest to him. Despite Bojack’s desire to be a more positive individual, he keeps tearing his surroundings down to his level.

To me, this makes the titular characters in both Rick and Morty and Bojack Horseman tragic absurdist heroes. The shows themselves are definitely comedies, they are of course very funny shows (abiding by taste), but the characters often succumb to their flaws and absurd surroundings, and create tragic situations for themselves. Rick destroys planets, tries to kill himself, and alienates his loved ones. Bojack destroys the lives of people he allows himself to love, behaves with no consideration with those around him, and is compulsively self-destructive. They are tragic in the Shakespearean definition of the word.

To counter this, I’d like to take a look at some animation intended for younger audiences. Remember when I said that Looney Tunes and other similar programming didn’t ask existential questions because children don’t ponder their place in the universe? Well things have changed here too.

Surreal animation intended for younger audiences has existed for a very long time. One of pioneering animated characters is Felix the Cat who was created in 1919. He had a magic bag that could morph into anything he wished. He perhaps lived outside the realm of reality even more than Bugs Bunny and Mickey Mouse.

Animation in the 1990s began to emerge from the depths of being glorified toy commercials. This was a boon for animation as some of the most since cherished programming was came out of this decade, and with it came a lot of programs with a decidedly surreal bent. Shows that immediately come to mind are Ren & Stimpy, Rocko’s Modern Life, and later in the 2000s SpongeBob Squarepants. These shows, however, didn’t have their characters ponder their existence on a large scale, they never had their characters ask ‘why?’

Something changed with the introduction of Adventure Time. This show is about a young human boy named Finn and his pal Jake the Dog as they battle the forces of evil in a land called Ooo. In the beginning they mostly defend a kingdom of candy against an insane Ice King who dreams of stealing princesses, but upon closer inspection the show’s setting is much deeper than that.

Finn is the last living human. There was some sort of catastrophe that killed nearly all of the humans, and in the process created this strange magical world with sentient bubblegum and transforming dogs. It is actually a dark and tragic world in which Finn must struggle against the chaos and absurdity of the world. The difference is that Finn, unlike Rick and Bojack, chooses to fight for his beliefs. Rather than lean into an existential absurdity, he takes power over his existence and fights against the unyielding chaos.

Adventure Time is a show that was originally intended for children, but its viewership has extended beyond the barriers of youth, and it has come to enjoy a more mature audience. There are many reasons why this could be the case. It could be that adults are entranced by its colourful world and objectively humourous comedy. It could be that the depth of the world building is impressive. It could be marijuana. It probably has a lot to do with marijuana.

Despite these factors, I believe that it also has to do with the absurdity of the program itself. Adventure Time presents an unstoppable barrage of strangeness and absurdity, and unlike other comparable children’s programming, it demands its characters evaluate their place in the universe. In this way, Adventure Time is less of a children’s animated program, and more of a work of comic neo-absurdism. If Rick and Bojack are tragic neo-absurdist characters, then Finn is a comic neo-absurdism hero. In this sense, it is to say that comic is the opposite of tragic, after all, comic books aren’t necessarily funny, but we do expect the heroes to eventually win.

So why are programs like these seeing so much popularity? It could be the natural expedited course of screen media. These artistic and performance movements have already happened, after all, and it’s only logical to conclude that they’ll find their way to the new medium. On the other hand, I would argue that it’s a reaction to the massive societal shift happening in our world.

We are in the Information Age, and it happened so quickly we that hardly even noticed. Computers, the internet, and smartphones are all integral parts of every day life. We are being shelled with information so quickly that there is no loner any room for ignorance. News, whether it be political, entertainment based, or personal has become so immediately available, that we are left being hyper aware of everything that is happening. If desired, either through curiosity or compulsion, we can learn everything there is to know about a person, event, or subject. This can all overwhelming, chaotic, or even absurd.

In the Dark Ages, a miller knew that it was his responsibility to tend to the mill, and a king knew it was his responsibility to rule, but what if the miller somehow found access to the bottomless pool of human knowledge? Maybe he wouldn’t want to tend to the mill anymore. Maybe he’d want to be a doctor, or a soldier. Now what would happen, if after that, he came to realize that reasons beyond his control dictated whether he would ever be successful in his aspirations? That he was forever destined to be a miller.

This is a struggle for our generation, and it leaves us with a lot of questions. “What is the point of milling? I don’t particularly enjoy it, and let’s be honest, if I stopped milling, there’d be another miller to come along to take my place. What is the point of my being here?”

These existential questions are fueling the new movement for neo-absurdist works. A lot of time and resources are still required to create an animated series – that hasn’t changed. This means that there must also be a sizable audience to watch these programs, or else they would not continue to be made. The existential themes in these programs must resonate with enough people so that it continues to be profitable to create episodes.   And so it goes.

We watch these programs because they’re funny, yes, but also because they’re creating a sense of hubris by challenging our perception of our place in the universe. The world is a chaotic place, and it’s simple reality that we cannot affect it in every way we wish. The question is: do we lean into it and become an agent of chaos like Rick, or heroically but futilely fight against it like Finn? It’s up to you, you are the hero of your own absurd world.