The programming for adults vs. programming for kids debate has long been the push-pull in animation. But what about programming about kids that teaches adults important lessons? Several of this year’s animated program Emmy nominees do just that.
Comedy Central’s “South Park: The Pandemic Special,” written by series co-creator Trey Parker, uses its child characters to help satirize the horrific events of last year. The Season 4 premiere of Netflix’s “Big Mouth,” “The New Me,” is written by comedian Patti Harrison and series co-creator Andrew Goldberg and shows the cast of young teens connecting with their friend Natalie (guest star Josie Totah) after learning she’s transitioned. And Fox’s “The Simpsons” is nominated for “The Dad-Feelings Limited,” writer and co-exec producer Ryan Koh’s episode about episode about Springfield resident Comic Book Guy (Hank Azaria), and his internalized issues with his own upbringing and how they relate to his relationship with children.
“I wanted to do a story about someone hesitating to have a kid because I have certainly been in that position,” Koh says.
But, Koh continues, the trick of working on a show that’s been around as long as “The Simpsons” is “even new takes on old stories are hard to come by.” It had already been established that Azaria’s obsessive collector and store owner didn’t like kids. Plus, in a world as rich with secondary characters to the show’s titular family, Koh says Comic Book Guy (real name: Jeff Albertson) is both someone who “could carry the emotional weight of a full story and “an underutilized character, so it’s an easy, intuitive place to do this story.”
This is also the type of show in which, Koh says, “things always have to have a happy ending.” At the end of the episode, Comic Book Guy bonds with his dad, who is voiced by Dan Aykroyd and is himself an avid collector (but of stamps).
“Big Mouth’s” Harrison also had a personal connection to her episode. Having transitioned herself, the comedian says transgender coming-out stories are “a mainstream conversation now more than ever, so it makes sense that there are people who want to capitalize on it” even if “good intentions can also be diarrhea” and result in “a very one-dimensional story.” As much as she’d love the character of Natalie to have a full story arc beyond this topic, Harrison also admits that it would “be inauthentic” to not tell the story of a kid transitioning in a show that’s already about “the trials of youth and coming of age.”
Plus, Harrison says, these stories also give a chance to help audiences see a narrative that’s different from one so often depicted as “trans strife and trans struggle” — especially since the audience may be more diverse than we think.
“I know the fan base for ‘Big Mouth’ is adults,” she says, but “kids are going to watch filthy cartoons no matter what.”
As someone who grew up watching “South Park” and “The Simpsons,” she says these shows offer “a juxtaposition of the medium that creates this taboo, cool, desire amongst kids.”
Because of this, she says the cast and crew of “Big Mouth” are aware of and concerned for “what undercurrent of messages people, especially younger people, could be getting out of it.”
“They understand that how people understand the joke to be funny is usually planted in some sort of meaning,” she says. “Where things can get problematic is when we assume that we all understand something the same way based on a prejudice or bias and then a joke is formed out of that.”