Ah, college: It’s a time to fall into irreparable debt, codependent relationships and the time to create iconic cartoons that will pay the bills well into your forties. Seriously, it’s staggering how many of today’s most successful animated franchises were started by a young animator trying to meet a professor’s deadline.
While most classic animated juggernauts were produced in the studio system — emerging from places like Disney, Hanna Barbera, and Warner Bros. — the late ‘80s and early ‘90s saw a wave of young animators striking out on their own to develop series and bring in a wave of fresh energy to the industry. Here’s a look at some of the most iconic of that vital generation of creators, and the shows they brought to the world from their dorm rooms.
The Powerpuff Girls Used to Be The Whoopass Girls
The Powerpuff Girls, which aired from 1998 to 2005, was such a massive success that it’s already been rebooted. Blossom, Bubbles, and Buttercup became the heroes of little girls around the world as petite cutie-pies that were capable of violence in the face of evil. But most little kids didn’t know that before they were Powerpuffs, creator Craig McCracken imagined them as a much darker team known The Whoopass Girls in his CalArts thesis film, aptly named Whoopass Stew.
While it would take six years for the Whoopass Girls to debut formally as The Powerpuff Girls on Cartoon Network, McCracken developed a number of shorts for the channel’s pilot incubator, What a Cartoon!, before sending the girls and Mojo Jojo to series.
Family Guy Used to be The Life of Larry
Seth MacFarlane, animation’s leading fraternity brother, was a chubby geek at RISD when the seedlings for what would be Rhode Island buffoon Peter Griffin, his family, and noted-sex-offender-but-hey-it’s-funny-right Glenn Quagmire, made their debut.
The Life of Larry revolves around middle-aged New Englander Larry and his anthropomorphic talking dog, Steve. MacFarlane first used it the film as a sample to get his foot in the door at Cartoon Network, where he’d work on Johnny Bravo straight out of college. Like the Powerpuffs, Cartoon Network’s What a Cartoon! gave MacFarlane a chance to develop the series with a small budget into a few shorts called Larry and Steve, and the concept was eventually given a home on the same channel as the already-iconic The Simpsons over at FOX. MacFarlane pulled from his own roots in New England to develop the family and continues to lend his own voice to two of the main characters: Peter Griffin and his dog Brian.
South Park Used to Be Jesus Vs. Frosty
Love it or hate it (and it’s usually somewhere in between), there is no other show that looks or sounds like South Park before or since it debuted on Comedy Central in 1997. After meeting at the University of Colorado in 1992, Matt Stone and Trey Parker developed the short The Spirit of Christmas: Jesus Vs. Frosty using the cutout technique that would become their trademark style.
Like the original Powerpuffs short, it’s pretty incredible how much of the pilot remains in the original series, Kenny’s murder and all (although Kenny appears to be the template for Cartman in the original shorts). Parker and Stone made the South Park kids into one of the internet’s early viral videos in 1995 when a Fox exec commissioned them to release a second video short as an e-card, but the network wouldn’t pick the show up to series with the insistence that Mr. Hankey (the Christmas poo, natch) remained as a character.
From there, Comedy Central picked up the series and opened the doors for Parker and Stone to put the only cartoon series on air able to include current events in storylines within a week of their occurring. If you’ve never seen how the South Park team manages to pull it off in an industry where months of production for a single episode is the norm, check out documentary 6 Days to Air.
The Pixar Lamps Used to Be Lady and the Lamp
John Lasseter is now the animation giant behind Pixar, and without him we wouldn’t have the Toy Story or Cars franchises, but he was once a sleepy twenty-two-year-old with a project deadline, too. While Pixar, his home studio, credits its desk lamp mascot to Lasseter’s 1986 short Luxo Jr., the animator’s fixation on lamps came years before during his senior year at CalArts.
Lady and the Lamp is a 2D film that features a few less than kid-friendly moments, but it’s clear that Luxo Jr. is not the first appliance to be the cause of many an all-nighter for the Academy Award-winning animator.
Office Space Used to Be Milton
This one’s a wild card — while the creator of this cartoon wasn’t in college when this short was created, per se, it’s still his earliest recognized work, and led to some of the most memorable work of the past twenty-five years.
Mike Judge is one of the rare multimedia geniuses of our era, who is responsible for Beavis and Butt-Head and King of the Hill in the animated sphere and most memorably 1999’s Office Space in the live-action world. Oddly enough, the latter found its origins in a deep-cut Judge cartoon produced in the early ‘90s called Milton which was later adapted into the live-action cult classic.
The Milton shorts were Judge’s first successful foray into the comedy world after several years of spinning his wheels with a physics degree, a string of unfulfilling office jobs and a stint as a bass player for a traveling blues band. The Milton shorts were despairing and centered around Judge’s own time as an office worker, and were discovered by Comedy Central and eventually aired on Saturday Night Live. Before the Miltons would be adapted into a feature, Judge used the SNL momentum to develop the Beavis and Butt-Head series that would become one of MTV’s most successful 1990s series, then expanded onto network TV with 1997’s King of the Hill before getting around to bringing Milton into the third dimension in ’99.
Stay in school, gang!