Nowadays, cartoon comedies made for adults are so common—from Archer to Bojack Horseman to Rick and Morty—it’s easy to forget that the genre was once considered a subversive underdog, fighting to get jokes aired and jockeying with live action sitcoms for premium time slots. In 1992 George H. W. Bush publicly denounced The Simpsons, and today Ted Cruz won’t shut up about loving the show; Family Guy was once too taboo for family-friendly sponsors but was selling Coca-Cola by 2008. But these shows weren’t just gradually accepted by a changing world. They changed the world—probably more than you realize.
I wanted to find some way to quantify the impact the major cartoons of the 90s had on society—this means Futurama, King of the Hill, The Simpsons, South Park, and Family Guy. So I did my best to tally up every instantly recognizable catchphrase, meme, and IRL impact created by each show. These programs—the big three of Simpsons, Family Guy, and South Park in particular—literally altered the way people talked, and later how they posted online. But kids parroting Cartman lines on the playground doesn’t leave as much of an impact on the world as the attitudes toward politics and environmentalism South Park helped create, so for each of these items I assigned a point value from 1 to 10.
What resulted was a monumental, subjective, exhausting, and hopefully exhaustive process that at least gave me a math-based argument for which cartoon was the most important of our lifetimes—and one cartoon’s massive reach did exceed all others. Which one? You'll have to scroll down to find out, because if I did all this work you little ingrates can at least skim this article.
Buckle up, buckaroos. This is going to take a while.
Starting in reverse chronological order with the series that premiered on March 28, 1999, Futurama was an instant hit with the nerd crowd for it’s use of actual science references and formulas in its sci-fi comedy, a mechanism that directly influenced later shows like The Big Bang Theory (+1) and Rick and Morty (+1).
Futurama’s meme prominence was at its peak during the impact font image macro era, when stills of a skeptical Fry (+2), “shut up and take my money” Fry (+2), or “why not Zoidberg" were still in vogue. Still in occasional use today are mesmerizing hypnotoad (+1) and Professor Farnsworth saying “I don’t want to live on this planet anymore” (+3).
The above lament, often seen without an accompanying image, brings us to the phrases and words the show added to the vernacular. Hermes gave us exclamations like “sweet zombie Jesus!” (+1) and “my Manwich!” (+1), the canned meat company’s sole source of relevance in decades. Bender’s “bite my shiny, metal ass” (+1), mischievous spin on the word “neat” (+1), “yeah baby, I know it” (+2), and insistence that he’ll make his own version of a thing “with blackjack and hookers” (+1) don’t have as much portability to everyday conversations as the professor’s “good news, everyone” (+2) or being “technically correct, the best kind of correct” (+2). Futurama also offered ammo for when we need to point out that “X does not work that way” (+3) or someone’s thing is bad and they should feel bad. (+2).
The show also invented a brand-new math theorem for an episode (+2) that doesn’t have much application outside of brain-switching scenarios, introduced us to “snu snu” (+2), the term for occasionally fatal sex with a towering Amazonian woman, and “bonitis” (+1), a terrible and regretful way to die. And thanks to one particularly sad episode, a whole generation now can’t hear Connie Francis's “I’m Will Wait for You" (+2) without tearing up.
Total Score: 33
Gaining a legion of fans within its first three seasons, Family Guy did not go quietly into that good night when it was initially cancelled in 2003. Fox gave the first 50 episodes to Cartoon Network, and those episodes helped carry the Adult Swim programming slate (+5) through its early years. Family Guy also sold a ton of DVDs, helping to fuel the series DVD boom of the era and get other shows on discs (+3).
The show was so popular in death that Fox revived it in 2005. Not only did this result in another 14 (and counting) seasons and MacFarlane-verse sister series like The Cleveland Show (+1) and American Dad (+3), it made cancellation no longer a permanent death sentence, (+7), even though you “touch yourself at night.” (+1). The series' primary contributions to the comedy landscape were its popularization of the cutaway gag (+4), and introducing Adam West to a whole new generation (+1). The show also had a thing for eclectic musical non-sequiturs, and gave Conway Twitty (+2), the B-52’s “Rock Lobster” (+1), and the Trashmen song “Surfin’ Bird” (+1) a brief renaissance. On the other hand, Family Guy is unique in its ability to kill an internet meme by merely featuring it on the show, a phenomenon known as “the Family Guy effect.” (+2)
Though he killed many, Peter Griffin created a few memes of his own. He let us know what “grinds his gears” (+3), said “ohmygod, who the hell cares" (+1) to boring or irrelevant information, and engaged in an ipecac war that provided a nice vomiting gif. (+1) He also hurt his knee (+1) in a way that, when you emulate it, takes some of the sting away. Pepperidge Farm remembers (+2) that season 2 joke like it was yesterday.
Peter’s trademark laugh (+1), “holy crap” (+1), endless “whoa, whoa, whoas” (+1), and adaptable “shut up, Meg” (+2) weren’t the only lines that made it off the screen. Chris’s “I need an adult" (+1) is perfect for escaping awkwardness. Stewie’s early-era “what the deuce” (+1) and “victory is mine!” (+1) catchphrases evolved over time into less diabolical bits like his mispronunciation of the w (+2) at the beginning of words like whip or a “you’re drunk / you’re sexy” (+1) tete-a-tete with Brian. Early Lois gave us the “X is God’s way of telling you Y” (+1) format. Quagmire’s “giggity” (+2) and “alllll right” (+1) became phrases synonymous with horniness. Cleveland gave us “that’s nasty” (+1), and weatherman Ollie Williams provided “it’s gon’ rain” (+1) and "damn, nature, you scary.” (+2)
Though some Family Guy gags are pretty much universally beloved, like “wacky waving inflatable arm flailing tube men,” (+2) it has also attracted criticism for being misogynist, racist, or just vile. An early Family Guy episode popularized the problematic phrase “full-blown AIDS” (+2), but 13 years later, the show has vowed to no longer target gays with its jokes. So that’s something.
Total Score: 62
Though not the longest-running on this list, South Park has somehow remained consistent over its two decades on the air, adapting its humor and philosophy with the times. A profane show from day one, South Park was the first-ever regular program dubbed TV-MA (+8) in the US and blazed a trail for the future of television by normalizing unbleeped swearing on cable (+5). Creators Trey Parker and Matt Stone’s “both sides suck” approach to issues helped to create a generation of “South Park Republicans” (+5) who (often incorrectly) assumed Parker and Stone to be on their team.
The show’s politics informed, shifted, and started national conversations about everything from the core beliefs of Scientology (+5) and Mormonism (+4), to trans rights (+2), “safe spaces” (+2), PC culture (+3), and the smugness that comes from driving a hybrid (+2). After a controversial episode with a depiction of the prophet Mohammed garnered death threats and subsequent Comedy Central censorship, Everybody Draw Mohammed Day (+5) was founded in response. Though Cartman helped normalize anti-Semitism (+5) and hippie hatred (+2), and the idea of freezing yourself to wait for a video game release (+2), it was the ManBearPig (+1) episode that may have had the most profound impact on the world. The episode, which Parker and Stone have since apologized for with a follow-up episode, mocks the “super cereal” (+1) notion of man-made climate change, and gave its massive audience of contrarian-leaning edgelords permission to follow suit (+10).
Less cataclysmic concepts conceived by the show include the now occasionally employed legal strategy of confusing the jury known as “the Chewbacca defense" (+3), the notion that Family Guy is written by manatees pushing joke balls around (+2) and that The Simpsons already did every plotline conceivable (+4), the persistent idea that gingers are soulless (+4), and bowel movement size being measured in “Courics” (+1). It was the first to say Sarah Jessica Parker looked like a horse (+3) as well as the reason every go-to fake porno is titled “Backdoor Sluts #9.” (+2). In one episode, we learn Kanye West is a gay fish (+1). In another we learn Kim Kardashian is a hobbit (+1). In another still, we discover the singer Lorde, known for her hit song “I am Lorde, ya ya ya” (+1) is Randy Marsh in a wig (+1).
In early seasons, South Park was catchphrase-heavy. Cartman’s “ay!” (+1), “beefcake” (+1), “bad kitty” (+1), “cheesy poofs” (+1), “respect my authori-tah” (+2), “whateva, I do what I want” (+2), ”screw you guys, I’m going home” (+2), and “I’m not fat, I’m just big boned” (+2) lines were on the lips and T-shirts of schoolchildren everywhere in the late 90s. The temperamental third-grader also implored us to suck his balls (+1)—not the chocolate, salty (+1) kind—and called Kyle’s mom a bitch (+1), to which she’d reply “what-what-WHAT?” (+1), Stan would say “dude, that’s pretty fucked-up right there (+1), Kyle would sigh or scream “goddammit” (+1), and after all that, “Oh my god, they’d kill Kenny” (+2).
Other repeated lines of the era included Mr. Mackey’s warning that “drugs are bad” (+1), m’kay” (+2), Shelly’s “stupid turd” (+1) insult, Big Gay Al letting us know he was “super, thanks for asking" (+2) and Jimbo’s hunting justification that “it’s coming right for us" (+1). Isaac Hayes’s Chef was still around then, too, dropping a “hello there, children” (+1) left and right. One special early ep both presented the Loch Ness Monster as a beggar in need of “tree fiddy" (+2) and gifted the world with the word “derp”(+6). (Derp actually originated in Parker and Stone's movie BASEketball, but we'll give it to South Park.) Later, a more evil Cartman would still whine for his “meeeehhhm" (+1), but also engage in diabolical schemes that ended in him relishing the taste of an adversary’s tears (+2).
Over the years, the show’s universe expanded and we were introduced to standout meme-adjacent characters like a Christmas poo (+1), sexual harassment panda (+1), crab people (+1), a leather daddy slave who only lisped “Jesus Christ” (+1), and the best World of Warcraft player (+2) in Azeroth. A pot-smoking towel reminded us not to forget bringing him (+2). An (extremely un-PC) Chinese restaurant proprietor changed how we view Mongolians and woks in cities. (+1) Recurring disabled characters “Timmy!!” (+2) and Jimmy got in a “cripple fight” (+1), but Jimmy’s stand up predilections—“I mean, come on” (+1), “what a great audience” (+1)—eventually became his defining characteristic.
South Park has long been a meme gold mine, the most noteworthy being the ski instructor who lets us know if we’re about to have a bad time (+2), the banker who notes that our investment is immediately gone (+2), and Captain Hindsight’s after-the-fact advice (+2). Post-ejaculation Randy (+2) works in a pinch as well. The show also taught us that a TBD step 3 doesn’t prevent us from “step 4: profit” (+3) as well as what would make Craig “so happy” (+1). But it also taught us hard lessons, like how sometimes your only choices are a giant douche or turn sandwich (+2) and how “girls are funny, get over it” (+2). “Theeenks" (+1) for understanding.
Other phrases popularized by the show include the “took our jerbs” (+2) lament of the recently unemployed, Randy’s clarification that he “thought this was America" (+1), and the rednecks’ suggestion that if one doesn’t like America, they “can geeeet out” (+1). The angered crowds of townfolk would “rabble rabble” (+1) or “durka durr” (+1), perhaps even throwing us a “durka durka” (+1) if in the Middle East. PC Principal made sure “you PC, bro” (+1). A vehicular manslaughtering Caitlyn Jenner encouraged passengers and viewers to “buckle up, buckaroos.” (+1) A racially tinged ep about how annoying “naggers” (+1) are really got Randy’s “balls in a vice grip.” (+1) I’m not just sure about that, “I’m HIV positive.” (+1)
The show’s impact didn’t stop there, giving us “can I finish?" (+1), “raging clues” (+1), and “praise science” (+1), along with putting the Denver restaurant Casa Bonita (+1) on the map. While I didn’t get “sand in my vagina” (+2) about it, I was personally less enthralled when it made “red rocket” (+1) the primary term for a dog’s penis or insisted “fag” could just mean obnoxious biker (+1).
Bits from the show occasionally took on a life of their own, like when police officers saying “nice” to every instance of a female teacher sleeping with a male student (+2) was co-opted as a response for every time the number 69 shows up (+4). Though those episodes might be, as Michael Jackson says, “ignant” (+1), Parker and Stone still “reached these keeds” (+1) with their subversive show. Hell, “I member” (+2) when it was just Cartman making up words like “molestering” (+1), but now they’re explaining what a “bottom bitch” (+1) is. And if this upsets you, try to remember that “I’m not your buddy, guy.” (+1)
Though bedlam on air, offscreen, the show accomplished the impossible. They helped to reunite estranged comedy duo Cheech and Chong (+2) and South Park: Bigger, Longer, Uncut (+1) resulted in Robin Williams singing “fuck” at the Oscars for their Oscar nominated song from the film (+1) while Parker and Stone sat in the audience tripping on acid in their iconic dresses (+2).
Total Score: 184
King of the Hill
Though too grounded in reality to ever be the winner of this contest, I would be remiss to not mention the ahead-of-its-time, slow-boil comedy centered around Hill family and its cultural impact.
Hank informed us “that boy ain’t right,” (+2) and explained how Christian rock was not making Christianity better, but instead was just making rock and roll worse (+1). His exasperated “dang it, Bobby” (+1), and “bwahhh” (+2) as incredibly fun to say as they are to see memed. Hank coined the term “vidya” (+4) as a substitute for “video games” which has more traction online than you realize. Both he and Bobby have enjoyed recent resurgences of popularity online, presented as fuckboys (+2), chillwave aesthetics (+2), and all-around vibes (+3). And though it embarrasses him, one can't hear the phrase "narrow urethra" (+1) without thinking of poor Hank.
Joining Hank in the drinking alley, you have Dale Gribble’s invention of “pocket sand” (+2) and Boomhaur’s mumbly “dang ol’” speech pattern (+1), but if KOTH is known for anything, it’s Hank’s exaltation of “propane and propane accessories” (+4), a phrase impossible to not say in his voice when around a tank of the stuff.
Total Score: 24
The godfather of this list, The Simpson’s mark on the world cannot be overstated. Beyond serving as a proof of concept for every other show on this list (+5) and confirming that Americans prefer to watch dysfunctional families over healthy ones (+5), the show vaulted a young Fox network into the same league as the legacy networks, helping to turn the Big 3 into the Big 4 (+8).
The show’s instant runaway success led to early ‘90s “Bartmania” (+1) and a thriving bootleg Bart (+1) clothing black market. As the show became enmeshed with our culture, we later got a feature film (+1), a Simpsons takeover of 7-11s (+1), replete with the iconic pink donut (+1), and a theme park quadrant dedicated to the show at Universal Studios (+1). And Bart was a Butterfingers mascot (+1) half the time, too.
Fans didn’t just consume Bart products, they quoted the hell out of him. “Don’t have a cow, man” (+1), “eat my shorts” (+1), “ay, caramba” (+1), and “I’m Bart Simpson, who the hell are you?” (+1) were everywhere back in the day.
His father, Homer, was just as prolific with coinage. “Why you little…” (+1) and “mmm… [food]” (+1) are classics. He taught us that alcohol is the cause of and solution to all of life’s problems (+1), that money can be exchanged for goods and services (+1), and that when we try and fail, the lesson is to never try (+1). His mispronunciations of “saxamaphone” (+1) and Jebus (+2) spread like wildfire. His annoyed “d’oh” (+3) was added to the Merriam-Webster dictionary. “Jerk ass” (+2) wasn’t. “Don’t blame me, I voted for” OED. (+2)
Other words the show manifested into reality include the perfectly “cromulent” (+1) word “embiggen,” (+1) the Scrabble-ready “kwyjibo” (+1), craptacular (+1), snacktacular (+1), chocotastic (+1), the hybrid crop “tomacco” (+1), an embarrassing “tromboner” (+1), the delicious “squishee” (+1), and the “yoink” (+3) you say when snatching something from someone. None of these get as much real-world mileage as the show’s crowning vocab achievement, “meh.” (+7) With all these new words, it would be unpossible to fail English. (+1)
Sometimes a character’s spin on an existing word or phrase made it forever their own, as is the case for Dr. Nick’s “Hi, everybody,” (+1) Mr. Burns’ “excellent” (+2), Nelson’s “HA-ha” (+2), and Krabapple’s “HA!” (+1) Other times a mere sound was all it took, like Marge’s annoyed hum (+1), Frink’s “glaben” (+1), or the entire speech pattern of the first Flanderized (+3) character, the okily-dokily (+1) neighborino (+1) Ned. But “the goggles do nothing” (+1) to help us unsee “stupid, sexy Flanders’s” (+1) butt.
Comic Book Guy gave us “worst [blank] ever,” (+3) and “oh, I’ve wasted my life.” (+1). Moe invited everyone to the party in his mouth (+1) and said “not today, old friend” (+1) to suicide. Kent Brockman said it before and he’ll say it again, “democracy simply doesn’t work” (+1) so he, for one, welcomes our new autocrat overlords. (+1) “What a time to be alive” (+3) where Jasper gave us both that phrase and “a paddlin.’” (+1)
Homer searched for the “any” key. (+1) Bart played “knifey spooney” (+1) and “smashy smashy.” (+1) Barney told us “just hook it to my veins” (+1), everything was “coming up Milhouse” (+1), and Nelson will “smell ya later.” (+2) Ralph “choo-choo-chooses” (+1) to acknowledge that he created the “X Y is X” format (+2) with “fun toys are fun” back in season 11, which was, as Abe remembers it, somewhere around “nineteen-dickety-two” (+1). I’m sure you’re like, “boo-urns” (+1), that’s not a real year and “sure hope someone got fired for that blunder,” (+1) but give the writers a break. They work hard, they play hard. (+1) It’s not like they’re some “cheese-eating surrender monkey” (+1) Frenchies you’d have to “release the hounds” (+1) on.
The show created so many lasting character archetypes like Lisa (+3), Milhouse (+2), and Mr. Burns (+2), but the designed-by-committee Poochie (+1) concept is a personal favorite. When he said “I have to go now, my planet needs me,” (+2) I felt that.
It wasn’t all sunshine in the ambiguously-stated town of Springfield (+1). The Simpsons resulted in some negatives too, like racists and shitty kids calling brown people Apu (+4) throughout their lives and Homer’s ineptitude at the power plant may have actually kneecapped America’s nuclear power revival (+7).
The recent glut of Simpsons memes have helped to make up for its above sins (and later seasons). Gifs of Abe U-turning in a brothel (+2) or Homer backing into a bush (+2) convey a desire to escape. Abe’s “used to be with it” speech (+1), his “old man yells at cloud” (+2) news clipping, and Skinner’s insistence that “no, it’s the children who are wrong” all mock the out-of-touch. Wolfcastle’s “that’s the joke” (+2) and Bart’s “at least you tried” cake (+2) are perfect for condescending. Ralph’s “I’m in danger” (+2) meme conveys what it says, as does Ned’s parents’ insistence that they’ve “tried nothing and are all out of ideas.” (+1) Moe’s suicidal “NO FUNERAL” (+1) stills pair well with impoverished Lenny’s “don’t tell anyone how I live” (+1) plea. Bart hitting bathing Homer with a chair (+2) is a great escalation mechanism. Homer with his back fat tied off (+1) shows how much we hide, and Lisa’s stage presentation (+2) is a great blank canvas.
Sometimes a scene paused at the perfect moment, capturing the animation at a weird angle creates the meme. There’s Skinner’s “pathetic” (+2), krumping Marge (+1), and Lisa looking down at her food (+1) or pouring coffee (+1).
There are some nonsensical memes floating around out there, too, like “classical gas” (+1), Dr. Hibbert’s mirror punch (+1), Moe’s “give ‘em one of those” (+1) dance-fight, the “Lisa needs braces” (+1) bit, and “say the line, Bart.” (+1) But occasionally the obsessive internet weirdos create works of art, like the Simpsonswave (+1) music video genre, and the expansive universe that’s grown out of the “steamed hams” (+4) scene.
Just remember that Millhouse is not, nor will he ever be a meme. (+1)
Total Score: 164
I'm as surprised as you that, according to my infallible scientific calculations, South Park has had a net bigger impact on the world than The Simpsons. But, before you crucify me, there are a few ways of interpreting this outcome. It could be reasonably argued that, as a direct result of the success of The Simpsons, Futurama's influence points should count toward The Simpsons' total, which would put them at 197 and first place. For that matter, none of these shows, South Park included, could have existed if The Simpsons hadn't done it first. Even though the Springfield gang hasn't been as relevant in the past decade-plus (especially when compared with South Park), it casts a long shadow. But I will say this: I'm glad VICE got rid of its comments section a long time ago.
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