Excuse the pun, but THE AMAZING WORLD OF GUMBALL is an amazing show.

[GUMBALL]: Sorry, I had to.
Sorry, I had to. (Courtesy of Cartoon Network)

Beginning on May 3, 2011, the show follows the antics of a mischievous cat named Gumball Watterson and his good-hearted brother Darwin, a pet goldfish that grew legs and started talking. The series centers around their daily life as they grow up in a zany cartoon world where anything is possible.

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Critics and viewers alike agree that GUMBALL is a great show, but I’m willing to take it a step further: GUMBALL is the best children’s show in decades.

Sure, shows like ADVENTURE TIME and STEVEN UNIVERSE are groundbreaking in their own right, but they’re just as much for adults as they are for children. GUMBALL is mostly a kid’s show, but its brilliance is undeniable. In fact, I would argue that it can be compared to classics like LOONEY TUNES and TOM AND JERRY. It’s just that good.

So what makes GUMBALL so great? What value could this silly little show have? Why is it so important for us to understand it? Well, let’s take a look!

The Imaginative World

A good cartoon inspires creativity. It fosters imagination and creates an environment where anything is possible. No cartoon exemplifies this like GUMBALL.

The show takes place in the town of Elmore, California, a zany community taking inspiration from early Disney cartoons. It’s a world where anything can come to life, where cartoon physics rule, and where people accept the madness as part of their daily lives.

[GUMBALL]: Just another day in Elmore.
Just another day in Elmore. (Courtesy of Cartoon Network)

But what separates GUMBALL from an old Disney cartoon is just how far they take it. Entire episodes center around the lives of “inanimate” object that randomly come to life. We see a hot dog in a microwave who thinks he’s getting a tan. We see a disgruntled table, tired of people putting their feet on it, seeking vengeance on its owners.

There’s even an episode where the background characters rebel against our heroes, hijacking the episode and turning the focus over to them:

The animation enhances the world as well. The photographic backdrops give everything an eerie feel, as if these people have jumped out of our cartoons and into the real world. The animators use various techniques for creating each character. Some are hand-drawn, some are computer generated, some are puppets, and they each take inspiration from a different era or style of cartoon.

A lot of the show’s humor is drawn from the way these different toons interact with one another, and how the tropes and cliches of one cartoon conflict with another; it leads to some pretty silly scenarios.

THE AMAZING WORLD OF GUMBALL is what happens when an old-school cartoon world clashes with modern suburban life, and the results are incredible to watch.

The Clever Humor

The nature of Gumball’s world leads to a lot of creative, comical scenarios. Since its creation, GUMBALL has been known for its fast-paced, witty and somewhat snarky humor. Timing is one of the most important aspects of comedy.

It’s not always what you say, but when you say it. The show’s dialogue is a flurry of punchlines and comebacks, reminiscent of the classic word-play of LOONEY TOONS. The show utilizes a great deal of slapstick, which is difficult to pull off in a kid’s show. You need the perfect combination of timing, sound-design, and animation to pull it off in a satisfying way.

Most importantly, there’s a very thin line between physical comedy and pure violence. For example, TOM AND JERRY works because the character’s have the perfect reaction to the pain they’re receiving, without ever coming off as too intense. The fluidity of movement and over the top results are what make slapstick work. GUMBALL has just the right amount of violence to feel visceral, without coming off as cruel or scary:

This scene is an anime. Your guess is as good as mine.

The show relies on a great deal of meta-humor, breaking the fourth wall and experimenting with the tropes and cliches of children’s shows. The writers are an active force in Elmore, constantly changing things, writing in new plotlines, or even making mistakes in the midst of episodes, much to Gumball’s confusion and frustration.

In the finale to season 2, the Wattersons are surprised to discover that their actions suddenly have consequences. In most cartoons, conflicts resolve themselves in a single episode or are never brought up again, but this time all of the Wattersons’ misdeeds come back to haunt them, breaking one of the cardinal rules of the average cartoon. They get massive bills from the times they’ve destroyed the city, Gumball and Darwin are held back in school for missing so much class, and their father Richard is being sent to prison for his reckless driving.

When they discover that apologies and heartfelt speeches won’t get them out of this, they decide to make things worse instead. In most cartoons, things tend to resolve themselves at their most dire, so they think this is the best plan.

The episode ends with the Wattersons in jail, about to be attacked by all the people they’ve angered over the course of the series, before the writers decide to bail them out by ending the episode, reverting everything back to normal.

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But this is a just an average day in the life of the Wattersons.  The best example of meta-humor is the episode “The Void”. Gumball realizes that something is missing from the world, and eventually finds out that one of his classmates has been removed from existence. In reality, the creators of the show had forgotten about the character, and stopped drawing her into the background. Gumball goes on a conspiratorial investigation to find his classmate, donning a tinfoil hat so whoever’s behind this can’t erase his memory.

Later on, he enters an alternate dimension full of the creators scrapped ideas. The episode ends with him saving his friend, escaping the void, and preparing to tell everyone the truth, when his tinfoil hat falls off and he forgets everything that just happened.

There are several episodes like this, where the meta-humor goes off the rails and becomes almost existential in nature. No one in Elmore is aware they’re in a cartoon, or that everything is being controlled by forgetful animators. The fact that a kid’s show is presenting these terrifying implications is comedic in its own right. GUMBALL takes the concept of a cartoon world to the utmost extreme, and the results are both brilliant and hilarious.

There’s artistry behind this show’s humor, and most importantly, a sense that the creators are having fun.

The Way GUMBALL Tackles Heavy Themes

Depression. Censorship. Divorce. Adoption. Morality. The meaning of life. You’d expect these themes from a show like ADVENTURE TIME or STEVEN UNIVERSE, but GUMBALL? Indeed, the creative world and witty humor is interlaced with some pretty heavy themes presented in a way a child can understand.

The show has a bit of an anti-establishment vibe to it, portraying most grown-ups as disgruntled corporate drones who don’t even know what they do for a living. Most shows teach your kids to follow their dreams and stay optimistic, but few take the time to explain why this is so important, and what can happen if you accept the expectations of society.

In one episode, Gumball and Darwin are trying to be mature, and they sing one of the most hilariously cynical songs about growing up I’ve ever heard:

“It’s time to kiss our childish ways goodbye. Grow up, give mediocrity a try?”

The show frequently plays around with the concepts of maturity and adulthood, with Gumball’s father Richard acting like an immature child who never grew up, while their mother Nicole is clearly overburdened by the stress of adulthood.

In the episode “The Money”, the Wattersons find themselves flat broke and are given the chance to literally “sell out” by turning themselves into advertisements. Not only is this a brilliant example of meta-humor, as the longer they go without money the worse their animation becomes, but it’s a surprisingly honest depiction of the importance of cash.

Sure, every cartoon tells your kids to stay true to themselves and that money doesn’t matter, but try telling that to a family that’s so impoverished that they’re literally drinking their own tears for water. All of a sudden, money doesn’t sound so bad.

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The best part of this episode is that there’s no right answer, no clear lesson at the end telling your kid what to do or how to act.

The episode ends with the family selling out, making a ton of money, but having their lives transformed into a cheesy fast food commercial. Is this better than the life they had before? Is there a way to balance integrity with financial security? Who knows?

GUMBALL doesn’t talk down to kids. It respects their intelligence while tackling some pretty adult themes. Sure, there’s rarely a clear lesson or moral to be had, but sometimes it’s better to make a child think about a problem rather than to spoon-feed them the solution.

What’s more is that it never gets too heavy, or too cynical, or too dark for the average kid to handle. At the end of the day it’s still a silly little show about a blue cat and his goldfish brother.

The Point

Cartoons are an essential part of our culture, especially for kids. They foster creativity, they teach us the values of society, they show us the importance of humor and imagination. As such, they deserve to be analyzed, understood, and appreciated like any other art form.

GUMBALL represents everything right about modern kid’s shows. It’s colorful, weird, anarchic, but also smart. This is the show our kids deserve. This is one of the shows they’ll remember fondly and show to their own children. GUMBALL may be a cute, silly kid’s show, but hopefully we can appreciate the genius that lies underneath.

 

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