Entertainment Talk

Is there any future for fanimation, other crowd contribution?

Is there a future for fanimation beyond Bob’s Burgers?
Bob's Burgers is back to its regular rendering, but Fox has something to build on after its crowd-handled special. (Photo by FOX via Getty Images)

Bob’s Burgers basically exercised its seniority privilege with what some dub its “fanimation” experiment for its eighth-season premiere. This decade’s defining primetime cartoon handed the drawing board to its audience and presented the work of 62 lucky viewers.

As one should expect, not everyone was game for the one-off deviation in the “Brunchsquatch” episode. The Internet Movie Database reports that it drew the lowest ratings of any premiere in the show’s run to date.

But it was a gamble the program could afford, and it functioned as a tribute to the sustained devotees. Now that at least some of those 62 have demonstrated animation aptitude, there is something worth building on.

So, what is the next step? Any one of the more popular guest animators could always return for an inside joke/callback to last Sunday’s episode. The most advisable inlet would be an abbreviated dream, fantasy or surrealist hallucination scene.

Better yet, fanimation could be the simultaneous springboard for the next hit cartoon and the next great cartoonist. All it would take is another air slot cleared for dozens of amateurs who this time would draw original characters. Then an audience of their peers would gauge the professional potential of each contributor.

There would be plenty of appetite for that, as evidenced by last week’s more favorable receptions. This past weekend, the Vox Culture staff cited “Brunchsquatch” as one of 12 recent broadcasts worth catching up on. In her capsule, reviewer Caroline Framke called the product “a surprising and delightful patchwork quilt of contributions.”

Framke concluded that “the fact that every single scene is drawn in a different style is what makes ‘Brunchsquatch’ singular. It’s jarring at first, but once you get used to it, it’s a total treat.”

A treat that we will likely never see in its exact rapid-fire format again. If anyone does attempt the same formula, they will have a hard time avoiding stringent comparisons to Bob’s Burgers. More than other entertainment media, animation has a way of inviting amplified scrutiny for cheap imitation — real or perceived.

But what “Brunchsquatch” did was something of a hodgepodge. Plenty of programs have adopted a different look for limited segments. Others have invited the audience to help determine what they end up seeing.

The concept of fanimation blends elements of both practices, lending more authenticity to the show’s break from its regular appearance. The way Bob’s Burgers executed it also leaves other ideas untouched, yet more illuminated than before.

Before “Brunchsquatch,” we had seen plenty of household-name characters rendered in unusual shapes. We have also seen parades of prototypes testing the market before fanfare sent a few to full-length status.

Hands-on input from the network viewer was the main missing ingredient in both. But perhaps the time has come to change that.

Consider what different sectors of Nielsen’s all-important 18-to-49 age group grew up on. The older bookend was in its 20s when The Simpsons was in its heyday. Two mid-’90s episodes briefly pursued comic effect via divergent impressions of its characters.

In “Lady Bouvier’s Lover,” Homer disgustedly envisions his children as looking less cartoonish for a few seconds. In “Treehouse of Horror VI,” he accidentally runs into a 3D environment and is unable to break out.

The occasional practice continued elsewhere in the ’00s. For fantasy sequences, the South Park team tried its hand at anime in “Good Times with Weapons.” And even the live-action That ’70s Show paid homage to ScoobyDoo by having its pot-sampling protagonists hallucinate as Shaggy-looking teens.

All of those jobs were those of the given program’s staff or of established professional freelancers. Going forward, letting crowds compete for a stint in the spotlight would be a harmless, perhaps even helpful approach.

By letting fans lead the drawing portion of its 130th episode, Bob’s Burgers evoked memories for millennials. Those are the younger 18-to-49ers who blossomed concomitantly with Cartoon Network and Nickelodeon.

The former channel broke ground for itself circa 1995 with What a Cartoon! While it did not accept submissions, the program did lean on mass audience feedback and polling. With that, the network plucked the most popular short film and elongated it to the channel’s first original series, Dexter’s Laboratory.

What a Cartoon! ceased premiering new animated aspirants the day after Thanksgiving in 1997. The next year, Nickelodeon started emulating its premise via Oh Yeah! Cartoons.

Once again, the viewers watched with critical eyes and voiced their collective opinions. Starting with 2001’s The Fairly OddParents, three of the motion collage’s contenders started reemerging as full-fledged, standalone Nicktoons.

With those democratic tactics, the two kid-centric channels created a more intimate sense of community between consumer and producer. Now the kid consumers of the ’90s are a crucial component of both Fox and Comedy Central’s viewer bases.

In its first three full calendar decades of existence, Fox has made a custom of churning out at least one hit animated series. Family Guy ruled the better part of the ’00s the same way The Simpsons did the ’90s and Bob’s Burgers does the ’10s.

By that logic, a new series will be due in another two or three years. And don’t forget this is the same network that introduced a new method of unveiling up-and-coming musical talent. With its assortment of A-list alums and copycat competition shows, American Idol has driven down a road with no return.

Why not build on “Brunchsquatch” by introducing animation’s answer to American Idol? While there is no sense in supplanting the normal appearance of Bob’s Burgers full time, some “Brunchsquatch” animators have potential. Ditto those who did not enter, let alone see their work on national TV last month.

Many of those one-off contributors were doubtlessly influenced by the most successful spin-offs of What a Cartoon! and Oh Yeah! Cartoons. Countless more would surely pounce on another chance to play a voting role in shaping the next great series.

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Al Daniel

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