Is America’s most realistic sit-com a cartoon?

By Ben Anderson

King of the HIll image hank hillI had two weeks off work recently and much to my wife’s chagrin I spent it watching whole seasons of my favourite sitcoms in a single sitting. Among the miasma of single New Yorkers and ugly guys with hot wives one show stayed in my memory, Mike Judge’s animated sitcom King of the Hill. It’s an underrated programme which won two Emmys and ran for 13 seasons, longer than even Friends or Seinfeld. What made the show standout was its low key, realistic approach to comedy. This wasn’t 22 minutes of redneck stereotypes but a show with a defined sense of place and character. Judge and co-creator Greg Daniels kept the show grounded for more than a decade, striving to find humour in the conventional and ultimately creating what Time TV critic James Poniewozik called “The most acutely observed, realistic sitcom about regional American life bar none”.

What most differentiated King of the Hill from its cartoon contemporaries was its setting. Arlen always remained a mid-sized Texan town. It didn’t suddenly gain plot relevant casinos like Spingfield or be destroyed Mecha-Streisands like South Park. Unlike time travelling Stewie Griffin or globe-trotting Eric Cartman, the furthest Bobby Hill ever strayed from Texas was New Orleans.


The show’s writer’s maintained this authenticity taking a biannual excursion to Austin to talk to residents and visit locations such as propane dealerships and mega churches. The details gleaned on these trips allowed King of the Hill to nurture what Los Angeles Times writer Paul Brownfield called “a sense of an actual world”. Rather than constricting the creativity of the writers, this well-defined “world” allowed for plots that may not have been considered by the Californian-based writing staff.

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To further illustrate the show’s uniqueness, compare this season 5 joke about George W. Bush

with a Family Guy gag.

The former is a significant plot point in the episode while the later is a joke for joke’s sake. This is not to criticise Seth McFarlane (I personally laughed louder at the Family Guy joke) but to simply highlight the contrasting approaches. King of the Hill derived humor from characters’ reactions to the plot rather than on cutaway gags favoured not only by Family Guy but also by live action sitcoms like 30 Rock and How I Met Your Mother.

In fact King of The Hill’s commitment to realism was even greater than many flesh and blood programs. Hank Hill’s job selling propane and propane accessories

was a fertile source of humour, unlike sitcoms like Friends or Frasier, where work was something to moan about while spending endless hours in coffee shops or apartments they couldn’t possibly afford.
As well as finding humour in employment, Mike Judge and Greg Daniels were also willing to tackle a subject many other sitcoms could not even acknowledge, let alone joke about: race. Peggy’s career as a Spanish teacher brought her in contact with the nation’s sizeable Hispanic population, John Redcorn explored our attitudes towards Native Americans and the Souphanousinphones were a nod to Texas’ Laotian community, the second biggest in the country. This is far more representative of 21st Century America than comedies like Seinfeld or Girls which, despite being set in multicultural New York, are almost exclusively white.
Anyone who has read Mark Twain or listened to Jerry Seinfeld would not be shocked that as much humor could be found in a realistic situation as an absurd one. What is surprising is that it took a cartoon – a medium better known for talking animals and wacky situations – to create such an accurate portrait of American life. One man not surprised was Daniels, who spoke of his goals in a newspaper interview  the year the show debuted. “I just think that animation has an enormous kind of unexplored area of realism,” he said.” People usually think of animation as superheroes or talking animals. And it’s just a great medium to do realistic human stories, also.”

(c) 2014, Ben Anderson

Ben Anderson is a journalist with a Bachelor of Arts from Curtin University. Like most Fijian-born Australians of Scottish descent, he loves American sit-coms. Ben has been published by
Cracked and the Australian Broadcasting Corporation and blogs at www.madasaspoon.wordpress.com.
As well as writing, Ben enjoys acting, watching other people play sport and writing short biographies about himself. Follow him on twitter @Benjaminfa.

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65 responses

  1. You make some excellent points. Real humor draws from real life.

  2. I am old enough to remember when the sit-com “All in the Family” broke similar ground in the realm of realistic plots. It is a show with real actors. However, its humor is derived from the main character’s racism–an issue that was more relevant in the 1970s than now. Any research you did on “King of the Hill” must have at least mentioned “All in the Family” as an object of viable comparison, but from a different time period.
    Your essay makes a strong argument for “King of the Hill” to be a cultural marker for life in the U. S., if not the south, during the early 21st century. You certainly got my attention, and I don’t even watch the show. I may make it a point to watch the show sometime.

  3. Excellent post. “King of the Hill” has never received its full measure of attention, a first rate work of American humor. I say that as a man who sells Liberal Arts and Liberal Arts accessories.

  4. Definitely too realistic to me! Thanks for sharing this.

  5. I once spent an entire afternoon watching KOTH reruns with my college age son, both of us laughing our heads off. It’s a wonderful comedy, and I was sad when it finally closed up shop.

  6. Duuuuuuuuuuuuuude. I love this show and I don’t really watch too many cartoons because of the reasons you laid out. This did stay true and authentic and the writing was good. I especially loved Rusty Shackleford, and the guy with the trumpet from the Big-O-Lo Mart. Ha! And Peggy’s musings. But the stuff that cracked me up the most was Hank and his relationship with Bobby … God dang-it I tell you what…propane and propane accessories. Nice post! Conrats on being Freshly Pressed.

    1. It’s a flugelhorn, and the “guy” is Chuck Mangione… the show had a running gag about his smooth jazz hit, “Feels So Good” (Chuck “felt so good” about Mega-Lo prices). It was hard to miss as that WAS a big hit; I do remember that from my early childhood. Chuck also voiced himself on the show.

  7. “Regional American life,” indeed. But only if you are Christian, lower to middle class, vaguely misogynistic, with zero higher education and an ethnocentric streak so wide that the rest of the world seems to be there only to support your home town.

    Hmm, I think I just figured out why it appeals to so much of America.

  8. Glad to see a freshly pressed post about “King of the Hill”, which I have always felt was underrated.

  9. One can learn a lot from this cartoon. Very realistic.

  10. Interesting post. King of the Hill is golden — actually used this for my English as a Foreign language classes once and the students loved it! I had no idea about the annual “research trips” to Austin. Fascinating!

  11. i love this show. yep :)

  12. Wow,
    I really liked this post, I found the facts very real, and I enjoyed reading the entire post, I think I can relate to your blog maybe you can check mine out, http://caturnerblog.wordpress.com/ Keep the blog up and have a nice day.

  13. As a Southerner myself, I can’t stand poorly written Southern stereotypes. You can write them, just be creative. King of the Hill is written from Mike Judge’s family experience, so it’s authentic. One of my favorite shows of all time and one of the few that sustained itself for many years. Great piece. I’m sorry they took it off Netflix because all I did was switch between it and Frasier.

  14. I <3 King of the hill! Hank Hill and his family are the best and Bobby is the cutest. They are what a realistic family is and I think that's why people connect with them.
    Have you ever watched "Bob's Burgers?" Not since King of the hill and The Simpsons have I found another cartoon family to be the cutest and the most loving and realistic. Give it a try! =)
    <3
    Christina

  15. It’s all in good fun!

  16. i’m from missouri, and i have a few friends from the south of my state who are about as close to boomhauer as you can get without actually being animated.

    all in all, a great post with some super pertinent points. “to sirloin with love” is far and away my favorite episode. reminds me of my step dad’s family…

  17. Reblogged this on trangworks and commented:
    One of my favorite shows of all time. Best cartoon series hands down.

  18. I love the post. King of the Hill was vastly underrated. I still watch and thanks to you.. I’m going to make thrm richer. Because buying 200 copies of the Show. Well maybe not.. But i am buying it.

  19. I always thought it was a sitcome first and cartoon second.

  20. This was super interesting and gave me a better perspective on the show. I’d always thought it was a little boring and sort of stupid, but I’ll have to take a second look at it, because I have a feeling that you’re right. The humor is far more realistically embedded than in many other shows, including real action sitcoms. Thanks for an enlightening read!

  21. orthodoxchristian2 | Reply

    Yes, it is great when we can relate to a show. Most shows are so unrealistic. This is an exception to the rule.

  22. I loved KotH while it was on and I’ll still ignore new programing for it when it’s playing on Cartoon Network. I’ve found it more realistic than a lot of live action tv shows. I missed out on the final three seasons and still haven’t seen them, but up to that point this influenced me more than anything else at the time. It gave me views to a father I never understood and a predominantly white community with encroaching cultures that I understood but couldn’t grasp. It helped me through my childhood in some small measure and I’m glad it was there.
    As for it’s realism, I spent 9 months in San Angelo, TX, and I found people like nearly every character of the show, bar the obvious chara hooks and gags. It was a wonderful moment in time, but I’d like to mention…Bobby never aged past 14 in 13 years. Now that’s some cartoonish stuff right there!

  23. And I thought I only related to it bc I’m in Austin. Good to know others do, too.

  24. My mom worked at a truck stop in the midwest during my parents’ college years, and loves this show because of that experience. Each of the characters remind her of the different men who would come through. It’s always great when a show, animated or not, can portray real people.

  25. I always forget there’s such things as American humor. It seems natural, as if all people had the same brand of funny bones. Hmm, fascinating don’t you think?!

  26. Excellent points made here! Thanks for sharing with us your thoughts :D

  27. ‘Merica, summed up well. Big lover of animation, nice post :)

  28. Man, I LOVE king of the hill… I just wish I didn’t hate Peggie so much

  29. Fantastic post! Thank you for the great insight into this truly deserving animated show.
    I’ve often thought that Bobby Hill made a great role model for kids – a gentleman with the girls, embraces his body in a positive way, and is comfortable just being a goofy kid with a dream of becoming a prop comic. While he may occasionally buckle under the pressure from Hank to be more of a “man”, he always bounces back.

  30. Propane and propane accessories!

  31. Great post. I’ve always been a big fan of the show for the humour but never thought that maybe I like it because of how much I can relate to it. I’ve never been to Texas, but grew up in oil town Alberta.

  32. I always loved King of the Hill. The Simpsons and Family Guy get all of the praise, but King of the Hill was mostly realistic and stayed true over the years. Cotton was my favorite!

  33. King of the Hill was and still is one one my favorite animated comedies. Not only is it hilarious, it had a slew of major star guest roles. Jennifer Aniston, Johnny Depp, Kid Rock, Sally Field, Green Day, Matthew McConaughey, Betty White, The Dixie Chicks and Meryl Streep; just to name a few.

  34. Reblogged this on ShareDrop.

  35. To be fair to How I Met Your Mother, most of the cutaway gags are related to the overall plot of the episode, unlike Family Guy’s jokes for the sake of jokes. It’s one of the few recent sitcoms I’ve been able to watch weekly. As for King of the Hill, it was a Sunday night staple for me from beginning to end.

  36. One of my Favourite and watch again and again cartoon sitcom, so much so my husband does tend to “sigh” when he sees me digging out the box set ha.

    Favourite episode ever Season 6 Bobby Goes Nuts
    “You left yourself open dad. pop pop”
    Classic

  37. I love this show. I grew up in LA and always thought it portrayed a unique perspective of reality. More recently I noticed Peggy’s job switching as the years went by (sub teacher, guest writer on newspaper, real estate agent), and how the temporality can parallel the job market in the US.

  38. absolutely… it’s ironic that the most realistic show is a cartoon, but it’s true. This was an awesome article my man

  39. Nice post. I have always looked at it as a cartoon about rednecks that made me laugh, but this has certainly shed a new light on it! I, too, am a bit older and remember how ground breaking All in the Family was, with much of its humor coming from very real life stuff. KOTH has done the same.

  40. Reblogged this on Mad as a Spoon and commented:
    My article on King of the Hill from Humor in America.

  41. my personal favorite!!
    I generally avoid TV as it disappoints to be honest about it but King of the Hill was an instant hit with me.
    Refreshing and with cleverly crafted characters. Hank, Peggy and Bobby feel as much like family to me as Andy, Opie and Aunt Bee did. Walt Disney and MC Escher were right, cartoons have a definite place in expressive art

  42. I adore King of the Hill! It’s my favorite animated show. But Seinfeld still holds the number 1 spot for greatest sitcom of all time in my opinion.

  43. Reblogged this on damiengreenlee5 and commented:
    hankin aint it

  44. Thanks for your thoughts! I’ve always felt that KotH had a style that wasn’t over the top, so it was easy to watch in almost any mood. Like you say, it was a very authentic feeling cartoon and I’m glad to see others felt the same way!

  45. I love King of the Hill. You should have mentioned the visiting Canadians, it was also hilarious.

  46. The beauty of the show is that it does not try to be outrageous. The writers understood the fact that the every day dramas can be more appealing that far-fetched scenarios and you can more easily relate to the characters.

  47. King of the Hill has and will always be one of my top 10 favourite TV shows. Sure, it’s satirist most of the time but I can believe there are Hank Hills and Dale Gribbles out there!

  48. I grew up with show my whole life.. I wish it never ended T.T

  49. Well said, I admit that king of the hill is still one of my favorite shows. Plus Bobby Hill was one of the funniest characters ever, I mean who else is going to slap their belly with spatulas.

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