Cartoons are often filled with messages, and they're presented in all kinds of ways. Sometimes the best way is to frame a story within another story. It can come off heavy-handed and other times the subtlety is superb, but it's a popular option nonetheless. And while not every instance is good, the following 12 are some classic examples of a great cartoon within a cartoon.
12. Where Are My Pants - The LEGO Movie
The most recent entry, Where Are My Pants is the most popular show in Bricksburg—and who can blame everyone for liking it? I mean, it's about a guy (named Larry) who is always losing his pants. It's so wacky and that's why everyone watches it. Or does everyone watch it because it's a genius part of Lord Business' scheme to rob creativity and imagination from the world?
Spoilers — it's the latter. As someone watching The LEGO Movie, you never get a chance to see more than Larry ask "where are my pants?" but it's easy to decipher the commentary behind the hit show. Where Are My Pants is representative of all the mindless trash TV that people seem to like so much, and it proves watching shows like that rot your brain.
11. Big Shot - Cowboy Bebop
Bounty Hunting is a huge part of Cowboy Bebop, and Big Shot is the way those bounty hunters find out about where the money is. But more than that, the show is also a mouthpiece for the idea of bounty hunting in general. Everything is like a super-exaggerated western, and it's kind of ridiculous. The hosts, Punch and Judy, are accented goofs on screen — but in reality they're nothing like their bounty hunting counterparts. It's almost as if Big Shot is a metaphor for the rest of Bebop. The show is even cancelled for low ratings just three episodes before Bebop's series finale.
10. Hello, Megan! - Young Justice
You never see much of this show on Young Justice itself, but M'gann is always making references to it, using catchphrases from it, and basing her entire persona off it. Her human name is even Megan and she shape-shifts to look exactly like the show's main character. And before M'gann really comes to terms with herself as a white Martian, Hello, Megan! serves as a window into her psyche. What's ironic is that M'gann likes the show because all of its problems are solved in 22 minutes. Normally, a show like Young Justice would be the same—but it's far too complicated for that. Just like real life. And that's what makes Hello, Megan! so great. Its own unrealistic nature makes the unrealistic nature of Young Justice a lot less noticeable, and it's easier to get pulled into the narrative.
9. Mysterious Mysteries of Strange Mystery - Invader Zim
Invader Zim is about as crazy as a cartoon can get, and sometimes the randomness obscures how clever it could be. One great example of that is the show Mysterious Mysteries of Strange Mystery, which features all the bullshit paranormal nonsense you'd expect from a program with that title. It was once Dib's favorite show because it took the Earth's paranormal activities seriously, but it eventually ran out of content and started airing "made up" stuff, like Chickenfoot. Despite this, Dib is constantly trying to use the show to prove that Zim is an alien. The problem is, everyone thinks he's insane (because everything else on that show isn't insane), which is nice and ironic. Because as the audience knows, Dib is the only one who actually ever finds any proof of the paranormal. And as for what Mysterious Mysteries of Strange Mystery says about people who like those shows in real life — well, I don't want to insult any bigfoot believers.
8. Reptar - Rugrats
"Reptar, Reptar, gotta find that Reptar!" I'll never forget those words or the ice show that first spoke them. Pretty much anyone who watched cartoons during the '90s will remember the Rugrats' spoof on Godzilla. And frankly, Reptar is about as badass in his own right as a Godzilla spoof can be. He's often the motivation that proves a baby has to do what a baby has to do, too. But Reptar also serves a purpose beyond being awesome — he's also a commentary on the ridiculous extent of some merchandising efforts. Reptar is a breakfast cereal, the toy to have, and is basically everywhere. And it does a wonderful job of mirroring the ridiculous methods of real companies.
7. The Justice Friends - Dexter's Laboratory
Due to the Justice Friends making an appearance in the Powerpuff Girls, they may not be a TV show at all — but since they do exist within a TV show, we'll count them. And regardless if they're a TV show, they're a pretty clever spoof on DC Comics' Justice League and Marvel's Avengers. The three main characters — Major Glory, Val Hallen, and The Infraggable Krunk — form a fantastic core that paints a caricature of popular superheroes like Captain America, Superman, Thor, Hulk, and The Thing. But only thinking of those three would discredit the other great members of the team, like The Living Bullet, Tiki Torch, and Capital G. As for the message behind the Justice Friends, they do the job of any superhero spoof, showing how silly they can be.
6. Los Dias Y Las Noches De Monsignor Martinez - King of the Hill
The gun-toting catholic Monsignor Martinez was easily the most popular character on TV in King of the Hill. And considering the ice-cold way he'd blow away his enemies with his catchphrase "vaya con dios," it's no wonder. What's more, this show was so popular that FOX even tried bringing it to life with a live-action pilot. Sadly the TV executives got cold feet at the last minute and pulled the plug for fear of offending audiences. That's a shame, but we'll always have the King of the Hill version to show us what might have been.
5. The Rusty Venture Show - The Venture Bros.
Poor Rusty Venture. His childhood was a traumatizing mixture of real adventures and The Rusty Venture Show. As an adult, he still has a hard time telling the difference between what actually happened to him and what happened in the show. The show was important, in universe, for hiding clues to the Orb, but in real life it holds a different message. While The Venture Bros. is already a hardcore spoof of shows like Johnny Quest, The Rusty Venture Show completes the joke. Plus it's sponsored by cigarettes, which is a subtle callback to how things used to be decades ago.
4. Terrance and Phillip - South Park
Only Terrance and Phillip could exist as a show that centers on farting and only farting. And somehow it manages to actually be fun a good deal of the time (I still remember the lyrics to "Uncle Fucker," from the movie). The comedy duo goes through plenty on the show, but its true purpose has always remained the same. Just like adults in the real world hate South Park for being about dirty nonsense, adults in South Park hate Terrance and Phillip for the same reasons. So if you're a South Park hater, know that the creators mock you on quite the regular basis.
3. The Itchy and Scratchy Show - The Simpsons
Just like most everyone knows about Tom and Jerry, most people know about The Simpson's Itchy and Scratchy. Both are legendary cartoons, but The Simpson's version is quite possibly more popular. Perhaps that's because Itchy and Scratchy takes the premise behind Tom and Jerry and takes the kid gloves off. Either way, the hyper-violence has made the show within a show a great hit with fans. Its message is simple too, and the proof is in their popularity: that people like cartoon violence way more than they might like to admit — even when it's extreme.
2. The Fatheads - Rocko's Modern Life
The Fatheads is an interesting case when it comes to cartoons within a cartoon since it was made by a character in the show. But unlike The Rusty Venture Show, this show is meant to be spiteful toward the creators parents — the Bigheads. It's also one of the weirdest examples, full of shouting and hitting people over the head with parking meters. Even more unique, its message isn't necessarily meant for the real audience watching Rocko's Modern Life, but rather a way for Ralph Bighead to express the anger he has toward his parents. Also it has the best theme song of any show within a show ever.
1. All My Circuits - Futurama
Starring the best robotic actor of all time, All My Circuits is the dramatic masterpiece reality wishes it could replicate. It has all the things a person could want in the ideal soap opera: drama, romance, betrayal, clones, comas, and anything else you could or couldn't think of. But seriously, Calculon and the rest of the cast manage to parody everything ridiculous about Futurama itself. And even if it didn't manage to be so clever, I think most of us can agree that we'd actually watch a real version of All My Circuits.