I’ve always argued that it is easy to tell when a piece is trying too hard to be weird and edgy versus when the things you’re seeing truly must be the makings of a genuinely deranged mind. Cow and Chicken, described by TvTropes as “if Ren & Stimpy went to rehab but still had a long way to go and turned to other addictions”, falls into the latter category. When its creator David Feiss was asked how many drugs were taken during its production, he simply responded “none”.
Originally aired between 1997 and 1999, the series follows a sweet but dim-witted cow named Cow and a cynical chicken named Chicken (both voiced by Charlie Adler), and in spite of multiple laws of nature, the two animals are siblings. The mystery isn’t cleared up when you look at their parents (Dee Bradley Baker, Candi Milo), who, in addition to being perpetually cackling nutcases, have no upper bodies and are really just two pairs of legs walking around by themselves – they’re presented in a Mammy Two-Shoes fashion but their true, unspeakable appearances are continuously hinted at.
A regular day in Cow and Chicken’s life consists of having zany adventures in school, visiting strange places, eating unreasonable quantities of meat, and usually foiling an eccentric, affably evil ruler of Hell known as Red Guy (Charlie Adler), who dons all sorts of unconvincing disguises, always has his big red rear on display, holds many butt-pun pseudonyms, and is possibly the weirdest character in the entire thing, which is saying something. Between this show and The PowerPuff Girls, I don’t know what it is with Cartoon Network programming and cross-dressing devils with severe mood swings.
The show would also feature Chicken’s not very intelligent best buds Flem and Earl (Howard Morris and Dan Castellaneta), a sadistic and constantly shrieking school teacher (Candi Milo), Cow’s favorite toys, her Spanish superhero alter-ego, the comically miserable and aptly named Cousin Boneless (Adler again), and several other relatives of Cow and Chicken’s, hailing from all sorts of unrelated parts of the animal kingdom. There’s also the I Am Weasel segment, which eventually spun off into a show of its own and featured Micheal Dorn and Charlie Adler as a fearsomely gifted weasel and his fearsomely idiotic ape companion I.R. Baboon, respectively. You will have noticed that many of the characters I’ve named are voiced by Charlie Adler and I’d say this is the show that solidified him as one of my favorite voice actors.
Besides Ren & Stimpy, it is difficult to compare this show to anything that came before it. The voice acting is constantly aggressive and all the characters look like they have severe problems, on top of very rarely wearing clothes that fit (this show has more nipples and butt cheeks on display than anything from TMZ). This is one of several Cartoon Cartoons that I’ve been re-watching with my mate Raouf (Johnny Bravo, Dexter and Courage are there too, worry ye not) and we once had a discussion about what modernist art style the series was trying to emulate. When we couldn’t categorize it into anything particular (even though Dadaism and Expressionism came to mind), we concluded that the it’s just extremely ugly.
Cow and Chicken will be enjoyed by kids for its relentless gross-out elements (should they for some reason come across it today) but they will appreciate it even more, I think, when they become adults and start catching on to all the references, the barely-hidden sexual innuendos, the even less discreet sexual imagery, the unpredictable surrealism, and the black comedy/satire. I’m sure both demographics will be amused by the character designs and intense animation (that never feels too fast-paced and fits in well with the comedy).
It is often noted that, during the early days of Cartoon Network, there weren’t that many other options for aspiring animators to put out their content (I surmise that pitching their ideas directly to Fox, home of The Simpsons, was a little too risque), which explains why many of the projects shown on this supposed kid’s network are basically adult cartoons in disguise. In retrospect, PowerPuff Girls was pretty violent, Johnny Bravo was mainly about a guy trying to get laid, Courage would have given Salvador Dali nightmares, Samurai Jack was a genuinely mature and masterful artistic achievement, and Cow and Chicken just… existed. Nevertheless, some restrictions did exist and I’ve come to view it as a good thing, since this makes the cartoons more subtle and re-watchable than they may have been had they had the same freedom as, say, Family Guy or Mr. Pickles.
As a “Getting Crap Past The Radar” series, it might just be the network’s greatest accomplishment – especially with its surprising abundance of gay and transgender jokes. Only once during its run did it fail to slip by the Cartoon Network censors, namely with the episode Buffalo Gals, which featured a gang of female bikers entering Cow and Chicken’s home just to munch on their carpet before recruiting Cow into their group because she looks the part. You can imagine that a few angry phone calls were made. Had the show come out this decade, it might have been an angry Cosmopolitan article or a passive-aggressive Beyoncé gif instead.
To summarize, Cow and Chicken is thoroughly unattractive, its art style is exaggeratedly grotesque and perverse, the characters are either insane or retarded, its ideas are so outlandish it appears alien in nature, and the moral of the story is usually that there isn’t one. In a way, it is absolutely perfect. 5/5.