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Photo: Adult Swim
Cartoon Network Embraces its Adult Side
On October 1st, 1992, Cartoon Network was launched, and in the coming years became a prominent face in entertainment. Labeled as the “best place for cartoons”, it was the first ever channel to have a specific 24-hour focus on animation. Consisting mainly of Hanna Barbera, MGM, and Warner Bros. series and shorts, the network slowly began to develop its original programming. Curiously enough, the first original program made by the network (Not counting the anthology series ‘The Moxy Show’) was ‘Space Ghost: Coast to Coast’, a show aimed at older audiences, in stark contrast to the very kid-centric cartoons that would follow later on during the decade. The network also dabbled in late-night programming with blocks of adult-oriented cartoons at this time, showing that even early on, Cartoon Network had more than just kids in mind.
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On the night of September 21st, 2001, Adult Swim, stylized as [adult swim], launched, and with it came a slew of original programming. This included the iconic ‘Aqua Teen Hunger Force’, and a handful of shows that, much like ‘Coast to Coast’, were comedic takes on Hanna-Barbera properties, like ‘Sealab 2021’ and ‘Harvey Birdman: Attorney at Law’. The network also aired anime such as ‘Cowboy Bebop’, and reruns of adult cartoons from networks like UPN and The WB that had already been canceled, such as ‘Home Movies’, ‘Baby Blues’, and ‘The Oblongs’. Having started off pretty strong, the block rose in popularity over the years, eventually shaping itself into what it is today.
A Block With Edge
One significant factor that’s played into Adult Swim’s success is the sheer uniqueness of the block. Over the years, Adult Swim has birthed a myriad of original programming that’s ranged from quirky to downright insane. It’s hard to watch shows like ‘Robot Chicken’ or ‘Superjail!’ without admiration for the lack of restraint on display. With a surprising amount of leniency regarding censorship and the freedom that comes with animation, Adult Swim has had no qualms about being as crude and violent as a basic cable network can allow. But even apart from the raunchiness, many of Adult Swim’s original shows feel like they could only ever exist on a block as offbeat and experimental as this. For instance, could you imagine a show as out-there as ‘12 Oz. Mouse’ being picked up by Fox and airing alongside its more sitcom-y animation like ‘Family Guy’?
Even outside of the programming itself, Adult Swim gives itself a sense of personality that’s seldom seen on other television networks. The various bumpers it’s had over the years are generally well-remembered; the early ones featuring the voice of a public pool’s lifeguard shouting “All kids out of the pool!” over a memorable Latin jazz remix has proved to be nostalgic for many people, and the ones that feature wise-cracking white text over black backgrounds have stuck around since 2003. Occasionally, these text bumpers would jokingly respond to posts made on the site’s now-defunct message boards or social media posts directed to them. As simple as this practice is, it helps give off the impression that the people running and managing Adult Swim are very much in touch with their viewership and in turn, gives quite a bit of character to the block itself. Another unique thing the block does is shockingly ambitious April Fools’ Day pranks. From showing the yet-to-premiere theatrical ‘Aqua Teen Hunger Force’ film…muted and in a tiny space off to the side of the screen over regular programming, to airing Tommy Wiseau’s ‘The Room’ a few years in a row, to reviving the insanely popular action block Toonami, Adult Swim finds new ways to catch its viewership off guard each and every year.
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Adult Swim – Experimental Programming
Throughout the 2010s, Adult Swim began to delve even further into experimental content. On January 1st, 2011, the block aired the first episode of one of their most unique programs, a show simply known as ‘Off the Air’. The show is an anthology series consisting largely of stock footage, music video, short film excerpts, and online video clips, all centered around a specific theme, and edited into eleven-minute episodes. It’s a simple enough premise, but due to the bizarre nature of a lot of the featured videos, on top of the way the show is presented and edited, the end product is far more surreal and intriguing than it has any right to be. I love this series, and the fact that it was not only greenlit, but continues to air on the network to this day, perfectly encapsulates Adult Swim’s willingness to be as weird and experimental as possible, a trait that should be applauded.
Around the same time this show came out, the block also started producing standalone comedic shorts that started as a series of infomercial parodies, earning them the name ‘Infomercials’. However, the shorts soon broke from the infomercial formula and began feeling more like twist-heavy short films that showcased the kind of creative freedom Adult Swim allows. These ranged from ‘Too Many Cooks’, a parody of cheesy sitcom theme songs that eventually devolves into utterly unpredictable madness, to ‘Unedited Footage of a Bear’, which starts like a YouTube ad for medication, but as said ad continues to play, a dark story begins to unfold. While not directly related to ‘Off the Air’, these shorts give off a similar quirky vibe that reflects Adult Swim’s willingness to be off-kilter in ways other channels don’t often get.
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In addition to the plethora of shows Adult Swim’s made over the years that are more than worth your time, what makes the block so respectable is how much it’s managed to stand out, even after two decades. With a strong emphasis on both comedy and surrealism, it’s not afraid to embrace absurdism in ways that can’t be seen anywhere else on television and present completely outrageous things. In this day and age, nonsensical absurdist humor is something that’s been fully embraced by people on the Internet, but there’s still a special kind of charm in seeing the kind of experimentation usually reserved for online creations take shape on mainstream television. It doesn’t matter whether or not you like the shows that Adult Swim airs, or even the block as a whole; the ways in which it thrives on quirkiness while keeping in touch with its audience helps cement it as one of the most unique programming blocks on television.
By Austin Oguri
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Austin Oguri is a screenwriter and has deep appreciation for the art of film in general, he aims to offer unique perspectives through his film reviews and feature articles. He also has a soft spot for lesser-known works, and enjoys spotlighting them whenever he can. Austin has always found it necessary for people to encourage and bring out the best in each other, and as a writer at The Hollywood Insider, he can combine that ideology with his ability to think outside the box and truly express his love for the arts in the best ways possible.