Cartoon Network used to be the unlikeliest place on basic cable to see a decapitation. Or a nipple. Or hear a curse word. But that was before Adult Swim. Based in Turner Broadcasting's offices in Atlanta, Cartoon Network began in 1992 as a kid-friendly haven for the bland library of Hanna-Barbera cartoons. From Atom Ant to Yogi Bear, if you'd seen one, you'd seen them all.
But in a warehouse across the highway from Turner's HQ, a production team began concocting original cartoons from bits of old Hanna-Barbera series -- as if they were teenagers tinkering in their parents' garage.
They first tested the waters for grown-up cartoons with Space Ghost Coast to Coast, which earned a TV-14 rating. The original 1966 series followed the superhero formula: Intergalactic policeman Space Ghost thwarted the villainous Council of Doom with help from monkey sidekick Blip. But in 1994, Cartoon Network drafted Space Ghost as a bizarro talk show host, cast former enemies Brak and Zorak as his sidekicks, and inserted taped celebrity interviews with the likes of Donny Osmond, Charlton Heston and the Ramones.
Space Ghost Coast to Coast's appeal wasn't so much its animation but its absurdity. The crew combined salvaged clips from old cartoons with minimal new material. So what if Space Ghost silently blinked behind his desk for what seemed like minutes on end and Zorak's vest changed color every other scene? This late-night curio seized the attention of channel surfers intrigued by its weekly spoof of celebs and talk shows.
Today, the Williams Street Lab produces a full roster of cartoons that anchor the network's 3-year-old Adult Swim block of late-night programming (11pm-2am). The lineup qualifies as some of the edgiest and most idiosyncratic animation ever seen on TV. It includes Space Ghost Coast to Coast spin-offs such as The Brak Show -- a Leave It to Beaver-style sitcom -- and the original series, Aqua Teen Hunger Force, featuring a trio of cantankerous fast-food products.
Sealab 2021 is a twist on the 1972 pro-environment cartoon series Sealab 2020 and features a crew of lame-brained scientists who blab about how cool it would be to have a robot body while their undersea facility explodes around them. On Harvey Birdman, Attorney at Law, the lead character from the 70s series Birdman and the Galaxy Trio has earned his law degree and now defends familiar cartoon citizens from criminal charges, including a DUI against Shaggy and Scooby Doo. The newest addition is the original Squidbillies, which debuted in November, about a family of redneck squids living in the North Georgia hills.
Bolstered by reruns of canceled Fox series like Family Guy, Adult Swim has grown from dorm-room curiosity to crossover success. On basic cable, it frequently ranks No. 1 among coveted 18-to-34-year-olds. DVD sales for Space Ghost Coast to Coast's first season beat the network's goal by 300 percent, and Aqua Teen Hunger Force doubled the sales of Space Ghost. With Aqua Teen's third season and Space Ghost's second set also doing well, dollar signs are flashing in Turner executives' eyes.
Explaining Adult Swim's commercial success is nearly as hard as summarizing a typical episode. In an appropriately animated chat over hamburgers, fries and shakes -- a nod to Aqua Teen's edible antiheroes -- members of Adult Swim's brain trust spoke to CL about how they thrive on limited, lo-fi resources, how they deal with fans who think they're stoned, and why gags like the Death Star of David gradually became fair game.
Creative Loafing: Explain how Adult Swim got its start.
Keith Crofford, vice president of production for Cartoon Network: We started 11 years ago with Space Ghost Coast to Coast, which always seemed an adult program lost in the world of kids' shows. Adult Swim came from a desire to expand and create a world for Space Ghost to live in, instead of being just a late-night anomaly.
Michael Ouweleen, co-creator of Harvey Birdman, Attorney at Law: The big thing going around the network was that a third of the audience at any given time was adults, and not just parents. And they weren't just watching Space Ghost, they'd be watching, you know, Huckleberry Hound. We knew that adults were watching cartoons. But our sales force was like, "It's cute and everything, but I can't sell it."
Adam Reed, co-creator of Sealab 2021: They spend all their money on weed.
Crofford: We started testing what parents would think about having adult or mature cartoons, and it went through a sea of change over a couple of years. At first they said, "Absolutely not. Are you crazy? This is our baby sitter." Two years later, we tested again, and they said, "Yeah, after a long day of watching the kids watch cartoons, it would be nice to relax and have something that I'd enjoy."