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The children of Homer and Cartman
Adult Swim takes comedy animation to the next generation

On the Cartoon Network, a quiet revolution is taking place. Airing from 11 pm to 6 am every night except Friday, the Adult Swim programming block — aside from being designed for insomniacs and the unemployed — seems to be nothing short of a cultural phenomenon. That coveted 18-to-34 demographic is not only the main audience but the creative force behind Adult Swim. Which makes it one of the smartest, freshest, and most consistently hip line-ups on TV. Some of the earliest Adult Swim shows — Harvey Birdman and Sealab 2021 — were recycled from failed Hanna-Barbara cartoons. Characters whom the core audience already knew and loved from childhood were retooled, recut, and redubbed with current references and lewd innuendo. And though cheap animation and raunchy jokes aren’t exactly novel, Adult Swim has set itself apart from similar shows via bleaker settings and adult humor. (That’s " adult " as in jokes about small-town government bureaucrats, not explosive diarrhea.) As on South Park, however, the fun is largely reference-centric, relying on the audience’s pop-culture knowledge.

Some of Adult Swim’s best shows began elsewhere. The axed Fox series Futurama and Family Guy found life after cancellation through impressive DVD sales and repeats on the Cartoon Network, which gave them the promotion and the audience that Fox never had. Ostensibly about a dysfunctional Rhode Island family (a nod to creator Seth MacFarlane’s New England upbringing), Family Guy episodes are just flimsily constructed plot lines that facilitate brutally funny rapid-fire non sequiturs. The humor is sharp to the point of being jagged, and no one is spared the writers’ pitchforks: celebrities, minorities, even networks — especially Fox, which saw the error of its ways and has since revived the show.

Although the bulk of Adult Swim’s weeknight line-up is made up of Family Guy repeats and Japanese anime imports, the true gold lies in the homegrown material. In what seems a nod as much to the Cartoon Network’s limited budget as to its audience’s limited attention span, all of Adult Swim’s original programs run about 12 minutes, half the length of an ordinary sit-com. Perhaps the hottest series right now is rookie sensation Robot Chicken, a stop-motion free-for-all that’s just concluded its first season (but can be found in repeats).

Whereas Family Guy camouflages its sidetracks with story lines, Robot Chicken makes no such pretense. In the opening sequence, the title creature is strapped to a chair, his eyes are propped open, and he’s forced to watch a fuzzy television whose channels are constantly flipping. It’s an apt simulation of how you feel watching the show’s non-stop parody parade play out, an army of vintage action figures (from G.I. Joe to Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles) standing in for Claymation models and spoofing TV shows and films both old and new. But an easy target doesn’t necessarily make for an unfunny joke. One of Robot Chicken’s better bits has ’N Sync’s Joey Fatone avenging his band mates’ deaths at the hands of heartless yakuza in " Revenge of the Fat One. " And since the show was created by Family Guy/Buffy the Vampire Slayer alumnus Seth Green, many Young Hollywooders — notably Ashton Kutcher and Sarah Michelle Gellar — stop by to lend their voices and take jabs at themselves. On a recent episode, Brecken Meyer stormed off the set, dissatisfied with his lines and screaming, " I was in Garfield, motherfuckers! "

Where Robot Chicken leaves off, the cybernetic turkey picks up. He’s one of the dozens of villains who plague the world of Aqua Teen Hunger Force, a trio of oversized food items that live in the New Jersey suburbs and fight crime. Or at least they did for the first couple of episodes. From there, it seems the creators realized that the fun wasn’t in watching Master Shake (a giant, pink-strawed frappe), Meatwad (a childlike lump of hamburger), and Frylock (a box of French fries with laser vision) do things — it was in watching them do nothing. Sort of a cartoon version of Seinfeld, with more mummies. ATHF watches as random supernatural troubles — like alien invasions or evil sandwiches — befall our " heroes, " who then try to rid themselves of their problem in as few steps as possible, damaging as much property as necessary in the process.

Of course, this is Adult Swim, so the aliens aren’t your normal lanky gray Martians. No, the " Mooninites " of the Aqua Teens’ world look like pixelly Space Invader video-game rejects, and they don’t want to be taken to your leader — they just need you to go to the convenience store and cash their uncle’s unemployment check so they can buy porn. And though the Aqua Teens are superheroes, it would be inaccurate to call their nemeses supervillains. Pathetic adversaries like Mothmonsterman don’t possess that kind of power or intelligence. The only one who seems to have a clue is the Teens’ neighbor and landlord, wifebeater-and-sweatpants-clad white guy Carl. Unfortunately, Carl is helpless to stop any of the proceedings, and he’s made to watch week after week as the chaos next door spills into his yard, destroying his pool, his car, and his life. Although he’s not an entirely innocent bystander, you have to feel for the guy as the Teens accidentally decapitate him and graft his head onto the corpse of an elderly black man. After a sluggish first season, word of mouth and massive DVD sales turned Aqua Teen Hunger Force into a must-see, and a merchandising juggernaut to boot, inspiring action figures, plush toys, and other things that, y’know, normal cartoons are associated with.

Not every Adult Swim show is so beloved. In fact, some are downright maligned by territorial fans just itching to start up a fresh on-line petition. By far the most bizarre and polarizing entry is the fledgling Tom Goes to the Mayor. A low-budget synthesis of live action and computer animation (which came about " because we had no money or artistic ability, " according to 30ish series co-creator Tim Heidecker), it tells the tale of the small town of Jefferton through the idiotic follies of the show’s namesakes, Tom being a relatively well-meaning, idea-filled citizen and the Mayor being, well, a jackass. Despite inventive story lines (including one where the Mayor attempts to protect Jefferton’s children by placing bear traps all over town) and high-profile cameos (Jack Black and Jeff Goldblum), the show has been slow to catch on.

" We deliberately intended the town and the people of the town to be as ugly and sad as can be, " Heidecker told me via e-mail when I asked him about Tom’s æsthetic. " It may be an exaggeration, but it seems to us that that’s what a lot of America sort of looks like. We grew up in small towns that have lost their identity and have been taken over by franchises, highways, and outside interests. And the people in these towns have, for the most part, just settled for it. We take great care in the backgrounds, making sure they are littered with duck tape, bad signage, soot, and dust on everything. We’ve gotten lots of e-mails from people that say, ‘Have you been to my town? Jefferton is just like the shithole I live in.’  "

Rome wasn’t built in a day, and neither was South Park, Springfield, or Jefferton. If Tom’s deadpan humor really is the next step in cartoon evolution, it’ll take viewers time to warm up to it. But warm they will. Adult Swim has generational appeal beyond just the beer-pong crowd. We the children of He-Man and Optimus Prime are growing up, packing our bags, moving on . . . and we’re taking the ’toons with us.

Issue Date: August 12 - 18, 2005
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