Sunday, September 30, 2007
Adult Swim: New York Style
Adult Swim: New York Style
Ever since the days of Roger Rabbit in 1987, the entertainment industry has been trying to make and market animation specifically to the tastes of young adults, while hoping to also sweep along viewers in their 30s and 40s that still collect comic books and action figures.
Once upon a time MTV animation had a ground-breaking vehicle to showcase innovative animated programming for young adults. It was called Liquid Television and it was the launch pad of cheap acquisitions such as (then unknown) Mike Judge’s embryonic Beavis and Butthead. As we all know, the unlikely duo grew into a massive hit show of their own. The trouble started when development executives ,TV programmers, and network presidents tried to build a line up of animated programming that might keep viewers glued to their seats. Towards this end, MTV employed a lot of NY animation artists, built a studio, spent a lot of money, and (famously) rejected a show created by a new pair of unknowns named Matt Stone and Trey Parker, called South Park. MTV animation, despite some modest success with Celebrity Death Match and Daria, largely survived off the vapors of Beavis and Butthead. In 2001 they gave up the ghost and closed shop.
But, who was to claim the audience primed on years of Beavis and Butthead. Sure, South Park landed on Comedy Central to major success, but (like MTV) this network had trouble expanding the lone hit into a programming block. Lots of misfires stacked up and other niche cable networks jumped onto the bandwagon (Sci Fi network’s Tripping the Rift, anyone?) Then came the bizarre attempt by Spike TV to debut it’s block of animation as if animated cult hits could just be made to order. Anyone remember Gary the Rat, This Just In, and Stripperella? Most recently, MTV animation rose from the dead, plugged in a bunch of wacom cintiqs, and hired an awesome New York crew to create an 8 episode series called Friday, which they dumped off the air after one or two broadcasts.
No network (or even web destination) was able to crack the code and create an animated line up that could consistently deliver the goods to this fickle audience. That was slowly about to change. In the early 1990s, Cartoon Network quietly debuted a late night show called Space Ghost Coast to Coast. The odd show repurposed character names and designs from a largely forgotten Hanna and Barbera cartoon from the 1960s and re-imagined its stars as the animated hosts of a late night talk show. The show began to develop a following and became the seed for a whole night of programming that would later be called Adult Swim. Where all other networks have failed, Cartoon Network’s Adult Swim line up has spawned hits such as Robot Chicken, Aqua Teen Hunger Force, The Venture Brothers, and several others.
The Venture Brothers, created by Jackson Publick, launched as a series in 2003, becoming Adult Swim’s first New York area production. This summer it was followed by Assy McGee (co-created by Carl W. Adams), a production of Boston-based Clambake Animation, but partly remotely staffed by New York area freelancers, including myself. Soon to begin production is a third New York series called Super Jail, created by Christy Karacas and produced at Aaron Augenblick’s studio in Dumbo.
Why has Adult Swim succeeded where others have not? The answer may be that they don’t try to make cult hits. There is no pandering to the audience. In fact, like a good punk band, Adult Swim sometimes even displays contempt for their audience. After all, they did recently mix reruns of Saved By the Bell “ironically” into their programming line up. Adult Swim’s development executives green light and produce shows that amuse themselves much in the same way Chuck Jones, Tex Avery, and Bob Clampett (working in the Golden Age of Hollywood animation) made shorts.
Adult Swim is about to take a victory lap by expanding its programming reach to seven nights a week. Surely, MTV, Spike TV, and Comedy Central will be among those watching.