My love for you seems to be relative to my current mood, sure. But today I love you, Al. You finally got off your stupid do-shitty-in-college ass and did something right for once:
Kids, Out of the Pool: Time for Adult Swim
In times of stale and contrived reality shows and endless amounts of cop dramas, there is a demographic of our population that strives to find something different to watch on television. This demographic is the male, age 18 to 34. In this day and age, men seem to have grown tired of the late-night talk shows that used to dominate the ratings for late-night television. Networks have been trying to figure out for quite sometime what it is that these males want to watch late at night. It seems that a Turner-based network has found the answer. The Cartoon Network is a 24-hour channel of cartoons, ranging from old Looney Tunes cartoons to the newly innovative animation shows such as “Dexter’s Laboratory” and “The Powerpuff Girls.” The question still remains though: how can a network that shows only cartoons possibly appeal to adults? To answer, one must jump in the late-night television pool and find out. A block of television comprised mainly of inexpensively made cartoons showed up on Cartoon Network, aptly titled Adult Swim. After a grassroots-campaign through droves of college campuses, the animation block became popular enough to start its run on this 24-hour cartoon network. Airing Sunday through Thursday from 11p.m. till 5a.m., this is a showcase of adult-oriented cartoons that has taken the male demographic (and ratings) by storm. Network executives are still questioning how cartoons could possibly captivate audiences. Even though cartoons are childish in looks, they are still recognized by the 18-34 year old male as being a viable form of comedy, chock-full of innovation, satire, and intelligent commentary.
The 18-34 year old male has made a clear-cut statement that they want to watch fast-food superheroes and animated sitcoms when late-night rolls around. Take Family Guy for an example. In July 2004, Family Guy retained the number-one spot on late-night television among males 18 to 34, which is up nearly 31 percent from the summer of 2003. (Grimm 2) This block of animation consistently beats out network television shows such as Jay Leno and David Letterman in the ratings. (Poniewozik 1) From 2003 to 2004, the number of Adult Swim viewers grew by over 60 percent, going from 180,000 to 431,000 viewers. (Peters 2) These numbers are nothing to scuff at; the average young adult male wants to watch cartoons late at night. At the same time though, in one year’s time women viewers have shot up 167 percent. (Ebenkamp 3) How did one block of television steal this demographic so quickly?
For a block of television to be successful, it must be produced by keen minds and marketed equally as well. Adult Swim’s roots date back to 1994 with the release of Space Ghost, Coast to Coast. This was essentially a parody of a late-night show, using an old Hanna-Barbera superhero as the host. He has an alien bandleader and had nonsensical interviews with real-life celebrities. (Poniewozik 1) The show’s creator, Mike Lazzo, is also the executive producer of the animation block. (Peters 4) Thanks to the success of the show, Adult Swim was created in 2001 to air between the hours of 11 p.m. and 2 a.m. The big challenge that the marketing director Greg Heanue was given was to market Adult Swim with only around $100,000. (Ebenkamp 1) His plan was to make cheap merchandise with “Adult Swim” plastered all over them and market the show to 30 pre-selected college campuses. These young adults formed the loyal fanbase that the show needed, propelling its popularity to cult status. The fans apparently saw something amazing in these cartoons about talking fast-food articles and misfit superheroes. The secret lies within the cartoons themselves; they are genuinely funny objects of entertainment. The re-airing of one particular cartoon propelled Adult Swim into the big headlines.
Family Guy, a cancelled FOX network cartoon, tells of Peter Griffin and his (un) ordinary life with his family. The show resembles a parody of the campy family sitcoms of the early 90’s, such as Home Improvement or Full House. The show’s popularity resides in the fact that a completely normal family gets into these outlandish situations, many being purely comical and hysterical in nature. Young adults that watch the show find charm in the show’s wisecracks at society, parody on family life, and jabs at representational trends in our culture. In the episode entitled Fifteen Minutes of Shame, the family is cast into their own reality television show that closely resembles the popular MTV show, The Real World. Everything from character profiling to brooding arguments to characters leaving the show (only to be re-cast), this episode takes a comical look at today’s reality television shows.
Many of the shows we watch today are supposedly depicting real-life situations, usually put into a game show-type format. There are sometimes winners that get prizes and losers who have to suffer consequences. There have been countless retreads of shows like American Idol and Survivor popping up everywhere. Family Guy’s take on this trend shows us the ridiculous side of these often-asinine shows. The daughter, Meg, represents the person on the show that is portrayed as the “nag”. Reality television shows usually pick a popular person, a nag, and the person no one seems to care about. This tactic is used to make people want to watch the show even more to see what happens to them. In this episode, Meg leaves the reality television show, only to be replaced by a more beautiful version of her. To complicate the situation even more, the whole family ends up leaving the show. The real Meg returns to find her entire family has now been re-casted. Young adults who tune into this show and see a situation like this happen recognize the satire depicted and get a good laugh. While this is the number one show on Adult Swim, another show has had booming success in the late-night timeslot.
Aqua Teen Hunger Force is an offbeat postmodern cartoon that showcases a group of slacker superheroes that closely resemble “Happy Meal” items. These oddball characters go on “adventures,” such as trying many get-rich-quick schemes instead of fighting crime. (Poniewozik 1) Their villains in the show mainly consist of outlandish monsters that more closely resemble college roommates rather than true-to-life villains. (Grimm 2) In the episode entitled The Universal Remonster, two dim-witted aliens hijack the Aqua Teen’s cable through a space portal. The Universal Remonster is supposed to change the channels for the aliens, but instead walks through the portal and into the Aqua Teen’s house, where he messes with their television instead. The “leader” of the trio, Frylock, eventually goes through the portal to reclaim their cable and inform the aliens that their Universal Remonster has ran out of batteries. With a plot so wacky, how could anyone besides a child let his or her imagination run so wild enough to enjoy it?
The truth of the matter is, young adults still enjoy their superheroes. This generation grew up with cartoons on Saturday mornings such as Looney Tunes, the Hanna-Barbera cartoons, and G.I. Joe. (Peters 1) Many of those Hanna-Barbera cartoons were terribly done, and often tanked after a single season of being on-air. The slacker mentalities in the characters displayed in ATHF often mimic and imitate personas from those old shows, giving the average young adult viewer a slight feeling of nostalgia. There is charm in a show that gives a nod to its roots before completely tearing them to shreds in a comedic fashion. Also, the crazy plot lines can appeal to the insomniac that is just cruising through the stations late at night. The blatantly funny shows that appear to be about nothing have been the key to the success of Adult Swim. A brand new show that premiered on February 20, 2005 shows that cartoons can be quite versatile, showcasing this through parodying the all-to-common sketch show.
Robot Chicken is an all-out attack on the viewer’s senses. The show is simply a collection of mini sketches that fly by at light speed, giving you the feeling that you are channel surfing. The animation consists of action figures and claymation to act out the scenes. The sketches never intertwine, often bouncing from sketch-to-sketch quickly after the often-implied witty punch line at the end of each segment. The segments are purely satirical pieces, ripping on pop culture of the past and present in the same vain as a show like Saturday Night Live… only at warp speed. The premier episode entitled Junk in the Trunk pokes fun at the old cartoon show entitled Transformers, with Optimus Prime getting prostate cancer. MTV’s Total Request Live is spliced with CSPAN, there is an overly exaggerated parody of the “Brain on Heroin” drug commercial, and a blooper-reel show, referencing everything from Poke’mon to Superman rounds off the 11-minute show. This show perfectly embodies the element of “randomness” that many people crave in their television viewing.
I, like many others viewers of Adult Swim, enjoy ever-changing television. Attention spans are growing shorter these days and television viewing is a pretty good showcase of this. When cruising the channels I see tons of things to watch, most of it not being good. You have your reality television, advertisements, cop dramas, news stations, and comedy stations. In a span of just those mere seconds of channel surfing, you will have seen many different types of television all rolled into one. When you see something you do not like, switching the channel occurs out of impulse. Those few times you stop and tune in to see how much you really do not enjoy it. When something is universally known as bad, it is often parodied. Anything can be made funny, as long as it is done tastefully and creatively. These adult-oriented cartoons constantly parody new things as they are introduced. To the lover of satire and parodies, these shows are essential in viewing on a constant basis. This light-speed approach to parody through inexpensive cartoons keeps viewers like me watching.
Television keeps your attention by making you constantly pay attention. In a good movie, you can’t turn away for a few seconds or you will miss something crucial. Cartoons with a linear plot can be similar. This cartoon keeps your attention simply through making sketches that are very short and to the point. Young adults experience nostalgia in seeing references to things of their past, such as other cartoons, video games, and pop culture. Even though the shows on Adult Swim are often risqué and contain foul language, older viewers can connect with the shows through this fantastical reliving of their past. (Gilgoff 2) A cartoon such as Robot Chicken is a direct shot of nostalgia to the viewer. Although the animation is often clunky and not perfect, a grown-up watching the show can appreciate it through the often hilarious takes on pop culture. (Gilgoff 2) If the satire, sense of randomness, parody, and overall comedic feel are not contributors to Adult Swim’s success, then perhaps it is due to expensive and flashy technology?
On the contrary, the cartoons that you view on Adult Swim are among the most inexpensive pieces of television ever to air. The people who work to make Adult Swim have chosen to spend the least amount of money possible, in any way they can. Instead of hiring voice actors, many of the writers and producers on the show contribute their own voices to the show. (Peters 4) Since Ted Turner owns the rights to the old Hanna-Barbera cartoons, those cartoons are often recycled and used in newer cartoons such as Sealab 2021 or Harvey Birdman: Attorney-At-Law. (Gilgoff 2) To add even more bang-for-their-buck, the creators have opted to using cheap computer software to animate their shows. This means the creators can make more shows without needing an in-house staff and do not have to hire people to draw their cartoons. (Peters 4) In lieu of saving so much money in every way thinkable, it means that the show can take many other risks that other shows simply cannot.
If a show that is produced by Adult Swim is aired and does not get ratings, the show can simply be scrapped and replaced by something new and fresh. Viewers of Adult Swim appreciate the fact that the shows can do so much with so little to begin with. The inexpensiveness of the entire operation of making these shows allows their creators to let their imaginations run completely wild without having to worry about costly consequences. The official Adult Swim website, along with their in-between-show programming consists of a simple black background with white text super-imposed over it. This of course is another cost-cutting measure by the staff and has become quite popular among viewers. Between the shows, the writers come up with witty little blurbs to display on-air. One example in particular pokes fun at themselves for being cheap, displaying animated white jumping flames with the saying, “This cost us about $1.99 to make” after it. (Peters 4) These blunt statements have a cult following to them, and Thursday nights have been proclaimed to be “Viewer Card Night” where people can send in their own ideas for cards via the Internet and have them shown on-air. (Ebenkamp 2)
These on-air interactions with the droves of viewers that watch Adult Swim add even more sugarcoated charm to the program itself. People feel as if they are part of their own small community, instantly clicking with the humor put forth by its creators. This blue-collar feel to Adult Swim has effectively captured the 18-34 year old male demographic and does not appear to be letting go anytime soon. Justin Peters of Washington Monthly states that the theme that most of the shows share is “Ironic detachment and meta-commentary on the metaphors and tropes of bad television.” (Peters 4) This trend in which cartoons rip on other old television shows, societal trends, and even themselves has grown in popularity ever since Adult Swim made it alright to do this. While other networks have tried to copy Adult Swim in attempts to steal back some of the demographic, nearly all of them have failed. They have tried too hard to emulate the successful cartoons on Adult Swim, ultimately succumbing to repetitiveness and overall mediocrity.
Yet the efforts of other networks attempting the cartoon business has definitely pointed to a representational trend in our modern society. Cartoons are now being viewed as something more than just a colorful form of programming for kids. As more and more people take a dip in the late-night television pool during Adult Swim, more are viewing these adult-oriented cartoons as true comedic pieces. Loaded to the brim with funny social commentary, parody, self-reflexivity and satire, cartoons are becoming increasingly popular in our society among young adults. With so many other tiresome trends in our media, be it reality television or cop dramas, cartoons are there to grill, skewer and gobble them up whole. So come on in, the water is fine: when it is time for the kids to get out of the pool, enjoy your period of Adult Swim.