Adult Swim: Discretion Isn’t Advised

The sick minds behind late-night TV’s latest revolution.

April 15, 2014


Adult Swim scans like TV from a dark, twisted parallel dimension. Its parent channel, Cartoon Network, is kid-friendly during the day, but flip by when the sun’s down and you may find a spastic and hyper-violent prison guard chewing through inmates, a milkshake and a wad of meat terrorizing their greasy next-door neighbor, a talk-show host lightly electrocuting the celebrity guests in his chair or an eight-year-old candy-seller in a Scarface-inspired shootout with cockney cartel kings. And that’s all before 2AM, when things get really interesting.

“One of my favorite shows is Off the Air,” says Jason Demarco, Creative Director of on-air promotions and a 15-year vet at the network. “It’s basically just an 11-minute music video. There’s an episode called “Animals”: it’s just stock footage of animals from internet videos, cut together in these musical montages. There’s no plot, there’s no narrator, there’s nothing to guide you through it—you’re just dumped into a different clip. For me, that’s amazing. I love the idea that people may be coming home from a night out and may not be 100 percent mentally there,” he says with a chuckle. “And they’re looking at it like, ‘What… is happening?’”

What started nearly 15 years ago as a two-hour programming experiment has emerged as the biggest success story in late-night television: an irreverent, disruptive anti-channel that blends live action and animated original series to the delight of 18-35 year old males across the country. While the press clamored over the network talk show hosts’ game of musical chairs, culminating with David Letterman’s recent retirement announcement, Adult Swim quietly swept ratings among the covetable young male demo across 2013. The network baited passerbys with Family Guy reruns and rewarded diehards with edgier content more in line with a Tumblr feed than a TV channel—most of the original series clock in at only 15 minutes long. It’s no wonder digitally native young adults are so dialed-in. “Our average viewer is 23 years old,” explains Walter Newman, head of program development, with a giddiness you’d expect in a start-up pitch. “They don’t look at late-night talk shows. They think talk shows are kind of slow. They know what to expect: the monologue, the interview.” This month, Adult Swim’s programming extended earlier, to 8pm, the network’s first full foray into primetime. Their opening gambit? King of the Hill reruns, which, while a brilliant series, is tamer than most AS originals. But the crew promises they aren’t softening for the new hour. On the contrary: “King of the Hill is there as a bit of a roadblock,” Newman explains. “If you’re seven years old and coming off a Cartoon Network show, you might not sit through the whole episode. It’s there at 8PM to move kids away. Because we’re about to go into some crazy stuff.”

Adult Swim was launched in 2001 by TV exec and high school dropout Mike Lazzo, starting as a midnight block featuring classic cartoons and quirky originals aimed at young adults. Shows like Robot Chicken and Aqua Teen Hunger Force straddled the line between, as Demarco describes it, “plotless nonsense” and “hilarious joke delivery devices with absurdist characters.” Where classic television was built on comfort and familiarity—standardized laugh-tracks, familiar plot lines, parallel formats across genres—Adult Swim races to stay current, often sacrificing lucidity for provocation. Exhibit A: their irreverent, real-time “bumps,” the network’s unique promo device of white text over a black screen between commercials, written by select staffers often on the same day they air. “The bumps are the voice of the network, like your TV’s talking to you,” Newman explains. “We’re not pandering, like ‘This is what young dudes like! Here’s the hot chick! Here’s the cool car!’ We’re just talking to them.” For example, when a dusting of snow rendered Atlanta traffic immobile this past February, a bump offered this first-hand account from the network’s ATL headquarters: “Some of us got stuck in traffic, had a 13-hour drive that ended in gridlock, left our car on the side of the highway, and immediately peed in the snow, capping the night off by writing Prince’s symbol in piss.” Cue the cut to the yellow-trailed snow.

That crude tone may rub parent groups the wrong way, but it’s undoubtedly paying off. The network has just come off a record-setting year, averaging 1.15 million viewers a night in 2013—more than Leno, Letterman, Kimmel and Fallon. And with newfound eyes and advertisers, Adult Swim is gearing up for what could be its biggest year yet, as a slate of popular titles return and new series are set to premiere. One of the station’s flagship titles, The Boondocks, returns for its fourth and reportedly final season next week, capping a nine-year run as the wittiest, most ruthless satire of Black culture on television since Chappelle’s Show. This go round, the Freeman family’s misadventures include Riley and Huey moving packs of black-market haircare products, neighbor Tom Dubois acting as legal council to an R&B rebel named Pretty Boy Flizzy, and Granddad dating a long-lost Kardashian sister. “People ask me about The Boondocks more than anything else,” Newman says. “People are shaking the cage waiting for it, and we have some lightning rod episodes in store.”

Many fans were shocked to learn that Boondocks creator Aaron McGruder had stepped down from showrunner duties for this season. Press releases cited “scheduling conflicts” between McGruder and production company Sony Pictures Television, and an Adult Swim rep deflected a request for comment: “Adult Swim isn’t involved: it’s between Aaron and Sony.” But McGruder’s absence from the series hasn’t muted his output on the network, as he’s opted to co-write and direct a new live-action series, Black Jesus. In the early web series on which the show is based, Jesus returns to Earth as a Black man in modern South Central LA—the vignettes funneled religious tropes through a contemporary Black voice for satirical dig at Black Christianity. In one early sketch, Black Jesus admonishes his mans for only hitting him up when they want something: “Did a nigga not lay his life down for you? Nigga that’s my life!” he asks between hits of burning bush. “Aaron is one of the best writers that I’ve ever worked with. Black Jesus is going to shake things up just like The Boondocks does,” Newman assures. “But the full series is very different from the earlier web show. It’s a much deeper dive into the community at large.”

It’s interesting to consider that a network known for Family Guy and Robot Chicken has become a platform for polarizing Black voices like McGruder, Hannibal Burress and Eric André of The Eric Andre Show, and even Tyler, the Creator and the Odd Future squad, who reek havoc on the Chappelle-meets-Jackass vehicle Loiter Squad. Newman, who is Black, sees it more as a symptom of the network’s creative edge than any particular slant: “We look for unique, funny, strong voices in all our series. I think many writers and comedians, particularly those coming from a minority experience, have been boxed in creatively by other outlets. We just lift off the box and listen.”

Still, these voices are more engrossing in their contrasts than commonalities: if The Boondocks’ meaty social commentary and meditative pace has a counterweight, it’s Loiter Squad, Tyler, the Creator’s chaotic dumping ground for absurdist sketches and scabby skate clips. Before his rise to prominence, a young Tyler uploaded a crude clip to his YouTube account featuring stuffed animals having simulated sex and brawling to Dipset tracks and unreleased Odd Future beats. He annotated it with “Hopefully Adult Swim Sees This.” Six years later, as his show enters its third season, he describes his creative relationship with the network as “perfect.” “With this season, me, Lionel, and my boy Cam, we took over the writing 100 percent,” Tyler explains before a meeting with production company Dickhouse in LA. “When you’re 16, 17, that’s that age where playing with a fucking stuffed animal to make it fuck a toilet is humorous. That’s still funny as fuck to me.” Despite controversies—though in some part, probably thanks to them—like the banned Mountain Dew ad that actually would’ve fit right in between Adult Swim bumps, Odd Future’s on-air successes and increasing creative control suggest that TV will only be getting weirder as the kids of the internet get older and mainstream platforms continue to bend to their tastes.

In the early ’00s, a growing-up generation raised on Saturday morning cartoons and TGIF family sitcoms met some new faces on the TV screen: Peter Griffin, sure, but also Johnny Knoxville, George W. Bush, Carson Daly, Osama Bin Laden, Paris Hilton. Suddenly, TV wasn’t just the cushiony edu-taining leisure of children’s programming, but a satirical window into the political and pop-culture realities just outside schoolyards and parents’ earshot. At the same time, the internet was really taking hold as an instant, uncensored sea of content for users to actively dig through, instead of passively absorbing, as they’d done on traditional broadcasted mediums. “I’m 22,” Tyler says. “We grew up in a age where we watched TV, so we’re still used to the thought of ‘I gotta get home by 8 to watch this.’ A lot of the kids that watch Adult Swim are just like that.”

“People here had the foresight,” Newman comments. “So today, Adult Swim captures what’s going on online. The bumps are always different, the schedule always changes—who knows what we’re going to put on. Which is something special in this day and age. It’s hard to stay ahead, so what’s next? That’s our constant.”

Adult Swim: Discretion Isn’t Advised