When most people think about the television content providers with the best track record for consistently rolling out quality programming after quality programming, they often think of Netflix or HBO, but they don’t often think of Cartoon Network. Often overlooked (because animation is not given the same kind of respect that live action is given), it is worth noting that Cartoon Network has actually been one of the most consistent networks when it comes to offering good to great content since Turner first launched it in 1992, and Cartoon Network’s late-night adult-oriented programming block Adult Swim alone is a huge reason why.
Adult Swim originated from a man named Mike Lazzo. Lazzo, who was not very social as a kid and was more into watching cartoons like Speed Racer than making friends, started out at Turner as a programmer for the animation block on TBS before he moved to Cartoon Network, going from being that network’s programmer to Vice President of Programming in 1994.
Lazzo’s favorite TV show was The Simpsons and ever since that series premiered on FOX, animated series aimed at adults became a popular trend in the nineties that cable networks like MTV and Comedy Central had a lot of success with. Lazzo would create his own animated series for adults in 1994 when he founded the production studio Ghost Planet Industries (later renamed Williams Street in 2000) and created the comedy Space Ghost Coast to Coast, which was a parody of a talk show hosted by a reimagined version of classic Hanna-Barbera superhero character Space Ghost (featuring sampled clips from the ’60s cartoon redubbed by George Lowe) interviewing real celebrities. Space Ghost also shared screen time with his former villains Zorak (the bandleader), Moltar (director and producer) and occasionally Brak, Lokar, Tansit, Metallus and Black Widow among other characters.
This show was, in a word, bizarre. But it was original, fearless and totally experimental in nature and many adults tuned in and loved it. Adult Swim wouldn’t be introduced until 2001 but this show largely formed the basis for the kind of programming that would air on that block.
Capitalizing on Cartoon Network’s adult audience was a smart move since they made up a good portion of the network’s viewership. Before Adult Swim existed, Cartoon Network would air classic cartoon anthology series like ToonHeads, The Tex Avery Show, O Canada and Late Night Black and White which sometimes took advantage of their plan to target adults as well as kids by airing uncensored cartoon shorts. But as original Cartoon Network shows like Dexter’s Laboratory, Cow and Chicken, Johnny Bravo and The Powerpuff Girls began taking over the schedule while old cartoons began slowly getting phased out and moved to the separate cable channel Boomerang, so too were these anthology shows being replaced in 2000 when Williams Street began introducing original adult programs that were similar in style and humor to Space Ghost Coast to Coast, the first of which were the two Space Ghost spin-offs The Brak Show and Aqua Teen Hunger Force, the legal comedy Harvey Birdman, Attorney at Law which reimagined Hanna-Barbera superhero Birdman as a lawyer who often represented other Hanna-Barbera characters in court, and Sealab 2021, a reimagined version of Hanna-Barbera’s Sealab 2020 which recycled and redubbed old clips from that series.
These shows all premiered on Cartoon Network as special previews a year before being introduced on the programming block Adult Swim, which first launched on September 2, 2001.
Adult Swim became hugely popular among teenagers and adults thanks to its subversive and hilarious shows which were aimed squarely at mature audiences but were often more creative and adventurous than the programming on almost every other network because they were allowed to be violent, sexual and just plain unconventional to their heart’s content.
In its early years, Adult Swim would air the unaired episodes of the short-lived UPN series Home Movies and the anime series Cowboy Bebop. Both of these were arbiters of what was to come.
For example, over the years the block would air reruns of other network’s shows (sometimes even popularizing them) in syndication, including Family Guy and Futurama (both of which were revived with additional seasons thanks in large part to their popularity on Adult Swim) in addition to shows like Baby Blues, King of the Hill, The Oblongs, The PJs, American Dad! and Bob’s Burgers.
And following the popularity of Cowboy Bebop, Adult Swim has regularly aired popular anime series like Fullmetal Alchemist, Lupin the 3rd, Bleach, Ghost in the Shell, Gurren Lagann, Inuyasha, JoJo’s Bizarre Adventure, Mobile Suit Gundam, Naruto, One Piece, Dragon Ball Super, My Hero Academia and Attack on Titan. Most of these aired on Toonami, Adult Swim’s block-within-a-block that was a relaunch of a former programming block on Cartoon Network that aired in the daytime and primarily showed anime. The popularity of these Japanese shows on Adult Swim is not surprising since the cable network is currently the only one in the U.S. that airs anime aimed at older audiences.
As for Adult Swim’s original programming (most of which is produced by Williams Street), it is among the network’s best offerings and they include The Venture Bros. (2003), The Boondocks (2005), Moral Orel (2005), Robot Chicken (2005), Squidbillies (2005), 12 oz. Mouse (2005), Frisky Dingo (2006), Metalocalypse (2006), Superjail! (2007), Black Dynamite (2012), Rick and Morty (2013), Mr. Pickles (2014), Mike Tyson Mysteries (2014), The Shivering Truth (2018), Primal (2019) and Tuca & Bertie (2021, picked up for a second season after Netflix cancelled it). And Adult Swim has also aired popular live-action shows like Tim and Eric Awesome Show, Great Job! (2007), Delocated (2008), Childrens Hospital (2010), Eagleheart (2011), The Eric Andre Show (2012), Your Pretty Face Is Going to Hell (2013), Black Jesus (2014), Dream Corp LLC (2016) and Joe Pera Talks with You (2018).
I usually like everything that airs on this network and if I don’t love one of their shows I usually still appreciate it for its sheer creativity and strangeness. It feels like the one place on television where filmmakers and animators are given real artistic freedom, and its niche appeal is often emphasized by unorthodox promotions, the offbeat posts from its social media accounts, its ironic and sardonic sense of humor and a solid self-awareness as an alternative space in the cable TV landscape. So it’s no wonder that it is so prolific with great shows, although many of its programs are too out there to be mainstream hits and admittedly its programming is not for everyone, nor does it try to be. But for those who appreciate uncensored and unbridled originality, it’s a miracle that something like it exists.
Eli’s Personal Favorite Adult Swim Shows:
Aqua Teen Hunger Force – HBO Max
Harvey Birdman, Attorney at Law – HBO Max
Sealab 2021 – HBO Max
Moral Orel – HBO Max
Robot Chicken – HBO Max
Squidbillies – HBO Max
Black Dynamite – HBO Max
The Eric Andre Show – Hulu
Rick and Morty – Hulu/HBO Max
Primal – HBO Max