5 Things Adult Swim Gave Us Before We Even Knew We Needed Them
One Sunday in 2001, if you were a particular type of kid or teen who had a combination of a love of cartoons, a lightly supervised television and the kind of insomnia normally reserved for depressed adults, you might have gotten an early peek at something that would become a cultural phenomenon. Bleary-eyed from half-done homework, with a plate of Totino’s pizza rolls stopped seconds before a microwave beep as to not alert your parents that you were still planted in front of the TV on a school night, you’d notice something weird happening on Cartoon Network.
Instead of loud bonks and Hanna-Barbera-approved sound effects, suddenly there was a subtle, confident stylistic change, and inexplicable video clips of elderly people in a pool. You’d quickly be informed that you were watching something called “Adult Swim,” and it felt like the comedy equivalent of Skinemax soft-core, a thing that you were wondering how they had gotten away with airing. By the time it ended, probably with a bathrobed adult chiding you about still being awake at 1 a.m., you knew you’d seen something new, and that you’d risk the same chewing-out the very next week.
Since its premiere, Adult Swim has been a pioneer in programming and setting trends. Here are five things they brought us before we ever knew we needed them…
Tim & Eric
I still remember the first time I ever saw Tim & Eric Awesome Show, Great Job!. I was flicking through channels late at night in my college house, and suddenly, there was a man dancing and crying in a hamburger suit and wraparound sunglasses, while a seemingly Vaseline-covered man vomited slightly. I didn’t know yet that this was “Casey and his brother,” but I knew I needed an explanation. No one ever got that explanation, but we did get several seasons of some of the strangest sketch comedy ever made.
Adult Swim was responsible for getting all of it onto the airwaves, when I think even Comedy Central would have balked. Starting with Tom Goes to the Mayor, and then finding their biggest success with Awesome Show, the programming block saw potential in the untraceable premises, artfully bad editing and copious bodily fluids of Heidecker & Wareheim. Now, it’s a touchstone among a certain part of the culture, one that’s unfortunately spawned millions of low-quality imitators taking to online video sites and stand-up stages everywhere with a notebook full of mispronounced words and exaggerated facial expressions.
On that very first Sunday block of Adult Swim, along with a variety of American comedy, there was an episode of an anime series: Cowboy Bebop. Now, I’m not going to pretend that Adult Swim is responsible for introducing anime to the American masses, though an argument could be made on Toonami’s sake, but this was a different kind of anime, one that was a little more palatable to discuss outside of a Magic: The Gathering tournament.
Versus something like Dragon Ball Z, which was the domain of less-than-popular kids doing fake kamehamehas on playgrounds across the country in Goku-emblazoned bowling shirts, Cowboy Bebop was actually cool? You probably still wouldn’t sidle up to the cheerleading squad to ask them what they thought of Stray Dog Strut, but it definitely felt a lot more like something you wouldn’t have to turn off if your crush walked into the room. It even had the power to do something truly impressive: Force an entire generation of teens to desperately try to enjoy jazz.
Another thing that Adult Swim would be famous for were its bumpers, quick interstitials spreading out their usually less-than-30-minute programming blocks. The content ranged from the early days of weird found footage-style video clips, to Jack-Handey style thoughts and one-liners. Throughout all of it, though, the music in the background had a distinct, recognizable style. A style that you’d now recognize coming through the speakers and headphones of workers everywhere as “lo-fi hip-hop beats to do some sort of activity to.”
Spotify playlists and royalty-free sites are now filthy with this sort of soft boom-bap, but at the time, it wasn’t something that most people could have found at a record store without specific instruction. In fact, Adult Swim’s musical chops would only be confirmed as time went on, and they started to release mixtapes and feature artists ahead of the curve. What started with some excellent crate-digging for seconds-long interstitials only now adds more evidence of Adult Swim’s foresight.
Aqua Teen Hunger Force
Of course, the idea of “adult animation” also existed before Adult Swim. I mean, The Simpsons, King of the Hill, there’s a long history. There’s also, of course, animation that crossed age barriers, like Looney Tunes. But it felt like Adult Swim identified a whole new branch of adult animation, shows that were animated, and clearly for adults, but didn’t bear even a passing resemblance to either sitcoms or sketch. A favorite of weeded folk across the country, Aqua Teen Hunger Force, which premiered along with Adult Swim, was hard to aptly describe. Now, there’s dozens of shows that take clear inspiration from it and follow along in the not-really-genre-but-vibe that Aqua Teen excelled at.
Maybe not “before we knew we needed it,” but “only after we knew how badly we needed it” — Adult Swim’s role in shows like Futurama’s resurrection was powerful all the same. Along with their original programming, Adult Swim also became known as a champion of the canceled-too-soon, scooping up underrated shows from ratings wreckage to give them a second life in their late-night block. This well-intentioned grave-robbing wouldn’t only prove effective for their own ratings, but would more than once influence action from the biggest networks on television.
The success of Futurama reruns would convince Comedy Central to revive the series and, unfortunately, take back the rights they’d pawned off on Adult Swim earlier. Maybe less beloved now, but infinitely more massive is another show that owes Adult Swim credit for its current existence: Family Guy. For anyone who might not remember, Family Guy was canceled after only three seasons, and it was only after a similar bit of necromancy by Adult Swim that FOX realized there was still an audience. I’m sure FOX would love to pretend that they backed the now 21-season series the whole way, but in reality, more than 80 percent of the series’ episodes wouldn’t exist without the thankless support Adult Swim threw behind it.