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Midnight Munchies with [adult swim] 

How Cartoon Network's programs became a hip destination for humor-hungry insomniacs

Cartoon Network used to be the unlikeliest place on basic cable to see a decapitation. Or a nipple. Or hear a curse word. But that was before Adult Swim. Based in Turner Broadcasting's offices in Atlanta, Cartoon Network began in 1992 as a kid-friendly haven for the bland library of Hanna-Barbera cartoons. From Atom Ant to Yogi Bear, if you'd seen one, you'd seen them all.

But in a warehouse across the highway from Turner's HQ, a production team began concocting original cartoons from bits of old Hanna-Barbera series -- as if they were teenagers tinkering in their parents' garage.

They first tested the waters for grown-up cartoons with Space Ghost Coast to Coast, which earned a TV-14 rating. The original 1966 series followed the superhero formula: Intergalactic policeman Space Ghost thwarted the villainous Council of Doom with help from monkey sidekick Blip. But in 1994, Cartoon Network drafted Space Ghost as a bizarro talk show host, cast former enemies Brak and Zorak as his sidekicks, and inserted taped celebrity interviews with the likes of Donny Osmond, Charlton Heston and the Ramones.

Space Ghost Coast to Coast's appeal wasn't so much its animation but its absurdity. The crew combined salvaged clips from old cartoons with minimal new material. So what if Space Ghost silently blinked behind his desk for what seemed like minutes on end and Zorak's vest changed color every other scene? This late-night curio seized the attention of channel surfers intrigued by its weekly spoof of celebs and talk shows.

Today, the Williams Street Lab produces a full roster of cartoons that anchor the network's 3-year-old Adult Swim block of late-night programming (11pm-2am). The lineup qualifies as some of the edgiest and most idiosyncratic animation ever seen on TV. It includes Space Ghost Coast to Coast spin-offs such as The Brak Show -- a Leave It to Beaver-style sitcom -- and the original series, Aqua Teen Hunger Force, featuring a trio of cantankerous fast-food products.

Sealab 2021 is a twist on the 1972 pro-environment cartoon series Sealab 2020 and features a crew of lame-brained scientists who blab about how cool it would be to have a robot body while their undersea facility explodes around them. On Harvey Birdman, Attorney at Law, the lead character from the 70s series Birdman and the Galaxy Trio has earned his law degree and now defends familiar cartoon citizens from criminal charges, including a DUI against Shaggy and Scooby Doo. The newest addition is the original Squidbillies, which debuted in November, about a family of redneck squids living in the North Georgia hills.

Bolstered by reruns of canceled Fox series like Family Guy, Adult Swim has grown from dorm-room curiosity to crossover success. On basic cable, it frequently ranks No. 1 among coveted 18-to-34-year-olds. DVD sales for Space Ghost Coast to Coast's first season beat the network's goal by 300 percent, and Aqua Teen Hunger Force doubled the sales of Space Ghost. With Aqua Teen's third season and Space Ghost's second set also doing well, dollar signs are flashing in Turner executives' eyes.

Explaining Adult Swim's commercial success is nearly as hard as summarizing a typical episode. In an appropriately animated chat over hamburgers, fries and shakes -- a nod to Aqua Teen's edible antiheroes -- members of Adult Swim's brain trust spoke to CL about how they thrive on limited, lo-fi resources, how they deal with fans who think they're stoned, and why gags like the Death Star of David gradually became fair game.

Creative Loafing: Explain how Adult Swim got its start.

Keith Crofford, vice president of production for Cartoon Network: We started 11 years ago with Space Ghost Coast to Coast, which always seemed an adult program lost in the world of kids' shows. Adult Swim came from a desire to expand and create a world for Space Ghost to live in, instead of being just a late-night anomaly.

Michael Ouweleen, co-creator of Harvey Birdman, Attorney at Law: The big thing going around the network was that a third of the audience at any given time was adults, and not just parents. And they weren't just watching Space Ghost, they'd be watching, you know, Huckleberry Hound. We knew that adults were watching cartoons. But our sales force was like, "It's cute and everything, but I can't sell it."

Adam Reed, co-creator of Sealab 2021: They spend all their money on weed.

Crofford: We started testing what parents would think about having adult or mature cartoons, and it went through a sea of change over a couple of years. At first they said, "Absolutely not. Are you crazy? This is our baby sitter." Two years later, we tested again, and they said, "Yeah, after a long day of watching the kids watch cartoons, it would be nice to relax and have something that I'd enjoy."

Matt Thompson, co-creator of Sealab 2021: Other shows had happened in between, like South Park, that made adult cartoons OK.

Ouweleen: But Turner higher-ups were fuckin' terrified of doing it. They thought we were totally going to kill our main audience. And we all said, "Trust us."

Reed: They're eating their hat now.

Ouweleen: We had a big meeting with Brad Siegel [former president of Turner Entertainment Networks], and for a second, his big idea was, "Why don't you just air Gunsmoke and Bonanza? We have those." We all just looked at each other and grabbed our knees under the table, thinking, "Oh shit, there it goes." Then he looked at us and said [holding up one finger], "You have one year."

Dave Willis, co-creator of "Aqua Teen Hunger Force": I remember a network-wide meeting where one of the ad sales guys said, "Now I've got to go to talk to the Axe Male Body Spray people and tell them that a wad of meat is our new star."

What background in animation did the Adult Swim creators have?

Willis: Zero. We're not animators.

Crofford: No one really has an animation background. Dave was hired as a [production assistant] on Cartoon Planet back in the day. [Aqua Teen Hunger Force co-creator] Matt Maiellaro was in program operations for a while. Matt [Thompson] and Adam worked in our on-air promotion department; Michael heads up that whole division. [Harvey Birdman co-creator] Eric Richter came up through on-air promotions.

Willis: If we had pitched Aqua Teen as an unknown entity, or even as a known entity, anywhere else it would've been difficult. We got the opportunity to make it because they knew us.

Crofford: We know these guys pretty well because we've worked with them for so long. We try to keep our hands off the creative process as much as possible. Two guys pretty much handle most shows: Michael and Eric do Birdman, Matt [Thompson] and Adam do Sealab, Matt [Maiellaro] and Dave do Aqua Teen.

Ouweleen: One of the things that makes Adult Swim different from any other animated shows, like Father of the Pride or whatever, is that there aren't many people touching the show. Executives aren't trying to warp it into something that it isn't, or "note" it to death. They have an underlying belief that, "Well, we trusted them, and if they screw it up, we'll cancel the show and they'll leave. But for the time being, they know best."

One of the ways you save money is that, in addition to writing/producing episodes, many of you do the voices of characters -- Dave does Meatwad and Carl, two of Aqua Teen's four main roles.

Thompson: Adam and I do all of the incredibly unimportant voices on our show.

Willis: Matt and I write the show together and when we're in the studio recording it, we tend to play around a lot, so there's a lot of ad-libbing. But the decision for me to do Meatwad's voice was very divisive. It was always a voice that made us laugh ... [but] everyone else wasn't wild about it. That's one of the things we really fought for, but I think it grew on people. Meatwad's hard to make out sometimes, but the more you watch, the more you start to hopefully understand what he's saying. I've been doing that [voice] since I was a kid, and now that I have a baby, I do it constantly. That's the voice I use to speak to my cats and my child.

When did all the various cartoons come together as the Adult Swim programming block?

Crofford: Adult Swim premiered in September of 2001. We created this midnight destination of offbeat shows that you don't see anywhere else.

Thompson: They definitely belong at midnight. All of them are so strange -- especially Adult Swim's original shows.

Ouweleen: I keep trying to write a mainstream episode, and it keeps ending up fucked up. I don't know if it's Eric's fault or what. "OK, that one's kind of weird, too! There's a lot of men-on-men kissing! What's going on?"

When I show these cartoons to my friends, the first thing they say is, "Are these guys on drugs?" Do you get that a lot? Do people say, "Were you high when you wrote that?"

Reed: Yeah. They don't believe you when you say "No."

Thompson: It's just coffee.

Willis: They're like, "No, you're totally on acid."

Reed: If I've had, like, four beers, I can't sit down and type.

Ouweleen: I just started drinking red wine a couple of years ago, because I have too many kids and it freaks me out. But I lived my life totally straight and clean up until now. And it bothers me, actually. It's so patronizing, frankly. I fucking hate it.

Thompson: They want validation. When they ask that question, the answer they really want to hear is, "Fuck yeah! I'm on drugs right now!" And then they can say, "Kick ass! Let's go smoke pot!"

Willis: "I've got a doobie, let's go write an episode."

Ouweleen: I think they want validation of their lifestyle.

Reed: "I get high -- will one day I have a TV show?"

Crofford: That's the thing with these lo-fi shows -- everyone thinks they can do one. "I've got pot, I've got a computer, I watch the shows ... ."

Willis: There was a kid who was one of our college reps who cornered me and said, "We have this cartoon we do called "Pot Heads." Our heads are in it, but we're planted in flowerpots. And we're stoned! But like, I totally forgot the address of the website we put it on ... ."

Ouweleen: I'm shocked by the broadness of the fan base. I run into people who are professionals who watch us. Some Wall Street guy on the subway saw me with an Adult Swim bag and said, "I love Sealab." My kids' kindergarten teacher knows the show -- which is really frightening.

Reed: That means he's smoking pot.

When did Adult Swim start to take off?

Crofford: Family Guy and Futurama really opened the floodgates. Family Guy was just a 13-week test, because a lot of people were convinced it was going to kill us. People were going to revolt and send letters.

Ouweleen: Torches and pickaxes.

Crofford: And instead it became our most popular show. Because of those shows, the mainstream audience discovered Adult Swim, and now they're sticking around for the originals. For Aqua Teen, the numbers for the midnight hour have gone through the roof. Sealab and Harvey Birdman are coming around next.

Ouweleen: We got ratings charts saying "Double David Letterman's delivery!" and I remember thinking, "Oh my God! How'd we cook these numbers?"

Reed: And then you see stuff like this [indicates the pens, plushies, Rubik's cubes and other Adult Swim-related merchandise on the table] and you realize there's someone in a factory making Adult Swim products and saying, "What is this crap?"

Willis: We started getting a lot of backhanded compliments. Other Turner employees would see us in the bathroom and say, "Well, you really saved that one. I thought that was a piece of shit, but you pulled it out."

Reed: "Conventional wisdom said it was going to be awful."

Ouweleen: "I still think it's way beyond you, but somehow you did it."

When the shows began succeeding, did you try pushing more taboo content past the censors at Turner's Standards and Practices?

Thompson: Just recently it's changed in what we could say about religion. About a year ago, Adam wrote a great episode that featured a discussion about Christians, Muslims and Jews.

Reed: A character on Sealab wanted to do a Christmas pageant with a life-sized nativity scene and real camels. And someone said, "That isn't fair to all the Jewish and Muslim crewmembers." So they had a big talk about religion. And the network said, "This is all fine -- except for every reference to religion." The whole point of it was about tolerance about religions, but they said "No." So we had to make up all these religions.

Thompson: Like the Krebbish.

Reed: Their Jesus was a drunken cowboy.

Thompson: The religion of drinking and revenge.

Reed: Their tagline was, "He kills for your sins."

Thompson: We learned our lesson. But just recently we had a joke that revealed that society's strings are being pulled by the Five Jewish Bankers who Run the World. And you go up into outer space and see the Death Star of David. That was the first time that something like that went through. I think if we'd written the [Christmas party] script today, it wouldn't have been changed.

Crofford: We're able to push things a little further. It used to be that Cartoon Network had its own standards, even for adult shows, which were stricter than TBS or TNT. We said, "This is crazy, we're attracting all these 18-to-34-year-olds, who are also watching Comedy Central. Comedy Central doesn't do this. TBS doesn't even do this -- why can't you be a little more lenient?" And at Standards and Practices they said, "You know, you're right."

Ouweleen: That's because you guys started making lots of money.

Crofford: Well, yeah. This one-year experiment exploded into a cash cow. We also air the Family Guy [episode] that Fox wouldn't air, the "Once Upon a Weinstein" episode. So everyone's chilling out about the whole religion thing.

Ouweleen: Even though we're in the middle of a giant religious war.

I'm always surprised at the sexual references on Sealab that you guys get away with.

Reed: We had a sex scene when two characters were on a TV monitor, obviously having sex, and Standards said no. So we changed it a little bit. "No." Eventually the characters were just hopping up and down next to each other. "OK." Any lateral movement was forbidden.

Ouweleen: But what was funnier?

Reed: Hopping up and down next to each other was funnier.

Thompson: I think the research shows that religious stuff is more touchy with people.

Ouweleen: In declining order of horribleness, it's religion -- worst, sex, then violence. America is like, "We're cool with violence, but don't show me titties."

Thompson: That's not just Cartoon Network or Adult Swim, that's all of America.

Do the original creators of Birdman or Sealab ever come up to you and say, "What the hell did you do to my character?"

Crofford: Actually, yes.

Ouweleen: Yes, they're mad about it. They're probably like, "Those punks." And we're like, "Whatever." Joe Barbera or his lawyer sent a pretty nicely worded letter at the beginning, when he caught wind of the show, which said, "Please don't." We've heard that Alex Toth is mad at us. He was this amazing designer for Birdman and Sealab -- the model sheets are freaking gorgeous. It's all designed beautifully, but then you see the final cartoon, and it's total crap. Everything got watered way down. So I'm amazed that he's mad at us, because he should be mad at what they did to the original Birdman cartoon.

Looking ahead, do you think you'll do more original cartoons?

Crofford: The upshot of the whole success of the block is that people pitch new shows to us sooner, instead of last: "Oh, Comedy Central said no? And Spike said no? And MTV said no? And Disney said no? Let's go see what Cartoon Network has to say." We have Squidbillies coming up. Seth Green has a stop-motion pop culture parody show that we'll premiere next year. Khaki [Jones, vice president of original series for Cartoon Network] found a great show on the Internet called Tom Goes to the Mayor that's like Mayberry on acid. [It premiered Nov. 14.] We just closed the deal on the Boondocks [based on Aaron McGruder's politically charged strip], which'll premiere next fall probably. Fox actually passed on it. And we're getting new Family Guy.

Does your fans' loyalty freak you out?

Ouweleen: What's creepy ... is that there's this fan base that clocks you at every second of the day, writes about it [on the Internet] and has these theories about what you're doing that are often highly more interesting than what's going on.

Reed: Our fans have "anti-loyalty." They get angry.

Ouweleen: The Cartoon Network is like any brand that's different, like Apple Computers. They all have people who are fanatics about it and love rumors and can't get enough of it. I think we all knew that we'd get those people. What's amazing about Adult Swim is that it's hitting a lot broader than that. Or there's more of those people around, or they have more discretionary income than anyone thought. Space Ghost was the shot heard "round the geek world -- and now the geek world has grown.

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