In the many-stationed world of cable television, where every niche channel is an isolated island or remote valley, new species of programs are born, new forms emerge.
When Ted Turner had the idea to recycle cartoons from the massive film and TV libraries he had acquired into a 24-hour, all-animated network, he surely could not have imagined that he was creating the soup from which would crawl Adult Swim. To wit, a programming block of funny-strange and even antisocial series that now occupies 45 hours a week of Cartoon Network real estate and consistently leads ad-supported cable stations in “delivering” -- to the advertisers -- the prized youth demos. Granting the odd fellow traveler (like MTV2’s “Wonder Showzen”), it is not like anything else on TV.
But success, even of the iconoclastic kind, always establishes a code, and there is now a recognizable Adult Swim aesthetic, which is both an expression of and influence upon its time, so that new shows are created in its image.
It is, by definition, not for everyone. Of all the arts, comedy is the closest to pop music; perhaps because the new wave is always defined by the young, eager to separate itself from what came before and to own what comes next. It needs to exercise new forms of wickedness, which sometimes just means raising the bar on bad taste, but also has to do with finding new methods of attack on targets heretofore taken for granted. One generation may not recognize the humor of another; Adult Swim exacerbates the matter by making shows about hillbilly squids and a pair of disembodied buttocks working as a detective.
(That this can be so was given a real-world illustration recently, when the city of Boston was shut down after a number of small animated electronic signs, featuring one of two “Mooninite” characters from the Adult Swim series “Aqua Teen Hunger Force” and meant to promote a forthcoming film, were taken for terrorist explosive devices. A $2-million settlement was reached with Boston, and CN General Manager Jim Samples resigned in regret.)
Here are some of the qualities that define Adult Swim series: They are (within the limits of basic cable, of course) irreverent, obscene, profane, scatological and often violent, but they are also firmly deadpan about it. They announce their difference even from other irreverent, obscene, profane, violent and scatological cartoons by being pointedly awkward in execution, with extremely limited animation and a desktop/DIY look. Many parody or are steeped in the tacky TV and kid culture of the 1970s and early ‘80s -- a time of bad color combinations, loud print patterns and shiny plush unicorns -- which is referenced with ironic nostalgia. Many involve finding the core of banality, mundanity and domestic or professional drudgery in the lives of superheroes, supervillains or (in “Metalocalypse”) heavy-metal superstars. Things are always breaking and breaking down. Communication is impossible because everyone is talking or thinking about themselves. The recent “Frisky Dingo” so closely follows this formula that a computer might have spit it out.
That this aesthetic is not restricted to cartoon shows can be seen in two new, basically live-action series that join the lineup Sunday night. “Tim and Eric Awesome Show, Great Job!” is from the team of Tim Heidecker and Eric Wareheim, who previously produced “Tom Goes to the Mayor” (Tim was Tom and Eric was the mayor), a barely animated series in which a hare-brained entrepreneur brought life-enhancing schemes to an even more hare-brained mayor, whose hands turned them to mayhem. “Tim and Eric” is a jarring montage of unconnected weirdness, making free use of the green screen. Premiere episode segments include “Hacky Sack Extreme”; an ad for a children’s doll, a combination owl and bat called B’owl (pronounced “bowel”), and a loop of Heidecker rubbing his stomach and moaning (or possibly laughing). Their heads explode during the titles.
Even more heavily green-screened is “Saul of the Mole Men,” created by Craig Lewis and starring Josh Gardner (of Comedy Central’s short-lived “Gerhard Reinke’s Wanderlust”) as a geologist stranded in the center of the Earth. It takes off on the low-budget, live-action sci-fi series that roamed Saturday mornings in the 1970s, although its look is 21st century psychedelic cut-and-paste. Saul is not the sort of person who would watch the show he is on, being something of a prude, while the Mole Men drink before noon and have weird sex (with a pineapple).
Neither of these shows is funny exactly, but not being funny exactly is the Adult Swim way.
Apart from the blood and guts, which reign/rain elsewhere, almost all the signal qualities of a Cartoon Network program were already present in “Space Ghost Coast to Coast,” the network’s first (and for several years only) original program, which appropriated, sampled, repurposed and recontextualized a 1970s superhero cartoon into a talk show with the rhythm of a Harold Pinter play.
That rhythm -- halting, crippled, marked by the long, long pause -- is the true hallmark of the house style. You find it used in “Saul,” with its deliberately bad acting (the voices appear to be dubbed in later, to further that effect) and “Tim and Eric.” It speaks of awkwardness, embarrassment and paralysis, and is consistent with the zeitgeist. Adult Swim launched nine days before the attack on the twin towers and has risen to its position of strength in a time of endless war and a global climate crisis that has already passed the tipping point. It’s a humorous reflection of the impossibility of meaningful action at the end of the world, when there is nothing to say, or worth saying.
Here is Space Ghost interviewing the musician Moby.
Space Ghost: Listen, I can’t worry about every little snafu. I have celebrities to talk to! Like Moby!
Moby: Celebrities, huh? So celebrities are more important than the safety and well-being of ...
Space Ghost: Nobody cares, Moby. (Pause) Nobody cares. (Pause) No one.
You’ve got to laugh.