A masked man in the witness protection program fights for the future of his family. A band of unorthodox physicians works tirelessly to save sick children. A cabal of forensic ninjas solves crimes while refusing to play by the rules. And, finally, a vengeful U.S. marshal exercises a predilection for hard justice and cowboy hats.
This is not a list of pitches for pilot season. No, these are the premises of four live-action programs currently active or in production on the Cartoon Network’s nightly Adult Swim block.
They are all comedies — namely, “Delocated,” “Childrens Hospital,” the forthcoming “NTSF: SD SUV” and “Eagleheart,” the new Chris Elliott vehicle that premiered earlier this month, a not-so-subtle lampoon of “Walker, Texas Ranger"-style action dramas. Thanks to such offbeat, irreverent series, Adult Swim has begun to evolve from a cultish backroom curio to a ratings blockbuster.
Adult Swim “is just a haven for the kind of bold, crazy, innovative comedy that we love,” says David Kissinger, president of Conaco, Conan O’Brien’s production company and the creative team behind “Eagleheart,” which airs on Thursdays at midnight. “It just seemed like a sensibility fit.”
With its brash, acutely observed take on Chuck Norris territory, “Eagleheart” arrives at a key moment for the network. This September marks the 10th anniversary of Adult Swim, which launched in 2001 as a single-night block: Sundays at 10 p.m. Armed with a minuscule budget and a reserve of Hannah-Barbera cartoons (owned by parent company Turner Broadcasting), the small Adult Swim team quietly launched a universe of its own, creating absurd fare such as “Space Ghost Coast to Coast” (in which an obscure cartoon superhero interviewed celebrities) and “Aqua Teen Hunger Force” (featuring anthropomorphic fast food heroes). The shows often aired in 15-minute spurts.
In the nearly 91/2 years since, Adult Swim has become the proudly goofy gold standard for unconventional comedy on basic cable. The network — which became officially recognized as distinct from the Cartoon Network in 2005 by Nielsen and extended its start time to 9 p.m. this year, seven days a week — routinely dominates the adults 18-24 demographic, but recently it has made significant strides in adults 18-49. For the second week in February, the block won total day delivery for all basic cable channels in that demographic.
“It was shocking,” says Mike Lazzo, the senior executive vice president and paterfamilias of Adult Swim, of the wide age range. “What we discovered was, actually, our audience just stayed with us. We always get painted with this stoner comedy thing, and we just laugh at that.”
As it ages, the network’s formula, and perhaps its tone, has changed. Animated originals like “Robot Chicken” and syndicated reruns of “Family Guy” and “Futurama” (two shows that were canceled and then reordered by other networks after huge success on Adult Swim) constitute the bulk of the programming. But Adult Swim has begun to steadily incorporate live-action shows that feature well-known or emerging comedy stars, such as Elliott, “Childrens Hospital” creator and star Rob Corddry, and “Human Giant” alumnus Paul Scheer, whose “CSI” parody “NTSF: SD: SUV” will premiere in June.
Lazzo and his team have done it cannily, always emphasizing creator-driven projects and identifying partners who match their lust for surrealism, like the discomfiting and nightmarishly funny meta-sketch program “Tim and Eric Awesome Show, Great Job!,” a cult hit that ended its five-season run last May.
“They don’t seem to care about advertisers or audience,” says Corddry, a former “Daily Show” correspondent who created the mock-medical dramedy “Childrens Hospital.” “They just guide us to be more creative. They’ve never said, ‘You can’t do that.’ They’ve never given us negative notes. It’s always positive or nudges in a certain direction. Like, ‘More nudity.’ Which we’ve done.”
“Childrens Hospital,” with an impressive cast that includes Megan Mullally and Henry Winkler, began as a web series produced by TheWB.com during the writers’ strike, jumping to Adult Swim in 2009. Last year it was one of the network’s five highest-rated original programs among total viewers. (Animated stalwarts such as “Robot Chicken” and “Aqua Teen” still lead the pack.)
But not every show has such a smooth trip to air. “Eagleheart,” inspired by a Dadaist “Late Night With Conan O’Brien” sketch, was originally conceived as a 30-minute “Larry Sanders Show"-esque look behind the scenes of an action drama called “Eagleheart.” But Adult Swim “wanted something that was just a bigger, more in-your-face comedy experience,” Kissinger says.
The producers eventually came around to the network’s suggestions, including the early recommendation of cult star and comedic forefather Elliott (“Cabin Boy,” “Saturday Night Live”) for the lead.
“When I first heard they were going to do it in 15-minute portions, I thought, that sounds crazy,” Elliott said. “But then I realized that’s not that much longer than the little remotes I used to do on [‘Late Night With David Letterman.’] It is a little old school for me, but there’s an Adult Swim audience that has no idea what I did back in 1986.”
It’s Elliott’s first lead role on a series since his oddball ‘90s Fox sitcom, “Get a Life,” and he says, “This is the first thing since ‘Get a Life’ that I’ve done that is a perfect fit for me.”
Still, the process of getting to its compact and sharply honed format was disorienting at times.
“It is like ingesting hallucinogens and going into the development process,” Kissinger said of birthing “Eagleheart.” “And I say that with gratitude. [Because] once we got our minds around it, it became really exciting when we realized, ‘Well, this could be very extreme and bold and basically a live-action cartoon.’ It gave us license to create a heightened kind of comedy where there really were no rules.”
Adult Swim continues to distort the rules with 15-minute shows, reruns and anime. (The network has also developed unique ways of marketing programs via tie-in albums, toys and allowing fans to make their own custom DVDs.) But as live-action seeps into its identity and ratings continue to grow, there is the threat that longtime fans may retreat. The message boards found on their website routinely feature mixed reviews and resistance to the live-action shows.
Traditionally “you were a freak if you were an Adult Swim fan — not a majority sort,” said Ron Russo, an adjunct professor of film at Kent State University who teaches an Adult Swim course and published the book “Adult Swim and Comedy.” If these new shows with their recognizable stars push the network closer to the mainstream, “they could alienate the base.”
Now that Adult Swim has established itself as cable’s go-to spot for smart, off-kilter late-night comedy, its expansion into primetime indicates loftier aims. But as the network reaches for a wider audience, it is faced with quality quirky comedy lineups sprouting all over cable. IFC is building a stronghold with the sketch show “Portlandia” and with “Onion News Network,” which air alongside reruns of “The Larry Sanders Show” and “Mr. Show.” FX has jumped into the game with the animated series “Archer,” created by Adult Swim graduate Adam Reed. Even Adult Swim’s sister network TBS is going after a similar audience with “Conan,” “Lopez Tonight” and its own successful block of syndicated reruns of shows, including “The Office.”
“It doesn’t bother me — that’s just America,” said Lazzo, who has been at the helm of Adult Swim since he co-created “Space Ghost” in 1994. “It would be awesome if we lived in a Communist country and I could crush all competitors.”
Kidding aside, Lazzo said he’s happy to see creativity on the air — on his network or elsewhere.
“I gotta tell you: ‘Portlandia’? Great! Let’s see new sketch voices. ‘Onion News’? The hardest I’ve laughed all week. I don’t really have an issue unless they beat me every night. And then I’m not going to have an issue with them, I’m going to have an issue with us.”