Joe Strike takes a look at the new moves in adult animation, which continues to grow around the world.
Adult animation means something different depending on who youre talking to or what channel youre watching. On Cartoon Network, its an attention-getting late night block that makes the network more than a kids destination; for Comedy Central, it all springs from the show that helped the channel establish its identity, while at Fox TV adult animation is a Sunday night franchise starring wacky families that `put the fun in dysfunctional. But for just about everyone else, the genre remains one tough nut to crack. In the year since AWN last visited the subject, ballyhooed shows have come and gone while many new efforts line up to take their own shot at success.
Cartoon Networks Adult Swim is on a roll. The nightly (except for Friday) six-hour block of originals, acquisitions and anime has arguably become a full-fledged cultural phenomenon. Aided by ultra-laid back, title-card-set-to-stock-music interstitials, Adult Swim is the college crowds go-to place for a late-night fix of attitude-driven and irony-laden animation.
Its kind of taken off we never dreamed it would grow into this, says Keith Crofford, Cartoon Networks vp of production. Adult Swims roots go back to 1994, when the network was little more than a year old and still dominated by reruns from Ted Turners various animation libraries. Crofford, then Cartoon Networks senior producer together with Mike Lazzo, Khaki Jones and Andy Merrill, took one of Hanna-Barberas countless Saturday morning heroes and turned him into the befuddled host of a surreal late-night talk show. In the years since, Space Ghost Coast to Coast has welcomed everyone from The Ramones to Jerry Springer and paved the way for a series of equally bizarre re-imaginings of old H-B shows, including Harvey Birdman, Attorney at Law and Sealab 2021.
The late night block took on the Adult Swim name in 2001, but it was the addition of Futurama and Family Guy reruns in 2003 that brought audiences in to sample the original shows and turned them into hits in their own right.
These days, Adult Swim spends almost as much time airing original characters as deconstructing (or re-running) old ones. If selling 600,000 DVDs means anything, Aqua Teen Hunger Force is the blocks current breakout hit. In minimalist animation, the show follows the adventures of Master Shake, Frylock and Meatwad, dedicated slackers who happen to be talking, anthropomorphic fast food products.
Aqua Teen is the brainchild of Matt Maiellaro, Space Ghost s first staff writer, and fellow Cartoon Network veteran Dave Willis. It began as an unproduced Space Ghost script about revenge-minded fast food restaurant mascots, but took on a life of its own. According to Crofford, Not many people at the network were behind it, but Matt and Dave believed in the show. We let them have full reign and gave them a year to figure out how to make it work. They made it work.
Production-wise, he describes the characters as, basically puppets that we slide across the screen using [Adobes] After Effects [software]. We edit on Final Cut Pro, which talks to After Effects very well.
We concentrate on the writing, because comedy on an adult show is driven by the writing. Our guys are adept at writing for the animation they have, and were able to reuse certain cycles.
The Venture Brothers is Adult Swims newest show. A through-the-looking-glass version of Jonny Quest, Venture follows a sourpuss scientist, his close-to-clueless teen sons and their hypermacho bodyguard. The snappily written series is backed up by animation that looks far slicker than one would expect on a late-night budget, which Crofford credits as, a testament to Noodlesoup Productions, the New York City animation studio producing the series. It amazes me what theyve done with the little budget weve given them. [Show creator] Jackson Public grew up working on The Tick, both the animated and the live-action series. He just knows how to make it work, hes a brilliant artist as well.
As evidenced by The Venture Brothers, Adult Swims success and its subsequent appetite for programming has exceeded Cartoon Networks ability to produce shows in-house. We have to keep feeding the beast, and we can only do so much in Atlanta, says Crofford, noting that a full-time development executive who has joined the staff is bombarded by submissions. He adds that the block is beginning to commission work in L.A., then goes on to list a slew of new shows being developed both in Atlanta and from outside studios:
In August we aired the pilot for Stroker and Hoop, which I like to describe as Starsky and Hutch meet Knight Rider. Theyre two struggling P.I.s who arent exactly the sharpest tacks in the box, and they work with an ornery talking car whod rather be on talk radio than dealing with these guys. The show, which was developed in-house by Jeff Olsen and Casper Kelly is targeted for a spring 2005 premiere.
Another show were doing in house is called Squidbillies, Crofford continues. Its about a family of squids stranded in North Georgia when a flood recedes. Its been in development a while and were still trying to figure out how to make it work. We may have found a solution and were shooting for a December pilot, but its hard to concentrate on producing another new show when our guys are already working on our current shows.
Weve also got Tom Goes to the Mayor coming up for a limited run in November if we can stay on schedule. This one is `Mayberry on acid Bob Odenkirk from Mr. Show is the executive producer. Tom is a young entrepreneur who keeps coming up with ideas that he thinks will make his town run better, like surrounding the playground with bear traps to protect the kids. Tenacious D play brothers who run rival bear trap stores.
Seth Green is producing our first stop-motion animation show for next year. Its going to be a real fast-paced, pop culture-referenced comedy sketch show along the lines of Saturday Night Live. Seths called in a lot favors from his friends to come and do voices on the show. Itll probably air in February. We still dont have a name for it right now its The Untitled Seth Green Project.
The last show on Croffords list will undoubtedly be a major attention-getter for Adult Swim and Cartoon Network: an adaptation of Aaron McGruders in-your-face, politically charged Boondocks comic strip, set to premiere in the fall of 2005. The shows being done in traditional, full animation, says Crofford. Its going into production right now because we need the full nine months to produce an episode. When asked how Adult Swim can finance a late-night show with prime-time level budget, he replies With smoke and mirrors, basically. Actually, Adult Swim is doing so well now, we can afford to do higher-end productions. When asked what lies further down the road for Adult Swim, Crofford only says Were going to keep on throwing curve balls.
A slew of anime shows and off-network reruns still fill the majority of the late night blocks schedule. Crofford admits I was a Cowboy Bebop fan for a long time. When I heard it was available, I wanted to jump all over that. A lot of anime series have toys and DVDs they want to sell, so the producers will license them to us at a fairly good price in exchange for the exposure. Eventually well do some co-productions with our Japanese friends.
Short-lived, off-network shows like The Oblongs, Baby Blues or Mission Hill that originated with Cartoon Networks corporate sibling Warner Bros. Television are natural acquisitions, with Crofford acknowledging theyre easy to pick up we have the inside track on them.
It was a slot on Adult Swim combined with awesome DVD sales that led to the resurrection of Fox TVs Family Guy. Fox was shocked at the shows popularity, recalls Crofford. We love the show and gave it a consistent place to be found. The show was jerked all over [Foxs] schedule. Its hard to be a fan if you dont know when the shows on.
One faction at Fox was lobbying for the show and one wasnt. I think what really woke them up was the million and a half DVDs they sold. Fox vp Scott Grogin agrees, When you sell that many DVDs, you have to pay attention. Now that Cartoon Network is sharing production costs, Family Guy will return to Foxs schedule next summer, with episodes repeating a week later on Adult Swim.
Its way too early to predict, but in all likelihood Family Guy will rejoin Foxs Sunday night wacky family block. It would be a perfect match with the networks cartoon-y live-action shows like Malcolm in the Middle, not to mention its animated perennials The Simpsons (335 episodes under its belt as it enters its 16th season) and (a relative newcomer with a mere 104 episodes and eight seasons). Or Fox may decide to pair it with Seth McFarlanes upcoming new series American Dad, set for a spring 2005 premiere.
Grogin describes Dad as incredibly creative and subversive. Theres some similarity to Family Guy, but American Dad is a unique TV show. This time around dad is Stan Smith, an ultra-conservative, ultra-paranoid CIA operative whose family includes a German-accented goldfish with the hots for his wife and a sarcastic, live-in space alien who sounds like Paul Lynde. In spite of its bizarre cast, the shows six-minute pilot resembles a traditional sitcom, with the characters exchanging wisecracks around the kitchen table or living room sofa. Whether the series plays out on a wider canvas or is deliberately adopting an All in the Family look remains to be seen.
Remember that Simpsons Halloween episode where the camera dollied past gravestones of other networks failed attempts at prime-time animation? NBC is crossing its fingers that Father of the Pride wont be the next show to have its name carved in stone.
The CGI-animated series from DreamWorks owes its life to that studios ogre-sized success with Shrek and Jeffrey Katzenbergs friendship with NBC honcho Jeff Zucker. As Katzenberg recalls, When the film first came out Jeff Zucker approached me and wondered if it was possible to do something in CGI with Shrek s quality. Three and half years ago the technology wasnt there to do it at a reasonable price. Every six months or so wed revisit it, then about a year and a half ago I said, `Now its possible. Itll take a long lead time, and itll be expensive but not prohibitive.
Katzenberg goes on to describe expensive but not prohibitive as costing more a lot more than a conventional sitcom. What NBC is getting for its money is a computer-animated half-hour about the backstage lives of the animals in Siegfried and Roys Las Vegas act. The shows already raised a few eyebrows over its cartoon animals spouting risqué dialog, leading exec producer Jonathan Groff to respond, Were not trying to walk both sides of the street. Its an 18-49 show theyve been very clear about saying its targeted for adults. It airs in the 9:00 pm slot, the same as Will and Grace, Scrubs or Frasier, all these adult, sophisticated things. There are plenty of Pride episodes you can watch with the kids, but seven-, eight- or nine-year-olds shouldnt be watching NBC at 9:00 pm.
The focus of the show is on a mom-dad-and-the-kids family of white lions, led by John Goodman-voiced Larry. Its a classic sitcom set-up (albeit in animal drag) that Groff ascribes to the necessity of providing viewers an entry point. The characters are recognizable in a human dimension in their relationships, because thats really important. People need a way in. Otherwise its not grounded and theres no rules. Facing the balancing act that shows like The Simpsons have dealt with for years, Groff says, the greater danger for us in terms of a business proposition was to make a soft family show. One of the reasons weve taken some heat for this is nobodys ever done a CGI show for grown-ups before. People who were 10 years old when Toy Story came out are 21 now. Theyre our target audience theres no reason you cant use CGI to tell an adult story.
Groff credits CGI with providing a subtle level of acting beyond the reach of 2D animation, saying You can do a more recognizably NBC-feeling show in terms of sophisticated adult acting if you do it in 3D. Indeed, there are numerous moments when a character raises an eyebrow or curls a mouth with subtle and genuine emotion. At other times however, Groff acknowledges that the animation produced by the Hong Kong-based Imagi is still evolving, with characters occasionally looking rubbery or sporting fur textures that appear painted on.
Raman Hui was DreamWorks lead animator on Shrek in Shrek 2, says Groff. Hes been over there supervising the animation and doing training all year. The animators are making strides in leaps and bounds. Were learning in terms of guiding them and being clear about what we want. David Spade is playing a coyote in a later episode they got some really great acting on him.
Even before it aired, Father of the Pride survived a pre-emptive brush with cancellation when Roy Horn was mauled by one of his shows tigers. The attack was devastating, Katzenberg recalls; his personal friendship with Siegfried and Roy, and his appreciation for their act was one catalyst for the shows creation. For a month or more Roy was fighting for his life. We didnt know if we were coming or going. There was no chance of doing the show if he didnt pull through of course. CGI versions of the Germanic duo (voiced by others) figure prominently in the show, their comic bickering often providing the episodes B story.
While Father of the Pride s fate is currently up in the air, both Katzenberg and Groff are optimistic. Groff points to the shows steady ratings, and an early go-ahead from NBC to start work on season two scripts. The network seems real happy. Theyve been great on this project, theyve supported and promoted it, and given us some real attention. Its doing really well better than anything has done in that time spot for them. Its bringing in a young audience, a lot of 18-34 within the 18-49. (According to NBC publicity, the show has been exceeding Frasier s numbers in the same timeslot the year before.) Katzenberg expects word on a possible renewal in, a month or so. We need the lead time for next year; right now I dont know, and I dont want to jinx it.
Last year, and to great fanfare, Spike TV unveiled a primetime animation block called The Strip; this year, Stripperella, Gary the Rat and Ren & Stimpys Adult Cartoon Party are nowhere to be seen. A network spokesperson explains that those series, have had their run. There still might be one or two Ren & Stimpys in the pipeline, but programming hasnt put them on the schedule yet.
Spike hasnt given up entirely on `toons. Howard Sterns high school show is now set for a 2005 premiere, and six episodes of Klasky-Csupos Immigrants series will air in November. Were really excited about animation therell always be animation on Spike, says the spokesperson. We wont have our schedule in place until January; right now were still figuring out if therell be a new animation strip or not. The network has more animated series in development that may see the light of day later next year or in 2006.
Comedy Central has had much better luck with the genre than its younger rival, thanks in particular to a bunch of cut-out construction paper characters (even if they are animated on high-powered computers these days); South Park wraps up its eighth season in late October with seven new episodes. Last years in-development project House Arrest evolved into and premiered earlier this year as Shorties Watching Shorties. The first shorties in the titles are two wise-cracking animated babies watching the other shorties: excerpts from the channels library of stand-up performances turned into Flash-animated cartoon segments that illustrate the comics exaggerations as if they were the literal truth.
Its a fun way to explore stand-up for us. Our Friday night stand-up block does really well for us, says Zoe Friedman, Comedy Centrals vp of current programming. Its always a challenge for us to find a different way to do stand-up. The freshman series, animated by Eric Brown at New Yorks World Famous Pictures (with additional animation handled by Augenblick Studios), returns on October 27.
While Kid Notorious, last years high-profile cartoon debut has dropped out of sight, the channel is premiering one fully and one mostly-animated series this fall, the first of which is sure to garner South Park-levels of notoriety.
Drawn Together bills itself as TVs first animated reality series, with weirded-out versions of characters from just about every cartoon genre (Disney-esque princess, muscle-bound superhero, Saturday morning rock & roll crime-solver, etc.) living together The Real World-style. For Friedman, Drawn Together is more than another animated taboo-buster; its the solution to the channels quest for a reality show spoof. We got a lot of reality pitches. Most were from people who think for a reality show to work for us, lets see how far we can push the envelope. That doesnt make it funnier, it just makes it more shocking, and our job is to provide the laughs. When they came up with this idea it really clicked this would be a fun way to do a reality show and deliver on the comedy first and foremost.
They are Matt Silverstein and Dave Jeser, the shows producers and Crank Yanker s season two showrunners. We love reality TV, we love cartoons. It was like, lets take the two things we love and lets put them together, says either Matt or Dave, their voices and attitudes blending together during a recent conference call. We immediately called our agent and he told us it was a terrible idea. He said `The networks love reality TV because its cheap. Then we told him we dont have to give anyone on our show a prize.
Silverstein and Jeser enlisted the aid of The Simpsons animator Jordan Young, who designed Drawn Togethers literal cast of characters in exchange for an opportunity to write for the show. Comedy Central was always the pairs first choice to air the series, even though they knocked on a few other doors as well. We also went to Cartoon Network, but I honestly believe that we pitched it to the receptionist; this person was like answering phones while we were pitching them.
We were talking to one of the other networks which I wont name, but it rhymes with `box. They wanted to make some small changes to it, like maybe it shouldnt be a reality TV show. We realized they werent really the network for us. For the kind of jokes we want to do, the kind of stories we want to tell, were going to be able to do it at Comedy Central. Thats our audience: stoned, drunk college kids.
Silverstein and Jeser compare the creative atmosphere at Comedy Central with the broadcast networks, where shows like Father of the Pride or UPNs briefly-aired Game Over seem inhibited by their need to appeal to more mainstream audiences. I think Pride looks great, but they just dont seem to have a lot of fun with the fact that its animated. They have an opportunity to create this fantastical world, and they go pretty primetime with their stories. On Comedy Central we can do an original show with an original voice and not have to worry about making it too traditional.
While Drawn Together is the channels answer to the reality craze, the pair seem more excited by its cartoon parody aspect. The reality TV conventions the confessionals, the challenges are a way to tell stories, but ultimately the fun is eight colliding animated universes in one house. Even the genres we dont touch on for the main characters, well have fun with throughout the series. They come in as friends or ex-girlfriends. At one point a Transformer comes and attacks the house.
According to Friedman, eight episodes are on tap, beginning at the end of the month and paired with the returning South Park. The episodes lead up to a season-ending cliffhanger that wont be resolved until October 2005 assuming the show is renewed. By the time we find out whether this is as big a hit as we hope its going to be, itll take us a year to get more on the air. Well leave them wanting more and hopefully we can deliver next October.
Jump Cuts is the mostly animated show mentioned above, a compilation of edgy comedy shorts that premieres November 7 for a four-week run. Tricia Sherrer, Comedy Centrals manager of acquisitions and the shows guiding force estimates that at least 70% of each episode consists of animation.
Doing a shorts show isnt an original idea here. Every few years it came back up again, but it was hard to agree on a format or scheduling for it. Its also very time consuming, but I was very passionate about it, so I was willing to put in extra time to watch lots and lots of shorts. When I pitched the idea to Karen Mitchell, our senior vp of programming, I reminded her that South Park started as a short film. When you say South Park around here, the reactions sort of South Park, oh yeah.
In her search for comedy shorts, animated or otherwise, Sherrer spread a wide net. I didnt go to sites like Atom Films because I wanted to avoid the same collection you could find somewhere else. Word of mouth, tapes from comedy festivals, input from comedy clubs and peer-to-peer animation site links helped her round up enough material to eventually fill the initial four half hours. Sherrer is particularly proud of acquiring work from people like Don Hertzfeld, Bill Plympton or the Strindberg and Helium shorts from San Francisco artist Eun-Ha Paek. I was shocked at how many pieces it takes to fill a half-hour show. Theyre not uniform in length, and its really a jigsaw puzzle figuring out how to arrange them thematically or timewise to hit the broadcast clock.
One thing that helped us was licensing the Angry Kid shorts from Aardman Animation. Theyre really fantastic, gorgeous clay animation, and theyre close to the one-minute mark if we needed fill-ins; we have them bookending each episode.
According to Sherrer, the hardest part of putting Jump Cuts together was getting legal clearances for performances, music or story adaptations. It was just really tricky. People had to go back and track down talent theyd worked with years before to sign releases. A few filmmakers just eliminated their music track it was easier than getting clearance to use it.
Bill Robinson, who works under the name Billy Blobinson did a film called Bumblebeeing. He submitted his talent releases, his copyright form and his music clearance, but he was missing one actresss release. When I called him, he said, `Oh I married her, I forgot all about that. I asked him if he thought he could get her to sign a release he said, `Well, maybe.
Its a lot harder to make an impact with an adult-oriented animated series if you only have one of them on your schedule. Showtimes Free for All vanished, more a victim of management changes at the channel than the shows merit (or lack of same). At Sci-Fi Channel, vp Thomas Vitale is nurturing their CGI series Tripping the Rift into its sophomore year. Any show must evolve in its second season. You learn what you did right and wrong the first time around. We held focus groups and looked at the online feedback to figure out what worked and what didnt. Weve expanded the writing staff, and the characters will be evolving this season.
While hes looking at other animated pitches, Vitale feels under no pressure to add a second cartoon show as a companion piece to Rift. The goal is to find great TV, regardless of what technique it uses. You cant make creative issues secondary to scheduling issues. However, Vitale admits the channel does have some animated stuff in development that has moved beyond the pitch stage, so a second show is definitely possible.
Anime fans who need a bigger fix than a few late-night Adult Swim hours can provide now have their own channel. This past July, home video distributor ADV Films launched the Anime Network. While currently carried only by Insight Communications Columbus Ohio cable system, Channel president Kevin Corcoran anticipates that Insight will add Anime Network to the rest of its systems by years end, and notes that the channel is already available in over 10 million homes as a video-on-demand service.
Corcoran takes pains to distinguish his programming from his competitors. Were designed for an older audience. Were not going out to compete against Cartoon Network or Nickelodeon. We have a variety of programming blocks, from giant robots in the daytime to `Action Zone, which I describe as `hot chicks with guns.
`Super Happy Funtime is our late-night block, with shows that focus on satire and sexy storylines. Theres some stuff in there along the lines of South Park. These shows fall more into the TV-14 or -MA category: theyre aimed at an 18-30 audience and they definitely dont fit into our afterschool block.
Like Cartoon Network, Anime has pre-teen and teen viewers as well as a college-age and adult audience, and thus has to carefully target its programming. Weve clearly labeled our programming. If anything, weve gone overboard we not only rate for appropriate age, weve voluntarily made our own icons that are a lot more specific about what you might find in our programming, whether its `samurai violence or `decapitations.
While Corcoran muses that the channel hasnt necessarily hit the ceiling in terms of what might make it on the air, he takes pains to point out that his definition of adult animation specifically excludes ultra-kinky hentai(tentacle sex, anyone?) anime popular in certain circles. Were already working against the perception out there that anime equals triple-X programming. We like to say that were not Disney, leave your kids at home. But by the same token, were good solid entertainment.
For the moment, it appears that the niche-targeted cable channels will hold onto their edge when it comes to edgy adult animation. In spite of all the viewer fragmentation that has taken place in recent years, broadcasters still need to appeal to wider audiences, creating a built-in limit on how far they can push the fabled envelope that the Comedy Centrals and Adult Swims of the world dont have to deal with. But for cable and broadcast channel alike, coming up with the next big animated hit is always a crapshoot.
Comedy Centrals Zoe Friedman could be speaking for the entire industry and not just her own channel when she observes that, South Park is a hard act to follow.
Joe Strike is a NYC-based writer/producer with a background in TV promotion and a lifelong interest in animation. He is writing a childrens novel.