Dr. Toon continues doing laps around the issue of adult animation in America from 1997 to 2006.
As we continue our history of animation as adult entertainment in America, we pick up the story in 1997. We noted that animation was preparing to consolidate the gains made in the early 1990s, when shows such as Liquid Television and The Ren & Stimpy Show (as well as several mainstream animated films) began challenging the long-held idea that cartoons were strictly a medium suited for children. Disney released yet another film in 1996, The Hunchback of Notre Dame, which featured decidedly adult themes. The Simpsons and South Park gleefully stretched the boundaries of what animation had to offer. The second wave of mature animation continued in 1997 when Mike Judge, late of Beavis and Butt-Head, sold an animated series to FOX Network that turned out to be one of the surprise hits of the season.
It was only natural that the most famous graduate of Liquid Television teamed with the network that gave The Simpsons a national audience. King of the Hill, a sitcom set in the loopy community of Arlen, Texas, unexpectedly grew legs and galloped across the national consciousness. Propane salesman, Hank Hill; his wife, Peggy; son, Bobby and struggling niece, Luann, formed the nucleus of this series along with Hanks loco but loyal buddies. Part sharp-witted sitcom and part soap opera, King of the Hill was also the tipping point. Now that FOX had two animated hit series, the major networks felt compelled to take a chance on pushing animated shows to the forefront of their primetime lineups.
And they really believed it was just that simple.
I have written about the Primetime Slaughter of 2000 in the past. This event, lasting roughly one summer (and part of the fall) will merit only brief mention here. A slew of new animated series, designed to cash in on the success of the shows mentioned above, were sold to ravenous networks hoping for a hit. People who had no sense of animation history, structure or style, but who knew a hot trend when they saw it pitched and produced many of these shows. Several shows did not last three episodes, and virtually all of them found banishment from the networks by the years end.
Far from these events, on a cable network dedicated totally to cartoons, another show had been running quietly under the radar since 1994. Few outside of the shows cult following really noticed it, and when the Primetime boom turned to bust, nary a ripple was felt over at Cartoon Network. No one knew it at the time, but the next wave of adult-themed animation would be spearheaded by a campy superhero from the 1960s. Once this hero cruised the cosmos; now, merely seated behind a desk, Space Ghost was to reach the height of his power and popularity.
Many adult viewers remembered Space Ghost from its initial run (1966-68). As Cartoon Network began to turn attention toward the surprising number of older viewers who were tuning in, owner Ted Turner tapped svp Mike Lazzo to create a series that would further hook this demographic. Lazzo teamed with co-producer Keith Crofford and came up with a twisted talk show in which past and present celebrities rapped with the now-goofy Ghost. Two former enemies from the Council of Doom, Zorak and Moltar, assisted Space Ghost in his Leno-esque efforts. The result was TVs hippest talk show, Space Ghost Coast-to-Coast.
This show deserves particular mention for its prescient ability to blend elements especially appealing to adults. There were constant references to animated shows of the past. The show was highly self-referential, irreverent and off-kilter. Much of the hosts actions consisted of actual cel footage taken from the original series. Cultural references abounded. The celebrities appearing on the show ranged from the famous to the nearly obscure, and they delighted in abusing and taking abuse from the host and his crew. The entire effort was an unabashed parody of Hanna-Barberas superhero genre, TV talk shows and the culture in general. In short, SGCTC set the next standard for adult animation in America.
When the ratings for SGCTC hit unexpected heights, a second series, The Brak Show, followed in 2000. Brak, a minor villain from the original Space Ghost series, found new life as a pubescent lad in a surrealistic 1950s family sitcom. That same year saw another series launched from SGCTC that retained and furthered the conventions of its parent show. Harvey Birdman, Attorney-at-Law was the apotheosis of the SGCTC formula. The erstwhile star of the 1967-68 Hanna-Barbera series, Birdman and the Galaxy Trio, now toiled in a tawdry law firm, taking cases involving former HB stars. Scooby-Doo and Shaggy could show up as recreational drug users, or Fred Flintstone as a Mafia don; other HB stars took cameos at the drop of a gavel. The series brimmed with abundant irony and humor, yet there was a dark, seamy element to the brightly colored proceedings.
The last great alumnus of SGCTC set the stage for Cartoon Networks future. Matt Maiellaro and David Willis warped the cartoon superhero genre in an entirely original way with a team consisting of giant, humanized fast-food products. Aqua Teen Hunger Force is as non-linear and incoherent as its title suggests and thats the good news. Frylock, Master Shake and the barely comprehensible Meatwad faced off against incompetent foes (and, frequently, each other) in cheaply animated, rowdy adventures beginning in December of 2000. Much of the time the plots were simply vehicles for loopy animation and the peppy hip-hop score, but it seemed to be exactly what the coveted 18-34 year-old demographic wanted. ATHF was, as suggested above, the ramp-up for CNs three-pronged master plan.
Adult Swim, whose very name belied CNs intentions, hit the airwaves on Sept. 2, 2001. As of this date, Adult Swim represents the most complete attempt at viable adult entertainment yet presented. CNs tripartite plan was as follows: First, original entertainment as described above, much of it done by Williams Street Productions. CN had already hit upon enough winning formulas here to earn a fan base in the desired demographic. Second, CN engaged in the reclamation of animated series ditched by other networks. Third, the importation of anime series that played to adult sensibilities. I mentioned in Part One of this treatise that it was not possible to emulate the Japanese. It is, however, possible to acquire and air their animated output.
Still, programming for the 18-34 year-old audience is never easy. Most sociologists (and more importantly, marketers) can further dissect that demographic bloc into countless splinter groups based on age, race, class, income and education. If the market is expanded to include ages 35-49, the target becomes even fuzzier. Ironic detachment does not sell to all markets. It is not even contestable that the live primetime landscape has been littered with misfires, flops and failures. Quality efforts co-exist (however briefly) with concepts so misbegotten that one is stupefied by the fact that they make it to the air.
This is the conundrum currently faced by Adult Swim. As purveyors of Saturday morning animation discovered, it is easy to market to kids. Countless half-hours of offal came and went, with nary a tot taking umbrage over the quality. If Adult Swim wanted to ply the waters of its target demographic, however, it had to take the same kind of risks as its live-action counterparts. The dangers were obvious; an attempt to program an adult animation block at Spike TV failed disastrously despite the formidable presence of John Kricfalusi and his revamped version of Ren & Stimpy.
The original programming in Adult Swim is variable (but for the most part successful). Perhaps the greatest victory for CN is the production of Aaron McGruders mordant comic strip Boondocks. McGruders strip is largely about two young African-American boys slowly coming of age in a society conflicted by racial differences. The Boondocks made a marvelous transition to animation. The series is animated in a lush style that reflects the sophistication of McGruders work, and the scripts to date have pulled no punches. This controversial cartoon has made people of both races uneasy at times, but a cartoon designed for adults should contain some cause for reflection. There is only one minor complaint on my part; much of the show could be depicted in live-action. Still, The Boondocks is a clear winner, one that CN could use as a template for further productions.
In addition to the self-reflexive parodies presented in Harvey Birdman and Space Ghost Coast-to-Coast, Lazzo and Crofford resurrected an entire series from 1972, Sealab 2020, and re-dubbed large portions of it with scathingly funny, very adult dialogue. The Venture Brothers continued the practice of applying a wrecking ball to the Hanna-Barbera tradition. In this case, the victim was Jonny Quest. Jonny and Hadji have been replaced by two clean-cut, brain-dead youths who are equally ill served by their crabby scientist dad and his lusty bodyguard Brock in the course of their sick, warped adventures. Bandit the dog has become a grossly abused robot.
Robot Chicken and Tom Goes to the Mayor, two highly variable products, are the direct descendants of MTVs Liquid Television. The former show is a series of blackout gags enacted by animated action figures. Robot Chicken is comparable to Saturday Night Live done with a cast of toys on amphetamines. The pace is rapid but the thickly layered pop-culture gags are haphazard. Tom Goes to the Mayor concerns a civic-minded simpleton whose idiocy is matched only by the local municipals. Tom is barely animated, with shaded cutout figures popping from one pose to the next. The style is interesting, but the show is more clever than funny and does not hold ones interest for long.
Then there are the inevitable missteps, Squidbillies and Stroker and Hoop. Squidbillies is proof that a ridiculous concept is not necessarily a funny one. This show is a squalid nightmare of poor design and poorer animation and should not to appeal to any audience that doesnt appreciate Jerry Springer. Stroker and Hoop sort of recalls what might have happened if Beavis and Butthead had grown up to be PIs. While S&H does reference some of the 1980s PI genre (there is even a talking car), it does so in a flat and humorless manner despite frantic efforts to the contrary; the unappealing animation is no help, either. Such are the consequences of taking risks. The jury is still out on the crudely animated 12 oz. Mouse.
CNs acquisitions consisted of shows gunned down in the Primetime Slaughter of 2000. They are also of variable quality, although each of them have at least a cult following. The most successful (and best) of them are Seth McFarlanes Family Guy and Matt Groenings Futurama. Family Guy seems to be a show that has either devoted fans or vicious detractors; CN relied on the fans to such a degree that the series is actually producing new episodes. Futurama is a genuinely witty show with an endearing ensemble cast; it skewered the sci-fi genre for four years on the FOX Network.
Home Movies was a desultory series that straggled in from the Primetime Slaughter, yet another animated show about family dysfunction. In the case of Mission Hill, unattractive animation and poor writing easily demonstrated why it failed on network TV. The Oblongs was a short-lived, very bizarre series about an environmentally damaged family engaged in some version of class warfare. The Oblongs was at least a daring, if failed experiment.
The anime series imported by CN are generally excellent, and several of them ended up in a synergistic relationship with Cartoon Network, each boosting the others popularity. Cowboy Bebop and Samurai Champloo come immediately to mind. CN was sharp enough to avoid derivative series filled with endless armies of ninjas, robots and bloodbaths for the hell of it in order to present cerebral efforts such as Ghost in the Shell: Stand-Alone Complex and S-CRY-ED. Popular series like Neon Genesis Evangelion, Witch Hunter Robin and InuYasha brought anime fans in droves. CN found several series to lighten up the proceedings and broaden the scope by nabbing The Super Milk Chan Show and Perfect Hair Forever.
Adult Swim, in terms of ratings, is an unqualified success. During the month I was writing this column, the block was running six nights per week while posting the highest total day delivery of adults 18-34, adults 18-24, and males age 18-24 in ad-supported cable TV history. This is no fluke; the program has achieved this standing for 33 consecutive weeks. The Boondocks scored the highest rating ever for an Adult Swim premiere, and it is hard to dispute that sort of success.
As we have noted, America still has an inconsistent record of producing animation for mature audiences, and Adult Swim, now in its fifth year, is still in the process of smoothing out an uneven path. However, kudos are due. We have never been closer to having exclusively adult animated programming in this country. In what have been historically choppy waters, things are going swimmingly indeed at Cartoon Network.
Next month: Handicapping the Oscars! Dr. Toons annual advice on where to place your bets for Best Animated Feature Film.
Martin Dr. Toon Goodman is a longtime student and fan of animation. He lives in Anderson, Indiana.