Joe Strike takes a look at adult animation to see if it holds up to all the hype.
Comedy Central is trying to recapture the success of South Park (left) with its highly touted new series, Kid Notorious. © Comedy Central.
Forty-three years ago, the sight of two cavemen sneaking out for a night of bowling behind their wives backs via a foot-powered helicopter was considered a breakthrough in adult animation. Then again, no one had ever programmed a primetime cartoon before, and third-place ABC didnt have much to lose by airing The Flintstones.
Four decades and several seismic cultural shifts later, things are somewhat different; perhaps only some prehistoric spouse swapping (or an episode exploring Bedrocks version of a gay old time) could help Fred and Barney capture an adult audience today.
Pebbles or Bamm Bamm certainly wouldnt know what to make of their successors, specifically the foul-mouthed moppets of Comedy Centrals South Park. The show that didnt just push, but shredded the animation envelope and gave the rest of the industry permission to follow suit now boasts more than100 episodes in the can and another 15 set to roll out in March and October of next year. Comedy Central recently began stripping reruns of the show weeknights at 9:30 pm while airing new episodes through the end of the year in the shows regular Wednesday 10:00 pm slot. The Strip is doing extremely well, according to the channels Lisa Chader. South Park is still the number one show on Comedy Central; the Wednesday night first-run episodes have been averaging 2 million viewers, which for us is fantastic.
Repeating that trick can be a little trickier the second time around. Kid Notorious, Comedy Centrals high-profile Hollywood satire starring Robert Evans as a cartoon version of himself recently premiered in the post-South Park 10:30 pm Wednesday spot, hoping to inherit that shows audience. The ratings were good, but we lost some of the lead-in audience, admits Chader. Wed like to see it perform a little better. Then again, following Comedy Centrals best-known, most successful series might prove daunting for any new show. Hedging its bets, the channel relocated Kid Notorious to Tuesdays at 10:30, where it hopes it will prove more compatible with Crank Yankers rude puppets.
In the meantime, Comedy Central continues to air a floating, late-night block of animated reruns that at any time may feature Dr. Katz, the channels first animated series Dilbert, The Critic, Duckman, UPNs short-lived clay-animated Gary and Mike series or the legendary and hysterically funny cartoon version of Kevin Smiths Clerks that was given the hot-potato treatment by a seriously-freaked ABC after two episodes. The channel also has several new animated series in development. Furthest along is House Arrest, wherein recorded stand-up routines are transformed into animated vignettes; a Dennis Leary-starring pilot is targeted for airing in 2004.
Stripperella, Ren & Stimpys Adult Cartoon Party and Gary the Rat all provided Spike TV with an entrée into the cable big leagues. But where are these series now? © Spike TV.
The former TNN Network, now rechristened Spike TV, set out this past June to make a splash (and attract young male viewers) with The Strip its very own block of first run animation. With great fanfare the Channel revived John Kricfalusis Ren & Stimpys Adult Party Cartoon, introduced a Stan Lee-created, Pamela Anderson-voiced Stripperella and brought Kelsey Grammars Internet toon, Gary the Rat, up to the cable big leagues.
On opening night, 1.4 million viewers checked out The Strip, a more than respectable basic cable rating and a sizeable increase over the channels pre-Spike audiences. Yet by October all three series were shelved, supposedly to avoid over-exposure. Observers couldnt help but notice that Stripperella and Gary the Rat went on hiatus in spite of unaired episodes, while John K. had only delivered three of nine ordered Ren & Stimpys.
The network denied rumors that it was bailing out of the animation game by pointing to a slew of projects in the works from high-profile creators, including a The Immigrants, a Klasky Csupo series about a pair of tenement-dwelling newcomers to America (voiced by Hank Azaria and Eric McCormack) set for a spring 2004 debut. Further down the pipeline, Howard Stern is developing a series starring himself as a misfit high schooler; John Leguizamo will portray both Zilch and Zero, a pair of movie-addled video store slackers in a one-shot special that more than likely would set the stage for a regular series; producer Warrington Hudlin (responsible for the little-seen, inner-city animated feature Bebes Kids) is working on Big Headed People, a political satire sending up everyone from Osama Bin Laden to black Republicans.
Spike TV is also putting together six half-hour compilations of shorts mined from the Spike and Mike features. According to the network, The Strip itself is due to return in early 2004, with the new shows added to the mix. Gary the Rat will return on its own, starting Dec. 2.
Pay cabler Showtime recently produced (with animation house Film Roman) seven episodes of Free for All, an animated series based on the five-year-old syndicated comic strip of the same name for late-night airing. Its not the channels first cartoon effort if one counts its fey funny animal Web cartoon Queer Duck, but it is the first to go directly to air.
Why did Showtime go with Free for All over other animated series pitched to them or decide to air animation in the first place? We kept trying different forms, explains Gary Levine, the channels executive VP of original programming. Were always trying to balance the range of programming we do and distinguish ourselves from what you can find on the advertiser-supported networks. The development process was just very fruitful, he adds. We liked the people involved both Brett Merhar, the comic strips creator, and Merriwether Williams, the exec producer/writer who ran SpongeBob SquarePants for years. We liked the talent [a voice cast that includes Jonathan Lewis and Juliette Lewis], we liked the tone, so we said this is something Showtime should give a try.
With two Generation-Y buddies, a murderous, sex-crazed grandmother and a drug-addicted lab ferret, the show definitely deserves to be described as edgy, the adjective of the moment. In spite of good reviews and some really positive buzz (and without the ad revenue-pressure of having to produce ratings numbers) the shows fate is up in the air. We are heading towards a decision about renewal is as far as Levine will go at the moment. Would Free for All be replaced or joined by another animated series? We only do six or seven original series at any time, says Levine. Its unlikely that more than one would be animation because that would start to take us out of balance. Its not ever going to become something that overwhelms our programming.
We probably get pitched one animated project a month, and were actively developing one thats kind of exciting: The Adventures of Cheech and Chong. Through the miracle of animation theyre magically transformed into their old selves here in the present day. Theyre involved in conceptualizing, writing and voicing their characters. As for the small problem of Tommy Chong stuck in the slammer for the crime of selling bongs online, Levine is unworried: He can do voice over from anywhere.
Thomas Vitale of Sci Fi is prepping webisode Tripping the Rift for a CGI animated series. © Sci Fi Channel, DPS Film Roman and CinéGroupe.
An interested onlooker in Free for Alls fate is Sidney Clifton, svp head of development at DPS Film Roman (now part of IDT Entertainment), the shows animation studio. Were just waiting to see if were going to get picked up or not. The networks dont have to give us pickups right now because we want them.
Im not positive whats going into Showtimes mandate right now. I know they had a change in leadership recently [with a new president of the channels entertainment division], thats part of the equation too. Free for All is a terrific series, may do well, but it just may not fit into the strategy of the new leadership.
Clifton sees the boom in adult-directed animation as a result of a number of factors, including the simple fact that the audience likes them. Adult audiences know that cartoons arent just for kids anymore. Anime has helped, videogames with sophisticated animation have been around for a while now and the gamers are getting older thats also had an impact.
Of course Im biased towards The Simpsons, but I think South Park really opened up the field, she continued. Comedy Central took the chance, and audiences responded. South Park made it cool to watch cartoons. People saw it can be funny, it can be outrageous. The show has levels of social satire that people tend to forget about while theyre counting how many times they say shit.
According to Clifton, things are more open in cable because production has gotten less expensive and the cable outlets cater to a certain kind of niche. The networks know their audiences, and the writers write to them. In cable there are obviously less restrictions, you can get raunchy and your audience usually responds positively. she said. A lot of these shows just are what they are. Theyre aimed at a specific demographic and they do what theyre supposed to do. Stripperella is the most demographic-specific. Its aimed at young adult males who are watching and playing out fantasies.
The cable channel that first introduced anime to the U.S. market and then walked away from the genre will soon return to animation via its first original toon series. Like Spike TVs Gary the Rat, the Sci Fi Channel is developing Tripping the Rift from its Internet origins into a full-fledged CGI-animated series, developed by DPS Film Roman and produced through CinéGroupe in Canada.
We never really went away from animation, according to Thomas Vitale, Sci Fis svp of acquisitions, scheduling and program planning. Weve aired features like Fantastic Planet, Cool World we just aired the Final Fantasy movie, and animation is a regular part of our Exposure shorts series.
Sci Fi gave up on anime, and animation programming in general due to a number of reasons. At first we got ratings with anime. The viewers responded and the press wrote about us. But once the genre got familiar the ratings went down. Once the excitement wore off viewers stopped watching and the press stopped talking about it. Other networks jumped on the bandwagon too Cartoon Network started airing more teen and adult-oriented cartoons, not to mention competition from video and DVD.
Vitale expresses no regrets at dropping anime. Too many other networks were there, it couldnt have become something we wouldve owned. Our viewership is still mostly adult men and women. We need stuff that appeals to a very broad range of viewers. We didnt have the door closed to animation either we took animation pitches like we took any other pitch
It wasnt like we have to have an animated series as a stated goal, either, he continues. It was more like we have to find programming we think will get ratings, shows that people will care about and we care about internally. We had always kicked around the idea of doing animation someday could we have our own version of success with animation like Comedy Central with South Park or FOX with The Simpsons?
Tripping the Rift made it onto Sci Fis schedule for starters because the short made us laugh out loud, Vitale explains. The pitch was really smart in terms of what they wanted to do with the characters and where the plot they created for the series would take them, since the short was just a one-shot.
They didnt come to us with 13 fully fleshed out episodes, Vitale continues. There was an idea for a series, the characters and potential episodes, and we got them into development. We hired the writers and started developing scripts, started working on the voices and the casting.
Tripping the Rift turns space opera on its head, focusing on a smuggling ship (the Free Enterprise) in place of the usual hierarchical military vessel. The ships crew features an assortment of motley characters, including a purple alien captain and his slacker nephew, a robot slave, and (with a nod to Star Trek: Voyager and perhaps to The Prisoner as well) a sexy and super-intelligent cyborg who goes by the name (actually number) Six.
Rift is set to premiere March 2004, pushed back from a 2003 start. Vitale dismisses rumors the delay was due to conceptual or production problems: Were planning to pair it up with another half-hour show that will appeal to a similar audience possibly the second season of Scare Tactics (the channels prankster series) or a new show we have in the works called Mad, Mad House. According to Vitale, the chances of a second animated series eventually joining Rift depends on how well Rift itself performs.
After Comedy Central, the showblock that has made the biggest splash in adult animation is the aptly titled Adult Swim on Cartoon Network. On Swim, high budget, off-network shows like Futurama and The Family Guy rub shoulders with outrageous, low-budget parodies of classic that turned Saturday morning characters into talk show hosts and trial lawyers.
We knew back when we started that we had large audience outside the 2-11 demographic, reflects Cartoon Networks Mike Lazzo, svp of Adult Swim. Because we did not have a lot of money to make original programming at that time, we started going into the library and repurposing shows because it was quite inexpensive to just rewrite existing animation.
When Space Ghost Coast to Coast went on the air there was no adult block. It just sort of sat out there on Friday nights at the beginning. In essence, it was the first show we ever made aired outside in what we would call adult parameters, but because it aired at 8:00 pm on the west coast, we didnt write racy material for it we had to be careful that it was just kind of goofy.
Space Ghosts success led to the Adult Swim block. While the off-Fox cartoon sitcoms perform the best, Lazzo says the lower-budget, quarter hour spoofs deliver an equivalent bang-for-the-buck. The quarter-hour shows Space Ghost, Brak, Sealab and the rest probably get half the audience of Futurama or Family Guy, but at one-tenth of their budget.
The shows are designed to be an inexpensive laboratory. We can produce 10 to 20 episodes of them and because the budgets are not huge you can try different things, you can try em faster, and if something pops you can put more resources against it.
The point of these shows is to try and find that breakout hit like Beavis & Butt-Head or South Park, or indeed a Simpsons, which began as an interstitial. Were still looking for it, but right now Aqua Teens and Sealab are doing very well.
On the subject of Spike TVs animation block, Lazzo notes, I dont think any of their shows were bad, they were OK, but to some degree maybe not as compelling as some have been. As for adult animation in general, he offers a note of caution to Cartoon Networks competitors: Its a very hard thing to do you cant dabble in it. One of the great things about Cartoon Network is that its an animated environment you have an audience that expects animation and looks forward to new animation. I think thats far more difficult for programmers who dont, who might just have a show or two. I just think its tougher for them to bring in or just convince their existing audience to watch a new show although a great new show in any genre will be a great new show and people will watch it.
With six broadcast networks and dozens of cable channels in the U.S., as well as hundreds of DVDs to choose from, fans of adult cartoons can watch great, not-so-great and downright bad animation pretty much any time they feel like it. Like any TV programming genre, the total number of series on the air may wax and wane. However, now that producers know they have a waiting audience capable of generating Simpsons or South Park-style profits, dont expect adult animation to go the way of the dinosaurs anytime soon.
Joe Strike is a New York City television writer/producer with a lifelong interest in animation, and who remembers watching Astro Boy when it first aired in the U.S. His work includes numerous promotional campaigns and special events programming for cable outlets including Bravo and the Sci Fi Channel. He interviewed Disney animation director Mark Dindal in the November 2000 Animation World Magazine.