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What was the Cartoon Network’s Adult Swim experiment?

What was the Cartoon Network's Adult Swim experiment?

What was the Cartoon Network's Adult Swim experiment?

18 years ago, Cartoon Network gave three hours in the middle of the night to an experiment called Adult Swim.

For the last 10 years in a row, the network has ranked No. 1 among adults 18-34 years old in basic-cable ratings across the total day. The median age of the Adult Swim viewer is 24 years old, about half that of viewers across all broadcast and cable channels.

It saved Family Guy and is responsible for making Seth MacFarlane a TV powerhouse with three shows, three movies, a nine-figure net worth, and a relationship with Emilia Clarke. (not a good thing to everyone)

It saved Futurama.

It turned Tim and Eric from two weirdos who were mailing unsolicited DVD’s to Bob Odenkirk to comedy superstars with multimedia and multichannel entertainment kingdom with two movies and thirteen television shows, including Nathan for You, Comedy Bang! Bang!, Review, W/ Bob & David, and Check it Out! With Dr. Steve Brule, which stars an Academy Award-nominated actor.

It boosted the careers of Killer Mike, Flying Lotus, Odd Future, MF Doom, Danger Mouse, and completely made the career of MC Chris. It introduced Killer Mike and El-P, who went on to form Run the Jewels.

Additionally, it gave Brendon Small a platform to launch his multimedia Metalocalypse franchise of a show, albums, and even live tours.

It caused a terrorism scare that cost the head of Cartoon Network his job. Let’s set the scene

It’s September 2, 2001. The animated adult comedy landscape is nascent but sparsely populated, and you still (barely) live in an innocent, pre-9/11 world.

Mission Hill has been off the air for 1 year, Space Ghost and Dr. Katz for 2 years, and Beavis and Butt-Head and Duckman for 4 years. (The Critic has been off for 6 but who cares?) Home Movies only lasted five episodes before being canceled by UPN 2 years ago. The Simpsons is already arguably in decline with Oakley and Weinstein went. Family Guy has been granted a last-minute reprieve of a third season, but its likely to be canceled again as Fox continuously shifts its schedule, and would you really miss it anyway? King of the Hill is going strong, but that’s kind of an acquired taste. Futurama is great, but like Family Guy, Fox is fucking with its schedule so you worry. And of course, there’s South Park, but nobody wants to enjoy just 1 show forever.

The future seems bleak.

South Park, the Simpsons, and Beavis and Butthead are popular. Why won’t anyone else give shows like these a serious chance?

You’ve heard rumors that Cartoon Network aired some really strange shows with no warning last year. You even caught a random new episode of Space Ghost over the summer! They’ve experimented with weird late-night stuff before, like ToonHeads and Late Night Black and White, but even that was still mainly for kids and they canceled Space Ghost in ’99! The bastards.

You resign yourself to channel surfing when you hear this. What does it mean? What could it be for? And just what the hell is “adult swim’? (LOWERCASE INTENDED). Curious, you keep watching, and you can’t believe it, it’s Home Movies! And it’s… a new episode?!?! Enraptured, you keep watching. A show about fast food? A show about Birdman as a lawyer? A show about an underwater research station full of insane peopleBrak got his own damn show! And even Cowboy goddamn Bebop! One of the greatest anime of all time! What the hell is going on?!?!

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In 1993, Mike Lazzo was senior vice president of Cartoon Network, a subsidiary network of Turner that was just a year old and hoping to challenge its more established competitors, Nickelodeon and the Disney Channel. The decline of cartoons on the networks due to FCC regulations and market shifts (see: Wikipedia) gave an upstart like Cartoon Network a chance.

Even back then at a children’s focused channel like Cartoon Network, however, it was obvious animation wasn’t just for adults, so Ted Turner asked Mike Lazzo, a high school dropout who’d worked his way up from Turner’s shipping department[1], to create a cheap cartoon that would air late at night and appeal to adults.

“What, reasoned Lazzo, could be more low-cost than to take animation frames from the old Hanna-Barbera Saturday morning children’s cartoon series Space Ghost and Dino Boy and superimpose them over newly filmed live-action sequences? Going a bit farther, Lazzo decided to use the old reedited Space Ghost footage as part of a concept he’d been toying with for year: a satirical David Letterman-style talk show, with a thoroughly clueless and humorless host asking celebrity guests a steady stream of stupid, non sequitur questions. As a result, Space Ghost Coast to Coast was not only the Cartoon Network’s first original cartoon series, but it was also the first animated talk show in TV history!”[2]

“The original name of the show stemmed from early 1993, while Andy Merrill and Jay Edwards were coming up with names for a marathon of the original Space Ghost TV show to air on Cartoon Network, trying to find things that rhyme with “Ghost”.”[3]

Space Ghost got 6 seasons and even a kid-friendly spin-off (Cartoon Planet) before being canceled, or at least put on hiatus, in 1999.

Space Ghost family tree

Dave Willis
  • Aqua Teen Hunger Force

  • Squidbillies

  • Sealab 2021

  • Your Pretty Face is Going to Hell

  • Perfect Hair Forever

  • Young Person’s Guide to History

  • Too Many Cooks

Matt Maiellaro
  • Aqua Teen Hunger Force

  • Squidbillies

  • Sealab 2021

  • The Brak Show

  • Perfect Hair Forever

Adam Reed
  • Sealab 2021

  • Frisky Dingo


Matt Harrigan
  • Late Show with David Letterman

  • KaBlam!

  • Celebrity Deathmatch

  • Harvey Birdman, Attorney at Law

  • Perfect Hair Forever

  • Tom Goes to the Mayor

  • Assy McGee

  • Tim and Eric Awesome Show, Great Job!

  • FishCenter Live


While entertaining pitches for a variety of adult-focused cartoons, Lazzo realized the potential for packaging them as a complete adult-focused block. Different names were considered, including “ibiso”, Spanish for “stop”, and “Parental Warning”, but he eventually settled on Adult Swim. Cartoon Network aired pilots for Harvey Birdman, Aqua Teen, Sealab, and Brak unannounced on different late-night hours in December 2000, and aired two new episodes of Space Ghost in May and July 2001 to test the waters. After greenlighting the pilots, reviving Home Movies, and securing the rights to Cowboy Bebop, Adult Swim was born, starting off with the first new episode of Home Movies, “Director’s Cut”.

Family Guy

Family Guy was created by Hanna-Barbera veteran Seth MacFarlane, who’d worked on several Cartoon Network shows developed by Lazzo, including Powerpuff Girls, Courage the Cowardly Dog, and Dexter’s Lab, as an adaptation of his thesis film for his studies at the Rhode Island School of Design. The show struggled under Fox’s infamously fickle scheduling, which saddled it with low ratings. Adult Swim began reruns of the show in April 2003, and the show was canceled by Fox the same year. It immediately skyrocketed to Adult Swim’s highest-rated show, with ratings 239% higher on the late-night network than on Fox. The rating success, coupled with strong DVD sales, convinced Fox to renew the show for a fourth season. Family Guy has since aired 14 total seasons and numerous specials. Show creator Seth MacFarlane used the success of the show to successfully negotiate for two additional shows on Fox, American Dad, which has aired 13 seasons and which airs in reruns on Adult Swim today, and The Cleveland Show, which aired for four seasons on Fox before being canceled and also still airs in reruns on Adult Swim today.

Family Guy in Cartoon Network

Family Guy in Cartoon Network


The brainchild of Simpsons creator and television icon Matt Groening and Simpsons writer David X. Cohen, Futurama also struggled with Fox’s capricious scheduling and only lasted one more season than Family Guy before being canceled. Adult Swim picked up the show for reruns in 2003, and producers used the high ratings to convince Fox to greenlight four direct-to-DVD movies. The success of those movies convinced Comedy Central to pick up the show for a revival and reruns. Futurama went on to air 52 additional episodes on Comedy Central.

Tim and Eric

Tim Heidecker and Eric Wareheim met while studying at Temple University, and began producing comedy shorts shortly thereafter. In 2002, they mailed a packet containing glossy headshots, a letter, a DVD containing early versions of Tom Goes to the Mayor, and an itemized bill for all of the above to Conan O’Brien, Robert Smigel, and fortuitously, Bob Odenkirk. Bob was the only one who responded.[4] From that pitch, we got one of Adult Swim’s strangest shows and the beginning of perhaps the most controversial Adult Swim success stories. One look at Adult Swim’s social media presence will tell you that there is perhaps no bigger demarcator in the Adult Swim fan base than feelings on Tim and Eric. A switch from the dialogue-driven animated “stoner” comedy of the early crop of shows to the live-action surreal “cringe” humor of Tim and Eric, which relied heavily upon video editing, is still, in my opinion, the biggest cultural inflection point in Adult Swim’s history.

T&E leveraged the success of TGTTM to negotiate for their next show, the most controversial Adult Swim show ever, Tim and Eric Awesome Show, Great Job! which ran for 5 seasons. The show was followed by a Christmas special, a movie, a failed pilot with Gregg Turkington in his Neil Hamburger, the Twilight Zone inspired anthology show Tim and Eric Bedtime Stories, and a direct spinoff, Check It Out! with Dr. Steve Brule, starring Academy Award-nominated actor John C. Reilly, which just concluded its 4th season.

Tim and Eric are no longer just late-night TV alt-comedy stars, however. As their success on Adult Swim grew, so did their reach outside of the network. They’ve produced shows on IFC, Comedy Central, and Netflix, including the breakout, hit Nathan for You, and the Netflix revival of their comedy mentor Bob Odenkirk’s show Mr. Show. Eric has built up a career as a major music video director, producing videos for Ben Folds, Beach House, Major Lazer, and more. Tim has established himself as a (semi-serious) musician and acted in mainstream hits like the hit film Bridesmaids, The Simpsons, the Office, and more. Together with Sarah Silverman, Reggie Watts, and Michael Cera, Tim and Eric created the popular YouTube comedy channel Jash.

The Abso Lutely train shows no signs of slowing down any time soon, and the divisive reactions it incites among Adult Swim fans show no signs of abating.


Brendon Small was no stranger to Adult Swim. They’d been a savior to him when they’d saved Home Movies from UPN obscurity and cancellation, but the show ended in 2004. During this time, he began attending metal shows with his friend Tommy Blacha, a former writer for Conan, SNL’s TV Funhouse, and Da Ali G Show, and the former creative director for the WWE. From these shows, the idea for Metalocalypse, originally titled Deathclock, was born. Small, a guitar geek and graduate of the Berklee College of Music, worked to ensure that the show was as faithful to real guitar playing as it was funny, carefully syncing the animation of realistic finger and hand movements to the show’s music. Almost every episode featured an original metal song, and the list of guest stars soon became a Who’s Who of the metal and rock worlds.

Dethklok wasn’t just a fictional band, however. Small and Adult Swim released three full-length albums and an EP as Dethklok and even conducted full nationwide tours in “Gorillaz style” several times, with video depictions of the animated band and a real band on stage, featuring Small and others.

Metalocalypse in Cartoon Network

Metalocalypse in Cartoon Network

But all good things must come to an end. In its third season, Metalocalypse became the first of only two Adult Swim shows ever to increase its running time from one season to the next (the other was China, IL) going from the more Adult Swim traditional time of 11 minutes up to 22. This did not last, though, and for the show’s fourth season its running time was brought back down to 11 minutes. In what proved to be another one of the network’s most controversial decisions ever, the fourth season would come to be the last, as Adult Swim canceled the series. Contentious negotiations followed (Small told one interviewer that he hung up on Lazzo in fury the last time they ever spoke by phone), but the show ultimately concluded its broadcast history with an hour length rock opera titled The Doomstar Requiem.


Mike Lazzo is famously hands-on with Adult Swim creators, to the point of driving the development of individual characters.

“He suggested that 14-year-old Morty should show more backbone because that’s the character whose perspective the audience gets most. The producers took his advice and added a new scene to the first episode in which the grandson seizes control of a space ship from a drunken Rick to prevent a catastrophic explosion. “That’s how we found [the characters’] relationship,” says Mr. Harmon. “You don’t want to let Lazzo down. Which, as a writer, is such a crazy thing to hear yourself say about a suit.”

So basically, if you have a show on Adult Swim, you’re not insulated from the bigwigs by layers of bureaucracy. There’s just one bigwig and he’s directly involved with the creative process of almost every show. So if you have a show, he better like it.

Fans will tell you that Mike Lazzo doesn’t appreciate good art and that his cancellation of Metaltocalypse makes him worse than Hitler. I think this misses the point of why he canceled it. From bits and pieces of interviews and one-off appearances on Adult Swim streaming shows, I’ve basically put together that Mike Lazzo thought the show had forgotten that Adult Swim was a comedy network, and its increasing emphasis on telling a serialized serious story involving prophecies and talking whales instead of telling jokes with music on the side meant the show was no longer suited for Adult Swim. The only other Adult Swim show that’s ever attempted to tell a semi-serious serialized story, The Venture Bros., has dealt with the balance between story and comedy by staying light-hearted throughout and grounding the serious elements in a world and web of characters that are constantly being lampshaded and being put in your face as inherently less than serious. The Boondocks would make serious points (Return of the King and The Passion of Reverend Ruckus) but was balanced out by many more comedic episodes.

Do you think serious storytelling has a place on Adult Swim? If your answer is yes, then you probably think Lazzo was wrong to cancel Metalocalypse. If your answer is no, it would seem that Lazzo made the right decision.


In the 90s, Toonami used hits like Dragonball Z to pave the way for the normalization of anime on American children’s television. Adult Swim followed it up with the first full-throated introduction of mature action anime to American audiences. With shows like Cowboy Bebop, The Big O, and Samurai Champloo, Adult Swim blew the doors off of anime in America, exposing audiences to an entire catalog of shows that no other network would have been willing to broadcast. Even Toonami could never have aired a show Trinity Blood. Breaking even more new ground, Adult Swim has even helped finance original Western-friendly anime like Space Dandy and the upcoming second season FLCL. While anime on the network is currently limited to only one day a week, it’s still a testament to Adult Swim’s relative bravery in the world of television that they’re willing to air a category of shows that almost no other American television network has been willing to air in the 15 years since AS started, except for flirtations by G4 and SyFy.


Adult Swim currently has 10 different 24/7 streaming channels, only two of which require a cable or satellite subscription. They have a daily animation marathon, a daily live-action marathon, a marathon of Tim and Eric, a marathon of The Venture Bros., a stream of their growing companion online channel of shows like FishCenter and Stupid Morning Bullshit, a marathon of the experimental video/music show Off the Air, a Toonami marathon, a marathon relay of the online show FishCenter Live, and east and west coast live simulcast of the television block that requires cable or satellite. While their deal with Hulu took a great amount of content off, the number of episodes they offer on their website for free and with unimpeded access is still completely unparalleled in the American television landscape.

infomercials/Off the Air

Adult Swim is more friendly to experimental video and comedy than any other television brand or network in American history. No other network would be willing to air a show like Off the Air (albeit at 4 AM). And while hits like Too Many Cooks may briefly capture the internet’s attention, it’s just the tip of the iceberg of Adult Swim’s insane and daring series of shorts known as Infomercials. There’s “M.O.P.Z.” a full feature-length film sped up until its only 11 minutes long. There’s the disturbing “This House Has People In It” from internet-famous experimental filmmaker Alan Resnick, complete with its own still yet to be fully resolved ARG. There’s the (literally) sedate “Joe Pera Talks You To Sleep”.


I could go on and on and on. If I’d started this earlier, I would’ve gone into Xavier Renegade Angel, Moral Orel, The Boondocks, and so much more.

Suffice it to say, Adult Swim has changed American television and American culture. While it may not have the flashy success of the more “grown-up” networks like HBO, FX, and Comedy Central, it’s a sleeping giant that those very same networks are falling all over each other to learn from. The only other TV network to ever have a strong cultural brand identity, MTV, was already arguably in decline at this point in its life. Adult Swim is still going strong as hell, and I hope it’ll still be here in another 15 years. I’ve given it a lot of nights in my life, and as a body pillow, it’s been there for me.


1 Cohen, Alan. “Swimming Against The Tide.” Fast Company. January 01, 2005. Accessed September 1, 2016.

2 Erickson, Hal. “Space Ghost Coast to Coast [Animated TV Series] (1994).” All Movie. Accessed September 1, 2016.

3 “Space Ghost Coast to Coast: Production.” Wikipedia. Accessed September 1, 2016.

4 Sacks, Mike. “Why Hide Behind Irony?” Believer Mag, September/October 2008. Accessed September 2, 2016.

Jurgensen, John. “Adult Swim: How to Run a Creative Hothouse.” The Wall Street Journal (New York City), 2015, Arts | Television sec. March 12, 2015. Accessed September 2, 2016.

Jurgensen, John. “Shop Rules at Adult Swim.” The Wall Street Journal, March 12, 2015. Accessed September 2, 2016.