There is nothing funnier on television right now than Cartoon Network’s [adult swim] block. Well, maybe The Daily Show, but frankly, nothing else is even close. Hell, the network promos that air during the commercials on adult swim are funnier than most of what is on television!
Adult Swim is Cartoon Network’s programming block featuring more mature cartoons. Some are comedies, other are action cartoons from Japan. The programming is constantly changing and surprisingly responsive to its viewers. They’ll even respond on air when a show is taken off the schedule and they might even bring it back. Some shows are cycled on and off the schedule to keep things fresh. It’s really come up with a strong identity as a programming block rather than a collection of individual programs. This is actually something Cartoon Network does better than anyone else on cable and it builds a heck of a lot of brand loyalty.
This brand identity is really built with the network promos they run between the shows. They are brilliant and unabashedly self-referential. They are also so simple you have to admire the audacity that a network was willing to even do this. It is just white text on a black screen. Some show-specific promos mix things up with silhouettes of characters. All with some cool funky jazz/rock music playing in the background. Some are jokes about the programs, often very random at that. Others are just weird meandering thoughts. Kinda like reading a blog. These promos themselves have inspired fan sites, which has to please the network. A lot of networks have tried to make their self-promos this memorable by just making them weird, but they really haven’t worked. I can think of those bizarre VH1 commercials with the rapping kittens with the simplistic collage style animation as a good example. They just leave you with “huh?” rather than anything genuinely memorable. Adult Swim gets it right and they give me a reason to stay focused during commercial breaks, which has to please their advertisers.
The comedy section includes a mixture of Cartoon Network’s original programs reruns of shows that originally ran on network TV but were canceled before their time. This is actually something Cartoon Network has really pushed since the major success of Futurama and the subsequent success of Family Guy reruns, but its been a part of the adult swim block from day one. By the way, if you haven’t seen Futurama, do your self a favor and tune in. It is the best animation seen on television ever, with hilarious writing and acting to go with it.
The original stuff, though, is insanely brilliant and wickedly subversive. This basically started with the long-time hit, Space Ghost: Coast to Coast. Cartoon Network has a huge archive of animation and are very willing to go all post-modern and revisionist to appeal to the post-Gen X’ers who like that sort of reimagining of their childhood. VERY willing. The best example is Harvey Birdman. They take classic superhero, Birdman, and reinvent him as a lawyer fighting to protect fellow Hanna-Barbara cartoon characters. It’s not afraid to make all sorts of outrageous jokes at the character’s expense. Shaggy and Scooby? Arrested for pot use. Yogi and Boo Boo? Boo Boo is an eco-terrorist. Dr. Quest and Race Bannon from Johnny Quest get into a custody battle when their “relationship” falls apart. Fred Flintstone? Mafia don. It all looks great and is so absurdist that its fantastic.
The action shows are mostly Anime stuff. I’m not a big fan of anime, but this is the best of what’s out there. Two shows have even managed to win me over for being so distinctly un-anime. Cowboy Bebop is just a great sci-fi show with very little of the usual nonsense that bogs don’t most Japanese animation. It is episodic, yet evolving, and has some great action scenes and smart writing. Plus the best soundtrack you’ll ever find on an animated program. The other end of the spectrum offers FLCL (pronounced Fooly Cooly, I gather). The show is so bizarre that it just grabs you. It only has 6 episodes, so it’s not too overwhelming of a narrative, but it’s all wildly experimental as it shifts from different animation genres not just within an episode, but often within a scene. A lot of it is very “anime-esque” but it’s as if it’s trying to deconstruct the genre’s clichés. The subject matter is very adult and Cartoon Network really went out on a limb putting something this weird on. Its scheduled to go on hiatus soon, so catch what you can. Also, though it is neither anime nor part of the Adult Swim block, check out Samuri Jack on Cartoon Network. I love the stylized look, but the storytelling is some of the best I've ever seen. Very creative stuff, and it completely works.
The unfunniest thing on television? Well, that distinction goes to Adult Swim’s imitator over on Spike TV (formerly TNN). Its just not funny or entertaining. You’ve got Kelsey Grammer in the Flash animated Gary the Rat. I watched the debut, and I’ll be damned if there wasn’t a joke in the whole thing. You’ve also got Pamela Anderson as Stripperella, which is just a thin excuse to show naked cartoon women. It also had a horribly anti-fat debut episode. Finally, you have the “new” Ren and Stimpy cartoons. They should have just kept to running the classic Ren and Stimpy stuff. The new ones are overtly adult, which really seems to have elevated the need to write smart, subtle gross-out humor and its all just blatant. We all knew something was going on with Ren and Stimpy, but we didn’t need to have it explicitly explained that they are gay. Its not funny to see Ren and Stimpy arguing over who is the “pitcher” and who is the “catcher”. It’s just boring. It’s a shame because I loved the original back in the day, but I can see that it benefited from the restrictions Nickelodeon place on it. It forced them to be creative instead of just falling back on cheap humor.
So, that’s about all I have to say about the state of adult animation. (Believe or not, this is the edited essay). Cuz gosh knows you wanted to hear them. Now, if you excuse me I have to go kill myself because some CNN reporter just asked a US soldier serving in Iraq about how great their tour of duty has been for weight loss. *shudder*.