Arguably one of the best portrayals of the nuclear family to ever hit the screen, “The Simpsons” pushed the envelope to become one of the greatest television series ever.
…because somebody had to do it. Taking advantage of Cartoon Network’s off-peak hours and aging audience members, Adult Swim revolutionized the approach to making animation for grown-ups. The network combined childhood nostalgia for pop culture with cutting edge humor and experimental formats. Since its original launch as a block of programming, Adult Swim has not only established itself as wholly unique from its parent channel, but has expanded itself into live-action, music, video games, web content and user-generated communities across the world.
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Before Adult Swim, there had been plenty of prime time cartoons that adults enjoyed. “The Simpsons” had become a cultural mainstay, and “South Park” was emerging into a phenomenon. However, it still wasn’t clear whether these were anomalies or different versions of the perfect storm of crossover appeal between younger and older viewers. Cartoon Network itself had some cult success with the adult-oriented reimagining of Hanna-Barbera’s Space Ghost character as a late-night talk show host, with his former nemesis cast in the roll of a confrontational bandleader. The show’s referential humor seemed to resonate with teenagers and 20-somethings who were just barely old enough to remember the original characters. Yet rather than trying to capture a massive audience, Adult Swim doubled down on the niche appeal of a program like Space Ghost's. Shows like “Robot Chicken” and “Aqua Teen Hunger Force” mixed nostalgic premises with off-beat comedic takes, random jokes and absurdity. The result was a clear pitch to grown-up geeks whose hobbies included the enjoyment of certain not-fully-legal substances…and it worked.
While a lot of the Adult Swim shows may seem like nonsense, there’s nothing stupid about them. Yes, the humor and plots of its shows are driven by surreal twists and non-sequiturs, often referencing low-brow kids’ culture from the 1970’s and 1980’s. However, that’s kind of the point. Adult Swim has advertised itself as a place where artists can experiment with new ideas, allowing them to wallow in the most bizarre visions from their inner child’s imagination. Perhaps that’s why someone like Dan Harmon capitalized on his own status as an entertainment industry outsider to create a show like “Rick & Morty” for the network, turning it into one of the most critically acclaimed series on TV. More importantly, the audience is always in on the joke. There are varying versions of logic and coherence almost everywhere you look, but only Adult Swim is willing to take chances on something that might not make any sense. They’ve played off of this through their signature bumps – transition cards with white text on a black background – which often hint at the viewer’s necessary state of intoxication to enjoy a show or simply offer a random observations from the staff and viewers. At the heart of it all there’s always the awareness that cartoons should be a medium for kids, but that the network and audience together are violating this set of unwritten rules.
Adult Swim began as a kind of branding experiment. So it may be surprising that the network has become its own standalone entity in the parent company’s corporate structure, but no one should be shocked by its continued expansion to new platforms and media formats. Even before the age of social media and instant feedback, the network has reached out to its fans and asked for input. For instance, Adult Swim’s ads asking users to essentially create a mix-tape of submitted songs has been instrumental in assisting the careers of Killer Mike and El-P, playing a major role in the duo forming their acclaimed Run the Jewels incarnation. Further demonstrating its knowledge of the key demographic tastes, the network has also launched video games, web series and message boards. For the web content, the network has allowed almost anyone to pitch ideas through its livestream Development Meeting, which basically is an online version of what it sounds like. And it’s not just stoned American college students and slackers who enjoy their programming…this demographic apparently exists overseas too, as the network has discovered through its overseas expansion into countries like Canada (big whoop) to Pakistan (okay, that’s pretty cool). Ultimately, Adult Swim is a great example of how marketing and creativity can sometimes bolster each other.
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