Welcome back to Geek Life! In this penultimate chapter, I take a look at a particular block of programming that usually keeps me up way too late every night. I discovered it on a Thursday night in 2001 and was immediately hooked. Through the years, I’ve seen it mature and grow into a super power. It even helped reignite interest in the previously canceled Family Guy and Futurama leading to the return of both series after years of dormant production. We’re going to dive into the history and growth of Cartoon Network’s supremely popular Adult Swim!
All Kids out of the Pool…
2001 was a bad year. Obviously, one particular September morning changed all our lives irrevocably, but on a more personal, everyday level, this was a year of great change for me. It was a year that saw me take a job as a bank teller after nearly 6 years of working at either a video store or movie theater. It was the last year I lived with my mom. I was at a crossroads with trying to find time for my old group of friends and a new group I met at the movie theater I worked at and was about to leave. More specifically, once I went to work at the bank, I would be the only person in my regular group of friends that had a normal set of hours that didn’t include working at night. To hang out with friends, I’d have to sacrifice precious sleep to function properly at the bank. However, working at the bank provided much better income to have more fun. Perhaps more importantly, the bank gave me more money to buy comics. But was the job going to force me into seclusion with only my comics? I’m already kind of a weird guy, so how much weirder could I get if that happened?
As I found it more difficult to see friends, I was getting bored very quickly. I was in search of something that could prevent me from going crazy at the thought of another night dreading the early morning alarm buzz. It was September, and aside from the world changing for everyone, my life was about change forever. The funny thing is, I have no idea how I accidentally found this life changing block of programming, but I did.
Cartoon Network was trying something new for their late night audience. Knowing kids would be in bed and adults needed entertainment, they started airing a segment called Adult Swim. These shows were a mix of Cartoon Network properties and failed shows purchased by the network. Each program was loaded with strange, often trippy, and double entendre humor. The two shows that were purchased specifically for this block of programming, Baby Blues and Home Movies, spoke to specific demographics. While other shows like Aqua Teen Hunger Force, Harvey Birdman, Attorney at Law, The Brak Show, and Sealab 2021 targeted the college aged, possibly drunk and/or stoned crowd. It was glory pouring out of my television. Like a heroin addict, it just took one little taste to get me hooked.
While I always appreciated the stranger Harvey Birdman, Sealab 2021 and Aqua Teen Hunger Force, the more childlike Brak Show and sharp witted Home Movies won my heart immediately. Brak’s insanely positive attitude and catchy musical numbers were hilarious and lovable. Zorak, Brak’s alien mantis friend, was deliciously evil and your eyes were glued to him every moment he spent on screen. Some may not know this, but Zorak also had a beautiful singing voice. Brak’s dad was probably the best character on the show because he was based on all those father characters from the early days of TV and constantly spouted “wisdom” at every opportunity.
Home Movies, on the other hand, was a series that began, and failed, on UPN. Created by Loren Bouchard and Brendon Small, who both have since gone on to create popular series on their own for both Fox and Adult Swim, the series found a new life through reruns. While the first season was unevenly received, Cartoon Network commissioned three more seasons with each one having a different style of storytelling.
The show centered on three kids who loved to make movies. As funny as their low budget, poorly scripted movies were, the kids’ soccer coach, John McGuirk, stole the show in every episode. His character was about the most uncaring and horrifically unpolitically correct person to be in a career involving children, but damn if he wasn’t one of the most hilarious characters in cartoon history. Like Homer Simpson, McGuirk was an overweight loser, but unlike Homer, Coach McGuirk wasn’t as over the top in his antics, no matter how crazy he could get. The subtlety of the characters and the humorous situations made the show one of my favorite Adult Swim shows of all time.
In the early years of Adult Swim, it was obvious that Cartoon Network was looking to air Anime geared toward more mature audience. Right from the beginning, the final program to air during the programming block was Cowboy Bebop, a series about bounty hunters that flew from planet to planet in the solar system barely getting by on what money they could get from catching criminals. The series is universally known as one of the finest, and best received, Anime programs ever. Each episode aimed for the viewers’ hearts and minds as Spike, Jet, and Faye often found themselves in situations that forced them to question the guilt of the criminal they were chasing.
Each character from the crew of the Bebop had a seriously deep story behind them. Spike, a former criminal, was haunted by his past which involved the one woman he loved and a friend who betrayed and tried to kill him. Jet, a former police officer, is pursuing justice after quitting his job over corruption of his fellow officers, but also haunted by memories of his wife leaving him without reason. Faye is a femme fatale who is often more trouble than what Spike and Jet would like to have around. Despite the joy they have each time Faye has left them, they always welcome her back. Their connection to her is mysterious but seem to almost be a part of grand design. Even the young passenger, and computer genius, Edward was not at all what she seemed.
Cowboy Bebop only ran for twenty-six episodes. Despite its immense popularity, the series operated on an arc that found each character changed from how we first saw them. Spike eventually tracks down and confronts his arch enemy, Vicious. In a final battle that feels like it’s straight from an Ang Lee movie, both men are killed. Finally avenging Vicious’ earlier betrayal and murder of Julia, Spike is finally able to rest. Despite the obvious sentimentality of Spike’s death to end the series, I always found myself contemplating the futures of Jet and Faye. Did they carry on together as partners as Jet and Spike did? Did Edward ever find out that Spike died? I always asked questions for which I never wanted answers. I didn’t have to know this. Spike’s purpose for living was met. Regardless if I wanted those answers, it was the connection I was able to form with all the characters that made me ask and come up with my own answers. Well, at least come up with good enough answers for me to finally fall asleep after seeing the final episode.
Less than a year later, Adult Swim would move into a second phase of its existence. While I seem to be the only person who ever remembered that the block premiered shows on Sunday, and replayed the same programs on Thursday nights, the block permanently moved to Sunday nights. Shortly after the start of 2003, Adult Swim moved to a schedule that aired a block of their programming five or six nights a week. With that, we got some new shows to watch and love. The Sunday night schedule still showed most of the series they always had. On the weeknights, though, viewers got to see Futurama, fresh from cancellation on Fox, Mission Hill, The Oblongs, Cowboy Bebop, Inuyasha, and Lupin III. Later, Family Guy would join this schedule to help keep it fresh.
I was already aware of the awesomeness that is Futurama, so to see all those episodes again prior to their eventual release on DVD was awesome. I also found myself inexplicably drawn to Lupin III. Not really being a fan of Anime, outside Cowboy Bebop, I was surprised that show so sophomoric and silly as Lupin III would become a nightly thing for me. Even though I don’t care for Inuyasha at all, I watched nearly every episode. That was the power Adult Swim had over me.
As far as The Oblongs went, I knew of the small press books by Angus Oblong that featured some of the characters that inspired the series, but never saw the show until Adult Swim aired it. If you were ever curious what type of show would bring Will Ferrell, Jean Smart, the Sklar brothers, and Billy West together, it would be a show about genetic freaks. The stars of The Oblongs lived in a valley that pretty much received all the sewage of the rich people living above them. Bob Oblong (Ferrell) had no arms or legs. Pickles Oblong (Smart) had no hair. Biff and Chip Oblong (the Sklars) were conjoined twins. Milo, the main star was all kinds of screwed up mentally and physically. The series was perfect for Adult Swim, but not for the WB crowd as the brand of humor straddled the styles of The Simpsons and the other shows that originated during the early days of Adult Swim. This was a type of show that no matter how many times you watched an episode you’d find something new going on that was simply hilarious.
During this second phase of Adult Swim, my new favorite show was Mission Hill. I could write for hours about the show, so I’ll try to cut this down to avoid going on without end. Basically, Mission Hill was about two brothers, Andy and Kevin. Andy lived in Cosmopolis, which was similar to Chicago with villages nestled within it (on the show Mission Hill was one of these villages). Kevin was a suburban high schooler with an extremely high IQ. When their parents opt to move to Wyoming, they decide to send Kevin to live with Andy until he finishes school.
Pretty simple premise, huh? The show’s real charm was within each character. Andy was a slacker working a dead end job and held little interest in working his way out of his self-induced rut. His best friend, Jim, was a mysterious man with interests, and career, that continues to surprise those who know him best. Posey, the third tenant in Andy’s apartment was an organic tree-hugger who was often more aloof and ditzy than just about everyone else. Kevin was, to put this as lightly as a can, a complete nerd who was completely wrapped up in his school work and worrying himself into a frenzy over making the right choices in the college he attended and the profession he wanted to go into.
Around these characters were a supporting cast that found each neighbor or friend with a more interesting personality than the next. There was Kevin’s friends who ranged from the geeky to the outright socially retarded, a weirdo who referred to himself as the Republican Vampire, an artist who lived a very contradictory life and his activist wife, and an elderly gay couple (one the typical gay man, and the other just about as opposite as you could imagine a gay man to be).
The show was created for the WB by Bill Oakley and Josh Weinstein who had just left their incredibly successful term as showrunners for The Simpsons. While more subdued than The Simpsons, Mission Hill carried with it a sense of character arc and story morals learned by characters that the duo’s tenure with the smash Fox series was known for. No matter how opposite Kevin and Andy were in their approach to everything in life, they were still brothers and loved each other at the end of the day. They often learned lessons about life from one another. In just thirteen episodes, Andy and Kevin French were completely different people than how we met them at the beginning of the series.
I talk in such detail about Mission Hill because no series in television history ever spoke to me as clearly as this show. If it’s even possible to say, no show ever understood me as much as Mission Hill. I identified with both Kevin and Andy. From the Kevin standpoint, I definitely enjoy science fiction and the internet. Frankly, I’m pretty much a big ol’ dork. However, I could always identify more with Andy because I also wasted all my potential throughout my late teens and twenties. I didn’t want to work in an office job. I didn’t want the 9-5 life. I got to a point when I realized I had to stop working in a movie theater and have a real job with real benefits and paid vacations. I still consider myself a pretty grade A slacker with serious anti-corporate feelings, but at least I can provide for my wife and the family we are building. I will say, though, there isn’t a day that goes by that I have an Andy French moment and let my general apathy win.
For anyone who spent the first decade of this century in their twenties, or graduated from high school at some point in the 90s, I cannot recommend a show more than Mission Hill. It’s currently available on DVD and Netflix (unfortunately not for streaming). So, check it out when you get a chance. If it was up to me, I’d recommend you watch it the next time it airs through Adult Swim. That’s only because you get the original music soundtrack on the shows that air on TV. Also, my very favorite episode (one that finds Andy and Kevin fighting over a sexy geek girl in the middle of a sci-fi convention) is poorly mastered on the DVD set and very difficult to hear even when the volume’s cranked. Trust me on this one, folks, there’s really no reason to dislike this show. I know you’ll have a brand new appreciation for Cake’s “Italian Leather Sofa” (an instrumental version serves as the theme song for the show).
This second stage of Adult Swim’s life, helped by the inclusion of Futurama and Family Guy, skyrocketed the block of programming into a brand new realm of success. In a short time that followed, a new wave of programs started to air. Of these, two shows in particular stood out from the rest – The Venture Bros. and Robot Chicken.
Robot Chicken was part of a period of Adult Swim that found very different shows becoming part of the regular schedule. These shows either used a very different style of animation or live action. Robot Chicken kinda did both. A lot of action figures and figures sculpted out of clay were animated to do goofy little skits. Some of these skits were literally only a few seconds and the series used the feel of switching from one channel to the next as the overall flow of the show. Robot Chicken had geek pedigree, too, being co-created by Seth Green. It stands as Adult Swim’s most consistently recognized show, almost always being nominated for a few Emmys every year.
Since Robot Chicken’s premiere, more shows abandoning the classic animation style have also made a splash. Tim Heidecker and Eric Wareheim’s Tom Goes to the Mayor used almost a stop motion style of animation creating pictures of the characters that were later turned into rough photocopied versions that were posed in particular ways. The duo later did another show, Tim and Eric Show, Great Job!, that was entirely live action. Titan Maximum (another Seth Green project), Morel Orel, and Mary Shelley’s Frankenhole were more claymation series that pushed the boundaries of different genres to find specific audiences. Live action shows like Eagleheart, Children’s Hospital, Saul of the Mole Men (a clever take on the classic Sid and Marty Kroft style of monster shows), and Delocated also found homes on Adult Swim. While I like Saul of the Mole Men and probably would really like Eagleheart for its obvious parody of Walker, Texas Ranger, I haven’t really found what the big deal is with Children’s Hospital and Delocated proving that not only Adult Swim isn’t exactly perfect, but maybe live action has finally run its course.
To me, this recent era of experimentation and growth for Adult Swim would be ruled by the most clever and consistently hilarious program in all of the program block’s existence – The Venture Bros. Right off the bat, it’s impossible not to recognize a parody, of sorts, to Johnny Quest. In fact, everything about this series seems to be ripped from the 70s, polished, and repackaged into a 21st century clone. As with many action/adventure cartoons from the 70s, the stories and characters are all influenced by super science. The younger characters are way too peppy and into the idea of solving a mystery deep inside a situation that should kill them. Oddly enough, the kids have been killed many times only to be brought back through cloning.
Each and every character in this series has a different personality. There are no two characters alike, nor are there any characters from this series that are similar to characters in any other show or movie. Even the characters like Baron Von Ünderbheit are clearly meant to be an homage to Doctor Doom, but they are still very different. It’s almost as if Jackson Publick and Doc Hammer (the creators of the show) looked for specific archetypes, but decided to spin them in a way that they no longer really inhabited the classic archetype. In a way, these characters created their own.
Without a doubt, the two most spectacular characters in the entire series is the family bodyguard Brock Samson and Dr.Venture’s arch-nemesis, The Monarch. Brock Samson is the epitome of American cool. He drives a muscle car, has a bitchin’ mullet, and would rather kill someone first and get his answers later. Brock can have, and often has had, sex with any woman on the planet. Even with each character getting a chance to speak at least one roll on the floor laughing line per episode, Brock’s lines tend to be the best and coolest.
With the Monarch, you get a villain that’s a total putz, but actually has been quite successful and menacing somehow. He’s a bit of a wiener. He deeply hates Dr. Venture, but no one can really say why. They went to the same college together and the Monarch is Dr. Venture’s assigned archenemy, but outside of that, there’s really no reason for the Monarch to hate Venture. Let’s face it, Dr. Venture is a loser. By simple logic a loser of a hero’s archenemy is likely to be twice the loser. Aside from scoring a hot wife (the masculine-voiced Dr. Girlfriend) and the ability to have a flying cocoon loaded with henchmen, there’s not much else to point to in the Monarch’s life that you could say is good or healthy.
Thinking back to seeing the promos that ran for The Venture Bros. before the premiere, I just knew there was going to be something utterly special about the series. It’s something that you can feel in the pit of your soul. Everything about it screamed, “GEOFF, YOU WILL LOVE THIS SHOW!!!” On that very special Saturday night in the Summer of 2004, I watched the first full-length episode and my life seemed to forever change.
It was almost like Adult Swim had come full circle. Three years prior to the start of The Venture Bros., my mind was blown seeing my first glances of this block of shows that were so strange, yet witty and funny only for it to happen again with this series. It was like Adult Swim was personally reminding me that they can be every bit as spectacular than they ever were before and then some. While I may not watch much of the new programs, or set my watch by the date and time of premieres of the older shows, I always make sure I’m aware of when The Venture Bros. starts a new season. I believe that anyone who’s watched Adult Swim for several years picks his or her own pony. While I sit and wait for new episodes of The Venture Bros., someone else waits for new Aqua Teen Hunger Force or Robot Chicken. We watch plenty of what shows before or after our favorites, but most of us have handed the entire block of shows off to the generation after us to discover and enjoy for the first time like we did a decade ago.
I know I could have gone into even more detail about the shows I mentioned in this article. Hell, I probably could have broken this Adult Swim article into three detailing each of the phases of life the block went through. I could have spent more time on Aqua Teen Hunger Force, or Boondocks, or Metalocalypse, or more of the struggle Adult Swim’s had with Anime. I probably should be kicking myself for not discussing the one off shows seen in the early years like Welcome to Eltingville based on the comic Dork! by Evan Dorkin that had a similar effect on me that Mission Hill did. No single episode ever aired on Adult Swim was more loved than Saddle Rash which was a western-style cartoon, or the Spumco-produced Boo Boo Runs Wild about Yogi Bear’s faithful companion who goes into a feral state over the frustration with rules. All of these shows could have been covered. All of them probably should have been.
The more I thought about it, the more I wanted you to offer up comments and memories of your Adult Swim experience. Let us hear about it! Were you there at the beginning? When did you discover it? What shows do you still watch over and over? I want to hear from you!
That’s the end of this issue of Geek Life. In two weeks, my year-long journey comes to an end. For the final chapter, I’m going to examine what it means to be a geek, how it became so cool to be a geek, and why I believe every single person, no matter how much they will deny it or be angered by it, is a geek about something. Won’t you come back and help me see Geek Life off?