It was 15 years ago this month that one of the great ideas in cable TV was born, pretty much out of complete boredom.
Ted Turner had launched Cartoon Network in 1992 with thousands of Hanna-Barbera programs. A year and a half later one of the people in charge of its schedule, Mike Lazzo, thought he would go out of his skull before he aired another “Flintstones” marathon.
Turner had once taken a crummy UHF signal in Atlanta and made it into Superstation WTBS. So Lazzo figured he would take a crummy 1960s cartoon from the H-B collection and re-animate it. Kind of like that new guy at NBC, Conan O’Whatsisname, was doing with the photograph and the moving lips.
In April 1994, “Space Ghost Coast to Coast” signed on Cartoon Network. And so began a slow, ultra-cheap but creatively rich evolution into the all-night alternative service we know today as Adult Swim.
Lazzo told Turner’s sales staff that if they’d just let him buy reruns of “Fish Police” and a couple other animated shows for grown-ups, plus make more “Space Ghosts,” he could rule the evenings.
“Sales kept saying, ‘We don’t need it, and we don’t think you’ll make money,’” said Lazzo, a high school dropout who started out in Turner’s mail room. “But by 1998, ‘99, we were pretty much, ‘C’mon let-us-let-us-let-us,’ and we did that every minute until they said yes.”
Adult Swim launched in 2001 with reruns of “Family Guy,” which Fox had at that time given up on.
Lazzo moved its production offices away from the rest of Cartoon Network, across the highway from Turner’s fancy corporate digs to a, yup, crummy former carpet warehouse on Williams Street.
He hired kids cheap and let them do what they wanted, so long as they stayed on budget. He bought anime, even an occasional live-action comedy for the overnight hours.
Plenty of ideas crashed and burned. Those that did not - “Aqua Teen Hunger Force,” “Robot Chicken,” “Harvey Birdman,” the list goes on - helped define Adult Swim’s peculiar, we-love-TV-we-hate-TV sensibility. And Lazzo will swear that shows that aren’t huge hits - like “Moral Orel” and “Tim and Eric Awesome Show, Great Job!” - are crucial to the brand.
Adult Swim took over Cartoon Network three nights a week, then six, and finally seven. It now airs eight hours a night, beginning at 10 p.m. EDT with reruns of “King of the Hill.” The rights to that show certainly didn’t come cheap; Fox has learned that Adult Swim is an ATM machine for Time Warner, the owner of Turner Broadcasting.
When I visited him recently, Lazzo said, “I still think you can do a show with six people. The first thing I learned was if you kept it inexpensive enough, they would let you do things. You would generally get a ‘yes.’ Once.”
Adult Swim has begun mining the trove of oddball British comedy shows, picking up “The Mighty Boosh” and my favorite, the skewed science parody “Look Around You.”
I asked Lazzo about rumors I’d kept hearing from aficionados of the original Ricky Gervais series “The Office,” which spawned the NBC version but hadn’t been seen here since BBC America carried it in 2003. Was Adult Swim acquiring the rights to that show as well?
“That’s a done deal,” Lazzo said. “It’s happening. It’s done. The only thing I don’t know is when to put it on.”
I poked my head into the office where Dave Willis and Matt Maiellaro were hard at work creating the next season of “Aqua Teen Hunger Force.” Actually, Maiellaro - one of the original “Space Ghost” writers - was plucking out a Joe Walsh tune on his unamped guitar while Willis stared at God knows what on his laptop.
I introduced myself and asked what they were working on.
“We’re doing a ‘Star Wars’ parody that exceeds ‘Family Guy’s,’” Willis declared. “We skewer ‘Star Wars’ like it’s never been skewered before.”
Maiellaro, wearing a Rush Limbaugh EIB hat, complimented Willis on using the word “skewer” twice in a sentence. I tried to call his bluff on the “Star Wars” parody, but Willis just stared me down.
Further down the hall - past murals, oddball art and the hugely popular “Family Guy” pinball machine - is the dot-com side of Adult Swim. After a slow start the online site has begun to take off, thanks to the decision to focus on video games that had nothing to do with Adult Swim shows but rather, as Lazzo puts it, “are like our shows - stupid-ass games.”
It struck gold with “Amateur Surgeon,” in which the player is a pizza-delivery man pressed into urgent medical service. AdultSwim.com executive Jeff Olsen gave me a preview of the two-a-month offerings coming up, including “Meowcenaries” (LOLcats with guns), “Pizza Delivery” (this time with a “Grand Theft Auto” twist), “H.R. Mageddon” (not sure what that is, but you gotta love the title).
See a slideshow of Williams Street at Aaron’s website, TVBarn.com.
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