“I very often think that you make the show you believe in, and that you must then trust it,” says Mike Lazzo, senior exec veep of Adult Swim, the successful latenight programming block spawned by Cartoon Network.
That’s easier said than done when the shows feature an often-violent bunch of redneck squids, walking food products that fall into a slew of bizarre existential conundrums and a surgeon who wears clown makeup and smears blood on his scrubs before each day of work.
But the ability of the network’s execs, including Lazzo, to take a chance on surreal, offbeat shows has led to explosive success in Adult Swim’s 11-year existence.
Which is funny, considering Adult Swim began rather innocuously in 2001, occupying only two nights a week with the aim of giving night owls age-appropriate content instead of more kids’ programming.
“No one really knew how it would turn out. We had one year to try it out,” says Stuart Snyder, prexy and COO of Turner Animation’s young adults and kids media division.
By that year’s end, the net had posted a 67% growth rate with the 18-to-34 demo, along with an 84% bump in delivery compared with 2000. And though Adult Swim originally grew out of repurposing old animation (as with “Sealab 2021”) and finding syndicated content, the core of the net’s growth has become finding and cultivating talent and eventually allowing showrunners to pursue their visions in full.
“We look at the people instead of the actual show — once we’re comfortable with the talent, we give them the free rein to make the show they’re compelled to make,” Lazzo says.
For Adult Swim stalwart Dave Willis, that process began in the mid-’90s with a show that in many ways lay the foundation for Adult Swim: “Space Ghost Coast to Coast,” which melded old animation and new voiceover work for mature-audience laughs. Working on the program, Willis began to see new possibilities of what TV programming could be.
“When we were making ‘Space Ghost,’ we were making an Internet-type show before the Internet even really existed,” Willis says. “We were the only show on TV that was a quarter-hour, and we started working with non-sequitur humor and other elements we see everywhere now.”
Willis eventually got a chance to pitch his own show, which he admits went “disastrously.”
“I remember the moment we lost the entire room: When I described the show as ‘sentient food objects that live in a dilapidated house in New Jersey, and stuff happens to them,’ ” Willis says through stifled laughter. “Everyone sort of started to look at their BlackBerrys. Mike (Lazzo) even left the room to take another call.”
In spite of all that, Lazzo and the net saw enough potential in Willis and partner Matt Maiellaro to invest in the idea. Luckily for them, that awkward pitch blossomed into “Aqua Teen Hunger Force” — the net’s longest-running original show — and set the stage for Willis to co-create another popular program, “Squidbillies.”
Willis’ story serves as the perfect example of Adult Swim’s business model, which largely manages risk by investing in lower-budget programs that emphasize cutting-edge writing over expensive animation or live productions — and in the process discovers some of the most inventive talent in the biz.
“We know that some of the ideas we try are, frankly, ridiculous,” Lazzo says. “I’ll put it this way: Sometimes, you have to try things that are completely wrongheaded than be overly conservative. That’s one of the problems with programming — that people try to remake past success.”
Seth Green, who co-runs the successful sketch-comedy stop-action skein “Robot Chicken,” knows firsthand that by taking such risks, Adult Swim has successfully forged a rare relationship with its now-dedicated following — and its creative talent. But for Green and co-creator Matt Senreich, the matter boils down to one thing:
“We have experience at a lot of networks and studios,” Green says. “Here, we’ve been able to make a show that we couldn’t have done anywhere else.”
Creative minds unleased | Whims win for sassy Swim | Animators trust innner risktakers | Toons speak global language | A wealth of health in net’s social efforts | Cartoon Network: 20 years of milestones