Robot Chickens and Selfish Milkshakes: 'Adult Swim' 101

Get acquainted with the late-night comedy programming that's pushed animation and alt-humor to some very weird places

Frylock, Master Shake and Meatwad on 'Aqua Teen Hunger Force.'
First Look Pictures/courtesy Everett Collection
June 13, 2014 10:40 AM ET

There was a certain point in history, somewhere between The Simpsons and Daria, when TV animation ceased to be the sole provenance of kids drooling over their morning bowls of Lucky Charms. These days, cartoons for grown-ups are not only ubiquitous, but hilariously twisted and high-quality to boot — and that's due in large part to a phenomenon called Adult Swim. What began as a freaky little block of late-night programming has evolved into a vast, even-freakier universe of animated and live-action series with a sardonic, absurdist sense of humor that's become a genre in and of itself. 

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Sharing space with kid-focused Cartoon Network, Adult Swim airs by night, after the proverbial whistle blows and CN's pint-sized audience exits the viewing pool. If you have yet to enter the Swim-iverse yet, odds are that you probably didn't go to college in the aughts (and you may have never had a close encounter with a pot brownie). But it's not too late to get hooked into its world of disaffected mad scientists, fake public-access hosts and wisecracking balls of meat. Here's what you need to know.

The Early Days:
In 1994, when Adult Swim was but a twinkle in founder Mike Lazzo's eye, his Space Ghost Coast to Coast hit the nighttime airwaves on Cartoon Network. The out-there show, which resurrected 1960s Hanna-Barbera superhero Space Ghost as an interstellar talk-show host, provided a template for future adult-geared programming on the otherwise kidcentric station. In late 2000, Lazzo's studio, Williams Street, quietly test-premiered a chunk of shows on the station in the wee hours of the morning. The next year, Adult Swim made its official debut, airing two nights a week with a mixture of original programming and syndicated American and Asian cartoons (anime noir thriller Cowboy Bebop, cancelled WB comedy The Oblongs). 

The Trailblazers:
Here are a few of Adult Swim's flagship series: 

Aqua Teen Hunger Force (2001–Present)
What better way to lure stoned college kids to your table than with a show starring talking fast-food items? Tracking the, um, adventures of a narcissistic milkshake, a no-nonsense box of French fries and a fun-loving wad of hamburger, ATHF is Adult Swim's longest-running series. It established the look and tone for the network's surreal, queasy brand of sick humor. (There's an episode where a guy gets mutilated by a toilet only to have his body replaced by a pile of eyeballs.) A guerilla-marketing campaign for a 2007 movie spinoff infamously led to a bomb scare that temporarily shut down the city of Boston. 

Harvey Birdman, Attorney at Law (2001–2007)
Following Space Ghost's lead, this series also dipped into the vintage Hanna-Barbera well, reimagining winged vigilante Birdman as a put-upon lawyer. (The repurposing of classic H.B. cartoon characters would prove to be a winning Adult Swim formula — see The Brak Show and Sealab 2021) Other Sixties and Seventies characters make cameos as plaintiffs and defendants: Boo-Boo Bear as an accused terrorist, Fred Flintstone as a mafia kingpin. A pre-Colbert Report Stephen Colbert voiced Harvey's one-eyed boss, Phil Ken Sebben.

Home Movies (1999–2004)
Loren Bouchard and Brendon Small's squiggly cartoon was axed after only a handful of episodes on UPN, but Swim had the good sense to pick it up. With mostly ad-libbed dialogue and a bone-dry sense of humor, Home Movies follows an eight-year-old aspiring filmmaker, his family and friends, and his booze-swilling soccer coach. It proved to be a breakthrough for gravel-voiced comedian H. Jon Benjamin, who's currently voicing the leads on Bob's Burgers (also created by Bouchard) and Archer.

The Second Wave:
In 2007, Adult Swim stretched its weird tentacles even wider, expanding its programming to seven nights a week. By that time, the network's syndication powers with the younger set helped to save other channels' shows from oblivion, indirectly leading to the revival of shows like Family Guy and Futurama. Meanwhile, a new crop of animated series injected fresh blood:

The Venture Bros. (2003–Present)
Doc Hammer and Jackson Publick's adventure show took its cue from old-time cartoons like Jonny Quest, but rapidly proved itself to be much more than simple parody. Centered on washed-up supergenius Rusty Venture, his bumbling sons and his moody archnemesis the Monarch, The Venture Bros. is equal parts ass-kicking action, whip-smart comedy and existential treatise on failure. This is definitely the smartest show to come out of Williams Street. 

Robot Chicken (2005–Present)
This stop-motion series, co-created by actor Seth Green, has parodied most of the pop-culture properties that Gens X and Y hold near and dear. Chickens are cops on Law & Order, Mario meets Princess Peach's parents, Emperor Palpatine cusses out Darth Vader — it's all pretty much up for grabs. Part of the fun is figuring out which of Green's million Hollywood buddies are doing the voices (among the dozens of cameos: Whoopi Goldberg, Liev Schreiber, Snoop Dogg and Neil Patrick Harris).

Superjail! (2007–Present)
This psychedelically violent series, set in a transdimensional prison inside a volcano inside another volcano, is pure id. Each short episode is an occasion for intricate, Hieronymus Bosch–style displays of mayhem and bloodshed among the jail's multispecies inmates and guards, spurred by the whims of the sociopathic warden (voiced by The State's David Wain). If you were that kid who lived for every shot of Wile E. Coyote getting creamed by an anvil, this one's for you.

China, IL (2008–Present)
"The Worst School in America" is the setting for this surreal cartoon. It was created by Brad Neely (the man behind culty Harry Potter parody Wizard People, Dear Reader), who channels the fact that he didn't go to college himself into an opportunity to imagine a university that's weird as hell. We're talking, like, twin professors who get surgically joined at the hip to fix wrestling matches, a time-traveling Ronald Reagan bent on revenge — and oh yeah, the voice talents of Hulk Hogan and Greta Gerwig.

The Boondocks (2005–Present)
Based on Aaron McGruder's newspaper comic strip, The Boondocks is among a precious few cartoons — or hell, TV shows in general — about the African-American experience. Like the comic, the show is an intelligent satire; it's turned more than a few heads with its polarizing content (MLK using the N-word, Tyler Perry as a cult leader). An effortlessly cool tone and beautiful animated help to soften the blow of McGruder's unpulled punches.

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