Toons aren’t just for kids anymore

‘Pimp my sister’ is one of the new shows designed for a mature

So a milkshake, a box of French fries and a wad of uncooked meat
set out to save the world

The line sounds like something out of a bad bar-stool joke, but
it’s really somewhere near the cutting edge of comedy.
“So a milkshake, a box of French fries and a wad of uncooked meat set out to save the world …”

The line sounds like something out of a bad bar-stool joke, but it’s really somewhere near the cutting edge of comedy.

Following in the steps of shows like “South Park,” a whole genre of adult-themed cartoons have sprung up on the nation’s airwaves, and the most successful of the bunch is the late-night powerhouse known as “Adult Swim.”

Originally intended as a space filler and an outlet for pent-up animators creating children’s cartoons, the daily programming block known as “Adult Swim” started out as just one show.

“Space Ghost Coast to Coast” was a spoof of late-night interview shows like “The Tonight Show” with Jay Leno and “The Late Show” with David Letterman, but as its popularity grew, so did the demand for a greater variety of late-night programming, said Nick Weidenfeld, head of program development for “Adult Swim.”

The network responded by rolling out original shows like “Aqua Teen Hunger Force,” the story of a trio of fast food superheroes sharing a rental house in New Jersey, and “Harvey Birdman: Attorney at Law,” the misadventures of a former superhero-turned-defense attorney who represents other troubled ‘toons.

And despite the fact that “Adult Swim,” so named for the time kids are forced out of the public pool, runs in the programming dead zone between 11pm and 5am, it has developed a loyal following.

The programming block was counted as its own network in the 2004 Neilsen Media Research report, quickly rising to the number one spot in ad-supported cable network programming for the coveted age range of adults 18 to 34, particularly men.

The line-up also nabbed 15 of the top 50 program showings in the month of April, airing particularly popular episodes of “Family Guy,” “Futurama” and the network’s newest original series, “Robot Chicken.”

The shows’ appeal lie in the fact that they feature off-beat, “random” humor, said Jeff Koehn, an 18-year-old from Hollister who is studying business at Gavilan College.

“They’re more directed toward older teens and adults,” said Koehn. “I can’t stand it when people watch cartoons like SpongeBob (SquarePants) because that’s probably the dumbest cartoon I’ve ever seen. There’s a lot of innuendoes in these shows and humor that you wouldn’t get in a kid’s show.”

Viewership is much higher among males than females – a fact underscored by the observation that Koehn knows plenty of men in their late 20s and early 30s who watch regularly, but only one woman. But Koehn attributes that to the high level of physical and bathroom humor in the shows.

“It’s all just dumb humor and guys seem to be a little more immature about their humor than girls,” said Koehn.

More women will start tuning in, said Weidenfeld, as “Adult Swim” gets over the stigma of animation.

“I do think comedy is comedy, and I think (animation is) one of those things that women don’t gravitate toward as quickly,” said Weidenfeld. “We have strikes against us just being animation, but it’s much more about the comedy and the writing, and I think the numbers will go up as people realize that.”

Still, it could be a long wait. Interest in the shows spreads primarily by word of mouth, like most cult followings.

“We’re still pretty under the radar,” said Weidenfeld. “We’re here in Atlanta, and we’re not really part of the mainstream. A lot of television has become pretty homogenized and we’re not, partly because we don’t know any better.”

Weidenfeld believes viewers respond to the risks his staff has taken just as viewers have supported risk-taking premium channels like HBO and Showtime. But unlike those channels, “Adult Swim” doesn’t require high premiums to keep pricey budgets afloat.

“It’s the cheap, very character-driven dialogue stuff that we’re doing,” said Weidenfeld, who noted that viewers will not see the bigger-budget animation attention that other shows receive.

Though “Adult Swim” had ballooned from a single program with one or two hours of play time per week to a nightly event, no staff was added until Weidenfeld, a former journalist who had gone to Atlanta to do a story on “Adult Swim,” was hired one year ago.

“Now that we’ve gotten big, there’s a reason to expand, but really, there’s only been two or three people that we’ve added here,” said Weidenfeld. “It’s a collection of outcasts, people who don’t belong in other television environments or people who haven’t felt drawn to them. We’re still an underdog even though our ratings are better, and I don’t think you can underestimate that. It resonates with people, and I think it allows us to stay different and be kind of cutting edge.”

If you’re just tuning in to “Adult Swim” look for plenty of new programming scheduled for the 2005 season, from a buddy cop spoof titled “Stroker and Hoop” to an animated adoption of the popular cartoon strip “The Boondocks.”

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