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Adult Swim, Anti-Comedy, and Cringe Humor: What’s the Appeal?

Note: This in an in-depth article on Anti-Comedy and Adult Swim programming. If I mention a given show, short film, or feature film, there is a strong chance that I will be giving spoilers for that video, so be cautious. Also, this is a multi-page article; the links to subsequent pages sometimes get lost at the bottom of the page.

 

Anti-Humor. Anti-Comedy. Meta-Humor. Non-Comedy. Whatever hyphenate you want to use to describe the brand of comedy that is purposefully not funny or otherwise lacking in traditional comic structure.

Anti-Comedy, as I will refer to it throughout the rest of this article, is a highly divisive form of comedy (my fascination with the divisive is well founded). Some dismiss it as destructive to quality comedy or simply lazy. Others can’t digest it as something humorous or necessary.

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Late-night television programming block Adult Swim, launched in 2001 as a complement to Cartoon Network’s children’s programming, has harnessed these alternative forms of comedy to seeming success. With shows like Tim and Eric Awesome Show, Great Job!The Eric Andre Show, and the short film series of Infomercials, Adult Swim has tapped into Anti-Comedy and “Cringe Humor” to pull in niche audiences that don’t find substance in the competing late-night talk shows that air weekdays on network and cable.

Where does Anti-Comedy come from? How does it work? And how has it helped Adult Swim become the flagship for alternative comedy in the television landscape? Let’s take a closer look.

 

I. Kaufman: The King of Anti-Comedy

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To fully get a grasp of what Anti-Comedy exactly is, it is easiest to look at the man who is known for popularizing the form: Andy Kaufman. Kaufman was an enigmatic figure in the entertainment world, appearing often on David Letterman’s show and Saturday Night Live, as well as co-starring on the television show Taxi.

His major eccentricity was in the fact that he was a comedian who refused to label himself as such. “I’m not trying to be funny. I just want to play with their heads,” Kaufman once said in an interview.

But Kaufman was funny, just in his own unique way. Take a look at this 1980 interview on David Letterman’s morning talk show:

In this clip, Kaufman takes a simple panel interview and subverts it, thereby subverting the very nature of the show itself. Beginning by being blatantly unprofessional in his need for a tissue, he doesn’t even speak for the first two minutes of the interview. He then goes on to discuss the very opposite of what literally every other talk show guest discusses: not having any work to promote. Instead of accepting Letterman’s questions, he shoots them down by claiming to have nothing worthwhile to talk about.

What this routine does is two-fold: (a) it refuses both the conventions of talk shows and the conventions of comedy, and (b) it satirizes the nature of talk shows as a highfalutin means of corporate sponsorship and the reaffirmation of celebrity status.

In the first instance, Kaufman is explicitly against the comedy of the bit. He does not “yes-and” in the traditional sense, where responding to Letterman’s questions with a statement that furthers the line of dialogue could move the panel to a point where comedy could be reached. Instead, he effectively shuts Letterman down with his antics, leaving the host with little to say. Of course, Letterman was aware that this sort of dialogue was going to take place; it is not as if Kaufman was engaging in some guerrilla anti-talk show tactics. Even still, the “comedy” of the panel is essentially rendered null and void by Kaufman’s responses.

And yet, the audience still finds it hilarious. This is because Kaufman, by subverting what would be considered conventional, is putting the audience off-balance. The audience may not know whether or not the segment is real or fake. This becomes particularly evident later in the clip, where Kaufman goes into a “comedy” routine in which he asks people not to laugh and then begs the audience for money, resulting in him being “escorted” out of the studio. The result may be a mixture of awkward laughter and confusion, but this is the intended result. And this is the basis of Anti-Comedy.

As far as the satire is concerned, it certainly exists, but I would hazard a guess that Kaufman would never admit to it being a factor. In a way, this feels like the final hook of Anti-Comedy, the notion that there may be a subtextual reading to the bit, but the performer denies that it exists. There is a certain power to this move, where the performer has the gall to assure audiences that there is nothing of meaning in the bit. True Anti-Comedy, then, is “substance-less,” even when it’s not.

This long-winded discussion of Kaufman’s work has all stemmed from a single talk show clip, and that is just a fingernail scratch at the surface of the man’s comedy. The major takeaway is, if you want to know what Anti-Comedy is at its essence, any routine of Kaufman’s will exemplify it in spades, as most of his public life was a performance.

I will say that if you want to fall down the rabbit hole that is Andy Kaufman, some good places to start are his SNL screen test or his famous “Eating Ice Cream” routine.  In the former, he is not even being filmed for air, yet he’s still doing his same shtick.

In the latter, Kaufman’s entire set is comprised of ordering and eating ice cream in front of the crowd.

In Part Two, we take a closer look at the inception and subsequent success of Adult Swim

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