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

II. Adult Swim: Reinventing Late Night


The late-night television landscape is, and seemingly always has been, dominated by the talk show. While many enjoy it, many are also turned off by the generic and synthetic form of it. Enter Adult Swim: the late-night programming option for the late-night person. Sources like Vulture note Adult Swim’s ability to tap into the “stoner market” while also correctly mentioning that the power of the programming block goes beyond simple narrowcasting.

Adult Swim conceptually began at the turn of the century by appropriating old Hanna-Barbera cartoon properties and restructuring them for an adult bent. Space Ghost Coast to Coast, which began in 1994 and was shifted into the Adult Swim lineup at the time of the block’s inception, was the first adult-themed show on Cartoon Network, and it parodied the talk show format, which is certainly not a coincidence. The show was incidentally also the first original program produced by Cartoon Network.

In 2000, a series of other shows that used Hanna-Barbera characters, The Brak ShowHarvey Birdman, Attorney at Law, and Sealab 2021, premiered unannounced in the early morning hours of Cartoon Network, as did Aqua Teen Hunger Force. These shows became the first block of programming on Adult Swim when it launched in September 2001, alongside the anime program Cowboy Bebop.

From here, Adult Swim expanded its original programming lineup, as well as added syndicated programming of popular adult-themed animated shows such as King of the Hill, Futurama and Family Guy. The successful ratings of the last two helped prompt the revival of both series.

Vulture cites that Adult Swim, in 2014, “averaged more adult viewers under 35 in the 12:25-1:35 hour—around 575,000—than any of its time-slot rivals on broadcast or cable” (Vulture). This number was well above the numbers of talk show competitors The Late Late Show and Late Night With Seth MeyersVulture goes on to show Adult Swim’s viewing numbers as in healthy competition with both cable channels like Comedy Central and network affair like The Tonight Show With Jimmy Fallon.

This success is hard to imagine given Adult Swim’s programming. But this is exactly why the block has done so well. There is a certain cult loyalty to the block that is impossible to find with your run-of-the-mill talk show hour. Adult Swim takes on creatively challenging material without questioning it, giving creators creative control and outputting shows that are cheap relative to their competition. They pull creators out of obscurity and give them a place in the television industry. They take chances on the absurd and what results is a fanbase that appreciates the novelty and DIY-vibe of it all.

They also don’t shy away from the likes of Anti-Comedy and “Cringe Humor.” Cringe Humor, like Anti-Comedy, derives comedy from the inherently non-comedic, in this case dealing with the awkward, the grotesque, or the downright disturbing.

In Part Three, we look more deeply at Cringe Humor as a subgenre and, perhaps, an art form

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