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‘Swim’ puts Cartoon Network in fast lane

Cartoons aren't just for kids anymore. Adults are loving the Adult Swim cartoons on Cartoon Network.
/ Source: The Associated Press

A milkshake, a container of fries and a ball of hamburger meat walk into a bar ... Actually, they don’t, because that would require too much effort.

They’d rather sit around all day, bickering in their run-down rental house in South Jersey. Sometimes they take a dip in the above-ground pool that belongs to their next-door neighbor, Carl, whose tank tops highlight his hairy back and gold chains.

This may sound like a drug-induced hallucination, but it’s the premise of “Aqua Teen Hunger Force,” one of the more popular programs on Cartoon Network’s “Adult Swim” block, which airs Saturdays through Thursdays, 11 p.m.-5 a.m. ET.

The fact that an animated show about a fast-food value meal has gained a cult following is a testament to the strength of the lineup, and the effectiveness with which the cable channel cross-promotes its programming.

The best-known series are Fox network castoffs: “The Family Guy,” Seth MacFarlane’s twisted take on sitcom suburbia, and “Futurama,” Matt Groening’s satire set 1,000 years from now.

But quirky, often surreal promos draw attention to the network’s original shows, including “Aqua Teen,” “Harvey Birdman, Attorney at Law,” about an ambitious superhero lawyer who always ends up defending cartoon characters, and “Sealab 2021,” a mutation of the 1972 cartoon “Sealab 2020,” about a high-tech underwater compound run by scientists who only look like bright-eyed do-gooders. Saturday nights are devoted to Japanese anime.

It’s an eclectic mix of sharp writing, inventive subject matter and diverse visual styles that began nearly three years ago, but was in the plans since the channel’s conception in 1992.

“We just try to do things we haven’t seen, shows and styles you don’t see everywhere, that you don’t get in other types of sitcoms or sci-fi things. If it’s a superhero, it’s a superhero with a completely crazy spin,” said Mike Lazzo, the Cartoon Network executive in charge of “Adult Swim.”

“We don’t even subconsciously say, let’s do something like this. We say, let’s work with that person because they’re interesting and see what they come up with.”

One of those people is Andre 3000 of OutKast, who has done some artwork for the duo’s albums and is developing an animated series for “Adult Swim.”

“We’ll hope to have an announcement here shortly about it,” Lazzo said this week. “I’m wary of anything that has to do with personality versus ideas, but he is a genius, and that is apparent when you listen to even one song.”

‘Family Guy’ a cult favoriteAnother person who’s discussed in reverent tones around the network is MacFarlane, the 30-year-old creator of “The Family Guy” and the voice of several key characters, including portly patriarch Peter Griffin; baby Stewie, who spews invective in a British accent; and Brian, the family dog and the show’s voice of reason, who enjoys martinis and opera.

After being bounced around Fox’s prime-time schedule, “The Family Guy” was canceled in 2002 after three seasons. It wound up at “Adult Swim” a year ago around the same time it turned up at stores on DVD.

The result: “The Family Guy” has become Cartoon Network’s most-watched series, and it beats David Letterman and Jay Leno’s late-night talk shows among the coveted demographic of men 18-34. A batch of 35 new episodes will begin airing in early 2005 on Cartoon Network and possibly also on Fox.

MacFarlane compares the evolution of the show’s belated popularity to “Star Trek”:

“It’s the only other show I can think of that had a similar fate, and we’re obviously not at that level, though it was a similar sequence of events: After three seasons, they got canceled, then they exploded in reruns.

“It really was very disappointing to develop this universe of characters to that extent — we were really starting to hit our stride — and then be told we were stopping. We’d really come a long way in creating a lot of ancillary characters that were really popular with the viewers and we wanted to do more with the characters, so now we get to pick up where we left off.”

When asked to explain the popularity of the whole “Adult Swim” lineup, “Aqua Teen Hunger Force” co-creator Matt Maiellaro succinctly answers: “Family Guy.”

“That’s what draws everyone, then they hang out to see what else might be coming up,” Maiellaro said.

Adults are watching“Aqua Teen” has spawned fan Web sites that offer T-shirts, trivia and personality quizzes such as, which character are you? The surly Master Shake, the dependable Frylock or the playful Meatwad?

Dave Willis, who created the show with Maiellaro, said it’s easier to get away making Master Shake a major jerk because — like Larry David’s character on HBO’s “Curb Your Enthusiasm”— he’s on cable, not prime-time network TV.

“They’re afraid to have characters that are unlikeable,” said Willis, who provides the voices of Meatwad and Carl. “Look at ’Friends.’ ‘Seinfeld,’ look at those characters. They were kind of likable in a way. I think Shake is likable but there’s nothing that redeeming about him.”

That kind of strong, risky writing is what has attracted more women to “Adult Swim,” Lazzo said; nearly half the people watching the shows are female.

“Family Guy” producer Kara Vallow said it’s easy to figure out why: “It’s just funny.”

“The main audience for animated shows like ’The Simpsons’ and ’The Family Guy’ has always been 18-35 male viewers,” Vallow said. “Particularly with the dearth of better scripts on live-action shows, people are tuning in — women and guys are tuning in — more to animated shows because they’re the funniest shows on TV.”

The newest addition to the schedule, beginning Aug. 8, is “The Venture Brothers,” which parodies “Jonny Quest” and “Scooby-Doo” with some spy movies and Marvel Comics elements mixed in.

“I think we all want and are ready for adult cartoons,” said the show’s creator, Jackson Publick, who voices some of the characters under his real name, Christopher McCulloch.

“I think there’s something accessible in the way Cartoon Network presents them,” Publick said. “Their on-air personality, it feels like they’re communicating directly with the audience. And the actual content of the shows — they do some pretty outrageous stuff. In comedy, you’re always looking for a surprise, and they pulled that off.”