I find television very educating. Every time somebody turns on the set, I go into the other room and read a book. - Groucho Marx

Adult Swim: A Neutral Zone in the Television Junk Wars

by Chris Martin
Nov. 18, 2014

Adult Swim, the late night sub-channel that has been consistently gathering momentum and cultural significance for the last 10 years is an anomaly in the stagnated medium of visual broadcasting. We may be in a golden age of television in the sense that some stellar shows are being produced now that would be unthinkable even fifteen years ago, but the medium as a means of distribution is in dire straits, particularly regarding any specific channels sense of identity. The occupational reality show has infected and enveloped at least 6 cable networks over the last two or three seasons like a digital, slice-of-life kudzu. Whatever originally made Discovery, History, Arts and Entertainment, and the Learning Channel unique has been omitted for something safe and bankable in an age when television is a rapidly atrophying business model. Adult Swim has successfully defied this programming homogeny and has retained and impressive sense of cultural identification.

The newest series of channel bumps for the Cartoon Network revel in this sense of channel identity. For years AS used a very simple and iconic series of bumps that used plain albeit snarky title cards presented in the same font and black and white color scheme as the channel’s logo. However, recently they have been presenting a rich and varied series of bumps whose similarities begin and end with the the new abridged [ a s ] logo. Where before the channel maintained a cool disassociation from the flamboyance of its primary content, accompanied by mid to low tempo electronic music, the new bumps are every bit as surreal, over saturated, and intense as the programming that the channel is known for.

What’s most important to take away from this deluge of glitch psychedelia and hypnotic violence is how much they embody the content that they are bookending, which also defines what makes the channel so unique. Starting very small, and almost secretly in barely announced blocks of very late night programming on the otherwise child friendly Cartoon Network, Adult Swim cut its teeth making something new and bold with little money or resources. The first collection of shows drew so heavily from the massive backlog of vintage cartoons found syndicated on the day time programming that in some cases they took character models completely out of the original shows and digitally reanimated them in stiff, cut-out style. Shows like Sealab 2020, Space Ghost Coast to Coast, and Harvey Birdman, Attorney at Law utilized character models copied directly out of old Hanna Barbera shows. Additionally, AS cut back on materials necessary per show by having programs that barely clock in at over 10 minutes long each. Other channels MTV and Nickolodeon played around with similar ideas on shows such as Liquid Television and Kablam respectively, however no channel has devoted a major block of its time to such an endeavor let alone let it cultivate into its own cultural phenomenon.

This rapid fire low budget style of programming remains characteristic of the channel and the new series of bumps articulates this exceptionally well. Bridging the divide between the programming and the 30 second commercial, some of the bumps are almost a minute long and are either aired at once or broken up into ‘episodes’. The segment “Zurtrun” almost feels like a pilot for a potential show and would not feel out of place at all with its brief glimpses of science fiction neurosis. Even the animated segments that don’t explicitly reference characters from actual shows draw from the same tonal ink wells. The viking animation works like some foreboding fever dream for a new season of Metalocalypse.

Another thing worth noting about the new bump series is the inclusion of long standing internet artists whose work hardly qualifies for standard promotion material. The prolific and disturbing .gif maker Cyriak highlights his passion for cows, cats, and horrific mutation in several bumps. The flash cartoonist behind Sick Animation provides several works that come very close to his usual output of incredibly crass yet creative and inviting short videos. Even the notorious, anonymous prank caller Longmont Potion Castle whose primary body of work dates back 10 to 15 years ago provides a few wonderfully odd bits of a dialogue from one of his calls for a truly strange bewildering series of idents. Despite the fact that none of these artists are well known enough to have a high demand to retain their ‘voice’ in their promotional work here, their contributions remain absolutely their own while also fitting comfortably as Adult Swim inserts. This also is very telling of how much Adult Swim owes and honors the form of humor and creativity that has only become popular with the help of the internet.

Adult Swim is not the first channel to try to forge a greater sense of identity by pulling together a large assortment of artists to create distinctive, flashy bumps. MTV has a rich history of using bumps to bolster their counter-culture business model. However, just a quick glance through their more recent galleries provides a distinct sense of safety in what they choose to present. Although visually inventive, the content itself is extremely safe and uniformly positive compared to the dark and confounding material found in the gallery collected before you, which says a lot regarding how far their more recent programming content will dare go.

The only true snag in the bump/programming relationship is the attempt to make some of its major syndicated programming feel as strange and subversive as its original content. You can only do so much to make the Family Guy family tree fit in along side the empire of truly deranged programming that Absolutely, PFFR!, and William’s Street productions have generated in the same time slots.

Perhaps its because, and not in spite, of this trend of basic cable channels regressing into a uniformity of junk dealers and redneck fetishism that Adult Swim still feels like a viable specialized entity. [ A S ] is a programming block confident in itself and its identity to hold strong for almost 15 years now. They began as a small alcove for animation inclined stoners and remain an alcove for animation inclined stoners, albeit with considerably more popularity and pop cultural authority and pull. Hopefully this integrity of identity will pay off in the end as one of the standing bastions of uniform programming quality. Blessed are the weird for they will inherit the airwaves.

Christopher Martin recently graduated from the University of Massachusetts, Amherst with a degree in English and a specialization in Film Studies. Shockingly, he is currently underemployed. In his free time Chris likes to read old science fiction novels, enjoy what little nightlife Western Massachusetts has to offer, and watch as many films as possible. He also spends too much time on Tumblr.