Adult Swim's Stars Look Back at 15 Years of Insane, Genre-Bending Comedy

How an absurdist television experiment became one of comedy's most beloved networks.

by Justin Caffier
Sep 13 2016, 8:30pm

Fifteen years ago, on September 2, 2001, Turner Broadcasting Systems launched a late-night programming block of cartoons for grown-ups on the Cartoon Network. Opening with an episode of the now cult-classic Home Movies (co-created by Loren Bouchard, who went on to create Bob's Burgers), the network was rolling the dice on an odd idea that blossomed into an unprecedented experiment in absurdist comedy.

That gamble panned out pretty well for everyone involved. The time slot that we now know as Adult Swim has been a consistent ratings juggernaut, and the shows, voices, and surrealist tones featured on the programming block have influenced comedy and pop culture in profound ways.

To commemorate Adult Swim's 15th anniversary, we reached out to some of the comedic royalty that's appeared on Adult Swim over the years to look back on the best moments from a decade and a half of strangeness. Here's what they had to say.

Still from 'Rick and Morty,' courtesy of Adult Swim

Adult Swim's Impact on Television

Sally Skinner, host and creator of Stupid Morning Bullshit: Adult Swim paved the way for a certain kind of voice—one that cares very little about much, yet cares very deeply for the small list of things. Viewers of the network happen to be on that short list, and it's always been evident from the other side of screen. Those bumps always felt like they were speaking directly to me! Adult Swim always seemed less packaged and more honest, and I think a lot of networks are just now picking up on that tone.

Dan Harmon, creator of Rick and Morty: Adult Swim saved TV animation from being a "format" for families, restoring it to its rightful place as a medium without limitation. Its minimalist branding also lit the path for a post-DVR wasteland in which TV would have to live with less control over its audience. These days, even hacks know content needs to be addictive, personal, and omnivorous to survive the post-internet wasteland, but Adult Swim was Mad Maxing that apocalypse before the bombs even finished dropping.

Seth Green, creator and executive producer of Robot Chicken: Adult Swim was the first network since MTV to really create a versatile and inclusive culture. By tuning in, you knew you were getting a particular POV that was both young and a little dangerous. I think that's why teens and college kids made it theirs.

David Willis, co-creator/writer/EP of Your Pretty Face Is Going to Hell,Aqua Teen Hunger Force, and Squidbillies: Adult Swim introduced a little more absurdity into the mainstream, proving that you don't always need story or structure or compelling characters or animation or dialogue or moving pictures or bright colors to fool people into watching television. I feel like a lot of current ads rip off the black-and-white bumps and the surreal tone of the shows.

Eric Andre, creator of The Eric Andre Show: Seeing Space Ghost for the first time blew my mind.

Erinn Hayes, star of Childrens Hospital: Someone has to give the truly weird a voice. The truly weird and the thoroughly stoned.

Still from 'Aqua Teen Hunger Force,' courtesy of Adult Swim

Adult Swim's Best Moments

Dan Harmon: When Mazzy Star is playing as Morty is taught how to bury a dead version of himself in his own backyard before continuing the rest of his life as a biological imposter. I can't think of a better metaphor to prepare millennials for their 30s.

Matt Harrigan, writer and EP of Space Ghost Coast to Coast, Adult Swim VP of Digital Content: When Space Ghost tells William Shatner that "outer space shows are for children and stupid people," George Lowe's voice breaks just a tiny bit, and it always kills me for some reason.

Seth Green: It's hard to pick a favorite, but I've always felt having Voltron lose a break dance battle was defining for the show.

Sally Skinner: Notorious pharma-bro Martin Shkreli phoned into the show and called me a bitch three times. He just got in a Twitter argument with Patton Oswalt, so I'm honored to be in such esteemed company.

Erinn Hayes: There are so many favorite moments, but there was one that stands out as particularly Childrens Hospital. We shot the final dance sequence to our "Do the Right Thing" episode, "Hot Enough for You," as the last thing of that season. The whole crew was outside behind the cameras, and one by one each cast member came out, did their solo dance in front of everyone, and was wrapped for the season. I remember we were all so nervous to get up in front of everyone. I'm not the best dancer, but I was backing my shit up, throwing in some running man, adding kicks, just really fucking going for it. They finally call cut, everyone cheers, I take a breath, and then they tell me that someone pressed record twice, and none of that was actually shot. Could I please do it again? So I did, but it wasn't as good. I think I might have been slightly pissed for a few moments, but now I'm actually pretty happy that all my best moves were just for our incredible crew.

David Willis: I'm proud of how we ended Aqua Teen. When Carl says, "It don't matter. None of this matters," it's pretty much the closest thing to being my personal worldview. But I also have fond memories of foleying meat-squish sound effects with a fistful of raw hamburger. Watching a rough cut of the fourth episode, laughing with Matt Maiellaro and our editors, and knowing it was going to work. Jim Fortier and I watching "The Possum" George Jones record the Squids theme song. Seeing Gene Simmons walk past my office in a trenchcoat and feeling a horribly cold wind whistle through my soul. Receiving an email from Wolf Blitzer saying that no, he was not at all interested in playing himself in an episode where he bites Meatwad and turns him into a wolfwad. It don't matter. None of this matters.

Still from 'Childrens Hospital,' courtesy of Adult Swim

What It's Like to Work at Adult Swim

Sally Skinner: We work in a super old building. There's the main Turner campus, where all the other networks live, and then there's our tiny brick outpost, across the highway. The power goes out a lot, so every time the power goes out, we all just run around like first graders.

Lake Bell, director and star of Childrens Hospital: Every year at Comic Con, Adult Swim allows me to live out my fantasy of being told it's OK—nay, encouraged—to drink beer and jump on an adult bouncy house.

Erinn Hayes: I don't quite get it, and to be honest never asked, why we were ever invited to participate in Comic Con for so many years, but man, am I glad we were. The panels were some of the strangest, most surreal moments. One year we ruined what was left of some kid's childhood when the entire room full of 1,500 people started chanting, "Show us your dick." The next year, Lake and I made our way through the Adult Swim Funhouse, crawled out through the huge balloon vagina, and I almost peed myself laughing trying to pull her back up a giant fun slide unsuccessfully.

Seth Green: One year, Adult Swim hosted a "shrimp boil" for creators and producers—kind of a social mixer, so all the show makers could meet and hang out. It was a great trip and really amazing bonding experience for the entire company. Then we all got stranded by a horrible ice storm and couldn't fly out for 14 hours, taken on and off four planes before we finally got in the air. Weirdly, all that drama only made the trip more memorable. Plus, we were all in it together, so it actually was bonding.

Matt Harrigan: The other day one of the FishCenter fish died suddenly. There was a surprising outpouring of commiserations from this unseen community that obviously felt something. That was kind of a nice experience, and definitely new.

Dan Harmon: Being flown out to attend their upfronts and seeing a giant inflatable Rick above Nicki Minaj's head was definitely an upgrade from five years of not being invited by NBC. Same size audience, very different network relationship.

Follow Justin Caffier on Twitter.