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Happy 20th Birthday, Adult Swim

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Twenty years ago this month, something happened that changed the state of American society forever. Obviously we’re talking about the very first Adult Swim broadcast. Founders Mike Lazzo, Betty Cohen and Michael Ouweleen sat down for a New York Times interview about the difficulties involved in setting the block up back in 2001 and how it’s endured all these years. You’ll probably be hit with a paywall notice if you follow that link, so we’ll have to summarize the discussion for you.

It started in the very early days of CN. The channel was less than two years old when Lazzo decided he was sick of hearing critics call the thing a Hanna Barbera dumping ground. He felt the channel needed something original, and that they could produce original content cheap and quick using the assets they already had.

To prove what he had in mind, he rigged up a very crude pilot using cut-out frames from the Space Ghost cartoon. They would re-animate Space Ghost from existing footage and reinvent him as a late-night talk show host, weirding his flesh-and-blood guests out with bizarre questions and nonsequiturs. The project was approved and a portion of the marketing budget was set aside to make the first season. The first episode was farmed out to an LA production company for $100,000, but when Lazzo thought the results weren’t funny enough, he created his own version in Atlanta for just $25,000 and it was produced there henceforth.

Space Ghost Coast To Coast went on for several seasons, but it was highlighting a problem: advertisers were not purchasing enough time during CN’s late-night hours. The issue was that CN was primarily a kid’s channel and no one wanted to sponsor kids’ content at a time when no kids were watching. SGC2C was the only thing keeping the ad dollars flowing, so the execs proposed an entire block of adult-targeted shows in that space.

In 2000, Lazzo, Cohen and Ouweleen were given a low budget and one year to produce ALL the content that would appear on Adult Swim. Aqua Teen, Sealab 2021, The Brak Show and Harvey Birdman were all conceived during this time. Home Movies was purchased from UPN, and animated shows that recently tanked on The WB were picked to fill the remainder. The initial bumpers, depicting a literal “adult swim” of old fogies in a swimming pool, was chosen because Lazzo believed it would repel children. A warning screen would just entice them, but what kid wants to see their hairy granny in a two-piece?

Despite its humble beginnings, Adult Swim was an instant hit, to the surprise of some suits working there. Dave Willis recalls, “I distinctly remember bumping into the guy running ad sales in the bathroom. He said something to the effect of, “Wow, you really pulled that [expletive] out of the fire!” I was like, “What do you mean?” And he said, “I saw that thing [“Aqua Teen Hunger Force”] and I can’t believe I have to promote it as one of our new shows, but you guys really turned that around.” It was good to know we were thought of so highly. [Laughs.]”

Now Adult Swim is an icon and remains a cultural force despite the decline in cable viewership. According to Lazzo, its secrets of success have been in the presentation. “You can’t be greedy; you have to do things for the right reasons and not because they sell. As long as that remains the lamp, Adult Swim will continue forever.”