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Adult Swim in the Stream of Consciousness

Amongst fans of “The Simpsons” there has arisen in recent years a dispute as contentious and as violent as any religious schism. (This is not surprising, given the near-religious devotion they have for the show; it’s not for nothing that the phrase “cult favorite” came to be.) To oversimplify in a way that would make neither happy, the two sides break down roughly into the traditionalist faction, who argue that the show has declined after having strayed of late from the character-driven relationships and gentle subversions of standard sitcom plots that marked its early years, and the heretical faction, who are more forgiving of later seasons because they’re willing to throw over anything — plot, character, relationships, plausibility, anything — for the sake of a good joke. The former are the more numerous faction, but for the latter, whenever America’s Favorite Family gets a little too cloying, a little too familiar, a little too … sensible, there’s always Adult Swim.

A number of shows are heaped together under the Adult Swim banner to form the not-for-kids late-night programming of Turner Broadcasting’s Cartoon Network, from imported Japanese anime (“Cowboy Bebop,” “InuYasha”) to recycled comedies inherited from the networks (“Home Movies,” “Family Guy”) to original programming (“Harvey Birdman,” “The Venture Bros.”). But the cream of the crop, the shows that have created the most buzz and made the Cartoon Network, once a dumping ground for grade-Z animated dross well past its sell-by date, are the in-house creations: “Space Ghost: Coast to Coast,” its spin-off “The Brak Show,” its spiritual twin “Sealab 2021,” and the indescribably unique “Aqua Teen Hunger Force.” The four shows share a common format (all are a mere 15 minutes long per episode, but usually cram in twice as many laughs in that time as most shows can in an hour), a common origin (they all came out of Williams Street Studios — formerly Ghost Planet Productions — an Atlanta-based crèche from which sprung a handful of comedic hatchet-men, many of them Turner Broadcasting lifers), and common personnel (writer/producers Matt Maiellaro, Dave Willis, Keith Crofford, Mike Lazzo and Jim Fortier have had a hand in all four shows, and they all have a few voice actors in common). But it’s the shared sensibility that really brings them all together, and alienates anyone who’s not attuned to their particular brand of absurdity — and makes an addict of anyone who is.

The Williams Street shows sidestep the entire “Simpsons” controversy by simply jettisoning anything remotely resembling conventional television comedy tropes. Character, plot, setting, continuity, cohesion — everything is tossed on the junk heap in favor of a sharp gag, an arbitrary joke, a jarring shift. Episodes start in one place and end up in another with no discernable progression from A to B; frequently, there is no ending, or an ending that’s a flat-out slap in the face to anyone expecting the plots to make sense. Where there are vestiges of traditional writing, they’re usually in the form of a conceptual joke, or they’re there to be instantly abandoned, or they’re part of a patience-testing pseudo-gag worthy of Andy Kaufman.

Indeed, the reference to Kaufman isn’t made lightly: even today, he’s one of the most divisive comedy figures imaginable. Those who liked his blend of the cerebral and the idiotic, his determination to provoke and test, his love of the non sequitur and the eyeblink thematic shift have kept his legacy alive as one of the great geniuses of modern comedy, while those who didn’t tend to think of him as a pointless provocateur at best and an unfunny, annoying pest at worst. Likewise, there are moments in almost all the Williams Street shows that seem designed to push even the biggest fans to the edge of their tolerance. There’s the episode of “Sealab 2021” that consists of nothing but a scene-for-scene showing of an old episode of the action cartoon from the ’60s on which the show is based; it goes on and on and on, as the audience waits for the joke that (almost) never comes. There’s the episode of “Aqua Teen Hunger Force” where a robot claiming to be the Spirit of Christmas tells a story so long, pointless and confused that even the other characters on the show get bored and leave. (That episode was voted the best of the series in a viewer poll, suggesting that those who get it really get it.) And there’s the conceptual jackpot scored in “Kentucky Nightmare,” one of the best of “Space Ghost: Coast to Coast’s” later episodes: during a one-hour programming block, the exact same episode is screened four times: the first in a relatively straightforward way, the second with the producers’ mothers offering their politely baffled comments on an ‘audio commentary’ track, the third with the producers themselves offering their opinions on their mothers’ commentaries, and the fourth with the producers critiquing their own comments.

“Space Ghost: Coast to Coast” came first, and as much praise has been heaped on the later Williams Street productions, in many ways, it’s still the best, and the purest, representation of their sensibilities. It started out a bit rough, growing out of Cartoon Planet (a program that was intended for children and provided a solid illustration of why the network was a nonstarter for so many years); the first DVD collection features these early episodes, and while they’ve got plenty of enjoyable moments, they don’t really reflect the bizarre brilliance that was to come. The producers, then using the Ghost Planet moniker, were given a slot in the middle of the night when it was (correctly) assumed that no one would be watching and allowed more or less complete license to do whatever they wanted. What they wanted was to take an old sci-fi cartoon from the mid-’60s — the nearly-forgotten “Space Ghost” of Alex Toth, which happily was owned by Turner — and detourn it. With a new set of actors (particularly fulsome-voiced former anchorman George Lowe as Space Ghost), a pile of crudely-animated stock footage, and a radically different set of intentions, they created the world’s strangest talk show.

Space Ghost and his two assistants — director Moltar and bandleader Zorak, former villains pressed into slave labor as his crew — were all animated cartoons; his guests were always real. Of course, Space Ghost spent very little time actually interviewing them; he alternated between completely ignoring them and openly antagonizing them. Indeed, one of the greatest things about the show is how it would often get guests who were pretty heavy hitters, but who clearly had no idea what the hell the show was all about. They’d go in expecting a standard talk show — or perhaps a gently whimsical one — and find themselves trapped in some kind of surreal half-formed joke. Space Ghost sexually harassed Cameron Diaz, attempted to kill Moby, and flagrantly mocked or disregarded everyone else. It’s not hard to imagine that a few agents lost their jobs because they booked their clients on “SG:C2C”; some of the most beloved moments in the show’s history come from guests who just didn’t get what was happening and became so hostile that it was clear they weren’t just acting (the episodes with an exasperated Jeff Foxworthy, a dismissive Denis Leary and an infuriated Charlton Heston are fine examples). Occasionally, a guest would play along (Bob Odenkirk and David Cross as game show contestants and a sweetly bewildered Björk as Space Ghost’s long-suffering wife stand out), but the celebrity interviews were always secondary to the cut-throat, anything-for-a-gag comedy.

The pattern was established before too long: anything went, nothing had to make sense, and if a joke worked, it was in, no matter how little it had to do with the rest of the show. There were predetermined roles, but anyone could break, abandon or swap character at any time. There were plots, but they were abandoned so quickly once they outlived their usefulness as a springboard for the jokes that they’re hardly worth describing. And there were so many quotable lines — enough for a lifetime of poring through, fodder for a million internet taglines and e-mail sigs — that the show’s official website hired a fan to transcribe each show in full as it aired. The writers of the show (among them comics authors Evan Dorkin and Sarah Dyer, Joel Hodgson of “Mystery Science Theatre 3000,” “Sienfeld’s” Spike Feresten, “The Simpsons’” Nell Scovell, and “Mr. Show’s” Brian Posehn) were given total control: no joke was ever axed because it didn’t make sense.

This became the hallmark of the newly christened Williams Street house style. “SG:C2C” was followed by a spin-off, “The Brak Show” — a seemingly more traditional sitcom-format show which nonetheless became a big hit on the strength of its main character. Brak, another old villain from the “Space Ghost” action show, was retooled from space pirate to idiot man-child, and, as voiced by writer/producer/actor Andy Merrill, given one of the most distinctive and appealing personas in modern comedy. Best described as a hyperactive 6-year-old boy pumped full of coffee and sugar and then stuck in the body of a huge fanged monster, Brak had proved to be one of the most popular characters on “Space Ghost: Coast to Coast,” and was a natural to get the first spin-off. Cartoon Network had released three albums of songs from and inspired by the Ghost Planet/Williams Street shows, and Brak’s hilariously demented songs and sketches were far and away the highlights, so “The Brak Show” focused pretty heavily on music. The show itself wasn’t up to snuff: while it had plenty of hilarious moments, it just wasn’t at the sustained level of inventiveness and hysteria that its predecessor attained. If it accomplished nothing else, though, it did introduce the character of Thundercleese, Brak’s giant robot neighbor. Thundercleese was voiced by Carey Means, whom we would hear from again.

Much more in the vein of “SC:C2C” was the next offering from Williams Street, “Sealab 2021.” Like “Space Ghost,” it was a detourned version of an old ’60s action show by Alex Toth; like “Space Ghost,” it used bare-bones animation — often nothing more than loops and cycles from the ’60s show. (Some of the animation was done by Chris Ward, another Turner lifer who went on to voice some of Williams Street’s most memorable characters in his patented ultra-high voice and record some outstanding nerdcore rap as MC Chris.) And like “Space Ghost,” it would sacrifice everything for five seconds of funny. “Sealab 2021” took the surreal quality of “SG:C2C” and ran with it: there were times at which the show crossed beyond goofy, beyond weird, and into, well, completely nonlinear. It took the “Space Ghost” conceit of looking behind the curtain of its own production (one “SG:C2C” episode, “Table Read,” was nothing more than the inexplicably shirtless production staff and cast filmed in black and white sitting around the office reading the script to an upcoming episode) and upped the ante considerably, showing us an animated behind-the-scenes making-of where the writers are venal hacks, the directors ingratiating phonies, and the talent — including the late Harry Goz and a displaced-and-loving-it Erik Estrada — shallow pricks, dysfunctional losers, and barely coherent pill-poppers.

The first “Sealab 2021” DVD collection, just released in August, features some of the best episodes of a show that proved that the “Space Ghost” sensibility could transfer to a narrative format, however fractured: “Waking Quinn” is a triumph of hip-pocket surrealism, and “All That Jazz” carries the closed-room plot to absurd extremes as the show’s main character spends the entire episode crushed under a soda machine. Even the very first episode, “I, Robot,” is a deranged masterpiece, the sitcom equivalent of Tristram Shandy: a catastrophe threatens to blow up Sealab (the same as it does every episode), but nothing can be done about it, as the crew of the underwater research station keeps getting distracted by contemplating what kind of robots they would be, if they were robots.

The first Williams Street production to use original characters is also its greatest triumph. Freed from the constraints of old animation (although not from the constraints of bad animation – no one watches these shows for the visuals), and allowed to develop their own completely new creations, they coughed up some real winners. “Aqua Teen Hunger Force” has a premise, such as it is, although even describing it makes you part of the joke. It concerns itself with three living fast food items (a floating box of fries, a childlike wad of beef, and an ill-tempered milkshake) who live in south Jersey and are at least nominally a team of crime-fighting superheroes, although they never actually fight any crime and almost never leave their house. As usual, the plots are barely worth describing, and the characters, though memorable (Master Shake, the jaw-droppingly rude and selfish “leader” of the team, is one of the most hilariously awful and unpleasant characters in television history), are really more ideas than they are fully fleshed-out entities. Motivation, cohesion, progression, continuity and closure are totally foreign to the show. But does it matter? It does not. “Aqua Teen Hunger Force” is one of the funniest shows on TV, endlessly quotable, increasingly popular (three DVD collections are already out) and with an ever-growing list of comedic heavy hitters like David Cross, Todd Field and Seth Green lining up to do guest voices on the show. The show is, bluntly, hilarious.

Bluntly hilarious is probably the best description you could apply to the Williams Street oeuvre. Now that the Adult Swim lineup is gaining a loyal following, mainstream media outlets are being forced to write about it, but for obvious reasons, very few of them mention the illegal substance that clearly fuels so many of the jokes and informs the sensibility of the shows. Perhaps nothing outside of “That ’70s Show” mentions weed so frequently (from Sparks selling hemp potholders on “Sealab 2021” to the Mooninites hitting up Frylock for pot and the let’s-get-it-right-out-in-the-open baggie that the eternally bickering alien conquerors Emory and Oglethorpe dip into during an afternoon of horror movies on “Aqua Teen Hunger Force”) and even that THC-soaked show doesn’t reflect a stoner sensibility the way the Williams Street shows do. There’s never been television programming that looks and sounds more like a big bong hit feels than these; moments like the “ATHF” audio commentary on the first DVD set that consists of one of the producers playing a heavy metal guitar riff for over 10 minutes suggest that it’s not just wishful thinking when gopped-up viewers get the feeling the show’s creators just must have been high when they wrote it.

But it would be reductive and inaccurate to say that that this is a stoned show for stoners by stoned people. Watching the shows baked is a treat, to be sure, but more to the point, watching the shows straight is like getting baked. It’s far too funny and clever to be nothing but the product of get-high, but there’s no denying that the lightning-fast changes in tone, the flabbergasting shifts and the feeling of disorientation caused by the best episodes can give you that trippy feeling without the risk of fine or imprisonment. In fact, Adult Swim’s lineup has one big advantage over getting high. When you’re stoned, everything seems funny; but with “Space Ghost: Coast to Coast,” “The Brak Show,” “Sealab 2021” and “Aqua Teen Hunger Force,” everything really is funny.