Adult Swim’s end of the Cartoon Network brand is legendary in both cable and satellite broadcasting as well as their online streaming channels. Shows like Rick and Morty, Robot Chicken, Aqua Teen Hunger Force, and Samurai Jack are celebrated throughout geek culture and certainly need no introduction on our pages.
But as obvious an idea as a block of “cartoons for grown-ups” may be, it wasn’t always an easy sell to the networks. Traditionally in media, there’s been this stubborn idea that cartoons are “just for kids” which has persisted for generations now. Where did they get this notion that there would be a market for cartoons showing at 2 AM?
One answer is “they got it partly from Japan.” Anime shows in Japan premiere at “otaku o’clock,” roughly 11 PM into 4 AM or so. Rigid Japanese broadcast tradition makes this necessary, and also squeezes anime series down to a single 3-month broadcasting slot, which is why there’s so many 12-episode anime.
But we’re wandering off our main thread. Before there was Adult Swim, MTV piloted the idea of an animation block of programming in the mid-1990s. There was more precedent yet, which we’ll also cover, but let’s check out Liquid Television first since it’s hardly remembered now, despite its theme song composed by Devo frontman Mark Mothersbaugh:
Liquid Television started as an animation showcase
Like your average animation festival (Spike and Mike namecheck), Liquid Television was just a space to gather together any cool indie animation going around and beam it out in one cool little block. This was never meant to be standard kiddie fare, but groundbreaking, arty animation that was either hoping to make it to or just returning from the Sundance circuit.
Liquid Television begat a few household names you’ll recognize now, like Beavis and Butthead (and by extension Daria), and Æon Flux, the latter of which is best described as “cyberpunk expressionism.”
Honestly, maybe that description doesn’t justify it. Æon Flux was clearly somebody’s very specific fetish, but the stylization of the lead heroine’s body and costume were so impossibly proportioned that all the sexuality was wrung out of her form. Her body leaves “sexy” behind and wanders into “have you had a chiropractor look at that?”
Anyway, Liquid Television had many more recurring show slots among its cut-and-shuffle format. Some were inevitably ditzy filler like The Art School Girls Of Doom:
…which plays like Forbidden Zone fed through MTV v-jays. Other bits had a little promise but failed to catch on. We still miss Psycho-Gram even though it was a one-note shtick:
Since we mentioned Forbidden Zone back there, Danny Elfman and his Oingo-Boingo thing also sizzled one episode of Liquid Television with his short-clip music video “Don’t Go In The Basement”:
Danny Elfman: Give him one minute and fifteen seconds, he will insert an earworm you will never get out of your head for as long as you live. Go ahead, keep replaying that clip. We’ll wait here until you’re ready to move on.
Liquid Television briefly begat Cartoon Sushi
By the late 1990s, MTV had teamed up with Canadian broadcasters to produce Cartoon Sushi, another animation showcase block intended to be a mix of surreal late-night diversion and launch pad for animated shows hoping for the big time. We doubt most of you have heard of Cartoon Sushi, but right there in the name, you can see that it’s just a short step from there to Adult Swim’s Toonami, also with a streaming option.
Cartoon Sushi was likewise home to a few recurring series, chief among them and most fondly remembered is the incredibly niche, but fervently cult-adored, The Maxx:
The Maxx, spawning from an Image Comics title of the same name, didn’t get regular enough showing in Cartoon Sushi, but did also peek out in other MTV variety blocks and has somehow gone on to have a massive fan following while never having had a time slot to call its very own. We barely have time to marvel at its obscure joys before moving along to the next thundering revelation:
Before Liquid Television there was Night Flight
When cable TV first became a real thing in the 1980s, the blockbuster channels that sold the platform were MTV, HBO, Cinemax, Showtime, and the like. But the basic package often came with USA Network, and on that station ran an obscure variety block called Night Flight.
If you want to make a Gen-Xers’ eyes light up, just bring up Night Flight. What was on this show, you may ask? EVERYTHING! Night Flight was a cable anarchy that showed clips from old shows, B-movies, music videos (some argue before MTV, but the timing comes down to seconds as to who showed first), stand-up comedy, and yes, animation too.
Behold: Unsuspecting TV viewers of the 1980s were subjected to the brainwashing ministry of Dr. Bob J.R. Dobbs, of the Church of the Subgenius, through their recruitment film Arise!, broadcast in snippets under the title of Love That Bob (Church of the Sub-Genius):
Yeah, never mind the World Wide Web, this was at a time when most households had barely latched onto the Internet itself. The fact that a corporation with a stock portfolio and everything chose to air Subgenius content on TV in the 1980s goes to show what unhinged maniacs they had running loose in the station control booth.
Another nugget of geeky goodness in Night Flight was the airing of the henshin hero parody series Dynaman:
See, the point was that there was originally a show called Kagaku Sentai Dynaman, and then the Night Flight version was a deliberate re-edit with English dubbing that completely ignored the original plot and characters to make up its own story as it went along.
There was much more to Night Flight, it goes on forever, including being the first to introduce several famed so-bad-it’s-good movies to their first broadcast. But before we wrap this up, let’s return to true animation in the Liquid Television style:
Adult Swim’s show Off the Air echoes Liquid Television
You might have encountered Off the Air in some scenario, either passed out on the couch watching cartoon network or streaming along on YouTube autopilot. And then wondered what had suddenly possessed your screen.
This psychedelic cocktail of random video editing, animation, CGI, music, clips, and general trippiness is the truest to the atmosphere of the original Adult Swim spiritual predecessor Liquid Television. And now you know the rest of the story.
Since the state of Oregon decriminalized all drugs, we’re guessing Adult Swim sees some major Off the Air viewership numbers there.