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A SUBVERSIVE SPLASH CARTOON NETWORK'S `ADULT SWIM' HAS SUCCEEDED BY PUTTING NO LIMITS ON CREATIVE LICENSE.

Byline: David Kronke TV Writer

Consider any network or studio executive in Los Angeles receiving the pitch for an animated series called ``Aqua Teen Hunger Force.''

The pitch: In suburban New Jersey, there lives a goateed package of french fries who dabbles in science, a sociopathic milkshake cup and an imbecilic wad of meat who goes by the moniker of Meatwad. They're detectives, ostensibly, though they rarely solve crimes, bickering instead with '80s computer-game blips, moth men and Internet pop-up ads that take on lives of their own. The shake - Master Shake to you - spends most of his time trying to sneak into the above-ground swimming pool of his portly, cantankerous, balding but otherwise hirsute neighbor Carl.

The reaction: Blank stares and awkward silence.

Now, imagine it happening in Atlanta, corporate home of Cartoon Network.

``It was, `Uh - is there any more coffee? (ahem) I need to take this call,' '' recalls Matt Malellaro, who made the pitch with David Willis. ``It was like pitching to a brick wall.''

Willis adds, ``It didn't help that the drawings had been done that morning on cocktail napkins.''

OK, the response was pretty much the same. The difference, of course, was that despite executive incomprehension, Cartoon Network greenlit ``Aqua Teen Hunger Force.''

Combined with other shows with a similarly sensibility, it has made the network's late-night ``Adult Swim'' programming block a cult hit, ranking No. 1 among cable viewers ages 12 to 34, adults 18 to 34 and males 12 to 24, and second only to ESPN in men 18 to 34. It routinely beats broadcast networks' late-night talk shows in these demographics, as well.

`` 'Adult Swim' was given a year to make or break,'' says Keith Crofford, vice president of production at Cartoon Network. ``Three years later, it's far exceeded anyone's expectations.''

``They say, 'Here's 100 feet of rope; go hang yourself with it,' '' says Erik Richter, co-creator of ``Harvey Birdman, Attorney at Law.'' ``That's turned out to be a smart developmental procedure.''

So smart that the Museum of Television and Radio recently paid tribute to ``Adult Swim's'' smirky, absurdist world as part of the William S. Paley TV Festival.

Willis and Malellaro are also the originators of ``Space Ghost Coast to Coast,'' ``Adult Swim's'' first sensation, which charts a former Saturday- morning superhero's evolution into a smarmy talk-show host. Two recent ``Adult Swim'' additions are ``Tom Goes to the Mayor,'' in which civic initiatives go disastrously awry on every episode, and ``Robot Chicken,'' a pop-culture sketch comedy performed by action figures. Their executive producers include ``Mr. Show's'' Bob Odenkirk and ``Buffy the Vampire Slayer's'' Seth Green, respectively.

In ``Space Ghost Coast to Coast,'' the self-possessed host routinely neglects his real-life guests (when Goldie Hawn appeared, ``You heard her say one word in the episode: 'Tibet,' '' Willis remembers). It inspired a spate of other shows featuring characters from cheesy Hanna-Barbera cartoons from the '60s and '70s repurposed in perversely inspired fashions.

``Sealab 2021,'' created by Matt Thompson and Adam Reed, takes the characters from a Hanna-Barbera adventure cartoon about an underwater science laboratory and reinvents them as boobs, miscreants and embezzlers who frequently blow themselves up. The original ``Sealab 2020'' lasted 13 episodes; ``Adult Swim's'' incarnation is at 52 and counting.

``Harvey Birdman, Attorney at Law,'' created by Richter and Michael Ouweleen, who is also senior vice president of development at Cartoon Network, takes a forgettable superhero and places him in a suit (his wings still jut out the back and his mask is intact) at a prestigious law firm, where he handles cases involving other cartoon characters.

Beholding such banal, earnest characters dealing with content that can be violent, sexual or downright perverse is akin to what Joan Didion used to call cognitive dissonance, only funny.

``We respect host shows; we like them, even when they were pandering to their audience,'' says Ouweleen. ``There are things to skewer. We're reacting to television, to the traditions we inherit. We're respectful of the legacy, but we're also laughing at it.''

He admits the shows' willfully weird sensibilities aren't for everyone: ``We have family members still trying to figure it out.''

(In addition to its original programming, ``Adult Swim'' fills out its nightly, save Friday, three-hour time slot with reruns of series such as ``Family Guy'' - which it helped resuscitate; new episodes are in production - and ``Futurama,'' as well as Japanese anime series. An animated version of Aaron McGruder's politically charged comic strip ``Boondocks'' is among the new shows coming later this year.)

Reed and Thompson were first hired to oversee Cartoon Network's tape library, including the vast Hanna-Barbera back catalog.

``They had tons of things they had never aired, most of which were pretty bad,'' Reed says. ``We were looking for something with which to do our version of 'What's Up, Tiger Lily?' (a Woody Allen film in which he completely redubbed a Japanese film with nonsensical dialogue). We just stumbled upon 'Sealab,' and watched it with a 12-pack of beer.''

One of the trademarks of ``Adult Swim'' programs, given that much of it spins off the inauspicious Hanna-Barbera tradition, is its pointedly awful animation. (``Tom Goes to the Mayor'' seems to have no animation at all, seemingly produced with flip cards and video captures.)

``We're using the bottom end of TV technology - you could go into a store and buy it,'' Thompson says, rather proudly, it seems. ``Our total investment on the equipment was $5,000.''

``You could make our show in your house,'' Reed adds.

``Why pretend we have a budget if we don't?'' says ``Aqua Teen's'' Willis. ``Great animation in and of itself doesn't make something that much funnier.''

``Everybody I know who likes 'Adult Swim' gets attracted to the content - the look is kind of secondary,'' adds ``Robot Chicken's'' Green. ``People go for the jokes or the style of a show.''

``We don't spend a ton of money, which allows us to take risks,'' says Crofford. ``We're Dada freaks, we love to throw in random things out there. If these shows were fully animated, they'd cost millions of dollars and there'd be trepidation as to whether they'd play. We emphasize good writing, and there's more freedom to explore the inherent wackiness of cartoons, which can be anything you want them to be.

``We're looking for stuff we haven't seen before,'' Crofford continues. ``We're not looking for anything we already have - we won't listen to a pitch combining 'Aqua Teen' and 'Family Guy' like every studio in Hollywood might.''

Ouweleen says, ``As 'Adult Swim' receives more notice, it will draw more talent to it. I can see it struggling like hell against its own success, I know it will. As it becomes more successful, it will become more suspicious of success.

`` 'Adult Swim' will walk across the fiery coal pit and come out harder and stronger - or have really burned feet.''

David Kronke,(818) 713-3638

david.kronke(at)dailynews.com

ADULT SWIM

What: Programming block of cartoons designed for adults, as well as anime and ``Family Guy'' and ``Futurama'' repeats.

Where: Cartoon Network.

When: 11 p.m. Saturdays through Thursdays.

CAPTION(S):

6 photos

Photo:

(1 -- cover -- color) Cartoon Network dives into uncharted territory with off-the-wall `Adult Swim'

(2 -- color) In a harmonic convergence of two of the most successful shows on Cartoon Network's ``Adult Swim,'' the Aqua Teen Hunger Force performs on ``Space Ghost Coast to Coast.''

(3 -- color) Capt. MURPHY of ``Sealab 2021''

(4 -- color) ``Futurama's'' BENDER

(5 -- color) ``HARVEY BIRDMAN, Attorney at Law''

(6) Reruns of ``Family Guy'' proved popular enough on the Cartoon Network to help convince Fox to resurrect the show.
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Publication:Daily News (Los Angeles, CA)
Date:Mar 22, 2005
Words:1265
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