“Aqua Teen Hunger Force” Marked the Start of a Weird, Great Era of Cartoons
In December 2000, five weird, surreal animated shows premiered. Late-night would never be the same.
December is usually a dumping ground for holiday films, variety specials and abruptly final episodes of new fall series that failed to make a mark. But 20 years ago, no fewer than five animated (or live-action/animated hybrid) series debuted on the small screen that shared a similarly disjointed, adult and surreal sense of humor, along with low-budget charm, which often included recycling or parodying the more innocent and earnest cartoons of a prior era.
Below, we’ve put together a primer on those five programs, which included Comedy Central’s TV Funhouse and a quartet of Williams Street productions for Adult Swim: The Brak Show, Sealab 2021, Aqua Teen Hunger Force and Harvey Birdman, Attorney at Law, all of which launched in December of 2000.
The brainchild of Robert Smigel, the Saturday Night Live writer and Triumph the Insult Comic Dog mastermind, TV Funhouse started off as a series of shorts on SNL years prior to 2000. Comedy Central’s longer take — a parody of children’s TV shows with several recurring bits, angry puppet guest hosts and various animated segments that riffed on Hanna-Barbara classics (“Fetal Scooby Doo”) — actually went to darker places in its half-hour format. Sadly, it only lasted eight episodes.
The Brak Show
This spin-off of the mock talk show Space Ghost Coast to Coast — which created the blueprint for Adult Swim’s weird cartoon format — “officially” debuted in late 2001, but the pilot episode got a stealth launch as Leave It to Brak on 5 a.m. Dec. 21, 2000, along with Sealab 2021 (see below). That early-morning testing ground has been a proven spot for Adult Swim to try out experimental programming (witness: Too Many Cooks) in later years. Here, Brak goes from super-villain to dim-witted teen star of his own bizarro sitcom, complete with music numbers and a brother named Sisto who basically just farts.
Like most early Cartoon Network/Adult Swim shows, Sealab relied on stock footage from a previous generation’s cartoon (in this case, an eco-friendly snooze called Sealab 2020). The underwater lab is led by Captain Hazel “Hank” Murphy, a buffoon who the other workers either tolerate or ignore. It’s a workplace comedy with a surrealist bent, inspired by WKRP in Cincinnati and NewsRadio. If you like Archer (which was created by Sealab 2021’s Adam Reed), you’ll like this series — and, fun fact, the Murphy character has even made an appearance on the still-running animated spy show.
Aqua Teen Hunger Force
Arguably Adult Swim’s most famous series — and one that didn’t rely on old cartoon footage — ATHF would go on to enjoy a run of 15 years, 139 episodes and even a feature film. The show follows the surreal adventures of three fast-food-based characters: Master Shake, Frylock and Meatwad, along their human neighbor (and 2020 commencement speaker) Carl Brutananadilewski. A promotional campaign for the Aqua Teen movie once led to a mistaken bomb threat in Boston, a million-dollar fine for the network and a parody episode of the real-life events that was even too controversial for Adult Swim to air (not everything on the show ages well: several older episodes were recently and permanently pulled due to “cultural sensitivities”).
Harvey Birdman, Attorney at Law
In a law office staffed by B-level superheroes, attorney Harvey Birdman faces off against supervillains-turned-lawyers and other characters repurposed from old Hanna-Barbara cartoons in this strange but not-quite-as-dark legal drama parody. It also featured a series of running gags and attempted an actual line of continuity (which was famously absent in the other Adult Swim cartoons, where characters would often die and then come back unexplained in the next episode). Plus: The voice talents of Gary Cole and Stephen Colbert.
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