Too Many Cooks was a one-off short, but it perfectly embodied the voice and point of view that the network Adult Swim has carefully cultivated over the last 13 plus years. Adult Swim always gets pegged as stoner humor, which might be true, but also does a great disservice to the network. Since launching in 2001 it has doggedly broadcast some of the most surreal programs in TV history into almost every home with a cable box. It used to be hard to find this kind of humor on TV, but Adult Swim’s made it easy for viewers for over a decade now. There’s an art to this type of comedy and Adult Swim has consistently been able to find creators who excel at it, as these ten shows prove.
Comedy’s subjective, of course, and obviously this list is simply the opinion of one guy who happens to edit the comedy section of a particular website and whose name is me. Hi. If you disagree, as I’m sure you will, feel free to leave a comment or turn to Twitter and Facebook to shout your disapproval. Note that this list only considers original Adult Swim programming that ran for more than a single episode. Keep that in mind before asking why Too Many Cooks isn’t on the list.
And another quick note before you start: you won’t find Space Ghost Coast to Coast on here because it predated the official start of Adult Swim by several years. You also won’t find The Venture Brothers, because I’ve never really watched it. I know it’s a beloved show with a vehement cult, and some day I hope to start it from the beginning. Perhaps it’d make the list if I had watched it. Maybe I’ll update this once I do. The world is full of possibilities.
Frisky Dingo was the second Adult Swim project from the creators of Sealab 2021, and in its DNA you can see a bit of their next show, FX’s Archer. Instead of self-important spies Frisky Dingo sends up superhero comics, focusing on the troubled family life of the super villain Killface and his arch-rival Awesome X. Although it could be as absurd as most Adult Swim cartoons, Frisky Dingo was a bit more serialized in its storytelling, with plot points carrying over episodes, as you’d find in a superhero comic. Awesome X’s alter ego, Xander Crews, is almost like a dry run for Archer, and the cultured, intelligent Killface is a great comic creation.
This might be the most implausible show to ever exist on a national network. Networks make money by selling ads that run during shows that people actually want to watch. Who would want to watch an intentionally ugly show full of jokes that you won’t fully get if you don’t live in Georgia? If you are from Georgia, like me, Squidbillies can be the most hilarious show you’ve ever seen. Although generally broad enough to appeal to anybody who enjoys Adult Swim’s brand of absurdity, what makes Squidbillies special is its deep ties to the state in which it’s made. It’s crazy that a show so full of regional in-jokes about Georgia has been blasted across the nation’s TVs for over a decade now. The other Turner networks gradually had all their Southernness whittled away after the mergers with Time Warner and AOL (RIP WCW and Braves baseball on the Superstation) but somehow in the 21st century there’s a show on Adult Swim that had the legendary Georgia Bulldogs play-by-play man Larry Munson as the voice of God.
Somewhere on the internet somebody is still grumbling about Adult Swim’s tilt towards live action. That’s why you should stay off the internet. Eagleheart is all live action and as absurd as any of the network’s cartoons, living up to the spirit of star Chris Elliott’s early appearances on Letterman and his classic anti-sitcom Get a Life. It worked best as a twelve-minute short during its first two seasons, but the half-hour final season earns points for its sheer ambition. Not every idea or joke landed but the scope and daring of Eagleheart was impressive. It regularly ripped apart the cartoonish masculinity pushed forward by action procedurals and beer commercials, but at heart this was simply an extremely silly show that just happened to be gruesomely violent.
The network’s flagship show would’ve ranked higher in earlier years, and it’s impossible to understate its importance in establishing the Adult Swim brand. Like The Simpsons its reputation has perhaps taken a dent due to its longevity and to the simple fact that almost no show could keep up the high quality of the earliest seasons. Aqua Teen was almost unthinkable in 2001—many TV shows before it embraced absurdity or postmodernism, but they still did so within the recognizable framework of a TV show. Aqua Teen and the other Adult Swim launch shows were so short and so unrelentingly weird that they felt like nothing that had ever aired on TV before. It didn’t just stand out because of its weirdness, though—the writing and vocal performances were equally hilarious, and its main characters were all fully formed, instantly familiar yet unique. Hopefully at some point in the 21st century Boston will dig up a time capsule with an Ignignokt LED sign in it.
Along with Aqua Teen, Sealab 2021 defined the Adult Swim voice when it launched in 2001. It built on the ironic appropriation of old art that started with Space Ghost: Coast to Coast, but instead of twisting it into a different style of show it structured itself as a continuation of the original Saturday morning cartoon from 1972, but with every character now thoroughly insane. It fell off in quality after two tremendous seasons, limping to a close in 2005. Those first two years are some of the funniest episodes of any show Adult Swim has ever run.
This might seem high for a show that’s only ran for one season so far, but few shows arrive as confident and fully realized as Justin Roiland and Dan Harmon’s sci-fi cartoon. Its first season hilariously skewered some of the most familiar cliches in science fiction while still finding time to develop each character beyond a sitcom stock type. If it ended after those first eleven episodes it’d already be an all-time classic. Hopefully the second season, which starts later this year, keeps up or even improves on that high standard.
Here’s another live action show where the twelve-minute runtime is crucial to its success. Its joke-a-second pace would be hard to keep up over a half-hour. Not every episode is a keeper, but at its best few shows can match Childrens Hospital for laughs. This incredibly silly parody of soap operas and medical dramas has gradually expanded its point of view to pillory the entire entertainment industry, satirizing various genres of TV shows and constructing an elaborate, decades-long backstory about the show within the show and the actors that play its characters. Its greatest asset is that cast, which features pros like Lake Bell, Erinn Hayes, Ken Marino, Rob Huebel, Henry Winkler and more, along with regular cameos.
Tim and Eric Awesome Show, Great Job wasn’t always funny. It could be challenging in a way that often felt smug to those who didn’t appreciate its dark and surreal tone. It’s probably the show on this list that I’m least interested in rewatching. It also could be a hilarious, brilliant and frightening destruction of television. Tim and Eric’s creative vision overlaps almost perfectly with Adult Swim’s, and together they have done as much to introduce America to alternative comedy as almost anybody else. They’ve made a handful of shows for the network, but Tim and Eric Awesome Show, Great Job remains their most defining work. Unless you count…
Steve Brule is the greatest comedy creation of the 21st century. John C. Reilly is a serious actor with Oscar and Tony nominations but his finest role is as an incomprehensibly stunted idiot who hosts nonsense health segments for a pubic access station. Check It Out can get as dark as Tim and Eric’s other work, but it rarely feels as mean, despite Brule being one of the most pathetic characters to ever pop up on TV. Even at Brule’s lowest points, when the show is at its bleakest and most shocking, Reilly remains such a warm and likable presence that you can’t help but feel sympathetic for Brule. That warmth provides a firmer ground for Tim and Eric’s standard stylistic tricks and comedic concepts, making it feel less distant and analytic than Awesome Show, Great Job, but without sacrificing any of the humor.
Delocated was a brilliant show that never fully got its due. Early this decade the best comedies on TV were also some of the harshest dramas, and the often brutal Delocated could be as powerful as Party Down or Eastbound & Down. It could switch from inspired silliness to extreme tension in a single scene, as Jon Glaser’s beef with the Russian mob regularly erupted into graphic violence. Delocated mocked reality TV and everyday people’s desire to be famous, but what made it great is that, like Eastbound and Eagleheart, it was an insightful attack on the absurdities of masculinity. Jon wore a mask to hide out from the mob, but making him faceless only reinforced how he stands in for all men who love classic rock, bar food and trash culture. Also it’s one of the few Adult Swim shows that benefitted from a longer runtime, as it got better as it expanded to a half-hour.
Garrett Martin edits Paste’s comedy and games sections. He regrets not taking that internship at the Cartoon Network in 1995.