Cartoon Network launched in 1992. Ted Turner’s broadcasting empire, which also includes channels such as TNT, TBS, and TCM, needed an outlet for an abundance of old cartoons they had at their disposal. This included Hannah-Barbera’s catalog, as they had purchased the studio in 1991. For a few years, Cartoon Network was solely known as a network that aired throwback cartoons. Of course, that is the case no longer. Cartoon Network has acclaimed shows for all ages, such as Adventure Time and Steven Universe, but it also has its cultish, beloved late night programming block Adult Swim.
Adult Swim is a bastion of weird, absurd programs. Most of them are animated, or at least that was the case when Adult Swim first debuted. In recent years, programs such as Childrens Hospital have brought live action shows to the late night block, but the sense of humor has remained the same. Shows such as Aqua Teen Hunger Force, Sealab 2021, and Tim and Eric Awesome Show, Great Job! have set the standard for a certain strain of comedy that has blown up in the past decade or so.
But behind every great show or network, there often lies an unsung trailblazer. Adult Swim officially debuted on September 2, 2001, with some of the iconic shows in the pantheon of weirdo late night cartoons, including Harvey Birdman: Attorney at Law, Sealab 2021, Aqua Teen Hunger Force, The Brak Show, and also Space Ghost Coast to Coast (though its original run began in 1994 on Cartoon Network). All of those shows, save for Aqua Teen, were based on a style of comedy that has become synonymous with Adult Swim. They all took existing characters that Turner had the rights to, and re-contextualized them for comedy’s sake. But before they aired (save Space Ghost), there was a TV event that acted as a precursor to this notable style.
The Scooby-Doo Project. The odds are good that, even if you are a huge Adult Swim fan, you are hearing about this for the first time. It aired, it would seem, one day only, on Halloween in 1999. The special debuted in chunks spread out during commercial breaks of a Scooby-Doo marathon, before airing in its entirety at the end of the marathon. And yet, in spite of these humble beginnings, what we have in The Scooby-Doo Project is essentially an Adult Swim show that aired two years before Adult Swim debuted.
Scooby Doo would eventually feature in the Adult Swim lineup, when the gang appeared in an episode of Harvey Birdman. The joke was that Scooby and crew were arrested for marijuana possession, and were being defended by Harvey. The plot, of course, is based on a longstanding joke that presupposes these kids and their dog were bigtime stoners.
Another project that came out in 1999 was The Blair Witch Project, so you probably know by now where this whole thing is going. Blair Witch was a huge cultural phenomenon when it came out, but it has largely been forgotten now. Still, the film was important and influential in its own way, because it was a super cheap found footage horror movie that turned a huge profit. It was made for a mere $60,000, and grossed almost $250 million. The film was marketed really well, using the found footage style to promote itself like it was a documentary. The whole campaign attempted to lead people into believing these characters were real people, who had really disappeared under mysterious circumstances, related to the “Blair Witch.” It was, of course, an absurd notion, and some people got annoyed when they found out the movie was not real, but its place in the pop culture lexicon, at least at the time, was cinched. Then they went and made a non-found footage sequel and everybody stopped caring.
Parodies of The Blair Witch Project were rampant at the time. There was a full movie called The Bogus Witch Project. The WWE had a parody called The Blonde Bytch Project that was so spectacularly ill-conceived they gave it the axe before finishing it up. And then there is The Scooby-Doo Project—a found footage short about the Scooby-Doo gang piling in the Mystery Machine to look for the Blair Witch.
As simple as the premise sounds, it’s pretty fascinating to look at, aesthetically. All of the characters are superimposed over footage of the real world—animated characters in front of actual trees and actual buildings. We see a real road, and real cars on the road, but the Mystery Machine is animated. Of course, it also looks incredibly cheap, but that was the crux of early Adult Swim programming. Eventually, the animation would improve.
The plot is largely lifted from Blair Witch. The gang gets lost in the woods and weird things begin to occur. Everybody bickers and everyone’s at each other’s throats. The humor mostly comes from seeing the Scooby-Doo characters being mean or freaking out, but in an unusual manner, for their traditional characters. Eventually, they run into a monster, who turns out to be a monster from the Scooby-Doo universe. We get that bit where there is music playing and everybody runs in and out of doors. This goes on for way too long. And at the very end, they mimic the conclusion of Blair Witch, and there is a voiceover looking for information about these missing kids.
The fact of the matter is, The Scooby-Doo Project isn’t all that good. There are very few jokes, and even though it’s only 11 minutes long, it feels like it’s stretching itself. If you were to go back and watch it now, it wouldn’t feel especially exciting. It’s not even as good as most Harvey Birdman episodes. But it has to be acknowledged as the evolutionary step that led to a great show like Harvey Birdman coming into existence. It’s in the same style of comedy, and served as something of a dry run. Even if the execution wasn’t perfect, The Scooby-Doo Project felt fresh, and it was intriguing, especially if you weren’t expecting it. All of a sudden, the Mystery Machine was in the real world, looking for the Blair Witch. As a mere concept, this was very cool.
So, the fact that it has been largely forgotten, and the fact that it wasn’t all it could have been, doesn’t take away the significance of the TV event. The Scooby-Doo Project was the first Cartoon Network original to present itself in the way that most of the Adult Swim would come to present themselves. On top of all that, it was written and directed by Casper Kelly and Larry Morris. This was one of the first things Kelly ever wrote, and the first thing he ever produced. He would go on to write for shows like Harvey Birdman (he was also the producer on the pilot of that show) and Squidbillies, and he created Adult Swim shows Stroker and Hoop, Your Pretty Face is Going to Hell, and a little something called Too Many Cooks. As in, Too Many Cooks, arguably the quintessential Adult Swim special.
When we talk about the rise in absurdist, stoner comedy, and the legacy of Adult Swim, there are a lot of shows that come to mind right away. The Scooby-Doo Project is not one of those, but it should be. As a proto-Adult Swim show, it may not have been a total success, but, without it, the comedy world that we know today might be completely different.
Chris Morgan is not the author of THE book on Mystery Science Theater 3000, but he is the author of A book on Mystery Science Theater 3000. He’s also on Twitter.