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From Tim and Eric to “Too Many Cooks”: How the Cartoon Network Became a Platform for Horror

Thursday, March 1, 2018 | Opinion

By: MADDI MCGILLVRAY

Adult Swim, the late-night continuation of the Cartoon Network, has left many shaking their heads. The absurdist television network, which runs from 8pm to 6am and whose first all-original programming starred a milkshake, a carton of fries, and a chuck of raw meat, has become one of the top basic cable channels in the US.

So what is Adult Swim and the methods behind their madness?

The programming block emerged out of a desire to air alternative content during the late night hours when Cartoon Network’s primary target audience would be fast asleep. With the old Hanna-Barbera and MGM Cartoon libraries at their disposal, Cartoon Network started running uncensored animation shorts after 11pm. While this proved to the sooth the appetites of those craving edgier media, Cartoon Network’s original head programmer, Mike Lazzo, felt that it was time to produce their own original content. His first foray was Space Ghost Coast to Coast, which blended archival animations with interviews. This repurposing technique helped to form the independent and experimental aesthetic that is now associated with the Adult Swim brand.

Following Space Ghost, Cartoon Network launched a “Special Programming” initiative in 2000. This included four original shows titled Sealab 2021, Harvey Birdman, Attorney at Law, The Brak Show, and Aqua Teen Hunger Force, which formed the official late night block, Adult Swim. Since then, Adult Swim has become home to a wide assortment of transgressive, oddball content including Rick and Morty, The Boondocks, Loiter Squad, Children’s Hospital, as well as Cowboy Bebop and an almost endless list of other mature anime titles. It also became the go-to network for cancelled programming and had a direct role in the revival of many beloved shows like Family Guy, Futurama, Home Movies, and more.

And while Adult Swim has always maintained a mixture of surrealism, cringe humour, and genius, lately it has also become the go-to place for horror.

Anyone familiar with Adult Swim will recognize the names Tim and Eric. Tim Heidecker and Eric Wareheim have worked with Adult Swim on several projects, including Tom Goes to the Mayor, Tim and Eric Awesome Show, Great Job!, Check It Out! with Dr. Steve Brule, and their new horror anthology series Tim & Eric’s Bedtime Stories. The duo’s abrasive splicing of comedy and horror is exemplified in episodes like “Cinco Boy,” “Business Hugs,” and “It’s Spegett!,” all of which present deeply unsettling and cringe inducing portrayals of American life.

The effectiveness of Tim and Eric and their bait-and-switch approach paved the way for Adult Swim’s Infomercials series. Airing at 4am when our minds are the most vulnerable, Infomercials features a series of short films that mimic the look and feel of product commercials. And despite being on a network largely associated with comedy, Informercials is downright terrifying.

While Informercials has been around since 2009, it really took off in 2014 after Too Many Cooks  went viral thanks to its mixture of comedy and shock horror. Following Too Many Cooks  were contributions like Adult Swim juggernaut Alan Resnick’s Unedited Footage of a Bear  and This House Had People in It, which solidified the network’s expertise in horror. These shorts all begin rather innocently, but as their narratives unfold, they descend into some of the most bizarre and unnerving content I have come across in recent years. They not only utilize conventions and aesthetics associated with horror, such as a suspenseful soundtrack, warped audio, found footage tactics, and disturbing imagery, but they also include effective transmedia components. Many have accompanying websites that include hidden images, audio, and files that give more information to the events captured in the films. Another important element of these texts are the role of the digital community surrounding them, whose involvement ranges from comments on YouTube, fan forums discussing theories behind the film, videos that explain the films, and many more. With so much online engagement and a growing fan base, you can bet more horrific Infomercials are on the way. 

So are you ready to explore the nightmarish world of Adult Swim’s Informercials? These shorts are a great starting place, but be warned: they might cause some sleepless nights.

Live Forever As You Are Now
Live Forever As You Are Now  marks Alan Resnick’s Infomercials debut and showcases his innate ability to blend cringe humour with horror. In this spoof of self-help spiritualism and tech evangelism, Resnick utilizes grotesque computer avatars for an unnerving journey that descends deep into the uncanny valley.

Too Many Cooks
Beginning as what looks to be the opening credits of an ‘80s sitcom, Too Many Cooks makes viewers feel a sense of comfort and nostalgia in the cheesy tropes… that is until a machete wielding serial killer lurks within the credit sequence.

Unedited Footage of a Bear
Perhaps the most disturbing title on the list, Unedited Footage of a Bear starts out just as it sounds: a static shot of a big brown bear. After a couple of seconds, an ad for what looks like a prescription allergy medication begins. But as the jovial music fades out, the horror begins.

This House Has People in It
Just when viewers finally got over Unedited Footage, Adult Swim released This House Has People in it. It follows a birthday party gone horribly wrong where a teenage girl won’t get off the floor. While her parents believe she is just throwing a fit, she unexplainably beings to slowly sink into the floor.

Maddi McGillvray
Maddi is the Editorial Assistant at Rue Morgue Magazine. She is also a PhD student in Cinema and Media Studies at York University, where she writes extensively on the horror genre. Maddi is completing her doctoral dissertation on women working in horror. She is also currently writing book chapters titled "Fleshy Female Corporealities: The Cannibal Films of the New French Extremity" as well as "To Grandmother’s House We Go: Documenting the Aging Female Body in Found Footage Horror Films."