Cartoon Network's unique late night programming -- The block, dubbed Adult Swim Team, offers popular programs like ''Stroker & Hoop,'' ''Family Guy,'' and ''Sealab 2021,'' plus more that are currently in the works

By Josh Wolk
Updated July 23, 2004 at 04:00 AM EDT

When Mike Lazzo, the creative guru in charge of the Cartoon Network’s quirky Adult Swim nighttime block, drives to his Atlanta office every morning, he passes the city’s shimmering IBM Tower. Next to it is the squat, inelegant Atlantic Center Plaza, an office tower built 14 years later as an intended complement to its neighbor. Lazzo, an architecture buff, considers this ”pretender” to be a cheap, ugly imitation, but it does provide him a daily metaphorical reminder of the futility of trying to duplicate greatness. As he succinctly puts it in hack-cartoon terms, if the IBM Tower is 1990’s adult-animation pioneer ”The Simpsons,” then the Atlantic Center Plaza is 1992’s bottom-feeding failure ”Fish Police.”

Emboldened with this passionate hatred for all things derivative, Lazzo has made the post-11 p.m. Adult Swim block home to some of the oddest, most subversive, and most inventively hilarious comedy on television. There’s ”Aqua Teen Hunger Force,” a breakout hit featuring a talking milk shake, carton of french fries, and meatball who don’t so much fight crime as bicker in their New Jersey bachelor pad and irritate their hairy-backed neighbor, Carl. Or ”Harvey Birdman: Attorney at Law,” which turns an obscure Hanna-Barbera character into a lawyer who takes such all-star cases as defending the trenchcoated Secret Squirrel on a flashing charge. Adult Swim has also cultivated a new audience for neglected network castoffs like ”Futurama” and ”Family Guy.” In fact, Fox recently commissioned new episodes of its canceled Guy after being shocked by the show’s soaring, Swim-goosed DVD sales. (The network’s night shift caters to robot geeks as well as comedy geeks, with anime like ”Cowboy Bebop.”)

Thanks to the six-hour Adult Swim block, men weaned on cartoons are now making every night Saturday morning: The shows are fast rivaling Leno’s and Letterman’s ratings in the critical young-male demo, prompting the network to fund a development slate of a dozen original series, including shows by Seth Green and OutKast’s Andre 3000. ”When the broadcast networks were losing 18-to 34-year-olds, there were all these articles asking ‘Where are they going?”’ says Cartoon Network GM Jim Samples. ”We wanted to call and say, ‘We got ’em!”’

Lazzo, a 46-year-old Turner Broadcasting lifer who started in its shipping department 20 years ago, cocreated ”Space Ghost: Coast to Coast” in 1994 for Turner’s Cartoon Network. The meta-talk show, in which a D-list superhero interviewed C-list celebrities, was a reaction against the network’s stagnating schedule of old Hanna-Barbera cartoons. ”It was the mind-set of ‘Let’s take our glorious history of Saturday morning and whack it up,”’ says Lazzo. ”Ghost” was the template for future Adult Swim productions: cheap, simple animation illustrating absurdist dialogue delivered in a jerky, Thelonious Monkish comic rhythm that flouts all shticky cartoon conventions. Seven years later, Lazzo, an amiable, drawling Southerner whose shoulder-length blond hair is often tied in pigtails, persuaded the network heads to give him the late-night slots (as opposed to one misguided ”hey, it worked for Nick at Nite” idea to air ”Bonanza” and ”Gunsmoke” reruns). With it came complete creative, if not financial, freedom: ”Aqua Teen” costs about $50,000 an episode, and ”Birdman” about $150,000, as compared to the reported $2 million-plus price tag of NBC’s upcoming ”Father of the Pride.”