Adult Swim, the Cartoon Network adult-programming block that has delighted and confused stoners and insomniacs for nearly 15 years, has built a hugely viable brand by producing lots of really weird shit. They love to test the limits of what can be aired on cable TV, from animation to live-action surrealism, from sketch comedy to talk-show parodies. Since the block sprouted in 2001 from the original late-night Cartoon Network enterprise, Space Ghost: Coast to Coast, it has graced us with such befuddling hits as Aqua Teen Hunger Force; Harvey Birdman, Attorney at Law; Sealab 2021; and The Brak Show, comprising a late-night-cable juggernaut that has prompted several other networks to experiment with adult toons. It even restored the once-dead Fox animated sitcom Family Guy to popularity, giving it a second life on network TV. But don’t hold that against it.
One hallmark of the Adult Swim monolith is a willingness to put almost anything on the air, a radical strategy that has reaped big dividends (see Robot Chicken), and also crashed and burned (see Minoriteam). The block gave Tyler, the Creator a vehicle for his insane antics, produced a season of The Boondocks without creator Aaron McGruder’s involvement, and ran a fake 11-minute infomercial for Aziz Ansari’s comedy special Dangerously Delicious. If it’s even close to being potentially hilarious to even one person on earth, they’ll run it, and sometimes they’ll run it even if it isn’t. That type of commitment to giving no fucks has produced some of the most delightfully bizarre programming on television. Here, we count down the weirdest things Adult Swim has ever aired.
Seth Green’s stop-motion sketch-comedy show once made Jesus the star of Kill Bill, and that’s a microcosm of what the show does: make a mockery of real or idealized characters by giving them an absurd new context. Robot Chicken, which hits a decade on the air next year, won’t hesitate to depict the Keebler Elves waging war on Cookie Monster, or dedicate an entire extended episode to Star Wars hijinks, with George W. Bush recast as a Jedi while Boba Fett flirts with a carbonite-frozen Han Solo. The whole series plays our like one long, bizarre, lucid dream sequence.
Adam Scott’s baby was a short-running mockumentary series that went behind the scenes of his attempts to make shot-for-shot remakes of various opening-credit sequences from ’80s TV shows, starting with Simon & Simon and ending with Bosom Buddies. Each, if recreated perfectly, would supposedly be the greatest thing TV had ever seen. Guest-starring roles from the likes of Amy Poehler, Paul Rudd, and Chelsea Peretti—with quick cameos from Tom Hanks and Billy Joel—made this affair even quirkier.
Adult Swim’s latest smash, which has already been renewed for a third season, explores science fiction and virtual realities without all the boring pretense. Rick, an emotionally detached alcoholic who also happens to be a genius scientist, has return to his daughter’s life after deserting her for years. He and her young son, Morty, go on adventures that take them through wormholes into different worlds and alternate universes. Rick is the kind of guy who will chain up a baby-eating Blim Blam with Space AIDS just so he can come up with a cure to sell; Morty is the kind of kid who can be talked into smuggling Mega Seeds past intergalactic customs by jamming them up his rectum. It’s a match made in any number of parallel universes.
Iron Mike is an enigma, so it only makes sense that he get his own animated, Scooby Doo-style mystery-solving show, right? Should he also have an adopted Korean daughter? Yeah. And his voice of reason should be a flamboyant ghost, right? Right. That’s it. Well, all that and a talking, toking pigeon, too. Also, they should almost never actually solve any mysteries. Okay, perfect. Airtight pitch.
This spinoff of the long-running dark-comic strip Maakies is, as the title suggests, about a drunken crow who works on a ship that is always at war with the French, who for some reason are mostly alligators. The show revolves around Drinky’s working and personal relationships, most prominently his friendship with a selfish shipmate, Uncle Gabby, who’s an Irish monkey. The plots take bizarre turns; Drinky Crow’s depression and longing for love are pivotal themes. But for some reason, there are also random, gratuitous scenes of graphic cartoon violence, too. It’s Happy Tree Friends with underlying adult themes.
Make Dragon Ball Z a black comedy and you’ve got Perfect Hair Forever, which parodies anime tropes by following a gentleman named Gerald Bald Z on his adventure to find, uh, perfect hair. Opposed by Coiffio—the evil controller of cats—and his minions (including a fat dude in a cat suit), Gerald hopes to tackle his early-onset baldness with the help of the perverted Uncle Grandfather. There are talking trees and tornados with personality disorders, and rapper MF Doom plays a giraffe sometimes. There are even random cameos from Space Ghost himself. One episode is a parody of ’50s TV shows inside an anime parody. It’s Parody Inception, or something like that.
This one follows the wholesome, old-timey Goodman family and their titular demonic dog, who, you guessed it, loves to eat pickles, but what he enjoys much more is butchering, killing, and humping people, often in that order. The main plot thrust is that the oblivious Goodmans, especially 6-year-old Tommy and his clueless stay-at-home mom (played by Brooke Shields), don’t seem to recognize that their dog is a sadistic slayer killing and humping his way around town. (Grandpa’s onto him, though.) Beneath his doghouse lies an underground lair covered in blood; there, he often sits on his throne and eats … pickles.
A destitute family of hillbilly squids terrorize Georgia with their stupidity. Pretty self-explanatory.
When you let T-Pain produce a special—giving him the leeway to cast Lil Jon, Lil Wayne, Rick Ross, and Young Cash (?) in starring roles—this is what you get: an animated movie about a supernatural rap contest. The grand prize is a lifetime supply of money, clothes, and hoes; a strange series of events leads Barack Obama to hand over the presidency to Freaknik’s ghost, which in turn angers a secret society led by Oprah (voiced by Kelis), Bill Cosby (Kel Mitchell), and an Al Sharpton robot (Charlie Murphy), who all set out to destroy Freaknik for good. You know what somehow saves the day? Young Cash’s rapping. That’s the weirdest part.
In lieu of CSI: Providence or Law & Order: Parking Meter Unit, try this farce, which makes a mockery of police procedurals and their seemingly endless spinoffs. With a surprisingly deep cast—Paul Scheer (as the Jack Bauer knockoff Trent Hauser), Kate Mulgrew, Rebecca Romijn, Martin Starr, and Rob Riggle (as President of the Navy)—the show effectively makes light of all the goofy tropes procedurals use by making them … goofier.
Wherein Jackass meets Key & Peele head-on. Proffering sketch comedy performed with reckless abandon, multitasking mastermind Tyler, the Creator and his band of (former) Odd Future cohorts vie to make everything segment as absurd as possible, as when Juicy J catches his wife cheating with one of those flailing, inflatable tube men you see outside car dealerships. And that one’s neither the weirdest nor the funniest.
The entire plot to this animated fiasco revolves around the complicated relationship between supervillain Killface and his superhero nemesis, Awesome X, who by day is billionaire Xander Crews. Awesome X and Killface are supposed to be the equivalent of Superman and Lex Luthor or Batman and the Joker, but more often than not, they’re unwillingly forced to be allies. The rest of the universe is out of whack, too: Killface has a sidekick, X has henchmen, and both leading characters have unstable relatives. Killface’s sidekick, Sinn, becomes his enemy; Awesome X’s reporter girlfriend becomes a villainess; and at one point all the enemies move in together. It totally makes sense in context.
Wherein Jon Glaser, a/k/a “Jon,” is moved to New York with his family after he testifies against the Russian mob. There, he accepts an offer to be on a reality show about being in the witness protection program, which, obviously, defeats the purpose of being in witness protection. Initially clad in ski masks, “Jon” and his family spend the series trying to adjust to life in protective custody while the Russian mob vies to destroy them all. The series finale is shot like a cast reunion show, and it goes about how you’d expect.
An associate demon, Gary, and his intern, Claude, are cogs in the corporate machine of the underworld in this workplace comedy about, well, going to hell and then having to work there. Stuck in a literally soul-sucking job, Gary seeks to climb the corporate ladder, but his worst nightmare is realized when Claude turns out to be way more equipped for such hellish business. When Satan is your boss, getting sucked into a copy of the Necronomicon is in the job description; Twilight figures somewhere in here, too.
So here we’ve got a prison in an alternate universe, built under a volcano that itself lies beneath a bigger volcano and packed with colorful, psychotic inmates. But none more psychotic than The Warden, who uses his position to indulge his violent whims. You also get a transgendered head guard (who is constantly denying The Warden’s advances), a robot that can’t commit menial tasks without killing innocent bystanders, and The Doctor, who is more Mengele than Kevorkian. It’s a series without a hero, just dysfunction.
Imagine The Inexplicable Universe with Harry Dunne instead of Neil deGrasse Tyson and you’ve got Check It Out!, an avant-garde, pseudo-educational program starring John C. Reilly as Steve Brule, an idiot doctor who examines various aspects of existence. For this Tim and Eric Awesome Show, Great Job! spinoff, Brule interviews real people about real things, but remains completely oblivious to how most things work, leading to much embarrassment (on his part) and anger (on behalf of the oblivious person he’s interviewing).
Constantly underappreciated (it got cancelled earlier this year) but forever exceptional, this was an animated show about the Worst College in America, focusing in particular on Frank Smith, an eccentric history professor; his brother Steve, a womanizer who also teaches history; Pony, Steve’s TA and the smartest person on campus; and Baby Cakes, a giant oaf prone to insane outbursts. Together, along with The Dean (played by, uh, a former wrestling star) and supporting characters played by Hannibal Buress and Chelsea Peretti, they set out to survive a campus filled with idiots, degenerates, and a giant panda.
This is probably the show most responsible for shaping the way Adult Swim’s live-action stuff looks now. Led by comics Tim Heidecker and Eric Wareheim—with appearances from famous guests like Will Ferrell, David Cross, Will Forte, Zach Galifianakis, and the aforementioned John C. Reilly—it explores surrealism, absurdism, and satire through sketch comedy. Much loved and much discussed, its most apt description came from its creators, who dubbed it “the nightmare version of television.”
The longest-running series in Adult Swim’s history (it just ended this year) cast three anthropomorphic fast-food items as reluctant antiheroes: Master Shake, a self-centered milkshake; Meatwad, a shape-shifting dunce; and Frylock, an intellectual carton of french fries. They clash with their human neighbor Carl (who hates them) and a rotating collection of harmless enemies, most prominently the Mooninites, two pixel-shaped aliens from the moon. Oh, and Master Shake sounds a lot like Donald Sterling.
This live-action Southern Gothic horror-drama focuses on three siblings in the Heartshe family: Hurshe, Hambrosia, and Hurlan (played by Patton Oswalt), the latter of whom spent his entire life in a cave and is forced to run the town of Heartshe Holler after 40 years in isolation. The kids are left in conflict by their dead father, Boss Hoss, who recorded such an extensive will that he is able to maintain control of the town from the grave; Meemaw, the matriarch of the town, bears the curse of Heartshe and cannot die, plus she’s a psychic. Oh, and the town is filled to the brim with crazed morons.
Adult Swim is now notorious for running fake infomercials in the middle of the night, but the first—and weirdest, and arguably greatest—was this pilot from 2007, which focused on the fake Icelandic Ultra Blue products. It starts off in conventional fashion before evolving into something considerably stranger, mixing footage from rejected auditions, a cartoon interlude, and an ad for Danny Fattfuck’s Splinter B-Gone “splinter-removal technology.” Before long, you’re not at all sure what you’re watching anymore.
Detective Assy McGee is a tough-guy cop who’s also ... well, you know.
So this is a call-in talk show narrated over footage of real tropical fish swimming around a fish tank and competing in various challenges (which mostly involves superimposing digital images onto the screen). The fish get bonus points. Adult Swim employees came up with this one, which means it’s definitely on-brand if nothing else.
3. The Eric Andre Show
Wherein Eric Andre and Hannibal Buress play slightly fictionalized versions of themselves (think The Colbert Report), kick off every episode by trashing the set, and vie to make their half-unsuspecting famous guests as uncomfortable as possible. Also, there are sketches, wherein Andre tries to make regular people as uncomfortable as possible. The only person who ever seems to be comfortable at all is Buress, whose observational comedy perfectly complements these antics; sometimes they have musical guests, like air-guitar champions, or Killer Mike and Action Bronson rapping on treadmills, or Exhumed and Supremes lookalikes performing simultaneously. For the season two finale, they just smashed stuff the entire time, and almost a million people watched it.
There is a loose theme for every episode of Off the Air, but that’s it. For the 11-minute duration, continuous surrealist footage warps across the screen without purpose, unless you count “trying to wake you up in the middle of the night with freaky shit when you fall asleep watching TV” as a purpose. The disorienting themes range from “Light” to “Death” to “Nightmare”—all freakish things to encounter at 4 a.m. The accumulated result might the be strangest thing to ever appear on an American TV screen, with one exception.
Unless your wifi was out for all of last year, you probably stumbled across this viral video that parodies the opening-credit sequences of family-friendly sitcoms of the ’80s and ’90s before deteriorating into a slasher-flick nightmare. The concept of goofy, freeze-frame credit sequences existing as their own universe is brilliant in its own right, but it’s a stroke of twisted genius to subject those same smiling characters to the whims of a machete-wielding homicidal maniac. The result is a masterful genre-bending mashup of conflicting ideas and emotions, and it’s definitely the weirdest thing Adult Swim has ever aired, which makes it the weirdest thing that has ever aired, period.
Sheldon Pearce is a writer living in Washington, D.C. He has written for TIME, SPIN, Wondering Sound, Noisey, HipHopDX, Consequence of Sound, and XXL. He’s on Twitter.
Lead art by Tara Jacoby.