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Debuting in 2001, Adult Swim served as the nighttime identity of Cartoon Network, and it was established as alternative programming during late night hours when Cartoon Network's primary target audience would normally be sleeping. By 2005, Adult Swim would be granted its own separate Nielsen ratings report from Cartoon Network due to its targeting a different audience. The block features stylistically varied animated and live-action shows, including original programming, syndicated series, anime, and short films with generally minimal or no editing for content.
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Adult Swim has frequently aired adult animation features, mockumentaries, sketch comedy, and pilots. The block's shows are known for their sexual themes, frank sexual discussion, nudity, strong language, and graphic violence. Many of its programs are aesthetically experimental, transgressive, improvised, and surrealist in nature. Adult Swim has contracted with various studios known for their productions in absurd and shock comedy.
Cartoon Network's original head programmer, Mike Lazzo, conceived Adult Swim. The block grew out of Cartoon Network's previous attempts at airing content appropriate for teenagers and young adults who might be watching the channel after 11 pm (ET/PT). The network began experimenting with its late night programming by airing anthology shows that presented uncensored classic cartoon shorts, such as ToonHeads, The Bob Clampett Show, The Tex Avery Show, Late Night Black and White, and O Canada. Another block, Toonami's "Midnight Run", aired the network's action programming uncut with minimal edits. At that time, one third of Cartoon Network's audience were adults.
During the 1990s, prime time animation geared toward adults started growing popular due to the success of Fox's hit show The Simpsons. This was followed by a trend of other adult-oriented animated shows throughout the decade, as well as more general-oriented animated series that garnered strong adult followings.
Space Ghost Coast to Coast, Cartoon Network's first foray into original programming, was created in 1994 specifically for late-night adult audiences. The series was created by Mike Lazzo's Ghost Planet Industries, which eventually became Williams Street Studios, the producers and programmers of Adult Swim.
Between 4:00 am and 5:00 am on December 21, and December 30, 2000 (while Space Ghost Coast to Coast was on hiatus), several new Williams Street series made unannounced "stealth" premieres. Sealab 2021, Harvey Birdman, Attorney at Law, Aqua Teen Hunger Force, and The Brak Show all premiered unannounced; the official schedules listed the shows as "Special Programming". Prior to that, in Entertainment Weekly, it was stated that Michael Ouweleen's next project was working on the Harvey Birdman, Attorney at Law Pilot with J.J. Sedelmaier. In a 1999 interview, the indie pop rock band Calamine stated they had recorded the theme song for Sealab 2021. While entertaining pitches for a variety of adult cartoons, Lazzo realized the potential for packaging them as a complete adult-focused block. Different names were considered, including "ibiso", which was said to be Spanish for "stop", and "Parental Warning", "Parental Block" but he eventually settled on "Adult Swim".
Cartoon Network originally intended to launch the adult animation block on April 1, 2001, but was delayed five months. In June 2001, TV Guide had recorded an interview with Cartoon Network's former president, Betty Cohen. She stated there was a new programming block coming out in September that was aimed for an adult audience. During this month at the Cartoon Network Confidential, "Cartoon Network's best originals and outrageous animated shorts for discriminating adults" in New York City, an upcoming episode of Space Ghost Coast to Coast titled "Kentucky Nightmare", the stealth pilots from December, Captain Linger, and an episode of Home Movies were screened for free. The screening was part of the Toyota Comedy Festival. On Saturday, July 21, 2001, the Space Ghost Coast to Coast panel at San Diego Comic Con had a trivia game in which the winners won a promotional CD that had the theme songs to the upcoming Adult Swim Shows. Everybody who attended got a free Adult Swim t-shirt that was packaged to look like a roll of bandages that a lifeguard might carry.
At the Comic Con, audiences got to see clips of the upcoming shows and vote for what show they wanted to see as a sneak peek. Harvey Birdman, Attorney at Law was the winner and the pilot was screened. The Leave It to Brak episode "War Next Door" and Space Ghost Coast to Coast episode "The Justice Hole" were also screened, as well as clips to the episode "Sweet for Brak". In an interview on creativemac.com on July 25, 2001, J.J. Sedelmaier talked about working on the Harvey Birdman, Attorney at Law pilot. On August 12, the first commercial advertising the new block aired on Cartoon Network. Around this time a press kit came out that featured towels and a promotional CD. Another press kit that was designed as a first aid kit came with a promo VHS with info on all the shows. Access Hollywood also highlighted the upcoming premieres. Print ads were shown in an August issue of Entertainment Weekly. On August 31, adultswim.com officially launched.
Some of the bumps on the block included Aquaman Dance Party that featured a cartoon Aquaman dancing in front of live action landfill footage, Captain Linger, a series of shorts created by J. J. Sedelmaier, Watering Hole, a series of shorts about animals talking in a bar created by Soup2Nuts, 1960s Hanna-Barbera action cartoons dubbed with the voices of children, a series of shorts called Not for Air that had the speech of Hanna-Barbera characters bleeped to make it seem like the characters were swearing, The New Adventures of The Wonder Twins, What They're Really Thinking, which had a voice narrate a character's thoughts in a comedic way, and Brak Puppet Party, a puppet show featuring classic Hanna-Barbera characters.
On October 5, 2003, Adult Swim was on from 11:00 pm to 2:00 am ET. On October 26, 2003, Brak's Dad from The Brak Show hosted Halloween-themed bumps. That same night, Adult Swim hosted a live webcam show on its website, featuring the Adult Swim staff having a party. The Big O series finale episode "The Show Must Go On", was supposed to premiere that night at 11:00 pm; however, Adult Swim had to reschedule the episode for the next week, on Sunday, November 2, taking the place of the scheduled previously unaired episode of Family Guy, "When You Wish Upon a Weinstein", to air on November 9. When Big O premiered on November 2, a rerun episode, "Stripes" was airing but then Adult Swim said it was just a joke and they finally aired the correct episode.
Adult Swim had a direct and important role in the revival of an aforementioned popular animated series, Family Guy. Due to the series' popularity in reruns, the block burned off "When You Wish Upon a Weinstein", an episode of the series that had been banned from airing on Fox, in 2003. On September 21, 2003, Seth MacFarlane guest voiced on the Aqua Teen Hunger Force episode "Super Trivia". In 2004, from July 26 through July 29 Adult Swim had a week dedicated to Seth MacFarlane where it had him host a Family Guy marathon showing select episodes. On March 29, 2004, less than one year after beginning reruns on Adult Swim, Fox announced it would be renewing Family Guy for a fourth season and reviving it from cancellation. Shortly after the announcement, Jim Samples, then-general manager and executive vice president of Cartoon Network, commented, "Bringing Family Guy to the Adult Swim lineup last April really helped turn the block into a cultural phenomenon with young adults."
In December 2019, Mike Lazzo retired from the company, which was announced by a bumper that aired on the network that month. On April 29, 2020, Michael Ouweleen, previously the chief marketing officer of Cartoon Network, Adult Swim, and Boomerang and the co-creator of Harvey Birdman: Attorney at Law, was named the President of Adult Swim, a new position that gives Ouweleen responsibility for all aspects of the network and its properties. Adult Swim faced layoffs in November 2020, resulting in the closing of Pocket Mortys developer Big Pixel Studios and the cancellation of all of Adult Swim's online live stream series. Keith Crofford retired from the company in December 2020, which was celebrated with two bumpers featuring Meatwad from Aqua Teen Hunger Force and Seth Green and Matthew Senreich from Robot Chicken.
Adult Swim also airs syndicated programs from 20th Television (Bob's Burgers, Futurama, King of the Hill), original series produced for sister network TBS (American Dad!), and have acquired and co-produced various anime series. Adult Swim is currently one of the only networks in the United States that broadcasts anime (besides Disney XD) and the only network that airs such programming aimed at young adults and teens rather than children.
User accounts could once be made on the site, initially for the site's messaging boards, which launched in May 2003 and shut down in October 2016. By 2018, the only main functionality for user accounts left was for creating profiles and participating in the live stream chatrooms. User accounts were permanently disabled in January 2021, following the removal of the chat function.
Adult Swim has held various live events throughout the years through its Adult Swim Presents division. The network frequently appears at San Diego Comic Con, often holding sneak previews, games, musical performances, among other things. Since 2018, the network has held an annual Adult Swim Festival, with a mix of music, comedy, panels, and more. 2018 and 2019's festivals took place in Los Angeles, and had select performances streamed live on the Adult Swim Streams. Due to the COVID-19 pandemic, 2020 and 2021's festivals were held online, through prerecorded videos and live streams on YouTube. The 2022 festival, known as the Adult Swim Festival Block Party, took place in Philadelphia, with highlight reels and select full performances being streamed to YouTube.