OPINION: On The Ridiculous Idea Of Adult Swim As “Stoner” Humor

15 years ago on September 2nd, 2001, the first official broadcast of Adult Swim aired on Cartoon Network. Ever since that first night, the block has grown and expanded in so many ways that I never could have predicted. What started as an odd little niche block on a popular cartoon channel soon exploded into its own identity, being a place that the entire comedy-loving world always focuses in on to see what’ll come next from the twisted minds of the many creative figures behind its shows, in addition to what fresh new talent the network can put out there.

However, when a network with Adult Swim’s particular identity has been running for as long as it has, it’s bound to encounter setbacks and growing pains. In particular, several longstanding falsehoods and annoying accusations have been constantly lobbed against the network not just by outsiders and dissenters who don’t like/don’t get most of its programming, but also by some of its die-hards. It’s hard to pin down all of these accusations as some things can get lost in the mix after 15 years, but there’s three particularly huge ones that are still propagated to this day:

  1. Adult Swim hates anime.
  2. Adult Swim is a product of the Illuminati.
  3. Adult Swim is nothing but lazy stoner humor.

This last one in particular has been repeated so often all across the media spectrum from online blogs/forum posts to mainstream publications and other television networks that it’s attached itself to [as] like an unwanted parasite. I remember watching the network from pretty much the beginning (I was around 7 or 8… why are you looking at me like that?), but I don’t recall hearing the “stoner” humor accusations until at least high school or so, sometime around 2009. As soon as I did though, my first instinct was to tilt my head a bit, as I never really associated stoners with much of the network’s content. Bizarreness and weird abstract tendencies I did associate with it, but I could never see what everyone who called [as] “stoner comedy” was seeing.

If I had to hazard a guess as to where this idea would even spawn from, I would have to bring up a long-running myth about how being a creative individual in any medium (TV, music, film, etc.) works: all of the most unusual experimental works out there must spawn from individuals under the influence of (insert mind-altering substance of choice here). While it probably dates back farther back than the time period of the 1960s, I would argue this is the decade where this myth really solidified, thanks to psychedelic rock becoming a popular genre as well as the releases of Jimi Hendrix and the famous Beatles albums written and recorded on various drugs. The latter especially would seem like the big culprit since those particular drug-influenced Beatles releases are still hailed as the most ambitiously creative albums in rock history.

However, as long as I’ve heard this insistence of Adult Swim’s humor being geared towards stoners, I’ve never really bought into it, finding it incredibly reductive. The logic of that sentiment has always stubbornly refused to make sense to me for a handful of reasons. First off, the idea that most [as] programs include a great deal of surreal imagery and humorously awkward conversational styles somehow counts as proof is absurd. It’s possible to come up with ridiculous imagery without weed or acid, since children do it all the time, and I’m pretty sure most children don’t do drugs. Remember, the Fox network once had a series called Axe Cop adapted from a web comic created by a kid who was about 5 or 6 when he started. In addition, the reason why so many [as] shows are as out-there as they are is that the showrunners are offered a greater level of creative freedom then they would be if they pitched their shows to FOX, FX, or even Comedy Central.

The bigger issue I have with the stoner humor argument is the fact that it’s logically untrue. I’ve watched quite a bit of stoner comedy in my time. Just to recite a few, I’ve sat through Ted, the first two Harold & Kumar films, Pineapple Express, Grandma’s Boy, etc. Because of this, I have this admittingly ridiculous and unrealistic expectation that stoner comedies should feature weed and stoners in some significant capacity. Applying this logic to the entirety of Adult Swim’s line-up across its life-span, a good 99% of its programming fails to meet this basic metric. The only shows that really qualify as legit stoner comedy would be Black Jesus, since its title character and a good chunk of the main/secondary cast smokes quite a pit (and let’s not forget how season 1 had a running arc about a community garden that became a front for weed distribution), and 12 oz. Mouse, which literally had a character named “Stoned Peanut Cop”.

To close out this article, I’ll go back to an earlier point I made about Adult Swim: the level of creative freedom it affords the various talents that flock to them. The stoner humor accusation’s biggest failing is perhaps the fact that it does such a disservice to the level of variety and interesting things that the network’s programming is always doing, even if the ideas don’t always stick the landing. While comedy shows with raunchy surreal humor that riff on nostalgic properties is essentially the bread and butter of the network’s shows, there’s still a solid range of diverse comedic talents expressed throughout each one. From the dark mythological fantasy undercurrents of Metalocalypse to the serialized action-adventure stories of The Venture Bros., the sci-fi shenanigans of Rick and Morty, and the slickly animated social satire of The Boondocks, every show has its own distinct creative voice that it adds to the mix. Even the multiple sketch comedy shows on the block have distinctive styles from the in-your-face raunchy nostalgia spoofs of Robot Chicken, the more laid-back humor of Brad Neely’s Harg Nallin Sclopio Peepio, and the more provocative comedy of the more recent series Million Dollar Extreme Presents: World Peace. Adult Swim has way too many vibrantly creative and talented comedic minds working for all of it to simply be reduced to the work of the devil’s lettuce.

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