Watching one of Cartoon Network's late-night Adult Swim shows can be a jarring experience. This is not standard television fare. Sealab 2021 -- Hanna-Barbera's earnest 1972 cartoon Sealab 2020 reimagined with an incompetent, socially dysfunctional cast -- is a 15-minute show in which the characters can spend 5 minutes debating whether it's okay to refer to an African-American crew member as "Black Debbie," but a white crew member as just "Debbie." "These are shows that make the audience uncomfortable," says Mike Lazzo, the network's senior vice president and the founding-father-cum-father-figure at Adult Swim. "Our most basic philosophy, which we ripped off of [legendary network programming chief] Fred Silverman is, 'Look at what everyone else does, do the opposite.' "
And opposites do attract. Lazzo's motley band of shows is the secret leader of late night. From 11 p.m. to 2 a.m., six nights a week, Adult Swim is consistently the number-one show on basic cable for 18- to 34-year-olds. In October, its total audience grew during the Leno-Letterman time period by roughly 27% when compared with 2003, and in the third quarter of 2004, more young men watched its programs than the Late Show With David Letterman.
Lazzo has developed his anarchic shows by fostering a creative environment unlike that of any television operation, even the one he works for. Although Cartoon Network was once a small, haphazard operation, as the network has grown, it has acquired the trappings of tradition. The Atlanta-based company has a new development team in Los Angeles, as well as focus groups and ever more eyes and voices involved in the creative process.
That makes Lazzo's Adult Swim franchise, which has eschewed such trappings, notable. How Lazzo has done it is a template for developing any creative hothouse within a lumbering corporation (his ultimate boss is Time Warner, the stodgy media colossus that's just about the last place you'd expect to find programming that's as likely to trigger chest pains as laughter). The question, though, is whether success and its pressures will destroy the formula that engendered it in the first place. In Lazzo's case, it turns out that it's not so much his overseers that he has to worry about, but himself.
Here's Your Rope
For Lazzo, the key to Adult Swim's success is simple: Be like Ted Turner. Lazzo, a high school dropout who started in Turner's shipping and receiving department 20 years ago, reveres Turner, Cartoon Network's founder. Turner ran an entrepreneurial shop where he not only encouraged staffers to take risks but practically dared them to do so. "Ted Turner's system was, 'Here's the rope, go hang yourself,' " says Lazzo.
The 46-year-old, whose longish blond hair, slight build, and easygoing manner give him an air of an aging Jeff Spicoli, the spaced-out, toked-up surfer dude made famous by Sean Penn in Fast Times at Ridgemont High, has had a few adventures on both sides of that rope. When Cartoon Network was being mocked as the Hanna-Barbera channel, a place where Ted Turner could broadcast, ad nauseam, all the Flintstones reruns in his vault, Lazzo helped create the network's first original series, Space Ghost: Coast to Coast, in a converted broom closet. But this is also the guy who, back when he was in charge of children's programming, ran the same episode of Screwy Squirrel over and over one April Fools' Day until cable operators raised hell with the network brass about a screwy programmer.
As late-night programming chief, though, Lazzo has proven a capable student. "You have to bet on a group of people," he says. "Then do to them what the company did to us. Tell them, 'Here's your rope.' " Lazzo will give that rope to practically anyone with a promising idea. Many of Adult Swim's key shows, such as Sealab 2021 and the new private-eyes-with-talking-car comedy Stroker & Hoop, were created by writers who had never made a cartoon before. "He's given us total creative freedom," says Casper Kelly, cocreator of Stroker & Hoop, who spent five years optioning scripts in L.A. before joining Cartoon Network. Lazzo vets all the scripts, and no other network executives have veto power.
With such a focused approach, Adult Swim programs tend to share certain attributes. They can be confrontational, even downright mean-spirited, a place where superheroes can be as sexist, conniving, and dim-witted as mere mortals. They're densely packed with double entendres, insider jokes, and pop-culture references -- some so obscure they'd make Dennis Miller run to Google. Typically it takes even the most patient viewer half a season's worth of episodes to feel in on the joke. So it's a good thing Lazzo has had patience. "On a network, they'll yank your series after one episode," says Kelly. "Here, they let us carry it out."
Keep the Creatives Away From the Suits
Designing an atmosphere in which creatives can do their best work is all about space and buffers. In Jim Samples, the network's 41-year-old executive VP and general manager, Lazzo has a buffer between the suits at Time Warner and his team. Lazzo needs Samples because of how things operated when AOL acquired Time Warner in 2000. The online service ushered in a system of budget cuts, micromanagement, and meetings. Money for marketing was cut; new series were reduced. "There was a period, from 2000 to 2002, when you didn't know who to turn to to get an answer," says Lazzo. "There were more checkpoints to go through."
Samples saw how all the prying eyes in the AOL days paralyzed his creative team. So he acts as a barrier between corporate scrutiny and the producers, animators, and writers in Atlanta. "My job is to screen, to keep that away from the creative folks here." He can give Lazzo so much leeway because Adult Swim keeps bringing in viewers and new advertisers, many of whom later buy spots on the kid's side as well.
Lazzo, however, is taking that buffering one step further: He's keeping Samples away from his own creative folks, the two dozen or so people who pump out all of that twisted programming. A few years ago, Lazzo set up shop for the Adult Swim team in an old carpet warehouse that CNN used to store field equipment. It's just across the street from Cartoon Network's downtown Atlanta offices, but with one wrinkle: You have to cross a major highway to get there.
The warehouse (called Williams Street) was nothing much to look at before Adult Swim got there, and now, some three years later, it has a style that can best be described as early postapocalyptic: ratty couches, exposed ceilings, dim lighting, a beat-up foosball table. And then there's that highway, which makes trips between Adult Swim and Cartoon Network HQ just inconvenient enough. "Mike's take is, 'Leave us alone, we'll make you money,' " says Matt Thompson, cocreator of Sealab 2021. "Hiding your people is the only way you can have autonomy. It's one of the main reasons I think he chose to go to that crappy building."
What's important, too, is that Williams Street isn't just a clubhouse; it's a clubhouse in Atlanta. True, if the heat and humidity don't get you, the seafood will -- or so Lazzo will rant while driving you around town in his Range Rover. But that's a small price to pay to steer clear of what Lazzo calls "the machine": Hollywood and all its assorted players. "We're outside of New York and Los Angeles," Lazzo says. "The type of people who come here, they keep us interesting." Lazzo is no fan of the machine. Before he hired his production chief, Keith Crofford, to produce Space Ghost, Lazzo had gone to a Hollywood production company to do the pilot. "It was awful, so we figured, 'Even we could do that piece of crap.' "
The Williams Street outpost also lets everyone associated with Adult Swim mingle, an essential element, Lazzo says, to Adult Swim's success. To that end, Lazzo has also brought his own art director and on-air-promotions department over to Williams Street. "You want people bumping into people all day long," he says. "You want your writers, promo guys, and editors all saying, 'Hey, did you think of this?' " Even Lazzo shares his office with Crofford, so he's not sheltered in a big office and away from the action.
Stay Off the Accountants' Radar
Lazzo and his team know that one reason they can get away with what they're doing is that Adult Swim isn't a glaring line item on the budget. Its shows tend to be "cheap ass" productions, as Sealab's Matt Thompson puts it. Shows such as Sealab can cost as little as $50,000 an episode -- enough to make about 1 minute of The Simpsons -- and can be churned out in four to six weeks, as opposed to some four to six months.
The cheaper the shows, the more risks Adult Swim can take, the more time it can give shows to grab an audience, even if it takes an entire season, typically 13 episodes. "A network animated show can cost $1 million an episode," says Lazzo. "Who wants to make a $13 million decision that blows up in their face? They'll make safe bets instead. Our system is the opposite of that. You make a risky decision and if it doesn't pan out, you're not out that much. That's the key." For all the fun and games, Lazzo's focus on costs is serious. "They gave us a budget and said, 'This is how much you have,' " says Jackson Publick III, creator of The Venture Bros., which premiered in August. "When we went over, we ate it."
Man Versus Machine
Lazzo now faces a critical challenge with Adult Swim: how to continue to enlarge his franchise within Time Warner without losing its soul. Executives at Cartoon Network and Time Warner keep expanding Adult Swim, from two nights a week when it began in 2001 to six nights now. But with Cartoon Network fully distributed in 87 million U.S. households, future growth depends on new shows. The Williams Street operation is small scale and Adult Swim has big-league aspirations. "We need to branch out if we're going to be a 24-hour network, which is the goal," says Nick Weidenfeld, Adult Swim's manager of program development.
So the rules that created Adult Swim's creative hothouse have to be bent -- if not broken outright. "In some ways, we need to react against our own philosophies," Lazzo says. His search for new content has forced him to embrace the big-league strategies of Cartoon Network proper -- at least a little bit -- by looking beyond his own walls. The Venture Bros. is produced in New York. Tom Goes to the Mayor, which debuted last November, is made in L.A. In the process, Lazzo has given up some of that mingling of ideas and people that he feels is essential to success. He reads the scripts and sends his notes, but his creators aren't down the hall. It makes him a little nervous. "Yes, it is not as relaxing as when you can walk down the hall and see editing," he says. "Anytime you go outside your system, you have trepidation."
Perhaps it's no surprise then that Adult Swim's newest series play it a little safer. Both Stroker & Hoop and The Venture Bros. are edgy, but they seem unwilling to make their audiences too uncomfortable when making them just a little uncomfortable might do. "These are more standard comedies, more easily accessible," admits Weidenfeld. Lazzo, in his defense, says he's still doing crazy stuff, namely in the form of Tom Goes to the Mayor. "It's like anti- animation, almost like looking at a picture book. It's really going to test the audience."
Perhaps the biggest impediment to maintaining that rebel spirit is that there's only one Mike Lazzo. Adult Swim's success -- and all those additional hours of original programming -- are stretching its one-man mentor-muse-critic thin. Already some creators are showing symptoms of Lazzo withdrawal. "Sometimes I feel like a stepchild," says The Venture Bros.' Publick. "You're busting your ass on this thing 16 hours a day. Sometimes you want a hug, someone to say, 'Great script.' I don't hear anything." Lazzo seems to have gotten the message. "He's been getting better lately," says Publick.
If this were an Adult Swim show, now is when everything would blow up in Lazzo's face. So far, it's been just the opposite, as ratings and buzz continue to rise. Whether Lazzo can keep it going, however, remains to be seen. He'll be the first to tell you that in television, autonomy can be as fleeting as a Jason Alexander sitcom. "We're left alone only because it works," he says. "Or they would be over here in three seconds." By hedging his own maverick culture with some of that stodgy big-network culture he has long loathed, Lazzo's betting that he can keep the suits at bay a little longer. Adult Swim shows may be cooler than Hollywood TV -- but a Hollywood ending still beats all.
Alan Cohen is a writer living in New York. This is his first article for Fast Company.