Thursday, October 19th, 2017

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The edge of night: Adult Swim draws youth by breaking rules

BEVERLY HILLS, Calif. – Aaron McGruder had a problem.

His comic strip, "Boondocks," had taken the funny pages by storm in the late ’90s with its often uproarious mix of social comment and political incorrectness. It also made McGruder a star and got him what he had lusted for all along: the chance to make an animated "Boondocks" series for TV.

The green light came from Fox, home of "The Simpsons." That turned out to be the problem.

"We wrote the script, we did a six-minute presentation and then it died," McGruder said. "Fox wanted a sitcom with an ‘A story’ and a ‘B story,’ and there were just very rigid creative rules that work on some shows and don’t work on others."

Luckily for McGruder, somebody else diagnosed the problem. His name is Mike Lazzo, and he has become a cult figure in the television business, as have the figures he has promoted. Think Space Ghost, Harvey Birdman, Meatwad and Brak.

They are some of the oddball residents of Adult Swim, the wildly popular late-night cable refuge cleverly tucked away inside Cartoon Network. How popular? Well, NBC and CBS might take note because the next generation of late-night viewers, ages 18-34, is watching Adult Swim in larger numbers than it is Leno or Letterman.

Lazzo saw the six-minute film McGruder had put together and declared it "too networky." He suggested that McGruder bring his comedy ideas over to cable TV, forget about the sitcom formula and, as McGruder put it, "just tell stories."

It’s too soon to tell if "Boondocks," which makes its debut Oct. 2, will justify Lazzo’s faith in McGruder. A cartoon show that takes months to assemble can’t possibly be as timely as the comic strip, which, for example, recently satirized the "Being Bobby Brown" reality show less than two weeks after its TV debut.

TV critics in California saw a short clip from "Boondocks" that not only contained a Kobe Bryant joke, but also featured the conspicuous use of a certain word starting with "n." So it will be controversial as well as dated. For all that, Lazzo proclaimed himself thrilled to have it.

"Where was black culture on television where it didn’t feel like it was just, you know, written by white people?" he asked. "It didn’t feel legitimate."

"Legitimate" is not a word you hear from a conventional network suit. But then Adult Swim did not become No. 1 among young people because Lazzo thought conventionally.

Now considered a channel-within-a-channel, à la Nick at Nite, Adult Swim is No. 1 among teenagers – by a wide margin – compared to all cable shows in its time slot. And that time slot is wide: a full six hours beginning at 8 p.m. on the West Coast and 11 p.m. on the East.

Cartoon Network’s nonadult shows even seem a little edgier these days. "Foster’s Home for Imaginary Friends" is a fantastical take on a young child’s fear of losing his invisible buddy.

And while a show about two female Japanese rock stars would seem a less-than-ideal premise for American comedy (as the 1980 flop "Pink Lady and Jeff" proved), the "Hi Hi Puffy AmiYumi Show" delightfully defies logic with its adorable characters and peppy soundtrack.

But Lazzo, who is now senior vice president in charge of Adult Swim, might be taking the channel’s biggest gamble yet with "Boondocks," an expensive half-hour full-animation series.

Ironically he obtained the services of McGruder by telling him not to make "Boondocks" like Adult Swim’s biggest hit, "Family Guy."

That was a relief to McGruder. After all, the "Boondocks" strip, about an angry, wise-beyond-his-years 10-year-old named Huey (as in Huey Newton) who is transplanted from the urban area to the suburbs, revolves around people with both color and character.

"Our show is not ‘Family Guy,’" McGruder said. "The element of race changes everything."

However Lazzo justifies adding "Boondocks" to the top-rated Adult Swim, he has made McGruder feel like a lottery winner.

"It astounds me that good, responsible white people paid for this show," McGruder said.

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