I've been a fan of Adult Swim since Cartoon Network launched the platform in 2001 (believe it or not, it really is that old), and have witnessed the programming block go through lots of changes -- first adding high-profile off-network acquisitions like Futurama and Family Guy, and making a notable transition away from animated programming. With the second change, Adult Swim has become one of the most significant television venues for American comedy, all the while establishing itself as a meta-spoof on the formal constraints of TV networks, right down to its most recent live-action series, each of which employ genre parody in some very novel ways.
As Adult Swim has matured, it has positioned itself as a broken mirror version of a television network, with skewed detective dramas (Eagleheart), reality fare taken to its most absurd extreme (Delocated), and even a bizarre riff on late night talk (The Eric Andre Show). But the block's crown jewels are the criminally under appreciated Thursday night tandem of Childrens Hospital and NTSF:SD:SUV::, each of which is in the midst of an excellent new season.
What makes each of these comedies work (aside from the extremely talented, nearly overstuffed casts of comedic ringers) is a rare willingness to use genre parody not as an end in itself, but as an excuse to take leaps toward jokes and joke structures that fall far outside the genre's constraints. The Rob Corddry/David Wain collaboration Childrens Hospital began as a (nearly) straightforward spoof of Grey's Anatomy and E.R., borrowing a stock cast of characters and set of formal elements (pondering narration, extended takes, near-constant camera motion). But almost from the outset it transcended its source material, not only undermining the hospital drama format, but breaking from it seemingly at will. It also eschewed continuity in large part, constantly playing with different romantic pairings, emergencies-of-the-week bearing no long-term ramifications, and even time itself (the meta -- Childrens Hospital soap within the show has supposedly been on the air for decades).
One of the funniest elements of the series is that continuity seemingly only counts on that meta level. In at least one episode per season (including this week's) Childrens Hospital takes us behind the scenes of the fictional show (where, for example, Corddry plays the actor Cutter Spindell, who plays Dr. Blake Downs). It's ironic and hilarious that these one-off episodes are the only times where Childrens Hospital possesses something approaching a consistent mythology. More commonly, the show uses a skeletal hospital setting full of staff members with only one or two fixed character traits (Corddry's Blake Downs is a Patch Adams-modeled clown who favors the "healing power of laughter" over any actual medical training; Megan Mullally's Chief is a more aloof version of E.R.'s Kerry Weaver), plus an overwhelming pomposity and a penchant for melodrama. Everything else is up for grabs. In a given episode, the hospital could be home to a wing for criminally insane children, could host a Madonna concert using only songs in the public domain, or could have a full day without patients, setting up a space for a half dozen unrelated plots. In every case, Childrens Hospital fires off more jokes per minute that almost any other series, with a pretty decent batting average.
Its sister show (which was actually launched as a parody trailer on an episode of Childrens Hospital) is the Paul Scheer creation NTSF:SD:SUV::, a send-up of self-serious crime procedurals like CSI, its clearest inspiration. Scheer's Trent Hauser character is an inveterate moron charged with protecting San Diego from all manner of terrorist threats, joined by a more competent (but not much more competent) supporting staff featuring the likes of June Diane Raphael, Martin Starr, and Kate Mulgrew. Like Childrens Hospital, NTSF has little sense of continuity (San Diego has been destroyed twice already this season, though time travel did manage to save it once) It also has the formal elements of its target mastered, more so than Childrens Hospital, in fact; the music, camera angles, and multi-takes are so specific to CSI it's a wonder Scheer or director Eric Appel never worked for Jerry Bruckheimer. Still, NTSF gets mileage from a wide range of comedic targets outside of procedural drama. Recent episodes have satirized podcasting, the Twilight films, and 21 Jump Street, among others. This week's episode, one of the series' best, was an incredibly dense Charlie's Angels/V.I.P./Da Vinci Code/time travel mystery about the "Time Angels," sent to save the city from a nuclear bomb plot convolutedly masterminded by Da Vinci himself. It also played with the Time Angels as the subject of an upcoming series, poking fun at the old network tendency of using guest appearances to develop backdoor pilots.
Genre parody is far from a new invention; it's likely as old as theatrical drama itself. It also has a tendency to be a pretty stale and lifeless form (check the Jason Friedberg and Aaron Seltzer canon, and you'll view "stale" and "lifeless" as too-mild adjectives). What Adult Swim (at its best) offers us is something we could call genre riffing: using an existing genre as a loose playset for broader satirical material on the entertainment industry and contemporary culture, with room for a lot more jokes fired from unexpected directions. Both Childrens Hospital and NTSF are fine exemplars of the elasticity of contemporary comedy (at least within the cutting edge of it), yet they use the confining parameters of genre as a play toward diversity. Neither show is the most coherent or funniest series out there, but genre riffing has allowed their creators to play with form without indulging in it. After that, it's just about the jokes. NTSF and Childrens Hospital boast some of the best ones on television.