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Unexpected normality: How anti-humor is essential to Adult Swim

Anti-humor is a type of alternative humor that is achieved by replacing the expected joke in a funny situation with something completely serious.

When it comes to reference points for the success of anti-humor, few places exemplify it as much as the Cartoon Network programming block Adult Swim, where offbeat shows like “Primal” can find a home. This highlights how one can deviate from the norm to create something notable rather than just another animated adult comedy.

The Adult Swim series “Smiling Friends,” created by Michael Cusack and Zach Hadel, is another prime example of how anti-humor is perfectly executed. Cusack and Hadel craft action sequences that catch the viewer off guard from the humdrum –but humorous– conversations.

The “Smiling Friends” character Mip, who looks like the 1977 Rankin/Bass animated version of Bilbo Baggins, gets in between the two main characters of the show. The introduction of this conflict leads to some great gags surrounding the messy relationship between Mip and one of the protagonists without knowing too much about Mip’s background.

By the end, the whole relationship is turned on its head when a secret is revealed, leading to the mundane, but extreme, circumstances that are all too real to our own world. After all, many shows derive much of their purpose from creating situations that viewers can relate to.

Unsurprisingly, since Adult Swim’s beginnings, the use of limited animation elevated by writing and effective timing of surreal imagery has created success through one element: compelling anti-humor. This is shown in early experiments like “Space Ghost Coast to Coast” and its spinoff “Aqua Teen Hunger Force.”

By using anti-humor and balancing the surreal with the mundane reactions to such events, it can create expectations and subvert them fast enough to land some jokes. 

Accomplishing this can then segue nicely into a joke that further subverts the preceding emotions and wildly different scenes. This contrast puts forth an atmosphere that imparts feelings of an upbeat outlook on life amid serious and potentially gloomy situations. 

This is an idea many shows use to create forced situations, and it’s one that even some Adult Swim shows are guilty of using. Many of these shows use antagonistic characters that constantly bicker, such as “Rick and Morty,” which can work either to the show’s detriment or to its benefit, depending on the writing.

All in all, it’s a balance of how a director or creator chooses to use anti-humor. When done correctly with well-conceived jokes and timing them to elicit laughs from viewers, the niche can truly bring a different layer to entertainment. 

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