Co.Create

Cartoons 3.0: Adult Swim Vet Nick Weidenfeld On Bringing Late Night Animation to Fox

Nick Weidenfeld was head of program development at Adult Swim, overseeing a string of breakout animated hits. Now he’s bringing those sensibilities to Fox, extending the channel’s animation dynasty into late night. Here’s how he hopes to make lightning strike twice.

It’s no coincidence that Fox’s forthcoming late night animation block will have the acronym "ADHD." Those letters officially stand for "Animation Domination High-Def," an extension of the channel’s long-running Sunday night cartoon package. Of course, there’s that other definition too, a nod to both the information-saturated target audience, and the kind of hyperactive imagination providing the content.

Nick Weidenfeld

At the forefront of the supply side is Nick Weidenfeld, someone uniquely qualified for the ambitious task of bringing Fox into the late night fray, where the shows are designed to accommodate fleeting attention spans. Before forming the production company that will create ADHD, Friends Night, Weidenfeld spent seven years overseeing Adult Swim, Cartoon Network’s late night programming block and the premier destination for glazed-over young male eyeballs after primetime. Weidenfeld served as the head of Program Development, growing shows like Robot Chicken and Children’s Hospital into hits, and developing series like the recent Odd Future sketch show, Loiter Squad.

Despite some similarities with its creator’s previous gig, though, ADHD will be a different kind of programming block. Weidenfeld and his team are producing more than just a slate of original animated shorts. Animation Domination HD will also have a digital and social component, right from its inception, extending across web, mobile apps, game consoles and video on demand. Beginning in January 2013, the late-night block will air simultaneously on Fox and online, Saturdays from 11:00 PM-12:30 AM, with four new animated series per season. Although many of the shows are still currently in development, Nick Weidenfeld spoke to Co.Create about what to expect from them, what makes late night animation work, and the impending end of irony’s reign.

Robot Chicken

Co.Create: What made you leave Adult Swim to start Friends Night? What weren’t you doing that you wanted to be doing?

Weidenfeld: I loved my time at Adult Swim. I was there for seven years—since its earliest days. I saw the talent and everything grow over the last decade. I saw it go from this late night block that a lot of people were watching, but nobody knew about, and grow and grow. Now it’s this humungous, successful business, and this huge part of the success of Cartoon Network and Warner as a whole. The last shows I was developing for them were primetime, half-hour animated series. So it was a rare opportunity to be a part of something that started off scrappy and grew.

You don’t get those opportunities a lot in television—maybe at an Internet company. Now, to have a network like Fox, which is even bigger than cable, say they would give me an opportunity to do it again, but from its earliest stage and as the person to create it and grow it, is amazing. I’ll be able to grow my own thing now with my voice, rather than with someone else’s—Adult Swim was Mike Lazzo’s voice. So it’s not the opportunity to do something else, it’s the opportunity to do it again, only cheaper and more punk and more flexible.

Why do you think Adult Swim is as influential as it has been?

Adult Swim had the foresight to know that a lot of people, especially kids, are up at this time of night, and that they have a different kind of sense of humor, and they don’t want to see something so broad. It was a chance to speak to a really niche audience while nobody else was doing it. You had this void in television, where nobody was programming late night and all these kids wanted something and nobody was talking directly to them, and then only one outlet was doing it and doing it strongly. Adult Swim gave those kids something that nobody else on TV was giving, but that they were getting elsewhere, like on the Internet. It tapped into a very specific cultural and comedic zeitgesity sensibility.

Another reason is because it had such a specific perspective, such a specific voice. It’s in the bumps that speak directly to the audience, it’s in the kind of shows they make. How many networks have such a distinct brand or voice? To allow an individual to grow that pure voice and perspective, that’s how it’s done. Anything in comedy that we love—Monty Python, Seth MacFarlane, Matt & Trey [Stone and Parker, of South Park]—all has that too. When it comes to a block of programming, or a network, that doesn’t happen much. But Fox has that too. You can still feel that this is the younger punk network that started with Married With Children.

Children’s Hospital

How will ADHD programming differ from Fox’s animation and from Adult Swim?

All of the Fox primetime shows have a similar primetime family idea--and they’re great shows--but what we can do in late night is something more experimental, both in the kinds of comedy and joke-telling, but also in the kinds of animation. We will be experimenting with designs and looks, and if they take off and if it feels right, we could potentially move them to primetime. It’s an easy segue.

There’s just more room for us to be experimental than in primetime. Conceptually, ADHD will be broader than some of the stuff that we worked on at Adult Swim, but in terms of execution, it will still be weird and late night—the shows will have the kinds of jokes and the kind of storytelling that will be too fucked up for primetime.

How does developing this block of programming--which has digital and online built in from the start--change your thinking about shows, formats, etc?

Making stuff just for the web is exciting because we’re thinking about HTML5 and different ways to interact with the content and new ways of delivering it. If we make stuff for the web, it should have more than just a standard narrative. People are developing all these awesome tools so you can interact with the content differently, and that’s important. It’s not necessarily just whether it’s 30 seconds or 30 minutes, and narrative or passive; there are other things we can make, like app and games, which work as content too. As long as they’re on-brand and have the same sensibility that the narrative comedy does. Developing on the digital side really expands your understanding of what content means exactly.

It’s also just freeing. We get a lot of cool ideas that, if you’re a traditional network, you might think “I don’t know if that’s a standard half-hour show, it may be something shorter.” At Adult Swim, we typically trafficked in 11-minute shows. Now that we have the web and even shorter form content, it’s exciting the kinds of ideas we can use. It allows us to work with more people on more ideas, instead of saying all we’re doing is half-hour prime time comedies. Using stuff in different formats and mobile and VOD allows us to work with more talent and do what they do best, rather than forcing them into something they’re not comfortable with.

Loiter Squad

What role will user-generated content play in ADHD?

It’s very important that from the inception of ADHD and this network, we have a very fluid interaction with the audience, and that our assets are available to them, and users can repurpose things we’ve made. It’s also important that we can take things that they’ve made and use them. There must be a direct communication between us and our viewers, and that will extend itself into our content. I don’t think it’s necessarily “Hey, if you make a short, we’ll air your short.” That’s sort of a smaller way of thinking about it.

People want to participate and feel ownership of the shows that they love. We give them our assets and they repurpose them and remix them, and we can use that. And vice versa. There’s just going to be more of a dialectic between us and the audience, given all of our shows and our brand. If people want to make GIFs with our content, I’ll consider that user-generated content if we post it. It’s what people do with our assets. That’s part of the way we are thinking of our business and our content, is that we would feature things like that.

What drew you to the first announced ADHD show, Axe Cop?

Axe Cop is this crazy show about a cop with an axe that started off on the web before Dark Horse picked it up as a comic. It has a huge fanboy fanbase. The weird thing is that it was written by a 5-year old, and illustrated by his 30-year old brother. It’s all from the imagination of this really earnest 5-year old kid. I think there’s currently this shift in what people want out of their comedy, and I think it’s earnest. I think that cynicism and irony and snarkiness have been pushed really far, and I think it’s created room for playing against that type and having really earnest and, not necessarily sweet, but un-ironic comedy. This is the height of that. It’s our first property that we picked up, but I think it sets the tone for everything that I wanna do that’s also a little different from what we did at Adult Swim. It’s not ironic or cynical and our comedy will feel slightly younger in that way.

Axe Cop

What’s your day-to-day like at the studio right now?

Right now, we’re writing. We’re picking up shows, working on the development of a couple pilots, bringing in writers and creating writing rooms around six or so potential shows. There’s a lot of creative energy. There are writers working in-house, which is different from Adult Swim, because that was a network and this is somewhere between a network and a studio. We’re doing a lot of programming but we also have a lot of writers and animators working on stuff in-house, so my day-to-day now is building that out. It’s a little more of the Pixar model. We’re animating and writing all our own stuff. It’s figuring out who are the right people, and what are the right shows. Then the other part is trying to build the actual building and studio for Fox; all the backend stuff, creating the infrastructure and pipeline so there’s a system in place. Also, there are questions about what our look is going to be and what’s our logo? Should we have a presence at Comic Con, what would that look like?

What’s the most challenging part of developing a show?

It’s finding the talent and the voice and someone that feels original and shares the sensibility you have and could break through and be popular. It’s finding that talent that’s difficult--there’s not a ton of it. Everyone sees who’s out there; anyone can go on YouTube and see the same people. In an industry where everybody wants them, either we have to find someone nobody knows--untapped resources--or find some people who have done stuff and figure out why they should work for us. The other hard part is really just getting good scripts. Making a funny show is just hard. The hardest thing is finding the right talent, and then getting the most out of it.
At Adult Swim or Fox proper, you have an established voice and you can decide what fits and what doesn’t. We’re building from the ground up, so who are we? It’s a complicated process, figuring it out. It’s hard, but there’s nothing that’s more fun.

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