Adult Swim has positioned itself as a subversive late-night comedy hub for cool kids — its content is famously experimental in nature, its founder disdainful of conformity. But the network’s renegade values can be regressive when it comes to women, with an apparent indifference toward female creatives and female audiences, according to several people who formerly worked at the network.
Adult Swim is the late-night programming block of Cartoon Network that operates as its own network; it generally favors short-form, low-budget animated and sketch comedy shows for grown-ups. Nielsen says its 2016 year-to-date audience is about 42% female. In May, the Turner-owned network announced it was ordering 26 new and returning series and specials this year (including the sketch-based Million Dollar Extreme Presents: World Peace, created by a comedian beloved by the white supremacist “alt-right” movement). However — as Splitsider noted in June — the network had picked up exactly zero projects from female creators in this current on-air crop. And with the exception of the animated sketch series Brad Neely's Harg Nallin' Sclopio Peepio and the FLCL reboot, all the series center on male characters.
This lack of female creators at Adult Swim is not an anomaly for the 15-year-old network. According to available creator credits on 58 series and miniseries aired by Adult Swim, only 1 out of every 34 credits went to women. That’s well below TV’s 2015–2016 overall average of 1 out of 5, a statistic confirmed by a 2016 study from San Diego State University’s Center for the Study of Women in Television and Film. Adult Swim’s competitor Comedy Central also struggles with gender balance among creators, though it does have several prominent shows helmed by women like Broad City, Another Period, and Inside Amy Schumer.
TV shows with female creators tend to have more female writers, directors, and characters, according to the researchers cited above. The market potential is not completely lost on Adult Swim: USA Today reported in 2006 that Lucy, the Daughter of the Devil was a show intended to attract female viewers; executive vice president and creative director Mike Lazzo told the outlet at the time, "We would see more of a bump in ratings if we could attract more women." But in the 10 years since then, there have been very few shows featuring women as lead characters.
In a statement to Splitsider this summer, Adult Swim said that the network had “talented women writing and producing on our original series” and that it was “always on the lookout for new creative partners” — a strategy that has obviously left it trailing far behind other television programmers. Former employees confirmed the passive “on the lookout” approach. One source told BuzzFeed News that the lack of female creators was flagged as a problem as early as 2005, and yet it appears no concrete steps have been taken to meaningfully rectify that discrepancy in the intervening decade.
Adult Swim declined to comment on the record about any of the specifics in this article and did not answer direct questions about its plans to rectify the gender imbalance. Instead, it provided BuzzFeed News with the following statement: “Since its launch, Adult Swim's growth and success have been the result of listening to our young, diverse audience and giving them the content they find entertaining. From Robot Chicken and The Boondocks to Childrens Hospital and Rick and Morty, women have contributed significantly to Adult Swim's success over the years as producers, executives, creators, writers, actors and directors. With the expansion of our development slate and the growing need for streaming series, we are furthering our ongoing commitment to finding new talent to create content that will reflect and engage our fans.”
Adult Swim has many female employees — including longtime senior programming director Kim Manning plus two VPs of animated production and on-air. However, there are few women working for the network’s series in credited creative roles, such as writers, directors, and editors, which can also affect how women are viewed at the company. “There are women there doing tons of work. But it’s pretty much like, ‘Oh, you’re a woman? You’re a producer. You do budgets, you do scheduling. You’re not a creative,’” said one former Adult Swim employee. There have been notable exceptions — including Childrens Hospital’s Lake Bell and several women deeply involved in Infomercials specials. In June, Adult Swim was also quick to point to streaming series like Stupid Morning Bullshit, Call of Karaoke, and Assembly Line YEAH, which all have women creators. Dan Harmon told BuzzFeed News in July that he’d made a point of hiring more female writers for the upcoming season of Rick and Morty; while he said Adult Swim was supportive, he also said the network had played no direct role in the initiative.
In speaking with BuzzFeed News, former Adult Swim employee Katie Golden — who was on the small designated team of writers and video editors who produced the iconic self-promotional ID bumpers or “bumps” — said that she remembered her time there fondly. “I can truthfully encourage any woman writer/creator to drop their apprehensions and get in there,” she said. As she described it, Adult Swim at large is a comedy meritocracy where the best idea wins; that’s a concept that other sources disputed, countering that the environment clearly gives the edge to men.
One former employee speculated that the aggressive office environment contributes to women’s standing in the creative departments. Other sources agreed that Lazzo was “a yeller,” although one person said “in Mike’s defense” that the executive “welcomed” it when employees yelled back at him. It was not uncommon to hear Lazzo and other supervisors shouting at and openly reprimanding employees, they said.
One source placed much of the blame for Adult Swim’s lack of female creatives on Lazzo. The person recalled that, for example, during a meeting of Adult Swim and Cartoon Network employees in 2011, the network head was asked if any shows with female comedians were in the works; one source’s recollection of Lazzo’s response was when you have women in the writers room, you don’t get comedy, you get conflict.
The source recalled Lazzo apologizing to women in the office the next day, but noted that it felt as though the damage was already done: “You can’t take that back, and he didn’t really even try.”
“Everyone will say that he’s a genius,” the source said. “He’s very smart, and he changed entertainment. That’s what I think hurt the most.”
BuzzFeed News made multiple requests to speak with Lazzo; through a representative, he declined to be interviewed. Two days after this story was initially published, a user who identifies himself as Lazzo responded on Reddit to the 2011 incident, along with making additional comments. "What I actually said was-women don't tend to like conflict, comedy often comes from conflict, so that's probably why we (or others) have so few female projects. Nonetheless this was a dumb answer to a good question as Lucille Ball and Gilda Rather to Amy Poelher and Amy Schumer prove my statement a load of generalized nonsense."
He did not comment on any efforts to increase the number of "female projects." Lazzo did not respond to a request on Monday to elaborate on the Reddit post, and a representative for Adult Swim declined to comment.
Over the years, Adult Swim has underwritten envelope-pushing content: While attempting to flout propriety, some series have fallen into conventional jokes about violence against women and sexual assault. Tim and Eric Awesome Show, Great Job! included a comedic music video about a man who stalks a woman and breaks into her home, singing at the end, “No, they can’t call it rape if she concedes her body to me.” Among several rape jokes in Robot Chicken, one spoofs The Giving Tree with “the raping tree” in a sketch that shows a sentient tree directing a needy man to another tree that picks him up and sodomizes him as he screams. A 2010 episode of the comedy series Aqua Teen Hunger Force featured a male character at a strip club disappearing into a back room with three exotic dancers and reappearing with their spinal columns; for the punchline, Master Shake says, “I’m going first next time.” An entire episode of King Star King, a streaming series from 2014, revolves around the decapitation and rape of the protagonist’s love interest.
And just recently, in the Aug. 27 episode of Million Dollar Extreme Presents: World Peace, a wheelchair user is coached by a pickup artist to tell a woman, “You got about 10 seconds to show me that hole, ’cause this gorilla dick daddy’s hungry, and if you don’t blow me right, I might kill you.” When BuzzFeed News reporter Joe Bernstein asked Adult Swim about its decision to book a series created by an alt-right comedy group, a spokesperson for the network said in a statement: “Million Dollar Extreme’s comedy is known for being provocative with commentary on societal tropes, and though not a show for everyone, the company serves a multitude of audiences and supports the mission that is specific to Adult Swim and its fans.”
In Adult Swim's early days when its original programming was limited, the network found its fans by airing reruns of shows like Futurama and Family Guy (one of whose memorable supporting characters is a lovable serial rapist). Of the more than 100 total programs currently available to stream on Adult Swim's site — some of its in-house shows are broadcast on-air, and some are streaming-only — the vast majority are led by male protagonists or comedians. A number of their scant female protagonists are in syndicated anime series. One source said writers at the network “will admit they don’t know how to write for women.”
In contrast with its inert response to the lack of gender parity, one former employee noted that hiring people of color was an avowed priority at the network. “It was like, ‘How can we get more voices, more people to be a part of this?’” the source said. But that has ultimately meant men of color. Aaron McGruder, the creator of the critically acclaimed series The Boondocks and Black Jesus, is a particular standout creative voice; The Eric Andre Show has its own slot on Fridays. However, there is no equivalent black woman, or any woman of color, creating original series for on-air — an eyebrow-raising issue, considering that the network invested in three seasons of Mike Tyson Mysteries, a cartoon starring the former boxer who also served three years in prison in the 1990s for raping an 18-year-old woman.
Three former employees said that Adult Swim is in a relatively small office with low turnover — which also means limited upward mobility. There is a familial aspect to work relationships that could turn toxic, they said. “You feel special when you work there,” said one source. “It’s a cool place, and you don’t want to upset the balance and possibly lose your job and lose the respect of people, so you just keep quiet and do your job.” Others noted that there are few other options for TV industry employment in Atlanta, where much of the Turner network is based.
The workplace prompted a strange realization from one source: “I had to think of myself not just as a person: All of a sudden, I’m a woman.”
UPDATE: On Oct. 4, this article was updated to include a Reddit response from a user identifying himself as Lazzo. Additionally, the description of Katie Golden’s duties has been clarified.
This article has been updated to reflect that Adult Swim's FLCL reboot has a female main character.