How Dave Hughes’ Adult Swim show became a haven for the world’s weirdest content
We chat to the creator of Off The Air, who has worked in the animation industry for 25 years, about curating for the graveyard slot, viewers thinking they’ve died, and finding the “real nuggets” in today’s algorithmic sea of content.
It’s Wednesday night and you’ve fallen asleep in your clothes, the ambient noise of the TV is lulling you into an obscure state. You wake up and glance at your watch: it’s four in the morning and the packet of crisps you were eating is scattered on your lap. Not again.
Glancing at the TV, you notice a strange scene playing out: the camera revolves around the rings of Jupiter as strange shapes twist against a psychedelic background. Before you know it, the screen glitches to another clip: a bipedal dog wearing a white judogi initiates a sparring match with another dog, which responds by playing pre-recorded messages through the soundboard hanging from its neck. You think to yourself: I must still be dreaming. You’re not.
It’s a scenario that viewers of Adult Swim’s anthology show Off The Air often find themselves in. The show, which was allocated the 4am graveyard slot on the network, has been showcasing some of the most niche and esoteric video content on the web since 2011, all edited together into ten-minute segments by creator Dave Hughes. In the early days, the show gained a mysteriously cult following, seeing as its viewers were either insomniacs who stumbled on the show on another sleepless night or those who woke up after falling asleep while watching the channel.
Each episode revolves around a theme that also serves as the episode’s title, with these themes ranging from Sound and Liquid to Technology and Clowns. The chosen clips are often erratic, sometimes calming and almost always trippy. They play restlessly over one another, with an entirely new clip starting before the current one plays out in its entirety.
To date, Off the Air has featured work by some of It’s Nice That’s favourite animation directors, including Sophie Koko Gate, Dan Britt, Joe Melhuish and Alexandre Louvenaz (to name but a few). Much like us over in the studio, a big part of Dave’s job is scouring for little nuggets of content as he trawls through the deep treasure trove of the internet. Having spent almost 25 years in the industry, starting with a stint at MTV Animation, we caught up with him to find out about the changes he’s seen over the years and what it’s like curating what could be considered a haven for underground internet art.
Jonothon Pillows by Julian Glander for Smalls
Domo by Jack Wedge for Smalls
“I grew up in a small town outside of Philly and I was always into animation. At one point I wanted to be an animator, but I can’t draw to save my life,” Dave tells It’s Nice That. He took a television class in high school – the sort that was made to keep kids out of trouble – and the talk show recreations he did during class woke him up to the idea that a career in media was possible. “I wasn’t from a major LA or New York kind of place where I knew kids whose parents did that kind of work, so I don’t know if I ever thought that was real,” he says.
As the story goes, Dave eventually ended up working for eight years at MTV Animation after moving to New York and spending some time temping on the Citibank trading floor. After picking up a call that was meant for his then-flatmate Nate, an actor who sent his resumé to Beavis and Butthead on a whim, Dave took this chance to finally get his foot in the door of the industry. “I didn’t pretend I was him, but I was like, ‘Nate’s not here, but I am’,” he says. He then worked on some late 90s classics like Beavis and Butthead and Celebrity Deathmatch, the over-the-top gory claymation series that saw the likes of Ozzy Osbourne and Britney Spears duke it out WWE style.
“I ended up on Adult Swim because Matt Harrigan, who I worked with on Celebrity Deathmatch, was doing the final season of Space Ghost,” Dave says about the show that launched Adult Swim as a network. “So for Off The Air, it was always on my mind that a show like Liquid Television or the station IDs like MTV had in its heyday was possible and kinda not around anymore. At the same time, it felt like the internet had so much of that.” At the time, television was rehashing the same old proven formats, while there was a massively vibrant community of people online making whatever their hearts fancied on sites like Newground and Youtube.
David Henry Nobody Jr for Off The Air’s Fashion episode
David Lewandowski for Off The Air’s Newnow episode
Victoria Vincent, whose animation KittyKat96 was included in 2016’s Love episode, gives an animator’s perspective on Off The Air. “It’s one of those things that animators tend to love because it’s a rare place to find a bunch of weird, unique pieces of media you might have to otherwise search for hours on Vimeo to find yourself,” Victoria says. “The show is pretty much synonymous with strange and underground internet art.”
Animator and comedian Felipe Di Poi Tamargo, now a frequent collaborator of Dave’s, shares a similar excitement for the show. “My sister went to Egypt and met an Egyptian guy who said, ‘You have to watch Off The Air’ and put on the episode I was on. She said: ‘That’s my brother!’” he recounts. “It offers a space for stuff that otherwise wouldn’t get on TV.”
This happens to be how Dave sees the role of Off The Air in the greater animation scene today. To him, it provides a place for artists that are mostly invested in their creative ideas as opposed to those who can easily find a place doing commercial work. “Not that they’re better or worse, just that they’re more dedicated to their own concept and they’re going to have a harder time finding another place that would pay them for their work,” he says with a laugh.
Joseph Melhuish for Off The Air’s Trash episode
Dog by Victoria Vincent for Smalls
Dave says that living in Atlanta, where Adult Swim is based, is like a Mecca for a lover of outsider art, something that managed to creep into the show. “Some of that was on the network already. Shows like 12 Oz Mouse and even Squidbillies have this outsider feeling even in their artwork,” he says. Much like Peter Steineck’s Hellavision Television that serves as Minnesota’s outlet for DIY animation or Boston Hassle’s 24-hour telethons that bring together Boston’s weirdest for a non-stop day of broadcast, Off the Air does this without being tied down to a single location.
Dave appreciated the relative obscurity of the show’s early days. “I really enjoyed the earlier run of the show, when people would catch it accidentally on television late at night and then tweet about it, or go on Reddit trying to figure out what was happening and why,” Dave says. “Some people seemed to wonder if they were dead, which is a pretty satisfying reaction and a good thing for everyone to think about sometimes.”
As the format of the show has largely been unchanged, there is a consistent flow in how the show is made. Whenever Dave finds a clip that could fit into one of the single-word themes, he puts it in a folder until one of these buckets gets full enough to become a real show. “I would never have an agenda with the theme,” Dave says. “I kind of believe in serendipity in that way: you’ll find the right piece and you’ll find the right theme. Let them bubble up and come to you.”
Before the show became what it is today, he had the idea of editing together various Adult Swim shows to showcase what the Adult Swim family was all about. He quickly found out that he had to pay a license badge to use them, so he turned to paying artists he found instead. Today, Dave commissions artists more frequently. He cites a few reasons for this: the sea of content available on the web now, the increased budget of the show, and the increasing personalisation of content on media platforms. However, it seems like it still stems from his desire for bringing the “real nuggets” to his viewers.
“I miss that sort of pre-algorithm moment, when it felt like anything could pop up in front of you. I don’t feel that anymore, it feels too tailored to my past,” Dave says. Combined with the sheer amount of content out there on the internet today, he started feeling less and less like he’s presenting fresh content to his viewers. Before you start typing “ok boomer”, it’s important to note that Off The Air has always been internet-first. Bringing online content onto network television was a win-win situation for both parties: the network gets a new wave of pure expressions of creativity and the online creators get a moment in the spotlight that means more than just another view on their Youtube channel.
“People still get excited when their stuff shows up on Adult Swim,” Dave says, “but I always thought of it as catered more towards the internet and I thought that’s where it would find its people.” That’s also how most of the pieces were commissioned. Dave reached out to Felipe to pitch after seeing his work on Vimeo. Animator Qieer Wang, the brains behind the hilarious Mr. Blessing Man from the Fashion episode, started with a Facebook message. “I never expected Cheesepapa [Dave’s screen name] was actually watching behind the page, so I started to chat with Dave from there and a few months later, we started to work together on the show,” Qieer recalls.
Cool 3D World for Off The Air’s Sound episode
Jamir at Home by Alexandre Louvenaz for Smalls
Over the 25 years that Dave’s been in the industry, the independent animation world has shifted from the network-centric model of the 90s to the free content model of the 2000s to the direct patronage today. Even the gender disparity in animation has recently come into question, with calls to create an environment where animation production becomes a valid career path for anyone.
“It’s almost a bizarre notion for people to ‘tune in’ to something today,” Dave says of the shift from networks to online content. “I think there’s more being made, which is pretty great and there’s room for super niche shows to find their audience and do it in their own way. We’re not going to have these massive hits anymore, but we’re going to get something that scratches that part of your brain specifically, which I think is kind of great,” he continues.
This perspective is echoed by the animators themselves. “I think more people are able to get into animation because software, equipment and tutorials are more accessible. And in the age of the internet, there’s a small and growing community of animated short filmmakers and their fans as well,” Victoria says. “Thankfully, there has been a shift in the culture towards customers wanting to financially support creators instead of expecting entertainment for free,” she continues, citing Patreon as a key element in giving animators a new avenue to support themselves and continue creating their weird and niche content.
As a complement to the more experimental Off The Air, Dave also started Adult Swim’s Smalls series in 2018, which features works by Off The Air alums like Felipe, Victoria, Dan Britt and Daniela Sherer – you can view the entirety of Smalls Volume One here, and the newly uploaded Volume Two here. When Matt Harrigan launched adultswim.com, a service streaming hour-long shows online, they were looking for clips to show between the programmes, as the site initially showed no ads.
“For Smalls, we’re looking for more traditional shorts, a little more character and a little more comedy, as Off The Air can still be a little abstract,” Dave says. Compared to Liquid Television, which tried to be a launchpad for bigger animation series, Dave never wanted Off The Air to be under that kind of career-defining pressure, and the largely unedited Smalls can perform that sort of role instead. “It’s a good place to try out ideas or try out an artist who could work out for the network in other ways,” he says.
“If you let artists make something they actually care about and feel passionately towards, and let their sensibility as an individual shine through, of course the end product is going to be a better result,” Victoria says, referring to the process of creating Mask Dog, her contribution for Smalls. In today’s torrent of content, it’s inspiring to see shows like Off The Air and Smalls put out some of the world’s most original and off-kilter content. And a big part of that is Dave’s undeterred passion for the weird and the new, something that we hope never fades. It seems like every decision stems from this passion, even as the show gets weirder and weirder. As Dave says: “Life doesn’t just serve up warm and fuzzy things, so why should this show?”