Today we're going to talk about a single animated short which debuted in July of 2000.
The "Re-Animated" series has, for the most part, been a chronological account of the advent of adult animation. But when you have shows like "The Simpsons" that have been on for 27 years or "South Park" that have been on for 20, naturally the timeline becomes a bit elastic and so I've covered things that "haven't happened yet" chronologically.
One of the worst cases of this is my constant references to adult swim, a network which did not exist yet in July of 2000. But perhaps it's apropos, too, that I keep hinting at something so huge coming around the bend.
Don Hertzfeldts's "Rejected" is so short and yet so seminal to our story, that I feel like it couldn't hurt for you to just watch the entire thing right now.
Hertzfeldt was (and still is, apparently) a man of conscience. By this time in his life he had found some moderate success with making short cartoons, particularly "Billy's Balloon," and had been approached to do commercial work, a logical next step in a burgeoning cartoonist's career. But Hertzfeldt despised commercialism and instead essentially torpedoed his chance for wealth and fame in order to continue pursuing the sort of art he wanted to do.
His response to the offer was "Rejected," a master class in surrealism as well as a scathing indictment of both Madison Avenue's greed and "educational" television's hypocrisy. Chronicling an imaginary Hertzfeldt's descent into madness (and the suffering of his characters as a result) as he pursues a career making advertisements, "Rejected" was both a mission statement and a masterwork. After being nominated for an Oscar and winning 27 awards worldwide, you can again imagine the crossroads that a young Don Hertzfeldt must have stood at yet again, only to reject commercial work and continue to make his own iconoclastic creations yet again.
If I'm being too hagiographic, I hope you can forgive me. Obviously, Hertzfeldt's story is rare in a world where becoming popular enough to sell out is a goal for most artists, myself included. To actually wrap your fingers around the brass ring and then say, "Eh, nah, fuck it" is a compelling path, one I can't even imagine myself taking. It would be like if the Big 5 called me today and said, "Here's a million dollar advance, you just have to write horse ranch romances" and I said, "Nah, fuck it, I want to keep writing about zombies and losing money." Admirable in theory, but you know the real me would already be researching ponies.
Anyway, that felt like a long digression. Here's what's really important about "Rejected." Or, you know, maybe not, because it does stand on its own. Nevertheless, as a nine minute abstract cartoon it is a prototype and ur-example of what adult swim would start doing just one year later. Most adult swim creators cite "Rejected" as the inspiration and proof-of-concept for their own work. The influence of Hertzfeldt's abstraction and the bizarre humor is obvious. But let's also talk about the length.
Today it's taken as a given that if your TV show takes an hour and eleven minutes, it takes an hour and eleven minutes. Almost every drama on cable, and some comedies and even a bunch of network shows now, get some wiggle room. But in 2000 television slots were exceptionally rigid, and there were really only two kinds of shows: half hour comedies, and hours-long dramas. The only exception in the television landscape was "Saturday Night Live," which was an hour and a half. But SNL was an institution and no one was watching anything else on a Saturday night, so it wasn't like a fat, glaring example of an exception. And who watches a full episode of SNL anyway? You just tune in and out, so having it run a bit longer didn't really matter.
Most cartoons that had been created for television were constructed to be a half hour long. Cartoons, though, had a long history of being five to ten minute shorts which played before feature presentations in movie theaters. A few cartoon shows in the '80s and '90s used the format of those old Warner Brothers and Disney cartoons. "Tiny Toons," "Animaniacs," "Taz-Mania," "Pinky and the Brain" and the like would play three to six cartoons in their half hour block, often with either a framing story, a through line, or the characters from one cartoon cameoing on another to give the whole show a greater sense of cohesion. You might have been watching six individuated cartoons, but you felt like you were watching a single half hour program.
adult swim's great innovation was splitting the half hour. I have no doubt they understood from the start that their audience for late night cartoons would be either stoned or drunk, and therefore would have difficulty following a complex storyline. Knowing that, making a show eleven minutes long meant that you were only taxing your audience to watch the equivalent of a Bugs Bunny cartoon - long considered perfect fare for stoners. And doubling down on the concept, through the use of surrealism and abstract humor, it almost didn't matter if you were paying attention at all. It wasn't about following a complicated story, it was about random silliness.
Watching a cottonball person bleed from his (her?) anus until it fills the room is the sort of thing that you can laugh at whether you've been following along with the story or not. And so Hertzfeldt, somewhat unwittingly, had pioneered a new art form: the half half hour stoner cartoon. Once "Rejected" existed, the idea of putting something like this on later at night when college students would watch was a logical next step.
So "Rejected," while it stands on its own, would also usher in a new era in adult animation. Which we're going to visit more in-depth in the next few installments.