Inside, there are no ceiling tiles–the writers ripped them out by hand as soon as they moved in. The production staff works in a broad, rectangular basement-like space with open-doored offices lining the mural-covered walls, ping-pong and foosball tables in the hallway, and life-sized robots (presumably not real, although I’m not quite sure) guarding the back entrance. The place resembles nothing so much as a real-life Wonka World for people who like cartoons instead of candy (but if you do like candy, don’t worry, there’s a gigantic bowl full of it on the table). Moving through this scene–sauntering from office to office with various drawings in hand, congregating around the big table in the rear for a script read-through–are a mixture of pudgy gawkers and rail-thin middle-aged guys, most of them Southern natives. Several are married with families and wouldn’t be out of place at a college football game or a PTA meeting. And every afternoon (great art doesn’t get made in the mornings), these guys can be found sketching hillbilly squids or French fries with goatees, debating the funniness of various voices, all of it destined for eventual use in a block of subversive cartoons, known collectively as “Adult Swim,” that airs late-nights, 11p.m.-5a.m., on Ted Turner’s Cartoon Network.

Unless you’re one of its growing number of insomniac fans, you may not have heard of Adult Swim. But these shows are among the most innovative, and increasingly popular, new programs on television today. The block includes such off-kilter postmodern cartoons as “Aqua Teen Hunger Force,” a send-up of classic action-hero shows starring a life-sized talking milkshake prone to such bizarrely ill-informed pronouncements as “plaque is a figment of the liberal media and the dental industry to scare you into buying useless appliances and pastes”; “Sealab 2021,” a workplace comedy where nobody can ever leave the underwater office; “Harvey Birdman: Attorney at Law,” a “Perry Mason”-like spoof in which a winged superhero with a law degree defends famous cartoon figures accused of various crimes; and “Home Movies,” a show about a single mom, her movie-making son, and his alcoholic soccer coach, all united in their mutually amiable incompetence.

The Adult Swim fare now consistently rates as the top block in its time slot on cable among the coveted young adult demographic. In the last year alone, the ratings for the entire three-hour block jumped by over 60 percent, from around 180,000 viewers to 431,000 viewers (as of April); a few shows in the block, like “Family Guy” (about a dysfunctional Rhode Island family), regularly draw more than a million viewers. Most of those viewers are young men. In fact, for males age 18-24, Adult Swim now demolishes the ratings of broadcast standbys like Leno and Letterman–beating Leno by 36 percent and Letterman by a whopping 87 percent.

The Adult Swim entourage is only the latest in a series of consistently witty and original cartoons that have emerged on television in recent years–from “The Simpsons” to “South Park” to “King of the Hill.” And this is on top of the plethora of fine feature-length animated films that have graced movie theaters such as Monsters Inc., and the Shrek series. Indeed, if novels, pop music, and live action movies have been going through a bit of a fallow period, we are arguably living in a golden age of cartoons, one that rivals in creativity and appeal to the era of “Looney Tunes” and “Betty Boop” over half a century ago.

The emergence of such high-quality commercial animation begs an intriguing question about the entertainment industry as a whole. How is it that the same economy that gives us bland fodder like Vin Diesel, Evanescence, and “According To Jim” can sometimes suddenly produce the sort of wonderful, bizarre material that we see on Adult Swim? It’s because the good stuff tends to come when nobody’s looking–created by those on the fringes of the studio system, occupying marginal creative real estate with minimal supervision. In the natural world, punctuated evolution occurs when small groups find themselves geographically isolated and free from natural predators, allowing creatures with rare mutations to thrive and develop into entirely new species. So it is in entertainment: The best material has often come from the back alleys of the studio system. Though only 200 yards across the street from the Turner Entertainment corporate complex, the Adult Swim’s Williams Street warehouse is miles away in terms of sensibilities–and it has given rise to an entirely new species of cartoons.

The most innovative shows and animation techniques have usually sprouted in the shadows of the large studios. In the 1930s, 1940s, and 1950s, legendary cartoonists Tex Avery and Chuck Jones, working in the Warner Brothers back lot, developed the popular wacky cartoon shorts that were shown in movie theaters before feature films. Bugs Bunny’s taunting of Elmer Fudd and Wile E. Coyote’s hapless attempts to catch the Road Runner remain iconic today because these films were legitimately funny, featuring pratfalls for the kids, innuendo for the adults, and the sort of quick, mischievous wit that transcended generational boundaries. Though the animation team was on the Warner Brothers’ payroll, the cartoon studio was only minimally supervised by the studio brass. Apart from occasional revealing edicts such as “No gags about Ike,” management allowed the animators the latitude to make cartoons on their own terms, with little outside interference–probably more as a result of indifference than of insight into the creative process. In his autobiography, Chuck Jones recalls a meeting with studio head Harry Warner during which Warner bellicosely stated that the only thing he knew about his animation division was that it made Mickey Mouse cartoons–which, in fact, were made by Disney.

Beginning in the 1960s, as television expanded, network brass began searching for new cartoons to fill airtime, especially on Saturday mornings, when kids home from school dominated the viewing audience. But they wanted it done cheaply. In stepped the Hanna-Barbera studios, with a technique called planned animation, wherein only moving body parts were animated instead of the entire figure, rendering the rest of the body inexpensive background art. Hanna-Barbera’s cartoons ranged from popular and forgettable Saturday morning shows like “Huckleberry Hound” and “Quick-DrawMcGraw” in the 1960s to “Penelope Pitstop” and “Hong Kong Phooey” in the 1970s. But some were somewhat laudable, such as “The Flintstones”–the first primetime animated sitcom, essentially an affectionate spoof of “The Honeymooners.” Other minor studios like Jay Ward Productions developed shows such as “The Adventures of Rocky and Bullwinkle,” whose sneakily witty dialogue and over-the-top social send-ups presaged the smarts of later shows designed to appeal to mature audiences.

The 1970s and early 1980s saw a downturn in cartoon quality, as the airwaves became cluttered with shows about innumerable latently homosexual superhero teams, or crass marketing tie-ins like Mattel/Filmation’s “He-Man and the Masters of the Universe” or Marvel’s “G.I. Joe”–shows not only specifically designed to appeal to children, but also to sell them low-quality action figures and accessories.

The mundane corporate animation cartel was first breached by the rise of a new television network–FOX. With 24 hours of airtime to fill, Rupert Murdoch’s new network suddenly needed programming, and creative entrepreneurs seized the moment. “The Simpsons” began as a short feature in the comedy-variety program “The Tracey Ullman Show.” In 1989, after these animated shorts had became more popular than the rest of the “The Tracey Ullman Show,” FOX gave “The Simpsons” its own time slot, allowing considerable latitude to develop the show’s unique voice. Once “The Simpsons” proved itself resoundingly and enduringly popular, a flood of new animated shows came crashing through these newly-opened gates in the early 1990s. Unsurprisingly, most of the shows that came from the networks were putrescent abortions like “Fish Police” or “Capitol Critters,” as the usual network hacks, sensing a trend while failing to understand it, tried to graft typical sitcom structures on this “new” medium. But for every network failure, there was a less-heralded cable show like “Daria,” the angsty adventures of a too-smart girl at odds with the world, or the oft-misunderstood “Beavis and Butthead,” a wicked satire of the stupidity of modern culture which many viewers mistakenly took to be just another stupid cartoon. Both “Daria” and “Beavis and Butthead” aired, unsurprisingly, on MTV, a cable network which in the mid-’90s was just beginning to poke into original, non-music-video programming.

The ultimate island of unfettered experimentation came into being in 1992 when Ted Turner launched the Cartoon Network, a 24-hour cable network filled with nothing but animated programs. In setting up the network, Turner had acquired the entire backlog of Hanna-Barbera cartoons from the 1960s. Network executives hoped these old cartoons would appeal not only to kids, but also to their nostalgic baby- boomer parents who had grown up watching “Yogi Bear” and “Scooby Doo.” To fill his airwaves 24-7, Turner also needed to produce his own programming. But with the new network not yet bringing in substantial ad revenues, the programs had to be extremely cheap to produce.

One of Turner’s executives at the Cartoon Network, Mike Lazzo, came up with a solution. Lazzo took the old animation cells from one of the forgotten cartoons of the 1960s era (a futuristic action hero program called “Space Ghost”) digitially extracted the drawn characters, grafted them on to a newly drawn background, and added satirical original dialogue to create “Space Ghost Coast to Coast.” A campy parody of late-night talk shows, the new cartoon features the vain and stupid Space Ghost character as host, sitting behind a desk clad in white tights, a black mask, and a cape, and Zorak, a rage-filled preying mantis, as his reluctant Doc Severinsen. Space Ghost interviews confused live-action celebrities, mostly either belittling the celebrities’ lack of superpowers or bragging about his own.

Interviewing “Star Trek’”s William Shatner (whom he calls “Bill Shatman”), Space Ghost proclaims that “outer space shows are for children and stupid people” before abruptly leaving the set to do battle with an air-conditioning repairman. The late-night program was the network’s first original production aimed specifically at adults, who liked its satirical, non-sequitur sensibility. The network liked “SGC2C” because it was cheap to produce. And budget constraints meant that the writing had to be extra sharp in order to win viewers over. In its first years on the air, the show developed a cult following among college students and others, even inspiring one of the first TV show-centric Web sites.

After Time-Warner’s 1996 merger with the Cartoon Network’s corporate parent, Turner Broadcasting, the network began to create more original programs. Most of these shows aired in the daytime and evening hours and were geared to appeal to children, though like the old “Looney Tunes,” the best of these new shows–among them “Dexter’s Laboratory” and “Powerpuff Girls”–also appealed to parents with their clever dialogue and ironic wit.

But profitably filling the late-night and early-morning hours, when children and working adults were sleeping, was a challenge for the network. And so in 2001, Cartoon Network general manager Jim Samples turned over the most difficult piece of that real estate–Sundays between 11 p.m. and 2 a.m.–to Lazzo to do with as he wished, so long as it cost almost no money. Lazzo hand-picked a group of writers and animators, mostly from the Cartoon Network and Turner, and moved into the Williams Street warehouse. They began seeking out shows that had been dumped by other less successful networks, like UPN’s “Home Movies.” They then set about creating their own fare, based on the techniques pioneered by “Space Ghost” team. Some, such as “Sealab,” reconfigured old Hanna-Barbera series; others such as “Aqua Teen Hunger Force” were based on new images produced extremely cheaply by using new computer animation software, which made coloring, editing, and rendering fast and affordable, virtually eliminating the barriers between the creative mind and the product. New cartoons could now be produced without a large in-house art staff, or without having to outsource the art to some offshore animation powerhouse like Korea.

Lazzo’s team saves money in other ways. Instead of using high-priced actors, the writers themselves do some of the voices; friends of theirs and non-traditional talents supply others–for example, “Sealab” features the voice of left-wing pundit and Newsday columnist Ellis Henican as the supremely stupid character Stormy. Instead of shelling out for high-tech pieces with baritone voiceovers for their bumpers–the packaging that runs just before a program is going to start–they used simple white-on-black text in informal dialogues with their audience–telling stories about what went on in the office that week, or featuring pithy quotes from the online message boards. When they wanted to promote a specific show, it was done in-house for as cheaply as possible–their promo guy gleefully showed me a typical spot, consisting of white text superimposed over images of jumping flames, bragging that it cost “about $1.99” to make. This sort of pride in spending as little as possible on everything is a common theme at Williams Street. In his disarming Southern drawl, Lazzo explains that at most networks, the enormous costs of producing television shows means that network executives favor safe choices, but, at Adult Swim, “We’ve designed the system to be inexpensive enough to make risky choices.”

“That’s one of the things that Mike does, and one of the things that we’re glad that he does–he don’t give a shit,” says “Sealab 2021” co-creator Matt Thompson. “He’s like: ‘Well, they’ll watch it or they won’t. Then we’ll do something else. If they don’t like it, it only cost us 5 dollars to make the damn thing.’ He just didn’t care, and there’s something really cool about that. Because, the audience, all those people? They don’t care either. And that’s why advertisers have jumped on board and said ‘This is where we can sell our cheese!’ Because what other block of programming on TV can actually bring you the demographic of the ‘I-don’t-give-a-fuck’ kids?”

Aside from budget-conscious production values, the Adult Swim shows are united by a shared postmodern ethos: ironic detachment and meta-commentary on the metaphors and tropes of bad television. “Space Ghost Coast to Coast” mocks late-night television shows where empty celebrities tell bad jokes and ramble vapidly. “Aqua Teen” sends up myriad interchangeable detective shows and action hero programs by having the signature items of our replaceable culture–a fast food value meal–manifest themselves as a crime-fighting unit that doesn’t fight crime at all. “Harvey Birdman” mocks the trial attorney-glorification shows; “Sealab” deconstructs ersatz science and the workplace; even the late, lamented “Brak Show” fractured the Ozzie-and-Harriet style family sitcom with its melange of aliens, robots, and short Brazilian men living together in a parody of nuclear harmony.

Other networks, noticing the success of Adult Swim, have attempted to usurp its popularity by launching mature-themed programs of their own. Comedy Central jumped into the fray with 2003’s “Kid Notorious,” a raunchy animated version of the life and times of film producer Robert Evans. Spike TV, which bills itself as “the Network for Men,” introduced an animation block called “The Strip” in 2003, featuring shows like “Stripperella,” about a crime-fighting exotic dancer, and “Gary the Rat,” about a rodent lawyer. But these shows largely fell prey to the same problems that doomed “The Simpsons” imitators in the early ’90s, mimicking the format while failing to understand the form. While often beautifully animated, these knock-off shows lack the off-kilter sensibilities that make the Adult Swim programs so delightful. If endless in-jokes about Hollywood and incongruous celebrity name dropping don’t make you laugh, then there’s no real appeal to “Kid Notorious.” And “Stripperella” and “Gary the Rat,” while occasionally funny, are so transparent in their attempts to court a specific demographic–those breast-loving, lawyer-hating 18-24-year-old males–that they lose any real appeal they might have. Indeed, “The Strip” was pulled from the air in early 2004, and the only cartoons that are regularly running on Spike TV right now are 2 a.m. airings of classic “Ren and Stimpy” episodes.

So far, then, if the cartoon market is like biological evolution, there’s much to cheer about: Competition is killing off the stupid new series, while more complex and intelligent life forms are thriving and further evolving at a breakneck pace, with no immediate end in sight. Indeed, with the aid of new PC-based computer programs like Flash, teenagers of a new generation are devising their own cartoons and passing them around to their friends via the Internet. No golden age lasts forever, but the good news is that with this one, the best may be yet to come.

Our ideas can save democracy... But we need your help! Donate Now!

Justin Peters is a correspondent for Slate and a contributing editor at the Columbia Journalism Review.