I stared at my TV screen as a man with blue-white bird wings walked his way around a courtroom, issuing a defense for Shaggy and Scooby-Doo. What had they been caught doing? What my older friends and cousins always joked about doing: getting high in the back of the Mystery Mobile. It was bizarre and dry in a way that my 10-year-old mind didn't grasp all the way, an old favorite my parents would big up on Boomerang played like a surreal courtroom drama. It was also one of my first gateways into the world of Adult Swim. 

Harvey Birdman: Attorney At Law wasn't exactly an accommodating show, but neither was the Adult Swim aesthetic, especially not at the time. The concept of Adult Swim's first wave of four shows in the early 2000s sounded simple on paper: take an old cartoon and recontextualize it with touches of surreal adult-oriented humor and everyday malaise. Sealab 2021 turned the original Sealab 2020's Challenger Sea Mount into a kid's sandcastle with no logical rhyme or reason between episodes. Aqua Teen Hunger Force took this concept to an even further extreme by flipping the idea of the traditional three hero team - and pretty much all of reality itself - on its head.

Harvey Birdman and its cousin series Space Ghost Coast To Coast both worked to address the Hannah-Barbera superhero show in different ways. Ghost took the form of a late-night talk show where guests from David Byrne and Jim Carrey to Scoolly D and Busta Rhymes would contend with Space Ghost and former nemeses Zorak and Brak (who also got his own spin-off show). But fellow Z-list hero Birdman brought more than just this dry approach to the courtroom. 

Attorney At Law was the first Adult Swim show to focus the juxtaposition on an entire animation canon instead of just one particular character. The show may have centered around a now-retired Birdman and his legal team working for the Sebben & Sebben offices, but who were their clients? Classic Hannah-Barbera characters. Old clips from Hannah-Barbera shows past are cut into a new context. Fred Flintstone is a Sopranos-style mob boss working in the shadows of his Bedrock house. Yogi Bear is caught up in a conspiracy involving Boo-Boo as the UnaBomber. Magilla Gorilla is kidnapped by animal activists who can't handle his terrible puns. There's a running joke throughout involving the...height of Inch High Private Eye.

The show even runs with this for Harvey's interactions with the characters from his own 1960s show. Phil Ken Sebben (a play on Falcon Seven, the character's original name) is now the most deranged law office boss in the world. Former nemeses like Men-Tok The Mind Taker and Reducto are now a callous judge and a paranoid rival attorney, respectively. X The Eliminator, once a villain out for Birdman's crest, is now an obsessive fanboy who has a landline shaped like his idol/nemesis. Seeing the roles of superheroes recast as banal office workers was always a hoot, especially playing against the Hannah-Barbera characters facing jail time for things we took for granted as kids.     

It was a surreal comedy on par with the Genndy Tartakovsky's "reboot" of The Flintstones from 2001 that skewed as adult as the original animated series did before the home videos and Fruity Pebbles. Catchphrases, inside jokes, and blink-and-you'll-miss-them references were the show's bread and butter, and like the other three shows that it came up with, Attorney At Law casting convention to the wind set a precedent for the shows to come. Look at shows like Robot Chicken that examine the last half a century of pop culture through cynical stop-motion eyes, how The Venture Bros. can make "failure" the overarching theme of what started as a C-rate Johnny Quest spoof, or how a show like Rick and Morty can go from being a cynical riff on Back To The Future to a meditation on mortality in this and many other unforgiving universes with fart jokes. Birdman was the water test, the first steps into what we all now know as the "Adult Swim Aesthetic".  


I squealed when creators Michael Ouweleen and Erik Richter announced that the show will be making a comeback this fall. Stephen Colbert's Phil Ken Sebben becoming president is the next logical step from the comedian's Republican parody on The Colbert Show. These inept and hilarious characters already felt like they belonged in an administration like Trump's almost two decades ago. Just more proof that Harvey Birdman: Attorney At Law might not have been on time but it definitely wasn't late.