I can only imagine the stunned silence of the college kid who wakes up on his couch in the middle of the night, with the TV left on since 11 p.m., to see the face of an anxious-looking astronaut, looking around as a voice counts in a whisper. The word “seven” echoes as the image fades and the wail of a synthesizer kicks in. Silhouettes of long-haired cats float through the air. Moments later, a toy robot rockets upward on a weather balloon to the farthest edge of Earth’s atmosphere, soundtracked by a crescendo of guitar and drums. A few moments after that, we see Carl Sagan in a remixed version of his science show, Cosmos.
“If you wish to bake an apple pie from scratch,” Sagan warbles in a melodic auto-tuned voice, “you must first invent the universe.”
It must feel like a fever dream to that kid on the couch today — as it did to me, nearly a decade ago, when Off the Air first broadcast to my college apartment. The program consists of 38 episodes, with all but two specials limited to about 10 minutes. Critically, those 10 minutes are stuffed with light, sound and furious energy, melding animation with viral videos, historical footage, music and surrealist dialogue. The use of a loose “theme” for every episode gives just enough for you to ponder why and how these clips were put together. The clips themselves, meanwhile, make you wonder why you didn’t find this shit on the internet sooner.
Off the Air originally aired on Adult Swim’s 4 a.m. Eastern time block, considered the “graveyard slot” in broadcasting. In that sense, the program has long served as a bit of a gag: Imagine waking up to this show, still a little stoned, with no context. Hah! But from moments of chaos and seeming randomness come startling, psychedelic beauty — the kind of beauty that lately snaps me out of the malaise of quarantine and a world of uncertainty. This is existentialism via experimental art. Or maybe shitposting through a humanist lens.
The themes for all this experimentation range from the expected (“Space,” “Colors”) to outlandish (“Hair,” “Nightmares”), and it’s up to showrunner Dave Hughes to find and edit wildly disparate creations into an episode that’s just coherent enough but mostly unhinged. Hughes started his career with MTV Animation, working as an editor on iconic shows like Beavis and Butt-Head and Celebrity Deathmatch. But it was only in 2010, while compiling a video mixtape to project for audiences at Adult Swim’s Carnival Tour event, that Hughes realized his one-time assignment could grow into a show.
“I sort of felt like the network was slipping away from its more experimental roots. I had started working for them on Space Ghost, and was so psyched to find a place that wanted to make that kind of programming. Then there was Aqua Teen, Perfect Hair Forever, 12 Ounce Mouse, Squidbillies, Tom Goes to the Mayor, etc. and it just felt like a really amazing and experimental place to be,” Hughes said in a 2012 Q&A with culture blog Kittysneezes. “But then, of course, the network became popular, and ratings started to drive it a little bit more.”
Hughes seems to be an endlessly curious guy — he’s the kind of guy who buys a braille edition of Playboy on eBay for kicks — and both his intellect and his love of 1980s and 1990s experimental programming (namely Liquid Television) shine in Off the Air. He’s got an eye for captivating imagery and music, but also an uncanny ability to pace the weirdness and contrasting moods across 10 minutes. Euphoria fades to the grotesque and back in unpredictable ways; sometimes the show feels meditative, other times it feels like a mosh pit. But when the credits roll, I’m always left with a sense of awe and some kind of peace.
Is it a perfect program to watch if you’re stoned or drifting on a bit of psychedelics? Of course. But is it beautiful and bizarre and fulfilling even if you’re stone-sober? Absolutely.
It’s tragic that, for now, there are no more episodes being made (the most recent, “Patterns,” dropped in December). But Hughes and his show deserve celebrating, especially during a time when it can be hard to feel delight and discovery in our lives. Few networks have even dared to spend time, let alone any money, on truly groundbreaking programming. I’m running out of things to care about on Netflix, but Off the Air is here, ready to weird me the hell out even on rewatches.
Odds are, some eye-candy surrealism is exactly what you need to feel alive again, too.