You may not know the name ADHD, but the odds are very, very good you’ve seen one of their shorts. What might seem like just an off-shoot of Fox’s animation department has given birth to some truly odd comedy online — like the Scientifically Accurate shorts series — and on television — like the Nick Offerman-voiced “Axe Cop.”
ADHD now has its own block of programming Thursday nights on FXX, featuring new series like “The Lucas Bros. Moving Company” and “Stone Quackers,” but it all comes from a spirit of experimentation built from scratch by Nick Weidenfeld, who came from Adult Swim to create the brand. Below, he explains ADHD’s origins, why the concept of “platform agnostic” content is poppycock and the secret to creating a place where creative people can truly experiment.
Let’s start at the beginning. You came over from Adult Swim specifically to found ADHD, correct?
Were you headhunted? Or did you come to Fox?
I was at Adult Swim, and mutual friends and people that I respected and liked said that I should meet Kevin Reilly because he’s an amazing guy, and he had questions, very general questions, about the animation process and developing alternative kinds of animation, both the content and the sort of production pipeline of it. So I met Kevin and he wanted to know what my experience was with Adult Swim, and doing it differently and finding different kinds of talent and animating things in different ways, and I answered basic questions for him… and I think that after a while, he was like, well, “Maybe there’s a way in which you could do that for Fox, because we have this huge platform on Fox for animation. Is there a way to leverage that audience and those big shows and create another night of content and animated shows? And how would we do that? How do you do it affordably? What kind of talent do you work with? Can you do it scrappier?” All that stuff. That’s when we started talking and he said, would you come over and do that for us?
I love Adult Swim. My brother runs a show for Adult Swim, my wife is an executive at Adult Swim, I love Adult Swim. So there was a moment where, in talking to [Kevin Reilly], I didn’t know if I should come over and do that, because we were having a good time [at Adult Swim]. But [Kevin asked] if I would be interested in building out an animation studio and figuring out a way to do it even more seamlessly than we’ve been doing it and take the best practices of what we’ve been doing and try to figure out the things that don’t work?
That’s where we came up with this idea of a studio, where we can do everything in house, nothing has to leave, we can bring in creators to do multiple shows, creators can talk and discuss together, nothing will have to leave. We can keep punching up as we move along, come up with ideas as a think tank. That, to me, creates the best kind of show and the best ideas.
So that’s how that started. It was very organic. It was just a dude asking me some questions to help him, and then it turned into this.
It’s interesting to understand how you came to it, because so much of what ADHD does has the feel that you guys are experimenting and trying things.
And it should. I think that’s the way that the best things work, and that’s who, ultimately, we are [and] on the FX networks as well. We built this space, we brought in talent, we brought in artists, we’re making this thing work. It’s also the reason we did digital stuff because we needed to be able to experiment and also use it as an incubator for talent. I wanted to make things very quickly and experiment with different styles and different techniques for animating. That experimentation is what leads to creating a better system, and better stuff.
When you were in the once a week, what metrics did you use for success? Was it purely view counts and social sharing? Or were you looking at other numbers and the actual content as well?
We needed to be making stuff, so we looked at numbers, for sure. We looked at view counts. We actually brought in someone, this woman Samantha Scharf, who was head of development at Maker, and a woman I’ve known for a long time — she was Robert Smigel’s producer, she really understands the creative side of stuff — and she looked at what we were doing and said wow, you actually grew this very big YouTube page very organically, which never happens, but you guys have no idea what you’re doing in terms of really maximizing your success.
All I’d heard was that the most basic thing you needed to do digitally and on YouTube was you needed to have some kind of regularity: One thing a week, at one time. So we knew we had to do that. We started by doing stuff that’s more topical, and we realized there’s nothing really evergreen about that, so we started pulling back a little bit form the topicality of it, like doing stuff around the debates or whatever.
I was really just looking at view counts, but we had someone in here who was working I think with Fullscreen, and told us, wow, you guys actually have particularly long retention rates, and that was important. Now we look a lot at that.
None of us knew very specifically what to look for, other than was this good week to week, but I think that’s kind of a special thing to happen. We had no promotion. Fox wasn’t able to promote us on the air because of a lot of TV-MA elements. [Our success was] truly word-of-mouth, growing virally, into a real YouTube channel with real digital content that people really want every week.
So do you see ADHD primarily as a YouTube channel with television distribution? Or is it more than that?
I think the way we look at it is that it’s a studio that is producing content. And is producing animated content with a certain sensibility. For every platform. And it’s specific to every platform. I’m sure you’ve heard the term Platform Agnostic a lot, but my thought is that it doesn’t actually exist. There is no one thing that just plays in its one form across every kind of platform. You interact with each device in its own way. Like, “Gravity” wasn’t created to be watched on an iPhone. Maybe you would, but that’s not why it’s created. You interact with your phone in a very specific way, not how you interact with your computer or your TV, so we’re a studio that can supply content for every specific medium.
For example, the shorts play really well. You can watch them on any device, but they play really well at one and a half minutes to two minutes, you’re in and you’re out. But another reason we created these, to me they were perfect for mobile. It’s the perfect way to do something topical, animated things. Within the hour, they could respond to the news, and you could look at them and share them while you’re standing in line. Or waiting on the subway or on the bus. And that was specifically created for that mobile experience.
The TV shows you can watch anywhere, but [typically] you sit down in front of your TV and you watch TV. So the longer-form stuff is really made for that. I don’t look at it primarily as YouTube. YouTube is just the best platform for watching those shows, it’s the most successful platform at this moment for watching those shows. I wanted to create content for whatever platform or device existed. So I don’t think I think of it one way or the other, I think we just are a studio that makes animated content.
When I think about Adult Swim, there’s definitely the Adult Swim vibe to things, but a show created by Paul Scheer feels very different from a show created by Tim and Eric. Is that sort of diversity of voice something that you are interested in?
Yeah. Definitely. You should be feeling a lot of diversity of voice. My job is to work with creative and talented people and get them to make the best version of their show and bring out the best of their ideas. And so what the Lucas Brothers show does is very different from a show created by Dino Stamatopoulos. And I’m there to be a shepherd through the process and a sounding board and bring that out. It is very important to me, the same way I think diversity in looks is important, that none of these shows necessarily look alike. More than any other place that I’ve worked, that’s the paramount concern: that you find the voice and you tailor the show around that voice. And I want it all to feel like it comes from one home, because I sort of feel like we’re curating a lot of the talent and bringing people in. But they definitely should feel very different because they are. And definitely talent-driven.
What’s key to you in finding that balance? Finding a way for someone to have a voice within the brand?
At the end of the day it is curation. We curate the shows, and so it’s something that we respond to. I think that I have very diverse taste and the people I bring in have very diverse taste. But even, on the scale of things, there’s things that we respond to that gives it that feeling that it comes form one place. It’s like picking different artists to work on a group show. They could all be very different, but you know that they’re coming from one person.
At Adult Swim, as inside the process as I think that I was, it was definitely created by Mike Lazzo, and I tried to help him grow his vision, and test it, but it is definitely through his perspective and his idea of what is funny and what works. And you can tell he is a child of Dada-ism and surrealism, and that’s why those Adult Swim shows tend to go really crazy and really surreal. I respond to that too, but that’s really his vision. And I think here [at ADHD], my taste might be really crazy and really fucked up, but there’s more of a narrative line that you follow, just because that’s more my taste.
But I think that that’s how you get diversity, right? You have people working with you, but it is ultimately curated by one voice, and that’s why I think Adult Swim is so successful: It wasn’t a network that was there to please all. It was one guy saying, this is what excites me, and as it grows, and you hire people — and I got hired there — your tastes grow, but I always knew I was trying to make shows that pleased this guy. And I would test him and I would say, you need to push your ideas further, and hopefully people do that to me here. That’s why I think it comes from one place, it is curatorial, that’s what I think I learned from Adult Swim, and I think from almost anybody, it’s what Steve Jobs did for Apple, it’s curatorial.
If someone came to you with an idea for a video that you knew would be a million dollar performer online — an instant viral hit — but it didn’t fit with the ADHD voice, what would be your response?
Hmm. I think if I really responded to something, but I felt like it was slightly out of the voice, or even a hundred percent out of the voice, I don’t know. I don’t think that I would do it. Definitely on the YouTube side I feel like we’ve curated and brought in a very specific kind of audience; they have a certain expectation, much more than even our on-air stuff. It’s a little more acerbic, it’s a little more cynical, it’s definitely got a sort of Reddit vibe, it pushes everything a little further.
I feel like if we were to put something like that up on YouTube, our audience online would feel like we were compromising what they like. Even if it was big, I don’t want to upset this growing audience that we have. It’s a big hypothetical. It really would depend how far off base that it was, but if it felt like, oh, this could expand what we think is interesting and get a new audience, while not pissing off everybody that we’ve been really loyal to, then of course we’d do it.
The thing about YouTube is, it is all about experimentation. The digital side is a new frontier and you’ve gotta make mistakes so I would definitely say we would try something. I think if my gut said it was totally really for somebody else, then I don’t know… But I think what’s nice about the digital space is that it affords you the time to fuck up and make mistakes, because everyone’s doing it. We’re all learning as we go and we’ll see what works.