NEW YORK - It's not exactly the highest-rated show on Cartoon Network's "Adult Swim" block. It airs at such a wee hour, even its creators admit they don't stay up to watch it. And its visual style is so unusual that purists say it doesn't even qualify as animation.
But "Tom Goes to the Mayor," one of the most inventive shows on a channel that prides itself on unique late-night programming, returns for a second season late Sunday night (actually 12:30 a.m. EDT Monday) with yet another eclectic array of guest stars, including Sean Hayes, Bob Balaban, Janeane Garofalo and Sir Mix-a-Lot.
"Tom" is one of the most polarizing programs in a lineup that includes "The Family Guy," "Aqua Teen Hunger Force" and "The Boondocks." Viewers either love it or hate it, and animation fans, who can be rabid about what they watch, light up the "Adult Swim" message boards with topics like: "My Hatred for Tom" and "Don't Put Tom Goes to the Mayor Back On!!"
Part of what makes the show so divisive, say co-creators and stars Tim Heidecker and Eric Wareheim, is the look of it: a mixture of photographed images and live action that's intentionally static and crude, like an airplane evacuation manual or a PowerPoint presentation. It doesn't have the kind of "lip-flap" you'd see in more traditional cartoons. Then there is the absurd, deadpan humor and a twisted streak that critics perceive as cruel or even vaguely gay.
At the same time, fans who e-mail them range from "young kids who are fascinated by it because it's so weird to college students who understand it to older people who like comedy in their 30s," Wareheim said. "There's been a huge, wide spectrum of people who've really latched on to it."
"Adult Swim" executive Mike Lazzo believes such debate "is a good thing."
"I just remember early on when we put out 'Aqua Teen,' people hated it: this is stupid, this character is mean. That changed in a season," Lazzo said. "We hope the same thing happens with 'Tom' as people get more used to that style, that humor, that look."
The series takes place in fictional Jefferton, a wasteland of buffet restaurants and power lines. Each 15-minute episode finds new resident and hopeless screw-up Tom Peters visiting the mayor's office - located in a nondescript, double-decker strip mall - with some ridiculous entrepreneurial idea. Invariably, things go horribly awry, whether Tom is promoting a calculator shaped like a unicorn (which always spits out the wrong number) or investing in a pyramid scheme involving porcelain birds.
"High expectations met with complete disasters" is how Heidecker, who provides the voice of Tom, describes it.
"I think at the core, these two guys want to help each other, they try to do things together, and at the end the mayor turns on Tom," Wareheim, who plays the scatterbrained, selfish mayor, added in a joint interview with The Associated Press. "But at the core I think there's a friendship between them."
The friendship between Heidecker and Wareheim, both 30, began at Temple University, where they lived four doors down from each other on the same freshman-dorm floor and quickly realized they shared a similar sense of humor. They began making short films together, a DVD of which they sent to several of their comedy idols, including Bob Odenkirk of "Mr. Show with Bob and David" and "The Larry Sanders Show." One of those clips was an early version of "Tom Goes to the Mayor."
"I get stuff. Usually I throw it out. Usually on the face of it, it's lame and I don't even watch it. But theirs, I popped in for some reason," Odenkirk told the AP. "They were clearly on a wavelength - even though it's absurd, it was funny. Some people hide behind absurdity because they aren't funny, so they're just being wacky. These guys are funny and wacky."
Odenkirk, who serves as executive producer and often appears in supporting roles, describes "Tom" as "the funniest thing I've done since 'Mr. Show,'" which he created with David Cross.
"There are great jokes there that might test some younger kids' patience. I think it's for a slightly older crowd," he said. "Yeah, the animation style probably is challenging to some kids. I don't even like animation that much. What I like that it does, is that it makes you listen."
And Odenkirk's involvement has helped draw a wide variety of comic talent for guest spots. Last season included Cross, Sarah Silverman, Fred Willard, and Jack Black and Kyle Gass of Tenacious D. The first episode of season two features Sir Mix-a-Lot performing a rap song called "My Big Cups," similar to his hit "Baby Got Back," to help Tom sell his new line of 1.8-liter cups.
"Honestly, the reason I decided to do it - it wasn't financial, that's for damn sure. Really, everyone I talked to was pretty cool," Mix told the AP by phone from Seattle. "Sometimes, when you get involved with certain cartoons, it can get kind of cheesy, but this was the coolest thing since sliced bread."
But "Tom" hasn't been heating up ratings-wise, despite all that creativity and talent. In the first season, airing at 1 a.m., it averaged about 266,000 viewers ages 18-34, 155,000 of whom were male. A "Family Guy" episode at 11 p.m. usually doubles or even triples that.
"I think the numbers aren't great but they're also not that bad. At that time of night, we're competing against things that do a lot worse," said Heidecker. "The show is never going to be a huge, 'American Idol' kind of show.
"I don't watch the show either," he added. "I don't know anyone who stays up to watch it."
Lazzo agreed that "Tom" is "too quirky" to pull huge ratings, "just as I think 'Family Guy' was too quirky for the room when it premiered. But if we make enough 'Toms' people will get acclimated to what that is and people will be accepting of it and the ratings will go up.
"It's an eccentric program and we know it as such," he added. "And when we decided to produce it, we knew it was not 'Family Guy.' But we don't care."
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