Adult Swim’s ‘FishCenter’: A Beginner’s Guide

Every so often, late at night if we can’t sleep, my friend and I make a game of seeking out Facebook pages with zero likes and liking them, pages as kickass as “sixteen-segment display” and “glue logic” and “withaferin A.” The idea these pages exist, that any emphasis at all is placed on something so incredibly trivial, is weirdly funny to me.

So it’s no surprise that when that same friend introduced me to Adult Swim’s FishCenter a month ago or so, it’s since been occupying a surprising amount of brain space. But if you’re unfamiliar with its existence, which is entirely possible because it’s a late-afternoon web show that’s had virtually no promotion, it can be hard to understand why. There’s really not much to it. It’s just a live show centering on four guys who talk about the fish in their aquarium while they play around with Photoshop.

Yet it has an appeal almost impossible to describe, given its ultra-low concept. Some of that appeal is surely the therapeutic experience of simply watching an aquarium, but like my friend and I’s stupid Facebook game, there’s also the insane reality that something this mundane not only has its own show, but has attracted fervent followers who send in artwork and call in to rant about how one of the fish should die (this happens more than you’d think).

The more obsessed these people become with the show, the more attention that’s paid to it, the funnier the joke gets. So in the interest of drumming up some viewership for FishCenter, and for those who aren’t familiar with the tragic life of David Anderson or who that is, I’ll break it down for you.

What exactly is FishCenter?

FishCenter, or more formally, FishCenter Live, is an hour-long, live web series that airs weekdays at 4pm on Adult Swim’s site, with highlights broadcast that night on the network itself at 4am. It consists almost entirely of a single, extended shot of the aquarium in Adult Swim’s Atlanta office, commonly referred to as “The Tank,” filled with, as of now, nine fish. A few Adult Swim employees – usually Dave Bonawitz, Andrew Choe, Max Simonet and AS creative director Matt Harrigan – comment on whatever’s going on in the tank, sounding like a cross between ESPN announcers and morning zoo DJs, though far more apathetic than either.

It appeared last fall, more or less, as a way for the Adult Swim staffers to entertain themselves. There was no real promotion, no real audience, and at that point it was strictly web-only. Soon, though, the commentators developed games for the fish to play, adding a weekly competition element, with whichever fish winning the most points being named King of the Tank. After this, in February, Adult Swim decided to play daily highlights on the network proper, and quickly after, a small cult began to grow around it, its social media presence growing in thousands of fans over the next few months.

Once the hosts actually knew someone was watching, FishCenter started coming into focus (though it’s still very much a lark). Call-ins became a staple of the show, and new games were invented to play with fans. Running jokes were made out of completely everyday events to reward longtime viewers. For instance, the fishes’ diet partially consists of live crayfish, which are fed on Feeding Frenzy Fridays. So, naturally, when a fan-favorite crayfish named David Anderson was to be fed to the zebra moray eel named Hamburger, it was spun as a Mayweather-Pacquiao-esque Fight of the Century, played up for weeks.

The collected feeling of the whole thing feels like if you and a couple friends got real bored one day and decided to watch people walk through your neighborhood, making a game of what they’re doing. I have to imagine that’s sort of where the show’s origin lies. Since the hosts are constantly explaining everything that’s going on, rarely anything vitally visual happens, so it almost feels a like a radio show or podcast, the perfect thing to have on in the background while you do something else. (This is meant as a compliment. Trust me.)

Why do people care about these fish? They’re just fish.

The same reason people like any animals on the internet, I guess. They’re pretty cute, for one. But you’d be surprised just how quickly you arbitrarily decide which fish you like and which you demonize. Humans have the odd propensity to project personalities and emotions onto things that can’t actually express them, and this show’s engine runs on that.

Because of that, the fish – Dottie, Mammoth, Sir Squirt, Greenberg, Th’Lump, Yo Hal Look At That Tang (always shortened to Tang), Ol’ Blue, Mimosa and Hamburger (sometimes referred to as Eel Hamburger, haha) – all have dedicated fan bases, many of whom contribute artwork or play games in hopes of gaining points for their favorite fish. Most people, for instance, hate Sir Squirt and an ongoing poll surveys the audience asking whether or not they should kill him. Hamburger, meanwhile, is the current audience hit (and my personal favorite, along with Mimosa, for the record), because of his win against David Anderson.

It’s worth nothing that, even after Hamburger ate David Anderson, his fans still remain committed to the idea he’ll be resurrected one day, updating this Twitter account accordingly. To be clear, this is an active Twitter fan page for a dead crayfish.

You keep talking about games. How do fish play games?

Well, it’s not like anyone forces the fish to actually do anything. They’re fish. They just float around the tank as is their wont. But where they’re floating is how the games come into play.

For example, three times per episode, the hosts play “Coin Quest,” in which they superimpose cartoon coins of varying point values on the aquarium video feed. Then they set a timer, cue up the music (it’s often soundtracked by Rednex’s immortal “Cotton Eye Joe” to up the football-stadium ambiance), and watch as the fish swim through the coins, earning points, while the commentators give the play-by-play. Like almost everything on FishCenter, it’s better experienced than talked about.

Most other games work in a similar fashion. “Fish Tank Choe” is tic-tac-toe but the two competing fish swim through empty places on the grid to mark their space; there’s also a timed game of tag where whichever fish is “it” when time runs out gets the points. Other games are for call-ins specifically, asking fans to play a Press Your Luck-styled board for points or guess whether a close-up of a skin crease is a butt or an elbow. Lately, an ongoing thing that fans have been doing is calling in to guess co-host Andrew Choe’s thigh width. The commentators aren’t even really encouraging that last one anymore either. Fans just do this.

This isn’t just more of Adult Swim’s ironic, surreal bullshit, is it?

Yes and no. (Though if you don’t like anything Adult Swim offers, it probably isn’t for you.) Certainly the entire premise is ironic – it’s basically a parody sports talk show, after all – but unlike some of the other experiments Adult Swim offers, this doesn’t feel actively alienating. Sure, there’s a fair amount of purposefully shoddy animation and kitschy artwork that pops up on screen a la Tim and Eric, but even when this is going on, it never draws too much attention to itself, and the series never approaches the surreal streak of, say, Xavier: Renegade Angel or Superjail! Like everything else on FishCenter, the implication is that it’s just the guys dicking around, messing with Photoshop and After Effects while they wait for the next game or call-in.

The hosts aren’t above fucking with their fans either: The most frequent call-in is a woman named Amanda, whom the commentators often quickly hang up on for no reason, then insult (“She has the charisma and grace of a truck”), and a guy named Knuckles, who seems to really want to win favor with the hosts by making lame, sarcastic jokes, but the guys usually shut him down or go completely silent.

It never feels truly mean-spirited though, because all the call-ins, even the ones who get poked and prodded, are all on the same page. FishCenter is definitely not for everybody, but the joke underlying the whole show is very accessible. Whether someone finds it funny and fascinating or tedious and boring is something else entirely, but it’s hard to see someone just “not getting it.”

And that sort of gets at the core of why it works for me. There’s a real sense of community about this, all based around something so incredibly mundane. It’s silly and ironic yet never smug. Everyone’s in on the joke, and that goes a long way toward its status as an endearing, strangely watchable gem. It’s not Adult Swim’s best show or anything, but it’s one that asks you to be a part of it, which makes it stand out, even on a network full of weirdos.

Chris Kopcow is a comedy guy and pop culture writer. He links to his Twitter because he craves validation from strangers.

Adult Swim’s ‘FishCenter’: A Beginner’s Guide