It’s easy to forget in the age of Rick And Morty, Too Many Cooks, and Family Guy reruns, but the original Adult Swim lineup was almost entirely based around plucking characters from Space Ghost: Coast To Coast or obscure Hanna-Barbera cartoons and dropping them into new TV genres. The Brak Show was a family sitcom, Sealab 2021 was a workplace comedy, and Aqua Teen Hunger Force was sort of a stoner hangout show (a glimpse of Adult Swim’s future), but none of them committed to this conceit as thoroughly as Harvey Birdman, Attorney At Law. As indicated by the name, it was a parody of legal dramas that happened to star the guy from Birdman And The Galaxy Trio—a ’60s action cartoon about a guy with wings who can shoot beams out of his hands.
The Adult Swim show was created in 2000 by Michael Ouweleen and Erik Richter, and it takes place a few decades after the events of the old cartoon. In the years since his turn as superhero, Birdman (whose real name is now given as Harvey Birdman) has taken a job as a defense attorney at a law firm run by his old superhero associate Falcon 7 (now Phil Ken Sebben), with most of the other attorneys he faces being villains from the old show and most of his clients being the stars of Hanna-Barbera cartoons from the studio’s heyday—think The Jetsons, Scooby-Doo, and deeper cuts like Speed Buggy.
While other early Adult Swim shows rejoiced in absurdity, Harvey Birdman was a love letter to both the tropes of legal dramas and an entire generation of cartoons that some younger viewers might not have even been aware of. That’s not to say Harvey Birdman wasn’t absurd, as it was built on a structure of running jokes and callbacks that would become increasingly nonsensical as seasons went on. One early episode featured a miniature clown car popping out of a character’s mouth, after which the car could regularly be seen driving around the courtroom or popping out of other unexpected places. Then, in the finale, a big villain destroys a clown-car factory as a direct acknowledgement of the weird little gag.
Most of the running jokes are established in an early case, like when Harvey represents Inch High, Private Eye, a guy who is exactly what he sounds like. After his episode, Inch High appears countless times in places where a very small man might turn up, like smashed between the pages of a book, stuck on the bottom of a shoe, or impaled with some olives in a martini. There’s also a bear that appears in every episode, even in live action when the show breaks into a couple of sequences with a human man running around as Harvey. Reducto, a paranoid villain/prosecutor with a shrink ray, goes on a rant in one early episode about a single corporation running the world, prompting “An AOL/Time Warner Company” (which owns Adult Swim) to appear under the name of a bar he visits, and every reference to a major corporation after that features the same tagline.
Then there’s the show’s political slant, which is also a bit of a running gag. Harvey Birdman’s four seasons ran from September 2001 to July 2007, meaning they coincided with almost all of George W. Bush’s administration, and there’s a general anti-Bush ethos that permeates a handful of episodes. Harvey’s boss, Phil, is frequently depicted as a right-wing maniac, mostly when he goes hunting with Dick Cheney (get it?) and the episode where he institutes a color-coded system for monitoring terrorist threats. This may be due to the current, similarly harrowing political climate, but the occasional anti-Bush digs surprisingly make the show feel more relevant today than the network’s typical nonsense. Every Adult Swim cartoon now goes off on bizarre tangents like the Harvey Birdman sequence where a live-action Birdman chases a man dressed as a can of Tab on the beach, but you don’t see too many of them addressing what’s going on with Donald Trump.
Of course, you can’t talk about Phil Ken Sebben being a right-wing maniac without talking about his voice actor: Stephen Colbert, who was still a few years away from breaking off from The Daily Show when Harvey Birdman premiered. He plays Phil as a standard Stephen Colbert character, with lots of loud and excessively confident declarations and a fondness for laughing at his own jokes, but he also plays the aforementioned Reducto—who is obsessed with small things and infuriated by big things—with a much subtler madness. Colbert is predictably good, but Gary Cole carries the show as Birdman himself. Cole gives the titular character a weary hopefulness that seems perfect for both a retired superhero and an overworked defense attorney, and his down-to-earth take plays beautifully against the more manic approach of someone like John Michael Higgins’ Judge Mentok, The Mind-Taker (who, no offense to Colbert and Cole, gets the award for best line-read of the whole series).
Now, more than a decade after the original finale aired, Harvey Birdman is returning to Adult Swim for an overtly political special about Birdman getting tasked with impeaching a billionaire madman who has somehow been elected president. Before that happens, here are 10 episodes of Harvey Birdman, Attorney At Law that’ll get you up to speed quicker than a three-hour law-school correspondence course.
“Shaggy Busted” (season one, episode three)
“Shaggy Busted” isn’t the cleverest Harvey Birdman episode, but it does illustrate the show’s basic premise very cleanly. In the cold open, Shaggy and Scooby from Scooby-Doo get arrested for marijuana possession after they get caught driving erratically. The rest of the gang hires Birdman—who actually thinks they’re a gang—and they claim that Shaggy and Scooby are just dumb, not high. It’s an easy, obvious joke, but it plays a little better when the prosecutor brings up questionable clips from old Scooby-Doo episodes that show the characters running through smoky rooms and pausing mid-blink so it looks like their eyelids are drooping. The show doesn’t really have anything to say about Shaggy and Scooby smoking pot that hasn’t been said in the decades since the show aired, but in these early episodes, that’s mostly what Harvey Birdman was working with.
“Death By Chocolate” (season one, episode four)
“Death By Chocolate” is the first appearance of Phil, and he tasks Harvey with defending Boo-Boo Bear (Yogi’s little buddy) from accusations that he’s a terrorist bomber. The joke here seems entirely based on Boo-Boo living in a cave and the Unabomber living in a shack, as Boo-Boo is depicted as a calm, calculating manipulator who may or may not hate the government. The courtroom drama is brilliant, with the prosecution claiming Boo-Boo typed some threatening letters on a misaligned typewriter and Harvey shooting that down by pointing out Boo-Boo’s cave doesn’t have electricity. But things take a turn when Harvey gets Boo-Boo acquitted and the two end up sleeping together. From there, it becomes clear that the episode is a very faithful parody of the 1985 Glenn Close thriller Jagged Edge, with Harvey discovering evidence that Boo-Boo really is the terrorist and killing him in self-defense. Despite that, there are semi-regular references throughout the rest of the show that Harvey and Boo-Boo are still in a relationship, which is both a nod to existing continuity and an indication of how loose the continuity really is.
“X, The Exterminator” (season one, episode nine)
Let’s talk about catchphrases, because Harvey Birdman has loads of them: Phil likes to pop into scenes he’s not involved in to put a button on jokes with a “Ha-ha-haaa”; Peter Potamus from the ’60s cartoon of the same name always asks people if they “got that thing I sent you” (a very specific gag about working in an office); and Phil LaMarr’s Black Vulcan frequently over-explains sexual innuendo by adding “in his pants” to other lines. And yet, none of those has the punch of X The Eliminator’s frequent cries for “The crrrrrrest on Birdman’s helmet!” X was a mercenary on the old show who was hired to kill Birdman, and that storyline carries over into the new show, introduced in the episode “X, The Exterminator,” with X being obsessed with killing Birdman and stealing the crest on his helmet as a trophy—despite the fact that Birdman is now a lawyer. X is a very fun villain, and he’s one of the few characters that still treats Harvey like the superhero he used to be.
“Blackwatch Plaid” (season two, episode one)
Season-two opener “Blackwatch Plaid” is pretty much the political episode of Harvey Birdman, and it’s a nice look back at some of the ridiculous War On Terror bullshit we were putting up with back in the early 2000s. In this episode, Phil believes that someone has stolen something from his office, so he installs a series of invasive security cameras and institutes a color-coded system for monitoring “threat levels.” He also puts in a very Fox News-esque ticker at the bottom of the screen that references what other characters are up to and lists the current threat level—which is set at “Blackwatch plaid” for most of the episode. It definitely feels like a piece of media from 2003, but the threat-level stuff is such a direct reference to a real thing that it’s probably the timeliest humor Adult Swim has ever tried to do.
“High Speed Buggy Chase” (season two, episode four)
Like the Scooby-Doo episode, “High Speed Buggy Chase” is essentially a stock Harvey Birdman premise: An old cartoon character has been accused of a crime related to one of their defining traits, and Harvey has to defend them. This time, it’s Speed Buggy, the talking car from Speed Buggy, who is in trouble for—get this—speeding. The joke is as obvious as the Scooby-Doo one, but since Speed Buggy is a lot more obscure, it’s a little more interesting. The main hook in this episode, however, is that it’s a spotlight for Avenger, Birdman’s pet falcon, who happens to be his assistant these days. Here, Avenger quits so he can find more fulfilling work, prompting Birdman to try bringing in some other birds to replace him. There’s a sequence where Birdman keeps getting scared by an emu that is very good, and the episode will even teach you what a “velocipede” is.
“Gone Efficien…t” (season two, episode nine)
“Gone Efficien…t” is all about Phil trying to make the law firm more efficient, which involves hiring an efficiency expert named David (or Dvd, since he removed the vowels to make his name more efficient). Appropriately enough, then, the show uses that setup to try and efficiently cram as many jokes into the 11-minute runtime as possible. While working a simple case to help Yakky Doodle change his name, Harvey’s office is sublet to a Greek restaurant he also has to work for, X is back and trying to kill him, there are real court cases going on that can’t be solved in a quarter hour, and Reducto is fighting Yakky’s name change for no real reason other than to make things harder for Harvey. The jokes in this episode never stop, and that plus the plot’s winks at corporate-mandated bullshit make it feel like a very short, zany episode of 30 Rock.
“Turner Classic Birdman” (season three, episode five)
Pretty much every cartoon comprising characters or footage repurposed from old cartoons must someday do a “flashback” episode that recreates a “lost” entry from the original series. The hook this time around is that the “classic” episode of Birdman—“Busy Day For Birdman”—is actually introduced in a wraparound segment by Robert Osborne from Turner Classic Movies. Basically, it’s all just an excuse to see Gary Cole’s Birdman facing off against Reducto, Mentok, and X The Eliminator back when they were traditional villains. “Turner Classic Birdman” is also a bit of a turning point for the series toward more of an absurd, overtly jokey style that feels more in line with other Adult Swim shows. It’s not like Harvey Birdman never went off the rails before, but the episode right after this is about going back in time, so it seems clear at this point that Ouweleen and Richter have embraced the idea of just fucking around.
“Sebben And Sebben Employee Orientation” (season three, episode 11)
Speaking of fucking around, “Sebben And Sebben Employee Orientation” breaks the format completely and acts as an orientation video for new employees of Phil Ken Sebben’s law firm. Still, to the extent that you can trust any of the ridiculous lies in the video, it’s kind of lore-heavy for anyone who wants more background on who Sebben is. It doesn’t really address the fact that he used to work with the superhero Birdman, but there is a very good running joke about how Phil lost his eye that drags out the reveal as long as possible before explaining it in a very mundane way. According to the audio commentary, the episode is also a parody of an orientation video given to new employees of Ted Turner, meaning it’s a joke that nobody but the writers probably got much out of—which, sincerely, is an underrated kind of joke.
“Babysitter” (season four, episode three)
“Babysitter” originally aired just about a year after the premiere of The Colbert Report, meaning Colbert suddenly had less time to dedicate to his Harvey Birdman characters, and it features both Phil Ken Sebben and Reducto getting killed in separate hit-and-runs. The episode in general is practically a Report crossover, with the bus that hits Phil having a Colbert Report ad on the side and Phil excitedly talking about starting a new law firm (“a spin-off, if you will”) where he can interview people behind a big S-shaped desk (a reference to the set of The Colbert Report). “Babysitter” is also a showcase for the character who is sort of Phil’s replacement: Birdgirl, who happens to be Phil’s daughter, Judy, in disguise. The joke of Birdgirl (Paget Brewster) is that she constantly tells people her secret identity, often with a megaphone, but it’s never really clear whether anyone even cares.
“The Death Of Harvey” (season four, episode seven)
It wouldn’t be Harvey Birdman without a delightfully meta setup for the finale: In the previous episode, for reasons that are never really addressed, Mentok decides that Harvey has to perform jury duty on a case that he is already working. Even though he’s still able to win the case, Mentok throws the verdict out when he realizes that every case in the history of the show has had the exact same jury—a joke about cartoons reusing background characters to save money. Harvey then has to retry every single case from every episode of the show all at once, allowing the series to put a nice bow on every recurring character and every running joke. There’s even a big lawyer speech where Harvey (sort of) ties up the theme of every case. It’s a good gag that plays to all of the show’s strengths, and it ends with Harvey, Peanut, and Birdgirl having to settle one last case as actual superheroes. Unfortunately, Phil has come back to life—“Ha-ha-haaa, final-episode stunt casting!”—and he accidentally hits Birdman with a bus, killing him. Thankfully, since the show is coming back for a special episode, there’s a throwaway line about Phil being able to revive Harvey somehow.