FishCenter Live is a strange, soothing show. It started as a way for Adult Swim employees to entertain themselves, and despite itself (“Of all the things to blow off, this is what we can’t blow off,” one host says after they consider leaving midway through a recent episode) has gained thousands of fans. It may be a bit confusing to outsiders, but there is entertainment in watching fish swim, eat, and play games. When many talk shows have become politically charged, it’s difficult to find a reprieve in the genre of “people talking about stuff.” Mine is FishCenter. Like a lot of Adult Swim shows, the presence of absurdist humor, poorly Photoshopped effects, and brightly colored tanks make FishCenter border on the avant-garde.
The show’s premise is simple. The camera is fixed on a fish tank, in which nine fish with names like Mimosa, Th’Lump, and Hot Steve swim around. Off-screen, human hosts Dave Bonawits, Max Simonet, Andrew Choe, and Matt Harrigan shoot the shit about anything from a recent movie they saw to the show’s website not working properly. Occasionally, there’s a musical guest, who is cheaply green-screened over the fish. Sometimes we see the hosts and the guests talking; sometimes we don’t. There are games, but mostly there’s a lot of nothing. Fans can call in at 708-SWIM-FUN to air grievances about the faulty website, play off-kilter word association games and award the fish points, or have the show’s hosts speak over them entirely.
One of the most action-packed parts of the show is the feeding frenzies, where crawfish are dropped into the tank, and the show’s hosts narrate the ensuing showdown. "Coin Quest" is another staple. The most frequent game played by the fish occurs when the hosts Photoshop coins on the screen, so as to appear like they’re in the tank, and then award the fish points based on when and if they swim across certain coins. The hosts offer a play-by-play and keep score like watching a pointless horse race, but instead of horses we have fish that have no idea a game is even being played.
Another highlight, and probably the most accessible part of FishCenter, is the show’s guests. A number of relatively famous guests have appeared including George Clinton, David Sedaris, Billie Eilish, Post Malone, and underground artists like death metal pioneers Morbid Angel and punk art-rockers Le Butcherettes. Every guest has a game specially curated for them. For example, death metal band Dying Fetus plays “What’s your fetus?” where they try to guess what’s inside of a person’s pelvic region based on an X-ray. When David Sedaris guested, he played “Truth or Se-Dare-Is,” where a caller dared Sedaris to wear his socks on his hands for the rest of the show. Almost immediately, the author removed his shoes and socks and placed the socks like mittens on his hands. Morbid Angel played “More-Bid-Angel” where they were asked to guess the highest priced angel figurine on eBay. Happily enough, they guessed correctly.
The episode that makes the most cohesive narrative sense is from March of 2017, when George Clinton joined the show as a special guest. This episode, like others, opened with a shot of the fish swimming around, but this time they were backed by The Meters playing thumping basslines and spurts of trembling psychedelic guitar. Clinton was in his environment among all the absurdity. “I used to be a crash dummy. It gave me a headache but that’s all,” Clinton says nonchalantly, during one rambling discussion. On FishCenter, he fits right in. For his game, the show’s hosts ask him to guess songs based on basslines played out of a computer, including an unspirited version of Stevie Wonder’s “Higher Ground.” Clinton can’t guess a single one.
The show’s allure is its meaninglessness. Sure, musicians go on to promote their gig in Atlanta, but it’s often the same night they’re on FishCenter, so anyone attending probably already has a ticket. Instead of trying to self-promote, the bands get to play in front of a quirky set up and let loose a bit: kickback, watch the fish tank, and play nonsensical games. Because the show airs every day, the musical guests only make up a small portion of the show’s output. Of course, the guests may make the show more accessible to some, but it’s still all about the fish. During the Morbid Angel episode, one host said, “The score of the fish — everything else props it up. Morbid Angel are a wedding cake of entertainment, but on top of that wedding cake is the scores of the fish and they are the people getting married.” The fish are in a tank for the rest of their lives, and FishCenter gives them, and us, a joyful escape.