There is something wrong with that TV.
The week of September 9th, 2001 was fated to become the most historically significant week of the new millennium. Had the attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon never occurred, however, the week would still be remembered—albeit far less intently—for a handful of significant cultural events. Jonathan Franzen’s third novel The Corrections, released the previous week but not yet announced as the latest entry in Oprah’s Book Club, was featured on the front cover of that week’s New York Times Book Review. September 11th also saw the release of Jay Z’s career-defining LP The Blueprint.
To slightly less fanfare than either of these events, the Cartoon Network premiered its new adult-viewers block, Adult Swim. Although the channel had quietly previewed its new original programming in December of 2000, September 9th marked the official premiere of the block’s first original lineup: The Brak Show, Sealab 2021, Harvey Birdman: Attorney At Law, and Aqua Teen Hunger Force.
These shows were all spin-offs in some manner from the network’s Space Ghost: Coast To Coast. Coast To Coast had been the network’s first foray into original programming for adults (or at least, not for kids), a late-night talk show repurposing animation from Hanna-Barbera’s original 1960s-era Space Ghost show. Coast To Coast was created by Mike Lazzo, a Cartoon Network producer who would go on—with Keith Crofford—to found Williams Street, the in-house production company responsible for most of Adult Swim’s original programming. Although some animation purists (and the creators themselves) cried foul that Alex Toth’s understated design work from the original series had been “sampled” to create the new program (whose relation to the original was, admittedly, purely condescending), the show found a loyal audience among those who appreciated its imaginative writing and absurdist humor.
Coast To Coast followed a simple premise. Space Ghost was ostensibly the same hero who spent the 1960s protecting space from villains like Brak, Moltar, and Zorak, but had retired to host his own talk show. The rub was that he wasn’t very smart, a puffed-up satire of every post-Ted Knight talking head, vain and oblivious in equal measure. Celebrities who wandered onto his set (and they were real celebrities, everyone from Thom Yorke to Dr. Joyce Brothers) alternated between baffled and baffling: some of them appeared to be in on the joke, some didn’t. The aforementioned Moltar and Zorak were press-ganged into serving as Space Ghost’s producer and bandleader, respectively. It was the kind of program that flourished in the brief years between the spread of basic cable and the ubiquity of the internet—a cult artifact that was hard to find and even harder to explain, whose rarity only increased its cachet.
Eventually the success of Coast To Coast spawned the inevitable spin-offs. Although no one at the time had any expectations for the initiative, the four new programs were commissioned to air alongside a few adult-leaning shows that had been salvaged from other networks (Home Movies, The Oblongs), and mature-skewing anime programming such as Cowboy Bebop and Mobile Suit Gundam that made a poor fit for the Cartoon Network’s daytime broadcasts. Brak and Birdman were Hanna-Barbera characters who had appeared as guests on Coast To Coast—Brak as an especially dimwitted former space criminal, and Birdman as a washed-up crime-fighter envious of Space Ghost’s post-superhero career. Sealab 2021 was, like Coast To Coast, another show constructed out of the remains of a 1970s Hanna-Barbera offering (Sealab 2020).
Although the Aqua Teens were new, they had their origins in an unproduced Coast To Coast script that introduced the characters as aggressive fast-food mascots from the Burger Trench restaurant who bribed Space Ghost to appear on his talk show. (This script, “Baffler Meal,” was eventually produced for a later season of Coast To Coast, early off-model designs intact.) Although the characters in “Baffler Meal” bore only superficial resemblance to the later Aqua Teens, there was enough weirdness in that initial script to inspire co-creators Dave Willis and Matt Maiellaro to re-develop the premise into its own series.
How about we make the living room the new kitchen?
The Aqua Teen Hunger Force were three anthropomorphic fast food creatures living in South Jersey. Frylock was a floating container of French fries, Master Shake a pistachio milkshake, and Meatwad a ball of meat. Viewers weren’t given definitive answers regarding the trio’s origins until 2007’s Aqua Teen Hunger Force Colon Movie Film For Theaters, and even these answers were inconclusive and suspect. Ultimately it didn’t matter. The series’ main joke for 14 years was its very purposelessness.
Although the show was framed as an adventure program (more for the benefit of Cartoon Network executives than anyone else), any pretense of adventure or crime-fighting was purely incidental. In the show’s earliest episodes the trio try to be private investigators, but the premise soon unravels as a consequence of them being terrible at solving crimes or fighting bad guys. Being talking fast food items, however, meant that there wasn’t a lot they could do. Mostly they just sat around the house collecting unemployment checks and watching TV.
Which is not to say that things didn’t happen to them. Over the course of the show’s run, the Aqua Teens encountered every variety of villain, alien, monster, robot, myth, and ghost. Not by design, though. Usually weirdness just followed them home, or happened to be in the neighborhood. For instance: Meatwad bought a rap CD with lyrics telling him to assemble a large pile of candy to aid in drilling a hole into the center of the Earth for the purpose of releasing a horde of demons to help sell diet pills.
A robot claiming to be the Cybernetic Ghost Of Christmas Past From The Future arrived to share the story of the first Christmas, which involved a murderous ape Santa Claus enslaving prehistoric elves on the spot where their neighbor Carl’s house stood. Carl’s house started bleeding elf blood, so he sold it to Glenn Danzig.
Master Shake was kidnapped by a pair of Plutonians who send him on a virtual reality tour of a pizza-filled aquarium and a horse’s anus, in that order.
There were no ongoing plotlines, and every episode began with a full reset. Carl could die and be resurrected as a severed head atop a remote-control car, and the next episode be well enough to get taken to Wood Court for dumping a vat of fryer oil in the middle of the forest. Shake (voiced by Dana Snyder with a grating nasal whine) stayed as unpleasant and impulsive as ever; Meatwad (voiced by Willis himself) never got one bit smarter; and Frylock (the impossibly smooth Carey Means) never did manage to go on a successful date. Even though they were sick of each other, they were stuck together—where else would anthropomorphic fast food people go? They were the perfect unit: dimwitted ego, asinine id, and exasperated superego, trapped in an eternal purgatory of ever diminishing returns.
This sense of downward mobility was essential to the show’s appeal. The Aqua Teens had no mission, no reason for being. They were mascots without a restaurant, signifiers without any signified. At their core they were talking trash, parodies of commercial waste who actually became merchandisable characters in their own right. They represented a kind of dystopian future that had, by the turn of the millennium, become more and more plausible: a shabby suburban nightmare filled with boarded-up strip-malls and cheap franchise restaurants, covered in garish advertising for products that no longer exist. (Even at the height of the series’ popularity there was never a fast food tie-in, which is a good thing: the universe may not have survived the irony.)
Aqua Teen Hunger Force was a show about nothing, but not like Seinfeld. It was about nothing in the same way as Waiting For Godot was about nothing: “nothing” as a kind of earnest hopelessness, an anticipation of meaning that seems forthcoming but which never actually arrives. They were cartoon characters seemingly designed to play to the worst stereotypes of stoned late-night dorm-room viewers—check it out, man, talking food!—also intended as a not-so-subtle critique of those same viewers. There was an edge to the show, a self-critique baked (pardon the pun) into the premise that belied its cult status. The very act of watching the show was itself a kind of insult, almost as if Willis and Maiellaro were daring their audience to laugh at the stupidest thing imaginable.
You have deeply offended us and our god. And our god is a god of vengeance, and horror.
Adult Swim began as an experiment on the part of Cartoon Network. To call the experiment a success would be a severe understatement.
In 2003 Adult Swim began broadcasting reruns of two recently canceled Fox cartoons, Family Guy and Futurama. While both shows had struggled to reach an audience on network television, they fit Adult Swim’s demographic like a glove. Family Guy immediately became the block’s most popular show, besting its cable and broadcast competition, and consequently Fox renewed the program within less than a year of its reruns having begun on Adult Swim. Before long Futurama was also resurrected, first as a series of direct-to-DVD movies, and later for two more seasons on Comedy Central.
Seth MacFarlane owes his later career solely to the existence of Adult Swim. After Family Guy returned to Fox, he capitalized on that success with American Dad and The Cleveland Show (both of which later became Adult Swim staples), expanded into movies with Ted, and produced the 2014 revival of Cosmos. The success of Family Guy—and its specific kind of crass pop-culture reference humor—influenced much of Adult Swim’s subsequent lineup, with original programming created by Williams Street from that point often owing more to MacFarlane than Space Ghost: Coast To Coast. Robot Chicken, a stop-motion pop-culture parody series very much in the mold of MacFarlane’s work (and given MacFarlane’s imprimatur in its transition from a web series to television), debuted in 2005, alongside other new launches Squidbillies, Minoriteam, Moral Orel, and 12 Oz. Mouse. The new series varied in quality. Squidbillies remains in production to this day, having lasted 10 seasons on the strength of an even dumber premise than Aqua Teen Hunger Force—that is, hillbilly squids. Minoriteam was a one-joke show that lasted one season, despite the general attractiveness of its Jack Kirby-inspired animation. Moral Orel, a parody of religious cartoons such as Davey And Goliath, hit its target more often than not, and lasted a respectable three seasons.
12 Oz. Mouse is perhaps the strangest program in Adult Swim’s history, but also its most ambitious. While it lasted a scant 20 episodes (and proved quite controversial among the network’s most loyal viewers), it was of all the latter-day Adult Swim programs perhaps the most fitting heir to Coast To Coast. 12 Oz. Mouse abandoned any pretense of legibility, showcasing stick figure drawings and non-professional voice talent telling a confused shaggy dog story about repressed memories, real estate schemes, and explosions. The show represents the furthest possible extrapolation of Coast To Coast’s minimalist anti-aesthetic, animation storytelling reduced to stick figures and stock images indulging in aimless conversation about nothing in particular.
Up-and-coming internet comedians Tim Heidecker and Eric Wareheim premiered Tom Goes To The Mayor in 2004, which ran for 30 episodes until 2006. Immediately following that, they produced Tim And Eric Awesome Show, Great Job! for four years, from 2007-2010. A spin-off, Check It Out! With Dr. Steve Brule, starring John C. Reilly, has appeared sporadically since 2010.
Of the four original Adult Swim programs (not counting Coast To Coast, which returned for another season in 2003 and a brief web revival later in the decade), Aqua Teen Hunger Force was the only one still in production as of 2015. The Brak Show, a gentle Leave It To Beaver spoof, lasted only three seasons. Harvey Birdman: Attorney At Law was Coast To Coast’s most direct sequel in terms of its repurposing of old Hanna-Barbera cartoons to ironic effect, and it lasted four despite its limited premise. Sealab 2021, the most formally ambitious of the original four shows, made it to four seasons as well on the strength of its excellent writing. Two of Sealab’s creators, Adam Reed and Matt Thompson, would go on to create the network’s Frisky Dingo; Reed eventually created FX’s Archer.
Chickens are a vital link in nature’s chain, and that’s why we use them to play chicken-ball in the house.
With the cancellation of Aqua Teen Hunger Force, the last link to the network’s original lineup is gone. Coast To Coast turns 21 this year, and it’s likely that the generation who grew up trading homemade VHS tapes of the show with their friends have moved on from the idea of late-night Sunday appointment viewing. What began as a lark—a slacker revamp of Generation X cartoon staples aimed at a too-cool-for-school college audience (musical guests Pavement!)—eventually transformed into something resembling an actual network. When a cult object becomes a legitimate media empire, it’s hard to retain any sentimental attachment. (Big ups if you still remember the original “All kids out of the pool!” interstitial bumps.)
In a very real way every adult-leaning cartoon show made in the last 25 years has been a spin-off of The Simpsons. That show’s incredible success created an animation ecosystem for adult programming wherein both rip-offs and original descendants could prosper. Space Ghost: Coast To Coast was one of The Simpsons’ smarter children, but its influence has gradually been superseded by Family Guy, The Simpsons’ most shameless rip-off.
Aqua Teen Hunger Force was either the dumbest show ever made by smart people, or the smartest show made by dummies—who could tell? Even if later seasons may have waned, as the surreal lunacy of the early years (Ol’ Drippy!) was gradually replaced by a MacFarlane-esque willingness to resort to gross-out gags and puerile offensiveness (Dr. Wongburger, ugh), it never got bad in the same way as, say, certain later seasons of The Simpsons. The chemistry between Snyder, Willis, and Means never diminished, and really, could any show whose main appeal lay in its cultivated stupidity ever err on the side of too much dumb? But it was lapped by generations of strange shows for whom Aqua Teen Hunger Force was itself an influence, and for whom the original excitement of Coast To Coast was, at best, a distant memory.
Try as they may, however, the absurd high concept of talking fast-food people has never been matched. Perhaps it never will be. As Frylock, Master Shake, and Meatwad ride off into the sunset one last time (the show has been canceled before, after all, we’ll see if it sticks), they leave a TV landscape that was, if not directly shaped, at least midwifed by their success. You can draw a direct line from The Simpsons, Coast To Coast, and the Aqua Teens through to Bob’s Burgers, Too Many Cooks, Archer, Adventure Time—and yes, everything Seth MacFarlane has ever done, for better or for worse. Fourteen years, 138 episodes, one movie, and one unlikely terrorist scare later, the Aqua Teen Hunger Force died as they lived: senselessly and sordidly, but still like nothing else before or since.