Space Ghost Coast To Coast, “Surprise”
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Sometimes a single TV episode can exemplify the spirit of its time and the properties that make television a unique medium. A Very Special Episode presents The A.V. Club’s survey of TV at its most distinctive.
Comedian Warren Thomas used to say that nobody in the entire recorded history of time ever planned to eat at a Denny’s; instead, people just “end up” there, because they’re hungry and the restaurant is open. Denny’s slogan, according to Thomas, should be, “Hey! It’s late!” That’s often true of late-night television, too. For all the Saturday Night Lives, Tonight Shows, and Mystery Science Theater 3000s fans have actively stayed up to see, there are always infomercials, junk sports, and weird old sitcoms that people have just ended up watching—because hey, it’s late.
Dave Willis, one of the creators of the Cartoon Network/Adult Swim series Aqua Teen Hunger Force, recently told me that during his time working on Adult Swim’s flagship show Space Ghost Coast To Coast, his boss Mike Lazzo had one main directive: Come up with something that if he were flipping channels, he would want to stop on. In other words, something that would pull viewers up short and make them say, “What the hell is this?”
So from 1994 to 2004—for 88 episodes over eight seasons—Space Ghost Coast To Coast repurposed an obscure ’60s cartoon character, turning him into a talk-show host who had surreal adventures between heavily edited conversations with actual celebrities. The series was one of Cartoon Network’s first original productions, and its critical and commercial success helped pave the way for the Adult Swim block of programming, popularizing a comic sensibility rooted in the perverse pleasures of dissonance. In its early years especially, Space Ghost Coast To Coast would catch its audience in a bleary state of exhaustion (or intoxication), and leave them wondering whether what they were seeing was actually being broadcast on television, or was instead some kind of fevered, TV-fueled hallucination.
How much of what Space Ghost accomplished was intentional, and how much was just an accidental byproduct of Lazzo’s “get their attention” strategy? The third-season episode “Surprise”—which first aired on June 19, 1996—suggests a few possible answers to the question Lazzo wanted viewers to ask: “What the hell is this?”
It’s pop art.
From 1966 to 1968, the CBS Saturday Morning line-up included the original Space Ghost, the saga of an intergalactic superhero created by comic-book legend Alex Toth for the Hanna-Barbera animation studio. The show was stiff, and often too self-serious for a kids’ cartoon, but even now, Space Ghost remains solid adventure fare, elevated by Toth’s designs. Had Space Ghost just remained a character from a short-lived mid-’60s series (revived briefly for a few new episodes in the ’80s), he’d still be fondly remembered, if only by nostalgists, animation fans, and comic-book scholars.
But just as the likes of Eduardo Paolozzi, Roy Lichtenstein, and Andy Warhol appropriated iconic imagery from popular culture—sometimes for the purpose of ironic comment, and sometimes just because they liked how certain logos or faces looked—so Lazzo and a scattered assortment of young Turner Broadcasting employees twisted Toth’s creation to their own ends. With George Lowe doing his best booming Gary Owens impression as the voice of Space Ghost, and Turner’s animators appropriating footage from the old Hanna-Barbera cartoons, Space Ghost Coast To Coast threw a spotlight on aspects of popular entertainment that viewers sometimes took for granted. The series relied on the audience’s comfort with Saturday-morning cartoons, talk shows, and superhero iconography to create a Dadaist disconnect.
“Surprise” is more rooted in the original Space Ghost mythology than most Coast To Coasts. For the entire 15-minute episode, the show-within-a-show’s producer Moltar distracts Space Ghost by sending him to pick up a letter, while Moltar calls on the other members of The Council Of Doom—including Space Ghost’s musical director, Zorak—to help him throw a deadly “surprise birthday party” for Space Ghost. (“He’ll be 30 this year. I’m serious. Dead serious, if you know what I mean.”) “Surprise” features guest appearances by super-villains Brak, Tansut, Spider-Woman, and Lokar, all of whom are made to look significantly non-imposing.
Understand, though: The episode’s credited writers, Andy Merrill and Alan Laddie weren’t making fun of the characters per se. Space Ghost’s creative team was more reveling in the silly juxtaposition of these blocky Hanna-Barbera creations with the mundane process of putting together a television show. And they were exploiting our understanding of television, too, by stretching some beats too long and chopping some scenes up into hamburger, pushing the audience toward seeing the whole “outsized personality talks to other famous people” TV format in a new way.
When Space Ghost Coast To Coast debuted in April 1994, the nation had been through several years of “talk-show wars,” in the wake of Johnny Carson’s 1992 retirement. There’d been a bestselling non-fiction book about the battle for The Tonight Show, a TV movie adapted from that book, and an entire HBO sitcom about the neuroses of talk-show hosts. Space Ghost Coast To Coast was partly a riff on all of that backstage drama, and partly about the idea of washed-up celebrities extending their fame by transitioning into hosting.
Space Ghost Coast To Coast also exploded the phoniness of the talk-show host/guest relationship. The Space Ghost staff would conduct real interviews with celebrities, sometimes on the same assembly-line junkets that local TV news entertainment reporters would attend, and then they’d fiddle around in the editing room, looking for the rare “unprepared” moments or funny-sounding non sequiturs they could string together and build into “answers” to Space Ghost’s questions.
I spoke with Merrill, who told me that in the early days, they wrote shows around the interviews, until they realized, “It kind of hindered the comedy.” So they started focusing on the “plots” of each episode, fitting the interviews in later. The talk-show segments of “Surprise”—hosted by Zorak while Space Ghost is being delayed—are mostly cobbled together from unusable interviews. Merrill can’t remember the circumstances behind every clip in “Surprise,” but he does remember that Cameron Diaz on the Mask junket was especially terrible. And Willis adds that as nice as the guys from The Smithereens were, there wasn’t much chance that they were going to build an entire Space Ghost Coast To Coast episode—or even half of one—around a band that hadn’t had a hit in five years. (“A ‘very interesting’ interview to our show meant a very different thing than ‘very interesting’ to most talk shows,” Willis says.)
Willis believes there must be hundreds of scrapped Space Ghost interviews back at the offices of Williams Street Studios in Atlanta, where the show originated, because not everyone they talked to fit the show, or was willing to play along. It wasn’t a problem when celebrities didn’t understand what was going on—if anything, their confusion made them funnier—but it was an issue when the celebs defaulted to pitch-mode, continuing to tout their latest project even as they were being asked to talk about their superpowers. And Space Ghost preferred to reveal the plasticity of the standard talk-show transaction: “Let us borrow your famous face, and we’ll let you do a free commercial for your work.”
It’s a ’90s artifact.
As much as Space Ghost Coast To Coast skewered the notion of the talk show as a promotional tool, it still served much the same function as a “real” talk show, in that it allowed people who were even moderately famous at that time to appear on TV. So intentionally or not, Space Ghost Coast To Coast does cement the ephemera of its era: The young actors who either fizzled out or became superstars, the musicians taking advantage of their short window of mainstream viability, and so on. For example, the interviewees in “Surprise” are a motley assortment of comics, eccentrics, and “only in the ’90s” personalities, including Sponge frontman Vinnie Dombroski, alt-rock singer-songwriter Juliana Hatfield, CBS Early Show weatherman Mark McEwen, and Luscious Jackson member Jill Cunniff.
And it isn’t just the celebs and quasi-celebs who date the show. The dial-up tone under the “contact us” info at the end of the episode also screams ’90s, as does the Ren & Stimpy font of the title, and the way the theme song (composed and performed by avant-jazz legend Sonny Sharrock) sounds like Conan O’Brien’s Late Night theme, given some Sonic Youth scruff and house-music samples.
It’s for stoners.
Once when I was a reckless, idiot teenager, I drank a small bottle of cough syrup (seriously, kids, don’t try this at home), then tried to watch TV with some friends who’d done the same. As we jumped back and forth between MTV and an old Laugh-In rerun on Nick At Nite, we found it difficult to process the basic visual grammar of television. Sometimes, watching Space Ghost Coast To Coast feels like being heavily dosed with codeine. There are moments in “Surprise” that still conjure up that feeling, from the way the episode holds on an empty desk for about three beats too long after the opening credits, or the way Space Ghost has an interminably long, circular conversation with the mail-room clerk. Merrill insists that contrary to popular belief, the people behind Space Ghost Coast To Coast weren’t stoned all the time—or even part of the time. But was Space Ghost destination television for people who were fucked-up? Undoubtedly.
It’s sublimely stupid.
The type of humor in Space Ghost Coast To Coast had precedent. The inherent goofiness of superheroes had been spoofed on TV before, most notably on the campy ’60s Batman series, and also on the godawful ’70s TV special Legends Of The Superheroes. David Letterman built his career on tweaking familiar television entertainment to make it look a few degrees more amateurish, then putting the whole shebang in quotation marks. Andy Kaufman did much the same, testing the boundaries of what was “funny” and what was “an act.” And at the same time that Space Ghost was launching on Cartoon Network, the Kaufman-esque comedian Tom Green was doing his bizarro version of a variety show on a Canadian public-access channel.
But Space Ghost Coast To Coast had its own vibe. Initially, the show stuck to its “remixed celebrity interview” premise, but in later seasons, they did “Joshua,” a corporate-video parody that Merrill says was born from each Coast To Coast staffer writing a page or two, then passing the script along to the next, Exquisite Corpse-style. And they did “Fire Ant,” in which Space Ghost spends 10 minutes crawling around after a fire ant. (Willis says that the ant bit was Lazzo’s idea, which is why he sometimes wondered, “Do I have a career, or is my career just pleasing Mike?”)
Fairly quickly, Space Ghost Coast To Coast established that there was an audience willing to tune in to Cartoon Network late at night to be baffled. Within a few years, that led to Adult Swim: a mix of deeply strange live-action and animated shows like Sealab 2021, Assy McGee, Squidbillies, Xavier: Renegade Angel, Childrens Hospital, and Tim And Eric Awesome Show, Great Job! The Adult Swim sensibility spread beyond its time slot, too, into freaky daytime Cartoon Network shows like Adventure Time and Regular Show, and into non-CN fare like the hilariously abrasive MTV2 original Wonder Showzen.
A lot of these shows belong to the tradition of “anti-humor,” substituting shock or intentional blandness for punchlines—such as in the “Surprise” scene where repeatedly Tansut whines to Moltar that he wants to hit Space Ghost with “the rusty metal.” And some are willfully sophomoric, following the lead of moments like the one in “Surprise” where Brak tells the party-planning Moltar, “I know what I like to eat! Boogers.”
Space Ghost Coast To Coast’s fictional talk show looks like some ragged production beamed in from outer space (complete with static and an “interrupt feed” notice popping up before commercials), and along those same lines, even its DVD sets defy easy access. The set containing “Surprise” puts pictures instead of episode titles on its menus—“Surprise” is represented by a party hat—and the episode’s commentary track features the decidedly uninformative voices of Brak, Zorak, and Aqua Teen Hunger Force’s Meatwad, who watch the episode and say things like “I pissed in that cake” when they see a cake, and “I had a seizure and I died” when the image gets stroboscopic. Merrill says this is the kind of humor he likes: in-the-moment, goofing around. “We were just nuts,” he explains. “Basically, we all had this goofy sense of humor. I dabble in stand-up now, and I don’t get up and tell jokes; I’ll get up and sing stupid songs and be an idiot.”
That’s how Space Ghost Coast To Coast found such a welcoming audience in late night, at an hour when people are already a little loopy and childlike, and inclined to be impulsive. Space Ghost was right there in the heads of the people who watched it: spontaneous and addle-pated.
Next time on A Very Special Episode: WKRP In Cincinnati, “Mike Fright”