Aqua Teen Hunger Force has come a long way since the crudely animated show about a New Jersey household occupied by an obnoxious milkshake, a simple-minded slab of meat, and a benevolent box of fries first snuck onto Adult Swim’s lineup at 5 a.m. unannounced in late December of 2000. Nearly a decade and eight seasons later, the cultishly popular and notoriously polarizing 12-minute show has spawned a feature-length film in 2007, two videogames in 2004 and 2007, a live-action episode, a string of episodes where the main characters don’t even appear, a new Christmas album (Have Yourself A Meaty Little Christmas, which hit shelves earlier this month), and now a touring act. Co-creator Dave Willis and Dana Snyder (the voice of Master Shake) will be hitting the Lakeshore Theater on Friday and Saturday, so in the spirit of their franchise’s open-endedness, The A.V. Club asked them to figure out what exactly their show can never be and why they hate Scooby-Doo so damn much.
The A.V. Club: Aqua Teen Hunger Force has taken on different formats over the past decade. What won’t the 11-minute show work as?
Dana Snyder: A movie, live-action, 11-minute format, in a 30-minute format.
Dave Willis: Doesn’t work as any of those things.
DS: The show won’t work as a live show.
DW: A video game, as anyone who purchased it will tell you.
DS: An album.
DW: Wait, wait, wait, don’t tell them that doesn’t work yet. [Laughs.]
AVC: Dave, you mentioned in an e-mail the show not panning out as a forensic-crime drama on CBS.
DW: Yeah, I don’t see CSI: ATHF.
DS: It would work as a medical drama, because they could still just scream at each other. Frylock would be like, “Damn Shake, he’s losin’ blood!” [Adopts Shake voice.] “Gimme that! I need 100 CCs of…somethin’! I’m gonna make him half-machine!” They turn everyone into half-machine who comes into the ER.
AVC: When the show started, there was an air that they were a mystery-solving gang a la Scooby-Doo. Why did that drop away so quickly?
DS: Corporate greed.
DW: Yeah, we were instructed to make them detectives because at that time, Scooby-Doo was paying everyone’s salary even though it had been off the air for over 16 years. So, they needed a detective group for a new generation. They were detectives for about four days, but they still purchased a lot of detective-agency swag, like when they were starting their detective agency, but then they lost their inspiration for the idea, so they still have 10,000 business cards, and a T-shirt cannon, and other marketing devices.
AVC: Was it enjoyable to write from that angle, or was it too confining?
DW: Yeah, it was terrible. [Laughs.] Suddenly we had to include plots, there needed to be climaxes and denouements—
DS: Stories that finish.
DW: The scripts had to be longer than 12 pages, because you can’t stretch those out to be a half-hour unless you ask everyone to talk really slowly. We were just like, “Give us 11 minutes of air time, and we will give you the world.”
AVC: Was there anything redeeming about writing those early episodes?
DW: No. [Laughs.] That’s the long answer. I think in the second episode we decided, “What if the mystery doesn’t happen?” The mystery is “Where is the mystery?” By the time we turn it in, we’ll be on episode six and they won’t know what happened. We’ll have already delivered the series.
AVC: What else can the show not be? You had a string of episodes in a recent season where the main characters weren’t even in it anymore.
DW: Our goal initially with that was that we were going to do a whole season where the characters were not in it. Over the course of the season, this family of four moves in and they slowly acquire the traits of the Aqua Teens until by the end they’ve become the Aqua Teens, and the show would be about the house. I still feel like that’ll work.
DS: Spoiler alert!
AVC: Why didn’t you pursue that idea?
DS: Corporate greed. This is a very large company.
DW: As Hollywood knows, I’m full of ideas. That’s why we’re bringing back the mystery angle next season.
AVC: For the next generation of Scooby-Doo fans?
DS: One day, Aqua Teen will have usurped Scooby-Doo. Somebody at Cartoon Network told me that Scooby-Doo is still the No. 1 cartoon.
DW: My kids are fanatical about Scooby-Doo, and I think that the creators of Scooby-Doo somehow tripped across some kind of magical hypnotic formula that lures children. It’s far more fascinating to them than anything else on the air.
DS: And they’re still making it! Can you believe they’re still making Scooby-Doo?
DW: And the road is just littered with Scooby-Doo knockoffs.
DS: Yeah, it’s like CSI.
DW: My kids don’t talk about The Funky Phantom. Remember that one? The Revolutionary War ghost? So yeah, we’re going to bring in a dog next season.
DS: I just find Scooby-Doo unwatchable. I can’t stand it. I like all those other Hanna-Barbera shows about a thousand times more than Scooby-Doo.
DW: My dentist asked if I could include some sort of pizza character who could talk about brushing and flossing. He did it because he knew he could pitch me and I couldn’t say shit because my mouth was wide open and filled with Librium.
DS: You were like, “Hey doc, less yappin’, more plaque-scrapin’.”
AVC: Didn’t you also say that someone was pitching you a bacon character?
DW: Yeah, Gristle. Cousin Gristle.
DS: I’ll tell you what, that’s better than the Pizza Man. [Laughs.]
DW: [Laughs.] I think so too.
DS: I’d watch Gristle about a thousand times before I’d watch Pizza Man.
DW: Yeah, I don’t know. I don’t see how this idea can’t just continue to grow and grow like a nascent star until it collapses upon itself. This is the Mickey Mouse of a new generation.
DS: We’re dealing with what are now classic characters, and probably in another two years, animation historians are going to start dissecting it all and breaking it down about how it works and why it works. We’re no Funky Phantom. We’ve got legs. We touch people in many places, in many ways. It’s an evergreen property, really, because they don’t even belong in the situation in which they’re normally being viewed, therefore it opens up for them to be on any type of show.
DW: If we could figure out how to write a reasonable woman, we could make it into a romantic comedy.
DS: Well, you could have a romantic comedy with a video-game machine. Just something they’re really in love with.
DW: Yeah, romantic comedy between Shake and a polyurethane—
DS: An Xbox 360.
AVC: Who would be the best friend who helps the main guy get the girl, but winds up alone in the end?
DS: Carl. [Laughs.]
DW: [As Carl.] Hey, get over there and start makin’ out with him! Do it!
DS: [As Shake.] You should probably do what he says.
DW: [as Carl.]: Do it honey! Or I will harass you the whole night. It’s a strip club, it’s a free country, I can be here all I want! I got ones, and as long as I’m dishin’ ones and buying drinks, I ain’t botherin’ no one. I am the guy you made this place for! For my amusement.
DS: The only thing it would not work as is an animated 11-minute show. I don’t know if you’ve been to Turner [Broadcasting] in Atlanta, but there’s a room here at Adult Swim that literally has 50 people in it. Their only job is to think of other types of shows to do Aqua Teen. We don’t even see them or anything, but they take third shifts here. That’s all their job is, being an immense think tank that dreams every cent that can be had out of this evergreen property, and they haven’t come up dry yet.
AVC: So it’s a sweatshop?
DS: Like a moist shop, it’s not really sweat.
DW: [Laughs.] We keep it very cold in there.
AVC: Has there been anything you’ve tried in the show that just hasn’t worked?
DW: We always think they work, as a rule. If we would have ever listened to someone saying it didn’t work, the show wouldn’t exist and we’d both be in grad school. [Laughs.]
DS: Earning a Spanish degree.
DW: We think everything works for that reason, and also because we’re not good judges of our own work. So, we leave it to someone else to insult us and berate us and ultimately not air what we do.
AVC: The show has a great sense of being very open-ended and not having limits on what it can do. Do you guys have any rules for it at all?
DW: Yeah, that’s what’s great about it. There’s never really a moment where we just go “Meatwad would never say this!” [Laughs.] [As Meatwad] I’m a Jewish transvestite, y’all!
DS: All right, then what?
DW: When Matt Maiellaro and I write the show, there’s really no rules.
DS: The only rule is “no rules.” Which makes it that we do have one rule, but the only rule is “no rules.”
AVC: But it’s not really a rule.
DS: The only rule is there’s only one rule: no rules.
DW: [Laughs.] This is going to come out like I came up on a skateboard.
DS: No limits! I graduated from the University of Whatever.
DW: [Laughs.] Yeah, just have it under 11-and-a-half minutes is the one rule.
AVC: So there are two rules now?
DW: Yes, there’s two rules now. One: do that, and two: no rules.