Cartoon Network's "Adult Swim" animation block has become one of television's most refreshing and surprising success stories, thanks in no small part to Aqua Teen Hunger Force, an enjoyably deranged 15-minute exercise in pop-culture-damaged absurdism that's become one of the network's signature shows. The cult hit is the brainchild of writer-producer-creators Dave Willis and Matt Maiellaro, who have also written and produced episodes for Space Ghost Coast To Coast and Sealab 2021.
Aqua Teen Hunger Force's kinda-anthropomorphic fast-food characters—Meatwad (voiced by Willis), Master Shake, and Frylock—originated in an initially rejected Space Ghost script., but quickly took on a life of their own when given their own show in 2000. As with Family Guy and Futurama, Aqua Teen's popularity and fan base skyrocketed when its first season was released on DVD; a film version is now in the works. Maiellaro and Willis are also developing two upcoming additions to the Adult Swim lineup: 12 Ounce Mouse and Squidbillies. The A.V. Club recently spoke with Willis and Maiellaro about Aqua Teen Hunger Force's inauspicious beginnings, the movie, and their cult following.
The Onion: How did Aqua Teen Hunger Force come about?
Matt Maiellaro: This is an old story.
Dave Willis: We were doing a little experiment at the time. We'd just written this Space Ghost Coast To Coast script, and I think it showed maybe how bored we were with Space Ghost and Zorak that these fast-food characters came in and sort of took over the show. It never got made, because there wasn't enough Space Ghost in there, and Master Shake and Meatwad and Frylock just took it over completely. We always liked that script. It seemed like it dawned on us a couple of months later that it'd be a cool show on its own.
O: So you were sick of Space Ghost at that point?
MM: I think we were both just tired of doing it. Me and Dave had both been doing it on and off for five years or so. I felt like it was getting tired. It was a hard show to make, too. It was hard to get scripts approved. The process was a lot different than how we do Aqua Teen as far as the creative goes.
O: Watching Adult Swim, it seems like there's an amazing freedom there, that people can pretty much do whatever they want. Does it feel that way from the inside as well?
MM: Yeah, I think so. We get to do things nobody else would let us do.
DW: It's tough to say. This has really been my only real, real job. I probably have been spoiled in that I haven't really worked in situations where I've gotten a ton of notes.
MM: I have though. I did it for MTV, and I wrote a spec for Third Rock From The Sun, and they just look at it like "There's no way, it's too bizarre, the kind of things you do." Everybody else out there is scared, they're spending so much money that they want to make sure your idea fits this template that's been working forever. Over here, we get to come up with crazy ideas. Food items have a show. We do have more freedom here. You can feel it. It's not like we're making it in a basement for eight other people. It's definitely a business, with a business model and ad sales and all that. But to make an analogy, I keep hearing it's like roulette. Instead of putting all your chips on one thing, it's all about spreading out the chips. These shows have such small budgets. As a viewer, if a 15-minute show sucks, just stick around. There'll be something else on soon. No one else is making these short shows out there that I can think of.
O: With so much of show business, once something is successful, everyone starts imitating it. Are you surprised there haven't been more Adult Swim knockoffs?
MM: I don't really follow anything.
DW: Spike put out that whole animation block, and it failed. It was pretty much the anti-Adult Swim. It's like Kelsey Grammar, I guess he's okay, but what about him makes you think he could make a really great cartoon? Why would anyone at home say "Hey, honey, the voice of Frasier is responsible for this!" Why would you care?
O: Wasn't Stripperella part of that block?
MM: Yeah. It's retarded. You take the one strength of Pamela Anderson and you get rid of it.
O: What was the pitch for Aqua Teen Hunger Force like?
DW: Like being in trouble. [Laughs.] We had a friend of Matt's do some mockups of drawings we had basically done on cocktail napkins.
MM: But they gave us the money to do it, so at the end of the day, they must have believed in it and believed in us. But it was really awkward. It called upon qualities that neither one of us has in spades, to kind of sell yourself and sell this product. It's a lot easier just to do it.
DW: Yeah, exactly, just to make something and not have to convince anyone you need the money.
O: So they weren't super-psyched right off the bat?
DW: Matt helped start Space Ghost. I came into that in the middle. So we were starting a show, and really, the block had just started, and we barely knew how to do Space Ghost, and that was really limited animation. This actually required a little more movement from the characters. I think we did everything wrong in the beginning, but we believed in the idea, and they gave us enough rope to see if we could pull it off.
O: The fact that it was really cheap probably didn't hurt.
DW: The pilot wasn't. The pilot was expensive. We just did everything wrong, and we see some of those mistakes get repeated over here. We learned a lot of hard lessons, I think.
O: How long did it take for the show to develop an audience?
MM: Up until right after the release of the first DVDs, I guess.
DW: It's tough. You always have to have enough shows for people to be able to depend upon something, to watch it week in, week out. We're also kind of sheltered around here. There were a lot more higher-profile, higher-budget projects, so I think the DVD sold a lot more than they were expecting. I guess it was rather eye-opening. When we did 24 episodes two years ago, that was great, because people could always count on seeing new episodes.
MM: It's a college audience, and they don't stick those Nielsen boxes in dorm rooms. There's probably a lot of confusion as to what actually ratings are among our audience, which is pretty much 18-to-24s, which is like, huge.
DW: They've got the disposable income.
O: Why do you think Adult Swim has caught on the way it has?
DW: Cause we're appealing to stoned-out, drunk kids.
MM: I don't know. There's not a lot of great comedy out there on TV. With this stuff, if it's not funny, at least it's weird and unexpected. Maybe we're not successful every time out of the gate, but at least we try to do something completely different. Most of network television is so homogenized by the time it's reached the air. There are few hurdles we have to clear before getting something on the air. Once we write it and put it together, that's about it.
O: Are there any limits imposed on you?
DW: There have been recently, with standards.
MM: We're not allowed to show sex. We need to stay away from specific religions. We pushed the envelope of blood on Aqua Teen. The blood factor's loosened up a little bit.
DW: They're real arbitrary about stuff. It's like, "Limit the blood to a three-second spray."
MM: Like anything more would be too gory. They've actually defined what would be pornographic and what wouldn't.
DW: That's why we did that episode where someone's head gets blown off and a rainbow comes out of their neck.
MM: Christianity's a little touchy.
O: What about Judaism?
MM: Nah, that's okay. We can bash away, 'cause that's not a religion, it's a tradition. [Laughs.]
O: What's the biggest misconception people have about working at Cartoon Network?
MM: That we're constantly high?
DW: That's one of them. Friday afternoons, maybe. Otherwise, we have to stay focused on animation.
O: What can you say about the Aqua Teen Hunger Force movie?
MM: Right now, it's about 76 pages long and it's good. We're actually doing a rewrite on it. We wrote it last September and got money to do it in February, and we were in the middle of producing a lot. We had a lot going on, and we decided to rewrite it in the last two days, which is amazing, because the script originally only took one day to write. It was a marathon of crystal meth.
DW: Dude, we were so high. The movie's about getting high. All your questions will be answered, if you'd actually bothered to have questions. All will be revealed, but more questions will be raised than answered.
O: Is it going to get a big theatrical release?
MM: That's the plan.
DW: How big is four theaters? It'd be a midnight movie. We'll see how it tests.
O: Do you think you'll ever feel too old to continue making cartoons?
O: Do you get a lot of fan mail? What's it like?
DW: "Where do you live? We want to visit your house."
MM: We get a lot of people saying "Carl's the greatest." "We love Meatwad." "Sign this for us."
DW: We got a letter from the Michigan Department Of Corrections from a fan of the show named Jackrabbit Slim. He's incarcerated and he wrote "I'm 33 years old and I've never seen a funner cartoon in my life."
O: Beyond being in jail and stoned, how would you describe your fans?
DW: They're really cool. I was standing in line for a concert one time, and this kid recognized me from some VH1 special, and he said "Dude, I work at Jersey Mike's. If you're ever there, ask for Clint, and I will so hook you up." A lot of that. Free sandwiches, a couple requests: "You gotta come to my room and get high with us." I can't think of what I'd want to do less.
The Onion: Aqua Teen Hunger Force's theme song is a major draw. How did Schooly D end up doing it?
Matt Maiellaro: We had talked about there just being a hardcore rap song for it and I think Michael Lazzo threw out the idea of it being Schooly D. I didn't really know who Schooly was, even though he had been on Space Ghost. Then we got our friend who knew Schooly to call him up, and he was all down with doing it. He's a huge cartoon geek. He loves that kind of stuff.
O: He came up with it fairly quickly, did he not?
MM: Yeah, Dave and I flew to Philly, and we had given him an idea of the show and what kind of a message we wanted to convey. I think he wrote it five minutes before he walked into the booth. With cartoons, if something doesn't come out right, you can always fix it. It's not like it's live or anything. [But recording music] is a little scary—you don't know what you're going to get, almost. It's hard to tell someone who's established to do this or that. We didn't give him any notes at all. We just sat there and watched him do it and loved it.
O: What message did you want the theme song to convey?
MM: We wanted it to be like, "There are these three hard guys who'd come into your town and fuck it up and take it over," just kind of a hardcore rappy song, and then they're just sitting at the couch watching TV, which is one of the contrasts of the show.
O: Who came up with the "Number one in the hood, G" line?
Dave Willis: He did. We didn't throw anything at him but ideas.
O: Matt, your bio says that one of your first show-business jobs involved answering viewer mail for TBS. What was that like?
MM: It was like I needed a job, and I got that one, and I took it immediately, and I answered mail. I met [future collaborator Michael] Lazzo during that time, which was in '88, and that was cool, because we got to hang out and do crazy shit. He was a step above me. He was just a program administrator, delivering paperwork to executives. He had higher aspirations within the company than I did.
O: What kind of viewer mail would TBS get?
MM: "What time does McLintock! come on?" "When will you run McLintock!?" "Do you have any McLintock! promos?" Everything was McLintock! I'd never seen it, so I wrote people back and told them that that movie sucked and that we were never going to air it. Everybody also wanted to know why everything started on the hour plus five minutes. It was all retarded. I was so drunk that whole year I was working there that I don't remember any of it.
O: And then you moved to assistant directing?
MM: Well I started as a PA and moved into being an AD. I would seek out the horror films that I wanted to work on. I was pretty picky about that. It was fun to do.
O: You were a PA on Darkman?
MM: I had a good time on that show. The crew was really nice. It was cool. It was a long show, and I learned a lot.
O: Did you work a lot with Sam Raimi?
MM: Oh yeah. [Sarcastically.] When Sam and I were making Darkman, he would confer with me, asking if he should go with an 85 or a 50, and I'd say he should actually go with a 300. I got that job because I mailed him a letter with my little short films, and said it'd be really cool to work on one of his movies, and he wrote back and said "I'm doing this movie now. Come out and interview now." So that's how I got that job.
O: You also worked on Ruby In Paradise. How did that compare to working on Hellraiser III and Children Of The Corn II?
MM: It wasn't as exciting, but it was still filmmaking, so it was exciting to be in production. It was lower-budget. There was no gore and nothing exploded, but it was still fun to work on. Horror films, those are the ones that snap something in my brain.
O: When you worked on Children Of The Corn II, did you get to meet He Who Walks Behind The Rows?
MM: No, I actually came in toward the end and did a bunch of the special effects. I AD'd the special-effects unit, so I didn't get to meet any of the actors, really. It was all close-ups of corn cutting people's throats. [Laughs.]
DW: Did they use corn to kill people?
MM: Yeah, the husks would come to life and slit people's throats. I shot a lot of that.
DW: No way.
MM: Way. But I haven't seen any of the Children Of The Corn trilogy.
O: Dave, your bio says you traveled around after college.
DW: It's interesting. Matt and I didn't meet until we worked together over here, but when I was in college, Matt was filming Hellraiser III on my campus. We never met, but they were busy blowing up the new student life building or the business administration building or something. No, I just goofed off for a couple of years, did the standard after-college ramble, doing odd jobs and stuff.
O: Did you learn some valuable life lessons?
DW: Yeah. Not to do manual labor, that's a dead end. Use your college degree. I worked on a riverboat for six months. I worked up in Alaska. You know those ads that say "Make thousands a month cutting fish?" Yeah, that's not true, but you've got to head up there to find out. But it was a lot of fun, and I learned a lot. I learned that I should do what I want to do for a living. Everyone else in the world has a shitty job.
O: How did you end up at Cartoon Network?
DW: I was a PA in town for six months. I did it when I was in college, just trying to get into commercials, corporate video, music video. I worked on a Cartoon Network shoot, and they hooked me up with Andy Merrill, who is the voice of Brak and was a Space Ghost producer in the early years and throughout a big chunk of the '90s. But I sent him a letter. My sister's a Special Ed teacher, so she had one of her students copy a letter I wrote. It basically says "Dear Sirs. My name is Robert. I am 8. I recommend Dave Willis without reservation. He's a fine, upstanding…" and then there's a picture of a car and then "Love, Robert." I got hired off that and worked my way up. It's weird. I'd just gotten hired, and Matt had just quit three weeks earlier to do some movie stuff in L.A., and then he came back. When did you come back?
MM: I came back in '97 briefly with a script, but then I came back officially in '98.
DW: So I'd been working on Space Ghost from '96 to '98, and then Matt came back to write for it, so we started working together on that.
O: What was Fß__script?
MM: I was hired to write an extra Space Ghost script because they were doing a ton of them that year. I guess they just needed a little more help, because they had 24 or so of them they were doing.
DW: '97 was a crazy year where there were four of us and we tried to expand the budget and expand everything, and actually tried to do a real television season of 24 episodes.
O: How did you end up becoming a writing team?
MM: Well, we checked into a Motel 6. No, we came back and it was Dave and I and Pete Smith producing. Matt took off to get married. It just kind of dwindled down to Dave and I.
DW: Everyone else just left. We both needed the job.
MM: The first season of Space Ghost, after the pilot, we were writing Aqua Teen and Space Ghost at the same time.
DW: '98, you did some work, and then '99, it was just the two of us doing it, and then 2000, I think that's when we pitched Aqua Teen.
O: Squidbillies is seeing the light after a long delay. It has kind of a long and involved history already. What was the deal with its original pilot?
DW: Too many cooks, probably. Everyone got pooled into one room and told that this was the next big thing. Matt and I were kind of rolling with Aqua Teen, and The Brak Show was happening. It hadn't really been developed. When people pitch ideas, they're usually pretty developed, whereas this was kind of like, "Funny word, let's build a show around it." I just think we did everything wrong that we could have done, and the end result was an episode that wasn't too good. I think there were a lot of pluses, especially the artwork and the voices. I think Mike took a step back this year and said "I'm going to let you two develop it"—meaning myself and [Space Ghost/Brak Show writer-producer] Jim Fortier—and then Matt had an idea for this 12 Ounce Mouse show, and he's doing that this year. It's good. The small group's going to turn out well.
O: There seems to be a widespread misconception that the whole show is an elaborate practical joke on Adult Swim's audience.
DW: No. I wish we were that clever. Did you do a Google search, and it went, "Did you mean squid balls?"
O: Yes. So what happens if you look up "squid balls"?
DW: You'd get more entries than you would from Squidbillies. You'd probably find a good mail-order place for some Asian food. We're going to make six episodes this year. It's good. I think it just needed—I don't know what it needed, just someone to take control of it. It was just six of us moonlighting. We all had our other shows. I don't know why it didn't work out, but for better or worse, we're going to make six of them this year and see if people respond to it.
MM: I think a lot of what you're saying is right. It started out based on this word that was funny, but there wasn't really an idea. The pilots were written by different groups of people around here. There were too many people throwing out ideas, and nobody was in control of it. That was the major problem. Nobody ran that show, but we got together once in a while to throw out ideas. It was too much committee.
DW: Matt and I, when we pitched Aqua Teen, we knew everything about it and its characters. With this, we didn't even know names of characters, what they looked like. It was just sort of "Squids raise hell in the north Georgia mountains." It's hard for a singular vision to emerge, and that's what all the shows on the block are about really.