In 5 To Watch, five writers from The A.V. Club look at the latest streaming TV arrivals, each making the case for a favored episode. The reasons for their picks might differ, but they can all agree that each episode is a must-watch. In this installment: Space Ghost Coast To Coast, which recently became available on Adult Swim’s website as a tribute to the late animator and voice artist C. Martin Croker.
Space Ghost Coast To Coast was an unlikely candidate to lead a TV revolution. Tasked by Ted Turner with creating a late-night animated series that appealed to adults, Cartoon Network executive Mike Lazzo dug into the Hanna-Barbera archives and refashioned the lead of CBS’ Space Ghost And Dino Boy into a clueless talk-show host. Space Ghost Coast To Coast debuted in 1994 and ran for a decade; joining Space Ghost (secret identity: Tad Ghostal) as director and bandleader, respectively, are former adversaries Moltar and Zorak, whose employment by the intergalactic superhero has no effect on their ill will toward him. The trio interacts with live-action guests via pre-recorded and re-edited interviews, though the talk-show conceit is little more than a jumping off point for petty griping, surrealist tangents, and the occasional ant hunt featuring the animated talent.
The show was a critical and cult success, a worthy competitor for the likes of The Simpsons, Beavis And Butt-Head, and The Ren & Stimpy Show (all three of which are referenced within the first, spastic minutes of the series premiere, “Spanish Translation.”) Its greatest impact, however, wouldn’t be felt until 2001, when it served as the tentpole for a lineup of similarly skewed animated fare. Eventually spreading its tentacles far beyond its Sunday-night stronghold, Adult Swim became its own cartoon empire, its original offerings like Harvey Birdman, Attorney At Law and Sealab 2021 borrowing from the Space Ghost Coast To Coast school of Saturday-morning remix. But as its narcissistic host would be sure to tell you, Space Ghost Coast To Coast was there first, making late-night weirder, providing company for lonely stoners, and turning network TV’s trash into cable’s treasures.
For all the non sequiturs and goofball absurdism of Space Ghost Coast To Coast, none of it would work half as well without the childlike innocence at the heart of the superhero’s blustering arrogance and lightning-short attention span. In “Banjo,” that youthful naïveté creates one of the show’s best throughlines, as Space Ghost gets a container of sea monkeys and delights in the birth of the first one, a little guy he names Banjo. But, by episode’s end, Banjo has grown into an enormous monster, wreaking havoc on the studio, and forcing Space Ghost to blast him into a blackened husk with his power bands. “Banjoooooooooo!” he cries, standing over the corpse of his little pet, and that tiny hint of actual pathos makes all the silliness surrounding it land that much harder. And none of that gets into the interviews, including a scornful sit-down with rapper Schoolly D (“So the ‘D’ stands for ‘defenseless’,” Space Ghost proclaims) and a couple minutes with “Weird Al” Yankovic that function as an excuse to get into it with Zorak while still attempting to sing a B-flat. Even so densely packed with jokes, there’s no denying that the focus remains a little pellet—one that, with a little grit and a lot of sheer will, became a sea monkey.
“I can’t handle Carrot Top tonight!” That’s the battle cry of this sterling example of Space Ghost‘s complete indifference to regular talk show protocol. When the infamous prop comic and long-distance pitchman appears on the viewscreen in a grating burst of manic energy and enthusiastic schtick, he’s met, not with teeth-gritted good cheer, but with a mixture of disinterest and contempt from his morose host. Space Ghost is ostensibly down in the dumps over a break-up with the alluring Miss Nesbit, but it’s really all about drily goading Carrot Top into throwing more and more energy into trying to save the interview, complete with nervous laughter and improvised cartoon theme tunes. There’s a hypothetical version of this episode where the Ghost Planet crew match Carrot Top’s unfocused energy, sending the entire thing into full-on cacophony mode. Moltar and Zorak feint at it, playing along with the comic’s Hootie And The Blowfish bit. (And it’s not like that kind of chaotic nonsense isn’t firmly embedded in the show’s DNA.) Instead, though, we get one of Space Ghost’s classic anti-interviews, as a bored-sounding George Lowe gives Carrot Top just enough rope to keep the “conversation” going, even getting him to occasionally break his cheerful character as the frustration slowly mounts.
A lifetime career as a New York art-scene weirdo makes Laurie Anderson a good fit for Space Ghost Coast To Coast. She’s generally able to roll with the non sequitur rhythm of the interview and even interject a few of her befuddling observations. She mentions her enjoyment of the anonymous invisibility of the internet, compelling Space Ghost to demonstrate his own invisibility powers and disappear for a majority of the interview. In Space Ghost’s absence, Anderson proves herself an able stand-in for the host. Zorak asks Anderson to settle a bet between him and Moltar about who created the internet: Al Gore or Sega? This prompts Anderson to go on a long, meandering ramble about how Richard Nixon’s decision to take America off of the gold standard set precedent for the type of ethereal abstraction that led directly to the creation of the internet. (It is also, apparently, what allowed the ’80s to happen.) By the time dance troupe Stomp arrives, Space Ghost is done with the artsy-fartsy tenor of the show and decides he’s going to head back out into space where he can get away from the insufferable creative-types in the studio. To demonstrate he’s not entirely a philistine, he offers to stop by the video store to pick up Three Men And A Baby.
“Pavement” sets itself up as an episode of Space Ghost Coast To Coast “written” by Space Ghost, all the better to display the fragile ego of the host/writer/self-described as “most powerful being that have ever existed in the world of the universe.” Space Ghost’s nonstop crimes against the English language are a constant source of delight, as are the words he puts in Zorak and Moltar’s mouths, which heap praise upon their boss/nemesis and lead to spontaneous prison sentences. (“Prison” being a spot in front of the set’s glittery blue curtains.) For once, Space Ghost Coast To Coast’s runaway pacing and short-attention-span format have an identifiable cause, but that doesn’t take any of the fun out of seeing Tad Ghostal flit gracelessly from a bit of drippy poetry to a bald attempt at flexing his non-existent acting muscles. “Pavement” contains one positive that Space Ghost could never script: The eponymous band, circa Brighten The Corners, who are hired when the host requests The Beatles. Eh, close enough.
The typical Space Ghost Coast To Coast episode—if there is such a thing—tends to involve Zorak or Moltar (or some other old villain) trying to disrupt the talk show by repeatedly insulting Space Ghost or coming up with some weird scheme. “Kentucky Nightmare” shakes things up by making Space Ghost himself the one who sends the show off the rails. That gives the episode a unique energy, since nobody really has any idea what’s going on except for Space Ghost, and even he barely gets it. The real beauty of “Kentucky Nightmare,” though, comes from the relatively grounded way the increasingly absurd plot progresses. It opens with Space Ghost explaining that the show has been bought by a liquor store, which put a shark on the set to promote a whiskey brand. Then a bear starts hanging around the studio, which Moltar explains by showing a documentary Space Ghost made about how bears and sharks are nature’s best friends, so they naturally hang out together. Eventually, the shark explodes, because—as explained in the same documentary—sharks sometimes have M-80s in place of their brains or sexual organs and they explode to attract killer bees. Finally, because of a running joke where Space Ghost tells people to “crack a window,” killer bees get into the studio and everyone has to evacuate to a nearby creek. See? That all makes perfect sense… or at least more sense than most episodes.