'Just Bring 'em In From Space'
An Interview With the Creators of Aqua Teen Hunger Force
By James Norton
As genres go, "anthropomorphic food" has a fairly lousy track record. What's meant to be cute and whimsical typically turns out to be a mix of square and spooky. There's nothing particularly fun about McDonald's existentially disturbing mascots, for example. Who can have fun while considering the implications of fried potato slices that can formulate independent thought? What possible milkshake-related insights can be brought to us by an enormous talking turnip? And who actually enjoys the strangely upbeat cannibalism of the pigs-in-chef's-clothing that grace the awnings of most American barbecue restaurants? This is to say nothing of the Christ-injected VeggieTales.
If talking food is a tool, it's one typically seized by a businessman/evangelist desperately grasping for "funny" and using the first inoffensive, seemingly comic concept he can find.
But Adult Swim mainstay "Aqua Teen Hunger Force" may be enough to singlehandedly rehabilitate the genre. Featuring a streetwise and nigh-omnipotent box of french fries, a chronically stupid wad of hamburger meat with an unnerving talent for deadpan sarcasm, and a milkshake who is, in the words of his creators, "an asshole," the show is currently commencing its first full-bore run on Cartoon Network.
Unlike most fiction-driven TV shows, which trundle mechanically along the tracks of their plot from opening dilemma to neat conclusion, "Aqua Teen Hunger Force" relies almost entirely on the interplay of its characters. And the scorchingly abrasive Master Shake carries a lot of the load.
"I think we both have an affinity for assholes," said series co-creator and co-writer Dave Willis in a recent phone interview with himself and colleague Matt Maiellaro. "They're always a lot funnier than the people on, like, 'Friends,' who are good looking and don't have any major flaws."
"I think we're pretty blessed," adds Willis. "The guy who's the main voice of Master Shake, Dana Snyder, is really really talented, and helped us take that character in a totally different direction. We try to encourage as much improvisation inside the studio as possible. But the story stays the same, and the lines for the most part stay the same; they just get tweaked and made more real."
Clocking in at a razor-thin 15 minutes, "Aqua Teen Hunger Force" has built a burgeoning base of fans by regularly cranking out envelope-pushing laffs that conjure up memories of the late, great "Family Guy." But unlike "The Family Guy," which relied on tight, coherent plots that unfolded at a typical sitcom pace, "Aqua Teen Hunger Force" hits fast, drops a storm of trashtalk, and vanishes like a summer thunderstorm.
"We were using this editor from LA on this one show, and he was talking to us about the third act, and we were like: 'What, the last 90 seconds?' " says Willis. "People talk about trying to end on a cliffhanger, but we've gotten to a point where we just instinctively go to a non sequitur and that just wraps it up. If we went to half an hour, we'd actually have to have..."
"An outline," interjects Maiellaro.
"Yeah, we'd actually have to outline stuff."
The show's kinetic quality has been thrown into hyperdrive this season, the first truly beefy slate of ATHF to hit the airwaves. Eighteen new episodes are being rolled out this fall, an unprecedented output for what is essentially a two-man operation.
"It's so rare for us to try to pull together 18 weeks. I mean, 'The Simpsons' has 25 writers on staff. Here, it's [the two of] us," says Maiellaro.
Adds Willis: "It's kind of a skeleton crew, but I think it's great, because it gives us a lot of freedom. If we were given a lot of money and a big staff, it might be insane pressure, and it might not be as much fun. We're at the point where we're writing a script a week, for better or worse, and I think it's really coming out fluid. You might think the opposite would be true, but if we were only doing ten we would just nitpick them to death."
Humble, unbelievably random origins
"Aqua Teen Hunger Force's" heavy rotation this fall is a long step from its start as a random detour on "Space Ghost Coast to Coast," where Maiellaro and Willis were writers.
"Space Ghost had gone to a fast food restaurant and he'd ordered a ton of food," says Maiellaro. "He didn't have the money to pay for it, so in lieu of money, the burger chain said: 'We're going to put our mascots on your show.' That was going to be Master Shake, Meatwad and Frylock, and they were gonna just sort of hijack the show."
But the Aqua Teen Hunger Force team never made their "Space Ghost" debut.
"I think we wrote probably 20 or 30 drafts of that and it didn't have enough Space Ghost in it, so the show never got produced," says Maiellaro. "And then after 'Space Ghost' took a hiatus, they were looking for something else to do, and so Dave and I decided, 'Wouldn't it be great if these characters had their own show?'"
"It was a very unconventional and very unprofessional pitch [to the network]," says Willis. "I don't know about Matt, but I had never been involved in a pitch before, and I don't know if either one of us were very good salespeople, but we knew the people that we were pitching to. And to their credit, I don't think any of them really particularly liked it, except for Khaki Jones. But they gave us money, and carried us for a little while and let us do it."
"The first season was one show," says Maiellaro. "It took an entire year to develop, animate and put one show together. And it aired like Dec. 31, at 1 a.m., so it would hit that year's budget. We totally did it the wrong way. We had come from producing Space Ghost, so we figured, well, that'll be an easy way to do this show, and of course it was exactly the wrong way to do it. We learned a lot of expensive lessons."
"We had already started the second one before the first one was done, to ensure that we got picked up," says Willis. "We took it upon ourselves to record number two, and I remember our boss Mike was like: 'You did what?! I haven't even seen number one yet!' "
A cascade of snarky voices
For a show that has an edgily plugged-in feeling, "Aqua Teen Hunger Force" gets by with half of its creative team being at least partially out of the loop.
"I don't watch any TV," says Maiellaro.
"Matt is, like, in a militia," laughs Willis.
"TV makes me nervous when it's on," Maiellaro affirms. "I gotta have it off. As far as films go, I like action films. I'll buy any action film that's come out of Hong Kong, or has Jean-Claude Van Damme in it... I just like big, loud-sounding movies. I don't care if they're bad or not. And horror films... those are my favorite. I usually only watch a comedy if Dave gives me a DVD and says: 'Watch this, it's really funny.'"
"And then he comes back and says: 'I watched 10 minutes of this, and it sucked,'" adds Willis. Willis, who, for his part, is into what he calls "pretty staple comedy stuff," including "'Larry Sanders,' 'Mr. Show'... and Owen Wilson with Wes Anderson, I can't get enough of those movies, and Coen Bros... pretty par-for-the-course kind of stuff."
"We've really branched out this year [with Aqua Teen Hunger Force] and gotten some voice talent people some comedians we've really admired," he adds. "Like Patton Oswald, people like that."
"And Danzig," adds Maiellaro.
"Yeah, Danzig," says Willis, "He's been doing a lot of stand-up lately. You know, standing up and spraying chicken blood on people."
The upcoming "Aqua Teen" season will also be buttressed by the vocal stylings Seth MacFarlane (creator of "The Family Guy,") Brian Posehn of "Mr. Show" and Todd Barry.
Fly me to the moon
Though high-flight vocal talent may contribute to a highly entertaining fall 2003 season, "Aqua Teen Hunger Force" built its original success on fresh ideas like the Mooninites. Blockily animated in a style that directly evokes primitive video game sprites, the Mooninites are Earth-touring moon dwellers who easily give Master Shake a run for his money in terms of pure belligerence. Not surprisingly, they're also among "Aqua Teen Hunger Force's" most popular recurring characters.
"I had read an article a long time ago about how ET, the Atari video game, didn't sell as well as they'd hoped, and apparently they buried almost a million of these cartridges in the desert," says Maiellaro, talking about the Mooninites' original point of origin. "And we were thinking: 'What if [the Aqua Teen] house was built on the burial ground of this video game?' But then it got to be such an involved story that it was hard to tell in 11 minutes. So it was like: 'What if we just make these guys from the moon, and they think they're beyond our culture, but literally they're about 18 years behind us?"
In a nutshell, before being assigned their lunar heritage, the Mooninites were originally conceived of as spectral Atari 2600 characters.
"We've come to realize that if you have to tell too long of a backstory, just bring 'em in from space," says Willis. "Then you don't have to explain anything. You don't have to say shit."
Willis and Maiellaro's freewheeling attitudes, cultivated by a management team that gives them a lot of room to run, probably help feed the show's streetwise veneer. But despite a customized hip-hop opening sequence and an episode featuring bovine rap impresario Sir Loin, the "Aqua Teen Hunger Force"/hip-hop links are fairly tenuous.
"I think we decided that we wanted to have an opening that would kick ass and be kind of scary. So we managed to get a hold of Schooly D, and he was up for doing the song, and that was really cool," says Maiellaro.
"[But] neither one of us are really hip-hop fans not that we don't like it, it's just not what we happen to listen to. It's funny hip-hop is almost like this thin, fake-wood veneer that we put over the show to make it appear that we're hipper than we actually are. I mean, we wanted that opening to just scare the hell out of people. I think we had talked about making Schooly the Waylon Jennings to our 'Dukes of Hazzard,' and that's drifted in and out."
The show's "fresh-outta-Jersey" feel is a bit of a put-on, as well; Maiellaro grew up in Pensacola, Fla., and Dave hails from Conyers, an Atlanta suburb.
In fact, the creative environment of the Atlanta-based Cartoon Network is a major contributor to the show's overall feel.
According to Willis, the insularity of the office's scene helps give Adult Swim's original shows their definitive style.
"It's a small pool down here people who know how to do this weird little thing, make these cheap cartoons, and it's in Atlanta it's not like New York or LA, where's there's a gigantic community of people striving to do this sort of thing," he says.
And the overstimulating but cloistered creative hothouse of Atlanta may yet give birth to another Willis/ Maiellaro production.
"We're working on a movie called 'Worm Flavor Man...' " says a hesitant Willis.
"Nobody knows we're working on this," adds Maiellaro.
"You know what? Hollywood needs to know," says Willis.
Details, however, are hard to coax out of the duo. Finally, Maiellaro volunteers the bare rudiments of an outline. "Food. Worm flavor. The quest for food. The quest for soil," he says.
And Willis is at least willing to cough up the snappy catchphrase for the preview: "'Find the soil this Christmas.'"
Until then at least, Cartoon Network viewers have 18 new episodes of Aqua Teen Hunger Force to unwrap, and a DVD collection emerging in November. After decades of shame, we can chalk up a big one for talking food.