Wednesday, December 16th, 2020
Andy Merrill on “The Brak Show,” Being a Space Cat, and the Weirdest Singing Voice Ever
Lazzo Hired Me
Dec 16, 2020
By Jake Uitti
For fans of Cartoon Network and Adult Swim, the name Brak likely brings about a particular type of grin. Brak is the oddball amongst oddballs. He’s the lovable, childish character repurposed from the original Space Ghost cartoon series (he was one of the series’ Council of Doom members). Brak was used both on the animated talk show Space Ghost Coast to Coast and later for his very own series, The Brak Show. That program aired as part of the original Adult Swim cartoon block with Aqua Teen Hunger Force, Sealab 2021, and Harvey Birdman, Attorney at Law. We caught up with voice actor and writer, Andy Merrill, who voiced Brak, to talk about the character’s origin, if he is a “space cat,” or not and how Merrill first landed at Adult Swim.
This is the third in a running series on Under the Radar celebrating Adult Swim and the airing of its first original block of cartoons. Watch Adult Swim on HBO Max.
Jake Uitti (Under the Radar): When did you first find and then, I presume, fall in love with animation?
Andy Merrill: I can’t really say when it started. I grew up in the ’70s, mostly when there was a big boom in Saturday morning cartoons. I grew up on all the Hanna-Barbera stuff. And then eventually when I went to Cartoon Network, I got to program all of that stuff, so that was always fun. But yeah, I grew up on reruns of The Flintstones, The Jetsons, Johnny Quest. I remember distinctly reruns of Space Ghost. Mostly on Saturday mornings. Scooby-Doo was still in production, that’s just about as old as I am.
Was that odd or exciting or a twist of fate that you end up in a place where you’re manipulating those Hanna-Barbera cartoons for a new purpose?
I don’t consider it odd because I was always into knowing who made the cartoons and who did the voices and who wrote and produced and animated and all that stuff. I was always interested in that stuff so, you know, it just was something that happened at the right time. I had just been at CNN for maybe a year and that’s when they started Cartoon Network. So, I found something I was really interested in and had always been interested in and got in on the ground floor.
How did you land at Cartoon Network—I know CNN and Turner and Cartoon Network were all part of the same business but how did you get into that wing of the building?
There was buzz when I started working at CNN in ’91 that Ted Turner had bought the entire Hanna-Barbera library and they already had for TBS the pre-1948 Warner Brothers Bugs Bunny stuff and Popeye and Tom and Jerry. So getting that library was—everybody kind of knew that there was going to be a new niche network starting. I just waited until there was something I thought I could do, which was programming, and that’s how I got in. I did an interview for it and one thing that they did at the beginning at Cartoon Network was, before the interview, they would give you a written test on your cartoon knowledge. Because I grew up on all that stuff, I knew everything. That was an asset.
You started working on Space Ghost Coast to Coast and that was a rather unique time. The show took some time to take off but then it became the godfather of Adult Swim. What was it like for you to be in the eye of the creative storm of that show?
It wasn’t like we initially set out to do a show. We initially set out to do, like, a marathon of Space Ghost and that kind of evolved into [Adult Swim creator, Mike] Lazzo wondering if there was any way we could do an original piece of programming because Cartoon Network really didn’t have anything back then. So, we based it all on what was going on with talk shows at the time, which, you know—Letterman had just lost The Tonight Show to Leno and there was kind of a big feud going on. Somebody wrote a book about it and so the late night talk show wars was front and center in the early ’90s. So, we kind of jumped into the talk show arena just because of that.
I know Brak was a recurring character on Space Ghost Coast to Coast. But how did Space Ghost lead to The Brak Show?
There were initially, like, maybe two or three episodes with Brak in the original Space Ghost. There was a two-episode arc where Space Ghost faced most of his villains and so we already had Zorak and Moltar working on the show and we thought it’d be funny, like, kind of as a little Christmas episode to have the rest of the Council of Doom come in and sing the “Twelve Days of Christmas.” And Brak was “partridge in a pear tree” but he would sing, “Hi, my name is Brak.” And that was my first foray into it. I got to do the character because people in the writer’s room thought it was funny how I was reading it. So, that’s how he started.
We went to our first comic convention in Atlanta and we played some of the episodes at a panel and there weren’t very many people in the room but everybody would say, “All hail Brak!” and “Hi, my name is Brak” every time they would pass our table and stuff. So we knew he was starting to get popular. And then TBS ordered Cartoon Planet, which was a wrap-around packaging show of Space Ghost and Zorak introducing the cartoons in the afternoon. And because Brak kept getting a good response, we started putting him into Cartoon Planet more. And once we started asking people to write in and send letters and stuff, Brak got the bulk of the mail. So, we made him more of a regular character on Cartoon Planet.
Then we would put him in more Space Ghost Coast to Coast episodes. Adult Swim started in 2001, so maybe three years before that in ’98, we did a Brak variety show that was based on the old ’70s Sonny and Cher-type of thing. We had celebrity guests. We did an hour but we aired them as two half-hours. Then in 2001, Adult Swim launched. So, ’98-2000 is when we started developing The Brak Show. Actually, Pete Smith was developing it then and I was in New York at the time. I was working in Cartoon Network programming again when I came back from New York and they brought me on maybe, like, one-third of the way through planning to help write and produce it. Pete was developing it with Jim Fortier, who worked on Squidbillies predominantly. But that’s how it started.
Is Brak a “space cat” and how did you develop his very distinct voice?
We used to say he was a “space cat” and I guess you could still say he is but, you know, he’s evolved so much. Originally, his voice was just me yelling in monotone—HI, MY NAME IS BRAK! I was just literally yelling. It would mean that I would only last maybe, like 5-10 minutes in the studio. So, during Cartoon Planet, when he would have more time in-studio and started doing more songs, I shifted him into being more of a lovable, stupid character. It was a voice my friends and I in high school would do. We were just— you know how you have a best friend and you have a messing around voice and that’s basically what it was. So, it was easier to do his lines that way. Plus it was easier to ad-lib for me and be more silly and stupid.
Where did all the songs come from, why was he a singer?
The songs came from—I don’t know. Songs are an easy way to fill time and we would have maybe, like, five minutes at first with Cartoon Planet. And then people started reacting more to the wrap-around material than the actual Tom and Jerry cartoon. So, after a while, we got rid of the cartoons and just did bits. You know, music is an easy way to fill time plus it’s just fun to do a song, especially if you have—like, we would get some of the Turner Needle Drop library and find stupid-sounding songs. We would either write the song around the instrumental or I would just go in and we would play some stupid song and I would make up some stupid lyrics to it as it was playing. A lot of times, that was kind of bad. People found out who I was in public and they’d say, “Sing that song!” And I would say, “I only sang it once in the studio, I don’t remember it!”
What was it like for you to have a starring role in the original block of Adult Swim cartoons in 2001, along with Aqua Teen, Birdman, and Sealab 2021?
We thought it was a fun experiment. We knew we wanted to have programming for adults and maybe be able to say more things in a cartoon than we could. I think the ’98 season of Coast to Coast when Warner Brothers bought the company and wanted 24 episodes, we’d gotten in trouble that year because we kept using the word “crap.” And an executive’s kid started using “crap” a lot at home. So, I think we wanted to still be able to use the word “crap.” So, it was a nice relief to be able to not be so governed by Standards and Practices. It’s always funny every year when you’re doing Adult Programming, or whatever programming. S and P comes out every year with a list of words you can’t say, which is always funny because they’re written down in front of you. [Laughs] It’s almost like a dare—“I dare you not to say these!”
There were some really historical people involved in Cartoon Network, Adult Swim, Space Ghost, and The Brak Show. What was it like for you to work with Mike Lazzo and Clay Martin Croker?
Lazzo hired me. So, I worked with him since ’92. Lazzo was the one that gave the initial path. I also worked with Khaki Jones a lot. She was very influential at that time for all of the shows. But Clay was always amazing to me. He could do not just Zorak but pretty much anything that Don Messick and Daws Butler did, and they were the two main voices at Hanna-Barbera. So, I always impressed with Clay and he was always very sharp at ad-lib. I could stand in the studio with him and we’d just riff on each other. As long as I’d think stupid and he thought evil, that was pretty simple.
I was glad we brought Cartoon Planet back for the 20th anniversary of Cartoon Network in 2012 and I had such a low budget that I had to choose between Zorak and Space Ghost. And, I thought, the better relationship on Cartoon Planet was Zorak and Brak just because of the dynamic between the two. So, I got to share the studio and write for Zorak and work with Clay one last time [before he passed away], which was really fun.
Looking back on The Brak Show 20 years later, what do you love most about it?
When I came back to Adult Swim and worked on The Brak Show, I worked first on an episode where we had Brak’s parents run over Zorak and kill him. To get rid of the evidence, we had them eating him and feeding him to Brak. So, I think one of the fun parts of making that show—and this is not an overall thought of making the show, this is just one particular episode—but going to the farmer’s market and being so excited at the meat counter, picking out bits of offal like pig liver and beef heart just to have realistic pictures of Zorak’s guts. Seeing the butcher’s face as I was getting excited like, “Oh boy, look at those kidneys!” And then just gleefully taking them home. We would have to have shots of them either raw or cooked and I would cook some of it at home and I remember my wife coming home, saying, “That smells really good!” And I’m like, “Yeah, look at it all!” That’s one of the main attractions!
But, I don’t know—The Brak Show and Space Ghost kind of felt the same as far as working on them is concerned. Because we sat around in a writer’s room—the only thing different about Brak was we would write every episode together. Space Ghost we would maybe go off on our own every once in a while and write a basic episode and bring it in and work on it with the group. But The Brak Show was mostly written by the entire group. Pete would drive the computer and we would all come up with the script together. There was a comradery with it. It was a little more personal with Brak, I think, because there were three of us in the room working on the show. Plus, you know, working on a character that you personally do feels good.