Thursday, December 17th, 2020
George Lowe on Being Space Ghost, Mike Lazzo’s Texas Accent, and Fighting With Zorak
Paintings and Sketches
Dec 17, 2020
By Jake Uitti
When speaking with voice actor, George Lowe, who famously portrayed Space Ghost on the quirky, at times goofy cartoon late night show Space Ghost Coast to Coast, it’s easy to get lost on little anecdote paths or avenues that lead to other stories. It’s charming, endearing. In one moment, Lowe might be talking about interviewing for the show and his mind immediately goes to a receptionist eating peach cobbler. Or he could be talking about his peers on the program and suddenly think about his paintings and sketches, which he loves so much and have hung in museums. In other words, Lowe is a generous interview subject with much to talk about.
He’s also very humble. To any who’ve watched, Space Ghost Coast to Coast is an all-time favorite. It was groundbreaking in its time and led to the creation of Adult Swim, which is the Cartoon Network’s at night block of shows made for adults. Without Space Ghost Coast to Coast there would be no Aqua Teen Hunger Force, Sealab 2021, Harvey Birdman, Attorney at Law, The Brak Show, or Robot Chicken. We caught up with Lowe to talk to him about his career, how he found the Cartoon Network, what he loved about Space Ghost Coast to Coast and much more.
This is the fourth in a running series on Under the Radar celebrating Adult Swim and the airing of its first original block of cartoons: Aqua Teen Hunger Force, Sealab 2021, The Brak Show, and Harvey Birdman, Attorney at Law. Watch Adult Swim on HBO Max.
Jake Uitti (Under the Radar): Did you fall in love with animation as a young person?
George Lowe: Hooked from childhood. Even before you had any kind of audible storyline. Before there was any kind of a vocal storyline, I would sit in front of the Roadrunner and Coyote where all you had to do was listen to the music cues as a little guy. I rushed home everyday for Superman—I think it was 3 p.m. when I was growing up. And you would fly in the house. You know, I was bullied, as you might imagine, like anybody different. Of course, now they all love me, the Alma Mater. I never even graduated from Clearwater High. I left my senior year and God bless them, they call me every time they do a reunion now.
But between Superman and the original Space Ghost, my friends and I would run in Saturday morning and oh my god, it was fantastic! The old Hanna-Barbera stuff, it was just weird to find myself in that boat years later going through the halls at Turner. I had been fired from one radio job and my mom, bless her heart, said, “Why don’t you see that one friend you have at Turner?” I was like, “Oh, mom, you can’t just walk in that place, they’re heavily armed!” And there was this funny old woman working the front desk who made the best-looking food. She sat at the front desk and she’s like, “You here to see your friend, baby?” And I’m like, “Yes, ma’am but I want to see what you made first!” She’d laugh and say, “I got Crowder peas and I got greens and I got peach cobbler.” And I’m like, “Nuts to my friend, I’m going to stay here and watch you eat!”
You mentioned your radio job and I wanted to ask, you started in radio at 15. What did that experience teach you?
It was hysterical because at 13, my voice came crashing down. The way I’ve always put it was, “Supper!” With the echo, “Supper-upper-upper-upper.” Like, “Wow, where did that come from?” My friends in Clearwater shoved me into a local radio station and they thought they were being funny but an hour later when I finally came out, they were like, “What the hell did you do?” I said, “They sat me down and let me audition.” This was at 13! Well, at 15, and I don’t know how to politely put this, I was dating this gorgeous girl in Clearwater. She had become this copper-tone, a real knock-out. And we hit it off and that’s when mom announced, “We’re moving.” I thought, “Great, perfect timing!” But my senior year, we ended up in Brooksville, Florida. I think they had a drive-in movie and an A&W. That was it; that was the town. But I went into the local radio station. It was 1,000 watts in the day, 250 at night. [Laughs] I was looking at my hairdryer—back in the days of having hair—and it said 1,000 watts and then you could click down to 250 and I thought, “Hey, it’s a radio station!” But oh my god, did we have fun!
It’s cool you got started young. I’m always envious of people who find something that they’re excited about at an early age.
I was always an art nut but the thing that pays dividends was having what remains of the voice now and what voice I had then. But I loved putting fake commercials on. I got into Firesign Theater and a whole bunch of stuff you’re not supposed to listen to as a kid. I remember my wonderful English teacher, Mr. Hassel, in high school. He turns around one day and he hands me a George Carlin record. And I’m like, “Wow! This is great!” Mr. Hassle was wonderful. He even came by—he had an old Volkswagen Beetle and he would drive me to summer school with him. I was not a great student.
How did you get the job doing Space Ghost Coast to Coast and how did you meet the creator, Mike Lazzo?
I only knew Mike because he was down the hall from my friend, Kate. And Kate said, “Yeah, go through! Down the hall, take a right, meet Sam and meet Anne.” She’s giving me this list of people to go say hi to. I’d say, “Kate sent me by to see if you have any promos. I’m pretty good with voices.” One guy heard me already on radio doing—we used to end every show with not Don Pardo but Don Lardo, my “world famous” announcer. It was horrible fake commercial stuff. I loved Don, I even got to meet him on the phone once.
What were your impressions of Mike?
The thing that stopped me at Mike’s office—you know, Cartoon Network hadn’t been born and Mike was down in this promo part of the building. I remember I looked at his walls, which is what I look on in everybody’s office because of the art addiction, and I said, “Oh! You’ve got R.A. Miller!” And he was like, “You know R.A.?” And I said, “Yeah, I’ve been there 100 times.” And he said, “We’ll have to go sometime.” We finally did when Cartoon Network started and, sadly, the busier the network got, the more he and I stopped doing the fun stuff like going to see R.A. Miller and going to see Howard Zinn’s first plays—these great self-taught artists who I’m still completely immersed in.
What did you think of the Space Ghost Coast to Coast concept originally?
Well, you know, of course, when you’re a kid you think it’s cool anytime it’s like, “Space Ghost calling! Come in if you hear me!” You’re sitting there and going, “Wow! This military sounding guy is really cool. Space Ghost is a take charge guy.” But, of course, I’d go in the building and take it completely off the rails. They’d hand me these very well written scripts and then I’d go, “What’s he supposed to sound like, an idiot here?” And you could see this poor kid volunteer doing time code getting carpal tunnel trying to mark all the stuff they liked. It was a fun mix up because I think they got very hip to the idea early on of Space Ghost is leaking gold in that room but at the same time they were writing gold. But the rewrites became a very active part of what we did. They would turn around and say, “Come in, we want to take another spin at this. That thing you said is funny.” So, we hit it from a number of different angles.
What were the first few years like?
It was real stilted. In the beginning, I was doing my tribute to [original voice actor] Gary [Owens]. Then, organically, thankfully, what I found that worked was—you know how Adam West kept holding the book up and I said, “Eh, okay, see you at the auto show.” Stuff like that, they were like, “Oh, mark that!” Here is this poor kid with an ice bag on his wrist. [Laughs] But we had more damn fun! And Matt [Maiellaro] would pop out with pure insanity like, “I want you to go in the room and sing these lines to the tune of ‘Desperado.’ Don’t worry about Don Henley suing us! No problem! We’re Cartoon Network! We’ll just hang them up in legals for the next 20 years.” We’d do everything that now would get us place sanctioned, outlawed and moved to Sri Lanka. It’s almost like people embraced all the naughty stuff that you’re not supposed to do. So, we got away with an awful lot.
Did you do the interviews with the guests?
I did a bunch of them. The first 30, or so, I think were me. Michael Stipe, Carol Channing, Danny Bonaduce, Adam West—Donny Osmond and I knew each other from radio. You see Donny and he’s like, “How did you get this job?” And my reply was something along the lines of, “Well, you can’t have everything on television. Someone else has to win one!” He looked so perturbed. That was real!
I remember that episode!
David Byrne, too. Creepy cool. They never used it. He and I spent I don’t know how long talking about death. His laugh was—well, you heard it on the show, “Huh huh huh huh huh.” This weird kind of machine gun laugh. He asked me, “Well, how do you want to be remembered, Space Ghost?” I said, “I want a salad bar attached to my coffin with a sneeze guard so people will be able to pay their respects and eat better than what killed me.”
It must have been so fun to riff with people who were creative, smart, quick-witted.
It looked like it went sour sometimes but I’m sure sometimes that was edited. And that must be fun, too, to reconfigure the interviews.
There were times when you felt, “Okay, they’re with you!” And you were on a roll. But there were times when you feel like, “Oh, that’s two hours I’ll never get back!” But it’s their headache now and I get money to come reread it. So, you know. But I miss being in the trenches.
It would be great if there was a Space Ghost reunion. But it would be tough since Clay passed away. What was it like working with him?
We were always separate, so being in the room at the same time never happened because of how I worked. I think he preferred being alone, too. They combined it for the show that way. I remember one time we had to sing and Clay, rest his soul, was so shy about singing in front of people. He said, “I can do it but can you put a couple of those panels around me?” They built—this is the craziest damn thing—like a little room within the room out of sound baffles. They had him totally submerged. I walked by and was like, “Where’d Clay go?” They said, “He’s in there!” He was hunkered down behind the baffles trying to do, “I’m Zorak and I’m going to sing, too!” And off he’d go.
It’s so interesting that it was just the two of you who did so much for the show together. It’s kind of incredible.
Well, we had a lot of people who wrote and think a lot of the time things got axed because the powers that be looked at it and said, “It’s funny but it’s really not our voice.” So, you’d have guys like Trey and Matt who would come in from South Park and I think their ideas got shot down.
What was it like for you to work on The Brak Show as the Father character?
You know, that’s a funny one in itself because, honestly, I think Mike [Lazzo] was like, “He’s making enough money doing Space Ghost. Find somebody else!” That’s my impression of Mike, by the way. When he retired they asked me to do his voice and I said, “Well now that I’m out the building, everybody’s goin’ get a big fat raise!” Then I took a beat and said, “Oh, there’s a free breakfast? Well, forget the raise part and enjoy the free breakfast! Goodbye, now!” But, yeah, with Brak, they read everybody in town and it started getting back to me and I said, “Well, jokes on them. They’re not going to find anybody else that’s going to deliver it!” That’s how headstrong I was. Sure enough, at the end, they finally said, “Okay, bring George in. Let’s see what he can do with it.” They showed me the character and I looked at the drawing and I fell in love with him and I thought, “Okay, why not a knock-off Barry White?” And they went, “That’s really funny, what else you got?” So, I’m hammering, just trying to pull different voices out and finally I look at the little mustache and say, “What am I thinking? Maybe it’s a little bit of Crystal Fernando, maybe a little bit of my Brazilian friend, Henry. A little bit of Billy Crystal.” And the next thing you know, there I was.
It sounds so enjoyable and stimulating and experimental.
I love those guys, I really do. It was like having little brothers. I was the old guy at the time. All these 20-somethings running around.
When you think about Cartoon Network now and Space Ghost Coast to Coast, what comes to mind? What do you love most about them?
It’s almost like you watch these guys who come back when they shouldn’t. And it’s that part of your brain that says, “Maybe it’s wise. Maybe it’s wise that we don’t go back and try to reclaim the magic of something that was so odd.” And everybody in there—I never tried to hog all the credit. We had great editors, too. And we had the great guests that came in and out of the building. It was an amalgam of so many people with so many different things that they could bring to the table. I guess my thing was not bringing anything specific. It was being able to go off the page, blurt something out and the next thing you know, people are sitting there going, “That was kind of fun!” No flight plan filed.