Tuesday, December 15th, 2020
Matt Maiellaro and Dave Willis on the Origins of Adult Swim’s “Aqua Teen Hunger Force”
Dec 14, 2020
By Jake Uitti
For some, the 12-minute cartoon show Aqua Teen Hunger Force, available now on HBO Max, is a cult classic. With its odd, surreal humor and unelaborate though quirky animation, the television show struck a chord with twenty-something-year-old viewers when it aired in the early 2000s. Featuring the three iconic characters—Master Shake, Frylock, and Meatwad—the show, which was part of the original Adult Swim cartoon block that first aired December 2000 and then again more permanently in September 2001, was so unlike anything else on television that its mere spectacle caught and held viewers’ attention for seasons. Soon, with the help of early file sharing methods, the show became an underground hit, along with other Adult Swim shows like Sealab 2021, The Brak Show, Harvey Birdman: Attorney At Law and Space Ghost Coast to Coast. We caught up with the creators of Aqua Teen Hunger Force—Matt Maiellaro and Dave Willis—to talk about their show’s beginnings, Adult Swim’s early years, and some room called The Fart Vault.
This is the first 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): When did you find and then fall in love with cartoons?
Matt Maiellaro: I started watching Saturday morning cartoons when they only came on Saturday mornings. With Bugs Bunny, the Warner Bros. stuff really hit me and that’s when I started getting into them. But after that, honestly, I didn’t stick with it. I didn’t read comic books. I just wanted to make horror movies.
Dave Willis: I think I was a Saturday morning kid, too. In fact, I think my dad tried to get me into sports and the way he did it was he bought a black-and-white TV that would plug into the cigarette lighter of the car so I could watch cartoons on the way to games. But I’m like Matt, too. I don’t think I was really—once I became a teenager, I think I drifted away from it. But then The Simpsons came out when I was in college and it just changed me. Working at Cartoon Network was a way you could get your vision out there and it’s a broader form of humor. I think that was a big part of it, more than anything, more than being just a fan of cartoons.
How did you guys decide to get into animation professionally? How did you find Cartoon Network given maybe that animation wasn’t a passion project?
Maiellaro: I had worked with Mike Lazzo before Cartoon Network. We became friends and then I worked on some movies with his buddy Keith Crofford. So, I was working on movies and then all of a sudden it was kind of drying up and Mike was putting together some crazy talk show thing and Keith got involved and they hired me to come on and help start putting it together and writing it with him. I actually had to watch [the original] Space Ghost because I had never really seen a lot of it. So, Mike just knew me because he and I would write crazy stuff all the time and we’d make funny scripts and always want to shoot them, which we never did. So I think he thought, “Matt’s kind of goofy, let’s get him in here.” That’s how I fell into it, professionally. It’s not that I was burning to do it. I just kind of fell into it and it was fun to be able to write anti-TV stuff and make fun of talk shows and make fun of television, as well. That’s what I enjoyed about it.
Willis: Matt and I overlapped a little bit. Matt left the network for a little bit right around the time I got hired. I was a kid in Atlanta and Turner started CNN and, even as a kid, I thought that was really cool and it would be cool to work there someday. When I got out of college, I drifted around for a couple of years and then I thought, you know, I’d always wanted to make TV and movies. I was just trying to get into the creative side of things, working as a PA and dragging stands around. Finally, that landed me—I was very fortunate to get my resume in front of Andy Merrill, who was one of the voice talents and writers at Cartoon Network programming. That eventually landed me to working with Matt on Space Ghost and that’s how we met and started working together.
Space Ghost Coast to Coast is, in many ways, the godfather of Adult Swim. What was it like for you when you saw that show for the first time?
Maiellaro: I was there in the beginning of it. So, I saw it come together, well, from nothing, basically. We had no idea what we were doing. We didn’t know how to do it and we had no money to do it. But they eventually just started giving us some money to work on some stuff and we were just—I don’t know. I don’t know how to say it. It was cool. It took a long time to get one running. And when it aired, nobody watched it. We got hash marks for ratings, so nobody was into it for a while. It took a while to come on. It was also fun because it was hard to get guest stars because nobody wanted to talk to a superhero. But then when we interviewed them, nobody wanted to talk to a voice on the screen pretending to be a superhero. So, nobody really knew what to expect. Then, of course, when it caught fire, people really wanted to be on the show. So, for me, being there from the inception was really cool. It was a lot of fun work and, you know, it just became something that nobody thought it would.
Willis: Matt was there at the very beginning with Lazzo with Michael Cahill and Khaki Jones and Any Merrill. They created the show. It was like a cool indie band. I got hired, I think, right around—I think the 16th episode was being worked on. And I’d come from a world working on crappy ads and corporate video and news bits and when I got hired at Cartoon Network, I got sent home with a bunch of Space Ghost tapes and I just watched the hell out of them. I couldn’t believe how lucky I was that I was going to be able to work in the same department as it, as a show like that, which was just so unlike anything else out there. But it wasn’t on my radar at all before then. I just remember reading an article in Details magazine, like, a year earlier at a gas station. It was a blurb about it. So, yeah, it was very—I felt fortunate to have landed where I did.
How did you do the interviews for Space Ghost Coast to Coast?
Maiellaro: They went through a number of transformations. Initially, we would all pull together a bunch of questions and then Keith would pick the best ones and do the interviews over the phone. So, it was just Keith asking questions and then I would transcribe the interviews. Then we had a script of the interview and I’d start writing around the interview. At one time we used to hang up a Space Ghost towel. We would use CNN as our base center because it was [part of the] family [of Turner Broadcasting]. So, we had New York and L.A. We had them anywhere, so if a celebrity was in one of those cities, they’d just go to the CNN center and that’s how we would record. I think at one time we used to hang up a Space Ghost towel on the microphone stand and then Keith would still do the interviews and I think Andy did some interviews. We all did a lot of interviews. I think Dave ended up doing most of the interviews later when he came onto the show. And one time we hired a guy to put on a Space Ghost costume. He would sit in that costume across from the celebrity, whoever it was, and ask them these questions. I think there was a time when we saw on the tape where the guy in the costume got up to do something and he wasn’t even, like, wearing half the costume. [Laughs] So, that’s how we did them. I know Dave did a lot of the interviews, because he would put on the persona of Space Ghost and do them.
Willis: We got to a point where we would learn certain things—like we would learn to get them to sign the waiver before the interview in case they’d leave because they’re so pissed off. We had Paul Westerberg of The Replacements. I still have a VHS of him going, “Fuck this shit,” and taking off his mic and walking out. We had another one where—I couldn’t tell if it was the CNN center at L.A.—it was Peter Scolari and he was promoting Honey I Shrunk the Kids, like, the TV show, or something. And I’d ask him questions like, “Citizen, are you getting enough oxygen?” And after a while, the cameraman at CNN was like, “Man, he left!” It’s just silence. But sometimes doing it over speakerphone like that helped because the people were so disoriented and looking around and confused. Sometimes I wouldn’t talk for, like, a full minute. Even in person sometimes we would add those long beats to see them squirm and feel awkward because you can use that in the edit.
What gave you confidence that this weird show based around a milkshake, French fries, and a ball of beef—not to mention characters like the Mooninites—would work?
Willis: Man, we just really liked it. We wrote these characters originally into a Space Ghost episode that never got made.
Maiellaro: Yeah, Dave and I, we just loved these characters and the world. It was just so unique and so different. You could identify with them.
Willis: Regarding our “confidence,” I want to second what Matt said. I think it was just the ignorance of excitement. We didn’t really think—it didn’t seem unorthodox to us at all. It seemed very much like, “Oh my God! We just came up with an awesome show!” We never thought in terms of the audience or in terms of, “Oh no one will let us make it.” I think we just barreled forward just because we loved it. But yeah, that Mooninites thing—do you know that urban legend? I think it’s true actually. How Atari made too many of those 2600 cartridges for E.T. because they were so buoyed by the box office. But so that they didn’t crush the market, they had to destroy, like, over a million of these cartridges. They buried them out in the desert in concrete and that’s what the Mooninites were originally based on. It’s crazy. It’s a dumb idea! They were, like, ghosts of this shitty video game. But after we were writing the episode, we were like, “Why don’t we just make them from the moon. That’s a lot simpler to understand.”
In that same weird Mooninite origin story vein. Where did the show’s bent toward surrealism come from? It seems to emanate from you both very naturally. Had you seen it in other cartoons before that inspired you?
Willis: Matt certainly brought a David Lynch influence to some of this stuff. I think my tastes tend to not be very mainstream, but I also think making a quarter-hour show and writing it and editing it, you tend to cut out a lot of the stuff, a lot of the boring lines that explain why things happen so that you just have the jokes. Maybe there’s this thread and this through-line that’s missing so you’re sort of extrapolating from your own opinions and projecting your own thoughts onto it. At least that’s my theory.
Maiellaro: That’s a good one. I’ll back that up.
How did Adult Swim decide on its 12-15-minute show lengths?
Maiellaro: Oh, man. I don’t know. When we did Space Ghost, I think we only had enough money to make 15-minutes.
Willis: It might have been money. It might have also been programming because they had a lot of pieces that were even seven-and-a-half minutes long and they would sometimes try to build marathons of different programming. But, you know, when we started, it was the shortest show on TV and now it feels like the longest show on the internet. It’s kind of like it was in advance of a lot of this stuff. I think we would have to be real economical in how we edited and how we came up with ideas in a way that was pre-internet. But, yeah, I don’t know. I think also Adult Swim, I think they were designing it to be like, “If you’re bored, stick around because something completely different is going to be around the corner in five minutes.” I know Mike Lazzo is a big fan of Monty Python and the non sequitur. I think that’s how he thought about programming and developing stuff, too. It’s kind of cool that we got so specific at making quarter-hour instead of half-hour shows.
The show came out right at the peak of Napster and college file sharing. Can you talk about that impact on Aqua Teen gaining momentum?
Maiellaro: I don’t think it was on our radar, honestly. We’re happy everybody did it because everybody got to see it. But back when we were making it, that stuff was, like, barely getting any traction. We were just trying to make a show. So, I never thought about people file sharing or streaming it, or whatever.
Willis: But we would check that—Amazon used to list the sales on DVDs and stuff. Someone hipped us to, like, the fact that our DVD was really high up on Amazon’s sale list. Before that we didn’t even know the show was being watched. [Laughs]
The original four shows really seemed to unlock something in viewers’ minds and tastes. It was part-nostalgia, stoner humor and intellectual. Can you talk about the initial days of Adult Swim and Williams Street?
Willis: It was a small group of us. The Sealab 2021 guys were in East Atlanta but the rest of us were in Williams Street making Aqua Teen, The Brak Show, and all of the bumps and the wrap-arounds. I don’t know—it was fun! We used to play Ping-Pong constantly, all the time. I remember Matt bought a fog machine once and we fogged up Barry Mills’ office. We filled his office with fog!
Maiellaro: It was a very fun environment because we all did a little bit of everything and we all worked on each other’s shows. So, we weren’t specific to, like, “You are a writer on this show!” It was kind of a family group effort, you know? Sealab would come over occasionally and we’d watch one of their clips and talk about it and we’d show clips of our show to people. So, while we’re writing it, we’re also directing it and we’re also doing a voice on The Brak Show maybe, offering ideas. It was just like a big group effort. Back then it was really small. The building was junkier and it was kind of a free-for-all. You did all those fun baby nursery school things because it was available to us, Ping-Pong and skateboarding and all that crap. But it was a really good environment. You just did it and did it and as long as you got your show done, nobody cared that you were playing Ping-Pong.
Willis: Matt had this big Marshall stack and he would just shred metal all the time constantly. You could just hear these Eddie Van Halen-style riffs coming from his office. We had a sheet metal studio that Keith had gotten off of Ebay or something where we would record. We started calling it The Fart Vault because someone would just leave a fart in there and no one wanted to record after that. It was always cold in there, too! But it never occurred to me to wear jeans or a sweatshirt. I would just wear my typical shorts and a t-shirt. I had a burgundy lady’s bathrobe that I’d wear constantly because I was always cold. I think people from the outside would see it and it seemed like an affectation but it was just so freaking cold in that building!
How did you guys get connected with rapper, Schoolly D, and land on the iconic theme song?
Maiellaro: I think Barry Millis came up with that. He said, “Why don’t you get Schoolly D to come up with something?” And that just—we reached out to him and he seemed into it. I remember that Dave and I flew up there and we got some hotel and called Schoolly and he was like, “Okay, guys. Don’t come over until midnight. And come into this bad area of town and look for the gold Jag.” So, it was, like, pouring rain and it was freezing cold. We went to this, like, shack, found the gold Jag and inside was Schoolly with his guys putting together music. Within five minutes, Schoolly took Dave and I outside and was like, “Look, where’s the money?” [Laughs] He wanted to get paid.
Can you talk about the original airdate for the first four Adult Swim cartoons? What was that like when the block first ran at four or five in the morning in December? Were you awake for it? Was that a momentous moment?
Willis: No. I think it aired in the middle of the night because it had to hit the new year’s budget, or something? It had to hit the budget of the previous year. So, when they dropped it, it wasn’t—I don’t think it was necessarily intended to be one of these art projects at four in the morning-type thing. I think it was, like, purely accounting!
Maiellaro: It was. It was exactly that. I don’t even think they told us. We went, “Oh, you aired it? Okay!”
Willis: But Aqua Teen was never—I felt like, and I’m not going to speak for Matt on this, although I bet Matt would agree with me. I felt like Aqua Teen at least, in the beginning, was treated like we were a throw-in. Even the first season of Aqua Teen was kind of like—they said, “We’ll let you make six Aqua Teens but you’ve got to make six more Space Ghosts.” I remember, too, there wasn’t a whole lot of knowledge about Aqua Teen in the network as a whole. I was at a urinal next to an ad sales guy and, at one point early on in the series when the series was getting momentum, and he was like, “Y’all doing good with that Aqua Teen. When they handed me that meatball and said I got to go and sell this, I was like, ‘I don’t know!’ But y’all really pulled that shit show out of the fire!” And I was like, “What? What is this?!” I always felt like we were doing high-caliber work.