TV

The Creators Of ‘Aqua Teen Hunger Force’ Reflect On The Show’s 13-Season Run

There was no tearful goodbye, or even a heartwarming montage set to a song that was also played at several thousand proms. In the end, Aqua Teen Hunger Force went out in the most appropriate way possible… with Meatwad falling off the finger-butt wagon, Master Shake serving as a sexy trophy, Carl babysitting some wide-mouthed tall boys, and Frylock… well, he’s not looking so hot. On Monday morning, Adult Swim aired the series finale of Aqua Teen Hunger Force, allowing fans of this bizarre and hilarious series to say goodbye once and for all after 13 seasons. Aqua Teen Hunger Force Forever? Only in our hearts.

“There comes a time in a popular character’s life when it’s just over,” Frylock told Shake and Meat in the series finale, but, really, he’s saying it to us as if we’re the ones visiting the Rub-A-Chub for one last “Shyamalan Twist.” As Patti Smith sang over the series finale credits, “It’s the end” of Aqua Teen Hunger Force, but with any good ending comes the opportunity for reflection, revisiting the show’s very beginning and the moments that launched a cult favorite. Also, you can watch every single episode online, so it’s not like we actually have to stop swimming in Carl’s pool.

To properly say goodbye to ATHF, we spoke to the show’s creators, Dave Willis and Matt Maiellaro, and voice actors Carey Means and Dana Snyder about the genesis of their beloved characters and the absurd adventure that they began with us on Dec. 30, 2000.

In The Beginning, There Was Space Ghost

Space Ghost’s “Baffler Meal” episode didn’t air until Jan. 1, 2003, three years after the debut of ATHF, and the premise was actually repurposed for the 2001 episode “Kentucky Nightmare,” in which Space Ghost sold out to a liquor company. Written in 1999, “Baffler Meal” was the original introduction of the Aqua Teen Hunger Force, as Frylock, Master Shake, and Meatwad took over the talk show host’s set, although they were quite different in appearance and voice from the characters we’d come to love. Shake was the leader, while Frylock was a more gallant version of himself. Only Meatwad was the lovable little ball of raw beef that he was when the pilot “Rabbot” debuted.

Maiellaro and Willis first worked together on the “Girl Hair” episode of Space Ghost, in which the cartoon host desperately wanted to brush the locks of the brothers Hanson. Some time later, as the duo grew tired of writing for Space Ghost, they wrote the script for “Baffler Meal” and they knew they were on to something. “We wrote an episode of Space Ghost where the Aqua Teens are product placement in the episode and Space Ghost doesn’t get a word in edgewise,” Willis explained. “We really liked those characters [laughs]. That script got killed, but we thought it would be great to bring them back in some way, shape, or form.

“They were really well-rounded characters, some of the first original characters to come out of Atlanta that had such specific traits to them. Unlike Space Ghost, which was just real dada. We had real network quality characters as food items and, totally, they could hold their own. They could do 22-minute episodes. Hour-long if they wanted to.”

They never imagined from that point that this was a show that would last 13 seasons, but it was an idea that they loved and made them laugh, something that was unlike anything else on TV. That’s not just because of how crazy the characters or adventures have been, but also because Maiellaro and Willis have written every episode. “We were just making something that we really liked, that we thought was funny and unique,” Maiellaro said. “We had fun doing it and, luckily, a lot of people liked it and were watching it and buying the DVDs, and the ratings were really good, so we were able to keep going and keep making something that we really love to do.”

“Unlike pretty much every other show on TV, Matt and I have written every episode of this, and sometimes it gets a little harder to come up with ideas,” Willis said. “You don’t want to repeat yourself. But there’s also sort of a fluid second nature and unspoken language. We’ll sit down and have coffee and talk about our lives, whatever’s pissing us off at the moment, and find some common ground. Just riff off of it and take it to an absurd place. Then you’re writing an episode when you’re talking, and you don’t even quite realize that that’s maybe what you’re doing. I think that’s true of everybody that works on the show, too. I think a lot of the barriers in communication have smoothed out and broken over the years, and it’s a little more fluid and loose. It feels good. Like a machine that works.”

Again, the characters in “Baffler Meal” were far different from those in “Rabbot,” and a lot of that came down to the actors who would provide their voices.

My Name Is… Shake-Zula, The Mic Rula, The Old Schoola

Dana Snyder provided the off-the-wall voice of Master Shake, but he wasn’t the first choice for the role. Fortunately, he was the final choice, thanks to his unusual audition.

“When we’re writing and re-writing, we sort of read the scripts in our own voices and table read it,” Willis told us. “Initially, I was doing sort of a Mooninite thing, a real pompous thing for Shake. Just, ‘Dancing is forbidden,’ and it was kind of funny, but wasn’t really getting it. Briefly, we were looking at a guy who did a Christopher Walken impersonation [laughs].”

“Oh yeah, that loser,” Maiellaro added.

“That would have been a very big misstep had we gone in that direction,” Willis said. “Dana was a guy that was a friend of the girl I dated, and she was like, ‘You gotta meet this guy, he thinks he’s Phil Silvers.’ And he does think he’s Phil Silvers. But we got him to do an audition over voicemail.”

Maiellaro and Willis then quickly hired Snyder and hopped on a plane to meet him and record his lines in Las Vegas. The only demo that he had was for some radio commercials he’d recorded for Ronzoni pasta in college, but they knew that this was the guy with the right voice for Master Shake. Meanwhile, to Snyder, the role “seemed like the littlest, stupidest thing in the universe,” and he almost forgot about that voice mail audition. He was out drinking with a friend at 2 a.m. when he remembered that he was supposed to call, and that just happened to be the magic hour. That’s because when Willis called Snyder back to ask him to do the voice again, he couldn’t recapture the magic. “It’s missing something,” he recalled Willis telling him. The solution? Get his ass back to the bar, drink the same amount that he’d drank the night before and make that call one more time. And it worked.

Snyder didn’t exactly do voices, though, but he said that, when it came to Shake, he had the perfect tone in mind. “[Dave] sort of described it as, ‘His voice should sound like his mouth writes checks that his body can’t cash. He’s a jerk. He’s a loudmouth.’ I thought, ‘Oh, I’ve got that down perfect.’ It’s not my speaking voice, but, if I got into a heated mood and started screaming and acting like a jerk, it would kind of sound like that. It would sound very similar.”

The Vegas trip ended up being trouble for Maiellaro and Willis, because they didn’t actually tell their network bosses what they were doing. They just did it, Snyder recalled, and the result was the start of a beautiful relationship between the show’s creators and their unlikely actor. After all, Snyder had very little voiceover experience, and he didn’t exactly share the same kind of humor as his new friends.

“The thing with Matt and Dave and myself, we have slightly different senses of humor, but they appreciate my sense of humor, which is not necessarily the same kind of jokes that they would do, but they think it’s really funny. It’s just a different wheelhouse, because I grew up watching old-school night-club comedians and all show biz. And these guys are more like edgy, stand-up guys, and they’re into great writing. But we fill each other out.”

That came across in the show’s writing, too, as each episode was certainly scripted, but Maiellaro and Willis were always open to making changes if it made the jokes better, and that was something that Snyder enjoyed. “I remember one that Dave laughed forever about. It was something like, ‘Look, I got this sport coat,’ and he’s wearing a pair of underwear with a poop stain down the middle. I can’t remember what the real line was, but I said something like, ‘Yeah right, those are racing stripes if you consider diarrhea a sport.’ Dave thought that was the funniest thing in the universe. It’s in the episode, but I made it up. It’s not like it changed the course of the story or something. It was just a different joke. I certainly feel like, every script, I’ve collaborated and added something more than just my voice to it.”

“Dana’s comedy is about being a jerk,” Willis said. “He loves Don Rickles. He’s from Las Vegas, his dad’s an architect there, and I think he grew up with some of that. I mean, he doesn’t listen to any recorded music that wasn’t made after Louis Prima [laughs]. That’s who he is, and so I think he added this crazy, theatrical nature to Shake, too. But he can really sell just a horrible, horrible barb or an insult. In a way, he can make it truly mean and also weirdly vulnerable and insecure.”

Frylock And I’m On Top, Rock You Like A Cop

Maiellaro and Willis originally chose another voice actor for the role of Frylock; however, he wasn’t the right fit because he wasn’t any good at the acting part of the job. “He was a truck driver that did PSAs for the EPA or something,” Maiellaro remembered. “He had a good voice, but he wasn’t a good actor.”

A member of the Atlanta Symphony Orchestra Chorus, Atlanta Opera Chorus, and Theater of the Stars, Carey Means had done some work with the Cartoon Network in the past, providing voices for The Brak Show, as well as some “bumps.” He had no clue who Maiellaro and Willis were, and they weren’t really familiar with his work. “A pretty cool guy by the name of Larry Morris heard me and told Matt Maiellaro and Dave Willis I’d be perfect for the role,” Means said. “So, I auditioned in the break room at my old job at a market-research company.” It really was the perfect fit, as Maiellaro recalled — “He instantly nailed the character.”

When Means was approached with the concept for this new series, he simply thought to himself, “WTF?” But when it came to determining the right voice for Frylock – “The voice of reason in an otherwise idiotic situation,” as he described him – it was basically natural. “Let’s just say as soon as they described him, and I read a little bit of the script, he literally emerged from my inner persona. He is me and I am him.”

More specifically, Means felt that he had a connection with Frylock as the “straight man to Shake and Meatball’s foolishness.” Just as Frylock had to be the lone voice of reason during the absurd adventures of each episode, Means has been a go-to guy for his own friends. “I tend to be the one that my friends will go to when they need someone to listen and discuss their problems,” he said. “Others have told me that I am a great listener. So, these experiences have helped when it comes to some of the scenes where I am portraying the rational mind in the room.”

“He’s like your mom,” Maiellaro said of Frylock. But even the mom of the series couldn’t escape the madness, as Willis explained: “Every once and a while, we try to give him a wrinkle, where he’s trying to be cool or he’s trying to create some distance so he can have a real life and a girlfriend or a business.” But part of the fun, as Maiellaro said, is “to blow sh*t up and just reset it later.” Because no one gets to have a normal life in this strange neighborhood.

Meatwad Make The Money, See; Meatwad Get The Honeys G

Beyond Snyder and Means, the rest of the show’s voices were basically handled by Maiellaro and Willis. In terms of our beloved heroes, Willis rounded out the trio by providing the voice of the impossibly adorable Meatwad. In fact, Meatwad is the only character in “Baffler Meal” that is recognizable. He’s cute, the voice is delightful, and that one-toothed smiled just makes you want to pick him up and snuggle that greasy little face. Sure, he gets everyone into plenty of trouble along the way, but just try to be mad at Meatwad. Even Wolf Blitzer almost couldn’t say no to him.

“We tried to do an episode where Meatwad takes a CNN tour and gets bitten by Wolf Blitzer and becomes Wolf Man,” Willis said. “We contacted Wolf Blitzer directly and he was very courteous. He got back to us very quickly. In a weird sort of way, I thought, maybe you ought to be focusing more on world events. But he was like, ‘I don’t think our PR would allow me to do this.’”

Maiellaro added, “Yeah, then PR got back to us: ‘Never call Wolf again.’ ”

As a trouble-making ball of meat, Meatwad was the simplest of the show’s characters, and he was also hardly the best of the creators’ original voices. First of all, there were the very popular Mooninites, Err and Ignignokt, who joined the series in the fourth episode of season one, “Mayhem of the Mooninites.” Originally, these characters were based on the story of the E.T. Atari game that made headlines last year when the long, lost copies were unearthed in New Mexico. But the Mooninites became simpler and much better for it.

“The Mooninites episodes were loosely based on that Atari E.T. story,” Willis explained. “They were making a documentary about it, actually where they expected that E.T. video game to be so huge that they made millions of them and it didn’t sell so well, so they had to bury millions of them in the desert. We had this very rough idea that the Mooninites would be like the ghosts of this failed Atari video game. The more we wrote it, the more convoluted it came to be. I think there was a moment where we were like, ‘Wouldn’t it be funnier if they were just from the moon, and they thought they were badass and they thought that the Earth was their moon?’ That’s where that came from. Matt does Err and, in a weird sort of way, I think Err is like a unfiltered Matt [laughs]. I think, in its most basic form, I think Err is Matt.”

“That is so true,” Maiellaro said. “That’s when I feel like the show really found its way, was with the Mooninites.”

“Can I Not Just Live Here Without Having To Occasionally Deal With You Animals?”

Arguably the best and most popular character from Aqua Teen Hunger Force is Carl Brutananadilewski, a walking, talking punchline who is often the victim of his neighbors’ careless and deadly behavior. All Carl ever really wanted was for people to leave his damn swimming pool alone, but he simply can’t avoid being the fat, bald, Styx-loving collateral damage. Not that we or Maiellaro and Willis feel bad for him, because everything that happens to him, from Hand Banana to babysitting those tall boys, is hilarious.

“I like Carl a lot,” Means said. “His character got put through so much stuff. I/Frylock got to test so many things on him!”

Snyder was also a big fan of sharing the screen with Carl. “Typically, when I watch the episodes, I like Carl the best. But I enjoy it the most when it’s Carl and Shake together. That’s what I really liked about the movie. I like those people together in a weird little group. They’re all such idiots. And when everyone’s an idiot and they’re trying to work as a team. It’s really bad logic going on. Those are the ones I like the most.”

“Carl was like a lost character of Space Ghost,” Willis explained. “He was a guy who lived below Space Ghost and was just some older Italian American who was tormented by Space Ghost’s late night dance parties with himself [laughs]. His name was Dominic, and he would come up and go, ‘Hey there, Ghost man. You want to chill out on all the disco dancing?’ And he seemed like he grounded the Aqua Teens a little bit, when you learn that they actually live in a human world, and it’s not just a crazy world of rainbows and strawberries. My dad’s from Long Island, and some of his buddies are from there, so there’s some of that. And I had a college roommate named Dolla Bill $orrentino who was from Toms River, N.J., and was just really crazy, crazy into the Giants. I also think it’s just Matt’s love of metal, and it’s the guy that life has passed him by a little bit [laughs]. It’s fun to write for.”

“But he’s proud of it all,” Maiellaro added. And it’s that pride that makes Carl so stupidly glorious, culminating in his Stone Cold Lock of the Century of the Week that has been featured on Scott Van Pelt’s radio show. Carl’s popularity with fans eventually led to the casting of a live-action version for an episode that Maiellaro and Willis wrote “to do something different.” A few hundred people auditioned for the role of Carl at Comic-Con, and the winner was a 23-year-old man who agreed to let the show’s creators shave his head, and he “immediately looked like a 46-year-old.”

“A lot of people tend to like Hand Banana, the Carl-raping dog. We hear about that a lot,” Maiellaro said. “Everyone says Hand Banana,” Willis agreed. “But I like the second Mooninite episode just because everything was clicking, and it was just me, Matthew, and the voices. It just felt like, this is what the show is.”

Willis said that it will ultimately be up to Van Pelt whether Carl continues his one-of-a-kind sports gambling analysis on SportsCenter, but he’s not optimistic. “He said he wants to bring it to SportsCenter, I don’t know if that’s going to happen. ESPN oddly is more conservative than Cartoon Network when it comes to stuff like that. It’s still fun to do, and it’s fun to be topical about it. We’ll see. We’ll see when football season rolls around.”

I Never Dreamed I’d Be An Aqua Teen

In the series finale, “The Last One Forever and Ever (For Real this Time) (We F*cking Mean It),” there is no happy ending for anyone. Spoilers be damned (seriously, why have you read this far if you haven’t watched the finale?) because it needs to be said that Maiellaro and Willis delivered a surprisingly emotional ending for just about all of the show’s main characters. Poor Carl, he didn’t really do anything other than vanish. And yet that’s somehow perfect. Frylock died of old age after Meatwad failed to deliver the life crystal, and Master Shake was torn to pieces by clams in a bloody cloud of irony (he is, after all, allergic to shellfish). Meatwad gets married and has two kids before settling into a life as an office drone. It was somehow both hilarious and bittersweet.

“We put a lot of effort into the show, into the final episode,” Willis said. “And I feel like it’s good. I feel like it’s earned. I feel like it’s consistent with the show. With certain shows, it’s like a greatest-hits compilation or whatever. I feel like this is good. I feel like it made sense with the show and strikes a nice emotional chord and is pretty funny. It works.”

Adult Swim has come a long way as a network since Aqua Teen Hunger Force first aired as an incomplete pilot, and this series certainly played an important role in shaping not only the humor and creative balls of the network, but today’s animated series in general. If anything, Adult Swim almost doesn’t get the credit it deserves for letting people be ridiculous.

“It’s incredible,” Means said. “I loved every minute of it and feel very privileged to have been a part of it. Something so creative and imaginative can come from the oddest of places. When you have good writers, good animators, and all the people who work hard on a project like this, there is no telling how far you can go.”

For someone like Snyder, the opportunity that the network gave him – allowing him to work on this show after a simple voicemail audition – has led to a hell of a career. And he certainly never saw this coming. “It’s a humongous thing now and I have a sense of pride that I was part of this. A lot of the voiceover guys, the big established guys, not all, but some were like, ‘Well, what’s this Adult Swim thing?’ It is some weird little thing, but, really, it’s like the cool thing. I feel very lucky that I got to be part of it all. It certainly has changed my life, that’s for sure. I have no idea what I would have been doing had I never done that. Everything I have now is because I did that. I don’t know if you know this, but it’s essentially the greatest job in the universe.”

The good news is that, even as this show is done, its humor will live on (and evolve) on shows like Squidbillies and Your Pretty Face is Going to Hell. But what’s lost here is the simple charm of three characters going on adventures, sometimes dragging their poor a-hole neighbor with them. That Maiellaro and Willis were able to do this for 13 seasons and 138 episodes is nothing short of miraculous.

“We have limited resources on this show,” Willis said. “It’s hard to do something original. They don’t go on big adventures because it takes a lot of time and money to do that, and we’re a small group of guys putting this whole thing together. I feel like, when it’s good, there’s just nothing else like it on TV, and I’m proud of it.”

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