When a TV show’s been on the air long enough it starts to seem like it’ll never go away. Imagine TV without Saturday Night Live or The Simpsons. Even if you don’t watch them anymore, there’s a certain amount of comfort in knowing that these shows are still there, no matter how else the world has changed.
Aqua Teen Hunger Force is one of those shows. It launched in 2001 alongside Adult Swim, establishing the surreal and irreverent tone that has defined the network. It’s the only Adult Swim original that survives from the beginning, and although Family Guy reruns and The Venture Bros. might get more attention, Aqua Teen has always felt like the network’s flagship show. So it’s surprising that its latest season, which starts on June 21st, will also be its last.
It’s not just Aqua Teen’s fans that were surprised, either. The show’s co-creators, David Willis and Matt Maiellaro, learned the show would be ending while they were in production on the upcoming season. “We found out we were cancelled through one of our friends at the animation studio about halfway through the season,” Maiellaro says. And although they were surprised, they seem to have come to grips with the show’s demise. “I don’t know how many seasons we’ve been on, honestly,” Willis claims. “Thirteen, maybe? It’s nice. Everything after like season six is gravy.”
Still, the most surprising thing about Aqua Teen Hunger Force is its very existence. Here’s a 12-minute, minimally animated cartoon for adults about talking fast food with plots that defy almost all traditional notions of storytelling. And although the two creators seem to bristle at the mention of the word “absurd,” they readily admit their senses of humor would make it hard for them to create a traditional sitcom.
“We just write what we like,” Willis says. “What makes us laugh. I wouldn’t say we don’t try to traffic in what other shows do—we just naturally gravitate towards stuff that’s a little more surreal and bizarre. It’s rare for us to do an episode about two roommates fighting over the same girl, or the classic sitcom tropes. And it’s an animated show. If you can shoot it why make it animated? We make a crazy animated show.”
The freedom afforded by animation let the two fully commit to their surreal vision. Maiellaro reels off examples from the show. “We can have a sandwich that’s possessed by the devil. We can have two-dimensional moonmen come down and try to take over the earth. When that’s not a big deal it opens up a world of possibilities for your storylines.”
Before Aqua Teen Hunger Force, before Adult Swim, there was a show called Space Ghost Coast to Coast. Debuting on Cartoon Network in 1994, the show combined recycled footage from old Hanna-Barbera cartoons with original interviews to create an absurd, post-modern parody of the talk show. It was a relatively early example of the kind of alternative comedy, inspired by Letterman and The Simpsons, that would proliferate on cable over the next 20 years.
Willis and Maiellaro first worked together on Space Ghost Coast to Coast. “We wrote like 50 of those together,” Willis says. “We were humming along really nicely as a team.” The genesis of Aqua Teen Hunger Force came from a Space Ghost episode that the two had written.
“We wrote that in a day and it was great,” Willis continues. “We loved it. We presented it as a Space Ghost episode and they didn’t particularly like it because Space Ghost had one line in the entire episode. All the Aqua Teens took over the Coast to Coast set.”
Willis describes the creation of that episode like it was an exercise in automatic writing. “I remember when we came up with the show it was like the first idea that each of us came up with just went right into the script. Matt said ‘Master Shake.’ I said ‘Meatwad.’ he said ‘Frylock.’ I said ‘Aqua Teen Hunger Force.’ We didn’t debate the titles at all. We just put it right in and we were very happy with ourselves.” (This wasn’t the only time Willis described the show as flowing unfiltered through them and onto the page—earlier he jokes that their “brains are downloaded and end up in the show.”)
The tone that’s guided Aqua Teen for over 14 years was present in that original episode. “Even with the pilot… I feel we had found our voice,” Maiellaro says. “We knew where we wanted to go with it.”
The network wasn’t sure if it should let them go there, though. “We had a little issue with the network where they didn’t quite understand it,” Maiellaro admits. “So with episode two we had to make them detectives, something they could identify with. We did that with episode two, and then we threw it out the window for the rest of the 150 of ‘em. We were just being forced into a template and that’s not what we wanted to do. By episode 4, with the Mooninites, we were like, ‘this is what the show is.’ It’s just three guys hanging out and shit lands and happens to ‘em and they have to deal with it.”
“Maybe they understood it but they were thinking in terms of viewers,” Willis adds. “Scooby-Doo is like this zombie that won’t go away. It’s been rebooted so many times but there’s something about it. My kids see it and love it, even the old ones. I think it taps into some weird formula that we’ll only find out about when we die. So we grafted this thing on there and it was this fake wood veneer that we put on the show. By episode four we were unconsciously writing it out of the show. We’ve had veiled references to it throughout the years. They have a whole swag closet filled with detective gear from when they had a detective agency. I think we mention in the finale that they’ve been detectives the whole 15 years.”
“The whole concept is so unique,” Maiellaro continues. “These talking food products living in our world… It just took a while for them to understand that the characters, even though they’re different looking, they’re really organic, in that they’re people that you know. You can relate to their personalities. That’s really what it’s about when it comes to having a good show with strong characters. It doesn’t matter what they do or who they are, really, especially in the comedy world.”
The Aqua Teen pilot was made before Adult Swim existed, and first aired early one morning in December 2000, almost a year before Adult Swim launched. The adult-oriented block officially debuted on the Cartoon Network in September 2001 with a line-up of anime and network reruns that included Home Movies and The Oblongs. The first Aqua Teen Hunger Force episode aired a week after Adult Swim’s launch, on September 9, 2001. That first roster of Adult Swim originals included the Space Ghost spin-off The Brak Show and two other series that appropriated old Hanna-Barbera cartoons, Sealab 2021 and Harvey Birdman: Attorney at Law. The entire line-up shared a similar sensibility, but Aqua Teen stood out as the most surreal, and it quickly became the most popular of the channel’s original shows.
Willis and Maiellaro don’t know if the network was considering a separately branded programming block when they first pitched Aqua Teen. “We were making Space Ghost, which was the one anomaly on the network, the one adult-themed show on ostensibly a kids’ network,” Willis says. “There were so many things that we couldn’t do. We had to be willfully weird because we couldn’t be vulgar. So many KidVid violations you had to obey. When we pitched Aqua Teen we were thinking ‘let’s make another one of those weird late-night adult shows.’”
Maiellaro also can’t remember if an idea like Adult Swim was already being discussed at Cartoon Network. He just remembers a crew of Space Ghost Coast to Coast employees looking for something to do. “It was like six of us hanging out making Space Ghost,” he says. “When that went on hiatus we had dug these characters out of that Space Ghost script and wanted to make another funny show. We were kind of hanging out with nothing to do because the show went on hiatus.”
Willis adds, “I remember them saying after they told us we could make it that they had Birdman that they were doing. They had Sealab—Matt [Thompson] and Adam [Reed], who used to work at Cartoon Network, and those guys had pitched that for years and they rebooted it. [Cartoon Network was] doing all this focus testing of mothers to see if this late night thing was going to really alienate them. They found most of them didn’t care as long as you didn’t blaspheme Jesus Christ our Lord and Savior. That was flat out one of the rules, don’t touch Jesus. And also they had purchased like The Oblongs, Family Guy before it had become this crazy juggernaut. I think the shows like Aqua Teen gave the block flavor because you could see Family Guy somewhere else.”
The network reruns might’ve brought in the rank and file viewer, but comedy fans gravitated to these new, weird cartoons that aired late on Sundays. The network almost immediately became a cult favorite, with Aqua Teen as its chief pillar. Adult Swim almost felt like a more narrative-driven revival of the classic MTV anthology Liquid Television, where Beavis and Butt-head and Aeon Flux first aired, and underground comic artists gained national exposure. Like Adult Swim’s original shows, Liquid Television aired late at night on Sundays, guaranteeing that its audience would be made up largely of college students and high schoolers. With its black-and-white bumper messages and its visually challenging early morning Off the Air clips, Adult Swim maintains an aesthetic that combines high and low, mainstream and underground. Aqua Teen helped define that direction with its dreamlike stories and willingness to cast off the trappings of traditional television.
Over the next few years the other Adult Swim originals faded away. The creators of Sealab 2021 moved on to Frisky Dingo before leaving Adult Swim and creating Archer for FX. Harvey Birdman ended in 2007. The network looked outside its Atlanta headquarters for new shows like The Venture Bros. and Robot Chicken, and found new poster children for its style of humor with two comedians from Pennsylvania named Tim Heidecker and Eric Wareheim. Willis and Maiellaro also created new shows (Squidbillies and Your Pretty Face is Going to Hell for Willis, Perfect Hair Forever and 12 Oz. Mouse for Maiellaro) but continued to work on Aqua Teen Hunger Force together. The network changed and grew, but Aqua Teen remained a constant.
Willis and Maiellaro didn’t waste time worrying about how long the show would last. “I never thought about that at all,” Willis says. “I was never conscious that my ‘career’ was hanging by the thread of this stupid food show. I never thought about it that way. I think my fiancé was thinking about that quite heavily. I remember showing her the pilot one night after we had worked on it all day and I remember her reaction being less than favorable. But she never really cared. I never really thought about it from a career standpoint.”
“I didn’t either,” Maiellaro chimes in. “Adult Swim is a unique situation where they have producer-writers on staff. So we were on staff. If this show hadn’t worked out we probably would’ve come up with another one, just to feed the machine. We were employees. The fear was never there. We were just hoping people liked what we liked and that we’d be able to keep making it.”
As Willis describes it, their careers hinged on the tastes of one man, Adult Swim’s senior executive vice president Mike Lazzo. “Once in my late 20s when I was working on Space Ghost it occurred to me that my career was basically working on a show that was a hobby for our boss, Mike Lazzo,” Willis explains. “He was running programming and development for Cartoon Network, and I think this was his fun thing to do. It was a value but I think this was what he really enjoyed doing. It occurred to me my whole career was this, doing this guy’s hobby. I hope he continues to enjoy his hobby and doesn’t go into like hunting, boating or fishing.”
Buoyed by superb DVD sales and the overall success of the Adult Swim brand, the duo got to make a movie based on the show. Before it ever came out Aqua Teen Hunger Force Colon Movie Film for Theaters was overshadowed by a bit of guerilla marketing gone wrong. Lite-Brite displays featuring the show’s Mooninite characters were installed throughout a number of major cities, and in Boston they were mistaken for possible explosive devices. City streets and subways were shut down as the police searched for all of the devices, and the local artists who were hired to put them throughout the city were arrested.
WIllis and Maiellaro both immediately agree that this was the weirdest thing that ever happened in relation to one of the weirdest shows to ever air on TV. “It’s weird when one of your characters shut down a major metropolitan city,” Willis says. Both point out how the confusion cost the network a lot of money, more than the movie cost or made.
“I got annoyed they called it a hoax,” Willis explains. “Because it’s not like we put those up… well we didn’t do it anyways. I didn’t know anything about it until I heard Fox News in someone’s office next door saying a ‘Sponge Bob SquarePants like character has shut down the city of Boston’ and then it was really funny to hear the anchor trying to figure out exactly what our show is.”
Boston’s overreaction might have spoiled what should have been the show’s greatest moment, but it’s crazy to think that that event and the movie happened not even halfway through the show’s life. It has persisted an extra eight years, with multiple seasons and late-in-life name changes, along with a handful of videogames and more merchandise than you could ever care to collect. It’s this unlikely endurance that made the news of a final season so shocking when it was announced earlier this year. It almost seems wrong to end a show that’s lasted this long.
With the show coming to an end, it’s natural to wonder if Willis and Maiellaro are feeling wistful or nostalgic. When asked if they were able to say everything they hoped to say with these characters, though, Willis rejects the entire premise of the question. “I don’t feel like we’re setting out to say anything with this show,” he says. “All we’re trying to do is make something amusing, that’s amusing to us.”
Of course who they are as people has changed over the last 15 years. “Matt and I have written every episode,” Willis points out. “We’ve evolved as people. Both got married, had kids. Our lives have changed dramatically. It’s still fun for us, very natural. It comes from this evolved partnership where we can bounce off each other in a really good way. It’s a fun show to make and we’re uniquely qualified to do it. I guess anybody who does anything creative thinks they’re last thing is just as good… and certain bands should be sat down and have an intervention… but we feel like these last episodes are every bit as strong. They feel good to me.”
When asked what they’ll miss the most about the show, Maiellaro immediately jokes “the money. All the money we’ve made from it.”
“I won’t miss the cramps I get in my wrist and fingers from endorsing all those checks,” Willis adds. “It’s fun to do the characters. I’m going to miss having some current significance. Sometimes I do that Meatwad voice with like babies and kittens and now I’m going to do it and just look like a creepy middle-aged man. There won’t be any point of reference for it.”
“We’re going to miss the whole process,” Maiellaro answers seriously. “We’re going to miss the characters, we’re going to miss working on it. We have a small crew that has been on it forever, and they’re fans of it, as we are. And to see it go away for no… it’s not that it’s too expensive or doesn’t do a good rating, it’s just working… so it’s really kind of sad to see this process shut down. It’s such a well-oiled machine. It just works.”
Aqua Teen Hunger Force Forever, the final season of Aqua Teen, starts on Adult Swim on Sunday, June 21.
Garrett Martin edits Paste’s games and comedy sections. He used to leave 10 messages each night on the Space Ghost voicemail. You can find him on Twitter @grmartin.