Interview: Adult Swim

(this interview originally appeared in Modern Fix Magazine in 2004).

– interview by eric huntington


“Oh, grow up” my girlfriend always tells me. What does “growing up” mean? Collared shirt, wife, kids, Eggbeaters, house, four-door car and a weekend passion for sports and beer? What’s great about our generation… I’m talking about everyone under 40 (and especially more for people under 30), is that we’ve permanently blocked the door of childhood cartoons from closing. It’s now not just for kids anymore, and the evidence is everywhere. Original and wildly creative newspaper comic strips like Bloom County, Calvin and Hobbes, Doonesbury and Farside began shrinking the space for ‘traditional’ strips (like Andy Capp and B.C.). Meanwhile, comic books saw a resurgence, with heavy debuts by Preacher and darker film adaptations of superhero’s and villainous characters.

Television cartoons have also changed. For the most part, cartoons for ‘adults’ started surfacing to the general public in the early nineties. Political humor, references to films, subculture’s, etc. With better quality graphics came more spicy content. The Simpsons got racier and more cartoons started becoming popular on broadcast and cable television. Shows like Beavis and Butthead, The Critic, Dr. Katz, King of The Hill, Futurama and Family Guy started and, unfortunately, died quickly after a few seasons (or never grew at all; see Clerks, Baby Blues, etc) .

Meanwhile, the folks at TNT began Cartoon Network, a cable channel that catered, at least at the beginning, to the 2-12 year old crowd. Which was fine for that age group and mildly entertaining for the 13+ year olds. Then slowly, more original and exotic programming like Powderpuff Girls, Samurai Jack and Space Ghost Coast to Coast started pushing the Hanna-Barbara reruns out of the way. Which, in the case of the SGCTC show, is ironic, since it’s put mostly together with old frames from the original Hanna-Barbara show Space Ghost, and then combined and rewritten in a way where it becomes a cartoon talk show. It’s basically The Daily Show without any actual news and, for the most part, completely insane. The guests are usually in the comedian field and appear ‘live’ on a television inside the cartoon, although there is hardly any real ‘interviewing’ going on. It seems like SGCTC can get away with just about any ‘plot’, and the show has quickly grown a devoted following.

Fast forward a few years to the premiere of Adult Swim, a programming block on Cartoon Network that currently runs Sunday thru Thursday, 11pm to 5am. Not only does Adult Swim re-air cancelled cartoons (Futurama, the amazingly funny Family Guy, Oblongs, etc) but even more original programming, like Sealab 2021, Harvey Birdman, Home Movies (this used to be on UPN, but that doesn’t count) The Brak Show (now cancelled) and Aqua Teen Hunger Force. Have a laugh at the production costs (around $60-100k for a original episode compared to over a million for an episode of The Simpsons) and the recycled cartoon frames, but Adult Swim’s content is popular. Damn popular. So much, in fact, that they compete (and sometimes beat) the 18-34 male market for the Leno/Lettermen crowd timeslot.

My personal favorite is Aqua Teen Hunger Force, or ATHF, which is a ‘team’ consisting of a human sized shake (Master Shake) a meatball (Meatwad) and a box of fries (Frylock). Though they don’t actually fight bad guys (as the name and the cartoon’s intro suggests), it’s just about the funniest show I’ve ever seen. It’s incredibly original and creative, so funny that the only real description falls into the “I can’t even explain it, just watch it, bro” category.

Aqua Teen Hunger Force

{If you are unfamiliar with Adult Swim, put down the magazine and watch as much as you can, especially on Sunday nights. That’s when all the good stuff happens, and there’s a plethora of other cool cartoons mixed in that I don’t have enough room to mention. Then come back here.}

Curious as to who was behind the writing, I shook the Cartoon Network tree and Matt Maiellaro and Dave Willis fell out.

Matt Maiellaro and Dave Willis

So what’s happening at the office on the Friday of a three-day weekend?
Matt: Playing a little guitar… just wrote a pilot script for a new cartoon we’re doing this year .
Dave: And contemplating getting coffee.

What goes on at 1065 Williams street (the building in Atlanta, GA, that Adult Swim is located at)? We picture a bunch of guys lounging around a board meeting table, smoking pot, scribbling jokes on a piece of paper with Sonic Youth playing in the background.
Dave: Pretty close, yeah, maybe except for the pot. (laughs) And Sonic Youth might be replaced by, oh, Matt’s wailing.

Dave: turn up your amp!
Matt: Oh, I had it up but I put it away for the interview. No wait, I have it on.
Dave: Matt can play pretty well.
Matt: (plays a few chords)

Hey now!
Dave: (laughs)
Matt: Yeah, we just get together for an hour or two and bang out a script. We’re here all day…

Are there ever rush sessions on the weekend?

Dave: No we’re closed on the weekend. There’s rarely a weekend writing session, unless we’re in a crunch. Occasionally we’ll get together or something.

Can you give the basic explanation of a 15-minute cartoon, from start to finish?
Matt: Dave can explain it well.
Dave: We get together on a Monday, crank out the script, maybe get together on a weekend to write and rewrite. We tend to not invest too much time in it. We record on a Friday, not really word for word, just mess around with it. Then give it to an editor who messes with it for a couple of weeks, sort of an audio cut. After that, we’ll look at it, Matt and I, and give suggestions and make changes, since we’ve got to write the next week, it takes about six weeks, and they work on it on their own. They’ll put a rough picture to it, using Photoshop, and basically make an anamatic. Then we’ll send it to these guys down the street, who spend, oh, three weeks or so giving it all the animation. Then we’ll spend a few days with another guy, adding sound effects and music, and then we’re done

Do you use outside-USA sources for actual animating?
Matt: We use local, outside animators, yeah… but not outside of Atlanta.

Matt, from what I can tell, you basically worked your way up in the film industry.
Matt: Yeah, I worked on seven movies. Six as an AD (assistant director) and one as a PA (production assistant).

Out of all those, I’ve actually only seen one.
Matt: Really? Which?

Hellraiser 3.
Matt: Oh, cool, how’d ya like it?

It was good, though I kinda think it should have been the last of the series… they seem to have run out of ideas afterwards. What do you think of the series now?
Matt: You know, I haven’t gone past [Hellraiser] 4. There are a couple others out that I haven’t picked up yet, because they’re so expensive on DVD. I liked the first one, I thought it was dark. The second one had lots of cool special effects. The third was really fun to work on, but overall, I kinda thought that they were turning on the lights on a ride on Disneyworld, you know? I think it gave off too much. But it was great to work on! I was running the special effects unit, and that was just full of blood. I got to work with that Pinhead guy all the time and watch all that makeup process. It was a blast.
Dave: Check out Ring of Steel!
Matt: (laughs) Yeah, that was another one of my films.

So lets see, Ring of Steel, Kleptomania, Mr. McAllister’s Cigarette Holder…
Matt: Oh yeah, I forgot about that. That was a short film.

… Ruby in Paradise….

Matt: Yep.

… Basket Case 3…

Matt: Yep… a winner.

And back in 1990, Darkman, as a production assistant.

Matt: Yeah.

So it seems like you worked your way up thru the entertainment industry?
Matt: I kinda did. I always wanted to make and work on movies. I never really got to make movies, but I wanted to. I would have kept going, but then they started Space Ghost. I was back in Atlanta, in between films, and met up with some friends of mine, [Mike] Lazlo, and [Keith] Crawford. They were like, “Hey, we’re doing a show. You interested in coming over here and working?” and I kinda thought hey, what the hell. So I started work on Space Ghost, and just kinda stayed on with television.

So Dave, you started as an intern with Cartoon Network?

Dave: Well, I was a paid production assistant for them, but yeah. I made $250 a week, just working with the guy who does the voice for Brak, Andy Merril. I started working under him and Pete Smith. Worked my way over to Space Ghost, and people above me kept getting hired for other jobs, so I just kept moving my way up. I’ve been here almost nine years now.

It’s cool to see two people work their way up to where you both are now, rather then just get the position you’re in from inside help or straight luck.
Dave: I was very fortunate, since everyone kept moving, one of whom WAS matt. Matt left, then I kinda took his spot, and then he came back and that’s when we started working together.

I noticed the cartoons are never ‘topical’, something animation tends to rely on; is that a choice or just the way it is?
Matt: It takes us so long to put one out.
Dave: It’s hard to be topical anyways. You do a joke on Elian Gonzalez, and by the time it comes out people forgot about him already. Plus, they air the hell out of these. If we had done an Elian joke, by the time it comes on we would have been beaten to the punch by every talk show. Plus, they’re not that funny, at least to us. We tend to gravitate to more universal stuff… weirder stuff.

Is there any truth to the Internet rumor that scripts are bounced from show to show until they’re used, or are they always generated specifically for the cartoon?
Matt: That’s not true at all.
Dave: The only thing that might have come from is, maybe, idea’s we had on Space Ghost that were never used, and we found them and used them on Aqua Teen. Like Jiggle Billy, the Leprechauns… there’s a ton of stuff. They were just idea’s that were never made in a show, but they were good idea’s, so we just saved them until we had a place for it.

Jiggle Billy from Aqua Teen Hunger Force

Is there a giant cartoon idea database?
Matt: In our brains (laughs)
Dave: A stack of index cards, and Polaroid’s. We’ll take a Polaroid of the drawings we make on dry eraser board.

What’s your opinion of the Internet file trading, more specifically, YOUR cartoon file sharing?
Matt: I think it’s great, it gets them out there for people to see.

Have either of you ever used a file sharing program?

Matt: I can’t figure them out! (laughs) Have you used any Dave?
Dave: I don’t have a whole lot of storage, and I figure, I’ll just watch ’cause I have a pretty good cable setup. I use Limewire for music though. Don’t you use Limewire too, Matt?
Matt: I used to all the time, not anymore though, but not for video.

Just for MP3s?
Matt: Yeah.
Dave: Yeah. We’re both on Mac’s, so… I think [episode sharing] is cool. I ran into a kid in north Georgia, and he saw my t-shirt promoting [one of the shows], and thought that was cool. I told him that we were changing the schedule, and he’s like “Oh I don’t watch it on TV.” We can’t make money without advertising though, so I guess… I dunno, I think it’ll come head to head at some point.

Adult Swim is making frequent use of communication to the viewer via ‘bumpers’ (small 10-20 second black and white clips before, in between and after a cartoon that have various topics, like the staff’s current music choices or a response to a question from their online forum). How helpful has the Internet been, in terms of viewer feedback and communication?

Matt: We always check to see what people think of an episode on Monday, though it seems it’s always the same 38 people. (laughs)
Dave: (laughs) I’ve seen lots of things that I love, but nothing has ever driven me to a computer so I can tell the rest of a community what I think about something. That doesn’t keep me from reading it all the time, but it’s not… a good sample of what [the audience] thinks. Sometimes I’m astounded of what they think, and disagree with them.

So you do read the Adult Swim forums?
Dave: Oh yeah, totally. Read them all the time.

I’m a regular at every San Diego Comic Convention (a huge festival of comics, cartoon, videogames and B movie stars that’s held in downtown San Diego). What’s really cool about it, aside from walking around and scoring cool merch and maybe getting your picture taken with a Zena look-alike, is the constant films and Q&A’s running in different conference rooms. Adult Swim has their own timeslot, where a good chunk of the staff talk about what’s new, answer some questions and show a few clips. At last years, you were asked by a female why, “you don’t have any chicks” in the cartoons? Is that a common question?
Dave: That was probably the only time we’ve been asked that. I think the thing is that we’ve never been able to write a compelling female character. Maybe we’re just not able to.

What about Carl’s (ATHF’s fat, middle aged neighbor) mail-order bride?

Matt: (laughs) She had a lot of dialogue, didn’t she!

Volume 1 of Space Ghost and ATHF are both on the market. How are the sales so far?
Dave: better then they thought it would be.

I noticed that both DVD’s are Region 1. Are there going to be DVD’s for other regions?

Dave: Oh, you mean for Europe?
Matt: I know there are options to switch on other languages
Dave: I don’t think they’ve aired the show over there. I could be wrong. We don’t think they’ve made them.
Matt: I’m looking right now, we’re #73 on the list. We’ve been on that list for two months.

Who picks/decides which guests appear on Space Ghost?

Matt: I think everyone throws out ideas of who they want to be on the show. At first, we just wanted someone who’d say “yes” but that’s changed. This year, they were hand picked. Shatner, Dennis Miller… we used to have to pay people to come on the show, but now, enough people have heard about the show to know what it is. I just got a message from the PR representative of Aerosmith; she wants to put Joe Perry on the show.

Is that common to be asked to put a specific person on?
Matt: Yeah, and it’s usually someone that we don’t want. Triumph, I think, that was a case where their people were trying to push their album.

It came out great.

Matt: Yeah, we thought so too.

Has anyone complained about his or her interview after it’s aired?

Matt: Steven Wright did.

He didn’t like the way his answers were chopped up?

Matt: Well, it was actually his manager. We didn’t use him that much, but he was on the show. He didn’t care much for it. And that one weather guy.
Dave: The weather guy? Al Roker?
Matt: He wasn’t in there hardly at all.

Is that the case where they just don’t know what Space Ghost is at all and it’s more of just another stop on the PR tour?
Dave: Sometimes, yeah. There was a guy, he used to be in Bosom Buddies, Peter Scolari, do you know who I’m talking about? The guy that didn’t win any awards for his work, he’s been in a bunch of stuff, but he was in that dumbass sitcom with Tom Hanks. For some reason, we were doing an interview with him, and he clearly didn’t know what it was about, or what we were doing. At one point, I asked the question, “Do you mind if I grab you by both ears and shake your head until your brain falls out thru your nostrils?” and he said, “Hang on a second”. Since we do it over the phone, I hear the cameraman say, “He left.” Which was hilarious. I mean, he left five minutes into the interview. He didn’t sign the waiver, so we couldn’t use it.

Peter Scolari. Doesn’t “get” Space Ghost Coast to Coast. Surprise.

Do you ever get parents writing in, complaining about a show? For example, in the episode with Busta Rhymes, and Space Ghost starts breaking all the gas pipes and they all get wasted on gas?
Matt: hmmm…
Dave: I think that gas huffing is something…
Matt: …that should be done by everyone at all times.
Dave: yeah, that’s a highly Christian value. I think Jesus gas huffed.
Matt: He did.
Dave: Him and disciples. You know, I read some stuff once. [Cartoon Network] printed it out, because they were concerned on what people thought, how it was going to come off. They got some negative emails, but they also got a lot of positive emails too.

What about the original creators, the original cast and crew that worked on Space Ghost? Are they thrilled with what you’re doing with it?

Does anyone care?
Matt: The original Space Ghost?
Dave: ummm…
Matt: Nobody cares (laughs)
Dave: Or knows.

I’m just picturing… I know that the company owns the rights to Space Ghost, but I picture the original artists and guys that came up with the show, turning on Adult Swim and shaking their heads.

Matt: I think that one of the guys, Joe Barbara… apparently they saw it and said something negative about it. I think it stemmed from one of the episodes where we had Satan show up, but we didn’t want to draw him, so we just painted Yogi Bear red with a crown of human femurs. And apparently that upset some of the people in the upper management…
Dave: But we don’t care.

Will Willie Nelson (from the ATHF episode “The Shaving”) come back?
Dave: Yeah, we like that guy, Tom Sharply (voice).

Why wasn’t he in the last episode (“The Last One” where all the ‘villains’ got together)?
Matt: Because we were ahead of schedule, and the shaving wasn’t done yet.
Dave: And “The Last One” was such a huge undertaking, certain villains fell thru the crack. Plus, he never leaves the attic. He only leaves the room once a year. He was stuck up there. And he never gets his mail, so he didn’t get the invite. He’ll get it on next Halloween.

Yeah, see I was hoping for something like that to slip in somewhere.
Dave: You’re right though, we should have done something like that. Oh well.

How much preparation was there for the New Years episode (basically, they replaced the immense amount of Adult Swim bumpers with clips of the New Years party at Brak’s, where most of the main characters were hanging out)?
Matt: We’d always talked about doing something like that.
Dave: Pete and Jim wrote and produced the thing at Brak’s house while we were working on this episode.

From whose Atari fantasy did the “Mooninites” come from?
Matt: Both of us, but Dave has the Atari.
Dave: I still have mine, right here! Well, basically, Atari had this E.T. game…

Mooninites. Fuck You.


Oh, the one that they buried. (The game was rushed to the consumer and plagued in all directions, a truly awful game. Atari made so many copies in anticipation of the potential demand that they ended up dumping them all in a landfill.)
Dave: Yeah. Originally, the idea was going to be that the ATHF was living on the burial site of that, and they were ghosts, but they just worked as characters, so we just said figured, fuck it, we’ll have them just come from the moon. And they think the moon is so badass, but the moon’s stuck 20 years behind. Just now, the moon is getting solar calculators and digital watches.

It’s a great character. Same with the Cybernetic Ghost from Christmas past, I love that guy.
Dave: And Matt does that voice.
Matt: (in the voice) “Thousands of years ago…”

Perfect for my answering machine! That’s a good question; do you get requests for answering machine messages?

Dave: I did my mom’s message… (in Meatwad’s voice) “Dave’s mom ain’t here right now.”

(laughs) Are there any action figures coming out?
Dave: No. We wish there were. I think that they should make all the villains into action figures. You can buy that Meatwad piñata online…

Oh, like the Space Ghost desk (a $39,995 item)… is that real?
Dave: I guess it is, I’ve never seen it.

Any new cartoons you have coming out in the future?
Dave: Yeah, we’re working on something now, called “Squidbillies”.
Matt: Redneck squids living in the north Georgia Mountains.

When will we see it?
Dave: Well, we’re doing the pilot this year, hopefully four to five episodes of it, so by the end of the year.
Matt: Yep.
Dave: Yep.