The longest-running original series in Adult Swim history and amazingly, the sixth-longest-running animated show in American TV, trailing only The Simpsons, Arthur, South Park, King of the Hill, and SpongeBob SquarePants, kicked off its 11th and final season on Sunday at midnight.
That’s right, we’re talking about Aqua Teen Hunger Force, or, in what is now its sixth rechristening, Aqua Teen Hunger Force Forever—one of the most influential shows of the 21st century.
In case you haven’t had the pleasure, it’s an 11-minute cartoon starring anthropomorphic food: Frylock, a floating McDonald’s-ish supersized box of french fries-slash-super scientist; Meatwad, an adorable, cherubically innocent, shape-shifting hunk of uncooked hamburger meat; and Master Shake, pathological liar and shameless narcissist that also happens to be a large milkshake.
They all live together in a run-down suburban home somewhere in New Jersey next door to Carl Brutananadilewski, a sweatpants and wife beater-wearing, back hair-festooned balding sports radio caller writ large.
Created and written by Dave Willis and Matt Maiellaro, the characters first appeared in 2000 on the equally genre-bending Space Coast: Coast to Coast (a talk show with actual human guests hosted by the ’60s Hanna-Barbera cartoon staple, Space Ghost). Since its debut episode in the fall of 2001, Aqua Teen has been the star of Adult Swim’s late-night programming, a block that continues to rack up dominant basic cable TV ratings.
The original premise was that it would be a modern version of Scooby Doo, with our trio of heroes using their so-called powers and detective skills to battle aliens and other supernatural forces that descended upon Earth. Save for the first couple of episodes, that didn’t happen.
“I think we found our way by episode three or four. That’s when we began to figure out exactly what we were doing with it,” Maiellaro said. “Because in the beginning they had to be detectives; that was put upon us by executives who didn't understand the full story or the world. So we did that, and we threw that away pretty fast by the time we first met the Mooninites.”“The Mooninites come down there just to fuck with them,” Willis continued. “There’s no story to it. They’re just entertaining characters. They’re obnoxious. They think of the Earth as their moon, and it’s just... that’s the first one where it felt like everything was coming together.”
It’s easy to dismiss Aqua Teen as absurdist silliness or even just late-night stoner fodder. Not that there’s anything wrong with that. There’s ample goofy pleasure to be had in watching, say, Dr. Wongburger, an arch-villain that is an actual, walking dick, craft a fiendish plot to use a fast-food giveaway—because who has the time to read the six-point font terms and conditions, really—to slice off enough dicks so that he can construct a Dickship which will then fly back to his alien home, Dick Planet.
Spoiler alert: Dr. Wongburger’s ship does not work. “Basically the ship is not even engineered properly. It's really just a pile of severed dicks,” Willis said.
“Dickesode” marked the only time that the material was outrageous enough to irk the executives at Adult Swim. In a prior interview, Willis explained: “We sent it to standards and practices and their only note was, ‘the thousands of severed penises have to be obscured.’ I think that’s a direct quote.”
Dr. Wongburger would return to torment the Aqua Teens in future episodes in the form of a molar tooth and a giant cheeseburger.
But what elevates the show beyond wacky, surreal yuks is that the audience for Aqua Teen, myself included, knows this particular form of entertainment in our bones. We all grew up glued to the set on Saturday morning watching the likes of the Super Friends, Dungeons & Dragons, He-Man, and The Transformers.
You can’t see Meatwad and not be reminded of Grimace and the Hamburglar, or the proudly evangelical Veggie Tales. Schooly D’s catchy opening theme song is right there too, recalling a multinational chain restaurant’s first feeble attempts to market itself as hip-hop friendly.
It’s the framework of this shared TV history, though, that allows for comedy that is truly subversive. Aqua Teen treats the expectation of a linear narrative and character development as just that, an artificial construct that can be broken and discarded as need be.
Instead of fighting crime as we’re led to expect, the Aqua Teens hang around the house, go on candy benders, try to steal free cable, or get out of paying their landlord for a broken gas pipe (a vampire landlord named Markula, but still).
Episodes tend to end when they end, without dramatic conclusion or the need for continuity. The wondrous creatures that battled Scooby-Doo et al. are not there to snatch the Cursed Treasure of Crystal Cove. Rather, they’re just as unable to live up to the epic demands placed in front of them as the Aqua Teens are, and any nefarious schemes that the week’s antagonist might have tend to be lame or weird and often pathetically so, rarely if ever resolving in either triumph or failure.
The Aqua Teens are routinely killed, find themselves ripped asunder, and have their home destroyed. Poor hapless Carl in particular has had thousands of eggs laid inside of him, his body replaced with that of an aging, withered black man, been frozen solid, infected by a giant parasite, had his skull and spine ripped out, been ingested by vampires, and on and on, yet when the next episode hits the air, they’ve returned to square one.
And yes, it is funny. But the humor of Aqua Teen at its core is one of recognition. That we are living at a time and place in history jam-packed with technological marvels and tales that are epic in scope, yet the bulk of our time and emotional energy is spent seething at having to spend yet another wasted hour on the phone with customer service, or any other in a seemingly endless cascade of quotidian annoyances and petty grievances.
You can see this as a blanket condemnation of U.S. culture and society at the start of the 21st century, to be sure, and having the Aqua Teens look not unlike a number of corporate cartoons whose thinly veiled raison d'être was to get kids to buy crappy toys and/or junk food certainly points in that direction, as does the constant tweaking of the show’s title, none of which have resulted in any change to the show’s basic premise.
Adult Swim’s press release can bellow that in Aqua Teen Hunger Force Forever, unlike its predecessors, “Heavily-armed, unhappy couples across the continent are tearing each other apart, and it’s up to Aqua Teen Hunger Force Forever to give them the marriage counseling they need,” and sell us on the promise of “shape-shifting liquid metal” and “a cast of celebrity chefs judging their every move.” But we know what we’re getting here. We’re in on the joke. That the branded lie fails to deliver is something we grimly or even dully take as a given, and have become inured to.
But you can also read Aqua Teen as deeply humanistic; that getting bogged down in minutiae and failing to witness the daily miracles all around us because of our failings as people (or anthropomorphized food) is worthy of as much empathy as scorn. Like any great work of art, both perspectives ring true.
For the sake of context, it’s worth recalling what the TV landscape was like when Aqua Teen premiered in 2001 and how radical it was in form and content on arrival. American Idol was still a glimmer in Simon Cowell’s eyes, Friends was still lording over the top of the Nielsen ratings, as were The West Wing, ER, and Will and Grace. The X-Files was still on the air, and we’d barely gotten through three seasons of The Sopranos. Prestige TV didn’t really exist.
This ability to play with the strictures of television itself, using the format of the sitcom, or the variety show, or the talk show to push and pull at social commentary and radical humor can now be found all over the dial. Yes, Letterman, Saturday Night Live, Laugh-in, Mr. Show, and MTV’s Sunday night animated weirdness, Liquid Television, are also antecedents. But it’s hard to imagine a broadcast lineup that includes the likes of Portlandia, Comedy Bang Bang, Archer, Louie, Broad City and more without the pioneering work of Aqua Teen Hunger Force.
I asked Willis and Maiellaro what they might have planned for Aqua Teen moving forward, or if they had any designs on an Amazon or Netflix revival.
It’s worth noting that the series’ cancellation wasn’t their choice. After I’d congratulated them for 15 years’ worth of work, Willis said with a mix of sarcasm and dour resignation, “Oh, thanks. That’s like saying ‘Congratulations on your funeral.’”
When asked about the reason(s) for pulling the plug on the show, Adult Swim declined to comment.
They joked about the possibility of a live-action film. Sad to say, we might have to wait for a while. “2030,” Willis said. “That's when the show will take off in China and it'll make them worthwhile for them to do it.” Even if it does get green-lit, they “wouldn't work with Dana [Snyder, who voices Master Shake] again. He's so difficult.”
Again, kidding. We chatted for a bit about a dream cast, tossing out Oprah as Frylock, Nathan Lane as Shake, and Samuel Jackson as Meatwad.
I suggested Donald Rumsfeld as Dr. Weird, the Aqua Teens’ ostensible creator and a Marvel Comics-esque Big Bad that appeared in the cold opening during the first two seasons.Maiellaro and Willis chuckled and said, “That’s actually not that bad.”