Saying Goodbye to ‘Aqua Teen Hunger Force’ with Co-Creator Dave Willis
For nearly fifteen years Aqua Teen Hunger Force has left us all confused and amused. Its creators (Dave Willis and Matt Maiellaro) met while working together on Space Ghost Coast to Coast. There, the two dreamed of a team consisting of a talking milk shake, a wad of meat, and a floating pack of fries who all lived together in Southern New Jersey. Together, they have written 134 episodes, produced a movie (Aqua Teen Hunger Force Colon Movie Film for Theaters), and weathered the PR nightmare that was a bomb scare inspired by the sudden ubiquitous appearance of LED Mooninites.
I had the opportunity to chat with Dave Willis over the phone, while sadly Maiellaro was unable to join the conversation because, as Willis reported, he was “getting his teeth replaced with fangs.” No less amusing, Willis informed me of the most appropriate way to mourn the loss of their show, how the industry has changed since he and Maiellaro first made their pitch, and where we can expect to see his creative talents put to good use in the days to come.
I imagine the past few months have been pretty emotional for you guys.
Just dehydrated from all the tears coming out of my ducts.
All the salty, salty, tears.
Some other pores — I’ve had a lot of botched face lift surgery so I have a lot of tears coming out of the back of my neck.
I’m sorry to hear that.
Yeah, I know, don’t ever go overseas to get your facelift.
I’ll have to cancel my appointment. So I read that you guys found out only halfway through writing season 11 that it was canceled?
Well we kind of took a slow boat on making this season because it took us a little while, we were working on other projects — but yeah, we were sort of already a few episodes in. It’s good that we’re not known for our season-long story arcs. It wasn’t like Halt and Catch Fire. We had plenty of time to close it out in the way that I think is apt and good, you know, consistent with… Though, “consistency” is probably not a word that’s often used with our program. Quality always, but consistent? No.
Yes, there you go. That’s sort of the tag that the network will put on it: “Consistently inconsistent.” For the one-page magazine ads if we ever had those, which we don’t.
Did you sense the end was near?
I mean, I don’t know, 15 years is a crazy long time in anything, but in TV it’s… Yeah, it’s a great run. I think there were probably some back and forths over the show over the past couple of years. I would say certainly it was a surprise, but what can you do? I don’t own the show, it’s not my show, Matt and I just came up with it.
So what’s the most appropriate way for your fans to mourn this loss, in your opinion?
Create a wailing wall where everyone can leave flowers and gifts of a financial nature and of a culinary nature, if they’re really good cooks. At my house, I think that would probably be the most appropriate place. I had one 14-year-old fan who somehow got ahold of my phone number and now he won’t stop calling me with questions about what happened to obscure characters. I would say that’s not the way to mourn the show. I’m going to put that out there right now. He doesn’t even have a podcast; I just answer the questions and he calls me at odd hours. He texted me. His name’s Warren.
Warren, if you’re reading this: stop asking questions.
Actually, I was really tickled by it. I was enjoying answering the questions for a while but I did say, “We’ve got to complete this interview and then once we do that we can’t do another interview, Warren. It’s gotta be it.”
So did he just guess your number, or…?
I don’t know how he got my number. He called me on vacation and he was going, “This is Warren, are you Dave from Aqua Teen?” I was like, “Yes.” And he said, “I have some Aqua Teen questions; are you ready to receive them?” And I said, “How about I let my son answer them?” And then he said, “It’s okay, I gotta go to the store anyways. I’m going to call you tomorrow with the interview.”
Yeah. He’s from Teaneck, New Jersey. I would listen to a podcast of him interviewing people. That would easily be my favorite thing to listen to.
When it came to developing the very last episode, was that a more difficult or was it just like all the other episodes for you?
Yeah it was a little difficult because we did a half hour, and I think we ended in a way that we earn it. It’s like I said, it’s consistent with the show. I mean, I don’t think anyone will walk away going, “Well, that didn’t work.” Or, “That was a bummer.” I mean, people always talk about how hard it is to finish a show. It’s great when you sort of create a world where anything can happen and usually does. But if you create a world like that then you’re not as limited by how you end it. I’m happy with how we’re rolling it up.
Is Carl’s Stone Cold Lock of the Century of the Week going to be coming to an end as well?
I don’t know, that’s a good question, because that was kind of a lark and then a buddy of mine, actually Scott Van Pelt of ESPN, we sort of became friendly and he said, “Hey can I share this on my Friday radio show and next thing you know for 6 years I’ve been doing it. I actually brought in this PA at the office, Matt Foster, who is really funny and he’s also a big sports fan. He’s kind of come in and helped me. I’d write it on a Tuesday night and it’d be up on Friday. Now Van Pelt’s not going to be doing the radio show anymore. I don’t know, I don’t know what the future of that is.
It’s been fun. That one year the Giants beat the Patriots, I had recorded it sort of assuming that the Patriots would win and then I got kind of drunk at the game and then I had to completely re-record it that night. Kind of hammered. If you listen to that you can hear a little bit of that coming through.
Do you ever just slip into your characters in casual conversation?
Yeah. If I see a cute little baby or a kitten, I slip into a Meatwad voice real quick and I go, “Hey! That’s a cute baby. That’s a cute little kitty.” Yeah, and then you can easily see the parent just trying to hustle the child away from me because they’re like, “Why is that balding 40-something man talking in that weird voice? Is he going to pull his penis out or something?” The Carl voice, no, but I feel like Carl is just at the tip of my tongue at any moment. He’s like the dark — the darkness coming out.
Do you ever talk to yourself as your own characters?
No, but I’ll sometimes use Meatwad when I sex-talk my wife but… um… she doesn’t let me do that anymore.
[Meatwad voice] That’s real hot. Super hot! What’re you wearing, girl?
Contractually are you allowed to have these characters appear in other contexts after this? Or do they have to disappear for a while along with the show?
I was with Dana [Snyder] this weekend at Comic-Con and we joked about creating a new show called Liquid Tween Hungry Trio starring Beefball and their irascible next-door neighbor, Kevin.
But you never know. I can’t run off and do it somewhere else but if they want to do something with it I always thought Meatwad would be a fun character in a kids show actually. Carl’s just kind of… I don’t know; I think there will always be a market for this angry, middle aged, white man.
[Laughs] Yes. Thank God.
Looking back on it, what was favorite episode to produce?
It’s hard to say, they’re all great and they’re all fun to produce and it usually takes months for you to realize whether one was really good or just kind of okay. You’re just in the moment of it. I mean, this season we made a stop-motion one, which I love. It’s got all this live action stuff and Henry Zebrowski, who’s the star of Your Pretty Face is Going to Hell and he’s also got a big role in Heroes Reborn that’s coming out on NBC. Anyways, he’s in it and he sort of becomes this Iron Man-type robot. He can’t stop the metal shields from coming in on him, so he suffocates underneath it. That was really fun to work on and fun to make. Looking back to when we were first doing the show, I don’t think we knew how to make a cartoon.
We knew how to make Space Ghost: Coast to Coast, we thought we knew more about making a cartoon than we actually did so we kind of stumbled out of the gates a little bit and I think that Mooninites episode, maybe the 4th one? That was probably the first time where we were — the other episodes, earlier episodes had laughs and stuff but that was the first time where we felt like, ‘Oh this is clicking. This is working.’ We sort of knew a little bit about what we were doing. I think that’s helped and certainly those first 10 maybe, because they were also ideas that were rejected from Space Ghost that we were re-hashing for Aqua Teen in a way that we thought would work. It sort of started to feel like, ‘Oh man, this is taking off and we know what we’re doing.’ And then people started watching. It was really fulfilling.
At the time when you first came in to Adult Swim it was newer and I imagine maybe more open to ‘unconventional’ shows and plots. Do you think that’s the case? Do you feel like it’s changed?
I think it’s probably more open now. I mean I didn’t have any — I started in 1995 and was a PA for Andy Merrill, who was the voice for Brak, one of the guys in the early days of Space Ghost and for the rest of the 90s I ended up being on the writing staff of Coast to Coast. At the time, South Park was popping and Bevis and Butthead, and I think there was an understanding among all of us that there was certainly an audience for adult-themed animation if you could provide it. When we pitched Aqua Teen I remember the moment when everybody looked down at their Blackberries. I remember the moment we lost the room. Fortunately, Mike [Lazzo] was like, “I don’t know what I think about this but I’m going to let you make it.” As it turned out, they just didn’t have a lot of money; it was a huge, crazy experiment. That’s another thing, it was a kids’ network, they did all this focus-testing of moms and said, ‘How would you feel if the network of The Power Puff Girls and Scooby Doo became kind of raunchy and more adult-themed after 11 o’clock?’
Also, Family Guy was just not on anybody’s radar, it was about to get cancelled; they didn’t have a lot of money to play with so I don’t think they were going to take much of a chance on stuff so it’s built over the years. Now I think they’re very open to interesting and unique ideas. I think they’d love for the next Simpsons to fall into their lap. I think in the meantime they also would love to make things that have no hope of being that. Rick and Morty, I don’t know, could be the next Simpsons or Family Guy. It’s an awesome show and it’s a half hour and it’s like got this whole sitcom structure but it’s got this crazy sense of humor from Justin Roiland. For everything like that, they’ll throw a little money towards something off the beaten path and see if it’s got more of an audience than just someone’s own YouTube channel. I think the environment’s better now and I also think the money’s there, for doing other stuff.
Definitely, but I could also see how having a lot of money would be a reason that it would become a little bit stricter. Like if the networks wants to follow older pathways towards pleasing an audience.
If you look at what airs 4 o’clock in the morning, one of our long time editors and producers Dave Hughes is doing this show Off The Air that’s just insane. It’s the most insane thing on TV and it’s airing at 4 o’clock rather than a real infomercial about a set of knives or whatever. They’re still producing original content and then airing it in the middle of the night. I do Your Pretty Face with Chris Kelly who did Too Many Cooks. That was something where he was just given a pittance and he sold them the idea and he was given just enough money to make it and it was a classic example. He was thrilled to do it, and they were thrilled to air it. I don’t know anywhere in television where you can do that. You can do that all over the internet but maybe not so much in TV as Adult Swim.
Did you guys have anything in mind that you really wanted to get around to at some point but now you’re not going to be able to, or did you pretty much exhaust most of what you had on your plate?
No, I think Matt and I could make this show forever. We come together well, he and I have been writing together for, shockingly, probably about 17 years. He and I were a team on Coast to Coast for the last two or three years of that show and we just get together and write a draft pretty much in the afternoon and then it goes through massive changes all along the way and it gets re-written and things change but we try to keep it fluid. We had some show ideas that I thought were funny that we never got to do.
We had one episode idea where Seth Green moves in next door to them, because we knew Seth from Robot Chicken. He moved in next door because he was gonna play Meatwad in the movie, and he wanted to hang out with Meatwad and learn his style. We weren’t allowed to do that because he’s a union actor. Then there’s an episode where they were going to take the CNN tour and Meatwad gets bitten by Wolf Blitzer and becomes a wolfman. We sent Wolf Blitzer an e-mail, he actually wrote us back and said, “You’re not really supposed to e-mail me directly.” And then we got yelled at. They’re just stupid ideas that we never got to do.
When can you e-mail Wolf Blitzer directly, if not in that context?
I think the day we’re off the air, we can e-mail him all we want directly. There’s nothing he can do about it, he can’t block us! I also tweet him directly, I send him direct messages about his hair.
Beautiful. Well, I’m sorry that Matt couldn’t make it.
He’s getting his teeth replaced with fangs.
All fangs and two tusks; he’s very eccentric and he’s very rich, so he can afford to do this.
As many fangs as he wants… What a dream.
So yeah, we’re sad about the show going away, it’s a sad thing for us and we’re bummed and we’d love to keep making it.
Before you go, since the Season 8 you were changing the name every season. Season 8 was Aqua Unit Patrol Squad 1, Season 9 was Aqua Something You Know Whatever, Season 10 was Aqua TV Show Show, and this last season is Aqua Teen Hunger Force Forever. Were there any other season names you had in mind?
Well, the original title of the show was supposed to be Aqua Teen Hunger Force Unit Patrol Squad 1. That’s where that came from, but maybe That Little Hotdog Show, which is what someone in Ad Sales called it once. That Little Hotdog Show, so maybe we would have ultimately changed it to that.
I’m sad that we’re going to be missing out on That Little Hotdog Show, then.
I know, because that would have been some significant re-branding. The nation will mourn. What we’re hoping is that the network will have 15 minutes of silence when the last show airs, but knowing the network I think they’ll also sell that 15 minutes of silence to Budweiser. That or the new Minions movie or Adam Sandler’s Pixels. That’s how they roll.
Phil Stamato lives and writes in New York, where he may also be seen standing up and telling jokes.