What do a milk shake, a box of french fries, and a ball of uncooked meat have in common? Aside from being the makings of a fast-food meal, these are the stars of "Aqua Teen Hunger Force," the bizarre, late night cartoon that has delighted kidults, stoners and the ADD generation since 2000.
The only surviving cartoon out of the four original "Adult Swim" shows on Cartoon Network, "ATHF" has been developing a cult following since its debut, spawning a feature film and now a live show touring the country. Sure, there's no real plot or character development, morbid and horrific acts occur throughout the show, and it's hard to imagine what an 11-minute cartoon looks like as a live performance, but "ATHF's" surreal visual gags touch a nerve in my funny bone that no other show can.
I recently got a chance to chat with Dana Snyder, the voice of Master Shake, and Dave Willis, co-creator of the show and voice of Meatwad and Carl (the disgruntled New Jersyian who lives next door to the Aqua Teens). Dana and Dave are currently touring the country doing a live version of the show, sans Frylock (Carey Means) because he "wanted too much money," as Dana and Dave put it.
If you've never seen "ATHF", you might not understand how absurd a live version of the show really sounds. I didn't know what to expect and the show's description online didn't offer too many clues - something about puppets, songs, and some rare videos. Then I started wondering what kind of people would pay $25 for such a show.
"Well, if we went by our live show so far we'd assume we have no fans," Dana said. "According to Columbus, Ohio there are about 100 people who like us."
I didn't believe this. "ATHF" has such a nerdy, cult following. Some of those people had to bite. "It wasn't that bad," Dave cleared up. "I think most of the confusion with the live show it's that no one knows what it is. We also have such a history that [some] might say, 'Here's what they'll do. You pay for your ticket, show up and nobody comes on stage!'"
"And then the joke's on you!" Dana added. Lucky for me, I was about to see the live show in New York and they did show up. The show mostly comprised of Dana and Dave voicing their characters through puppets, while a "real live" version of Carl sat to the side of the stage and proceeded to eat three entire pizzas. Then, Dana Snyder showed some clips from his acting reel and at one point, a scary-looking clown and lady/monkey hybrid came out and sang songs. There was even audience participation in the form of a Meatwad impression contest. Awkward at times and totally nonsensical, the live show was a treat, but only for the die hard "ATHF" fan (as if there is any other kind).
So what were Dave and co-creator Matt Maiellaro thinking when they decided to make a show about three anthropomorphic foodstuffs? I always thought, because of the name and absurdity, that they were going for a "Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles" type show, but the guys said I was way off.
"If anything, 'Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles' were trying to copy us before we came up with it," Dave joked, to which Dana added "Yeah, with their time machine!"
Dave said they tried to come up with a title for a "super-bad-ass action show that would fool everyone into watching it based on the strength of the title alone," and I think they succeeded. Still, I wondered what made them decide to have these specific foods all live together in New Jersey?
The foods were chosen because, as Dave said, "Why not? They work! They are the basic staple for any 8-year-old's diet." He also added that with the obesity rate in this country the way it is, "We know in another 15-20 years this will be the most-watched show in America."
As for New Jersey, Dana simply asked, "Have you ever been there? It's a state that is iconic; you have thoughts on New Jersey even if you haven't been there." Dave concurred, saying you don't get the same feeling with states like Ohio or Iowa. "Right," Dana said. "You don't have attitude in those states. New Jersey is to states what Detroit is to cities."
After hearing that analogy I was surprised no one had made it sooner; it fit pretty well. I tried to get some information on the next "ATHF" movie, following their 2007 film Aqua Teen Hunger Force Colon Movie Film For Theaters, but the guys didn't seem to want to give any real information. All I know so far is that it's called Death Fighter and slated to be released in 2012, possibly straight-to-DVD.
"Technically, it will answer all the questions that the first movie refused to answer, or even raised," Dave said. "That's all I can say, except: Imagine a world... Where there are two Aqua Teens. Double Aqua Teen!"
Huh? I found this hard to believe, but Dana assured me, "This is an exclusive!" I'll believe it when I see it, I guess. I honestly don't believe they've even started writing this movie yet, based on what they said about the show's writing process.
"Do we write them far in advance? I'd be willing to say you could measure it in minutes," Dana said.
Once again, Dave had to clarify: "No... That's not true. We write them in an afternoon, after a healthy dollop of lunch and gossip. Not necessarily in that order." Oh, that makes sense! But really, nothing about the show makes sense. In early episodes it was implied that Master Shake, Meatwad and Frylock were detectives, kind of a like modern-day "Scooby Doo" where odd beasts and alien creatures constantly visited. This plot was dropped almost immediately, and Dave implied sarcastically that it would be coming back:
"Didn't you see the 100th episode? It's coming back! From now on the show is called 'Aqua Unit Patrol Squad' and from now on they will be detectives. What this is called is 'shattering the brand.' It's the boldest marketing move yet!"
While I did see the 100th episode, nothing about detectives was brought up. However, the 100th episode was interesting, it revealed a somewhat meta plot where the Aqua Teens are aware that they are actors on a TV show. It also had an interesting cameo in the form of Tom Savini, legendary makeup and special effects artists for George Romero's signature zombie movies, among others. I assumed Dave and Dana were zombie movie fans, but Dave said otherwise.
"I'm not really a huge zombie movie person. I think that's definitely something Matt brings to the table, some of the horror stuff," Dave said. Dana added that Matt had worked on a horror movie before "ATHF" called Basket Case III. Upon Googling, I found that he not only worked on that low-budget 1991 horror flick, but also Hellraiser III. All of a sudden, the gory parts of the show were starting to make sense.
Having just aired their 100th episode, released a movie with another one in the works, and about to complete a live show tour, I concluded by asking Dave and Dana if they plan on using the characters of "ATHF" in any other medium? While Dave asked, "What other medium is left?" Dana came up with some ideas:
"A booze cruise! Maybe a young adult novel? Or a choose-your-own-adventure! 'If you go to the right path, turn to page 38. but if you take the left...'"
Dave chimed in: "Regardless of what path you take, you end up with a gas and utilities bill of $191. And the other characters just ask 'Who left the lights on all month?' It's a choose-your-own-NON-adventure!"
I really hoped I had just witnessed the birth of an amazing set of "ATHF" books. After seeing their live show, I honestly wouldn't be surprised if an "Aqua Teen Hunger Force Choose-Your-Own-Non-Adventure Live Booze Cruise" started selling tickets by next year.