The Phantom Fame: ‘Space Ghost Coast to Coast,’ Secretly TV’s Most Influential ShowAdult Swim
The new age of late night has dawned. Last week, Trevor Noah took over The Daily Show, the slaughterhouse in which Jon Stewart EVISCERATED liberal bugbears on a nightly basis. This comes just after Stephen Colbert crawled out of character to occupy the throne vacated by David Letterman. And this is just the latest of the seismic shifts that have made television — broadcast or broadband, cable or streaming — the medium of the post-millennium.
The Sopranos started it all, or so the legends say. The canon of shows that launched TV’s postmillennial renaissance begins before HBO’s mafia masterpiece, of course: Twin Peaks paved the way, and David Lynch has been cited by countless showrunners as the John the Baptist to David Chase’s Jesus Christ. Tony and Carmela’s own network already had a breakout hit in the form of Sex and the City, which proved that people would tune in for original programming on channels that mostly aired movies. The Wire and Deadwood cemented the prestige drama’s place on the small screen. Arrested Development, meanwhile, created a parallel track, establishing the single-camera sitcom as the “prestige comedy” format of choice, while The Daily Show made similarly Peabody-worthy waves in the talk-show format.
But all the while — long before, in fact — a shadow revolution was under way. For this sea change, space was the place. Few people afford Space Ghost Coast to Coast, Cartoon Network’s strange, seminal comedy, its rightful place in the pantheon. But from its bargain-basement launch in 1994 to its place at the center of the wildly popular Adult Swim lineup in the 2000s, it helped introduce cringe comedy to the American viewing public, deconstructed the idea of the talk show beyond repair for a generation of comedians, and changed the look and feel of the entire animation art form.
SGC2C was the brainchild of Mike Lazzo, Cartoon Network’s original head programmer. Lazzo was known for taking full advantage of the fly-by-night nature of the channel’s early days, during which it served primarily as a clearinghouse for Ted Turner’s massive library of old Hanna-Barbera cartoons: In 1997, he ran a single Screwy Squirrel episode back to back all day as an April Fools’ prank. But what he did with Space Ghost — the outer-space superhero wearing a striking white, black, and yellow costume was designed by comics and animation godhead Alex Toth for a perfectly average action cartoon from 1966 to 1968 and a brief revival in 1981 — was more radical.
Repurposing existing Space Ghost images from the original cartoons, Lazzo created the first animated late-night talk show in 1994. Operated in tandem with Keith Crofford, a fellow Southerner with whom Lazzo shared an office as well as seemingly a brain, the show boasted a premise that was somehow both simple and endlessly, mutably ridiculous. Now retired from the business of fighting intergalactic evil, Space Ghost (real name: Tad Ghostal) and a support staff consisting of his imprisoned enemies Zorak (anthropomorphic mantis/bandleader) and Moltar (gravel-voiced lava man/director) flies face-first into show business, interviewing pop-culture luminaries through a monitor screen lowered into the chair where a guest would normally sit. Interviews with the celebrities involved were filmed separately, in largely improvisational fashion, then combined with the cartoon characters’ dialogue — often producing results diametrically opposed to the context of the original questions.
Yet the guests kept on coming — a who’s who of ’90s culture, from Thom Yorke to Jeff Foxworthy, Bob Costas to Judy Tenuta. Visitors were incorporated into Space Ghost’s backstory: He’s married, for example, to Björk (who’s letting Tricky crash on the couch she uses as a toilet), and his grandfather Leonard Ghostal is a retired professional wrestler who sounds an awful lot like “Macho Man” Randy Savage. Other guests were roped into wholly unrelated misadventures, had their work insulted (“Wow, Denis Leary! I’ve seen all of your movies! I didn’t think they were very good. What did you think?”), or were ignored in favor of whatever the increasingly addlebrained Space Ghost was preoccupied with at the time (from growing a gigantic sea monkey named Banjo1 to learning the flamenco intro to Yes’s “Roundabout” on his guitar). Some guests never actually got to speak; those who did invariably spent much of their screen time staring at their two-dimensional host in baffled confusion. Figuring out who was playing along and who was getting played was part of the fun.
With its uncomfortable interactions and awkward pauses — made to feel all the more interminable by the tinnitus-like buzzing of Space Ghost’s moon-base-like Ghost Planet Industries headquarters — SGC2C was one of America’s first cringe comedies. The show pioneered the brand of humor that relied on characters staring dumbstruck at a person oblivious to their own obnoxiousness — the awkward-pause atmosphere that hung over future classics like Curb Your Enthusiasm and the U.K. version of The Office. Only Steve Coogan’s seminally stiff telly presenter Alan Partridge arguably got there earlier, and that was exclusively across the pond. For American audiences, the only other thing like this on television was Garry Shandling’s The Larry Sanders Show, but its pay-cable price tag and very different target audience kept it relatively subdued. Space Ghost, appropriately, took things way farther out, though of the two talk-show satires — the best the genre has ever produced — its innovations go largely ignored.
But a generation of young weirdos was paying attention. Space Ghost paved the way for the host of lo-fi, surrealist fake talk shows that have emerged in its wake. The format had its forebears, like Larry Sanders (which beat it to air by two years) and especially the low-rent small-town shoddiness of All in the Family creator Norman Lear’s Fernwood Tonight, starring Martin Mull and future Space Ghost guest Fred Willard. The anarchic early years of David Letterman were a key ingredient, as well. (SGC2C mainstay Matt Harrigan, who wrote many of its best, and not coincidentally weirdest, episodes was also a Late Show staffer.)
The aggression with which Space Ghost dismantled talk-show tropes, however, was totally unprecedented and, judging from the next decade and a half of TV comedy, massively influential. The Michael Showalter Showalter, Zach Galifianakis’s Between Two Ferns, Comedy Bang! Bang!, The Eric André Show, Check It Out! With Dr. Steve Brule: Space Ghost got there first. Even human viral video Jimmy Fallon — whose ruthlessly good-natured guest-participation bits seem at first glance to be worlds away from the show that gave us “Nobody cares, Moby” — has more in common with Space Ghost’s weaving of celebrities into the show’s preexisting comedy cloth than with the standard jokes-and-clips Q&A format.
Just as important to the Space Ghost aesthetic were its ancillary audio and video cues: ominous intros that simply read “waiting,” staticky commercial bumpers during which the show appeared to simply blink out of existence, the ambient hum of Moltar’s electronics and the cavernous studio, the dial-up modem sound that accompanied Ghost Planet Industries’s contact info, the blinding white haze and metallic clang of the GPI vanity card (excised from Dragnet mastermind Jack Webb’s Mark VII Limited). The overall effect was menacing, which separated the show from its fellow outer-space irony-fest for insomniacs, the comparatively gentle Mystery Science Theater 3000. It felt a lot like how you’d imagine being stranded on a barren planet with nothing but cathode rays for company felt — which in turn was a sensory dead ringer for being up late, under the influence, with the strangest show on TV.
Williams Street, Space Ghost’s production company, soft-launched the shows that would become its network in a bottle in late 2000 to fill in the gap left when SGC2C went on hiatus. The future ratings powerhouse Adult Swim, which officially debuted as a late-night programming block in September 2001, was effectively a giant Space Ghost spinoff. Two of its initial series, The Brak Show and Harvey Birdman, Attorney at Law, starred Coast to Coast characters; a third, Sealab 2021, followed in the flagship’s Hanna-Barbera-remixing wake. The fourth, Aqua Teen Hunger Force, starred characters created for a rejected Space Ghost episode by staffers David Willis and Matt Maiellaro out of boredom; it would go on to become Adult Swim’s longest-running show, with its writers, producers, and breathlessly bizarre comedy setting the tone for what was to come.
What came next conquered much of cable. Like the show that spawned it, Adult Swim is still seen as a diversion for stoners — TV’s equivalent of pizza-flavored Combos. But Adult Swim slowly expanded from a programming block that aired in the wee hours twice a week to take over Cartoon Network’s entire nighttime programming. The reason is simple: Adult Swim has been no. 1 in the ratings among the sweet, sweet target demo of adults 18-34 for over a decade, unceasingly trouncing the more traditional (and much more widely discussed) boys of late night. And the methods with which it first built up and then utilized that dominance are far more diverse and influential than simply adding the distinctive scent of good kush. Without Space Ghost Coast to Coast, none of it would have ever happened.
Adult Swim’s most famous mainstream-culture coup is, in effect, the creation of the Family Guy phenomenon. After Fox canceled Seth MacFarlane’s animated series, then seen primarily as a Simpsons knockoff with a mean streak, its vulgar non sequiturs caught on in a big way when Adult Swim began airing it in reruns. Taking note of the ratings, Fox resurrected the series, beginning MacFarlane’s march to multiple Sunday-night series, Oscar hosting gigs, and talking teddy bears making dick jokes with Mark Wahlberg for blockbuster box office. Futurama, from Simpsons creator Matt Groening, got a similar second lease on life thanks to its Adult Swim success, while cartoonist Aaron McGruder’s adaptation of his daily strip The Boondocks frequently courted Family Guy–style controversy, in a far more politically high-minded manner.
Other successes were even further afield. Toonami, a weekly block of action-oriented series overseen by Jason DeMarco (who also runs Adult Swim’s record label [!]), brought together homegrown series like Samurai Jack and Teen Titans with anime megahits from Dragon Ball Z to Attack on Titan, beaming Japan’s distinct and advanced animation industry directly into teenage brains like never before. The fluidity of Toonami titles between Adult Swim and Cartoon Network (several have appeared on both) was an early indicator of how the student would soon become the teacher. The late-night block’s surrealist comedy-horror soon crept into children’s programming at both Cartoon Network and Nickelodeon; shows from Adventure Time and Regular Show, which currently serve as Adult Swim’s nightly lead-ins, to Nick’s Pig Goat Banana Cricket bear unmistakable signs of Adult Swim’s aesthetic.
Over time, that aesthetic expanded considerably. Consider Christopher McCulloch’s The Venture Bros.: On the surface, it’s a Jonny Quest pastiche, true to Adult Swim’s Hanna-Barbera roots. But the action comedy’s heavily serialized story lines and dramatic underpinnings — it’s a show about its characters’ repeated, humiliating fuckups — showed that the Adult Swim gestalt could expand beyond bite-size chunks of pharmaceutical-addled insanity. It became one of the network’s breakout hits. Current critics’ darling Rick and Morty followed suit, blending Adult Swim’s take-no-prisoners attitude and willingness to get weird with heartfelt family comedy: Cocreated by Community mastermind Dan Harmon, it wound up beating Community in the ratings.
Eventually, in a move that had angry young men pointing their finger at the phrase “Cartoon Network” and demanding answers, goddammit, Adult Swim began airing live-action shows in addition to animation. The sheer volume of talent that found its way to television through these programs is staggering: How else to describe a lineup that has featured Chris Elliott, Jon Glaser, and Tyler, the Creator in lead roles? Adult Swim’s willingness to take chances on alt-comedy figures who’d otherwise rarely be seen off a stand-up stage or heard outside of podcasts single-handedly shifted the cable-comedy scene away from Man Show bro-downs to the smarter, stranger state it’s in today (though its dearth of female-fronted programming is one area in which it sorely lags behind its competitors).
The live-action lineup’s real visionaries, Tim Heidecker and Eric Wareheim, are like human embodiments of the network’s reach. Getting their Adult Swim start with Tom Goes to the Mayor — a cartoon that was crudely animated even by Space Ghost standards — they went on to create Tim and Eric Awesome Show, Great Job!, their abrasive, disgusting, visually accomplished sketch-comedy landmark. The pair translated its often imitated, never duplicated look into highly influential ads and music videos, while their production shingle Abso Lutely helped create vehicles — parked across multiple networks, including IFC and Comedy Central — for John C. Reilly, Andy Daly, Nathan Fielder, Scott Aukerman and Reggie Watts, and Eric André and Hannibal Buress, all of them in Space Ghost–indebted fake-show formats. “It’s basically like Space Ghost as a live-action show,” André has said of his own mock-talk masterpiece.
No game of six-degrees-of-Space-Ghost would be complete without mentioning FX’s acclaimed spy spoof Archer, practically an Adult Swim alumni network. The series shares its slick, stiff, minimally animated look with much of the Space Ghost lineage, including creator Adam Reed and producer Matt Thompson’s previous Adult Swim shows Sealab 2021 and Frisky Dingo. Archer himself is voiced by comedian H. Jon Benjamin, whose Adult Swim connections run deep: After costarring in Space Ghost’s ’90s cartoon-for-adults contemporary Dr. Katz, Professional Therapist, he went on to voice multiple Aqua Teen characters and play a key role in the early Adult Swim series Home Movies, which Adult Swim acquired after UPN canceled it. That series’ cocreator, Loren Bouchard, also gave birth to the ecstatically beloved Bob’s Burgers, the Fox hit that also stars Benjamin. Archer, meanwhile, currently airs on Fox’s cable comedy channel FXX; that network inherited an entire late-night programming block of familiarly fucked-up fare called ADHD from Fox’s flagship network, overseen by Adult Swim alums Ben Jones and Nick Weidenfeld. And so on, and so on, and so on.
This, really, is the difference between Space Ghost and its ancestors and antecedents. David Chase and David Letterman were powerful figures, but no one handed them the keys to an entire network for almost 15 years. Nor is it clear they’d have known what to do if someone had. What the people behind Space Ghost accomplished in that time — as art, as a business, as talent scouts for a decade-plus of forward-thinking TV makers — is unprecedented. The ghost will never die.
Sean T. Collins (@theseantcollins) is a critic and comics writer who lives with his daughter on Long Island.