I'm pitching you a show. It's animated. It's a talk show. Its host is a cartoon superhero from the 1960s that nobody remembers. It features a band leader and "producer" who are, respectively, a psychotic mantis and a man made of molten lava.
They interview trendy celebrities—Thom Yorke, Michael Stipe, Jon Stewart, Penn and Teller, Lassie the dog. The celebrities have almost no idea what's going on. Then we edit it to make them look like idiots, and the show revolves around cheap animation and the awkward banter of the three leads.
That show was Space Ghost:Coast to Coast—the absurdist animated talkshow that launched Adult Swim and effectively ushered in the alternative-animation renaissance of the 1990s. It ran for ten years, from 1994 to 2004.
Recently, lead animator of Coast to Coast and voice of Zorak and Moltar, C. Martin Croker passed away at age 54. Croker was one of those cult figures who had a finger in so much of the great alt-comedy wave of the past 25 years. A true cult hero.
It got me thinking on the legacy of Coast to Coast, and its impact on me and modern comedy.
I was ten when my parents got swindled into getting Foxtel. Already a TV junkie, I began to flood my life with back-to-back cartoons: Ren and Stimpy, Animaniacs, Courage the Cowardly Dog, etc. My eyes were decidedly square.
But it was late night Friday's on Cartoon Network that entranced me. For an hour or so, there was a little block of programs called "Adult Swim." There were only four shows—Sealab, Aqua Teen Hunger Force, The Brak Show, and the show that kicked the night off, Space Ghost: Coast to Coast.
This animation block shifted something deep within me. I'd never seen anything like it. This wasn't South Park or The Simpsons. There was no moralizing, and there was barely a plot. Instead there was this confused superhero asking David Byrne if he was "having trouble with his power bands"—with probing follow-ups like "what do you mean by 'it'?" Adult Swim was wild, it was radical, it was pure, and it was everything I wanted to do with my life.
Coast to Coast had punk sewn into its very aesthetic. As animator, Croker was a genius. It was his idea to repurpose the one off villains of the original Hannah Barbera cartoon Space Ghost (1966–1968) as the shows erstwhile sidekicks. The bronze age of TV sitcom and adventure cartoons of the 1960s was defined by horrid frame rates, plagiarized character design, tacky merchandising, and cost-cutting animation techniques (think the looping backgrounds of The Jetsons).
Croker, along with show's creator and producer Mike Lazzo, understood the parodic potential of all this—Coast to Coast looked cheap but that just heightened the trippy tension. The contrast between seeing (then) box office megastar Jim Carrey on a show that looked like it was made by propagandists from some dictatorship was palpable.
Space Ghost himself couldn't have had more than four default movements, one of which was to "blast" his guest with his laser arms. The limitations added to this unbearable feeling of nothingness—the constant hum of off-screen "space electronics" and the loud blinks of Zorak all muddled together to make a show that was as much lo-fi zine as it was Braque collage.
Coast to Coast was alternative "anti-comedy" at its absolute best. Today, you can see its influence everywhere. The entire Adult Swim cannon—from Harvey Birdman to Tom Goes to the Mayor—owes everything to this show. Coast to Coast turned Adult Swim into the alt empire it now is. Aqua Teen and The Brak Show were both spinoffs of the show. You wouldn't have Tim and Eric, Rick and Morty, Adventure Time, or Eric Andre without it.
In a 2012 interview, Andre told the Huffington Post, "I rented as many seasons I could get my hands on and did a Space Ghost marathon by myself in my house, just so I could absorb as much Space Ghost as I could."
And if you think Andre's treatment of celebrities is cruel and unusual, you should really get a load of the gulag torture chamber that is a Space Ghost interview. Celebrities were placed in a black room, facing a camera, where an ear speaker would pipe in the dulcet tones of George Lowe (Space Ghost). The confused stars (for example, Willie Nelson) would struggle to form answers about oxygen and their art. Not that it mattered, as the interviews were cut up in editing, they were made to look like flummoxed and often psychotic fools, locked in an antagonistic back-and-forth with the erstwhile ghost and his Mantis bandleader.
Andre is great at terrifying his guests, but in Coast to Coast, you'd see the looming existential crises fall upon them. It's a Samuel Beckett play meets E! News. The show was basically saying, "Your star will fall, you will be nothing, you know this because you are here," and in that daunting, realization was great and agitating TV.
There's never been such a good deconstruction of celebrity and celebrity culture. Unlike Eric Andre or Hannibal Buress, Space Ghost and friends were immune to fame. They lived in space. They didn't "get" people. They weren't going to be cherished, except by weirdos like me. They didn't care if you were Hulk Hogan, and they wouldn't care if you were Kim Kardashian. They only cared if you were getting enough oxygen.
Croker's legacy as animator, writer, and voice artist, is tied up in this aggravated anti-consumer ethos. These shows never sought an audience. They were a beacon for freaks and weirdos, and they knew that we'd come. And we did. Adult Swim and its outsider influence looms large over not just modern animation but modern comedy as a whole.
Croker may have died an obscure cult figure, but the legacy of Coast to Coast, and his other Adult Swim projects carry on, sometimes imperceptibly, in this galaxy and somewhere into the next.
Follow Patrick Marlborough on Twitter.