We spoke to creators Dave Willis and Matt Maiellaro about our favorite surrealist anarchic animated show starring a meatball, a milkshake, and a box of fries.
Since its official debut on Cartoon Network's Adult Swim in the fall of 2001, Aqua Teen Hunger Force has established itself as not only the sixth longest-running animated series ever, but also one of the most surreal and insane. From a supercomputer called OoGhiJ MIQtxxXA that enables time travel to a cursed sandwich that causes its consumer to be transported to hell, the show depicts a world where literally anything can happen—logic and continuity be damned. In a time when most other nationally distributed series adhered to some unstated standard, Aqua Teen did whatever the fuck it wanted, and it showed.
This month the announcement was made that the 11th season of the show, freshly dubbed Aqua Teen Hunger Force Forever, will be its last. Its description promises it will be going out with the most bizarre sort of a bang, featuring shape-shifting, time travel, and celebrity chefs, all of it somehow stemming from a court ruling making divorce illegal in America.
The first episode of the finale debuted this past weekend, with the second episode kicking off this Sunday at midnight ET/PT, on Adult Swim.
Earlier this week, I spoke with Aqua Teen creators Dave Willis and Matt Maiellaro about their experience running one of the weirdest shows on TV, and the ending of an era. During our conversation, I also learned that it wasn't their decision to end the show, and they're not sure why it was cancelled. A spokesperson for Adult Swim declined to comment.
VICE: So what brought you guys to the decision to end Aqua Teen?
Matt Maiellaro: We didn't. [Laughs]
You were told it's over?
Maiellaro: We were told it's over. If it were our decision, we'd still be making it.
How did that come on? Was it a big bummer, or were you relieved?
Maiellaro: It's actually quite shocking and a bummer at the same time.
Just kind of out of left field?
Maiellaro: Well, I mean right field. [Laughs] The show does well, it generates a lot of revenue, it's not too expensive to make. So for them to let it go is just a bit odd. We call it odd behavior.
Does that change the way you will make this final season?
Dave Willis: We had probably made half of the episodes by the time we were told, so we were able to do a finale that I think does justice to the series. I don't know if you can close out a show like this, the "will they, won't they" question that needs to be answered. But I think the finale we made is worthy of the show.
Maiellaro: Worthy of an Emmy. [Laughs]
Willis: Yeah, that's right.
It is interesting how the show kind of resets in every episode. There's sort of returning things, but the narrative itself doesn't necessarily carry over from one show to the next, right?
Willis: Narrative's overrated.
Maiellaro: Yeah, it's overrated. [Laughs] We just do fun episodes that reset. But it's chock-full of story for 11 minutes, right?
So there are no ground rules, there's no "this has to happen"?
Maiellaro: No. Dave and I make all the rules and we just agree on which rules that we make and to do it.
Willis: I guess we never explained why sometimes things hit the ground and just explode. We talked about doing an episode where the ground is made of gasoline. That seemed stupid.
Maiellaro: So we just had men from the moon show up. Which is way smarter.
When you're writing an episode, is it just generated from a random non sequitur like that? Like, "Oh we'll just have an arbitrary law like the ground is gasoline" and from there you turn on..?
Willis: No, no, no, no, no. Don't misunderstand me. The ground is definitely not made of gasoline. That was an idea that we just... We scrapped that idea when we decided it was dumb.
Maiellaro: We just kind of sit around and say, "What if this just happens to one of them, how would it play out?" That's how we do the really complicated and smart, energetic, fun stories. [Laughs]
Do you think of it in a transgressive sense? Are you like, "We're on national television and we can do anything we want" to some extent? Do you think of it as a responsibility to break those lines? Or are you not even thinking of the audience?
Willis: We want to make something that we want to watch, and that's funny to us. I don't think we think beyond that. But you also want to try to do something different and unique every time. Maybe after 130 or however many episodes we've done, even if you do bizarre, non sequitur enough times, you've shattered the pattern. Non sequitur only works if it comes off of an established pattern, you know? So maybe you've fallen to your own traps. Intellectualizing it, you know. I just think we're trying to make something that's really funny, doesn't overstay its welcome, and makes us laugh. I feel like the past few seasons, but especially this season, is as strong as it's ever been. We've got a whole crew of guys, a small group of guys, that work really hard on it and take a lot of pride in it and I feel really good about them.
'Back when we started there was this whole rash of articles that said, "Will adults watch cartoons?" and I was like, of course they will if they're funny.' —Matt Maiellaro
It seems clear to me. Since you began, are there things in the industry that have changed that might be causing this collapse? Or is there something else there?
Willis: I don't know. I can't speak to anyone's reasoning why they would take it off the air.
Maiellaro: It really comes down to guilt economics. When you have something that's incredibly successful that doesn't take any amount of effort or finances to make, you start feeling kind of guilty for America and so you pull back and you let other shows shine here and there. It's guilt economics. You make all this money and you're like, "Holy shit, this is too much money. We got to stop this for a while." It's kind of vulgar [to keep making all that money]. It's vulgar. Wise decision on Cartoon Network, for morale, you know.
Right. Can't hoard all the money into that one universe.
Maiellaro: Yeah, just monopolize. You got to give other people a chance. [Laughs]
Yeah, that's almost depressing. It's sort of a joke but it also makes me feel like it's true that something that's totally defined its own terms gets eventually killed almost for no reason and that's just the nature of the beast or something.
Maiellaro: I guess. We don't know. We've never been told, so that's what I assume. You're ripping off America with finances, you might as well just stop or you'll feel guilty about it and you're going to go to prison.
Willis: America is getting ripped off. Let's make that clear.
That's clear. That could not be more clear.
So what happens to the universe...
Willis: There's a giant hole in it.
What will fill the hole?
Willis: Vacuum of suck [Laughs]. As you know, nature abhors the vacuum. There'll just be a sucking hole.
Maiellaro: When something you love goes away, you just get back together and think of something else.
Willis: Yeah. But the good thing about cartoons is that they don't ever really die, even though they have been killed dead by the network. They don't ever really die. They just get rebooted. We're just going to wait around for the reboot.
The Carl Brutananadilewski spin-off.
Willis: Yeah, probably Carl will just move to Seattle and adopt a bunch of orphans and embark on a new career...
Maiellaro: He'll get breast surgery so he can feed them.
Willis: Feed them with his hairy, hairy breasts.
'We were the shortest show on TV and now we're like the longest thing on the internet. Now everybody wants to see something that's 12 seconds long.' —Dave Willis
So, since you guys began this, and it changed, do you feel like your careers are as animators? Is that a viable thing that someone can do who wants to be an animator? What approach do they take now, as opposed to what you did 15 years ago?
Willis: I don't think either one of us would call ourselves animators. I mean, we just like to make stuff. I kind of came from wanting to do something that's comedy, and Matt is the same way, although he kind of came out from the horror angle. I'm not going to speak for Matt, but I kind of fell into this. I wanted to get into doing creative stuff. Honestly, making cartoons this way was working to my strengths, because I could just sit there in a room and just try to make it work until it's funny and not have to deal with the stress of trying to do it on a stage or anything like that. I didn't know what I was doing. I didn't have a degree in this. I just volunteered on shoots, hauling cables until someone would let me in the building. That's sort of how my career went.
Maiellaro: I mean, sometimes it's "right place, right time." You know the right people, you do something that works for what they're trying to accomplish. I was writing stuff and I was in production and before Cartoon Network I knew some of these guys. When Cartoon Network started, they knew I was a crazy comedy writer or whatever, and they were looking for that for Space Ghost. That was the first thing we did out of Cartoon Network. I just hopped on board and helped out and that led to more and more production and to Adult Swim, and kind of went nuts. We were in there in the beginning and got to hang out and keep doing it.
Willis: Yeah, we did Space Ghost for years before there ever was an Adult Swim. When they were coming up with what to do for Adult Swim, we were there with an idea and we had been working there for, in my case, five years. Matt and I had written probably 50 episodes of Space Ghost together and at that point we were like, "Let us do this." We didn't know what we were doing there, but we were fortunate because the guys who made Sealab didn't really know either. We were all sort of figuring it out and using these computers for things that they weren't intended for. It wasn't pre-internet, but it was certainly before the internet became what it is today as far as content goes. We were the shortest show on TV and now we're like the longest thing on the internet. Now everybody wants to see something that's 12 seconds long, you know. It's sort of an interesting time in media. We were working on Aqua Teen that entire time.
Willis: We were also in the beginnings of animations or shows for adults that were cartoons.
Maiellaro: There was South Park, Beavis [and Butt-head], and The Simpsons obviously, but now there's an explosion of this. Back when we started there was this whole rash of articles that said, "Will adults watch cartoons?" I was like, "Of course they will if they're funny."
I think The Simpsons had some of the transgression, but each episode has a very clear plot line. It's not like if you had that on while your grandma was sitting there she would be offended. But if your grandmother happened to watch Aqua Teen, unless she was really chill, she might be freaked out. The boundaries completely exploded with the ground you guys were walking.
Willis: We told the stories that The Simpsons were too smart to tell. The internet is just full of absurdist stuff, that kind of humor is not that prevalent on TV, still. At some point this generation is just going to turn away from TV, I'm just wondering when the very last detective show is going to air on CBS, and if I'm going to have to work on it or not. You know what I mean?
It's crazy, it's like every show these day is, "Who killed the white girl?" or "Who's fucking the white girl?" It's all the same.
Willis: We know some people that work at HON who always ask them if Nancy Grace ever found that girl.
Maiellaro: Oh, in Aruba?
Willis: "Did you guys ever find that girl?" "Which one?" "You know the one." [Laughs] No, not the one that fell in the well, the one that was betrayed by her boyfriend.
Maiellaro: The one that fell in the well came out in the form of a haunted videotape.
Willis: Oh, that's true. Don't watch that videotape. If you guys get sent one, don't watch it.
The final season of Aqua Teen Hunger Force Forever airs on Sundays at midnight on Adult Swim.
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