The Aqua Teen Hunger Force airs as part of the Cartoon Network's Adult Swim block of cartoons, aired later at night and directed at adults. Each episode is about 11 minutes and thirty seconds long, which is nice, because it means that the action isn't interupted by commercials. Perhaps the best feature of the show is its zaniness. Nearly everything that happens to the characters makes no sense, and the show is filled with hilarious dialogue. It is pretty difficult to describe just what makes the dialogue funny, but it is. This show is not for someone who is expecting Masterpiece Theatre, and anyone expecting something more than non-sensical dialogue and action is going to be disappointed.


An example of some of the zaniness--in episode two, Escape from Leprauchpolis, Meatwad makes a speech about rainbows:

You don't need a machine to make rainbows, for rainbows are made of happy thoughts, and dreams, and chocolate unicorns, and gumdrops and licorice sunsets, and fuzzy gumdrop bears, in chicken curly chocolate gumdrop land.
As he gives this insightful speech, he comes into view on roller skates (which is remarkable, considering that he's a wad of meat with no legs). Behind him is a cross-dressing leprechaun, a floating bucket of fries, and a talking milkshake. During the speech, a whale, a lobster, a giraffe, a motorcycling bear, a regular bear, a robot, and a yeti all come into the screen as pleasant music plays. Description can't quite do justice to the scene. The show is filled with these sorts of things.


As it says above, the show centers around the exploits of the crime-fighting team known as the Aqua Teen Hunger Force, comprised of Master Shake, Frylock, and Meatwad. But because of Shake's laziness and Meatwad's stupidity, they rarely solve any mysteries. In fact, many episodes end with little or no resolution of the mystery. Generally, if they do manage to get something done, it is because Frylock (the only one with any form of intelligence or superpower) goads them into doing so.


Each episode in seasons one through three began with a clip of Dr. Weird's castle on the south Jersey Shore (which, according to athf.com, was a scene from an episode of Johnny Quest). Dr. Weird asks Steve (his assistant) to behold what he has created, such as the rainbow machine, or an invisiblity cloak, or a massive guitar. He generally says something along the lines of:

"GENTLEMAN! BEHOLD WHAT I HAVE CREATED:
THIS THING!

Something always goes wrong with "this thing," causing it to be unleashed on the populace. Or on Carl's car. Dr. Weird creates these devices to attack the Aqua Teens, who don't even seem to be aware that he exists (other than a picture of him with Frylock in Frylock's bedroom).


In season four, the standard Dr. Weird beginning was replaced by Spacecataz, which is sort of an Aqua Teen spin-off. It was orginally going to be a separate show, starring the Mooninites and the Plutonians, but seems to have been tacked onto the beginning of Aqua Teen. Each episode of season four will contain a small part of one episode of Spacecataz, presumably creating a whole episode by the end of the 13-episode season four. Perhaps then it will become a separate show, but very little is known at this point (5-10-04).


Beginning with Space Conflict From Beyond Pluto, a story of the genesis of the Aqua Teens was animated into the closing credits. According to ATHF.com, the creators had created this story in case anyone from the network ever asked them about the origin of the characters. Rather than make a whole episode, they decided to just place it behind the closing credits. It begins with them in ancient Egypt, with a carving of the Sphinx (apparently called Drinx by the creators) drinking a milkshake and hieroglyphics of Frylock and Meatwad. Then, inexplicably, they are with Abraham Lincoln, who launches them into space on a wooden rocket (because the FBI was coming, according to the creators). They land on the moon, where they remain until an astronaut shows up and presumably returns them to earth. According to athf.com, they were also enslaved at one point during their stay on the moon.


Another interesting aspect of the show is that there is some continuity between episodes, which is rare for a cartoon. For example, in the first episode, Rabbot, the Rabbot makes a giant hole in the lair of Dr. Weird. This same rabbit-shaped hole is present in later episodes, as well as a similar hole made in the wall of the Powerpuff Mall. Not to mention the fact that there are bunches of little things that are present in each episode that tie them to other episodes and make each episode interesting to watch again. Of course, by the same token, Carl has had his neck broken, his head turned into a connect four board, and has turned into a half-man half-snake... only to return as usual in the next episode. And his car has been destroyed in probably half of the episodes. Oh, and in Dumber Dolls (one of my personal favorites), Shake catches fire at the end. Clearly, there are limits to the continutity.

As of May of 2004, the show is now airing four times per week, and has been greenlighted for thirteen episodes in a new season four. Some of these episodes have already aired, but the bulk of season four will be shown near the end of the summer. Cartoon Network has been advertising the show fairly heavily with the slogan "whet your appetite for crazy as hell!"


Major Characters

Deconstructing Meatwad

Commentary on ATHF and The Three Stooges

Herein I present my theories regarding parallels between Aqua Teen Hunger Force characters (Master Shake, Frylock, and Meatwad) and the more universally familiar trio of Stooge protagonists. I will attempt to reveal the underlying nature, the roots if you will, of inclination toward humor vis a vis identification and exposure of archetypal masculine foibles in the context of modern male socialization pressures.

Both Moe and Master Shake share the same misplaced drive for dominance and are propelled by a combination of narcissism, sadism, and simple stupidity. Though possessed of more rationality than the clown-hyperbole of Meatwad/Curly, this faculty for reason is merely used as a blunt weapon to satisfy the primitive martial instincts of the undeveloped man. Hence, time and again, this flawed pragmatism ends up costing the group dearly where a less aggressive approach or no approach at all would have sufficed. Both Moe and Master Shake, driven by their desire for superiority inevitably end up advertising their own inferiority, bringing shame and humiliation upon themselves. Being a narcissist, and unable to tolerate the affect of shame, Moe/Master Shake must always transform his shame into rage and blame directed at others, exploding into comedic violence. This is the basic posture of the modern man, beset on all sides by obstacles often of his own making, always seeking honor and status but seemingly doomed to undo his own efforts through ineptitude and moral defect.

The mirror image of the inept dictatorial male persona can be found in the passive/enabler role playing of Curly/Meatwad. The sadomasochistic dynamic between the two characters reflects the interior polarization of the male psyche. This weak willed, emasculated side is most overtly and accessibly comic of the trio, owing to it's proximity to and resonance with the core childhood vulnerabilities which are generally suppressed in adulthood. The child, injured during the painful process of social development, remains passive, dependent, and needy - thus the perfect innocent victim and lovable recipient of slapstick abuse.

The third member of the set provides the viewer identification towards neutrality and sanity. In the Stooges, Larry represents a sort of hapless everyman/schlub, alternating between victimhood and victimizer, ineffective in both capacities and filled with resentment and reactive aggression. It is interesting to note that the evolution of this neutral third party into the form of an eminently rational-intellectual African American box of french fries speaks to the increased availability and pervasiveness of higher education in the latter half of the 20th century. It is also interesting to note, that although Frylock has improved himself exponentially over his predecessor by any intellectual measure, his psychological development and commensurate leadership ability are generally not honored in any meaningful political way.

Thus we reveal the change in stature of the Western Male (and by inference, rationality and progressive thought as a whole) over the last century, from a place of ignorant complicity to the self destructive shame dialogue of id/superego to a contemporary analog of knowing impotence. In final analysis, ATHF presents a more optimistic view of human potential, allowing Frylock to at least experience his own triumph over human stupidity and self destruction, albeit a short lived and private appreciation. At least he knows he's right, even if nobody else does. Thus the comic tale of the 'Western' everyman's plight has been retold and enlarged to embrace members not only of all races and creeds, but food items as well. Hilarity ensues. Still, it might be more of a 'guy thing'.

"Shake power activate! Master is my name, and thirst is what I tame.
"Baffle yourself with flavor!"
-- Master Shake

"The bun is in your mind ...
"... So they gotta use bare hands. They're gonna rip out my eyes and thread an easy-grip handle through the holes. Please, God, kill me."
-- Meatwad

The Aqua Teen Hunger Force actually made their debut as characters on the "Baffler Meal" episode of Space Ghost Coast to Coast

However, this version of the Aqua Teens is rather different. First off, they actually behave as though they're a superhero team, or at least attempting to be one. Master Shake is their leader, and he sounds and acts rather like Mooninite Ignignokt. Frylock is a childlike box of rippled fries who ineptly wields an amulet and a fry wedge sword; he has a high-pitched, lispy voice. Meatwad's voice and appearance are quite similar to the version we all know from the show; however, he is depressed and more intelligent than his show counterpart, and his face bears slight but noticeable resemblance to that of Strong Sad from the Homestar Runner cartoons.

All the Aqua Teen voices in "Baffler Meal" were done by Dave Willis, who at the time was a regular Space Ghost Coast to Coast writer and voice artist. Willis soon after co-created and co-wrote the ATHF series with Matt Maiellaro, who also helped write "Baffler Meal".

In the current incarnation of the show, Willis voices Meatwad, Carl, and Ignignokt, while Dana Snyder does Master Shake and Carey Means does Frylock.

"Baffler Meal" opens with an unaired scene of Space Ghost playing with a huge pile of mangled hamburgers at a fast food joint called Burger Trench. Someone hands him his bill, which is over $90. Space Ghost hasn't got the money and demands to see the manager, who is Dave Willis dressed up like an 18th century aristocrat named Colonial Man. The manager says he has a deal for Space Ghost, and threatens to have his head between two steamed buns if he doesn't go along with it.

After the episode opens, we see that the show has been taken over by Master Shake and his group. Space Ghost has, in exchange for letting the Aqua Teens run his show, gotten a houseboat and a really powerful speaker that causes his nose to bleed ("You will receive the second speaker upon the elimination of all hunger," Shake tells him).

We battle hunger with nutritious salt and oil-based weapons. We fight hunger and that is all you need to know, lever man."
-- Master Shake

Space Ghost of course becomes tired of Master Shake's constant talking, and he fatally slaps Shake and blasts Frylock. Moltar kills and eats Meatwad offstage.

The episode ends at a rock club, where Colonial Man and his band are singing the Burger Trench theme song to a rough variation of Led Zeppelin's "Black Dog". Space Ghost looks on in horror as he realizes that killing Master Shake has altered the course of classic rock.

It's a demented debut for the Aqua Teens, and it puts their inept superhero roots and the reason for their name into a context that's generally lacking in the TV show. The death of the trio at the hands of Space Ghost and Moltar also foreshadows the tendency of the show to kill off Carl and Shake only to have them return alive and well in the next episode (Carl dies in ATHF almost as often as Kenny dies in South Park).


Aqua Teen: An Brief Review

I started liking Aqua Teen rather against my will. I was spending time at a friend's house, and this friend was quite keen on ATHF. I initially thought it was crude, but soon it grew on me.

The first season of ATHF, like South Park, has fleeting moments of genuine demented brilliance. The second season likewise has some very funny bits, though some episodes are hit and miss.

The third season, sadly, has been mostly miss. The last episode I saw left a fairly foul taste in my mouth, and I doubt I'll be watching it again.

Adult Swim staged a publicity prank earlier this year by falsely claiming that ATHF was going to be cancelled; if the new shows continue to be unfunny and icky (and I won't be there to see if they are, one way or another, and I suspect I'm not the only one) then I expect in a year's time the show's cancellation will be no joke.

Aqua Teen Hunger Force is a unique and notable television program, but not only due to what you see on the air. It has a unique production process that helps fuel it to be the show that it is. Like most shows produced by Williams Street the cast and crew are a small and closely knit group, most of which had worked with each other on Williams Street shows prior to Aqua Teen Hunger Force. The close-knit feel to the cast and crew, the show’s unique writing process and its late night timeslot on a cable station have allowed those who make Aqua Teen Hunger Force to work with an independent flair that isn't very common for television.

First off, there’s the writing process. ATHF creators and the co-writer/directors of every episode, Matt Maiellaro and Dave Willis, have joked about the relatively short writing process for each episode, with Maiellaro once stating in an interview with UGO.com that they write the episodes in "an hour." While this is probably not always true, a special feature on the third DVD release of the show titled "How To Score Big Making Money Writing For Television" shows the two hanging around Maiellaro’s suburban Georgia home, coming up with ideas for a new Aqua Teen episode off the top of their heads. As they brainstorm, we see them typing up the script on a laptop computer. They have some clear predetermined idea of what they’re doing (they clearly both begin with an idea of a TV going out in the Aqua Teen’s house) but nearly every gag they think up is off the top of their heads. While I’m sure there are re-writes involved, it’s amazing how nearly all of gags they brainstorm in this session end up making the episode they were writing for ("The Cloning" in this case). After the script is written, they have to have it approved by Williams Street. Yet nearly everything they suggest is a go. And while Williams Street is a part of Cartoon Network, which is owned by media conglomerate Time Warner, they seem to have little care in what happens after 11PM on some cable station that only plays cartoons. Thus the writers can get away with quite a bit.

Then comes production, which is done efficiently and cheaply. Every image on the show is created using Adobe Photoshop images, which are animated using Adobe After Effects. Then the animated sequences are edited using Apple's Final Cut Pro. Willis and Maiellaro then make a rough show on video and bring in Carey Means (Frylock), Dana Snyder (Master Shake) and whatever other performers that are to appear on the show to the voice work recorded. The animators then tweak the rough video until it looks presentable for television. The entire process is extremely cheap, costing an average of $60,000 per episode, an incredibly low figure even for an 12-minute animated television series.

I think this type of creative environment is what fuels Aqua Teen Hunger Force to be such a solid animated series and very much unlike any of its prime time, network competitors. While most animated series have a barrage of writers and directors from episode-to-episode, through four seasons Aqua Teen has only had two writers (Willis and Maiellaro) and two directors (Willis and Maiellaro). Most have to worry about FCC regulations and are under close scrutiny from executive big-wigs, while Aqua Teen doesn’t seem to have that problem. The world of television today is filled with cheap gags, tired plots and a final product that has been contorted by evil producers who don’t want to offend the people they are trying to sell Coca-Cola to. It’s refreshing to have a show like Aqua Teen Hunger Force, with engaging characters, clever absurdist humor, solid vocal performances and a unique vision that’s well executed in a very independent way.

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