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Space Ghost: Coast to Coast and the Birth of the Weird

Photo: Courtesy of Cartoon Network

There hasn’t been a new episode of Space Coast: Coast to Coast in twelve years, but for whatever reason, it never felt completely dead to me. Episodes always appeared in sporadic bursts, and even after they stopped, suddenly Space Ghost would pop up in an ad on Adult Swim to interview Zoe Saldana for Avatar, or Steve Nash while saying the words “Vitamin Water” a few times. Or his co-stars Brak and Zorak would show up on their own show. Or there’d be a web series to promote video games online. Unfortunately, in September, that feeling changed.

Clay Croker, animator and voice actor, passed away last month at the age of 54. He started animating promos for TNT then made his way over to Cartoon Network, before getting roped into the network’s first show for adults. He leaves behind a legacy of maniacal laughter, torturing talk show hosts, and taking perfectly timed sips from mugs. Today we look back at Space Ghost: Coast to Coast and how it’s the secret game-changer in the world of modern comedy.

In 1993, Cartoon Network was a very different channel than it is today. There was no original content save for a few one-off specials, just a bunch of reruns of classic Warner Brothers and Hanna-Barbera cartoons. There was nothing even remotely resembling Adult Swim. The closest Cartoon Network got to adult programming in its nascent days was showing reruns of the All in the Family rip-off Wait ‘Till Your Father Gets Home. This all changed when Mike Lazzo was asked to create an adult cartoon show for the network. Working with Andy Merrill (later known as the voice of Brak, a former Space Ghost villain turned childlike pest), the two devised a relatively cheap concept for a very unusual kind of show.

It would be a talk show, hosted by a B-level Hanna-Barbera superhero from the 1960s who was forcing two of his archenemies to serve as the show’s director and bandleader. All you had to do was interview some celebrity who was passing through Atlanta (Turner’s headquarters), edit their interview and make it so they’re responding to any number of insane in studio shenanigans, and then take some old animation from the sixties cartoons (and a little bit of new stuff from Croker and others), tack a catchy title on to it, and voila! Space Ghost: Coast to Coast is born.

If you’ve never seen the show, it can be a difficult one to explain. The creators of the show called it “recycling entertainment.” Tom Roche, who edited the vast majority of the show’s episodes (no easy task with the primitive video equipment of the early nineties) called it, “Post-post-post-post-post modern… We’re sort of making fun of making fun of making fun.” Let’s take “Hungry,” an episode from the show’s second season, as an example of just how weird this show could get. Space Ghost introduces his guests for the evening are Michael Stipe from R.E.M., and Lassie, the dog, while being interrupted by his growling stomach. However, bandleader Zorak, an evil mantis, also has a guest: Raymond, his young nephew (an identical, but very tiny version of Zorak). He has a high-pitched voice and being just a young mantis, mispronounces words like “pasghetti” and “pocalypse” (his uncle is evil, remember). All this pasghetti talk makes Space Ghost even hungrier, and before getting to the guests, commands his director Moltar to connect him to a pizza place where he orders a pizza with sun-bloated orange roughy. S.G. interviews his first guest, Lassie, and asks her if it ever “itches right here?” and then makes a sound that only she can hear (everyone can hear it). Lassie barks in response. Next is Michael Stipe who wears two pairs of glasses, refuses to sing for Space Ghost, but when asked, concedes that his host is a “shiny, shiny person.” After going this long with no pizza, Space Ghost discovers that Zorak has devoured Raymond. “That’s barbaric!” he exclaims, before quietly adding, “Is there any left?” We are then shown a tribute to all the fun times Raymond shared with the crew (none of which ever actually happened in this episode). After all of this, Space Ghost brings on his final guest, Mujibur and Sirajul, the two mainstays of The Late Show with David Letterman, who, as it turns out, were mistakenly delivered Space Ghost’s pizza. Smash cut to the credits.

And I’ll point out, this is only fourteen episodes in, so we’re talking baseline insanity. This is nothing compared to what the show evolved into.

Now I recognize that in 2016, this might not seem like anything all that groundbreaking, but this is 1994. The idea of taking something, re-contextualizing it, and creating something different was not a new idea. Roy Lichtenstein had been around for some time. But kids cartoon to late night talk show is a massive jump. And to have Space Ghost retain so much baggage from his previous superhero career was pretty jarring. Early on, pretty much every guest was asked, “Are you getting enough oxygen?” and “Do you have any super powers?” Not your usual promotional fluff pieces.

Space Ghost also did not invent the concept of editing interviews for comedic effect. This was a mainstay of humor since comedians had access to tape recorders. Jim Henson did this with recordings of the Nightly News for one of his first gigs, performing on the Today Show. But even though the final product was out of control of the guest, they were still somewhat in on the joke. They were told to address the interviewer as “Space Ghost” and were asked a number of insane questions that might make it into the show. It was all about how they responded to this strange situation, sitting in one of CNN’s many remote studios across the world. Some, like Charlton Heston, would remain confused and attempt to give as normal an interview as possible. Others, like Merrill Markoe, would play along, and end up dating Space Ghost (and eventually be brought back to break up with him).

Thanks to Space Ghost we have Adult Swim, and thanks in large part to Adult Swim, television and the internet is now packed with what can be described as “random” humor. I’m painting with a very wide brush when I use a term like that, but it’s an evocatively wide brush (I’m losing my metaphor). Space Ghost was fifteen minutes, but you’d never know what was going to happen in those fifteen minutes. I would diligently stay up late to record episode of the show on the VCR and I quickly learned never to hit stop after the credits. There was always opportunities to surprise the audience on Space Ghost. One episode, entitled Woody Allen’s Fall Project, was a parody of a very 90s event: the E! Channel at the time was doing reenactments of the OJ trial for their coverage. So for this episode of Space Ghost, we had live actors recreating moments from previous episodes. This episode aired on Christmas in 1996 and I remember being a young comedy completist feeling frustrated that I had missed what appeared to be the only airing of this episode. It was never rerun for many years and became the holy grail of Space Ghost fans (now it’s on YouTube). There was an episode that began with just 2 minutes of muzak and the word “Waiting” on black. There was an episode in which Space Ghost slowly followed an ant through various backdrops for ten minutes. If somebody found it funny, they’d do it. It was an unprecedented level of freedom that you could only get when your show is cheap to make and your cable network is hungry for content (see Mystery Science Theater).

I don’t feel like I’m exaggerating when I say that if you were to name any “weird” show that’s on the air today, they probably owe a little something to Space Ghost. Eric Andre has cited the show as an influence. Aqua Teen Hunger Force is a direct spin-off. There’d be no Archer, and quite possibly, no Family Guy after season 2 (say what you want about that). Sure it can feel a little dated, but what’s dated now was incredibly edgy 20 years ago. But more often than not, Space Ghost: Coast to Coast can be a delightfully insane adventure into the world of interstellar space talk shows.

Ramsey Ess is a freelance writer for television, podcaster and a guy on Twitter. Check out his web series Ramsey Has a Time Machine featuring Chris Elliott!

Space Ghost: Coast to Coast and the Birth of the Weird