How the Adult Swim pirate ship set sail: An oral history

By Joshua Dudley

The story of how voice actor Dana Synder got the role for Master Shake — the irritable, extremely uncooperative, and opportunistic sentient milkshake on Aqua Teen Hunger Force — includes two boozy visits to a restaurant and two 3 a.m. voicemails.

Series co-creator Dave Willis explains:

“An ex-girlfriend of mine told me about Snyder,” Willis recalls. “She said, This guy is the funniest guy, and you gotta audition him. He originally recorded an audition on my voicemail, but I accidentally deleted it.

“When he re-recorded it, I told him there was a little magic in the old voicemail, and that I needed him to re-record it the exact same way.

“So he went to the same restaurant and drank the same amount of alcohol and re-recorded it at 3 in the morning, and that was it.”

Snyder got the role but, much like a lot of stories in Adult Swim’s history, that creativity, work ethic, and enthusiasm wasn’t enough to like, get it on TV. It also took a good amount of asking for forgiveness and not permission.

Twenty years ago, Cartoon Network officially launched Adult Swim, a late-night block of animated programming featuring four new shows from Williams Street Productions based in Atlanta. Adult Swim pushed the limits of what cartoons could be in wildly creative ways.

Rick and Morty wouldn’t exist today if not for a ragtag group of animation fans and the studio executive who gave them a chance.

With a 10 p.m. premiere on September 2, 2001, four shows — Aqua Teen Hunger Force, Sealab 2021, Harvey Birdman, Attorney at Law, and The Brak Show — became the flagbearers for Adult Swim.

They would influence an entire generation of adult cartoons like Bojack Horseman, Bob’s Burgers, and Adult Swim’s most popular show ever, Rick and Morty.

Current Adult Swim President Michael Ouweleen tells Inverse that modern animation would look very different without Cartoon Network’s unlikely experiment.

“Adult Swim didn’t invent the idea of animation for adults,” Ouweleen says.

“We validated that space and pushed forward what it could be.

“We enabled a bunch of different types of voices and new sorts of comedy to emerge, both in live-action and animation.

“We’re partially, if not very, responsible for the renaissance in adult animation now, and I see it as my work to continue that.”

There were, of course, already adult-oriented cartoons on the market in the 1990s with major competing shows like The Simpsons, Beavis and Butt-Head, and South Park. However, launching a high-quality original block of programming that catered to adults on a children’s cable channel owned by Ted Turner was not always seen as a foregone conclusion of success.

Cartoon Network already had an original adult-oriented cartoon with the 1994 launch of Space Ghost Coast to Coast that turned a forgotten Hanna-Barbera character into a talk show host. The seven-year gap between the launch of Space Ghost and Adult Swim amply demonstrates the difficulty to convince advertisers of the new plan.

The creation of the four Adult Swim shows was the result of years of creativity on a meager budget by a myriad of young men who loved animation so much that they were willing to take on any role that the shows needed. Adult Swim also owes a tremendous debt to a female television veteran and visionary leader who trusted the people she hired enough to greenlight their best ideas and get out of their way.

For this oral history, Inverse interviewed:

  • Dave Willis, co-creator of Aqua Teen Hunger Force
  • Michael Ouweleen, co-creator of Harvey Birdman, Attorney at Law, and current President of Adult Swim
  • Matt Thompson, co-creator of Sealab 2021
  • Matt Harrigan, executive producer of Space Ghost Coast to Coast
  • Betty Cohen, a former president of Cartoon Network

Coast to Coast

Space Ghost, Harvey Birdman, and especially Sealab 2021 used a lot of recycled animation cells from older shows acquired by Ted Turner’s purchase of the Hanna-Barbera studio. Mike Lazzo, who would become the showrunner of Adult Swim, later used the cells to great effect for Cartoon Network promos featuring classic characters in unfamiliar situations.

Betty Cohen worked for Ted Turner at TNT and knew Mike from his work on a kid’s programming block at TBS. So when she founded and became President of Cartoon Network, Lazzo was an obvious choice for a key role in programming. He was a cartoon aficionado and was already helping Ted Turner sort out the Hannah-Barbera archive.

The template for the “one for all and all for one” attitude of so many early Cartoon Network and Adult Swim creatives came from Lazzo himself, who was so ambitious and creative he worked his way up from the mailroom at TBS in 1984 and caught the attention of Cohen, who brought him with her to Cartoon Network in 1992.

Since he had her attention, Lazzo pitched Space Ghost to her at the end of a workday and said, “This is something we’ve been working on, and I’d kind of like your thoughts on it.”

“When he did things like that,” Cohen recalls, “I knew it was going to be something brilliant. I reallocated money from the marketing budget to fund the first couple of episodes of Space Ghost Coast to Coast because I felt it was going to take us in new directions and get us in front of new audiences.”

After the successful launch of Space Ghost, Cohen says the idea of an adult block of animated programming started to feel like a necessity because of competing programming on other channels. The Nielson ratings told her that 20 percent of their viewing audience were adults, but there was still the risk of alienating parents who now entrusted their kids to Cartoon Network during the day.

Turner was so concerned about what might be seen as a programming bait-and-switch that it hosted expensive and time-consuming one-on-one focus groups. The one-on-one sessions turned out to be more revealing than group meetings because the parents didn’t have anyone else in the room to impress.

The results were clear: They emphatically wanted Adult Swim to be completely separate from Cartoon Network.

Cohen says they called it Adult Swim because they were looking for a name that was cool, edgy, and fun while very clearly signaling that it wasn’t for kids. They didn’t even run promos for Adult Swim during the day on Cartoon Network.

“How do you do that on a network where we just spent eight years making parents feel like it was a safe place to leave their kids?” she says.

Everyone except me thought [Aqua Teen] was a riot.”

Turner was so nervous about not making its investment money back from advertisers that Adult Swim only aired for two nights a week at launch, one on the weekend and the other on a Thursday night, with the idea that college-age viewers would stay up to watch it.

Cohen had such confidence in Lazzo and the creative team he brought aboard that she approved a pitch for Aqua Teen Hunger Force, a show about a group of anthropomorphic fast food items living in New Jersey, despite not totally getting it.

“Everyone except me thought it was a riot,” she says. “But when you’re a programmer, you’re not programming for yourself, and there was no question that the audience loved it. The only credit I can take is not getting in its way.”

The Pirate Ship

Matt Thompson believes his boss had a Dadaist sensibility.

“Show me something I haven’t seen before,” Thompson says, describing Lazzo’s attitude. “I’m bored with all these stories that have been told before about bickering roommates, and you’re retreading the same water.”

Thompson always thought of Lazzo and those four original shows as a pirate running a pirate ship.

“He didn’t want anybody to mess with his pirates,” Thompson says. “So he took Adult Swim across the street from the main Turner complex into the shittiest, most terrible rundown building that Turner owned because he thought they would leave him alone.”

Lazzo created a culture of creative people that were all doing the same thing and with the same mindset, who all wanted to hang out together. Even after leaving the network, he still sees Willis and Harrigan all the time.

For Matt Harrigan, another one of Lazzo’s pirates, Space Ghost was his first writing job.

“They needed someone to write the Space Ghost script, so I wrote it, and then they needed someone to produce,” Harrigan says.

Somehow, he went from writing the show to voice-acting in it, too.

“People weren’t doing a lot of [writing and voice-acting] back then,” Harrigan says. “So we just kind of did it ourselves. We had the keys to dad’s car, and we took it out for a spin a bunch of times and had a lot of fun doing it and have mostly stayed pretty good friends over the years.”

Dave Willis, the co-creator of Aqua Teen Hunger Force, says the developing the characters — roomates Meatwad, Frylock, Master Shake, and neighbor Carl Brutananadilewski — constituted the big early creative achievement. “We had to figure out how to make an animated show while we were doing it,” Willis says.

“We loved the show so much we started making the second episode without telling anybody.

“Then our boss came in and was like, ‘What the hell are you doing? We didn’t ask for another one of these.’”

The Lineup

When the writers heard about the new block of programming, they repitched and reworked their old ideas. Willis says the Aqua Teens appeared in a spec script for Space Ghost where they are attacked by Moltar and Zorak, but the pitch was rejected because Space Ghost wasn’t in it.

“We loved the [Aqua Teen] characters,” Willis says, who remembers a moment very early in the pitch where the bosses all seemed to take out their BlackBerrys and start typing. He was certain they weren’t emailing each other that they had a hit on their hands. Surprisingly, Lazzo came out of the meeting and said, “Let’s try it.”

Sealab 2021 languished for years as a poorly written pitch pilot by Thompson and Adam Reed, who created it while making a Pee Wee’s Playhouse rip-off for Cartoon Network called Carrot Top's AM Mayhem.

“We only agreed to do it because they said if you guys do this, we’ll let you make the Sealab show,” Thompson recalls. “Then they wanted us to do another season without Sealab, and Adam stood up and said ‘I quit’ and walked out of the room.”

“It was a horrible business decision.”

When the call for pitches went out a few years later, they quit all their other work in New York City to move back to Atlanta and repitch Sealab.

“It was a horrible business decision,” he says. “We were, like, we’re either going to go out in a fiery wreck or succeed wildly, so we went all in.”

Their reworked show included 100 percent more Erik Estrada and a wild crew leader named Captain Murphy, who said things like, “My nipples are hard” because it made them laugh.

Murphy was voiced by Harry Goz, who “had a deep strict authoritative baritone voice that allowed us to use it to say very silly things, which was a lesson we learned from Space Ghost,” Thompson says.

“Listening to George Lowe’s big booming voice saying incredibly stupid things in that Gary Owens voice is what made it funny.”

Money troubles

A theme echoed by many of the creators for this story was how limited the budget was and the limits of the Hanna-Barbera library, which forced a great deal of innovation on them and placed no limits on their creativity.

Sealab 2021, for instance, had a $33,000 per episode budget. That required writing bottle episodes, such as when Captain Murphy spent an entire episode trapped underneath a vending machine.

“Every element of the show was always driven by having no money,” Thompson says. “What we learned the backhanded way is: We can make the characters rich enough that they can hold that water and keep it interesting.

“We still do that on Archer sometimes because even though we have enough money to do whatever we want, the characters should be strong enough to survive a monologue episode with a trapped character.”

Some casting decisions ended up changing the tone of entire characters. Michael Ouweleen says that he first wrote Harvey Birdman as if he were Danny Ocean from the original Ocean’s 11, before writing him as insecure.

“We were doubting the character until we got on a phone audition with Gary Cole,” Ouweleen recalls. “He said ‘hello’ in that Harvey Birdman voice, and we looked at each other and realized this was it. Until you find the right voice, you’re sitting around thinking it’s the worst idea of all time, and then the right person comes along and brings it to life.”

Twenty years later

Two decades on, the company is looking forward to a future with movie deals for many of its old characters, and while recent events have changed the national mood, that pirate spirit is still intact.

“The shift that we’ve all gone through for the past year and a half speaks to some of the optimism that people are looking for in comedy and how they’re looking for less biting ugliness,” Willis says.

“But the company has been great and gotten out of our way to let us do our thing. Nobody has said, Is there a way that you can make the most biting terrible character in the history of animation, Master Shake, be a little more like Ted Lasso?

If Master Shake can become a somewhat optimistic character, perhaps the world is becoming a little more Adult Swim, and not the other way around.

“We never thought of animation as only for kids,” Cohen says. “What we did was pretend the whole world was animated.”


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