SETTING: THE GHOST PLANET COMMISSARY,
where Space Ghost (a very badly animated intergalactic superhero from early '60s television who started a new career as a late-night talk-show host in 1994) and his two most hated archenemies, Zorak (the show's bandleader and sidekick, an insectoid alien bent on the destruction of the human race) and Moltar (the director, a metallic, vaguely lava/fire-themed villian with a heartbreakingly sincere love of zombie movies, his "beautiful wife Linda", and former Chips star Erik Estrada), are, despite being mortal enemies, drinking and killing time before the show proper begins. Their hangdog, workaday demeaner is oddly pensive.
Space Ghost (sighing): I'm in love.
(He's talking about tonight's guest, writer Merrill Markoe, but his two enemies, who are only doing this show because Space Ghost has conquered them with Destructo Rays and who couldn't care less about tonight's or any night's guests, don't know that.)
Zorak and Moltar (casually): With us?
(And if all that seems confusing or ludicrous or maybe even a little annoying, don't worry: that's exactly the reaction the people at Ghost Planet Industries intended.)
IT'S ABOUT ONE YEAR AGO, AND I am sitting in a hotel room in Georgia wondering why a longhair dropout like myself just got flown across the country to work for a national TV show. I've written for The Onion, a satirical paper and Web site in the little college town of Madison, Wisconsin, for ten years, the majority of which I spent washing dishes for minimum wage while I wrote comedy as a hobby, mostly just to try to stay sane. I've never had the slightest experience with the Professional Entertainment Industry. Now I've been invited by writer/producer Dave Willis to visit the staff of Ghost Planet Industries and try to come up with some jokes for a script they're working on. I've agreed, although I'm nervous as hell because the program is so baffling that I still don't understand how is it that they even write it.
I have no idea what to expect, but I figure that the buttoned-down, professional atmosphere of this corporate setting will be very different from the free-form freakiness of my usual low-budget little world.
I'M SURE I'M NOT TELLING YOU anything you don't already know when I say that the basic lowdown on American television comedy, cranked out by the stagnant bucketful out of the highly paid humor mills of Los Angeles, is that almost all of it isn't funny. As a friend of mine once memorably put it, "Dude, after years of exhaustive research --and I do mean exhaustive-- I've come to the conclusion about TV: It sucks."
This isn't because the people doing it aren't smart, witty, or observant- most of them are from Harvard, so how dumb can they be?- but because the rule is that everything on TV is like something else on TV. What is the funniest show on television, anyway? Friends? Frasier? Just Shoot Me? Good Lord.
Sure, sure, what else is new; after all, TV has been decried as a wasteland almost since its invention. Except there's one glaring problem: Try as we might, there's no way to deny that television is a huge part of what we are. (They say the baby boomers were the TV generation? They hadn't seen nothin' yet- that satanic cathode hydra has grown thousands of times more insidious and all-persive since the relatively innocuous year when kids grew up watching The Micky Mouse Club.) It's enough to make anybody who spends more than thirty seconds seriously thinking about it want to scream like a gibbon.
Yet we keep watching it anyway, because, all that aside, TV is also undeniably flat-out awesome. I knew it when I watched a Batman rerun at five years old, and it's still obvious now. In a way it's all we've got in common anymore. With the almost total lack of mass culture that anybody can take seriously in this singularly goofy era, we keep turning back to our shared TV history, dumb as it is, with something halfway between irony and a sad hope. Yes, TV sucks, but it still seems like it shouldn't have to. The great Michael O'Donoghue, a brutal satirist for the original National Lampoon who went on to write some of the most risky comedy ever to air on (or, for that matter, to be censored from) mainstream television, put it perfectly: He said TV was the greatest invention ever but would never be perfected until it had a button you could press that would make the head of the person you were watching explode.
Thus the eternal love/hate relationship that I and pretty much everybody I know have had with TV almost all out lives. Perhaps it comes to as no surprise, then, that so many otherwise decent and reasonable people, good folks with families to feed, who one would think could have chosen any number of perfectly sensible things to do with their lives, keep trying their damnedest, against all logic and with no justifiable reason for any hope whatsoever, to make TV comedy that is actually funny. And so maybe it's also no surprise that the best of them tend to come from unconventional markets: Monty Python was from the BBC; the classics SCTV and The Kids in the Hall, from Canada; the great Mr. Show and Tenacious D, from pay cable; and the innovative Mystery Science Theater 3000 came out of a local Minneapolis station of all places. There are exceptions to this rule (Seinfeld, The Simpsons), but they are rare indeed; in fact, over the years, the great TV comedy I've seen wasn't even on TV but rather on videotapes of shows that I couldn't normally get, either because I didn't have cable (Larry Sanders, the incomparable Upright Citizens Brigade) or because the show got cancelled almost as soon as it premiered (Ben Stiller). Good comedy, it seems, is often an outside perspective, an odd voice from the margins that has to be sought out.
So as comedy continues its relentless slide into mediocrity, does the question "What is the funniest show on television?" even mean anything? Well, maybe. And maybe the best comedy on U.S. television today is, right now, coming steadily and quietly out of the South, from the obscure little suite of offices on Williams Street in midtown Atlanta in the form of a little fifteen minute late night talk show that most people have never heard of.
"Whoa!" is what America's gonna be sayin' when I spin his head off so fast it'll travel back in time!
Zorak: Blah, blah, blah, blah....
Space Ghost: Oh, you want the time-travel spinning head!?!
THAT SHOW IS CALLED Space Ghost: Coast to Coast, and it's sort of hard to explain. It's produced by Ghost Planet Industries and is pieced together, bit by bit, from fragments of videotaped interviews and old animation, with the scripts, and thus the questions the guests answer, written backward after the answers have already been provided. The whole effect is one of inspired absurdist postmodern disorientation. In a world of TV that's like other TV, Space Ghost is like nothing on TV. The small staff of Ghost Planet only produce a few shows a year. Taken together they form into some bizarre nine-hour art film that gets fifteen minutes longer each time a new episode is released.
Space Ghost's market share consists of a tiny, slavishly loyal following, but it includes some of the hippest figures in comedy, many of whom have been guests. Like the films of another uncompromising maverick, Robert Altman, the show often deliberately antagonizes its audience, intentionally confounding their expectations- and indeed, many viewers may find it alienating. A show whose host once spent eleven straight uninterrupted minutes slowly crawling on the ground, following an ant- yes, an ant- is obviously not for everyone. But it's hard to see how anything on TV could be more daring or, at its best, more brilliant.
THE OFFICES OF GHOST PLANET (the actual, real-life Ghost Planet) are located in a nondescript industrial building (as opposed to the fictional, cartoon Ghost Planet, where Space Ghost lives and hosts his show, which is located, obviously, in outer space). The offices, commonly reffered to simply as "Williams Street," are set a fair ways down the road from the sprawling arrays of gleaming satellite dishes and spanking new architecture of what is apparantly called the Techwood Campus, ground zero of the much-vaunted Turner Media Empire and home of the enormously successful cable channel The Cartoon Network, of which Ghost Planet is a part. Williams Street is close to its parent corporation to be neighborly but nonetheless is notably separated from it, like a surly adolescent who wants a bedroom in the basement to minimize hassles from mom and dad.
On my first visit, I am surprised by a couple of things: one, that you enter the building through the loading dock (you actually have to climb a ladder to get in, and there is no snooty receptionist, just a bored-looking security guard at a small metal table) and, two, by the sight of Dave Willis walking around in sneakers, cutoff jeans, a t-shirt, and a long bathrobe. As I follow him down the hallway, I see two ladies from another department turn to each other and whisper "Why isn't that man wearing any clothes?" Willis once appeared on the show as Colonial Man, a seventeenth-century dandy who auctioned off the end of one episode on eBay. The money went to the charity Clowns Without Borders, but the funny part was how, right in the middle of his speech, apropos of nothing, he suddeny turned into a horrific vampire for one terrifying split second.
Willis's writing partner is Matt Maiellaro, a boyish, disarmingly friendly guy who has been with the show since the beginning. Over the years, he and Willis have fallen into work patterns that probably only they can understand, exchanging approvals and modifications of jokes sometimes with only a facial expression, constantly revising old versions of ideas into newer, stranger, funnier ones.
The room where they do this is bland, its most decorative feature the cheap ceiling tiles that inspired the kung fu movie villain C. Ling Tile, who attacks his foes with sprinklers, air vents, and asbestos powder. Willis and Maiellaro drink buckets of coffee, draw on dry-erase boards, and play unplugged electric guitars and Ping-Pong throughout the course of the day as they write- they don't write and play Ping-Pong at the same time, but Maiellaro regularly pulls off the other trick with ease, typing with one hand and fingering the frets of his guitar with the other, effortlessly engaging both hemispheres of the brain in a feat of verbal/nonverbal multitasking.
When comedy people are in full swing and really smoking, it is indeed like watching musicians riff. With these two this is particularly evident, although in their case the overall effect is more of a weird virtuoso atonal jazz than the 4/4 beat and harmonious formulaics of more standard fare. It's especially impressive when you consider the dense, multilayered collage effects that are the show's trademark, in which there are often five or six comic ideas in play at any givin time. Needless to say, the prospect of sitting in as a rookie with such a seasoned combo can be daunting. But I am already familiar with this problem from The Onion, where our core staff has known each other so long and our specific way of doing things is so established that would-be participants from the outside world- "the surface dwellers," they are sometimes called, as if we constitute some isolated, misshapen race of subterranean troglodytes- often submit ideas for months or even years on end without ever finding the right pitch.
LUCKILY FOR ME THESE troglodytes are friendly. We are working on a script about a group of ill-conceived advertising mascots, anthropomorphic food-item superheroes called the Aqua Teen Hunger Force, who take over Space Ghost's show after he sells it to buy a houseboat. Willis envisions a nightmarish ending in which the consummate evil of corporate marketing is fully revealed. Their leader, Master Shake (essentially a paper cup with eyes and a mouth drawn on; his companions are Frylock and Meatwad), shouts, "Hail, Satan!" and flashes a mind-control hypno-strobe at viewers. Ideas come and are in turn abandoned, At one point the episode closes when the celebrity guest, in this case Willie Nelson, absentmindedly eats the villains after presumably firing up one of his Tijuana cheroots offscreen. In the weeks I am there, the script goes through two, three, seven, nine revisions, and when I leave, it is nowhere near done. Another possible ending showcases the impotence of advertising bluster when the enemy Shake is defeated simply by being spilled: We imagine the chocolate sludge slowly oozing out and a voice screaming in agony as if it were being horribly disemboweled.
At times we're in the zone and the room is full of laughs; at other times they're in the zone and I am left hopelessly in the dust, my suggestions met with chill awkward silence jokemen know only too well. Nonetheless there are moments when the requisite bonding is achieved. One day we all exchange the most humiliating reprimands from our inglorious pasts. Each is indicative of the fairly pathetic psychological background common to all comedy writers- the sadness, as Mark Twain said, that is the secret source of humor. Matt's was from his dad who once said to him, "Son, you can't go through life with a phaser on your belt." Willis's father, upon learning that his son wanted to be a folksinger, told him, "That's good, but have you considered being an acrobat? Because the world needs acrobats." Mine was from a client at the medical answering service where I worked as a phone drone for two miserable years: an on-call doctor who was irritated that I'd interrupted him with a patient's complaint. The emergency was listed as "child ate Icy-Hot"; this description evoked angry silence on the other end of the line. Hoping not to get yelled at, I tried to stammer out an explanation- that stuff, you know? That you rub on your skin for aches and pains?- and was curtly put in my place with: "I know what Icy-Hot is, Todd. It's a topical analgesic!" That one brings the house down. "Topical analgesic!" snickers Willis. "Now that's funny."
IT TURNS OUT THAT MAIELLARO, like Moltar, loves both cheesy horror films and cheesier '80s heavy metal music, so much so, in fact, that he takes me to see a local AC/DC cover band one night during my stay. "But do you go to make fun of the music or to enjoy it?" I ask. His expression is impossible to read. "Both!" he explains.
That "both"- speaking as it does to the afformentioned love/hate relationship so crucial to any understanding of contemporary culture- may go a long way toward explaining why most people might not "get" Space Ghost. Its basic premise alone is enough to baffle the expectations of most TV viewers, but on top of that they just keep making it weirder still.
There's the time Goldie Hawn's interview was completely drowned out by an improvised noise-rock jam by the band Pavement. (This treatment, from what I gathered, genuinely angers and insults a lot of guests, a welcome antidote to the empty celebrity worship that informs so much of the standard talk-show formula.) Or there's the time Space Ghost's pet sea monkey, Banjo, grew to monstrous size and attacked him with laser breath. (Space Ghost's touching soliloquy upon the subsequent death of Banjo was so moving that the show's staff has worked it into multiple episodes, all in different contexts.) And then there's the time Zorak asked guest Steve Allen if he could snack on his head and proceeded to perform an old-fashioned musical number about head snackin'. And who can begin to address the inexplicable James Kirkconnell, aka Kirk the Storyteller, an elderly gentleman who is perhaps the worst actor ever, but who nonetheless keeps showing up on different episodes unexplained, each line-reading more awkward and stilted than the last?
The answer to the question of how material this avant-garde gets on the air in the first place is Mike Lazzo, one of the show's producers and creators. He doesn't wear a suit (nobody at Ghost Planet does) and is instead an arty, bohemian-looking type: the sort of unintimidating but wiry fellow who might get seriously underestimated in a bar brawl. Once you get to know him you hope that you never get on his bad side; this guy is relaxed and funny, but he's serious about what he does and will clearly fight to protect the integrity of his team's work. Lazzo takes me under his wing long enough to drive me down the road and show me around Turner's sprawling headquarters. Once there, he tells me about the time he and a friend ran away from home to see a Yes concert and slept in the woods on that very same hill right over there, the one that looks like his current workplace. He worked his way up from the mail room- no kidding!- and he tells me that he came up with the idea for a cartoon talk show when the fledging network needed original programming but couldn't afford to animate new material. Space Ghost was his favorite cartoon as a kid- so why not take the existing old animation cels and re-edit them with live action footage of guests? This is the very essence of what makes Space Ghost so special: It is a form of dadaist fotocollage, found imagery from American trash culture repackaged into something new, like hip hop's remixed samples or those modern art sculptures made out of garbage.
Lazzo has an extensive collection of Faulkner first editions and loved the free-form electric guitarist Sonny Sharrock (Lazzo even hired him to do the show's theme music right before Sharrock died, and one episode features an old-fashioned Indian head test pattern for minutes on end while a crazed Sharrock solo plays on the audio and a bright red message reads simply: UNDER ATTACK- PLEASE STAND BY). The wall above his desk is decorated with paintings of cute cartoon ponies; only upon closer examination do I see that they are all frowning. In the huge lobby of the Cartoon Network's main offices, Lazzo shows me a gigantic, beautiful mural of the PowerPuff Girls, a runaway hit among both kids and adults and the best of the original animated shows the network can now afford to produce.
"See that?" he says. "I'm going to tell them to take the whole thing off and then put it back up, only upside down. And I guarantee it's going to piss off at least two-thirds of the people who work in this building. But that's what cartoons are supposed to be- unconventional, crazy, and creative."
Whether this plan of Lazzo's ever came to fruition- he also told me he wanted to have the office space at Williams Street outfitted with "tunnels that people would have to walk through to get from room to room"- I cannot say. Either way, though, I'm sure he has moved on to some other equally wacked-out plan to mess with people's heads, and God bless him for it.
"Some people start off writing for [insert name of inane generic L.A. prime-time network TV sitcom here] for a quarter-million a year," he tells me. "But I'm not interested in doing that sort of work, and I don't think you are either. I want to do something interesting." Lazzo- like the other people he has surrounded himself with at Ghost Planet- may be an insider at Time-Warner/Turner, one if the largest media conglomerates in the world, but he is simultaneously, schizophrenically, also an outsider to that world of normal, regular TV that millions of people watch every day of their lives largely because there's nothing else on.
"The rest of the week it's business as usual," he says (he is a vice president at a major cable network, after all), but at Ghost Planet he's in his element. Gesturing around at the Williams Street offices, he says, "This is my outlet."
IT WAS LAZZO'S IDEA TO RUN a profoundly depressing Pablo Neruda poem in tiny letters- you really have to squint to read it- along the bottom of the screen throughout the enigmatic 1998 episode "Brilliant #2." (Why #2? Lazzo explains that the original version had to be toned down after they realized that the loud, eerie feedback, which along with a relentlessly ringing phone ran continuously in the background audio for the whole show, had rendered the thing essentially inaudible; the irritating sound effects were kept in the revised episode but at a slightly lower volume.)
In the poem, the word man is replaced in every case with TV show, so that the line "I am tired of being a man" translates into "The TV show is tired of being a TV show." And why shouldn't it be? Haven't we all grown tired of TV shows anyway? Why should the shows themselves feel any differently? Bottom line, Lazzo says, is that they don't want to do anything boring. "Sometimes we get letters from fans who say they loved the show, then they turned it on one night and it was completely different, and they hated it," Lazzo tells me. "And I think we're kind of glad when that happens because it means we're doing our job. I want to keep the viewers surprised. If they want to expect formulaic material, fine. But they're not going to get it from us."
Space Ghost (interviewing the Mormon entertainer Donny Osmond and adopting, out of nowhere, the persona of an overexcited, attention-seeking four-year-old): Hey, Donny! Donny! Donny! Hey! Hey, Donny! Donny!
Donny Osmond: Yes, Space Ghost?
Space Ghost (suddenly solemn): Where do we go when we die?
THE GUY RESPONSIBLE FOR paying for all of this is producer Keith Crofford, a quiet man with an unassuming manner who is doing his best to put together a few episodes of Space Ghost a year on what limited budget and resources he can drum up. Interestingly it turns out that he was also a producer of the subtle and evocative independant film Ruby in Paradise, which was shot on location in Florida and won top honors at the Sundance Film Festival. Crofford tells me that he once spent a lot of time flying back and forth between Georgia and L.A. on his own dime, trying to make a go of various projects with Hollywood, but that he has stopped because he is sick of it all: the hassles, the endless frustrations of trying to produce quality creative work while dealing with that system. So he turned his back on Los Angeles and is now devoting himself to helping develop the various bizarre ideas that Ghost Planet Industries keeps coming up with. There's the Space Ghost spin-off series, Cartoon Planet, which with its mixture of silly humor and goofy singalongs has won an equally loyal cult following, and another offshoot, the Brak Presents the Brak Show Starring Brak special.
As of now the latest experiment, it turns out, is called, yes, Aqua Teen Hunger Force and stars those very same characters that were part of the episode that Willis, Maiellaro, and I worked on a year back. Now, after a solid year of incubation in the strange recombinant-DNA script techniques of the Ghost Planet brain trust, these anthropomorphic superhero fast-food mascots have grown and mutated into a whole new series all their own.
Some of these ventures prove to be successful, others are not, and it is easy enough to see how the unique sensibilities of the Ghost Planet crew might not always jibe with what the average viewer is looking for. But when I ask Crofford if he or Lazzo ever gets frustrated that all this great, original material doesn't find a larger audience, his response is telling. He pauses silently for a couple of moments, then says simply, "I don't think that either of us ever even thinks about that at all."
Space Ghost (distraught with grief): Why do we always hurt the ones we love? Why Banjo? Why?! Banjo! Banjo! BANJOOOOO!
THE SOUTH, LIKE THE MIDWEST, has always occupied a marginalized role in American culture (which is pretty illogical if you think about it since so many of the nation's best cultural traditions originated there). So maybe it makes sense that Ghost Planet, whose staff are all Southerners born and raised, would come out of where it did. Sometimes things need elbowroom in order to grow into something new. Maybe the entrenched parts of the industry, unlike this small creative pocket at Williams Street, don't need to take comedy so seriously, and of course the familiar dictates of the marketplace always reward the lowest common denominator. This is all well and good if you're trying to sell Pepsi or something, and TV certainly does a bang-up job of that, week after tedious week, but it's a particularly lousy state of affairs for the kind of comedy one can care about and that can make a person really, honestly, laugh. It's corny but also true that, as with anything worth doing, comedy done out of love is going to be funnier than comedy that's success is only measured by the amount of money it makes on advertising. In this climate a rarity like Space Ghost starts to look less like some obscure, low-budget TV show and more like a beautiful and endangered species. It may even be some weird kind of national treasure.
published in the January/February 2001 issue #37 of Oxford American magazine
This article is copyright © 2001 Oxford American