Cartoon Network’s Adult Swim line up of shows has become a real force in pop culture. It’s ratings now demolish late night mainstays like The Tonight Show and Late Show With David Letterman among 18- to 24-year olds (by 24 and 56 percent, respectively)1. Aqua Teen Hunger Force, created by Matt Maiellaro and Dave Willis, is an illustrative example of the kind of programming drawing viewers from more traditional fare to Cartoon Network. In the show, animated anthropomorphic fast food items Frylock, Master Shake and Meatwad deal with an equally colorful array of enemies, including the alien Mooninites, Inignot and Err. The three protagonists live in a house in New Jersey, next door to Carl, their human and not particularly friendly neighbor.
The show has reoccurring characters but little in the way of overarching themes, continuity, or logic. It commonly employs foul language (although the worst of it is beeped), explosions, and gross-out humor. It would be easy to dismiss it as yet another artifact of the steady decline of western civilization – although that attitude is probably premature. People have been bemoaning the decline of civilization at least since Socrates was put to death for corrupting the youth.2 There is more to this show than a surface reading would betray, and the characters of the Mooninites provide a good example of why.
The Mooninites are very popular among the show’s fans. Proof can be found in online discussion forums – in one, they are voted funniest villains by four out of nine posters.3 The characters were obviously inspired by early arcade and Atari games. Their spaceship, for example, would fit in perfectly in Space Invaders, and the sounds made when they walk, jump, or fire their lasers seem to come directly from games like Pac Man. Their bodies are squared and pixelated, as if they were rendered with limited processing power. The theme of alien enemies descending randomly from space is seen in many classic games, from Space Invaders to Galaga.
The phenomenon of video game characters crossing over into other media is not new. Pac Man inspired a Saturday morning cartoon4 as early as 1982.5 In recent years, movies like Wing Commander,6 Tomb Raider,7 and Final Fantasy: the Spirits Within8 have met with mixed commercial and critical success. The reverse is true as well – many popular movies are licensed to video game makers. One notorious early example was the movie E.T. the Extra-Terrestrial (1982). Atari paid $20 million for the rights and then produced a terrible game in just six weeks – when it bombed, it may have helped create the video game crash of 1983.9
Matt Maiellaro has said that that particular game helped inspire the characters. “…apparently they buried almost a million of these cartridges in the desert. And we were thinking: ‘What if [the Aqua Teen] house was built on the burial ground of this video game?’ But then it got to be such an involved story that it was hard to tell in 11 minutes. So it was like: ‘What if we just make these guys from the moon, and they think they’re beyond our culture, but literally they’re about 18 years behind us?'”10
The Mooninites are not the first raunchy video game characters, and not even the first raunchy Atari-style characters – that honor may go to a charming game called Custer’s Revenge. In the game, the player is General George Custer, who has to make his way across the screen (naked except for his boots and hat), dodging arrows, in order to get to an equally naked Native American woman of ill repute (she is also, coincidentally, naked).11
It is important to note that the Mooninites, like the Aqua teens, are not preexisting characters like those in Space Ghost Coast to Coast. They do not come from a particular video game, and instead embody multiple aspects of classic video games which serves to increase the satirical possibilities. In fact, Mooninites have more elements of real satire thanks the Aqua Teens themselves. For example, in the first episode featuring the characters, Mayhem Of The Mooninites (2001), we have this exchange:
Ignignoc: “You and your third dimension.”
Frylock: “What about it?”
Ignignoc: “Oh, nothing, it’s cute. We have five.”
Err: “…Th, Thousand.”
Ignignoc: “Yes, five thousand.”
Err: “Don’t question it!”
Frylock: “Oh, yeah? Well, I only see two.”
Ignignoc: “Well, that sounds like a personal problem.”
Bringing characters from the world of older video games into our own points out that despite millions of players putting themselves in the role of two-dimensional heroes in arcades throughout the 1980s and 90s, it is a world of stark unreality. So why shouldn’t they be insecure, and why shouldn’t they overcompensate and bluster when the issue is brought up?
Later in that same episode, the Mooninites combine like jigsaw puzzle pieces in order to fire the “quad laser.” This weapon, which would no doubt be extremely powerful in an Atari 2600 game, fires a ridiculous gigantic pixel slowly toward Frylock. Again, something that would be perfectly consistent in another context is exaggerated and cast in a new light.
In some ways this is an interesting contrast with the main characters of the show, because although the Aqua Teens are gigantic, sentient fast food items, they rarely directly spoof or satire the fast food spokespeople that they were inspired by. Even when the plot causes them to get jobs at a fast food restaurant in Robositter (2004), no mention is made of Frylock and Shake’s appearance. Instead, there is a broader parody of disgusting fast food culinary processes and humor caused by Shake’s irresponsibility. The biggest exception to this is an episode of Space Ghost Coast to Coast entitled Baffler Meal (2003). This episode features different versions of the Aqua Teens as they were originally pitched for a Space Ghost episode in 2000.12 In it, the show’s host, Space Ghost, has signed a contract to promote Burger Trench and finds his show taken over by their mascots. This episode probably best illustrates why the Aqua Teens so rarely mock their McDonaldland brethren – although funny at first, by the end of the episode it is clear the premise is getting thin. Since they have had their own show, Frylock has never ironically hocked french fries.
In later episodes, like The Last One (2003), Remooned (2004), and Moon Master (2004), Mooninites humor comes less and less from direct satire and relies more on slapstick, characterization, and dialog – although it never quite disappears. In Moon Master, for example, the pair (who have already been portrayed as greedy, scheming lawbreakers) have created a kind of multi-level marketing or pyramid scam where they distribute a video game and then tell players who have won that they are the legendary “moon master” who will defeat the “Gorgatron” on the moon. The game itself shows just how outdated and simple early games look to modern players, and it even spouts lines like “killing spree” from modern first-person shooters. In addition to being a spoof of The Last Starfighter (1984), the episode draws most of its humor from the Mooninite characters and their scam – the video game, though spot on, is only a short gag.
The Mooninites’ foul manners and propensity for corrupting Meatwad, the youngest and most innocent of the Aqua Teens, can be seen as yet another satire. Since 1976, when a video game titled Death Race 2000 hit arcades, parents and Senators have been complaining about the negative influence video games have on children.13 Additional games such as Night Trap (1992), Mortal Kombat (1992), Doom (1994) and Grand Theft Auto (1998) have grabbed headlines for their supposed effect on younger players (and in many cases, they grabbed huge sales as well). Even seemingly innocent games like Space Invaders have sparked controversy, getting minors under 17 banned from arcades in Mesquite, Texas in order to reduce truancy and keep minors away from those â€œwho would promote gambling, sale of narcotics and other unlawful activities.14
In fact, there is a good deal of evidence that violent video games influence children to be more aggressive, although there are still unanswered questions.15 The outlandishly easy way in which Inignot and Err are able to influence Meatwad into smoking, stealing, and using a stolen ID to cash a check, however, can be seen as a jab at those who think video games affect children so quickly and dangerously. The Mooninites are almost immediately successful in corrupting Meatwad – this is a parent’s worst nightmare. But they corrupt him in ridiculous, non-video game ways, and they themselves are ridiculous and unrealistic – it seems to be telling the viewer to look back at the old arcade and Atari games which caused such a scandal, threats of lawsuits or new legislation – all of it was this clunky and unrealistic, and none of it was as bad as these characters. Will current controversial games like Grand Theft Auto: San Andreas (2004) look as silly in 20 years?
In all of this satire characters like the Mooninites are put together from seemingly discarded bits of pop culture – fast food advertisements, video games, and Saturday morning cartoons among others. Aqua Teen Hunger Force, like many Adult Swim shows, pulls ideas, objects, and characters from existing cultural products and uses them for its own purposes. Shows like Space Ghost and Sealab 2021 do it more directly, pulling actual animation and sometimes only changing the script. Aqua Teen Hunger Force is the next logical step in the process, where more ideas are borrowed than images.
There is another popular art form that emerged late in the last century that does the same – hip hop. The show’s opening features a rap by Schooly D, and rapper MC Chris often appears as the villain of the week. Maiellaro sees little connection: “…neither one of us are really hip-hop fans … not that we don’t like it, it’s just not what we happen to listen to. It’s funny … hip-hop is almost like this thin, fake-wood veneer that we put over the show to make it appear that we’re hipper than we actually are. I mean, we wanted that opening to just scare the hell out of people.”16
In an interview November 19th 2004 with students at Kent State University, Executive Producer Michael Lazzo didn’t see a strong connection but did say that Adult Swim shows faced some of the same perils as hip hop – it could quickly change from something new and worthwhile into a commercialized waste.
Even if it is unintentional, though, both the Aqua Teens and the Mooninites act as a sort of hip hop of Saturday morning cartoon themes. Shows like Space Ghost are similar to conventional rap, which makes extensive use of sampling and uses arrangement and juxtaposition with a new text. Taking existing cels and re-writing a script is like rapping over samples. For the most part, Aqua Teen Hunger Force skips sampling the actual cultural products and instead extracts their essence, like producer/auteurs Dan the Automator and Timbaland.17 Some rappers have even picked up on the same themes as Aqua Teen Hunger Force, witness the video game inspired video to Missy Elliot’s Sock It 2 Me (1997) or Del the Funky Homosapien’s album Deltron 3030 (2000).
Aqua Teen Hunger Force has much more left to explore. In a single episode the show will strip-mine many more pop cultural elements than the few discussed above. The Mooninites are just one of the many villains that set out each episode to get the best of the protagonists while entertaining more and more viewers each year.
Anderson, Craig A. “Violent Video Games: Myths, Facts, and Unanswered Questions.” Psychological Science Agenda. Volume 16: No. 5, Oct 2003 <http://www.apa.org/science/psa/sb-anderson.html> (6 Dec 2004).
Banuelos, Miguel. â€œDan the Auteur-mator – The Producer as Auteur. Outer Sound. 1999. <http://www.outersound.com/features/techno/auteur.html> (6 Dec 2004).
Demaria, Rusel and Johnny L Wilson. High Score! The Illustrated History of Video Games. Berkley, CA: McGraw-Hill/Osborne, 2002. p. 62.
Epstein, Daniel Robert. â€œWords > Aqua Teen Hunger Force creators.â€ SuicideGirls. 2004.
<http://suicidegirls.com/words/Aqua+Teen+Hunger+Force+creators/> (6 Dec 2004).
“Final Fantasy: The Spirits Within (2001).“ The Internet Movie Database. 2004. <http://www.imdb.com/title/tt0173840/> (6 Dec 2004).
“Game of The Week – Custer’s Revenge” ClassicGaming. 2004. <http://www.classicgaming.com/rotw/custer.shtml> (6 Dec 2004).
Gonzalez, Lauren. “When Two Tribes Go to War: A History of Video Game Controversy.” Gamespot. 2004. <http://www.gamespot.com/features/6090892/index.html> p 1. (6 Dec 2004)
Ho, Rodney. “Cartoon Network’s Adult Swim drawing young viewers.“ startribune.com. 26 Nov 2004. <http://www.startribune.com/stories/459/5095197.html> (6 Dec 2004).
“Lara Croft: Tomb Raider (2001).“ The Internet Movie Database. 2004. <http://www.imdb.com/title/tt0146316/> (6 Dec 2004).
Norton, James. “‘Just Bring ’em In From Space’ An Interview With the Creators of Aqua Teen Hunger Force.” Flak Magazine. 2004. <http://flakmag.com/features/aquateen.html> (6 Dec 2004).
“Pac-Man; (1982).“ The Internet Movie Database. 2004. <http://www.imdb.com/title/tt0083461/> (6 Dec 2004).
Plato. The Apology. Translated by Benjamin Jowett, available via Project Gutenberg.
<http://www.gutenberg.org/dirs/etext99/pplgy10.txt> (6 Dec 2004).
“Space Ghost Coast to Coast – Baffler Meal.“ TV Tome. 2003. <http://www.tvtome.com/tvtome/servlet/GuidePageServlet/showid-2083/epid-217719/> (6 Dec 2004).
“Wing Commander (1999).“ The Internet Movie Database. 2004. <http://www.imdb.com/title/tt0131646/> (6 Dec 2004).
1 Ho, Rodney. “Cartoon Network’s Adult Swim drawing young viewers.“ startribune.com. 26 Nov 2004. <http://www.startribune.com/stories/459/5095197.html> (6 Dec 2004).
2Plato. The Apology. Translated by Benjamin Jowett, available via Project Gutenberg.
<http://www.gutenberg.org/dirs/etext99/pplgy10.txt> (6 Dec 2004).
3â€œAqua Teen Hunger Force Forum.â€ TV Tome. 20 Oct 2004.
4Demaria, Rusel and Johnny L Wilson. High Score! The Illustrated History of Video Games. Berkley, CA: McGraw-Hill/Osborne, 2002. p. 62.
5â€œPac-Man; (1982).â€ The Internet Movie Database. 2004. <http://www.imdb.com/title/tt0083461/> (6 Dec 2004).
7â€œLara Croft: Tomb Raider (2001).â€ The Internet Movie Database. 2004. <http://www.imdb.com/title/tt0146316/> (6 Dec 2004).
8â€œFinal Fantasy: The Spirits Within (2001).â€ The Internet Movie Database. 2004. <http://www.imdb.com/title/tt0173840/> (6 Dec 2004).
9Demaria, p 99.
11“Game of The Week – Custer’s Revenge” ClassicGaming. 2004. <http://www.classicgaming.com/rotw/custer.shtml> (6 Dec 2004).
12â€œSpace Ghost Coast to Coast – Baffler Meal.â€ TV Tome. 2003. <http://www.tvtome.com/tvtome/servlet/GuidePageServlet/showid-2083/epid-217719/> (6 Dec 2004).
13Gonzalez, Lauren. “When Two Tribes Go to War: A History of Video Game Controversy.” Gamespot. 2004. <http://www.gamespot.com/features/6090892/index.html> p 1. (6 Dec 2004)
15Anderson, Craig A. “Violent Video Games: Myths, Facts, and Unanswered Questions.” Psychological Science Agenda. Volume 16: No. 5, Oct 2003 <http://www.apa.org/science/psa/sb-anderson.html> (6 Dec 2004).
17Banuelos, Miguel. â€œDan the Auteur-mator – The Producer as Auteur.â€ Outer Sound. 1999. <http://www.outersound.com/features/techno/auteur.html> (6 Dec 2004).