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The untold truth of Aqua Teen Hunger Force

Aqua Teen Hunger Force was one of the first shows to ever air on Adult Swim, and it set the template and tone for 20 years of the edgy Cartoon Network late-night programming block. The animated series isn't really about anything, but its main characters are three gigantic, living, breathing food items: exasperated leader and French fry order Frylock, self-serving and self-absorbed milkshake Master Shake, and the childishly innocent and dim meatball named Meatwad. They pretty much never leave their dilapidated home in suburban New Jersey, if only to bother their sleazy neighbor Carl or to end the bothersome and sudden appearance of a condescending alien race or an incompetent super-villain. Aqua Teen Hunger Force is a true original, as well as irreverent, nihilistic, random, and infused with a charmingly low-budget, DIY attitude.

It took creators Dave Willis and Matt Maiellaro a lot of time, work, and creativity to make something so weird. Here are some behind-the-scenes tales behind the show that's always "number one in the hood," Aqua Teen Hunger Force.

It's technically a spinoff

After airing once on Cartoon Network in December 2000, Aqua Teen Hunger Force re-emerged in September 2001 on Adult Swim, the channel's Sunday night programming block of edgier fare. Space Ghost Coast to Coast, a reworking of old animated footage into a surreal talk show, also hit Adult Swim, and like Aqua Teen, it also preexisted, debuting in 1994. Another connection: Aqua Teen started as a spinoff of Coast to Coast, where Dave Willis and Matt Maiellaro worked. 

"We wrote like 50 of those together," Willis told Paste. One day they wrote an episode about Space Ghost not being able to pay at a fast food place, so the restaurant forced its mascots onto his show. "I remember when we came up with the show it was like the first idea that each of us came up with just went right into the script. Matt said 'Master Shake.' I said 'Meatwad.' He said 'Frylock.' I said 'Aqua Teen Hunger Force.' We didn't debate the titles at all." They turned in the script to Coast to Coast producers, who, as Willis said, "didn't particularly like it because Space Ghost had one line in the entire episode. All the Aqua Teens took over the Coast to Coast set." Even after more than 20 rewrites, higher-ups were never pleased and the episode never made it. During a Coast to Coast production hiatus, Willis and Maiellaro asked Cartoon Network if they could make a pilot for a spinoff about their new characters.

How an inebriated, novice voice actor got cast as Master Shake

After performing in cabaret and summer stock shows, Dana Snyder moved to Las Vegas in 2000 and opened a burlesque show called The Burlycue. It didn't take off, but one day during production, he heard from David Willis, a Cartoon Network employee who was working on a new show about talking food. "I went to college with a girl who went to high school with Dave, and he asked her if she knew anybody with an interesting voice," Snyder told Las Vegas Weekly. She pointed Willis to Snyder. He still had to turn in an audition tape, which Snyder made and sent in in the form of an answering machine message recorded after a night out drinking with a friend. 

"So I went back to my apartment at three in the morning and did my thing," Snyder said. Willis loved it, but accidentally erased the tape, necessitating Snyder to re-record his audition to present to Cartoon Network brass. Willis didn't care for the second take. "He's like, 'Hmmm, I can't put my finger on it, but it seems like that other one you left had something extra. There was something more fun about it,'" Snyder recalled, pointing out that he'd been sober for take two. For the third and final audition tape — the one that got him the job as whiny, aggressive Master Shake — Snyder went out and got drunk again.

The creators abandoned Cartoon Network's instructions almost immediately

The title of Aqua Teen Hunger Force, along with its incredibly detailed opening theme song, suggests a show about a team of young, powerful individuals fighting crime or injustice. The actual series pulls a bait-and-switch, because Frylock, Master Shake, and Meatwad never much wage battle against the forces of evil (or do much of anything, really). Initially, the powers that be at Cartoon Network pushed for a stricter format more in line with the show's name. 

"They didn't quite understand it. So with episode two we had to make them detectives, something they could identify with," co-creator Matt Maiellaro told Paste, referring to how Cartoon Network used to be a depository for old cartoons like Scooby-Doo and its numerous spinoffs and clones. Maiellaro said that after the pilot episode, they adopted the detective concept "with episode two, and then we threw it out the window." Co-creator Dave Willis told The Daily Beast that the show seemed like it "was coming together" with the arrival of the Mooninites a few episodes later. "There's no story to it. They're just entertaining characters. They're obnoxious."

The actors didn't get paid much

Carey Means was also new to voicing cartoon characters when he won the role of Aqua Teen Hunger Force leader Frylock. The vocally blessed performer had a background in live performance, singing with professional choirs in Atlanta (where Aqua Teen was produced) and acting on the stage of the Georgia Renaissance Festival. Despite voicing a very famous cartoon character for more than a decade, Means hasn't been able to parlay that into many other V.O. gigs, and as a result, isn't as rich as fans might think. "The thing is, people assume that I get royalties from the show. I do not," Means told Denver Comic Con in 2017 (via Forbes). "I don't receive any royalties, back pay, nothing from DVD sales, primarily because I live in Georgia," where labor laws discourage unionization. He says he earned flat payments of no more than $2,000 per episode, and about $10,000 for the Aqua Teen movie. To help pay the bills throughout his tenure as Frylock, Means worked as a dishwasher in an Atlanta restaurant.

There were only a few things they couldn't do on the air

Adult Swim gave Aqua Teen Hunger Force creators and writers Dave Willis and Matt Maiellaro almost complete and total creative freedom to do whatever they wanted. "We get to do things nobody else would let us do," Maiellaro told the A.V. Club. Still, Adult Swim is a division of the massive Turner Entertainment conglomerate, which is trying to run a profitable, advertising-based business. Once in a while, the people in charge, fearing alienating a large portion of the audience, did have to set limitations. "We're not allowed to show sex. We need to stay away from specific religions," Maiellaro said. "We pushed the envelope of blood." Willis revealed that the network was very specific regarding how much blood they could show: no more than "a three-second spray," which also meant that in an episode "where someone's head gets blown off," a rainbow emerges from their severed neck.

Only once did Adult Swim higher-ups make the creators change a completed episode — an installment called "Dickesode" which featured Dr. Wongburger's spaceship, made entirely out of male members. "We sent it to standards and practices and their only note was, 'The thousands of severed penises have to be obscured.' I think that's a direct quote," Willis told the Los Angeles Times (via the Daily Beast).

How Schoolly D. wrote the theme song

Aqua Teen Hunger Force needed a theme song to explain the show's almost random sensibility to viewers. Who better to perform it than Schoolly D, the "godfather of gangster rap"? The rapper not only brings swagger and excitement to the show by spitting mostly inaccurate rhymes about how Master Shake is the "mic rulah" and Meatwad makes "the money, see," but he wrote the song, too. According to Billboard (via Yahoo!), Schoolly D composed the Aqua Teen theme song while riding in a limousine on the way to a studio to record that very theme song.

Still, the rapper laments the lack of wealth the song generated. "With television they own everything," he told powerHouse. "I told them I'd do it for a set fee, but in five years, when it became a hit, I get the rights back." He says that involved parties ultimately reneged on the deal, and the song appeared in the Aqua Teen movie. "That was the bad thing about the experience, the movie. Because when you do a movie, everyone thinks you're a millionaire, and you've got friends suing you."

Indeed, in 2006, Cartoon Network and Schoolly D were sued by a man named Terrence Yerves, who disputed the rapper's claim that he wrote the song in a limo, saying it was composed with Yerves in 1999.

The show staged a legendary April Fool's Day prank

While theatrical films based on TV shows are common (Entourage: The Movie, the Mission: Impossible franchise), it's rare for a series to expand into a movie while it's still producing episodes. In between its fourth and fifth seasons, Aqua Teen Hunger Force spawned Aqua Teen Hunger Force Colon Movie Film for Theaters. Its release on April 13, 2007 was heavily promoted, especially on Adult Swim, a campaign which also included a promise that the entire movie would air on the channel two weeks before it hit theaters, on April 1, 2007. Fans speculated that it was all just an elaborate if obvious April Fool's Day prank, but when the day rolled around, Aqua Teen Hunger Force Colon Movie Film for Theaters actually did air on Adult Swim. But it also was a prank. The film appeared in a tiny box in the corner of the screen, while other programming ran, and without sound.

The show sparked a public panic

Aqua Teen is a strange show, and Adult Swim isn't a typical, by-the-books operation, so when it came time to promote Aqua Teen Hunger Force Colon Movie Film for Theaters, the advertising team unsurprisingly took a provocative approach to raising awareness. As a promotional stunt, Cartoon Network installed a series of light boxes depicting the show's villainous Mooninite characters in about a dozen major American cities. In nearly every location, the boxes did their job and reminded the public that an Aqua Teen movie was on the way. That isn't what happened in Boston, however.

On January 31, 2007, police and other law enforcement agencies in the city responded to multiple reports of possible explosive devices planted around the area. These were the Mooninite light boxes, of course, which Cartoon Network had hired freelance video artists to make and install. About two weeks after the incident, Cartoon Network's parent company, Turner Broadcasting System, handed over $2 million to the city of Boston as a gesture of apology for getting citizens riled up and pre-occupying emergency services personnel and equipment. Cartoon Network general manager Jim Samples even resigned over the fiasco.

As for the Aqua Teen Hunger Force crew, they made an episode about the ordeal called "Boston," which Adult Swim never dared to actually air.

Aqua Teen Hunger Force's failed spinoff

Appearing throughout the run of Aqua Teen were a couple of would-be villains named Ignignokt and Err. They're Mooninites, pixelated and oddly-shaped creatures who look like old-school video game characters. "I had read an article a long time ago about how E.T., the Atari video game, didn't sell as well as they'd hoped, and apparently they buried almost a million of these cartridges in the desert," Aqua Teen Hunger Force co-creator Matt Maiellaro told Flak. "And we were thinking: 'What if [the house where the show is set] was built on the burial ground of this video game?" It turned out to be too complicated of a story to tell in an 11-minute episode, so instead, the writers made them natives of the moon. "And they think they're beyond our culture, but literally they're about 18 years behind us?"

The show also introduced a couple of other space hostiles called the Plutonians, blobby trees from Pluto (or beyond) named Oglethorpe and Emory. In 2004, Aqua Teen Hunger Force paired up the two extraterrestrial groups into a pilot for a spinoff called Spacecataz. Adult Swim turned down the opportunity to make it into a full series, so producers took the episode, chopped it into small chunks, and used them as little sketches inside of Aqua Teen episodes.

What even is the name of this show?

Television shows rarely change names. It would be detrimental to the show's marketing — and confuse and probably lose countless viewers — if all of a sudden it was known by a different thing. It's only happened a few times: Valerie became The Hogan Family after the departure of star Valerie Hogan, These Friends of Mine became Ellen, and then there's Aqua Teen Hunger Force, which changed its name a whopping four times. Why? After a switch to Aqua Unit Patrol Squad 1, co-creator Matt Maiellaro told LA Weekly (via HuffPost), "We were bored." A year later, the show rebranded again as Aqua Something You Know Whatever, with a marketing campaign that promised "It's The Same Exact Show, As It's Never Been Before, Only Just Like It Used To Be, But Now Different." In other words, only the name was different. A new title became a regular occurrence. In 2013, the creators renamed their series Aqua TV Show Show, and for the show's 11th and final season it became Aqua Teen Hunger Force Forever.

Aqua Teen Hunger Force's creators didn't want the show to end

After 11 seasons spanning more than 140 episodes aired over the course of 15 years, Aqua Teen Hunger Force ranked as the longest-running show in Adult Swim history (later usurped by The Venture Brothers), and the sixth-longest-running animated series in American television history overall. But all things must end. 

"We got a new season of Aqua Teen coming out this summer," co-creator Dave Willis said at the 2015 Chicago Comic & Entertainment Expo (via HuffPost). "I'm announcing here for the first time that this is it. This is the final season of Aqua Teen." While Willis broke the news that his show was ending, he wasn't necessarily happy about it, or ready for it. "We were told it's over," co-creator Matt Maiellaro told Vice. "If it were our decision, we'd still be making it. It's actually quote shocking and a bummer at the same time." He added that the cancellation from Adult Swim officials was somewhat surprising. "It generates a lot of revenue, it's not too expensive to make. So for them to let it go is just a bit odd."

The creative team at least got the news while the show was still in production. "We had probably made half of the episodes by the time we were told," Willis said. "So we were able to do a finale that I think does justice to the series."