‘Space Ghost Coast to Coast’: How a Hanna-Barbera Talk Show Started an Entire Comedy Counter-Culture
Believe it or not, there was a time before the emergence of Adult Swim when the phrase “adult animation” probably made most people think of cartoon porn.
In 1994, legendary TV executive Mike Lazzo debuted Space Ghost Coast to Coast, an animated talk show parody composed of D-list Hanna-Barbera characters. The success of the series would snowball into the creation of Adult Swim and the launch of an animation empire that has dominated the last two decades of alt-comedy television. Space Ghost Coast to Coast bridged the gap between juvenile humor aimed at kids and juvenile humor aimed at teens and adults, thus providing the proof-of-concept needed to expand Cartoon Network into a comedy mecca for the loudest, weirdest, silliest and most surreal minds in animation.
All because Cartoon Network was jealous of The Simpsons and couldn’t accept that another channel had TV’s best animated show.
In the middle of Matt Groening’s dominance of animated comedy during the mid-1990s, Lazzo, then vice president of programming for Cartoon Network, was tasked with developing the channel’s first adult-oriented original series. Cartoon Network wanted to test the market for “mature” comedy in animation, and Lazzo’s answer was a surrealist late-night anti-talk show recorded in a broom closet starring characters created by Hanna-Barbera cartoonist Alex Toth in the 1960s. The original Space Ghost was an altruistic intergalactic crime fighter who protected the cosmos from insidious insect and lizard races, but Space Ghost the talk show host was a petty, egotistical and insecure has-been who wondered if his superhero glory days were the best he’d ever have — and his arch-nemesis Zorak was now his band leader.
Lazzo launched Ghost Planet Industries, later renamed Williams Street Productions, as the in-house production studio that developed Space Ghost Coast to Coast. The series originally ran at 11 p.m. EST on Friday nights and operated like a normal talk-show complete with celebrity guests, such as The Mask’s Jim Carrey and emerging late-night star Conan O’Brien, who were roundly mocked and ignored by their undead animated host. The crude animation style was the result of Ghost Planet Industries hastily editing footage from the original Hanna-Barbera series and reorganizing it into a talk show with crudely animated lips delivering the new dialogue. The series was rank with continuity errors and sloppy animation — and it was glorious.
Throughout the mid-to-late 1990s, Space Ghost Coast to Coast found its target audience of teenagers who were tired of mainstream programming and adult stoners looking to find something to occupy their late nights, and the series grew a devoted following that would be rewarded for their viewership with a smattering of new adult animated shows at the turn of the millennium. Lazzo and Williams Street expanded their horizons in late 2000 when they “stealth launched” Sealab 2021, Harvey Birdman, Attorney at Law, Aqua Teen Hunger Force and The Brak Show, all spin-offs of Space Ghost Coast to Coast, released without any marketing or fanfare on two nights in December. Just like that, the foundation for Adult Swim had been laid.
Cartoon Network introduced their “Parental Block” in April, 2001, then formally launched Adult Swim in September of that same year. The hunk of mature programming was complete with animated shows reclaimed from other networks, such as Brendon Small’s Home Movies, and anime shows like Cowboy Bebop in the vein of their already successful Toonami block. The iconic bumper commercials showed senior citizens wading in waist-high water and warnings to parents that the network was about to turn 18+ once the lights went off. Space Ghost and its spin-offs formed the base of the content, but the dedicated programming block would eventually take off as anyone with an idea too weird, crass, convoluted or unseemly could find a home at the renegade network.
Today, Adult Swim is a media monolith that defines the adult animation genre, and it is the de facto hub for alternative, avant garde and iconoclastic comedy as told through shoddily-animated cartoons. But even Rick and Morty owes its success to Simpsons-envy and a 1960s superhero who has been dead since long before any of us were born.