‘Aqua Teen Hunger’ Force Creators Reflect on the Time Their Show Accidentally Set Off a Boston-Wide Bomb Scare
Marketing is an inherently finicky game, even more so when you’re marketing a movie adaptation of an Adult Swim show. It’s hard to devise an attention-grabbing scheme that will convince stoners to drive to the movie theater for two hours of the bizarro cartoons that they usually watch on their couches at midnight on a Wednesday. So, to anyone who ever finds themselves trying to accomplish that Herculean task, here’s a good rule of thumb to determine whether your campaign is a winner: If the showrunners of the series in question ever have to utter the words, “Under a load-bearing beam of a major bridge might not be the best location for something like that,” it’s not a winner.
Yesterday, Aqua Teen Hunger Force creators Dave Willis and Ned Hastings sat down with CBR.com to talk about the evolution of the show as fans eagerly await the series’ 12th season, which was recently announced almost eight years after the show was initially canceled. Willis and Hastings also discussed the lasting legacy of the show’s biggest controversy following a screening of a 15-years-in-the-making custom episode of Aqua Teen Hunger Force at the 2023 Boston Comedy Festival.
Long after a guerrilla marketing campaign for the feature film Aqua Teen Hunger Force Colon Movie Film for Theaters accidentally triggered a city-wide bomb threat that put metropolitan Boston in hysterics in 2007, the series creators are still answering questions about the so-called “Mooninite Panic” — and they’re still getting stopped at the airport.
The story of the Mooninite Panic is so complex that it has its own Wikipedia page, but, for brevity’s sake, here are the pertinent beats: In November, 2006, Boston-area artist Peter “Zebbler” Berdovsky was hired to put up 40 LED signs showing pixelated characters from Aqua Teen Hunger Force called “Mooninites” around the city of Boston in conspicuous but unconventional places. In mid-January the following year, Berdovsky and his associates did exactly what they were paid to do, placing the mysterious placards on various pieces of public infrastructure, including under multiple important bridges. Not long after, reports of multiple strange devices resembling IEDs scattered around the city reached the Boston Bomb Squad. Panic ensued.
“We were just as surprised as everybody else,” Hastings recalled of the unfolding catastrophe. Both creators say that the campaign was carried out entirely without their knowledge. “We were getting the news trickling in at the same rate that everybody else was — first it was like, ‘It's a sticker with a cartoon character flipping people off!’ I was like, ‘Well, that sounds malicious.’ Then, you know, it was a sign.”
Hastings continued, “Finally, they showed it on the news, and I had seen that light bright before because one of the guys in our office that worked for marketing had one in the window of his office.” At the time, Hastings was unable to reach anybody in the show’s marketing department, so he had to continue to helplessly watch the train derail in real time.
Willis then pointed out the unwise load-bearing locations of the signs, though he attempted to pin part of the blame on the media’s coverage of the event, accusing news networks of blowing it out of proportion. “I certainly don't think it was a ‘hoax,’ as it was reported in the media,” Willis said. “They liked to make it out like it was some malicious thing, I guess. I guess that makes them look slightly less stupid.”
Not long after the dust settled and Turner Broadcasting paid the city of Boston $2 million in fines, Hastings and Willis set to writing an Aqua Teen episode skewering the event – “We were chomping at the bit to get an opportunity to do an episode on it. Our show isn't really satire, you know? So we were trying to approach it in our own oblique way.” Bits and pieces of the rumored and unaired episode have leaked at different points in the decade-and-a-half since the scandal to the creators' chagrin, but Hastings and Willis knew that they had to be patient.
Fifteen years would go by before the timing was right for Aqua Teen to return to Boston to blast the bombing panic. Then, the stars finally aligned this past May 20 for the special episode to air for 400 Bostonians – “They love it up there. There's one line, after they blow up Meatwad, and Shake (says), ‘Relax, Frylock, he's in a better place. He's no longer in Boston.’ They loved it,” Willis said of the audience reaction to the custom show. “We had another line where the local anchor in Boston says, ‘This angered the drunk racist people of Boston.’ Standards and Practices made us take that one out. It (was) only for a room of 400 people (at the festival). They paid money to see it. Let's give them every joke.”
However, comedy festival-goers aren’t the only Bostonians who remember a time when an 8-bit alien made an entire city fear for its life. Willis brought a Mooninite LED with him on the trip to the festival, which led to an uncomfortable interaction at airport security. He explained, “I was bringing (the Mooninite) back through TSA at Logan Airport, the guy searched my bag to look at it. One of the things he said was, ‘Don't flash this around. This will get you problems up here.’”
“He remembered it,” Hastings added. "(He said), ‘Whatever you do, don't mount that to the bottom of the plane.’"