‘Tell Me About Your Trousers!’ The Voice of Space Ghost Reflects on ‘Space Ghost: Coast to Coast’
In the 1960s, Space Ghost was a cheesy cartoon set in outer space about a superhero with unclear powers who kinda, sorta looked like a Batman toy variant. Astonishingly, in the mid-1990s, Hanna-Barbera allowed producer Mike Lazzo to take this mostly forgotten character and turn him into a moronic talk show host who kept his villains as prisoners and asked celebrities amazingly bizarre questions. Space Ghost: Coast to Coast ran from 1994 until 2008, and it blazed the trail for the Cartoon Network’s Adult Swim programming block, forever changing the landscape of adult animated series.
When looking for a voice for Space Ghost, the production decided not to reuse his original 1960s actor, Gary Owens, who was still active at the time. The new series needed something far more pompous, stupid and strange. It found it in George Lowe, a man with an extensive history in radio who had also done voice work on cartoons like Beetlejuice.
I recently caught up with Lowe to talk about his time as Space Ghost, his favorite guests, the time he shut down Adam West’s incessant book promotion and which celebrity walked out of an interview because it was just too strange.
Did you watch the original Space Ghost as a kid?
Are you kidding?!?! Every Saturday morning, I sat down with my best friend Larry and my best friend Tom and watched the original cartoon. I especially loved how Gary Owens did that big voice — “SPAAAAACE GHOOOOST!” — right at the beginning.
Speaking of Owens, did you try to do that voice when you began as Space Ghost yourself?
For the first couple of episodes, I was almost trying to do a send-up of Gary Owens’ voice, but I realized the laughs were bigger when I was doing me saying things like, “On tonight’s program, Michael Stipe from R.E.M.!”
Gary Owens was on Coast to Coast once, but Mike Lazzo wouldn’t let me interview him. I asked Lazzo, “Why can’t I do the interview? I’m such a fan!” Lazzo told me, “If you were in the same room as Gary Owens, he’d take a swing at you!” I seriously doubted that, though. Gary owned about half of the real estate in California; he was doing just fine.
How did you become the voice of Space Ghost?
I went into a blind audition. Like, literally blind. There was a curtain on one side and a curtain on the other side so that I couldn’t peek. I knew the audition was for Space Ghost, who I knew and loved, but I didn’t quite know what they were doing with him. So I went in, did the lines and also made these funny asides, asking myself, “What’s he supposed to sound like an idiot or something?” and I heard these laughs from the other side of the curtain. So I kept rolling and ad-libbing here and there. I think giving Lazzo and the rest those extra choices got me the gig.
When it debuted, there was nothing that strange or irreverent on television. Did you feel like that suited you?
Oh yes. Back then, that level of randomness in humor had just never been done. I absolutely felt like I was in the middle of a jungle, blazing a trail to some new destination. It was really bizarre, but it also felt natural to me — I was just screwing around.
In the early episodes, we hadn’t quite formed what you know the show to be yet. Then there was an episode in the first season where we had jazz musician Branford Marsalis on, and the engineer said, “Everyone hold on a second; we’re out of tape.” So the engineer steps away, and Branford and I just start talking, but still as Space Ghost.
We’re yapping about jazz, and I’m telling him, “I’m a huge fan; I love you, your brother, your dad” — all of whom were jazz legends. He said, “Thank you, man. What are you listening to?” I said, “I just got Miles Davis at the Wooden Nickel.” And he said to me, “Ah, Space Ghost, you don’t know no Miles Davis.” I said, “I know ‘The Serpent’s Tooth’ note for note!” He said, “All right, kick it off.” So I started doing the instrumentals, and he started doing it with me; then Lazzo runs in from God knows where and shouts, “Hold on! Hold on! Wait for tape!”
I didn’t know it, but I’d found a secret to the show. Accidentally, I had unlocked what the show was going to become. After that, once in a while, they’d just let me go and do whatever I wanted.
What was the process for how an interview was done on that show?
More times than not, the guests would appear through other CNN facilities while we were all in Atlanta. They would record us both live — just the audio for me, with both the audio and video for the guest. It was difficult for them to edit though, because I was used to radio, where you’re not supposed to leave any gaps, but for TV, you need these pauses in between questions to edit things down. So after 30 or so interviews, the writers came in more, and it left these big gaps in between each question: “Are you getting enough oxygen?” Wait for 30 seconds. “Do you have any superpowers?” There was more of a template, but it still worked.
For a typical episode, how much of it was scripted?
All of it was scripted, but they were cool enough to know, “We’ve got to let him improvise, too.” Like we had Adam West on, and he kept holding his new book up and plugging it. Finally, I got annoyed and said, “Okay, see you at the auto show!”
This other time, the guest was Bill Carter, the entertainment writer for the New York Times. He was talking, and I got bored and suddenly said, “Hey Bill, tell me about your trousers!” The whole show was this gumbo of structure and non-structure and post-modern art gone wild.
Did you have any favorite guests?
Adam West was great. Michael Stipe, too. I loved Carol Channing. Judy Tenuta did like three of them, and there was Merrill Markoe — she also did it three times. Bobcat Goldthwait did it three times, too. Harland Williams. Moby really played along. So did Beck.
The show was so random and irreverent. Did you ever have a guest that just didn’t get the joke?
Paul Westerberg from The Replacements. He got offended because we weren’t talking about music. I said something like, “Hey, you wanna say hello to Zorak?” He was like, “Fuck this,” and walked out. Our production assistant went running after him with a release because we wanted to use that. Most everyone was really hip though.
Why did the show end when it did?
As much as I hate to say it, Lazzo gets credit for knowing when to pull the plug; otherwise, we’d be going over the same territory we already had. When it was done, though, I continued on with Aqua Teen Hunger Force and The Brak Show after that. So I got another three years of their money.