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Sunday, April 18th, 2021  

10 Best Original Adult Swim Characters and First Season Episodes

The Best of Aqua Teen Hunger Force, Sealab 2021, The Brak Show, and Harvey Birdman, Attorney at Law

Dec 18, 2020 Adult Swim
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I was a sophomore in college when I stumbled upon Adult Swim on the Cartoon Network Sunday nights. It may have been an old friend who turned me onto the programming—someone, like me, who enjoyed basements and glowing televisions and the occasional giant bong rip. But there was much more than just goofy humor to the original Adult Swim shows—that quartet of cartoons I’ll call the “First Four.” Namely, Aqua Teen Hunger Force, Sealab 2021, The Brak Show and Harvey Birdman, Attorney at Law.

The shows, which first aired in December 2000 in the middle of the night, were aired in earnest on September 2nd, 2001—nine days before one of the greatest tragedies on U.S. soil, 9/11. The world turned topsy-turvy and it took some time for Adult Swim to catch hold of its audience, as a result. If the “First Four” were made in the image of the original adult cartoon, Space Ghost Coast to Coast, then their fate was the same as their predecessor. Things took time to take hold, to bore into people’s brains. But once they did, it was gangbusters. And by 2002, things were moving.

Space Ghost Coast to Coast, which first aired in 1994, provided the example of a cartoon show that could appeal to people who no longer believed in Santa, so to speak. (Here, we mean “adult” as in 18-plus, not in any nudity programming.) Space Ghost Coast to Coast—which used repurposed animation from the old Hanna-Barbera superhero show, Space Ghost—became an irreverent talk show, inviting guests—from Tyra Banks to Bobcat Goldthwait—to talk about upcoming projects while Space Ghost bickered with his compatriots on the show, the lava robot, Moltar, and giant insect, Zorak.

College wasn’t easy for me. I’m not complaining. But it’s also true. And to know that I always had the weekly cartoon companionship from the Adult Swim characters felt both cozy and calming. I knew Frylock and Meatwad would be there to laugh with on Aqua Teen. I knew Captain Murphy would be there to laugh at on Sealab. And I knew Brak and Birdman would make me go, “Huh?” in the best of ways. These drawings and reused Hanna-Barbera art were my friends, in many ways. Now, 20 years after they first aired in their Adult Swim form, I wanted to celebrate them. So that’s what we did here at Under the Radar.

Over the last week, Under the Radar released interviews I’ve conducted with many of the creators of these important Adult Swim television programs. Shows like Aqua Teen and Sealab have helped to spawn many new shows and artists in their wake. The wacky adventures, surreal expressions, and cut-and-paste irreverence helped to inspire a generation of creative people both within the confines of Adult Swim and the Cartoon Network, and beyond.

But before we begin, it’s worth underscoring, that none of this could happen without the skeleton cast and crew who created and grew Space Ghost Coast to Coast. The show’s visual minimalism and verbal maximalism created the joyous dichotomy that would allow for the Adult Swim roots to take hold to begin with. So, read our interview with George Lowe, the famed voice actor who brought the character, Space Ghost, the talk show host, to everlasting life.

Now, we may get into the nitty-gritty! First: Lists!

Top 10 Adult Swim “First Four” Episodes, Season 1

For me, personally, Aqua Teen changed it all. The show was out there enough that it blew open a hole in my brain that let the rest of Adult Swim in. And, to this day, more and more keeps infiltrating my brain through that same porthole (worm hole?). As a result, Aqua Teen is represented on this list more than any other show. Tell the truth, says the poet, Emily Dickenson. But tell it slant. This is my slanted Aqua Teen-obsessed truth. My Top 10 episodes from the first season of the First Four Adult Swim series.

10. Harvey Birdman, Attorney at Law, Episode 4: “Shaggy Busted”

Low hanging fruit, but audiences ate it up. The stoners Shaggy and Scooby-Doo, from the famous Hanna-Barbera sleuthing cartoon, get pulled over for driving under the influence of cannabis. Their defender? A winged superhero with a penchant for quick scene cuts and comical antics. For a series the charmed the bong smokers, this one was a hit immediately.

9. The Brak Show, Episode 2: “War Next Door”

For some, including myself, Brak’s signature was a bit harder to swallow than its counterparts in the First Four. To start, Brak’s voice is grating. It’s like resting your ears on top of a cheese grater and then shaking around. But that’s okay. It’s different, unique. And the season’s second episode, “War Next Door,” featured one of the series’ best characters, the robot warrior, Thundercleese. He of the repeated laser shots from his wrist cannons. He and Zorak really get into it in this one and it’s lovely.

8. Aqua Teen Hunger Force, Episode 9: “MC Pee Pants”

For those, like me, who saw this some 20 years ago, I have a question: how often, after seeing this particular episode, did you sing the refrain, “I want caaaandy?!” For me, it was probably 748 times. MC Pee Pants is a tragic figure, all things considered. He’s a rapper but really he’s a giant spider in a diaper who just wants friends. Meatwad wants candy. MC Pee Pants wants friends. If that’s not a setup for an Aqua Teen episode, I don’t know what is!

7. Aqua Teen Hunger Force, Episode 7: “Ol’ Drippy”

Another supremely out-there episode from our friends at Aqua Teen. This one features a character made of penicillin that is eventually eaten flippantly and haphazardly by Master Shake. Drippy is the selfless friend who lets you borrow his headphones even though you never return anything. And, in the end, he pays for it with his penicillin life. Oh well, it was fun while it lasted. But there was, of course, no way someone so nice could cohabitate with Shake. None.

6. Sealab 2021, Episode 11: “In The Closet”

I’ve often thought many of these Adult Swim episodes could turn into stand-alone podcasts. So much of their value is dependent on dialogue and this episode is no different—and no slouch. So much of this one happens with little-to-no movement through space and even occurs much in the dark. You could close your eyes and have 99% as many laughs as if they were open. Someone put these shows on podcast form!

5. Aqua Teen Hunger Force, Episode 6: “Space Conflict from Beyond Pluto”

If the Mooninites are snobbish characters from the Moon, then this episode features their bungling, slow-witted counterparts from Pluto. Here, Shake beams up to the spaceship and, instead of falling prey to the plan, gets bored with the ship’s primitive technology. He flouts even aliens! Yet, as the audience, we are not surprised. Shake is a jerk. But in this episode, despite his behavior, we meet our new friends from Pluto who will re-meet over and over again throughout the series.

4. Aqua Teen Hunger Force, Episode 18: “Cybernetic Ghost of Christmas Past from the Future”

This may not mean much to anyone else, but the line, “Way before the time of Sigourney Weaver” has stuck with me ever since I heard it some 18 years ago. The throw-away bit of dialogue is uttered by the actual Cybernetic Ghost of Christmas Past from the Future before a flashback, but it’s such an odd line that it’s stayed emblazoned on my brain ever since. In many ways, the oddity is simply indicative of the out-there nature of the First Four Adult Swim shows. Maybe that’s why it’s stuck with me for so long. It’s a microcosm of everything the show stands for. That’s why this one lands at #4.

3. Harvey Birdman, Attorney at Law, Episode 6: “The Dabba Don”

The first time I saw this episode, the whole genre of cartoons jumped a level for me. This episode was groundbreaking—if not to anyone else, at least to me. The subversion of both The Flintstones and The Sopranos, the blend of New Jersey and the stone age—pitch perfect. What an imagination! To imagine Fred Flintstone as a mob boss à la Tony Soprano. Chef’s kiss! This card played, in many ways, sums up the genius of the Harvey Birdman series. It could go anywhere with the snap of a finger and wherever it went was sublime.

2. Aqua Teen Hunger Force, Episode 4: “Mayhem of the Mooninites”

Ah, the first time we meet our old friends, the Mooninites, those trouble-making jerks from the high-tech habitat, the Moon. Here they come with their cigarettes, plan to steal things, make messes and blame others. But we can’t stay mad at them! Can we? They come back into our Aqua Teen world over and over again and, for some reason, we welcome them back with open cartoon arms. Maybe it’s because I’s not our Trans-Am breaking down or not our house on fire. Either way, there’s only one first impression and the Mooninites made the most of theirs.

1. Sealab 2021, Episode 12: “Stimutacs”

For a set of shows watched by stoners all over the world, “Stimutacs” likely hit too close to home to millions of blurred, red eyes. Nevertheless, the episode is one of the best Adult Swim has ever produced—if not a clear #1. Watch the crew of Sealab get hooked on some dubious stimulants hatched up by lab weird, Sparks. Watch Marco hang from the ceiling, Debbie go nuts, Captain Murphy speak in tongues. Even Dr. Quinn can’t avoid the repercussions of the “mostly” plant-based drugs. But, don’t worry. If you feel stressed out, feel free to take another hit! Just make sure it’s from the bong and not a Stimutac.

Top 10 Adult Swim “First Four” Characters

Maybe more than anything else, Adult Swim is known for its zany characters. When you’re capable of turning an armless, legless milkshake into one of the most memorable characters in cartoon history, you know you have a knack for the art form. While there are certainly countless characters to choose from, below is my personal Top 10. I’ve left some of the obvious ones (Frylock) and extra obscure ones (the Cybernetic Ghost of Christmas Past from the Future) and tried to find the sweet spot of the best of the best. These, therefore, are the Venn Diagram of the most lasting and laughable from the first seasons of the First Four series.

10. Myron Reducto

The neon green, shifty lawyer-counterpart to Harvey Birdman, Reducto has—you guessed it!—a shrink ray that he uses to manipulate the size of any object he wishes. The added bonus to this twitchy lovable character is that he’s voiced by the inimitable Stephen Colbert, who voiced several characters throughout the Harvey Birdman, Attorney at Law series. He’s a scream!

9. Marco

Brought in to relive part of his C.H.I.P.S. fame as well as to create something new and totally different, Sealab’s Macro was voiced by the famed actor, Erik Estrada. On the show, Marco was sexy, powerful, a little dim-witted (but who wasn’t) and an essential force driving the antics. Marco could be rational and strong or a bit nutty. Either way he was crucial to each plot.

8. Father

Voiced by the unparalleled George Lowe (as described in his interview with Under the Radar), Father was a precocious, flirtatious mountain of a tiny men you didn’t want to mess with. Whether he was bickering with Zorak, trying to get some from Mother or giving not-so-great advice to his son, Brak, Father could always raise eyebrows while lowering expectations. What a delight!

7. Dr. Weird

Who could forget the odd intros to the first few seasons of Aqua Teen Hunger Force, which featured the cold open with Dr. Weird. Whether he was making a rabbit robot or doing experiments on his own brain, Dr. Weird was the perfect oddity to begin the perfect odd show. “Gentlemen!” you can still hear him say, though he’s talking to one person (or none!). Before even Frylock, Shake or Meatwad, Dr. Weird started it all.

6. Debbie(s)

Fans of Sealab 2021 know there is Black Debbie and White Debbie. B.D. is the sage scientist who often watches things from afar, shaking her head in horrified wonderment. White Debbie is Dr. Quinn’s girlfriend who has a penchant to get what she wants and is known to take off her top once or twice. Both are equally funny and essential to the series, if not, essentially, diametrically different.

5. Thundercleese

Brak and family’s neighbor from down the street, the warrior robot Thundercleese only has two settings: docile and all forces go. One of the best parts of the entire Brak series is when Thundercleese loses his temper and everything goes black and he begins to rifle off laser beam after laser beam from his wrist cannons. It’s a few seconds of unabashed madness and weaponry that always tickles. Thundercleese is often a bright spot in the show.

4. Jiggle Billy

“Commence the jiggling!” says Jiggle Billy before he becomes suicidal from the misanthropic, depressing advice from his doll counterpart, Happy Time Harry. But, as luck would have it, Happy Time Harry (a discount toy) is not happy at all. He has an action switchblade for a left hand and he’s threatening to the point of self-destruction. If all this doesn’t scream cartoon fodder, I don’t know what will!

3. Peter Potamus

Whether he’s exiting a bathroom stall, popping up out of nowhere to find himself in a room full of partying people or walking away from a sticky, awkward situation, every time Peter Potamus—the purple, upright hippo dressed in safari people clothes—enters the scene, it’s hilarious. He should have his own show.

2. Carl

Maybe it’s because I’m from New Jersey and I know a million (nay, billion!) NFL fans in the region who swear by the quarterback, but I have a sweet spot for Carl. He’s brash and irksome—loathsome at times—but his heart is doused in hoagie dressing and his breath smells of SoCo and lime. He’s my people, sorry to say. But, no matter how you feel about the Garden State, you have to feel for the guy. The Hunger Force is always taking his pool, setting fire to his abode. It’s not an easy life. He deals with it with a particular gruff grace, however.

1. Captain Murphy

Voiced by the late (though, immortal) Harry Goz, Captain Murphy lands at number one if for no other reason than he inspired the incognito moniker of future Adult Swim beats creator, Flying Lotus, who used to go by the name Captain Murphy. Nevertheless, the real Captain Murphy, so to speak, was a whirling dervish of “what’s he going to say next?!” Whether he was crushed by a soda machine, crawling with scorpion bites or leading his crew to certain doom, Captain Murphy is the best.

Interviews

Now we get to the good stuff! Below, hear it straight from the horses’ mouths. We spoke with Adult Swim show creators and essential character voice actors, including Matt Maiellaro, Dave Willis, Matt Thompson and Andy Merrill. We asked them how they found and fell in love with animation, how they landed at Adult Swim and the Cartoon Network, how they developed their ground-breaking shows and what tickles them about what they’ve made. There’s a lot to geek out about and there’s a lot to love. That, of course, is the essence of Adult Swim.

Matt Maiellaro and Dave Willis on the Origins of Adult Swim’s Aqua Teen Hunger Force.

Matt Thompson on the Origins of Adult Swim’s Sealab 2021.

Andy Merrill on The Brak Show, Being a Space Cat, and the Weirdest Singing Voice Ever.

George Lowe on Being Space Ghost, Mike Lazzo’s Texas Accent, and Fighting With Zorak.

Harvey Birdman Creator Erik Richter on Cartoon Network, Atlanta, Adult Swim, and More.

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