Transmissions From the Ghost Planet: A definitive history of Space Ghost Coast to Coast

This April 15, a strange anniversary passed without comment. Twenty years ago on that date, a cheap-looking, utterly surreal TV show aired at 11:00 p.m. on a network that showed nothing but reruns of crusty old cartoons.

That show was Space Ghost Coast to Coast, and over the next two decades it would completely reshape Cartoon Network in its image, spawning the entirety of Adult Swim and inspiring a new generation of surreal humorists.

We talked to many of the creative minds behind SGC2C,  and assembled this terrifyingly complete history of the show’s rise and fall. Read on, and check out our list of the show's best moments in the gallery at the bottom of the page.

IN THE BEGINNING

"You have to spend money to make money," they say. But Ted Turner isn't a guy who plays by the rules. When Turner founded Cartoon Network in 1992, he'd gained the rights to the cartoon libraries of MGM, Fleischer Studios and Hanna-Barbera, totaling something like 8,500 hours of animation. Plenty to keep a channel running.

Mike Lazzo started out in the mailroom at TBS before winning a promotion to be the fledgling network's first programmer. His job was, essentially, to arrange these crusty old cartoons into combinations that would entice '90s kids to watch them. It wasn't easy. For the first four years of the network's history, the budget for original programming was a big fat zero.

Lazzo says, "We went to Ted and said, 'Please can we have some money?' And he said, like any parent would, 'Use what you've got, and then maybe we can talk later about this.'"

With next to no budget, Lazzo's team realized they couldn't even hire an artist to come up with a character. So they went into the only pool of assets they had -- the Hanna-Barbera catalogue. Unfortunately, Turner had bought the Hanna-Barbera catalogue, but not necessarily the rights to the characters. When Lazzo asked which ones Cartoon Network could make new properties out of, Hanna-Barbera's answer was pretty much "just the forgettable ones."

We're talking Lippy the Lion and Hardy Har-Har. Touche Turtle and Dum-Dum. Wacky Races. And, of course, Space Ghost.

Space Ghost and Dino Boy premiered on CBS in 1966 and lasted a meager 20 episodes. The title character was a white-clad intergalactic policeman created by legendary cartoonist Alex Toth while working for the company. Toth hated the design, complaining about the character's "amoeba-like" cape and clunky wristbands. "I don't know what all the shouting's about. I always thought it was mediocre," he said.

So Lazzo and crew started to have daily meetings to come up with ideas for ways to play with these properties. One of the strongest involved Wacky Races -- each episode began with the race already in progress, so the team decided, as a stunt, to edit them all together into one long movie where the cartoon drivers would traverse the entire United States. They'd call it Wacky Races Coast to Coast.

The night before production was set to begin, Mike Lazzo had a fever dream about Space Ghost hosting a talk show. He woke up, went into the office, sat down and said, "Cancel the Wacky Races thing. We're doing Space Ghost: Coast to Coast." At least it rhymed.

BEHIND THE DESK

1994 was the height of the Late Night Wars, as Leno and Letterman and Arsenio brought in huge viewers for their respective networks. A cartoon talk show was an obvious fit.

Cartoon Network staffer Andy Merrill and producer Khaki Jones took a reel-to-reel tape machine and a CNN interview with Denzel Washington and hid out in a closet in the Williams Street building, splicing together bits of Space Ghost episodes with the footage to create a low-budget pilot that featured SG asking Denzel questions about his first Oscars experience and introducing a clip of his new movie.

It was funny, so Lazzo took $100,000 of the budget and sent it to a production company in Los Angeles to put together a super-slick second pilot, with original Space Ghost voice Gary Owens, Film Threat founder Chris Gore and an interview with Emma Thompson. And it sucked. Sucked hard. It was flat and corny and charmless (not to mention insanely expensive). So Lazzo and crew pulled back and decided to produce the show guerrilla-style in Atlanta on the cheap.

HIS MASTER'S VOICE

They went to Crawford Communications, an Atlanta-area production house that had done work for Turner in the past, and asked them to pitch out the series. Clay Martin Croker, an animator at Crawford, heard producers talking about it and quickly realized they had no idea how to approach the project -- they didn't even realize that Space Ghost was a pre-existing character. He jumped in and helped them conceptualize many of the show's core concepts, including having SG's foes be his production team.

Croker had seen the L.A. pilot and understood why it didn't work. It needed context. He told me, "I always felt like if you put Batman on The Tonight Show set and took away the cave, the Batmobile and the villains, it's going to be boring."

At the first meeting with Cartoon Network, Croker pitched Zorak as the show's bandleader. When the team sat down to watch old Space Ghost episodes, the first one they did was "The Ovens of Moltar," which featured a clip of the villain Moltar looking into a computer monitor and pulling levers. Bingo, he was drafted as Coast to Coast's director.

Croker wasn't angling for a voice role -- he thought Zorak would be done by Don Messick, his original actor -- but Cartoon Network didn't want to pay for Messick. Croker mentioned that he could do the voice. He delivered a test line and Lazzo gave him the gig on the spot. Andy Merrill was originally supposed to voice Moltar (in a sort of hillbilly accent), but when the team decided they needed more of a "Ted Cassidy approach," Croker worked up a pitch-shifted character voice that nailed it.

The team brought in actor George Lowe, who had done VO spots for TBS and could do a reasonable (and affordable) Gary Owens. Lowe's take on Space Ghost was more sardonic and unhinged, and his off-script asides and ad-libs in the recording booth quickly began to find their way into episodes.

Writer Matt Maiellaro came on board as well, contributing to many of the show's early episodes.

Space Ghost Coast to Coast's core team was completed with editor Michael Cahill, who is credited with the notoriously awkward timing that made the humor sing. Cahill had to edit the show in a closet next to a photocopier, and the team would get together at nights when Turner conference rooms were empty to write scripts.

Less than 90 minutes of Space Ghost animation was created over the course of the original show's 20 episodes, so the production team was heavily limited in what they could have their stars do. Croker created five new pieces of animation for the first episode. It wasn't until two years into production that Croker pitched a list of new scenes that the show could use -- things like Space Ghost zapping the guests, for example. They produced about 15 new animations in 1995, deliberately blurring the linework and adding film grain so they'd meld with the older clips.

The talk show set was actually created in miniature by prop designer Jack Maloney and shot from multiple angles to make camera changes feel more natural. The entire thing was built from plexiglass, and the monitor that guests appeared on was run by a little motor. Animation footage was rotoscoped to remove the backgrounds and composited over these new backgrounds.

Editor Tom Roche says that each episode contained over 1,000 edits in under 15 minutes, with the majority of those being the "lip flap" required to make Space Ghost's mouth roughly match his dialogue. Far and away the longest section of each episode's production was spent in the editing room.

Because the network's programming was so free-ranging, Lazzo and crew could pretty much do whatever they wanted. Hence, the birth of Space Ghost's half-length running time -- one commercial break in the middle and a total length of around 15 minutes.

POWER BEAMS

The first episode premiered on April 15, 1994. Lazzo and crew had a half-dozen in the can at the time, and you can see how they were mastering the format as the first few episodes went by. Questions about superpowers and archenemies were phased out in favor of a blanket disregard for interview subjects and more focus on the backstage dramas and hijinks with Space Ghost, Moltar and Zorak.

The turning point probably comes with "Banjo," the show's sixth episode. With Bobcat Goldthwait as a guest and Zorak's overgrown sea monkey coming to a grisly end, it captured the show's zeitgeist.

Space Ghost Coast to Coast was a success, as much as a show in the 11:30 timeslot can be considered a success. Ratings were solid -- by the third season, it was bringing in a respectable 1.1, great for the timeslot and 20 percent over the network's average. But the team didn't rest on their laurels -- by the third "season" in 1996, they'd established the show as one of the most boundary-pushing things on TV.

PLANET ROCK

As the show picked up speed, Space Ghost became a de facto spokesman for Cartoon Network. So it was only logical to have him host "World Premiere Toon-In," a Turner-created special that showcased the first products of Turner's in-house animation studio. The show, which aired simultaneously on TBS, TNT and Cartoon Network on President's Day, featured Space Ghost and crew interviewing animators like Craig McCracken and Van Partible along with showing clips of Johnny Bravo, The Powerpuff Girls and other soon-to-be-hit cartoons. It just so happened that Ted Turner was actually tuned into his own programming at the time and was extremely taken by the product, especially the banter between Space Ghost, Moltar and Zorak. He called up Mike Lazzo and asked him, "Why don't we have something like this on the SuperStation?" The next day, Cartoon Planet was born.

Airing on TBS, Cartoon Planet was a "variety show" (aka "excuse to show old cartoons") starring Space Ghost, Zorak and the newly popular Brak, a cat-faced alien villain from the original show now being voiced as a sort of lisping dimwit by Andy Merrill. The show gave Lazzo's team chances to stretch their wings in different, more audience-friendly areas like song parodies.

Cartoon Planet ran fairly briefly on TBS before being offloaded back to Cartoon Network. The amount of effort required to run two shows off of decades-old footage turned out to be not worth the effort, and production shut down in 1997.

Lazzo had to staff up to run this new show, and one of his essential hires was writer Dave Willis, who would eventually cross over to the main show. And with that, the Space Ghost team -- and the core of what would become Adult Swim -- took on its final form.

THE MINES OF MOLTAR

The show's early episodes were written around the interview footage. During some interviews, Andy Merrill would actually sit with a homemade Space Ghost costume off-camera and lob questions at celebs, but most of the time, Willis would handle it, with Croker occasionally sitting in as Zorak.

Willis's first aired episode was "Sharrock," in which the crew paid tribute to the avant-jazz guitarist who composed their theme song by blaring 15 minutes of his music over the entire show, including an interview with Sonic Youth's Thurston Moore.

1997 was the show's production peak, with a staggering 27 episodes produced. The team was creating episodes on a weekly basis, on a grueling schedule.

Willis's memories of the show were not universally positive. "Writing for Space Ghost was like being falsely accused of murdering your wife. It's like taking the SAT with a ballpoint pen filled with your own blood. You suffer constantly, and everything you say is wrong."

As the show grew, the team began to bring in freelancers to handle the writing. One of the first was Mystery Science Theater 3000 creator Joel Hodgson, but others included cartoonists Evan Dorkin and Sarah Dyer, and Seinfeld "Soup Nazi" writer Spike Feresten. Dorkin, who wrote 14 episodes with Dyer, let me in on the process of writing an episode.

"You would get taped interviews with transcripts, and you spliced those into the script as you saw fit. You came up with an idea, chose guests from the interview or requested interviews, and then you took your interviews and wrote your script. The producers really trusted the writers and gave them a lot of freedom; they just wanted things to be funny and weird. They even let Sarah and I sit in on the editing of one of our episodes when we were in Atlanta, and they let us go over the 11-minute running time on several occasions. It was pretty great. There was a lot of trust and good will and freedom to just try things, and I think it resulted in a lot of good work."

As the show continued, the pace of episodes began to slacken. 1999 saw eight new episodes. 2000 none at all. 2001 debuted eight more, 2002 saw only a back-to-back airing of "Kentucky Nightmare" with different directors' commentaries.

But these later years also saw some of the show's brightest moments. The gas-addled shenanigans of "Flipmode" with Busta Rhymes and the bad romance of "Knifin' Around," both from the 2001 season, are true classics.

DEATH OF A HERO

Space Ghost Coast to Coast came to a bizarre end on April 12, 2004, with "Live at the Fillmore," the show's 93rd episode. Structured around an interview with financial guru Susan Powter, the episode has the crew run out of money and not even finish. And then Ghost Planet went dark.

The crew had 60 unused interviews in the can when production stopped, including a spectacular one with Gibby Haynes of the Butthole Surfers. So what happened?

The answer is simple: AOL happened. In 2000, the Internet megalith purchased Time Warner for $164 billion, and according to Croker everything changed at Cartoon Network as soon as the papers were signed. The Space Ghost team, which had been working for the network full-time on salary, were all told that their employment would be changed to an "as-needed" basis.

Space Ghost Coast to Coast was born out of an environment in which failure was almost a certainty, and they managed to snatch success from it. With a new corporate structure in which any "wasted time" was frowned upon, the atmosphere that the show needed couldn't survive.

So the team went their separate ways -- Croker and Willis to Aqua Teen Hunger Force, Merrill to The Brak Show, Lazzo and Matt Harrigan to Perfect Hair Forever. None had the same magic.

TAPPED OUT

Two years later, the show reappeared on a very different platform. Turner had launched GameTap, an online subscription service for videogames. They were trying to find ways to promote the platform without spending a ton of money. And that was Space Ghost Coast to Coast's specialty.

A camera crew traveled to the E3 convention in 2005 and did interviews with famous designers from gaming history, and then Turner hired a number of different agencies to produce short episodes exclusive to GameTap.

Rick Webb, founder of the Barbarian Group, remembers producing some of the episodes. "The premise was to bring back Space Ghost Coast to Coast as a digital property within GameTap that kept the same format and used the same voices, but interviewed gaming legends. I think we did 2-3 episodes. The cast members would record in their home studios and send us the audio, and Mike Rubenstein at Barbarian, who was a fan of the original show, would go through the old clips and find things that would match up, and edit, and composite the interviews together. No new animations were made, so it was a pretty painstaking process."

Williams Street had no influence on the GameTap episodes, and it shows. While they have some good jokes, and the interview subjects are game, the sense of anarchic freedom isn't there. GameTap itself was eventually sold to French company Metaboli in 2008, and the Turner original programming was removed from the service.

MISSING: SPACE GHOST

Since then, Cartoon Network has brought Space Ghost back on a few occasions, mostly to promote other properties. The show's biggest legacy, however, is probably seen in The Eric Andre Show, Adult Swim's second attempt at a late-night talk program. Host Eric Andre was hugely influenced by Coast to Coast, saying "Before we started shooting, I rented as many seasons I could get my hands on and did a Space Ghost marathon by myself in my house, just so I could absorb as much Space Ghost as I could."

The show's influence has been staggering -- the entire Adult Swim block grew out of Williams Street's experiments. Aqua Teen Hunger Force originally debuted as characters in the scrapped "Baffler Meal" episode. Sealab 2021 used the same repurposing technique to put a new spin on an old Hanna-Barbera show. And The Brak Show was ... well, it was Brak from Space Ghost, given some actual animation and a family to play off of.

Rumors have been swirling about Space Ghost making a return for over a decade, but Mike Lazzo, for one, has moved on. It was a product of its time and that time was over. The foundation it laid for Adult Swim -- the surreal humor, mismatched visuals and disregard for the accepted norms of TV -- changed animation as we know it. Not bad for a show that started with Denzel Washington in a closet.

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