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The Ballad of Old Barbecue Feet: The Aqua Teen Team Pushes Against Narrative Limits for the Two-Second Episode 

Wednesday, Jan 28 2015
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One of the weirder entertainment clusters out there, one of those sites that was born in a backwater and became a lot more important than anyone might've guessed, started late one night in 2001 on the Cartoon Network. It was called Adult Swim, so-called because it ran more, well if not mature, certainly less kid-oriented fare than the network from which it budded. In addition to violent and sexually provocative anime, Adult Swim ran original series, beginning with Space Ghost Coast to Coast, though greater heights of weirdness were attained by later developments, the longest-running of which is Aqua Teen Hunger Force, a show about a milkshake, a sleeve of french fries, and an amoebic sort of meatball.

Created by Dave Willis, who worked on Space Ghost and voices the meatball and the unruly neighbor Carl, the 15-minute episodes tend toward the unexpected. And, with voice actor Dana Snyder, who shows up all over Adult Swim's programming, Willis' influence has spread to another show, Squidbillies, which is basically what it sounds like. Here, they have a conversation with this reporter, who had to edit for space and annotate some of the more esoteric bits.

SF Weekly: Let's take it back to the beginning. How do y'all come to know one another?

Dave Willis: Definitely on Aqua Teen.

Dana Snyder: I went to college with a girl that Dave went to high school with. And Dave at some point asked if she knew anyone in New York who could audition for the show he was working on.

Willis: We pitch the show and I was doing the voice in the table-reads and we were thinking we don't know what we want. We even tried this guy out who did this Christopher Walken impression, which would have taken the show in a definitely decidedly terrible direction. I really don't even know why I thought of Dana, it was just a friend of mine who said, "This guy is so funny, you gotta talk to him." So out of the blue we called him 'cause we were sort of tired of the same voiceover culprits too, you know. It's like the same five people seem to pop up. And we were looking for something completely new and different. So [to Dana], then what happened?

Snyder: Then I got it.

Willis: I said, "Just leave the audition on my voicemail at work." We loved it and then we were like, "Alright, let's just go record this guy." But then my boss was like, "Does he have a demo?" ... It was a cassette of one ad that [Snyder] made up for Ronzoni noodles, as if you've ever heard an ad for dry noodles, spaghetti noodles, on the radio.

Snyder: He says it's a cassette like it's last week.

Willis: I remember it like it was last week. I left the building and tossed the tape at my boss as I was leaving, "Here's that demo," and trying to get to my car before he could listen to it. Then he sent me an email that said, "Who have you hired? I heard that spaghetti noodle ad. That's all he's ever done?" I was like, "No that's not a real ad, so technically he never did that."

SFW: The readers won't be able to detect this, Dana, but your speaking voice does sort of sound like Master Shake.

Snyder: [Cranking it up about a half nasal-octave] Well, I'm putting this voice on for the interview. [Then down to a startlingly basso profundo] This is my real voice. Hello David, how are you?

SFW: What is the idea of the 15-minute episode? Was that something y'all did first?

Willis: Oddly, at the time it was the shortest thing on TV, and I guess Adult Swim still does that. But ... now the audience has gotten ahead of us and I think they like shorter stuff. Is it working? I think it's an impatience for, well, stories, but also just an impatience for stuff that's just going to waste your time. And I cut my teeth on making these quarter-hours so my natural inclination is to write 11 pages and then if I don't have an ending blow up the largest room in the story, usually which is the Aqua Teen house. But then I heard someone say that Michael Bay, when he was making Bad Boys, the movie, they didn't have an ending either, so he just said, "What's the biggest building in Miami that we can blow up?" And they did. So hey, we're not all that different, are we?

SFW: What was once sort of fringe is now sort of mainstream. What does that mean? What have y'all done to American comedy? You've already destroyed the attention span of American youth, so what's next?

Snyder: We've focused the attention span. They just had a more diffuse attention span.

Willis: It's like one of those population graphs: Like next year, we're going to start experimenting with seven-and-a-half minute shows, and then the following year three-and-three-quarter shows.

Snyder: Fifteen-second-long shows.

Willis: No, 1.75-second shows.

Snyder: Well, you're planning on living a lot longer than I am though.

Willis: That's true, that's true. I think something's going to have to give.

Snyder: We're just doing what's the norm in children's animation. SpongeBob [SquarePants] has 11-and-a-half-minute episodes, they always did. It was Scooby-Doo pushing the long-form animated show back in the day.

SFW: Now that you are working together across a number of different projects, talk about how that works. Are you thinking of a character for Dana as you go into it or...

Snyder: I usually find out he's working on something and then send a rush of inappropriate photos and letters to him begging to be involved in the project.

Willis: Dana expresses his interest in the project usually through an email, like, "What is this I hear about you shooting this project that I'm not in?" Or, "You heard I just had a kid, right?"

Snyder: That's right. I send him pictures of a child and say, "Notice her hands and her stomach, 'cause she's dying of starvation — it's so cold and hungry in our house."

Willis: Dana's just a breeze to work with, he always makes the lines better, and then we can take credit for them. It's great to have that shorthand and not have to explain, not have to figure it out.

Snyder: That's what's great about doing this for so long too. The first 15 or 20 episodes, how long it would take to record those compared to now? You just know each other very well.

Willis: In fairness though, Dana, you only give us one take. And you say you do that under protest.

Snyder: Well, I think that's because I know exactly what you want and you don't need anything more.

Willis: But even if I ask for a safety 'cause the engineer might not have been ready, I think it's weird that you just won't give me a second take.

Snyder: Listen, you can coddle the engineers all day, they'll have you do a hundred takes to cover up their own incompetence. ... I just don't want them taking advantage of you, is why I do that.

Willis: Yeah, okay. But what about that whole recording where you were jangling your keys inside your pocket the entire time?

Snyder: Background. Pretty sure that was a Christmas episode.

Willis: Yeah, that's right, we had to have Santa Claus in the background doing "Jingle Bells" the entire episode, 'cause then we couldn't find you to do a re-record.

Snyder: I think it's one of the fans' favorite episodes. I haven't seen it so I don't know how it came out, but I hear it's pretty good. I sold an autograph to someone who told me that it was one of their favorite episodes that they'd recently seen.

SFW: Let's talk about the kind of humor that we're dealing with with these shows. You're definitely taking things in a different direction. It's what? absurdist humor? anti-comedy?

Snyder: The word is "genre-shattering." "Indefinable." "Mold-breaking."

Willis: So much humor out there is stuff that just sort of reassures you, like you know it's coming and it makes you feel good when it actually happens. The Adult Swim stuff is: You have no idea it's coming, and that's why it makes you feel good.

SFW: How are you going to translate all of that wonder into real life then?

Snyder: It's going to be heartfelt, it's going to be prescriptions for happiness, perhaps we'll sing, there'll be lots of talking.

Willis: We might show a little bit of the new season maybe if I can get approved to do that. New episodes are coming in May so I'm hoping I can show a little bit of that. Do some character stuff, read from a script maybe. I've never been to Sketchfest, so I'm excited.

SFW: Well, Dana, Dave, thank you very much for submitting to this weird experiment. I think it turned out very well. I'm going to type it up as best I can and then put it on the page with pictures of you and perhaps your characters if we have the space.

Willis: Don't use that Wikipedia page picture of me, I look like Frankenstein.

SFW: Is that the one from Walking Dead? That's the one they've got on the Sketchfest site.

Willis: Oh wow, yeah, use that one. I actually look better in that one. I did two days as an extra on The Walking Dead, which is one too many days to do that. ... Four hours of makeup for one-and-a-half seconds of screen time being stabbed in the head with a hypodermic needle. ... They were like "Don't say a word! Don't say a word! You're background!" and I kept going, "I feel like my guy would go "Uhhrrr" and they were like, "Don't. Shut up. It's not in the script. We'll ADR it with a SAG guy [that's "automated dialogue replacement" — recording better/different audio in a studio after the shoot — by a member of the Screen Actors Guild, which basically here is a joke about the work going to a union guy, which Hollywood takes very seriously].

Snyder: The guy who does Winnie the Pooh [Jim Cummings? Animated Pooh has been voiced by three different actors] is coming in and he does all of your voices.

Willis: Yeah, [veteran voice actor for a bunch of stuff] John DiMaggio comes in.

Snyder: That's right, John DiMaggio does all the grunts.

SFW: I'm looking forward to seeing the show [at Sketchfest, not Walking Dead].

Willis: Dana's got a brand new jumpsuit he's going to wear, right?

Snyder: I do, it's a very special jumpsuit, that's correct. From San Francisco!

Willis: I should have said "spoiler," right?

Snyder: Spoiler alert.

Willis: I got some new flip-flops I'm going to be breaking out.

Snyder: Ooh. He gets cranky when he has new ones 'cause they dig in between his big toe and the other ones a little bit.

Willis: I gotta break them in.

Snyder: Yeah. Soak 'em in the tub in vinegar overnight, breaks down the leather. Fold it in half and put it between your mattress like a catcher's mitt.

Willis: There's a reason they call me Old Barbecue Feet.

Snyder: Has nothing to do with the flip-flops. They're just [the feet, that is] kind of reddish. They look a little bit like North Carolina's type of barbecue [unclear if he refers to "Lexington-style" or "Eastern-style," but both are pork, unlike...]

Willis: Brisket! Got two briskets coming at you. [Which is beef.]

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Brandon R. Reynolds

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