Monday, May 10, 2010

The BC Q&A: Dave Willis and Dana Snyder from Aqua Teen Hunger Force

For ten years, Aqua Teen Hunger Force has been a popular eleven-minute cartoon on the Cartoon Network’s popular Adult Swim programming block starring a giant box of fries (Frylock), milkshake (Master Shake), and wad of meat (Meatwad). Last night at the Comedy Conection Wilbur Theatre, it was a live show.

How it makes that leap is hard to explain, even for show creator and Meatwad voice Dave Willis, and voice of Master Shake Dana Snyder. But god love ‘em, they gave it their best show when I spoke with them last week.

They talked a bit about the history of the show, how they plan to bring it to life onstage, and the new Aqua Teen Hunger Force: Volume 7, out June 1, which includes an extra detailing how they found the guy who is currently playing Carl on the tour.

They also talked about the unavoidable subject in Boston – the marketing campaign gone wrong in 2007, when Light-Brite images of Mooninites, created by local artists to advertise the show, shut down parts of the city when they were mistaken for bombs. Dave and Dana spoke by phone from somewhere in a bar on a tour stop in Buffalo.

Thanks for taking the call.

DAVE: We’re in Buffalo. Dana is purchasing two giant foam chicken wing hats. You know the cheesehead hats? He just got two buffalo wing hats. He’s going to turn our entire bus into a rolling garage sale.

Have you been picking up stuff like that from different locations?

DAVE: Not much, not much. But occasionally. We have some people onstage tonight that might be forced to wear them. I’m afraid. And I’m afraid they don’t know about that just yet.

Well, this won’t come out in time to warn them, so you’re safe.

DANA: No, no. this won’t come out in time.

DAVE: That’s true. He’s not going to know until right before he gets onstage, so. But he eats fifty chicken wings in every audience, so wearing a hat won’t be anymore humiliating. Coated in suicide sauce.

So who’s in the cast of this show?

DAVE: Well, it’s Dana and myself, but we also have the young lad, Dave Long, Jr., who won the Carl look-alike contest –

DANA: Yeah.

DAVE: -- from our live-action episode and we decided to bring him on tour. Since he worked at a liquor store, he said, yeah, let me just check with my boss and see if he’ll hire me back after I give him the finger.

DANA: Let me just go shove my boss and I’ll be ready for the bus.

DAVE: Yeah, I told him on a Tuesday and he was on the bus by Thursday. It’s great. I think Carl has helped inform his life. I think it’s like the Green Lantern when he puts on that ring. As soon as he shaves his head bald, he becomes someone else. Someone more powerful.

DANA: He was attempting to drink two PBR tallboys in Columbus, Ohio last night screaming, “I am the real Carl!” at the top of his lungs. [Dave laughs] So it’s safe to say the glove is fitting him.

You’ve been a great, positive influence on him, then, you’re saying?

DAVE: Yeah.

And that’s chronicled on the new DVD, correct?

DAVE: Yes, that’s true. Our exhaustive, nationwide search for the real Carl.

Was it harder to find the one character who’s human than it might have been to find some of the other characters?

DANA: Well, it seemed clear right from the start that they wanted to get just the best lookalike as possible for Carl.

DAVE: We kind of approached it like, we’re going to have to cast him anyways. They’re going to have to find us. We’re going to have too much trouble finding them.

Can he act? Can he do what you need him to do onstage?

DAVE: He is a better actor than we are, than either one of us are. That’s the great bonus, that we actually have a guy that’s really good. Three hundred pounds, that doesn’t mind shaving his head bald and wearing a mustache.

DANA: Wearing nothing but his tighty-whities.

DAVE: Or a wifebeater just stained in wing sauce. And yet he can act as if he’s a member of the union. He’s incredible. He’s getting more and more coarse as each episode—each live show progresses. And it’s just working better and better.

How did you decide on the different voices for each character? Each character has a very specific cadence and timbre.

DAVE: We didn’t know what we were going to go – oh, wow. I’m looking at a picture of Burt Reynolds with the police chief of Buffalo. It’s framed on the wall of this place. It’s in a place of high honor.

DANA: Right beside the toilet.

DAVE: Yes. Entitled “Smokey and the Bandit,” engraved in brass. We didn’t know what we wanted for Shake. In fact, I was doing the rough voice of that in the room as Ignignokt, one of the Mooninites. That was the original Shake voice. But we were just casting a wide net, sort of seeing what we got from the description, “jerky.”

DANA: It was meant to be, at that point. You throw that word in.

DAVE: Dana was just a friend of an ex-girlfriend and we auditioned him very informally, but the cast is great.

DANA: I had to leave a message on their voicemail. That they then erased accidentally before they could play it for the boss.

What made you decide to tour with Aqua Teen Hunger Force?

DAVE: We did a couple of live things. We occasionally get asked to speak at a school or something.

DANA: Really just a Q&A, but we were just sort of like, even at those Q&As, we want to make it something more than just a Q&A, we want to make it more memorable. Then we flew down to Australia, they put us down in a convention down there, and we sort of worked up this opening song.

DAVE: Just to mix it up a bit, to make it not a boring, “Oh, how great are you?” – “What’s your favorite episode?” – “Oh, they’re all so good.”

DANA: To make it more like a show instead of this dry Q&A, which is what everybody does. But it all sort of came out of there. We started to book stuff, and then we were like, oh shit, we actually have to put a whole act together.

What does it look like? What’s the staging of it like?

DANA: Oh, spectacular. Have you seen Sunset Boulevard on Broadway?

No, I haven’t.

DANA: Did you see The Color Purple on Broadway?

No, but I did see the commercials.

DANA: Okay. Picture that, many of the sets…

DAVE: We built a special backdrop for it.

DANA: It’s not even a backdrop, it’s a frontdrop.

DAVE: We built it especially for this show out of duct tape and duvetyne.

DANA: You can clearly see that it says “ATHF” on it, and it’s being held up by unused microphone stands.

DAVE: No, we have puppets made by one of the guys from Jim Henson’s company.

DANA: Ex guys from Jim Henson’s company.

DAVE: Just because they have mental illness or problems doesn’t mean that they aren’t capable of making puppets just as good as the Henson company. Yeah, we had puppets made for the characters… I don’t know. It’s like the show. It’s an extension of the show in a lot of ways. We’ve never been the best animated show on television.

But still, how do you take a show that’s to absurd and fantastical visually and conceptually and make it into a stage show?

DAVE: Well, we’ve made it into an absurd variety show, basically. We’re doing some songs, we have some absurd audience participation, we have Carl’s regional beef, where he yells and tells you why your city sucks wherever he is. We have a Meatwad soundalike contest.

DANA: I basically take on my Shake persona onstage of berating people for not giving me the proper amount of respect and applause. And women for not throwing their room keys or underwear up.

So there’s no overall story arc, necessarily?

DANA: You’re not going to see a story up there, I’ll tell you that much.

DAVE: There’s an arc in there in that I think the humor is definitely informed by the show, and we’re sort of the arbiters of that. So if you like the humor of those shows, you’re going to enjoy – you’re not going to see characters, in full-length suits of the characters ice skating around with a whole story behind it.

DANA: It’s more the sensibility and the humor of the show.

DAVE: Yes.

What was the biggest challenge in porting it from animation to the stage?

DAVE: This, right now, explaining…

[Everyone laughs]

DANA: Trying to explain what the show is.

DAVE: It feels like when we read reviews of shows we’ve done, we’ve gotten great reviews. We just wish those reviews came before the shows than two days after.

DANA: So many people, they just don’t know what it is. And it’s hard to explain other than “it’s a variety show,” but people say, “How can you have a variety show about a cartoon?” It almost works the opposite. I’ve had some friends who have come to the other shows who have said, “I didn’t even ever watch Aqua Teen, but I thought the show was really funny. Then it turned out I had friends who were super big Aqua Teen fans who said, that was beyond what I wanted it to be. So it sort of works great.

DAVE: Even if you don’t know what Aqua Teen is, you’ll still enjoy it. And if you do like Aqua Teen, you’ll love it. And if you don’t like it, you’ll just be saying, oh, that fat guy in the flip-flops and the undershirt was very funny. But the Aqua Teen guy is like, “No, that’s Carl, you don’t understand, man.

Do you find you’re selling out a lot of places? That the Aqua Teen fans are showing up for the tour?

DAVE: I think people are mostly confused. I think everywhere we go, we get a few hundred strong, but I can see where people are like, I don’t even know what the hell this is, man, and it’s my Saturday night. But I assure you, it’s well worth your time.

I could see you getting a lot of rhetorical questions in interviews, like, “What the hell?”

DAVE: Yes. That’s a good one. What the hell? What the hell? What the hell, man?

Did the live action episode with T Pain and Jon Benjamin help with the planning of this?

DAVE: Not at all. They are so completely unrelated. The only thing it helped in was helping us find Dave Long, the real, live Carl. But other than that, they were just completely two totally different entities.

How will the Squidbillies make an appearance?

DANA: Granny comes out and she gives a cooking demonstration for her world-famous crusted red snapper, country style. Which she pulls out of the audience, she asks if there are any budding chefs with hot, big muscles who love to party.

Do any of the other characters make it in?

DANA: Not really. Granny’s really the only one.

DAVE: It depends on where you are, but not in Boston. I know in Charlotte, the voice of Early is going to be a big part of the show. But each show is going to have a different unique thing, and fingers crossed, I think there will be a couple of very unique things in the Boston show.

Would you consider doing an entire Squidbillies tour after this?

DAVE: I’d love to –


DAVE: -- Unknown Hinson is the lead voice of Early Cuyler, and the guy’s an incredible performer. His side gig is playing lead guitar for Billy Bob Thornton’s band. They guy’s incredible. I’d love to do like a traveling medicine show with those characters. You never know. People seem respond to them. When you make cartoons and you’re not out there in the public eye or doing a lot of shows, you really don’t have a good gage for how the show is being received.

Was episode 100 a big landmark for you?

DAVE: Yeah, it was. When we started, I didn’t know if we were even going to get to make more than one. I didn’t know if they were going to pull the plug before we finished one. So to have one hundred episodes, almost ten years later, is a nice little achievement.

And to have a franchise build on these characters.

DAVE: Yeah. I look forward to them putting together a ride at an Adult Swim water park – pi

DANA: Turnerland Music Park?

DAVE: -- thirty years from now my son leading a lawsuit to try to get some of the money.

DANA: After you’ve wasted your fortune away.

DAVE: Yeah. My fortune. Right.

What do you have planned next for the show?

DAVE: Well, Aqua Teen is no more. Now the show is called Aqua Unit Patrol Squad, and they’re going to be detectives, from now on, every episode. We’ve already written and recorded four episodes, and – boy, there’s some cackling ladies in this bar. We were staying inside because of the wind, but now it’s just cackling alcoholics. No, the characters are going to be detectives from now on. Every episode will be a crime they have to solve. A mystery.

So were you careful to avoid Mooninite imagery advertising in Boston?

DAVE: No we weren’t. We weren’t careful advertising in Boston, and we certainly weren’t careful advertising in Boston a few years ago, either. We’re the same reckless, not thought through…. I will say, though, that I’m hoping that we can show something special for the Boston crowds. That’s pretty much all I can say.

DANA: Just don’t even elaborate, Dave. You said it.

Do you still get feedback about that? Boston was the only city that had any problem.

DAVE: It’s odd that you would say that, because you live in Boston, because everyone else… but you’re not an idiot. They keep asking us about it, you know? I had to go through a media training course based on what happened in Boston. If we’d have worked on South Park, we’d have had an episode about it six days later. Turner, especially after that lawsuit, was like, you shut up about what happened there. That never happened, that city doesn’t exist.

I can tell you, there’s a fairly large contingent of people, at least that I knew, who were puzzled by the whole thing. I can see that at first, you didn’t know what it was, but once you realized what it was, why was it a problem?

DANA: It was a very puzzling situation to say the least.

DAVE: I can say that I didn’t even know about it until I heard people talking about it, and then I turned on the news. I didn’t even know those Light-Brite things existed. Now I own one. I keep it inside, I wouldn’t want anyone to say there was a bomb on my house.

DANA: Now it just looks like you have a bomb in your house.

DAVE: We didn’t even know that thing was happening. That was like a marketing arm of the company. I will say the one thing that angered me was that the media kept calling it a “hoax,” which implied that Turner not only put a device up there, but claimed that it was a bomb. I mean, that’s what a hoax infers. That was not at all the case, you know?

Were you ever in touch with the local artists who did the whole thing?

DAVE: No. And it was like a slow media day combined with this crazy thing, so we got non-stop press for a couple of days. And just when I thought it was starting to die down, these two guys start talking about 70s hairstyles. It was like, wow, you guys found a way to stretch it another thirty-six hours.

DANA: I read something about the main guy who did that in the local Boston paper about three weeks ago. He’s like a big performance artist or something now, a DJ. And that’s still referenced every time someone is describing them.

So the tour is almost over after this, right?

DAVE: Yeah, our last day is May the fifteenth. Atlanta, Georgia.

Do you think after this experience you might tour with Aqua Teen Hunger Force again?

DANA: In the world of show business, anything is possible. Just ask a fifty-five year old Sean Connery, after he said he would never play James Bond again. And then he was in Never Say Never Again.

DAVE: One of the worst James Bond movies. So I guess the answer is, yes we would tour again, but only if it could be really terrible.

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