An old roommate of mine—this spectacularly housebound, Notes From the Underground sociopath—had a favorite quip: “People think it’s easy doing nothing,” he’d say, then pause, surveying the assortment of overflowing ashtrays that filled his coffee table. Selecting the nearest feasible target, he’d gingerly flip an ash off his cigarette, usually managing to avoid a minor avalanche, then sit back, concluding: “But it’s only easy at first.” A frustrating guy to say the least. He’d emigrated from Bulgaria in his teens, and though after several silent years he had burst into a fluent-but-mumbly, Beatles-accented English, he seemed permanently alienated by the linguistic isolation. But if you could tune into his disaffected shaggy-dog monologues, you’d be rewarded with deadpan twists whose comic force was directly tied to the overlong setups and willful lulls in delivery. And if you listened long enough, you’d begin to see larger patterns, until you realized his whole shtick, down to the most offhand detail, was a ridiculously practiced, nihilistic vaudeville.
Like my roommate, a talented musician and visual artist, the guys behind Cartoon Network’s Aqua Teen Hunger Force are far from stupid. Their shtick is empty and asinine, a procession of left turns and dead ends, but it isn’t arbitrary. It’s a comic stereogram, an accumulation of junk-culture noise and abortive plotting designed to pop into a big-picture image that it takes a while to master seeing. For the movie version, Aqua Teen Hunger Force Colon Movie Film for Theaters, creators Dave Willis and Matt Maiellaro haven’t made any mass-market concessions, starting at a gallop with in-jokes that pretend to close six-year-old narrative loops set up by series minutiae. ATHFCMFFT is definitely not for beginners.
For the most part reviewers have shrugged it off one of two ways: “I don’t get it” or “I can’t explain.” The Reader’s J.R. Jones charitably called it more “arch silliness than actual humor.” Though that’s sort of a tomato/tomahto distinction, I do know what he means, and it points to the particular kind of anticomedy Willis and Maiellaro practice, descended like other subbreeds from Andy Kaufman’s trailblazing experiments in the field. But while most of Uncle Andy’s nephews—squirm comics like Larry David and Sacha Baron Cohen—trade in awkward silences, Willis and Maiellaro prefer a purer form of silence—dead air, a specialty of the Adult Swim franchise.
Adult Swim, the now famous programming bloc of cartoons for grown-ups, began in 2001 as a hit-or-miss combination of anime and original shorts. It was anchored by the popular Space Ghost Coast to Coast, a spoof of bad-talk-show and bad-animation tropes starring the vintage Hanna-Barbera hero Space Ghost as host and his former nemeses Zorak and Moltar as bandleader and producer. A milestone in jackass comedy, the show was an aggressive waste of time, filled with relentless off-topic digressions, non sequiturs, and long-loop pop culture references. Establishing the model for many Adult Swim shows that followed—recycled characters, hopped-up idiocy, amateur musicianship—it also flogged dead air like nothing before. From lengthy close-ups of Space Ghost’s wind-whipped double takes to Zorak’s percussive blinking, the show made a science of semantic absence.
The Aqua Teen characters debuted in the “Baffler Meal” episode as a trio of talking fast-food items whose full-throttle obnoxiousness and acid-casualty patter left even the SG principals thunderstruck. Remodeled for a series of their own—think Tracey Ullman-era Simpsons versus the golden age stuff—the narcissistic milk shake, childlike meatball, and responsible box of fries were allegedly a crime-fighting team. The opening and closing credits, set to an ass-kicking Schoolly D cut, promised action-packed capers—but none ever materialized. Instead the story swiftly devolved into endless bad-roommate drama, stoked by visits from dumb-ass aliens transparently summoned to fill the narrative void. With plots driven by incidental disputes, distractions, and a procession of ineffectual guest villains, Aqua Teen soon revealed itself to be character driven—if any driving was going on at all.
The show’s visual aesthetic—all gratuitous fire, explosions, and mutilation—celebrates willful crudity; Willis and Maiellaro steadfastly refuse to rise beyond the level of teenagers destroying their old toys. But the writing and voice work are superrefined, and their extravagant precision in the service of Three Stooges-style bickering is a crucial part of the joke. Take the series’s supreme comic creation, next-door neighbor Carl—an overweight, balding devotee of hard-core porn, hot rods, and classic rock. There’s nothing new about Carl’s Jersey-trash accent (voiced by Willis) or Drive FM enthusiasms; everyone knows somebody, or some fictional character, who talks or thinks like Carl, but once you’ve heard Willis’s distillation, it’s hard to think of them as anything but Carl knockoffs. Similarly, Carl’s revolting personal habits—and frequent personal injuries—set up lots of elementary guffaws, but also gut-punching comic pathos. In the nightmarish “Spacegate World” episode, Carl, having called everyone else and been rejected, is reduced to late-night phone stalking of the “fatties” in his old high school yearbook. Alone in his living room, he bellows, “What the hell. It’s a new era!” Then he trails off: “Of loneliness . . .”
It’s not all lowbrow. Willis and Maiellaro sneak some smart discourse in here and there, spot-on commentary on phenomena like Internet virus hell and the surfeit of phone-and-iPod connectivity. One episode has the characters physically driven from their home by porn- and gambling-site pop-up windows; another has trend-crazy Master Shake fitted with hundreds of pounds of unwieldy cellular accessories, including a player piano that translates any MP3 into the same ragtime song. And there’s a quality to the rough-edged animation, inappropriately melodramatic soundtracks, and left-field cultural juxtapositions that recalls pop-art collage and even Dada.
Whether you buy into that one or not, Aqua Teen undeniably makes something of successive nothings, every lull building into a metaphoric roar of cosmic indifference to attempted meaning—or coherent humor. It doesn’t just bend the fourth wall like squirm comedy, it goes through it: you’re not just vicariously embarrassed for the characters, you’re transported to the lip of the same void they teeter on. It doesn’t take long to get the stop-start rhythm down; but to be fair, the movie’s frequent riffs on the series’s half-assed backstories will elude all but the faithful.
The film opens with a succession of intertitles superimposed on the pyramids of Giza. “Egypt” says the first; “A million years ago” says the second. “3 PM” reads the third; the fourth, “1492.” The camera pans left, revealing a shake-sipping Sphinx. Up pops the fifth intertitle: “New York.” A jumbo jet flies overhead. As the time-space gags pile up, the team traveling chase-movie style across a surreal landscape populated by Godzilla-size poodles, modern-day feds, and a wooden-rocket-building Abe Lincoln, it’s unlikely that anybody paying attention could miss either the jokey pattern—which repeats throughout the movie—or the balls-out sense of fun underlying the action. But if you’re not a fan, there’s no way of knowing that Egypt, Lincoln, and rocket are drawn from the series’s misleading credit sequence—the deeper, dumber joke organizing the “arch silliness.”
Framed as a succession of contradictory, bullshit origin myths told in flashback, the “plot” rides the MacGuffin of a psychotic exercise machine, also Godzilla-size, that’s bent on world destruction. Faintly rabbitlike and propelled by a cheery gay-disco workout song, its both a stand-alone comic inversion and a generally recognizable reference—Stay Puft Marshmallow Man, anyone?—but the show’s rich tradition of overhyped action and self-destructing payoff makes it that much funnier. As the Aqua Teens’ most annoying alien foils come out of the woodwork, traveling back and forth in time to prevent the invention of the so-called Insane-O-Flex—or steal it, or something—the story spirals nowhere, tangling the histories of team and machine into a hopeless knot. The sheer perversity of this antinarrative has its own appeal. But the way it threatens to resolve long-standing mysteries (which it doesn’t) with appearances by characters long proved unreliable (e.g., the Cybernetic Ghost of Christmas Past, whose stories always begin “Thousands of years ago into the future . . .”) is all about cumulative absurdity.
Still, a lot of the movie is pretty straightforward; the repeated use of Phil Collins’s “In the Air Tonight,” for example, invokes another bullshit origin story/urban legend most viewers have probably bumped into before. (The rainbow star wipes accompanying it are hysterical too.) Some complain the series’s short-burst chaos theory doesn’t stand up in longer form; I think the movie’s nested creation-myth blueprint raises it to giddy new heights. But outside of the considerable feat of stretching the obsessively pointless show from ten minutes to feature length, its real triumph is that it’s perfectly disappointing. To get something out of it, you’ve got to recognize the line you’re being fed and have a high tolerance for its patience-testing patterns—which may just be something you’ve got to build up. A taste for this kind of nothing isn’t just cultish, it’s acquired.