In 1994, Cartoon Network aired its first ever fully-produced, original series. That series was Space Ghost Coast to Coast, a re-imagining of the popular 1960s action cartoon as a satirical, adult-oriented take on late night talk show humor. The show featured retired superhero Space Ghost as a talk show host with support from two of his nemeses, the giant mantis Zorak as his musician and the helmeted molten lava man Moltar as his producer. The show had an offbeat, nonsensical humor that appealed to both children and adults alike, accented by the fact almost all of the animation was culled from scenes from the old cartoon, and though later episodes would delve deeply into absurdist humor, subverting the norm of the talk show format almost entirely, it remained acerbically witty and eminently quotable throughout its entire run.
Space Ghost Coast to Coast is easily one of the funniest shows ever produced, one that blended and juxtaposed the surreal world of bygone superhero animation with real-life celebrities moored in the social climate of the 1990s. These celebrities ranged the gamut from AAA musicians like Metallica to major television stars at the height of their popularity (Fran Drescher) to counterculture icons like Timothy Leary railing against a the modern world, but no matter the stature, all guests were lampooned and satirized in service to the show’s uniquely off-kilter brand of comedy. Among this list of who’s-who’s and has-beens were a surprisingly large number of heavy metal and hard rock celebrities and musicians, and this post is dedicated to some of these most memorable appearances.
As you’ll see in the clips below, a key ingredient to SGCtC‘s humor was the bizarre, even aloof way in which most of the celebrity interviews were presented. Rumor has it that the celebrities were taken into a dimly lit room and asked a series of deadpan questions by George Lowe (the voice of Space Ghost) dressed up in a full, albeit cheesy, Space Ghost costume. If that wasn’t sufficiently disorienting, the answers themselves were then cut and rearranged to match Space Ghost’s general cluelessness (he’d usually start each episode by asking each guest what his or her superpowers were) with an equal confusion on the part of the celebrity. Some of the best episodes then either featured celebrities who played along with the shtick and treated the cartoon character like a real host (like Bobcat Goldthwaite) or those who became exceptionally flustered and refused to play creator Mike Lazzo’s game.
The questionable interviews and dodgy responses are just one part of the show’s humor and charm, though, and if you find yourself thinking, “Man, I just don’t get it,” after watching an episode, that’s entirely reasonable, even expected. Space Ghost Coast to Coast’s comedy is, at its core, rooted in the French farce tradition; it’s sublime and surreal and absurd for the sake of absurdity, and that absurdity juxtaposed against some starkly relevant social commentary transforms the show into a petri dish of dada-esque one liners used to create visceral satire. In its devotion to transcending the trappings of reality and examining the ridiculousness of it all in a way that would surely have made Salvador Dali proud, SGCtC is distinct from its adult-oriented animated contemporaries. Despite maintaining some semblance of character progression (Space Ghost’s incompetence as both a superhero and talk show host becomes ever more pronounced as the seasons progress), the show is far too dependent on celebrity guest appearances and left-field in-jokes, many of which take seasons to come to fruition (Bobcat Goldthwaite’s crack about opening a window in Season 1 really only coming full circle upon Willie Nelson’s appearance in Season 7), to be comparable to The Simpsons or King of the Hill. Lazzo’s dedication to the surreal, replete with non-sequiturs, never delves into the sort of debased self-congratulating “Gee, look at how nostalgic I am,” pastiche that is Family Guy, and the show never lost itself too far down the chemically-altered rabbit trail to be truly comparable to the Adult Swim shows it spawned, namely Aqua Teen Hunger Force, Sealab 2021, Harvey Birdman, Attorney at Law, and The Brak Show. The show struck a perfect balance between off-kilter hyperbole and scathing irony that could simultaneously mock itself and tear down the ivory towers of 1990s celebrity hero worship, and it did so in such a sincere, convincing way that we’re unlikely to ever see another comedy quite like it.
Sadly the show reached its televised finale in 2004, outpaced by its own Adult Swim offspring, and despite a brief resurgence as a Gametap webseries from 2006-2008, it was never quite able to recapture its spark in a medium dedicated to video games more than comedy itself. Thankfully, Space Ghost’s legacy lives on in the modern iteration of Adult Swim, the house that show creator Mike Lazzo now runs, and though the modern Adult Swim demographic likely will never know the true treasure that was Space Ghost Coast to Coast during its initial broadcast season, its memory lives on in the minds of brilliant new comedians like Eric Andre who look to its nihilistic, Big Lebowski-esque irreverence as a source of inspiration.
But enough waxing nostalgic, let’s get to those metal guest appearances.
11. S1E5 – Bobcat – The Ramones
This episode features comedian Bobcat Goldthwait and punk band The Ramones, the latter fact elating Space Ghost’s musician/prisoner Zorak to no end. This episode spends far more time in the realm of the surreal than in any sort of satirical frame, with a number of breaches of the fourth wall, including when Bobcat asks Zorak to “play something public domain” just after Space Ghost explains that the show’s short duration is the reason for him switching between zany, disconnected jokes. The comedic peak of the episode is probably The Ramones randomly acquiring a cake and CGI party hats, though Bobcat mocking Space Ghost’s real name Tad Ghostal may be the metal highlight.
10. S3E26 – Freak Show – Bill Manspeaker
This episode features cast member and voice actor Andy Merrill as the nefarious Commander Andy, a desperate lurker intent on forcing his fandom and obsession upon Space Ghost. Commander Andy keeps interrupting the broadcast in a lo-fi take on public access television that’s not dissimilar from Mystery Science Theater 3000. The clips featuring him are quite painful and extremely awkward, poking fun at the basement mega-fan stereotype. Things then get really weird when Bill Manspeaker from Green Jelly shows up in his full costumed regalia to act even stranger than Andy Merrill. Zorak then turns the metaphorical mirror on Space Ghost, arguing that only sad, desperate dweebs dress up in costume. The whole episode is one of the more uncomfortable segments to run in the show’s history, but this antagonistically self-abasing delivery is done with the express purpose of making fun of superheros, costumed performers, and the fandoms that idolize them. It’s nearly unbearable to watch, but then again, so are many people who take entertainment too far.
9. S7E79 – Kentucky Nightmare – Willie Nelson
Willie Nelson, despite playing country music, has long been heralded by metalheads as a compatriot in spirit, if not in style. Nelson’s rebellious, laissez-faire attitude comes to the fore in this satirical take on cynical corporate mergers. That subtext is partially submerged beneath some of the show’s most obtuse humor, though. At this point in the show’s development, Space Ghost himself has grown jaded and bitter with the success of others, caring little for the direction or structure of his show; this slackening of the pace opened up the series to some of the better left-hand hot takes it would explore, and this episode was no exception. That cynical corporate merger? Ghost Planet gets bought out by a liquor company who insist that a shark hangs out in the studio. Inexplicably, the shark attracts a bear who goes on to maul Space Ghost while Willie Nelson laughs in equal amusement and confusion. It’s exceptionally out there, even by Space Ghost standards, but you have to watch it. P.S., one particularly libelous offhand joke implies that superhero costumes are produced in a Malaysian sweatshop owned by Kurt Russell and Goldie Hawn.
8. S3E28 – Surprise – Les Claypool and Larry LaLonde
This episode features a whirlwind rotation of guest celebrities, all of whom Zorak blasts after complaining that each is unable to make him laugh. As this cavalcade of stars is paraded through the studio, Space Ghost battles the most brutal of all enemies: inter-office bureaucracy. While Space Ghost is trapped in the mail room, making quips about Adam West and Wonder Woman, Moltar is planning a surprise birthday party for his boss with a who’s-who of villains from the 60s cartoon. This episode’s humor is derived from its contrasting of seemingly binary forces, namely humdrum office life for aging professionals with the fantasy and whimsy of youth. Plus, Les Claypool and Larry LaLonde of Primus fall victim to Zorak’s blaster.
7. S3E24 – Sharrock – Thurston Moore
This episode is a tribute to free-jazz guitarist Sonny Sharrock who composed the original theme song, “Hit Single,” and several other songs for the show to use. It also, for some reason, features king of the hipsters and the once and future lord of all black metal, Thurston Moore. If you can’t stand Moore’s decidedly punchable face, though, just focus on the excellent Sharrock tunes and the way the camera slowly zooms in on Space Ghost’s look of annoyance while the band just jams.
6. S2E17 – Sleeper – Hulk Hogan and Slash
This episode opens with a cantankerous Space Ghost breaking the fourth wall in an overt manner (even by Space Ghost standards) as he laments the need to keep making episodes. After some poorly-written haikus, the show then slips into a satire of the bloated and often silly marriage between metal and professional wrestling by taking pot shots both at Slash and Hulk Hogan’s erstwhile action romp Thunder in Paradise. Although the show creators splicing a bunch of random quotations from Hulk Hogan together to simulate a lack of oxygen to the brain is certainly one of the funnier moments, the real highlight of this episode is Slash’s utter befuddlement as he refuses to answer questions, cooperate, or provide a “zippy guitar solo with his mouth.” keep an eye out for some gags at Ted Turner’s expense, too.
5. S2,E13 – Girlie Show – Alice Cooper
Although Space Ghost Coast to Coast was content to generally avoid overt political commentary, the showrunners were not shy about slipping in poignant observations when the time was right. The humor in “Girlie Show” is actually somewhat dire compared to most other episodes, taking a clandestine but scathing look at the way the entertainment industry treats women. As a kid, this fact was completely lost on me, though I did find Alice Cooper as glib and winsome then as I do now. Though Cooper’s inclusion on the all-girl episode seems to be a rather direct play on the gender-bending tactics of the old school shock rock and glam scene, it certainly works as an effective microcosm of gender politics in entertainment. Thankfully, Space Ghost’s mooning for Fran Drescher and Zorak’s mooning for Jack Klugman save this episode from being a bit too heavyhanded.
4. S4E52 – Piledriver – Rob Zombie
Although the metal credential for this episode is an increasingly frustrated Rob Zombie screaming, “Look, if I said it wasn’t true the first time, it’s not true the second time, buddy!” the guest appearance of Space Ghost’s grandfather Leonard Ghostal voiced by none other than the magnanimous Macho Man Randy Savage truly sets this episode apart. The Macho Man’s presence allows for a fun and infectious deconstruction of professional wrestling as the former heavyweight champion, in the guise of a wizened superhero/wrestler, reminisces on his past glories while talking smack on Raven-Symoné, Zorak, and anyone else who gets in his way. That is until Zorak decides to hit him with a metal chair while Moltar does his best impression of a pro wrestling announcer. The show’s abstract humor proved the perfect vehicle for Macho Man’s over-the-top personality.
3. S3E30 – Jacksonville – James Hetfield and Kirk Hammett
Metallica are easily the biggest metal musicians ever featured on Space Ghost Coast to Coast, so you’d almost be inclined to think their appearance was wasted on an episode constructed as a silly spoof of action shows like The A-Team. Almost, but the ironic format features such ridiculous jokes (such as Lokar confessing a pregnancy to Space Ghost) and baffling development that the metal mega-stars are somehow overshadowed by the cartoon characters, particularly the cruel-hearted locust who responds to a potentially drunk Hetfield’s terrible ad-hoc Space Ghost song with, “Well that was stupid” in that deadpan, insectoid voice only C. Martin Croker can pull off. Spoiler: Metallica dies at the end after Space Ghost delivers a series of firm spankings to Moltar and villain whipping-boy Tansit.
2. S7E83 – Sweet for Brak – Jack Black and Kyle Gass
Tenacious D’s guest appearance is perhaps the most overtly metal in the entire run of the show. In fact, the metal attributes of this particular episode include: a giant flaming goat head, Zorak playing a metal song called “Explosivo,” a hand-puppet version of The Omen, Zorak vomiting and devouring a goat, Tenacious D making fun of Space Ghost for attending Bat-camp, Zorak’s horror comedy Blood Dumpster, a censored version of “Fuck Her Gently” set to images of Space Ghost wrestling a giant snake, and Yogi Bear arriving as Satan wearing a crown of femurs. Yes, you read all of that correctly.
1. S4E31 – Late Show – Dave Grohl
Remember when I said the episode with Bill Manspeaker was incredibly awkward? Our number 1 choice somehow tops that, but the painfully deadpan nature of the delivery and cruel murder of comedy is all done to drive the show’s natural satire of late night shows to its painful and violent conclusion. This episode is a sketch-by-sketch take on an episode of The Late Show with David Letterman wherein every single joke, every zing, every instance of Zorak ecstatically pronouncing, “Yes!” like David Shaffer is delivered with nose-diving aplomb. It’s entirely as unfunny as an actual David Letterman segment and cannot even be saved by a guest appearance from our lord and savior Dave Grohl, and that’s the entire point. It does have a fantastic quote near the end, though, as Space Ghost yells, “Jazzbox! Jazzbox! Jazzbox! Start dancing, metalhead” at Moltar.
Bonus Round – S4E54 – Dam – Charlton Heston
This episode is undoubtedly and my favorite and is the source of one of my most cherished lines, “Thou shalt not hesitate!”
Do you have a favorite episode of Space Ghost Coast to Coast? Let me know in the comments below.