While researching another story on Space Ghost Coast to Coast, it became obvious that this cult classic was one of the most unlikely success stories in television history. From a side project birthed in a Turner Broadcasting supply closet with a budget of literally zero dollars to one of the most beloved cartoons of a generation. If not for Mike Lazzo and his team digging up old archival Space Ghost clips to repurpose into Cartoon Network’s first-ever original programming, we may live in a world without Aqua Teen Hunger Force, The Boondocks, Rick and Morty, and so many more classics on Adult Swim.
When Lazzo was tasked with creating some original content for Cartoon Network’s late-night block, he was met with the challenge of doing so without any budget kicked in from his bosses at Turner. This meant he had to source talent for the show around the office, using coworkers in production and programming as writers and voice actors. This show absolutely should not have become a hit.
But because they banded together and created something truly unique and unforgettable, many of the people involved in bringing Space Ghost Coast to Coast to life have gone on to enjoy long careers in the cartoon world.
One of the Turner employees who took advantage of this incredible opportunity was Andy Merrill, a programmer hired to build out a schedule of shows. Prior to a fateful meeting with Lazzo and the rest of the team responsible for Space Ghost’s resurrection, Andy had never been a voice actor or written for a television show. After voicing Brak and a wide range of other characters on the show and playing his part on one of the most inventive writing teams on TV until the show ended in 2008, Merrill kept voicing Brak on The Brak Show spin-off, before lending his talents to characters on Aqua Teen Hunger Force, Adventure Time, and Gravity Falls.
We caught up with the celebrated voice actor and writer to find out more about those early days working on the trailblazing show.
DUKE LONDON: What were you working on prior to Space Ghost Coast to Coast at Turner?
ANDY MERRILL: I was hired to work in programming, and the funny thing about it was they threw a test at me, almost like a high school exam but on cartoon knowledge. I pretty much aced it and that’s what got me in the door, but I was hired for programming. Khaki Jones was in programming, too. Khaki programmed the half-hour shows like Flintstones, Jetsons, all that stuff. I programmed the shorts like Warner Brothers, Popeye, MGM, and so forth.
What was your reaction when Mike Lazzo first brought this idea to you guys to use old archival stuff to make a new show?
Well, it kind of came out of a meeting that we were all in. I think we said Coast to Coast and he came up with doing a talk show based on the feud between Leno and Letterman. I’m the one who edited the pilot that we made. I was taking footage from an old episode of Space Ghost that we had, and I recorded it off of Cartoon Network itself, then recorded a Denzel Washington interview that happened to be on some CNN show that day. That’s how the pilot episode came together. I think Lazzo knew that I came from an editing background because that’s what I was being trained to do on CNN. There was a reel-to-reel machine close to our offices so I was able to put it together and present it to them.
You and Khaki Jones were really editing this with a reel-to-reel machine in a closet?
I had her sit with me so I could have an audience. I just dubbed the audio and then tried the best I could to fit the Space Ghost footage with it, meaning I had to do a fraction of a second edits with a VHS to VHS machine. Nowadays, you can edit one frame at a time but back then it was a little difficult.
How much easier would have it been to make Space Ghost Coast to Coast today rather than in 1994?
I actually got a taste of it in 2012 for the network’s 20th anniversary when I did some new Cartoon Planet segments with Brak and Zorak. It was a long process before and it would take maybe a week or two to do little segments of Cartoon Planet. In 2012, we had Clay come in and bring some of his original drawings so they could digitize it all. It was so much easier and it may have taken a day to do 12 segments instead of a month.
How long did it take you guys to make those first 6 episodes of Space Ghost Coast to Coast?
First, we had to get the guests and stuff so it took a year. I think we started in April of 1993 and it took a year to do those six just because we were flying by the seat of our pants. We have never done anything like that before, so it was kind of like playing in a new toy store. You can see how those characters grew after that first season because we used to direct George to read like Space Ghost and to be kind of stiff. It wasn’t until we let his personality come through that it made the character more charming. Plus, it was fun to take recordings of George complaining about pay and other random things and put them in the show.
Yeah, the one during The Ramones with the burping is hilarious. You can tell over the first episodes how you guys focused more on guest interaction than character development.
At first, we would write the show around the interviews. After a while, we started writing interviews into the shows and, quite a few times, we took the interview answers out of context to make the guest look like they were overreacting to whatever was going on.
When you guys first started doing these celebrity interviews, were you really sitting in as the real-life characters conducting these interviews?
It was me if it was in Atlanta. If it was in NY or LA, we would hire somebody.
And you would dress up?
Yeah, we would dress up. [Laughs] I interviewed Susan Powter, the fitness guru, and asked questions like, “What do you think of my physique?” when I’m not in great shape but still wearing Spandex at the time. Her reaction was really funny, so we used it on the show.
What was the most awkward one you ever did?
The most awkward wasn’t my interview. David Willis interviewed Paul Westerberg from The Replacements and he just was not into the interview at all. Halfway through, Dave asked something like, “Zorak threw a beautiful tennis ball at you, what are you going to say to that?” and that’s when he said fuck it, took off his mic, and just walked off. We never used that interview.
How many interviews did you guys do where the person just wasn’t into it and it never ended up coming out?
That was the only one, basically. By the time we had The Ramones on, they had seen the show. After the second season, people knew what they were getting into. They knew we would often use their answers out of context. I think Donny Osmond was the first one to call us out on it.
Brak wasn’t prominently featured at the beginning of the show but then we saw him increasingly throughout the following seasons. What was it about Brak’s character that resonated with fans and made you guys want to use him more?
Originally, Cartoon Planet was just going to be Zorak and Space Ghost and maybe Brak every once in a while. There was something about this lovable stupid character that people just really loved. For a while, I would just yell out the lines in a monotone voice. If you watch the first episodes, like the Christmas episode we did, you can tell. After a while, it was bad for my voice so I turned Brak into a little more dumber and innocent character and I think that’s what people really grabbed onto because they want to root for the underdog.
Had you ever done voice acting before this?
No. Growing up, my family started a puppet ministry in our United Methodist Church so I had a lot of experience with characterization and improv from there. That’s kind of where that came from but I hadn’t done any voice-over work before.
Did it throw you off at all when they asked you to voice a character or were you excited?
I don’t know if I was ever asked, it just kind of happened in the writer’s room. We had crappy budgets so we couldn’t hire someone to do it. I was happy to do it, though. Initially, we all did it for free except for Clay and George.
How long did you have to do it for free?
Oh geez, maybe like a year, year-and-a-half. Then Brak was written more and more into the show so they offered me what George and Clay were getting. That was nice.
There was a spin-off with The Brak Show and then you went on to do other voice acting on other shows. What was your favorite other show that you worked on?
I had fun doing Adventure Time but it’s funny because they usually record every episode as a group except for me. I think because my character changed in Adventure Time, kind of centered around a lot of noise making and ad-libs, stuff like that. I would disrupt the group if I did that. Doing Oglethorpe on Aqua Teen was fun because I could actually be an evil person even though he was kind of stupid, too. But he was more maniacally evil, so that was fun.
For people that are unaware, what’s the voice acting process like?
The majority of the time, I’m alone in the booth, but I have recorded with other cast members a handful of times. Once in a while, George and Clay and I would jump in a booth and make up some crazy back-and-forth. The process is different from show to show. Like with Cartoon Planet, we had a lot of room for improvisation, whereas, with Adventure Time and Gravity Falls, I was sticking mostly to a script. Aqua Teen had a lot of ad-libbing, too.
When you and the team were putting Space Ghost Coast to Coast together, did you ever think in a million years that it would receive the acclaim it has from both fans and critics alike?
The first time we got an inkling of what it would become was when we went to our first convention. Well, not our first one, actually. There were only like 30 people at our first Comic-Con because nobody had really seen it yet. But they had to join two huge panel rooms together at our second Comic-Con and it was still standing room only. That’s when we realized how popular the show had become. We never thought people would be looking back decades later at this show as something influential.
What are your favorite episodes of Space Ghost Coast to Coast?
The process of putting together the Grandpa episode was so much fun. We all wrote the script and created Grandpa’s role for R. Lee Ermey from Full Metal Jacket. We actually recorded him doing the role and it was funny but it just didn’t sound right. So, we did an overhaul of it at Pete Smith’s house and were dropping in catchphrases from Macho Man Randy Savage. We were all like ‘wouldn’t that be cool if we got him to do it?’ and we actually got him. I just love that episode, it’s so stupid.”
And writing the part where Space Ghost calls Mark Hammil Duke Fartknocker and it actually making it into the show was pretty awesome.
Also, the one where we made fun of a TBS training tape about synergy and crap like that. We wrote it in a completely different way, where we each wrote for two pages or 20 minutes and then passed it along to the next person and they picked up where you left off. No editing. It’s all disjointed and crazy but I love that one.