In 2000, he and fellow writer/producer Matt Maiellaro created the hit animated series and film Aqua Teen Hunger Force, infiltrating the brains of millions of cartoon-watching adults with practical joke playing space aliens, rapping spiders, and a rag-tag band of talking fast food items. But even before Aqua Teen terrorized television sets (and Boston street corners, as in the 2007 advertising incident that had police believing the city was under terrorist attack), Willis was busy changing the face of animation as a writer and producer on the legendary series Space Ghost Coast to Coast.
After thoroughly dominating the Jersey Shore with ATHF, Willis set his sights on the rural South with the surreal comedy, Squidbillies, now in its fourth season. This weekend, Willis will be appearing at the Hilton Miami Downtown as part of the Anime Supercon, a three-day festival featuring comics, anime, games, round table discussions, live bands, and all the fun-filled nerdiness you can wave a gunsword at.
New Times caught up with Willis and asked him about the convention, his role in animation history, and the future of his beloved shows.
New Times: Are you looking forward to the Convention?
Dave Willis: Yeah! I don't do a whole lot of these. We do a local one in Atlanta occasionally and Comicon in San Diego, but aside from that I haven't really done many of them.
So what made you want to sign up for the Super Con then?
Truthfully, Disney World.
Are you actually going to make a pit stop?
Yes! I'm bringing my kids, and they're just now at that age where they can enjoy [Disney]. Plus Dana Snyder [the voice of Master Shake in Aqua Teen Hunger Force] comes to this con every year, and he has a great time and speaks very highly of the guys that run it. So I figured it would be fun.
That's awesome. So how come you don't do other conventions that much? Is it because you're so busy?
I think that, partially, plus I have a family, and my weekends and free time are pretty precious. But it's always fun to meet new fans and get validated on what you do. Making cartoons, so much of that time is spent in a dark room, moving things a frame at a time. So you never really get a feel for whether people watch your show or really care about it. So this is one of those rare opportunities for me where you can see people that are into it and hear what they have to say.
Plus, since fans don't see your face on the show you have the added benefit of not being recognized.
That's a plus I would say. [Laughs] Not that I don't want to be seen but... maybe once a month someone in town [Atlanta] will recognize me. And that works out pretty good because it usually turns into a free appetizer or, like, a break on parking.
So you're going to be here over Halloween weekend, is that exciting for you to be with all the cosplayers? Does your family dress up?
Well, I'm flying in the morning after Halloween because I didn't want to miss trick or treating. But yeah, the kids are gonna be a butterfly and Batman. I didn't have the heart to tell them how clichéd that was (laughs).
Did you try to get them to dress up as characters from your shows?
I haven't gone that far in self-promotion yet. And I don't want to come down too hard on them for making conservative choices. But we have fun. One year my wife and I dressed as David Bowie and China Girl, and that was pretty cool.
I don't know if your kids watch your shows or not, because they're rather adult, but do they understand what you do?
(Laughs) There's mostly confusion. They just know I go away from the house and I come back with money. And sometimes clothing. On a very rare occasion, Meatwad might be up on a billboard in town and they'll shout "Meatwad!" It makes me wonder if we missed our calling by not making [Aqua Teen] a kid show.
When you do go to these conventions, does interacting with your fans help you learn anything about your shows? Are you amazed at the depth in which people are into it?
Not anymore. Not unless they're going to do sort of a Cape Fear and follow us all the way to Orlando by strapping themselves to the bottom of our car.
Hmm, so what time, exactly, will you be heading to Orlando?
(Laughs) Honestly, it's cool. It's great to hear people watch the shows over and over again. So much of TV is furniture -- it's forgettable or something you just sort of turn on. It's nice for people to actually care about it so much they want to see someone talk or meet them or want to watch the shows over again. You have to want it to be that way to some degree with TiVo. I know I've become such a picky viewer now.
What do you watch on your TiVo?
Sunday night is pretty big for us. We watch Madmen. That's probably the one show I stay on top of.
This whole Adult Swim thing that started nearly 10 years ago now has been built on these shows like Space Ghost Coast to Coast and Aqua Teen and Sealab, and it's spawned this amazing phenomenon of low-fi, low-brow animation. What's it like for you to be one of the creators of what's basically become a cottage industry now?
You always sort of knew as the means of production got cheaper and easier there would be more and more people trying to [create shows] this way. It's just people trying to tell stories or get ideas out there. Nowadays, an editing machine that we used to use for Space Ghost that cost $100,000 can be replaced with Final Cut Pro for like three grand. We did things [lo-fi] out of a necessity though. When I started over there, Space Ghost was on its 14th episode, and Mike Lazzo [the senior VP of Adult Swim] had started the show out of an attempt to get some low cost programming. It was just going to be a one-off, sort of wrap around thing, and then we decided to make it a real show. And we could be cheap about it because we used all this recycled animation with the other half being live action. We were just using it over and over again and revoicing it. And I think people responded to that cheap aesthetic.
The irony is, we weren't really trying for that paper doll look with Aqua Teen! We were genuinely trying to make a fully animated cartoon. And that's just how it looks when people who don't know how to basically animate a cartoon try and make one. (Laughs)
So what you're saying is you totally lucked into this!
Well, to some degree. But also, it comes out of necessity. You just figure out what the best way is to do it. I think that's also true for the Sealab guys, and, like, Tim and Eric. That's just these two guys that were friends, hammering out shorts and doing stuff for the Internet the best way they knew how. And you get better at it.
Is there a lot of camaraderie among the different producers of the Cartoon Network shows?
I think we're pretty well sick of each other at this point. (Laughs) Nah, I mean we're all really friendly. There's a lot of sharing between shows. I did Squidbillies with another friend, Jim Fortier, who's also a Space Ghost producer. Matt Maiellaro [co-creator of Aqua Teen Hunger Force] is doing 12 oz. Mouse, and he's getting everybody in the department to do voiceovers. But there's a friendship and a kinship, and we help each other out. Certainly among the Atlanta [based] guys, but also the LA guys too. We'll occasionally get help from like a Brendan Small to do a voice or something, too. So, everyone kind of knows each other.
The number one question a lot of fans have is will Space Ghost ever come back. Do you think that's a possibility?
Uhh. I don't know. Maybe Space Ghost Babies: The New Generation?
Sounds like Muppet Babies, but a little more perverse.
You know, we've talked about pulling it out of mothballs for one episode, like if we could get a really amazing guest. There was a brief period where we were chasing Don Rickles, because I think he would probably merit coming out of retirement to strap on the pads and do the show. It would have to be a guy like Bill Murray or Steve Martin or somebody so it could just be used as this amazing, expensive excuse to meet them.
So did you or the other writers do most of the interviews for Space Ghost?
It depended. I did a large chunk of them, certainly in the later years. Matt Harrigan did some. George Lowe, the voice of Space Ghost, did a lot early on. Before I was there they hired a Shakespearian actor to get into the Space Ghost suit and ask questions, which was really weird and awkward because I think the guy spent most of the time trying to network with the guests (laughs). Depending on who it was being interviewed too, if it was up someone's alley, people would want to do it. The voice of Zorak, Clay Croker, is a big Butthole Surfers fan, so when we interviewed Gibby Haynes I invited him to help.
How about you, were there any interviews that you did where you were just amazed you got to talk to that person?
Definitely Beck. You know, this was right before he really hit, but I remembered feeling how much talent he had and how he was going to be someone I would probably be tracking into my 60s. He's unique. And certainly Smashing Pumpkins were huge, huge, huge when we interviewed them. Just the fact that they were so big and we were given like five minutes to interview them in person... you really felt the crush of what it was like to be a huge rock star.
I guess you could say that Space Ghost was one of the first fake talk shows too.
Yeah, I think that's fair. Certainly we did the whole take-someone-off-guard-with-absurd-and-ridiculous-questions thing pretty early on.
And capture their blank stares ironically?
Yeah! We had a few unique elements. Editing [the guests] in a way that puts them in a compromising position was a big part of it.
Those Daily Show news magazine segments are pretty much Space Ghost to a T.
Sure, sure. Jon Stewart has stolen everything.
Oh, you're not a fan?
No, no, I'm kidding! I am a fan.
So switching gears to Aqua Teen, are you guys going to be doing a new season?
We're currently doing ten episodes, which will premiere in the spring. And the DVD of Volume Six is coming out in the middle of December, just in time for Santa. It's got four of the new episodes on the DVD, so basically nine that have been airing and four that won't air until the spring that are new episodes.
After the whole Boston [terrorism incident] concerning the Aqua Teen Hunger Force film, did that take anything away from you guys? Did you ever just stop and think, "I want to leave this here for a while?"
Matt [Maiellaro] and I were definitely a little burned on it, you know, after doing the movie. I think the episodes [that came after the film] were funny, but it's just very telling that the first three episodes of the year didn't have any of the main characters in them. (Laughs) If we had been able to accomplish what we thought we were going to try, we would've morphed it into an entirely different show but still retained the title. But then, I think it was nice that we left it for a while. I feel pretty good about this next run of shows. I think we were kind of burnt out on Space Ghost, and then we were sort of done with it. But I don't think we feel that way about Aqua Teen yet.
[Mr. Willis was unable to elaborate further regarding the Boston scare.]
That's good news. But to some degree you've tried to switch gears before, like cutting out Dr. Weird [who hasn't been in Aqua Teen since the movie].
Yeah, I think we just got burnt out on it. Why try to continue something out of a sense of nostalgia or tradition. Those are two of the worst things in the world.
It's kind of like when South Park stopped killing Kenny every episode.
Yeah. Just move on and do something different.
Was there ever a hang-up were you thought if we stop doing this, fans will not like it?
For season four, you went with the Spacecataz thing for a while instead. Was that borne out of how big those characters [Ignignokt and Err] had gotten?
We were going to spin that off into a show. We wrote it as an episode and carved off those little pieces and tried to make them work as opens. It wasn't so much as a pilot as two sets of teenagers going at it in space...
...And ordering prank pizzas for each other.
Yeah, it's moronic! I still think it's a funny idea, though. I never understood why we didn't make it. If you see the opens as a whole episode, I think it holds up.
Do you have a favorite character, or one that's closest to your heart?
I love Meatwad, I think he's great. Carl to me is easy, because he makes me think of some of my dad's friends growing up. I wouldn't say they're my favorite, but... I do love the frat aliens, because they remind me of about a third of the people I went to college with. (laughs) Yeah, substitute the alien's dad's dealership with, ah... I think this guy I knew, his dad owned a candle factory...
That's even more insignificant than a car dealership!
Absolutely more insignificant. But, I think our favorite is whatever we're working on at the moment.
So how different is doing Squidbillies from doing Aqua Teen?
It's definitely a different sensibility. It's specifically southern. Myself and Jim Fortier, the other writer/producer, grew up in the South -- in the same hometown actually. So I think we can appreciate the things that we know about the South as opposed to the whole Forrest Gump, Colonel Sanders, Foghorn Leghorn approach that most entertainment takes. I mean, I watched that HBO show True Blood, and that guy Alan Ball was supposed to have grown up in Marietta, and there's just no evidence that there's much of a southern touch to that show at all. Now, granted, we deal with the hardcore, meth lab-makin', glue-sniffin', dirt poor element. (laughs) I would never say that we are representing the South. But it is steeped in some reality. So yes, we make a very realistic cartoon. But it's a different process, different types of scripts and animation. It's more involved, and it's that much harder to put it together [than Aqua Teen]. But ultimately, both shows are good companion pieces.
Do you get to explore different ideas or sides of yourself between the two shows?
I think so. There's certainly ideas that wouldn't work for Aqua Teen that I might pitch as a Squidbilly idea and vice versa. I mean, Aqua Teen is probably a little more insane. There's maybe a slightly more fibrous connection to logic in Squids -- maybe. I mean, things don't explode when they hit the ground in that world.
Now is that exploding stuff a physical property of the Aqua Teen universe, or is that just something you guys came up with that stuck?
I don't know! I briefly thought it would be great if we did something where it was discovered that all the land was made of gasoline, but then I though that would be taking all the fun out of it. It's just classic comedy, that's all.
So why don't the characters explode then?
I don't know. (laughs) That's something for the fan fiction writers to find out. We'll leave it to them.