For many, Adult Swim is one of the most defining television network programs of the 21st century. The distinct presentation, the anime blocks introducing many in America to the medium, and the bizarre sense of humor. What defined the network, however, was the wide variety of shows that felt distinctive and defined the type of nonsensical humor present there. Of these shows, one could argue that Rick and Morty is the most important, and there’s a good case for that. In my eyes, though, nothing will ever compare to one of the oldest shows on the network, Aqua Teen Hunger Force.
One of the first shows that aired when the block first started in 2001, the show is about 3 living fast-food items living in Seattle, New Jersey: Master Shake, Meatwad, and Frylock. They live in a cheap, almost unfinished house next to a balding middle-aged man named Carl. Outside of this, that’s about where the logical way to describe this show ends because the only other thing that is certain is that anything can happen.
The show revels in nonsensical scenarios and character’s interactions with themselves and said scenarios. On paper, one would assume this show is dumb and cheap due to the animation and lack of cohesion with everything. There is barely any movement, and some characters only hold single poses while their mouths move. The stories and plots also have no set structure and simply rely on absurdity to move events forward. However, what makes it all work is the simplicity of it all. Rather than going for a huge spectacle or ambitious story, the show has a laid-back approach to the point that even the absurd aspects are treated less like fantastical encounters and more like a common annoyance. For example, when Carl sees an alien ship crash near his house, and simply responds by asking if Frylock knows them because, to paraphrase, he knows that if there are aliens, somehow his neighbors are likely involved. The humor comes from the situation itself, Carl’s dialogue, and how nonchalant he is since, at this point, he expects these crazy things to happen, and so should the audience. Each episode has some random, new thing going on, and the characters get involved with it, but it’s portrayed as if it’s normal, and that’s what makes it funny.
Unlike most adult shows that seem to follow a base formula of either crude comedy or family sitcom, Aqua Teen isn’t really definable in its approach. It can have elements of any sort of show, but it feels more like a bunch of guys in their 20s improvising conversations and situations they happen to find funny. The show can be crude and violent, but most of the humor comes from the character exchanges, how their personalities play off of each other and the situations, and how the show is so bizarre yet so down to earth. Sometimes a character can take the conversation in a completely different direction and make it come across as natural, even when the situation gets extremely ridiculous. One episode, for example, has the characters talk about corrective eye surgery in a calm and informative manner to each other, which heavily contrasts with the violent and bizarre situation that has unfolded throughout the episode. It can honestly be hard to describe why the dialogue and humor of the show can be so funny since it isn’t a repeated formula, but I think the easiest way to say why it works is because of the delivery and the free, non-sequitur tone of it all that feels like it was not some trendy thing but simply what the writers personally thought would be funny.
Moving on to the characters, they are also quite simple with each embodying a basic archetype. You aren’t going to find a deeper arc or emotion with these guys. Shake is the jerk, Frylock is the smart one, and Meatwad is the naive child and that’s basically their whole shtick. However, like the animation, the style of the show shines through in the execution. This turns the simple personalities into hilarious and arguably dynamic characters that are the driving force of the show.
Take Shake for example. While almost every adult animated show has the typical jerk character, what puts Shake apart is his performance and portrayal. Comedian Dana Snyder voices him and brings so much life and personality through how he delivers his dialogue. Even a simple exchange is made much funnier and it helps that Snyder seems to improvise a lot. The portrayal of Shake, however, is what seals the characters as a great one. Unlike a lot of the jerk characters, Shake has absolutely no layers to him.
Compared to a character like Peter Griffin who does horrible things yet is supposed to be sympathetic, Shake is never framed as endearing and that honestly makes his horrible behavior and the karma he always gets from it more hilarious. What’s even funnier is that Shake never learns and keeps getting himself into situations even when it’s obvious simply because he thinks he’s above it all. Even when he’s being beaten up and in danger, he still tries to spin a situation in his favor to get out of it or to feed his ego, even if doing the right thing would be extremely simple. So you have a character who’s funny because of his horrible arrogance and because he is the punching bag that actually deserves it. It makes him able to be the driving force of a lot of the conflict and remains enjoyable since the show itself acknowledges how horrible he is and always gives him what he deserves.
Moving on, while Frylock might not be as funny as Shake, he still provides to the show’s character and comedy dynamics immensely. Frylock, despite being a floating box of fries who can shoot lasers out of his eyes, is the straight man in any situation. He’s basically the only reason why their household hasn’t fallen apart (which is proven in an episode where he moves out, and the others basically live like cavemen without him). He tries to approach situations either logically or empathetically and tends to be in conflict with everyone because of that. However, he also tends to create experiments or situations that cause conflict and chaos in the episodes, even if it was well intended. He bounces off the other characters very well due to these dynamics and can very much be the character the audience can see themselves in the most since he tries to be the voice of reason in a world of insanity.
Finally, there’s Meatwad, who is the naive one of the group and is usually at the brunt of any situation while being dumb as a bag of rocks. Shake treats him poorly all the time, and other characters like Carl try to take advantage of him. He basically has the mind of a child and either misreads situations or observes things from a less informed perspective. He tends to either get involved with a bad situation without realizing it or doesn’t really understand anything around him. And yet, Meatwad is also capable of being smart and in control when he needs to, especially in episodes where he gets back at Shake for abusing him. It makes him both an endearing character and dynamic in terms of what roles he can play in an episode. He is both loveable due to how he views everything and funny with how he interacts and contrasts hard with everything going on around him.
However, arguably the most popular character from the show is Carl. Unlike everything else in the show, Carl is extremely normal. He’s a balding, middle-aged man with a thick New Jersey who loves sports, beer, and women. He is constantly getting wrapped up in whatever chaos is going on against his will and is basically the modern everyman. Carl is constantly abrasive and combative towards everything and basically resents having to live next to what are basically monsters whose shenanigans disrupt his normal life. However, Carl also tries to take advantage of a situation when it is advantageous to him, especially if women are involved. Like Shake, though, he rarely succeeds and usually ends up with the worst of it by the end since he and Shake often die at the end of many episodes. Even so, Carl has ended up becoming the breakout star of the show, and the comedy he provides is some of the best in the entire show. Even the simplest of dialogue from him can be funny simply through the delivery and his accent.
Outside of these four, there are only a few recurring characters, such as the 8-bit aliens, The Mooninintes, and MC Pee Pants, a rapper who uses his music to execute bizarre and nonsensical plans and comes back in a different form after each episode. Otherwise, though, the initial character lineup is mostly the driving force of the show, and not much changed throughout its run. The show still relied on its dynamics and the simple approach to absurdity even as the show continued for over a decade.
From my perspective, the sense of humor, the simple but bizarre setups, and the funny yet endearing characters are why this show works so well. Like many, I connected with the distinct sense of humor the show presented and felt that not many other shows matched it. The fact that it was so weird was what made it so appealing since it just felt like it did whatever it wanted, and I feel that’s why so many others got attached to it as well. It basically set forward what an Adult Swim show could be, which is bizarre and creator-driven. Aqua Teen ran for 14 years until 2015 and was practically the defining original show of the network up until Rick and Morty became a phenomenon. Even if it isn’t as big as most shows of its type, there is still far more long-term appreciation and love for it to this day. The show isn’t for everyone since a lot of the humor is subtle yet stupid, but I find it really appealing and enjoyable. If you haven’t seen it before, I’d say give it a watch. It helps that the show has been revived recently, and more episodes are currently in production. Maybe you, too, will find humor in the bizarre yet simple adventures of these food creatures.