Who is behind this spandex-clad leader of late night? Heather Kenyon investigates with help from Cartoon Network's Michael Lazzo, Senior Vice President, Programming and Production.
It isn't everyday that we see a talk show host suddenly ask a surprised guest what they think of his "massive bulk" or declare in Spanish that he is wearing a white spandex body suit and a cape -- but then not every show is being broadcast from the Ghost Planet and hosted by an interplanetary superhero named Space Ghost. This is the case with Space Ghost Coast to Coast and probably explains why it is the most demented late night talk show on the air today.
Entering its fifth season, it is clear that the unique Cartoon Network show, starring the black-hooded crime-fighter of Hanna-Barbera fame and sidekicks Zorak and Moltar, has found a niche and a strong, almost cultish, following.
The Humble Beginnings
It was way back in the spring of 1993 when Cartoon Network's Senior Vice President, Programming and Production, Mike Lazzo was holding a meeting in his office with fellow programming staffers Khaki Jones and Andy Merrill. They were pondering a new way to make the Wacky Races cartoon fresh and interesting, and thought of taking the episodes and piecing them together so it was like they were driving across the country. "Coast to Coast," said Merrill. Meanwhile, the television in Lazzo's office was playing the afternoon episode of Space Ghost. "I've always loved Space Ghost," explained Lazzo, so he said that the next time they got together, they would have to discuss a Space Ghost stunt. However, all that night Lazzo kept turning the idea of doing something with Space Ghost over and over in his mind. At the same time the talk show wars between David Letterman and Jay Leno were at an all-time fever pitch. The next day he came in and mentioned in an off-hand way, "`Wouldn't it be funny to introduce Space Ghost as a talk show host?' We laughed and thought it was funny, but that it wouldn't go anywhere." However, the thought continued to linger in the Programming offices and Lazzo admits, "I was adamant because it was one of my favorite cartoons, so I asked Andy to go in and edit a Space Ghost pilot."
Splicing clips from the vintage 1966 series, The Space Ghost and Dino Boy, with footage from a pre-packaged press interview with Denzel Washington, programming coordinator Merrill edited the footage together in a tape storage closet and added a booming Space Ghost voice-over using a Radio Shack microphone. "We howled with laughter," states Lazzo at questions like, "What is your secret identity?" and "Do you have enough oxygen?" This two-minute "pilot" was enough to earn them the money to do five shows.
Although funny, Merrill's tape was too rough and they sought a slick Hollywood production company. However their test was too slick. "This is a talk show that takes place in Outer Space. It should be different," says Lazzo. So the programming department decided to keep the production close to home in Atlanta, Cartoon Network headquarters. Crawford Communications, an Atlanta-based production company, was selected. Crawford Communications and Turner Broadcasting, Cartoon Network's parent company until last year's Time-Warner merger, have grown hand-in-hand and Lazzo really credits the Crawford team. "We think they are great. We couldn't have done this without them," he says. As Turner grew and gave more work to Crawford, Crawford expanded, keeping pace with the cable giant, and soon doing most of their work.
The Production Facts
To keep production costs down, animation from the original Space Ghost series is reconfigured onto a new set. Lazzo describes the process: "Basically, what we did was we went in and rotoscoped out from the original cartoons--the `60s cartoons, not the `80s version--quite a few key shots where we had lip movement. We could then remove that image from the original cartoon and place it into any background we wanted. Once we did that we were able to go to Crawford and ask them to create a background." Once a 3-D looking set was decided on, "Crawford filmed the set from several angles and then the rotoscoped Space Ghost is dropped into that new environment. Each shot of Space Ghost has lip movement, `lip flap.' We then go in and take the Avid [a non-linear editing system] and make the lips match the words we are putting in his mouth. This technology is not that old. Seven or eight years ago we probably couldn't have done the show. We would have had to make the words match the existing lip flap but because we are able to edit digitally, we can actually synch up the dialogue. We simply freeze it, hold it, start it and stop it to form the mouth around the words."
Interestingly enough, all these shows start as radio plays. "We don't have a show until we are satisfied with how it sounds, which is just like animation. You record the track, cut it from an audio standpoint and then place the footage that makes sense around that audio," says Lazzo.
The Show's Personalities
It was a Crawford Communications' animator named C. Martin Croker who actually added one of the show's most popular elements in an initial meeting. In a discussion about Cartoon Network's desire to incorporate some of the original show's villains into the cast as musicians or sidekicks, Croker suggested using Zorak and proceeded to mimic the character's voice. Lazzo immediately loved his Zorak. Croker soon proved to pass muster as Moltar as well, and would later become even more invaluable by providing all the new animation commissioned by the show.
From straight man Moltar to the ever-plotting Zorak, the sidekicks have become just as important as Space Ghost and add much of the show's humor. "People really respond to a band leader that isn't a toadie who is in agreement with everything, but rather who is out to destroy the host! He is like the anti-sidekick," says Lazzo who then adds jokingly, "I think this appeals to something in this post modernistic society in which we live. I mean, how many times have you looked at Ed McMahon and thought, `Are you really laughing?'" Two other characters, Brak and Lokar, have appeared in several episodes and Brak now co-stars on Cartoon Planet, a Space Ghost Coast to Coast spin-off that debuted in July 1995 on TBS Superstation and later on Cartoon Network.
Capturing the GuestsSpace Ghost became a legitimate project but still didn't have a dedicated producer. "Keith Crofford had always been a friend of mine, the best line producer in Atlanta," says Lazzo. Searching for in-town recommendations, Lazzo called Crofford for a name. Crofford, who had just wrapped the award-winning Ruby in Paradise, found the project intriguing and agreed to sign on temporarily. "I liked the dichotomy of going from the self-important world of independent filmmaking to the surreal world of cartoons," says Crofford. A few months later, he accepted a full-time post. "Keith came in and made sure we got what we wanted," says Lazzo. "If it weren't for Keith, it wouldn't have happened. He is the first full-time Space Ghost staff member."
The first 15 shows were written by the programming department. "Our day jobs were scheduling cartoons and then every evening we would go into our conference room and say, `Okay, let's try and be funny with this,'" Lazzo recalls. Merrill and Jones had a hand in scripting the first episodes, a task that requires a transcript of a pre-taped celebrity interview. This document contains the only unalterable element of the entire productionthe celebrity's verbal responses to Space Ghost's questions. The rest is open to comedic interpretation, including the questions themselves, asked variously by producers, the disembodied voice of Space Ghost and even, for a time, young actors bedecked in an ill-fitting Space Ghost costume.
Crofford explains that in the beginning he and Lazzo were finding it difficult to present the show's concept to guests, owing to the fact that there wasn't any footage to show and that Space Ghost was a somewhat forgotten superhero. "We felt it would add an element of fun to the interview if the guest was actually talking to a `real' superhero," says Crofford. Acting students from New York and Los Angeles were hired to wear the white-and-yellow Space Ghost suit and ask questions from a position just out of camera range. Lazzo recalls one such actor. "I didn't see the guy, but apparently he was not possessed with a superhero physique," he remembers. "In addition, he thought he was Shakespeare. So we had a guy sitting directly in front of the guests saying in a Shakespearean voice, `DO YOU HAVE ENOUGH OXYGEN?' They were laughing in his face." The Bee Gees, for instance, having just arrived from a Howard Stern taping, got so tickled producers could only use about 19 seconds of their appearance.
"I think we did it four or five times until it was like, `We can't do this anymore,'" concludes Lazzo. Since then, interview questions are asked through a phone-patch directly in the guest's ear, who is instructed only to imagine speaking to a superhero. "To talk to people who have done this, this is the strangest, most bizarre interview experience they have ever had. They can't see the interviewer and they are just looking basically at bright lights and a camera and hearing a voice in their head ask all these insane questions," laughs Lazzo. About 20-25 questions are written for each guest; some are standard and others are specific for the guest. Crofford agrees, "Occasionally we like it when a guest seems like a deer caught in the headlights, but good interviews are important too." Lazzo adds, "Sometimes we will get just unusable footage because it is so strange to people, but some people love it and have fun with it and we actually like both." To add to the unconventionality of the situation, interviews are almost always done at CNN Bureaus. Crofford acknowledges the debt Space Ghost Coast To Coast owes to CNN, whose executives granted permission to tape celebrity interviews in their studios, a process that continues to this day. "We could never have gotten this show off the ground without their cooperation," says Crofford. "We soon became adept at grabbing celebrities passing through town promoting their books," says Crofford. "Susan Powter, Bob Denver and Dawn Wells were all booked in this fashion." The Show's Staff Lazzo and Crofford soon realized that an Atlanta-based production would require an Atlanta-based voice talent. A casting call proceeded, and soon over the small speakers of the programming department stereo came George Lowe's booming baritone, sealing his future. "I play him a little more whacked out, a little more acerbic than the original," says Lowe. Lazzo gives much of the credit for the shaping of the show to Andy Merrill and Khaki Jones. "Without Andy and Khaki the show would have been very different," says Lazzo. "The programming department created Space Ghost Coast To Coast and I think that's born out by the pilot, which is far closer to the what the show became than the first episode, `Elevator.' Andy gave Space Ghost his personality to a large degreethere's a tonality there that's all him. And Khaki brought in this absurdity or whimsy aspect." Many of the early scripts were shaped in part by a young freelance writer named Matthew Maiellaro, a talent brought in by Crofford to assist with the show. Editor Michael Cahill is responsible for the unique Space Ghost editing style first evidenced in "CHIPs," an episode in which two fairly obscure guests, Joe Franklin and Bill Carter, are made more interesting by the insertion of odd pauses and strange moments. "We made it a practice to just keep the tape rolling when George was in the booth," says Crofford. "Cahill was a master at snatching George's comic ad libs, general crankiness and random questions to the producer, then spinning them into comic gold."
After the second season around 15 new faces were brought onto the show. As Lazzo tells it, "We had to program the network, so we actually had to hire professionals for the show!"
People involved with the early productions, like Merrill and Jones, moved on to other projects. Khaki Jones is now a senior program executive who helps develop such projects as Cartoon Network's preschool programming venture with Children's Television Workshop, Big Bag. While Merrill is still involved with the show such as lending his voice, he is now very involved with Cartoon Network Online. Matthew Maiellaro and editor Michael Cahill, have left the Ghost Planet to pursue other interests. To replace them people like Evan Dorkin, creator of the Milk and Cheese comic book series, and a second team of outside writers, consisting of Spike Feresten, who netted an Emmy nomination for the infamous "Soup Nazi" episode of Seinfeld, and Steve O'Donnell both writers for Late Show With David Letterman at the timewere brought in by Crofford. Joel Hodgson, creator of the television series Mystery Science Theater 3000, is another notable talent who, along with writing partner Nell Scovell, wrote an episode of Space Ghost Coast To Coast in Summer 1995.
Currently, Space Ghost Coast To Coast's production crew consists of Lazzo, Crofford, Merrill and several others. Dave Willis, supervising producer, was named producer in August 1996. Vishal Roney, production coordinator, spends long hours coordinating work between Space Ghost in-house staff and outside production companies. Nina Bishop is the show's fifth talent coordinator to pluck stars for the show, after Tanya Bergan, Robin Agranoff, Keith Crofford and Isabel Gonzalez. Gus Jordan, meanwhile, assists with production and answers the volumes of e-mail, letters and faxes that arrive at Ghost Planet each day. Pete Smith is another writer/producer for the show. Smith and Merrill wrote the songs for the infamous Space Ghost's Musical Barbeque CD. This August Rhino Records will release another Cartoon Planet, Space Ghost CD titled, Surf and Turf, which will include about 20 new songs. The Success "We were surprised by the reaction people had to the show and thought, `Hey, we should do more of these,'" Lazzo explains. Today there are 56, 15-minute episodes or roughly 20 half-hours. "Several of the shows, we consider to be the shows we learned on and we don't air those. We figured it out around show five." Lazzo goes on to explain that, "Last year it averaged a 1.1 which is 20% above the network average so we are very happy with it." Space Ghost has definitely developed a huge following, especially in colleges. "It has been phenonmenal to see the kind of grassroots response we got, based on a 15-minute show that airs in late night. Particularly in the early days when we were only in 15-20 million households." The success is chalked-up to the fact that the show is so unique and different. "I don't think you can say you've seen anything like Coast to Coast before," promises Lazzo. "It is clearly a parody but it seems so ridiculous that it almost becomes a completely different thing. It is the freshness of a concept that hasn't been seen before." What's next on the Ghost Planet horizon? How long will these odd transmissions filter down to the television homes of our planet? Time will tell, but it's nice to think that bouncing around the satellites beyond our skies is a show about an interplanetary crime fighter, packing magical gizmos and a short temper, just trying to talk to some celebrities. It might not be the embodiment of anyone's dreams for technology, but it sure causes a ruckus when you stumble upon it with the remote. Space Ghost Coast To Coast will continue to be entertainingly erratic and dizzyingly off kilter. It is a show for the impassioned few who dare to entertain the absurd, hanging on Zorak's every embittered utterance and howling with glee whenever Moltar conjures up an image of "CHIPs." This sixties' superhero has come full circle into a nineties phenomenon. Space Ghost Coast to Coast can be seen on the Cartoon Network Friday nights at 11:30 p.m. EST/PST. Heather Kenyon is editor-in-chief of Animation World Magazine.