Imagine this opening dialogue employed on an episode of The Tonight Show:
Ed Mcmahon: From Hollywood, The Tonight Show starring Johnny Carson! This is Ed Mcmahon along with Doc Severinsen and the NBC Orchestra inviting you to join Johnny and his guests: Faye Dunaway and Tom Seaver. And now, ladies and gentlemen, heeeeeeeeeeere’s Johnny!
[Camera pans to curtains, nobody emerges. The studio sits silently for 15 seconds. Credits suddenly begin to roll uninterrupted and in their entirety. A pin drop can be heard as the camera suddenly pans to Ed McMahon looking around despondently, stone silent and scratching his rear.]
To follow this great episode up, Johnny Carson’s guest the following night will be a giant, mutated sea monkey. The NBC Orchestra also gets traded to a Japanese baseball team in exchange for a dog that walks over a keyboard.
These are the types of regular events that occurred on the (extremely) late night “talk show”, Space Ghost: Coast to Coast, for which the late Clay Martin Croker helped develop, wrote for, voiced two main characters and worked as the principal animator. Croker unexpectedly passed away this weekend.
The most logical comparison, early era Letterman was among the first to break ground on genre’d, on-air irreverence. But with far less at stake, this 15 minute episodic series was able to bring out the jackhammer.
Space Ghost: Coast to Coast was an unlikely, animated fusion of resurrected Hanna-Barbera animations placed naturally alongside (what seemingly were contractually obligated) media appearances by 90’s era celebrities. Space Ghost himself was the host and MC of these chopped up, real celebrity interviews, praying mantis Zorak served as the show’s uncooperative band leader and Moltar downstairs in the volcanic control room, the director. Every episode was an all-you-can-eat helping of cringeworthy, snarky, irreverent silliness.
If these ingredients sound familiar — say, through a Michael Scott dialogue inadvisedly given to his direct superior, or Neil Patrick Harris literally winking to the audience — those easy laughs are now only easy largely because of the panache of that same man: C. Martin Croker.
Croker helped put a face to this generation’s most employed form of satire: an over the top, fingers pointing, deadpan merry-go-round. And he was able to do it without even poisoning the well of his source material: an old era of animation that crucially he held closer to his heart over anything else in his life.
And so, on and off from 1994 to 2008, midnight on Cartoon Network broke the rules and had an absolute blast doing it, as the joke was at the expense of the way things “should” be done. This extended from Space Ghost and onto his other projects he was heavily involved with, including the hit Aqua Teen Hunger Force. Croker’s passing over the weekend ought to be billed as the unfortunate loss of not just of a legend for a single TV network, but as the passing of a man who uncannily predicted the tone of current pop culture, “random” millennial musings, and the meme-filled internet at large.
A lifelong animation junkie, Croker got his first major animation job at the network TNT in the early 90's, working as an animator of commercial bumpers for the newly minted Cartoon Network. Fate was quick to knock when the Ted Turner helmed programming board green-lit an idea by Croker cohort Mike Lazzo; The idea was to make pragmatic use of Turner’s massive vault of Hanna-Barbera cartoon characters, the middle-most important of which must have been the generic space justice warrior Space Ghost, a cape wielding beefcake of a man whose job was to advance pure good while dispatching of pure evil. Um sure, why not? Any bystander would have easily been able to come up with a dozen answers to that question.
The show’s wake has been a total slow burn during the subsequent 22 years since Space Ghost: Coast to Coast’s basic-cable premier. The change is so gradual in its take-over that most could never identify it. But rest assured that if you like comedy, Space Ghost — against all odds — is a major culprit for why you like the things you like.
In his 2015 article titled “The Phantom Fame: ‘Space Ghost Coast to Coast,’ Secretly TV’s Most Influential Show”, Sean Collins elegantly outlines the explicit, direct lineage one can draw from Space Ghost: Coast to Coast to its popular spinoff show Cartoon Planet, into the expanse of the 18–34 demographic-titan Adult Swim, towards prime-time acceptance of animation as the rule (Family Guy, Futurama, Bob’s Burgers, Archer, Adventure Time) versus the exception (The Simpsons), to the fertilizing of Emmy-winning (!) live action shows featuring and inspiring actors who now routinely make a name for themselves by being out-and-out weird, if not totally bizarre. Do not let your dreams be dreams, indeed.
All this directly stemming from a wacky, if gentle cartoon show where Lassie is interviewed in earnest and characters amusingly fight against audio feedback issues purposefully overlaid atop the audio.
The show’s ability to influence, however, largely comes back to Croker in subtly important ways. Of course, its writers, producer and the pitch-perfect chemistry among George Lowe (Space Ghost), Andy Merrill (Brak) and others should not be underscored, but a cynical-minded talk show aimed explicitly at poking fun of media relations may have become prohibitively sour, save for the grace shown at the hands of Croker. Watch the series from beginning to end and you will see that things never got nasty, and the show never, ever lost its humanity (only its mind.) His love of the craft forced this through.
Hanna-Barbera’s empire — the animation which Ted Turner largely owned and Croker inherited — housed a notable sidetrack stable of IP’s that went beyond Scooby-Doo and The Flinstones and more into “serious” takes. These cartoons were based largely on the archetypes of superheroes from the 1940’s.
The Herculoids, Birdman, Space Ghost and several others were the Dick-Tracy and Superman-esque expressions of comic Hall of Fame illustrator Alex Toth. With his mastery of line art, Toth was able to marry technical engineering-level illustrations to that of imaginative, Renaissance-esque figure drawings. The result was a beautiful, even profound level of work not typically found inside an average comic book or cartoon. Toth detested what he called “nihilism” in comic story telling, he resisted sloppy art and he was one of the first catalysts for comics as a dead-serious art form.
If that description flies in the face of what it means to be a Hanna-Barbera cartoon (a genre in and of itself which is sometimes noted for its recycled and low-key animations), nobody knew it more than Toth himself. As was the nature of the business, especially Hanna-Barbera’s, his works needed to become replicable if they were to become cartoon length animations. With this came the famous five frame animations, the dusty backgrounds and the hokey voice overs.
Croker, however, was among those who expertly understood this nature of the business and without pause saw the true value in what he had at his disposal. Taken from one of his two, undeservedly low traffic blogs where Croker shares his mesmerizing knowledge of things like Disney, MGM, Godzilla and much more:
“…a lot of the scenes that I picked for repurposing on that show were from original 1966 scenes…The first thing I asked for when I started work on SGC2C was as many model sheets as possible. Of course, back then Cartoon Network didn’t know exactly what they had yet, or where to find it, so I was pretty much on my own on that one.”
The foresight to deeply appreciate Toth is not unheard of; Toth is in the Jack Kirby Hall of Fame for a reason, after all. But having the restraint to satirize versus mock and having the feel for which comedic timings to apply made Croker that much rarer of a combo. YouTube has proven anyone can make silly with old cartoons. Few would think to mostly totally forgo Space Ghost’s main sidekicks (Jan, Jace and pet monkey Blip, respectively) and instead pair Space Ghost to evil villains Zorak and Moltar.
In one example on his blog regarding how Coast to Coast came to be, Croker explains how Toth’s illustrations for the hijacking villain “Tansut” was “a natural fit” for “a Don Kennedy’s (60-something) voice”.
Natural for Croker, perhaps.
Of course, Croker also famously supplied the voices for Zorak and Moltar, quickly evolving his initially slow-paced, evil mantis into the equivalent of Space Ghost’s cynical, bad roommate. Moltar, too, would quickly find his footing as a laid back, late night security guard-type (who just so happened to really be into Erik Estrada.) As 2/3 of the main cast, Croker crucially was able to prop Space Ghost up as the dimwitted, well-meaning talk show host he is, and us such, went on to pace 14 years of interview tomfoolery. It was so successful that celebrity guests began transforming from unsuspecting victims in their interviews into cartoon versions of themselves that were playing along.
With some distance between the show’s end and now, it is easier to see Croker as the driving force behind that magic balance. He laid out the foundation, he picked what we saw on screen, he spoke the words and he worked with the writers. His lighthearted touch that was both reverent and respectable to its lore and audience, but that also maintained a ridiculous cutting edge, was that special angle TV shows didn’t even realize they were missing.
The proof is in, well, everything Croker helped influenced: the modern comedy.
I met Croker only one time, as a (probably crazed) fan at a convention in Los Angeles, back in 2013. I purchased a commissioned sketch of Zorak for $40. What I didn’t tell him was that I would have gladly paid twice that because of the impact he inadvertently had on my life.
The mid to late 90’s was in many ways the wild west of the Internet. Those who settled in early were the Sooners of the web, and like any early adopters of technology, a little bit weird. Useful search engines, maps, recipes and more were harder to come by in 1995. Space Ghost, Tori Amos and Star Trek fan sites, on the other hand, were flourishing.
In many ways because of this early internet access, my teenage years were spent away from the in-crowd and instead gravitationally towards the strange. My first CD I properly purchased was the children’s album “Space Ghost’s Musical Bar-B-Que” (which Croker largely produced.) I met my earliest and most formative friends in Space Ghost related chat rooms in the mid 90’s, then spent subsequent years traveling to meet them. I spent much of college wearing a trucker hat that reads “Space Ghost Sucks” — yes, officially licensed merch. I once asked Andy Dick to autograph Space Ghost: Coast to Coast season 3 in homage to an episode he appeared in, his inability to recall his involvement with I found telling of his true priorities.
Using context clues, I gather by Croker’s oeuvre and his self-interests that he may have been similarly alienated by conventional things and “typical” people. I can’t speak for a man I did not know. It may just be my projection of him and his work.
But he hopefully lived long enough to know that his reach was disproportionately large. And that many projects these days are now not only weirder, but they’re not ashamed.
Now even more so than when I was younger, many who have my similar inclinations are able to find themselves in something too, no matter their niche. Weird is cool. Coincidentally, but not accidentally, the most important people in my own adult life: writers, photographers, programmers, colleagues and even my parents all unintentionally share one thing in common: “Space Ghost? I love that show!”
Originally published on Medium.
Alan is a pop culture writer, editor and complete and total doofus. You can tell him that on his twitter: twitter.com/pandaman27