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American Humor Studies Association

Cartoon Network's Adult Swim and "Aqua Teen Hungerforce" as Rabelaisian Carnival
Author(s): Angela Farmer
Source: Studies in American Humor, New Series 3, No. 17 (2008), pp. 49-66
Published by: American Humor Studies Association
Stable URL: http://www.jstor.org/stable/42573537
Accessed: 31-12-2015 20:00 UTC

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Cartoon Network's Adult Swim and Aqua Teen Hungerforce
as Rabelaisian Carnival

Angela Farmer

Totushomofitexcrementum.
-VictorHugo

From the outset,I concede that this paper aims to bring two seemingly
disparate fictionstogether:the Early Modern fictionof Franois Rabelais and
the cultish contemporaryanimated television program,Aqua Teen Hungerforce
(popularlyreferred to as ATHF),1 a componentof CartoonNetwork'sAdult Swim,
launchedby TurnerBroadcastingSystem(Time Warner)in 2001 .2 In orderto make
thisconnection,I will relyheavily on Mikhail Bakhtin'sreadingof Rabelais and
His Worldwhichsituatesthemedievalwriterin a postmoderndialogue,deciphering
the codes of language and ritualof the carnivalsquare by locatingand translating
Rabelais's subtextsof laughter,vernacular,festival,feasting,the grotesquebody,
and the lower stratum.3 The goal of thispaper is thento draw a parallel between
Aqua Teen Hungerforceand Rabelaisian carnival as representedby Bakhtin,
showingATHF to be a vehicle which not only serves to satiricallycensureofficial
policy and to critiquepopular culturethroughribaldryand the grotesque,but also
to create a sense of communityby establishingan inside culturethroughthe use
of vernacular"in-jokes." On the surfaceATHF is geared toward "grossing-out"
the audience witha devoted mise-en-scneof vociferousexpectoration,animated
effluvium, and geysersof blood. Though it seems thatbody-comedyand abusive
language are geared towardnothingmore thansordid-farce, we know thatthereis
always an imbeddedelementof subversionand therefore revolution.4
Those things
which are consideredhigh are subject to being broughtlow therebyoverthrowing
anypositionofprivilege;hence,forthelowlyand marginalized,burlesquecontains
potentiallyrebellious,even emancipatory, powers.
Hallmarkto gross-outartis scatology,sexual perversion,and billingsgate.
While most toilethumoris generallyaccepted as a puerile fixation,JeffPersels
and Russell Ganim remark:"Sexuality in all its myriadformshas long been the
darlingof academic readers,a once marginalized,now legitimatefieldof critical
investigation,commentaryand theorybuilding. Scatology,however,arguablyan
even more universal functionthan sexuality,still retainsthe power to make us
blush,to provokeshame and embarrassment" (7). What's more,manypostmodern
writers,like NathanialWestwhose Balso Snell searchesformeaningin theentrails
of the Trojan Horse, use comic scatological metaphorintendedto censure social
conventions like bigotryand hypocrisy.5Further,scatological humor has the
potentialto go beyondabsurdity.In theabsurdwe find,nota logical impossibility,
but what is perceived to be a human impossibilitywhich threatenscoherent
meaning. The humorof the carnival does not collapse into nihilismor despair,

49

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50

but ratherconfrontsthe abject,thatwhich crosses boundariesbetweensubjectand


object and subsequentlycauses a breakdownin meaning.Scatology,indeedpartof
thecarnivalatmosphere,is a primeexample of theabject. Excrement(among those
itemslistedin Kristeviantheoryas "defiled") is at once partof the subjectand yet
separatefromthe subject {Powers of Horror). When an authorcreatesa textthat
engages the carnivalesque in all of its radical transgressions,we mightcall the
scatological "revolutionaryshit"- revoltingindeed.
The visual drive of Aqua Teen Hungerforce , and many of the Cartoon
NetworkAdult Swim animated series, is to offendand to debase. This aesthetic
explains boththe show's popularityand its derision;viewers eitherlove the show
or theyhate it. What's more, unlike The Simpsons, Futurama, Family Guy, and
South Park, ATHF uses short,disconnected,episodic logic thatrejectscontinuity,
abandonscoherence,and revelsin abjectrepulsion.This is consistentwithBakhtin's
analysisof laughterand thebrevityof thefreedomitprovides;festival,a temporary
rearrangement ofsystem,prohibitions,andhierarchies, causes a momentary abandon
forwhich"brevity. . . increaseditsfantasticalnature"(89). ATHF is among several
"shortattentionspan" programscurrently in production;the consequence of rapid
fireabsurdityis twofold:first,the audience does not have time to orientitselfto
each new farcical situationwhich thereforeheightenscomedic effect;secondly,
withthe audience offbalance, ATHF is able to presenta revolutionary message of
social critiquein theformof satire.Criticsagree when theysay,"there'sultimately
somethingexhilarating- and, dare I say, liberating?- about [ATHF]'s chaotic
avant-gardeenergy"(Schager). As it is the purpose of satireto call attentionto
vice and directthe audience to transformation, ATHF portrayshot buttontopics
like immigration, profanityin hip-hoplyrics,and cloning in politicizedways. Set
in sickeningconditions,the animatedseries addresses substanceabuse, cosmetic
surgery,cable theft,textmessaging culture,copyrightinfringement, and sexism.
The firstseason began with an endeavor toward a structuredand cohesive plot.6
It is the second season, however,when the show hits its strideand moves from
being simplyan asinine sequence of humorouseventsto being a truesatirewhich
critiquescultureand power structures while debasingthose in power and elevating
thatwhich is low. Withthe abandon of structure, ATHF was able to embrace the
absurditynecessary for a carnivalesque atmosphere;watching such a spectacle
is not unlike a fever-inducedFelliniesque dream. In regardto its transitory and
chaotic nature,Karen Wilson, in a critiqueof the 2007 Aqua Teen Hungerforce
Colon Movie Filmfor Theatres(directedby MattMaiellaro and Dave Willis), says
ofATHFCMFFT:

Aqua Teen is weird forthe sake of being weird,and thinkseverything


it says is impossiblyhilarious. It's a bit like Un Chien Andalou, only
if Dal and Buuel had writtentheirsurrealistscriptwhile high from
snortingpixie sticks.A familiaritywith the TV show would probably
increase yourunderstandingof the movie, but it's not necessary.Even

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51

withoutknowing what's happening,Aqua Teen is silly nutrient-free


fun.

In creatingitselfas esotericalternativeanimation,the raison d'tre of ATHF is to


satirizepublic opinion foran audience alreadyamenable to change.7What's more,
like the carnival square of Rabelais 's Early Modern fictions,the confederacyof
ATHF audience memberscreatesa sense of communityfora generationthatdoes
nothave a culturalhub.
This generation(or ratherthe convergingyears of GenerationX and what
has come to be called GenerationY) has, forthemostpart,neverhad a cornerstore,
a civic center,or a communalspherein the physicalworld.8What thisgeneration
does have is a virtualcommunitymade up of websites like MySpace, Friendster,
and Facebook;9 forgetthecellphone-thisis a generationof text-messaging, instant
messaging,Online poking,and blogging. Moving ever faster,communicatingin
IM and TM abbreviatorycode, communityhappensat thespeed of cable. Not only
are programslike ATHF cuttingedge in theirsatiriccontent,theyare briefand
highlyquotable. For example, on Wilson's blog, "JoeBlow" comments,"I dare
any of you not to laugh at the episode 'returnof the mooninites'wherethe moon
guyswreakhavoc witha beltgivingthem'all of thepower of 80 's [sic] supergroup
Foreigner.'Genius." To which "ryan"comments:"'Fryman,fillyoureyes. . .with
DOUBLE VISION! '" The convergenceofATHF quotability,blogging,and cultural
commentary(Foreignerand Foreignerlyrics) reveals such media to be the new
carnival square where Shrovetidecynicismand folk humor,like the Rabelaisian
crisde Paris , createsa festivelaughterthatis simultaneouslyambivalent,forbidden,
and a preventiveto fear.10
I will now turnto situatingAqua TeenHungerforcein a post-Disneyaesthetic
while tracingthe political subversionsof its animatedpredecessors.11I will then
be able to connectcontemporary"gross-out"humor,vernacularbillingsgate,and
festivalimageryof ATHF to the subversivegrotesqueand scatological humorof
Rabelais's Shrovetidecarnivalesque fictions.Of course,Adult Swim and ATHF are
not the firstvehicles foranimatedsubversion.In the 1920s, Felix the Cat became
one of themostrecognizedfilmcharactersin the world.A black and white,silent,
animatedcat,timeand again Felix foundhimselfin surrealand seditioussituations.12
Likewise, Max Fleisher's BettyBoop (Paramount)was an openly sexual creation;
premieringjust fouryears afterDisney's watershedSteamboat Willie(1928) and
two yearsafterthebirthof WarnerBros. Cartoons(1930), BettyBoop, thecartoon
flapperwith undeniable adult sensibilities,ran for seven successful years. Aside
fromthe WarnerBrothersLoony Tunes Censored 11, many WB shortscontinue
to run despite their overtlysexual and political subtexts.13 When silver screen
animationset its sightson the small screen,Hanna Barbera Productionsbrought
Ruffand Reddy (1957) and a cast of othersdirectlyto family-oriented television
program blocks. Nevertheless, these shows maintained a subversivemilieu from
Huckleberry Hound -
(1958 1962) and The Yogi Bear Show (1961), which critics

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read as a vehicle to normalize sexual relationships,to the long runningScooby-


Doo WhereAre You (1969 - present),which is regularlyalleged to containsexual
subtextsand hintsat druguse.14So, fromthebeginning,cartoonswere neverwholly
forchildren;and in the 1990s, aftera two-decadeslumpin theanimationindustry, a
new wave of adult-oriented cartoonstestedthelimitsof acceptability.In the 1990s
a new crop of technicallytalentedanimatorsbegan exploringnew stylesand forms;
traditionalanimationmethodsof drawingand inkinggave way to replicationand
digitalmanipulation.This new generationproducednew and moreaggressiveforms
of animation,which incorporatednotonlyscatological satirebutalso theimpactof
billingsgate.
At the same time thatanimationwas experiencinga reinvigoration, more
experimental,bizarre, vulgar, and fantasticcartoons were being created. While
Matt Groening'sThe Simpsons(1989 - present)and laterParkerand Stone's South
Park (1997 - present)satirizedsuburbanAmericanfamilylife and spawned series
like Seth MacFarlane's Family Guy (1999 - 2002, 2005 - present)and American
Dad (2005 - present)and Mike Judge'sKing of theHill (1997 - present),theadult
contentofRalph Bakshi's full-length animatedfeaturespaved theway forsubversive
televisionprogramslike JohnKricfalusi'sThe Ren and StimpyShow (1 99 1 - 1996),
Judge'sBeavis and Butt-head(1993 -1997), JeffReno and Ron Osborn's Duckman
(1994 - 1997), and blocks of adult programminglike MTVs program block,
Liquid Television (1991 - 1994), and The Sick and TwistedFestival of Animation
(1990 - present).15Though The Simpsons and South Park intentionally avoid the
"realistic"Menschengestaltattemptedby Disney and Don Bluth,thecharactersare,
unlike the anthropomorphized charactersof Hanna Barbera, markedlyhuman.16
Lampooning the Golden Age of television animationwhere bears and dogs and
mice owned businesses,played musical instruments, and harriedparkrangers,the
cartooncharactersof the 1990s "animationRenaissance" are anthropomorphic (yet
slightlypsychotic)animals; Ren is an abusive Chihuahua,Stimpyis a dim-witted
and tailless cat, and the Duckman familyare literallyworking-classugly-ducks.
Far fromendeavoringtowarda formalaestheticof "completeness,"theseanimated
figuresare grotesque,incomplete,and unsightly.
In a surrealtwisttowardtheunquestionablypostmodern,a set of television
cartoons(beginningwiththelikes ofRen and Stimpywhichsetthestage forATHF)
rejected the aestheticof computeranimation{a la Pixar and DreamWorks)and
embraced instead a "gross-out"aesthetic,which subversivelyaims to shock the
audience withcontroversialmaterialusually servingas a vehicle of satiricalsocial
commentary.17 This approach illustratesseveral Bakhtinianideas; in Rabelais and
his World,Bakhtinisolates several subtexts,among themare carnivalesque and
"
the grotesque body. For Bakhtin," carnivalesque refersto the carnivalizingof
normal life,which he describes as somethingthatis createdwhen the themesof
thecarnivaltwist,mutate,and invertstandardthemesof societal makeup,mocking
those in authorityand parodyingofficialideas. The idea of carnivalesque also
becomes associated with collectivity;those attendingcarnivalnot only constitute

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53

individualsin a crowd but ratherthe crowd is seen as a whole. Further,during


carnival,individualsbecome partofcollectivityand throughcostumeand maskthey
cease to be themselves.At the same time,thereemergesan awareness of material,
bodily unityand community.Food and eating,body functionssuch as sex, death,
birth,and defecationbecome partof the activitiesof the carnivalsquare; therefore
Bakhtin'snotionof carnivalis connectedwiththe grotesquebody,thebody which
changesthrougheating,evacuation,and sex. Like Rabelais 's Gargantua,it is fitting
to symbolicallydescribe the grotesquebody as a perpetuallyeating and shitting
monster;the grotesque is made up of recognizable elements,yet as a whole it
clashes withour expectations.As an example, in Rabelais 's work,Gargantuaand
Pantagruelencountera race of "sausage-people" about whom Pantagrueldeclares:
"Chitterlingsare Chitterlings, always duplicitousand treacherous"(Book 4, Chapter
36). Like Jonathan Swift's fantasticalraces, thoughwe do not expect it, we can
imagine race of people made of food; thegrotesqueindeed runscontraryto post-
a
Enlightenment logic. In carnival,flowersare animate,protagonistsare beasts,and,
in some cases, people are food.And this last itemmakes a sortof symbolicsense
consideringthatfood, a communalproduct,is an item around which community
formsitself,is somethingwhich increasesthebody or extendsbodilymargins,and
is thereforetheperfectexpressionof thegrotesquebody.18
The imageryof food is unconcealed in ATHF, a programin which the
main charactersare a trioof anthropomorphic food items:Frylock,Master Shake,
and Meatwad. The most obvious analysis reveals a pseudo-Freudianparadigm;
each of the threecharactersdistinctlyembodies Id, Ego, and Superego. Frylock,
an ecologically-mindedpackage of levitatingFrench Fries, is oftencast as the
moralisticSuperego; MasterShake, theself-absorbed,pleasure-seekingmilkshake,
regularlywallows in thepleasuresof theId; and Meatwad, thejuvenile and gullible
yet unexpectedlyastute amorphousmeatball who tries to balance the desires of
Frylockand Shake, is posed to be the harmonizingEgo. Frylock,typicallythe
moralist,is concernedabout meat consumption,environmentalwelfare,etiquette,
and education. Humor is constructedaround this characterthroughincongruity;
thatis to say, he typicallytriesto take "the high road" but given the actions of
his associates, he ends up compromisinghis ethical stance forsomethinginferior.
Here,thecarnivalelementis unmistakable:theloftyis broughtlow. Master Shake,
typically(thoughnotalways) thesourceofFrylock'sfrustration, on theotherhand,is
entirelynarcissistic;ever thepleasureseeker, Shake is discourteous,presumptuous,
and gluttonous.In this case, humoris generatedaround the absurdityof Shake's
urges and his constantrefusalto take responsibilityforhis actions. What's more,
Shake's gluttonyis oftenmonstrousand deforming.For instance,in "Super Bowl,"
Shake gorgeshimselfon nacho chips in an effort to win Superbowltickets;because
of his diet,Shake becomes obese, blemished,immobile,and anemic. Pocked with
bulbous acne, Shake's gluttony-bothhis greed for the ticketsand his excessive
intake-revealthe consequences of prolongedcarnival.Limitedto Shrovetide,one
week, carnival is considered an adequate release; prolonged gluttonycauses the

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corruptionwhich carnivalis intendedto resist.


Aside fromShake's continualgreed, the typical mise-en-scneof ATHF
reveals it to be akin to the popular festiveformsof Rabelasian carnival. Where
the sacred ritualsof baptism,marriage,funeral,and ordinationwere parodied in
paschal festivals,ATHF also parodies "sacred" rituals. In "Mail Order Bride,"
Shake and Carl decide to co-marrya Chechnyanprostitute.Shake wants a wife
to cook for him, while Carl wants a predictablesex partner;in "Spirit Journey
FormationAnniversary,"Shake attemptsto update the traditionalbirthdayritual;
in "The Dressing,"thetraditionalThanksgivingfeastis interrupted by Turk-E-Tron
who is convincedthattheAqua Teens' dinneris the ancestorof the new messiah;
in "Super BirthdaySnake," "Video Ouija," and "Grim Reaper Gutters,"deathand
funerealritualsare lampooned.
Though the firstepisodes made an attemptat cohesiveness (the triowere
crime-solvingdetectives),it was quickly and shrewdlyabandoned. This rejection
of traditionalnarrativeformand intentionallack of structuregoes to the heartof
Rabelaisian carnival,whichlampoonstraditionalforms,rituals,and structures. What
remains,then,is a plot-linewhich revolves aroundlittlemorethan"stunts"pulled
by thetriowho live in New Jerseyand bothertheirneighbor,Carl. Really,thereis
less a plot and more a set of loosely relatedincidentswhich lead to the deathof a
character(don't worry,theyreappearin the next episode as if nothinghappened)
or a punch-lineof a sexual or scatological nature.That's it. As it was formerly
said of thepopularSeinfeldseries,thisis a show about nothing.But notreally.On
many levels, this show is a reclamationof the political aspect of carnivalesque
throughtheuse of grotesquebodies, ribaldry,scatological humor,and satire.Dana
Stevenssays, "Aqua TeenHungerForce Colon Movie Filmfor Theatersis like the
bright-colored gunkyou mightvomitup aftera weekend of gorgingon cartoons....
But when I comparethe movie to vomit,I don't mean it in a bad way- a paradox
thatWillis and Maiellaro, with theirscatological, stoner-friendly humor,would
probablyunderstand."ComparingATHF to purgingaftergorgingis just the image
I wantto sustainas it is theimage mostconsistentwiththecarnivalesque grotesque
body,whichchanges and revolveswiththe intakeand excrementof food.
Anotherof the primaryelementsof grotesquebodies is played out in this
animatedseries; thebody itselfis manifestedwiththeprotuberancesand offshoots
thatBakhtindefinedforthegrotesquebody:

... the grotesque body. ... is not a closed, completed unit; it is


unfinished,outgrowsitself,transgressesits own limits.. . . This means
thatthe emphasis is on the aperturesor the convexities,or on various
ramificationsand offshoots.. . . One of the fundamentaltendenciesof
thegrotesqueimage of thebody is to show two bodies in one. . . . From
one body a new body always emergesin some formor other. (25)

The grotesquebody is comparedto a hydra,withitsmanyheads that,once severed,

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regeneratein multiplicity.It is not a stretchto recognizetheAqua Teens as having


grotesquebodies; Frylock's friesare able to extend to become hand-likeand to
become weapons that shoot projectiles (lightning,lasers, fireballs).He also has
"Frydar,"a single frythatrises out of his head to become a satilitedish. From his
eyes,Frylockis able to vaporize items,to blast holes, and to sprayfireextinguisher
foam("Dusty Gozongas"). While it is useless, Shake too has a protuberant "bendy"
strawwhich extends out of the top of his head. (It is useful to note that Shake
is the only member of the Aqua Teens that has no "superpower"; this may be
eithera cause or an affectof his flawed morality.)Meatwad, as I have said, is
amorphous;a shape-shifting ball of meat, Meatwad rolls around collecting fuzz
and lintwhich offshootfromhis body. He is also able to change formsentirely;
when wearing clothes, Meatwad fills the formof the clothing,seeming to have
armsand legs and shoulders;othershapes thatMeatwad regularlyassumes are of a
hotdog(includingbun and condiment),a hammer,and an igloo. While Meatwad's
abilityto change shape may not be seen as a 'superpower,"it is at least useful.
During"T-Shirtof the Living Dead," forexample, Meatwad turnsinto a hammer
thatShake uses to smash a museumdisplayand steal its contents.Anotherelement
of thegrotesquebody is thatit defiesage markers;it is always on thebrinkof both
birthand death. Althoughtherehave been episodes ("Spirit JourneyFormation
Anniversary,"for one) where the Aqua Teens have stated an age, we get the
distinctimpressionthat these are misguided or otherwise inaccuratenumbers.
The bodies of theAqua Teens are set in contrastto othercharacters'bodies.
This revealstheirinteractions as intentionally attentiveto theformationof animated
bodies. IncidentalcharacterslikeMonstermothman, theFratAliens,BartOats, Zakk
Wylde,and Roboturketron add to the diversityof the cast, creatingthe same sense
presentin the carnivalsquare where masquerade and disguise createdan alternate
reality;faces and formsbecome radicallyunrecognizable.A primeexample is the
garret-dwelling housemate,Willie Nelson, who appears onlyforone episode ("The
Shaving") in which he introduceshimselfas the monsterwho lives in the Aqua
Teens' attic and triesto retrievehis mail. Though his name is Willie Nelson, he
clarifiesthathe's "not the Willie Nelson, but my name is Willie Nelson." He is
neitherrecognizableas Willie Nelson nor as a monster;an onion withspiderlegs,
WillieNelson is non-confrontational and unable to frighten anyone,thatis, untilthe
last few momentsof the episode where we see Willie's abode strewnwithhuman
body partsjust beforehe ripsCarl's limbs offto drinkhis "juice." The grotesquery
of theimage of Willie Nelson dismemberinga lead charactercontradictshis former
passivityand encourages non-sequiturlogic. Such logic defies traditionalreason
and, therefore,correspondsto carnivalsensibilities.
Anothervivid example of dislodged rationale is "Hypno-Germ,"which
begins with Shake characteristically sittingin frontof the televisionand rapidly
dissolves intoan absurdhallucination.Meatwad is on thefloornextto Shake when
Frylock(paternalistically)calls Shake fromanotherroom. Ratherthananswering,
Shake indulgeshimselfand satisfieshis pleasuredriveby stayingseated in frontof

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56

the television.The most severe consequences come fromShake's inattentiveness;


in the episode absurdlytitledsimply"The," Master Shake's egotismleads to the
ruinationof the groupand theirhome. Frylockmoves out and leaves Shake to his
own devices, but by theend of the episode Shake resortsto burningstyrofoamfor
warmthand accumulatingdecayingchickencarcasses fornutrition. As a resultof
his negligence,Meatwad, Shake, and even Carl have all contractedconjunctivitis;
grotesquelybulbous, throbbing,and oozing puss, theireyes are swollen shut.Of
course,Frylockreturnsand setsthingsrightbyresuminghis quasi-parentalrole.The
same is truefor"Hypno-Germ."WhenFrylock,soundingeverybitthedisciplinarian
requiredby the Superego, calls to Shake repeatedly,Shake sends Meatwad in his
stead; Meatwad, acting as the intermediary forthe Id (Shake) and the Superego
(Frylock), rolls into the back room. As usual forATHF, these firstfew moments
are the only place where any formallogic prevails. The remainderof the episode
subsides intoa sequence of absurdities.This is notto say thattherestof theepisode
is meaningless;thisparticularepisode testsfirstthelimitsof scatologicalabjection
and thentheboundariesof racism.AfterdiscoveringthatFrylockhas founda toilet
seat which Shake has stolenfroma bathroomin Branson,Shake predictablydenies
the event. Childlike and oblivious to the potentiallyhumiliatingelement of his
narrative,Meatwad remindsShake of thedetails(whichwe are learningforthefirst
time): "Yeah, you ate thatbatch of bad ribs afterthe Gatlin Brothers'concertand
made Frylockblow thedooroffthattruck-stop bathroom'cuz you said you couldn't
wait forthe bathroomkey,squeezing yourbutttogethertryin'to keep it in." Still,
Shake denies the event,so as evidence, Frylock shows Shake a home movie of
the incident.The physical humor of the scene is heightenedwhen the audience
realizes the ridiculousnessof the existence of such a recordingin the firstplace.
Here absurditycollapses intoabjection;unable to confront theseparationof his self
fromhis feces, Shake revisitsthe scene: "I wantto see thisagain. Rewind," Shake
watches (and thereforewe watch) Shake's intestinaldiscomforta second time.
This is nothingnew fortheATHF audience as waste and theact of excreting
are describedin graphicdetail in most episodes. For example, in "Total Re-Carl"
Meatwad acts as an enthusiasticvoyeurto Carl's "business." AfterwatchingCarl
consumeespresso and fibertabletsdipped in stool softener, Meatwad tellsFrylock:
"Shoot, that boy's gonna poop himselfinside out. He's gonna liftrightoffthe
gound. He's gonna be like the Hulk rippinrightout the back of his pants! . . . It's
gonna smell like a paper mill. You know dat, don't ya?" Such details are akin
to degradation,which Rabelais connectsto regeneration.Functionsof the lower
stratumoperatewithinthe grotesquein a dual manner:excrementand death lead
way to renewal and life (Bakhtin 370 - 71). Much like Kenny McCormick from
SouthPark who is killed in nearlyeveryepisode, thecharactersofATHF oftendie
and are regenerated,thereforerepresenting eternalrevolution.
As "Hypno-Germ"progresses,Shake hallucinatesprogressivelystranger
events that are only tenuouslystrungtogether.At one point Shake experiences
schizophasia,or "word salad." His hallucinations(talkingfilecabinets)talkto him

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57

in a stringof utterlymeaninglesswordsand phrases.The fewphrasesthatdo make


sense are deaththreats(however,perceivedas benignin Shake's alteredstate)and
the suggestionto "wear a hat made out of foil" and "smear yourselfwithgarbage
and tryto cross the freeway."Shake does. Frylockinformsus that"The Hypno-
Germs"are causing Shake's hallucinationsand thattheylike to take controlof the
host's mindand "star in plays thattheyhave writtenafterthey've been drinking."
What's more,theyare only susceptibleto the pupa of brincadores,or "Mexican
jumpingbeans." In orderto cure Shake, Frylockinjectshimwithcydia deshaisiana,
the species of moththatcreates the Mexican jumping bean phenomenon.Rather
thanendingShake's malady immediately, the"beans" join in thebadly writtenand
patheticallyperformedplay (in this case, Rapunzel). Duringthecourse of theplay,
theprotagonist"Donna" is imprisonedbecause she loves "Pancho" who abandons
herin thetowerwhen he meets"a younger,more illegal bean who wasn't in prison
[who then]bore himmanychildrenand sued his ass forcustodyof them."Pancho
is inexplicably,and graphically,shotin thehead, turnedintoa brain-eatingzombie
who then leads the Beans to drive the Hypno-Germsout of Shake. Again, this
episode resolvesitselfscatalogically;theevidence of his cure is thatShake fartsout
of his "ocular cavities" and speaks Spanish.
So, we can see thatthereis an eventualpatternif not narrativecohesion
in ATHF. Each episode begins with momentarybanalitythatrapidlyspirals into
illogicalabsurdism,crossesintoabjection(thestatewherethesubjectfeelsalienated
fromhimselfin some way) and inexplicablyresolves. Inevitably,thereis a social
commentaryin the mix. Some of the prevalentsubjects of such commentaryare
racism,sexism,and conservationism. For example,theseelementsplay outin"Total
Re-Carl" where what begins as a treatiseon water conservationrapidlybecomes
scatologicaland absurd;Frylockhas inventedan "environmentally friendly"toilet
thatdoes notrequirewaterbut ratheroperatesby vacuum because each traditional
flushuses "threegallons" of water.(Frylock repeatsthis figureuntil it becomes
nearlydoxological.) In an attemptto testhis invention,Frylockgives theprototype
to Carl who is subsequentlysucked into the vacuum, shredded,and sprayed all
over his own lawn. Dismembermentin Bakhtinconnectstheparodie to thedivine
(351). Carl's dismembering,his head on a "silver platter"toiletseat, parodies the
beheadingof SaintJohntheBaptist,equal to grotesqueimages ofmedievalparodies
of the divine (Bakhtin 350 - 51). The Aqua Teens attemptto reanimateCarl by
firstattachinghis head to a corpse (which rejects the head) and ultimatelya toy
dumptruck.The ever-increasing of thisepisode sends themessage that
irrationality
conservationism, while righteous(Frylockonly ever sets out to do noble things),
can rapidlybecome illogical.
We continue to see carnivalesque questioningof conservativeideas in
episodes like "Global Grilling" and "Revenge of the Trees." "Global Grilling,"
whichbegins withShake expectoratinglargewads of phlegmintoa child's wading
pool in orderto make a mucus man, is a critiqueof the global warmingdebate.
AftercontemptuouslyscorningFrylock's all-natural,"environmentallyfriendly"

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George Washingtongrill which "doesn't use carbon based fossil fuels or emit
chlorofluorocarbons, or CFCs, whichare themainculpritsbehindglobal warming,"
Master Shake purchasesthe Char-Nobyl6000 Radio-Active Grill,a barbecue grill
which uses "actual pieces of the sun combined with some radioactivevials from
Chernobyl"and causes heat shimmeringwhich extendsforseveral feet,lightsfire
to Carl's back-hair,and beginsto meltthemucus man. In defenseof his grill,Shake
declares, "He's not melting.He's chillaxing.If you can't speak the language, go
back to Mexico-where you were born and are from."Later in the episode when
Shake is tryingto findsomeone to turnoffthe grillforhim,he says, "Wait! Mex-
Mexicans! They'll do it! They'll do anything.[Aside] Who here knows Spanish?"
This kind of racial billingsgateis not uncommon in ATHF. In "Total Re-Carl,"
racialism is directednot only at "Mexicans" but at blacks as well. When trying
to reanimateCarl's head, Shake brings an elderly black man's body for Carl's
reattachment. When Carl is shocked at the appearance of his "new" body, Shake
says, "This is not a timeforyou to be pickyCarl. That's all you can get when you
go to the West End." Such commentaryis not directracismbut is rathera critique
of racism. By puttingthe commentsin the mouth of an immoralcharacter,the
commentarybecomes a satiricalcritiqueof racism.
The "Global Grilling"grilldoes morethanelicitShake's racial commentary
to "Let theMexicans do it"; it also createsa "flavorbeam," a blast of radiationthat
extendsto theheavens and sets clouds on fire.It also hastensglobal warmingwhen
Shake accidentallyleaves it on over night:"It's in self cleaning mode," he tells
Frylock,who replies,"It's in burn-a-hole-in-the ozone-mode!" Ever the Freudian
egoist, rather than take for
responsibility the catastrophe,Shake slathershimself
with cream cheese in place of sun-blockso thathe can comfortablysit in Carl's
pool (whichhas melted).Frylockchides,"Or we could shutthe[censoredprofanity]
grilloff!"But it's too late; theplanetis in ruins,a tidalwave has washed overNew
Jersey,and a Polar Bear has driftedintotheAqua Teens' yardwhere he proceeds
to eat Meatwad's head. The only thingwhich can survivethe plightbroughton
by Shake's self-absorptionis a race of "Mucus Men" who eventuallyenslave the
Aqua Teens and Carl; Meatwad alone is spared and made the leader of the Mucus
Men. The whole episode turnsout to be imagined,and, in theratherabruptending,
Meatwad picks up an Americanflag,while Shake addresses the audience, "That's
whyyou gottaeat yourboogers. . . That's themessage I'm spreadingto America."
This is amusingbecause typicallyFrylockmoralizesat theend of each episode; for
instance,at the end of "Universal Remonster,"Frylocktells Oglethorpeand Err
(who have been stealingcable), "Look, You don't need TV. Itjust ends up owning
you. Next timeyou getbored,tryreadinga book." His platitudesare ironic,and he
regularlybacks down fromhis high-mindednessand takes a morepracticalstance.
Afterbuying a high definitionplasma screen TV, Frylockdeclares thatTV is a
waste of timebut "We [beep]-ingneed it!" But for"Global Grilling,"it is Master
Shake who climbs on the proverbialsoapbox. The situationis humorousenough
in and of itself.The ludicrousnessof Shake's explanationof the dangersof global

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59

grillingmushroomsas he tells us, "Our futureis at stake, and it's in your nose.
You've gottaeat yourboogersAmerica - foryourgrandchildren'sLIVES!" While
thisepisode has lmentsof abject repulsion,it is firmlybased in a critiqueof the
currentecological debate.
Like "Global Grilling,""Revenge of the Trees" illustratesconservationist
concern but does so withina carnivalesque frame; Master Shake, afterhaving
dumpeda vatof cookingoil intheforest,is puton trialbyjustice-seekingtrees.This
episode addressesecology froma dual perspective-itis about morethanjust trees.
The incitingincidentis, in fact,the consumptionof meat. Planninga Labor Day
cook-out,Frylockhas preparedtofu"steaks" forthe trio and Carl. Discontented,
Carl walks away saying,"Yeah, happy Fucking Labor Day there,"until Master
Shake approacheswitha cow (which he "got" froma farm).Together,Shake and
Carl injectthe cow withcheese, hoist it over a giantflash-fiyer witha crane,cook
in
the animal whole, and thenconsume it while squatting the driveway.Frylock,
frustrated at thegroup's insistenceon eatinganimalflesh,remindsShake to dispose
of the oil at a recyclingfacility.It is only afterthe fryerattractsverminand flies
thatShake takestheoil, notto a recyclingcenter,butto thewoods wherehe dumps
thedebris.As usual, a surrealsequence of eventsfollows (includingShake tarring
his entirelawn to keep thevengefultreesfromtakingroot),and thegroupis puton
trial.In the end, the trees,who have no writtenlaws because paper is an atrocity,
cannotfindjustice, and Frylockpresentshis characteristic oration.
Racism and ecological concerns are not the only carnivalized criticisms
imbeddedin ATHF. Homophobia,misogyny,and healthcare come underfirein an
absurdistfashionas well. For instance,Carl, ever the er-masculinehomophobe,
makes anti-gaycommentsin nearlyeveryepisode; ratherthanagreeingwithCarl,
the audience is expected to recognize the commentaryas unreasonable. In the
episodes "Love Mummy,""Mail OrderBride,""FratAliens," "The Clowning,"and
"DustyGozongas," Carl's treatment ofwomenand sex is disparaginglyrepresented.
Carl's fixationwithpornographyis humorouslyrepresentedas irrationalin "Global
Grilling";as New Jerseyis floodedby a tidalwave froma meltedpolar cap, Carl's
only concernis his video collection. Drowning,he cries, "Oh, no - no - no - no!
My father'samateurporno! I love you dad! And all thosemoneyshots!" Immature
sexualityand homophobia (and drivingwhile drinking,fraternity hazing, and a
plethora of other social practices) are critiquedthrough scatological frameof
a
inebriatedpurgationin "Frat Aliens." When Carl erects a laser securitysystem
thatis so invasiveitcan be seen fromspace, two drunkencollegiate aliens, Skeeter
and D.P., land in Carl's yardand attemptto initiatean affairwithone of theAqua
Teens. Though thegenderof theTeens is assumed male (the masculinepronounis
used in thescript),thereis nothingspecificallymasculineabout any of themexcept
Frylockwho sportsa deep voice and facialhair.19 Afterstrikingup an argumentwith
Carl, D.R threatens:"Do you want me to mess up yourpizza face in frontof your
girlfriend overthere[indicatingFrylock]?"ThoughFrylock,Shake, and eventually
Meatwad rejectD.R's repeatedadvances, he tells Skeeter,"This girltotallywants

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60

me." In its sick and twistedway, this scene provides ATHF's audience, for the
mostpartcollege age viewers,a muchneeded exhortationthatregardlessof alcohol
intake,"no" means "no."20Adding to theirmisogynisticremarks,Skeetertriesto
make D.P. leave. He does not tell him to leave Meatwad alone because (s)he is
uninterested, butratherderidesMeatwad's appearance; Skeetersays, "Dude forget
it. She was sportingsome major lbs," to which D.P. replies, "Ah, common. It's
like a moped; funto ride untilyour friendssee you." The Frat Aliens are not a
model to be followedbutrather,muchas theShrovetidecarnivalservedto critique
unacceptablesocial behaviors,functionrhetorically likean epidictic;theFratAliens
are vile and thereforetheaudience is instructedby theirnegativeexample to (in the
folkvernacular)"don't be thatguy."
Ever abused by Shake's undeniablepleasure-drive,Meatwad is portrayed
as an innocent.Unlike the Ego, which is able to completelyharnessthe impulses
of both Id and Superego, Meatwad is a keen observerof human nature.In his
critiqueof Rabelais, A. N. VeselovskicomparesRabelaisian cynicismto "a healthy
village boy" who is dirty"withspringlike,animal gaiety"(Bakhtin146). However,
neitherRabelais 's Pantagruelnor Meatwad are the innocentsof theManneken-Pis
of Brussels; both are childlike,but theyare also openly vulgar and sexual. And
as truthfalls fromthe mouthsof babes, Meatwad is typicallyrevealed to be the
silentsage. This too creates humoras he more usually performswitha childlike
demeanor.In "Universal Remonster,"Meatwad thinksthe dysfunctionalTV is a
snow globe, and in "Total Re-Carl," Meatwad's artlessnessis revealed; when, in
"T-Shirtof the Living Dead," he is grantedthe power to do anything,Meatwad
summonsThe Easter Bunny and Santa Claus. While Carl's disembodiedhead is
connectedto Frylock's computer,Carl's thoughtsare translatedinto textand he
startsinterjecting vulgarity,or as Frylocksays, "droppingF-bombs." Frylocktells
him, "Don't look over here. These are words you don't need to learn," and the
followingdialogue ensues:

Meatwad: I'm going to startdroppingF-bombs in a minute.Listen to


this:Fartyou farthead!
Shake: That's nothow F-bombsare droppedyou idiot.
Meatwad: Oh, the fartit is, you farter.Fart all y'all. Y'all go fart
yourself.

Ultimately,though Meatwad is portrayedas the most nave of the Teens, like


Rabelais's Pantagruel,he is the seat of misguided wisdom and can also be the
source of unexpectedsavvy. For example, we see in a numberof episodes that
he loves to watch tame children'sprogrammingon public televisionand is easily
frightened by Shake's tasteforthehorrorgenre;however,whenwatchingone ofhis
favoriteshows, Meatwad crosses the boundariesbetweenpuerile infantilisminto
brashvulgarity.On a public televisionstation,an "educational"song repeats,"This
is your left,this is your right"forseeminglyendless bars when the refraingives

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61

interactiveinstructions:"Lean to your left[Meatwad leans] - - uh, uh that'syour


right"to which Meatwad exclaims, "Oh, dammit!"And again, Meatwad displays
his perspicacity;an animateremotecontroldevice changesthetelevisionchannels,
and Meatwad updates us on each program,"Donna's about to tell Carlos she got
breastcancer... oh, watchthis[guybowling],he needs thisto gethis championship
. . . lookie here;thisdude is gonna squeeze thatboy untilblood comes out his eyes.
Oh, damn! D'you see that?That's a maturesituation."Meatwad is the glue that
holds theTeens together,like an egg-based bindingfora meatball.Justas paschal
celebrationshold the rest of the liturgicalcalendar togetherby providingrelease
throughshiftingShrovetide/Carnival social communion,withoutMeatwad's ability
to morph,notjust physically,but frominfantto philosopher,the team would be
lost.
Earlierthisyear,theAqua Teens venturedontothesilverscreenand though
the rapid-firecarnivalesque pranks present in fifteenminute episodes seemed
unsustainablefor a two hour feature,reviewersconfirmthatthereis something
tunnygoing on in bothATHF and ATHFCMFFT, even if we aren't all in on the
joke. Withits cultfollowing,theATHF series servesas a carnivalsquare fora sub-
setof a generationwithouta centralseat. In thislight,some critics,whendiscussing
the series, see the coherence of the whole while othersrevel in the incoherence
of each individualepisode (some flat-outhate it). Paradoxically,it is in random
follythatcohesion exists as carnival.It is the carnivalof food and of shitand of
sex and of death; it is the overthrowingof old expectationsand the assertionof
a worldviewthatdoesn't need to be coherentto be enjoyable. But such revelry
does requirebrevityto remainenjoyable. While discussingthe film,describedas
madlybrilliant,insane,surreal,bizarre,absurdist,insider,ingenious,and ribald,the
durationof the movie is the stickingpoint; like a prolongedShrovetidewould be
unhealthyoverindulgence,audiences cannot sustainprotractedRabelasian humor
on the scale of ATHFCMFFT (Ochieng, Orndorf).While incoherenceis not only
thepointbut indeed the triumphof the movie, length,it is generallyagreed,is its
downfall.As oftenas criticssay thatthereis no pointin looking fora pointto the
ATHF series,thepointseems to be made clearer:ATHF aims at being random;but
like thecarnival,timeis of theessence.

Notes

'For thesake of clarity,I will deviatefromstandardformatby citingepisodes titles


in quotationmarkswhile italicizingprogramtitles.Films will remain in italics.
ThereforeAqua Teen Hungerforce- the T.V. series - will appear ATHF; the film
will be cited Aqua Teen Hungerforce(or ATHFCMFFT as it is referredto by
supporters),and shows like "Robot Chicken"and "South Park" will be citedRobot
Chickenand SouthPark.

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62

2 For those unfamiliarwiththe


Aqua Teens, you may recall therecentcontroversy
in Boston. In Januaryof 2007, the city was well-nigh shut down because of a
publicitystuntinitiatedby the producersof ATHF forthe premiereof Aqua Teen
HungerforceColon Movie Film for Theatreswho placed "ominous" small black
boxes with light boards around tall buildings and bridges; these "light bright"
advertisements portrayedMooninites,Ignignoktand Err,(the pixilatedaliens who
play ancillaryroles in ATHF) flipping-off the generalpublic. Though the incident
caused Boston a greatdeal of troubleand municipalfunds,thefilmreceivedmore
attentionthanit could have purchased.
3 The carnival
square, which Bakhtin is quick to distinguishfromcontemporary
holidayculturewhichpales in comparisonto theunbridledlusting,crazed bingeing,
and even physical mutilationthatoccurredin the Renaissance carnival,is a great
leveler. In carnival,all bets are off,and the mightyare broughtlow while fools
are exalted; in this space, full of bawdy / body humor,the censure of polity is
accepted.
4 Bakhtininsiststhat,
by disruptingsystemsof decorum,such parodies have the
potential to create an apparatusof reform:"the place forworkingout a new mode
of interrelationship between individuals . . . People who in life are separatedby
impenetrablehierarchicalbarriersenterintofreeand familiarcontacton thecarnival
square" (123).
5 For a more
completeconversation,see Doug Haynes, "'Laughing at the Laugh':
Unhappy Consciousness in Nathanael West's The Dream Life of Balso Snell,"
which linkstheblack humorof West's novel to Hegel's "unhappyconsciousness"
and as an avant-garderesponseto modernityand industry, locatingthewriterwithin
a broaderdiscourseof subversivesatire.
6The triorana detective
agency,butthispremisewas abandonedalmostimmediately.
In laterseasons, theconceptis occasionally mentionedin passing.
7In orderto
punctuatethe revolutionaryaspect of ATHF, considerthatthe theme
song was writtenby and is performedby Schoolly D, a hard-corerapperwho
pioneeredthegangstarap movement.
8
Duringthe 1990s, therewas a move towardtheshoppingmall as culturalhub; this
trendseems to have waned significantly.
9Justlike therationaleof the"Wall"
applicationof MySpace and Facebook, thereis
no apparentlogic to thecommentary. One must"unravel"thewall, read the"Wall-
to-Wall" application,in orderto decode theconversation.
10For more informationsee Bakhtin,"Rabelais in the
Historyof Laughter"(59 -
144).
11Here in theU.S., AdultSwim shares
space withCartoonNetworkand Boomerang
and featuresabsurdist,oftenribald,comedy as well as minimallyeditedJapanese
anime. Among Adult Swims comedy programmingare "Moral Orel" (a stop-
motionanimationparodyofthechildren'sChristianprogram"Davey and Goliath"),
"Robot Chicken," "Saul of the Molemen," "Harvey Birdman,Attorneyat Law,"
"Space Ghost Coast to Coast," and "Aqua Teen Hungerforce."

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63

12Felix the Cat was revivedin the 1950s, and the series ran as rerunswell intothe
1970s. For fullinformation about the legacy of Felix, see JohnCanemaker,Felix:
The TwistedTale of the WorldsMost Famous Cat.
13In 1968 thislistwas created UnitedArtists
by (thenownersof theA.A.P. library).
"The Censored 11" are consideredtoo racist or too politicallyincorrectand are
currently withheldfromdistribution.
14 P. Dennis outlinestheways in which animatedtelevisionprogramsfrom
Jeffery
the 1950s to the presenteitherconcede to gay and lesbian identitiesor (in surreal
cartoons) ignore gay and lesbian identitieswhile presentingsame-sex desire as
ordinaryand even vital and worthwhile.
15
IncludingtheX RatedFritztheCat (1972), a graphicadaptationof Tolkien'sLord
of the Rings (1978), and the sexually explicit live-action/animation Cool World
(1992) staring Kim Basinger and Brad Pitt.
16For a more
complete conversationabout animationand aesthetics,see Judith
Yaross Lee's work (forthcomingin 2009 by the UniversityPress of Mississippi),
Twains Brand: Humorin Contemporary AmericanCulture, whichaddressesrecent
Americangraphichumor.
17"Gross-out"describesa ftedmovementin visual, musical,and
performanceart.
18What's more,therootof "carnevale" is 'carne' - "meat"
(carryingconnotations
of food and feasting)or "flesh"(carryingconnotationsof bodies and sex).
19There are
frequentreferencesto genderconfusionin both the series and in the
film.
20There is also an element of in this episode. Feeling
anti-anti-homosexuality
vulnerableafterhis encounterwiththeAliens, Meatwad reassertshis masculinity,
"I'm a man's man! . . . And if y'all need me, I'm gonna be in the garage hanging
sheetrockaround the engine I'm rebuilding!" But to show his immaturityand
worldlyinexperience,he reappearsat the end of the episode wearing an earring,
black spandex and a studdedleathercap and declares: "I'm notbi. I'm a man,boy.
I'm macho. Far as that,how come my muscles be all big wearingthis spandex?"
Shake replies,"Right.You're full-blowngay,"and theend creditsrole.

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