I first discovered Space Ghost: Coast to Coast (let’s use SGC2C from here on out) around 2008. Something about it hit all my buttons at once; I was hooked. Having been familiar with Adult Swim and similar shows, I already knew the basic premise of SGC2C before I watched it. I can only guess as to what it was like to see the show in the context of television in the early 90s.
It's safe to say that when the show premiered in 1994, no one had ever seen anything quite like it. Just a cartoon? No. Not by a long shot. A retired superhero, desperately looking for a showbiz gig, finds himself the disinterested host of a late-night talk show, breaking the fourth wall all over the place. Over the course of a decade, SGC2C would dismantle the talk-show and superhero genres and create its own unique brand of weirdness. The result: revolutionizing what “just a cartoon” could be and planting the idea that there could be a whole program block of shows like it. It also managed to piss off a whole lot of B-list celebrities. Always fun.
I'm not the first to think of this1, but perhaps with the exception of what MTV was doing with some of their shows (Beavis & Butthead; Liquid TV2, etc. …) SGC2C is arguably the first postmodern cartoon. Over the course of two episodes presented here (“Banjo” and “Fire Ant”), Space Ghost and “Weird Al” Yankovic are possessed by his "evil" bandleader Zorak and in doing so Space Ghost accidentally creates a giant sea monkey, spontaneously bursts into flame and spends about ten minutes stalking an ant with the intent of murdering it and its family. The show is willing to try anything once for a laugh; a kind of pragmatism [aka utter contempt for audience's expectations -- ed.] that one finds in much postmodern thinking.
By virtue of the show’s backstory, we often get to see the “inner life” of cartoon character Space Ghost and his former enemies-turned-indentured-sevants Zorak and Moltar:
Guest Conan O'Brien: Well, your '60s show wasn't that great… It wasn't very good.
Zorak: I know! I only did it for two episodes, and it ruined my career!
Moltar: Yeah, me too!
Zorak: I couldn't get work for five years! So I had to steal things for money!
Moltar: Yeah, me too!
Zorak: Now look at us!
Moltar: They won't even animate us!
Zorak: 'Cause they hate us!
Moltar: It's the worst show we've ever been involved in!
Zorak: We wouldn't even cash our checks!
Moltar: We didn't want the money!
Zorak: We just wanted to be killed!
Zorak: Conan, look at me when I talk to ya.
--Episode 75, “Fire Ant” December 19993
It's “meta” on multiple levels, long before the web made such conceits a regular occurrence. And because of budget limitations, we actually get to see a lot of that “60s show” (a silly -- and short-lived -- Hanna-Barbara series featuring the voice of Gary Owens), albeit re-purposed as “new” animation. Aside from some actually new poses, most of Space Ghost as talk show host is the very same image of Space Ghost fighting interstellar villains from 30 years prior. This also makes for some hilarious little details, like the fact that Zorak’s vest changes color depending on stock footage they are borrowing at the moment, and that Moltar barely moves at all. The only fully "new" thing is the set, itself a pastiche of outer-space-retro-kitsch. Rather than give into this visual paucity, the creators of SGC2C used it to set the absurd tone of the whole program.
The idea of appropriating existing material extends to the guest portion of SGC2C as well. Guest segments, recorded in advance, had a more or less normal interview process. Their responses were then selectively edited by the show’s writers, creating a rather surreal, sometimes unsettling end product. Within moments, the conversation can swerve from completely normal conversation to unexpected, nerve-straining awkwardness. There are exchanges like the one in the episode “Banjo” where “Weird Al” Yankovic contorts his body, due to Zorak’s mind control spell. What actually prompted such a display in the original interview? We can guess, but the viewer really doesn’t know. We just embrace it (postmodern, no? Truth is impossible, so why bother trying).
The sensibility SGC2C cultivated defined the Adult Swim aesthetic before there even was an Adult Swim (which came into being in 2001). The process of repurposing old footage and characters has been used in several later shows (Sealab 2021, Harvey Birdman: Attorney at Law, and Venture Brothers, among others), and of course, the absurd, unpredictable, uncomfortable humor pioneered by SGC2C became the “house style” for Adult Swim’s comedy programming (see Tim & Eric Awesome Show Great Job! -- ed.).
Oddly enough, SGC2C’s creators (many of whom now work on Aqua Teen Hunger Force4 and other Adult Swim programs) seem to have disowned Space Ghost, which sputtered out around 2004. He’s rarely seen on air anymore, and there aren't a whole lot of references to the show in interviews. They shouldn’t be ashamed of it though; the program was the genesis of their future network, and a triumph in it's own right. And so many long, awkward, hilarious pauses between a burnt out ex-superhero and an often-confused guest should not be forgotten.
2 Both of which have been featured on Network Awesome – check the archives!
4 Or Aqua Unit Patrol Squad 01, if you prefer the current nomenclature: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=1cbjby1a-p4