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Space Ghost Coast to Coast: Volume One

The Cartoon Network's late-night "Adult Swim" series deserves its reputation for dishing up some of the coolest, most out-there animated programming on the tube. Now that many of today's cartoon-makers grew up as kids in the '60s and '70s watching toons on TV, we're not surprised that some of their work displays a pointedly reflexive quality. Some of Adult Swim's better — or most popular, two subsets that don't necessarily form a balanced Venn diagram — programs yank cheesy and obscure, yet artificially nostalgic, cartoon characters out of the past and toss them into the world of hip modern TV smart-assitude. Harvey Birdman: Attorney at Law, which made a Perry Mason-style lawyer out of a third-tier 1967 Hanna-Barbera superhero, remains the cleverest example of this sub-sub-genre.

Then there's Space Ghost Coast to Coast, which pulls another Hanna-Barbera superhero, c. 1966-68, out of retirement and gives him his own TV talk show. It's a gag that allows the show's writers and animators to poke fun at not just the stiff, crappy old "limited animation" Hanna-Barbera style, but also at the over-familiar talk-show conventions from the Tonight Show to Conan O'Brien and David Letterman. Each episode runs about 12 minutes, during which Space Ghost materializes ("Greetings citizens!") in his Ghost Planet studio, banters with bandleader Zorak (a mantis-like Evil Nemesis from the old days) and director Moltar the Lava Man (another E.N. now reduced to being Space Ghost's second-stringer). Neither Zorak nor Moltar has any love for their new boss, and the passive-aggressive sniping between the three is a running joke through the series. The meat of each ep comes when Space Ghost (a.k.a Tad Ghostal) interviews via a TV monitor his live-action celebrity guests, who are typically has-beens stuck in a tiny room somewhere with a single camera. Behind his standard-issue host desk, Space Ghost is a self-absorbed, clueless wonder who assumes that his guest — no matter if it's Bob "Gilligan" Denver or The Ramones — possesses superpowers and lives in awe of the host's own galactic stupendousness.

What can make an episode fun is the improvisational dialogue between S.G. and his guests, who tyically have books or projects to plug and roughly half of whom have no idea what sort of show they're on, never mind who the fuck is this Space Ghost goob piping into their sub-basement sound studio. It's all popcult self-referential and "stream of consciousness" and "ironic." Some guests, such as Carol Channing, get the joke and go with it. Others ... well, others just don't get it, or can't bring themselves to give a damn, and that can be either "funny ha-ha" or "funny schadenfreude." In this two-disc collection of episodes, erstwhile superhero Adam West is put-out by the shenanigans (which may have seemed just one step up from a ribbon-cutting at a shopping mall), and the Talking Heads' David Byrne is weirded out by a venue that never started making sense.

Other slumming luminaries include Gilligan's Island vets Dawn Wells and Russell Johnson ("the Professor" in particular appearing pretty out of it), Hulk Hogan, Dr. Timothy Leary (still outside looking in), rocker Slash, Donny Osmond, the Bee Gees, Sandra Bernhard, Glen Phillips, ex-Catwomen Lee Meriweather and Eartha Kitt, rapper Schooly D, and canine celeb Lassie. Judy Tenuta and Weird Al Yankovic try to upstage Space Ghost with their comic artistry, delivering some pained moments. Monty Python's Terry Jones manages to hold his own, but Fran Drescher and Kevin Meany should stick to their stand-up routines at the Yak Shack.

The problem with this one-trick-pony format is that it gets old fast. Space Ghost Coast to Coast may stay somewhat fresh when you've got a week between doses, but while viewing one after another on two DVDs the little bit of cleverness the concept possesses runs dry with two, maybe three episodes, max. An hour of this stuff will stretch the patience of even a hardcore fan. Moreover, the hardcore fan will realize quickly that on this DVD release "Volume One" does not mean that the show's entire first season is on board. Instead, this set cherry-picks 16 eps from the first three years (1994-96) and presents them out of broadcast order. It's enough to put a run in your tights.

*          *          *

As a DVD, this Cartoon Network "Adult Swim" title from Warner Home Entertainment presents its 16 eps in their original full-screen TV aspect ratio. They look good and sound just fine in Dolby Digital 1.0 monaural. Five eps come with audio commentaries from the show's production team, who offer little more than pointing at and wisecracking about a particularly awkward guest or who came up with this-or-that bit.

Other extras are a short Original Artwork slide-show and the music video "Zorak Does Jingle Bells," which, if you're a fan of the show, is exactly as hysterically funny as you imagine it being, and if you're not is exactly as tiresome.

—Mark Bourne

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