Ghost Writers: Sarah Dyer, Evan Dorkin, & Space Ghost
(First published in Planet Magazine, 18jul1995)
Sarah Dyer and Evan Dorkin are best known (don't call 'em "famous"!) in the world of comics, she for Action Girl, he for Milk and Cheese and Pirate Corp$. They've been branching out of late, however, bringing their unmistakable style to the Cartoon Network show Space Ghost Coast to Coast. So far they've written three episodes, two of which have already aired. They phoned in from their Staten Island apartment to explain for us the intricacies of writing material for a superhero.
Deuce of Clubs: I'm a little confused by the process of how the show is made.
Evan Dorkin: So are we.
Sarah Dyer: Everyone is.
Do you have a theme in mind when you start and then try to ask questions that will lead to that, or do you just let a theme develop of itself?
Evan: Let Sarah take this.
Sarah: Yeah, this is a logic thing; I should answer it.
Evan: Logic stuff, ask her; crappy stuff, pop culture, ask me
Sarah: We don't ask the questions. We don't have anything to do with the questions that they ask, actually. The way the show works is that they go around trying to get people to agree to do the interviews, and they film an interviewI don't know who makes up the original questions
Evan: I don't know if they're ad-libbed or not, but the voice actor for Space Ghost generally does them. I think his name's George.
Can they see him?
Sarah: Only if they're in Atlanta.
It almost seems like they can't see who they're being questioned by.
Sarah: A lot of times they can't, because they can do [the interviews] at any CNN office in the world.
Evan: They put 'em on a feed and do the questions over the phone line.
Sarah: So how it works is, we'll either just sort of randomly...like, the first one that we did, we didn't pick those two interviews.
Evan: We had no clue what we were doing.
Sarah: Someone had to do a show made up of those interviews, so we didn't have anything to do with the selection.
Was that the one with Branford Marsalis?
That was a great one!
Evan: That's called "Gum Disease."
Sarah: But then the second one, "Girlie Show," we did have
Evan: An idea.
Evan: That's how we're pretty much going nowwe're trying to put an interview together from their list, based on our idea.
So you're saying that with "The Jerk" [the next Dorkin/Dyer collaboration, featuring Sandra Bernhard and a hardware store owner], you had an idea...so you gave [the Space Ghost people] the idea and they went and asked the questions
Sarah: Oh, no...
or did they already have the interview?
Evan: The interviews are always done cold. They take care of the interviews and then store them.
Sarah: What happens is, we get a list of what interviews are available, and we'll say...like the "Girlie Show," we had this idea, and we said, `Hey, we'll do two girls and Alice Cooper, 'cos Space Ghost is dumb
Evan: Yeah, actually the joke came out of it.
Sarah:and he'll think that [Alice] is a girl. So that was the only thing that we knew we were doing when we picked those three interviews.
Evan: Yeah, when I saw the lists in AtlantaI went down to Atlanta to work on the first episode, to give me an idea of how things went on the editing and all thatthey gave me a list and I said, "Well, Alice Cooper, there's a definite joke, you knowAlice. It's a thirty-year-old joke, or something... (Laughs) So we knew we wanted Alice Cooper as the third guest, and put some women in it, make it an all-girl show, and make the joke be ... the original idea was, Space Ghost hits on all the womenthat's why he sets up a girls' show: to get a date. And then we took it from there.
Sarah: So when we get the actual tapewe get a tape of the interviewwe have no idea what the person's talking about, which is kind of good and kind of bad. It forces you to think in an interesting way, but if the interview's really boring or the person's really boring, it gets really hard to work with. But we get a tape and we get a transcript, and, like, "Girlie Show," we had this idea, and we got the three interviews and we started watching them and then as we watch them we say, "Well, hey, we could use this line"
Evan: Yeah, some stuff immediately makes itself apparent. You know...Fran Drescher's laughboom! There's a joke.
Sarah: And like how Carol Channing, in her original interview, all the stuff she says to Space Ghost is completely out of context. They're actually talking about something else, but the fact that she was saying that she thought he was sweet, that she thought he would look cute together [with Fran Drescher], that gave us ideas on how to do that productionalthough what you see on TV, they're usually answering completely different questions.
Evan: Yeah, some are serious, some are not. I think the whole trick is to try to make them look like...you don't just want an endless parade of non-sequiturs and out-of-context remarks like "Are you an idiot?" "Yes!" You know. "Did you vote for a vegetable in the last election?" "Yes!" 'Cos after a while that looks really phony, and the whole schtick with the second episodewhich is why I think it ran lowwas that we had the first and the third segment, we had the Alice Cooper interview down and we had the Fran Drescher, we knew he was gonna go for Fran Drescher, find out she had a husband and freak out, we knew Alice Cooper was gonna be his last attempt to get a date, and he didn't know Alice Cooper was a guy and then loses control...and Sarah basically put the plot together. We had Carol Channing giving Space Ghost romantic advice.
What kind of a release do the guests have to sign?
Evan: I think, uh, they kidnap their kids and then they get 'em back if they do the interview.
Sarah: They do sign a release saying that it can be used that way, but we've never seen it, so we
Evan: Yeah, we don't know.
Sarah:we don't know how extensive it is. They do sign something saying that this can be done.
Evan: And apparently you can continue to use the footage, because one of the ladies from The Price Is Right show, uh, Diane Parkinson, was used in another episodeshe was in the "Great Tune-in" special episode. We re-used, in the "Girlie Show," the Professor [from Gilligan's Island], Russell Johnson. He was not re-interviewed; we took old footage and used that. And then when we brought in The Jerky Boysif the scene doesn't get cutthey'll be in it for an audio bit for about five seconds...which is more than they deserve.
I was really surprised how unfunny they were.
Evan: They're not funny.
I've seen them on a couple of shows, like Jon Stewart, and they were never funny. I ended up interviewing Johnny B. and he was just so dull, I was surprised.
Evan: Well, that's the thing, I mean, it was just one of those blips on the entertainment screen, I mean, The Jerky Boysthey made prank phone calls, but they give them a movie where they script prank phone calls. I don't know, anyway....
Is it hard to get guests? I mean, do a lot of guests, ones that they want to interview, shy away from it? Or do you know that part of the process?
Evan: Something they told us is that a lot of people want to do itit's kind of like being a Batman villain in the 60s, I guess. Certain people seem to want to...Carol Channing, one of the reasons we ended up being kind of nice to her'cos originally we really just went, `Oh, Carol Channing, she's sort of odd, we really can steamroll her character'but she was so game!
Sarah: Yeah, she actually said, "I thought you were going to make fun of me like the BeeGees!"
Evan: Yeah, she thought she was gonna get kicked off! (Laughs) And we thought that that was just so hip for this crazy old broad, that Sarah was really pushing to be nice to her. And it ends up working really well, because if you're snotty to every guest, that creates the same beat over and over, and that's one thing we try to keep away from. I mean, no one was snotty to Fran Drescher in that episode. It almost had a plot. We were kind of snotty to Alice Cooper, but...he became victim of a punch line.
He hasn't seen it yet.
Evan: Good! I'm afraid of him seeing it!
He's going to see it.
Evan: 'Cos he's not on it too long. I felt bad about that. It's very odd to have control over a famous person's time onscreen and say, "Well, Alice, you're going to be on because your joke is, you're a guy and you're named Alice.
Yeah, and he goes, "Hey, that's a new one!"
Evan: Yeah, and then that's it, you know, thanks for coming down and being interviewed and everything and probably getting paid scale.
I'm curious to see what he's gonna say; he's gonna give us a comment on it.
Evan: Yeah, well, WE DIDN'T WRITE THAT ONEas far as he's concerned. Aw, he's not gonna find us. (Laughs) He was really good in Prince of Darkness!
He's a real pussycat now, he goes to church and everything.
Evan: Does he?
Evan: Bite a rat's head off in church?
Nah. I got a friend who goes to his church.
I'm not kidding you.
Evan: Just to see Alice?
No, he just happens to go there.
Evan: Well, I mean, it's very weird. It's an eleven-minute show, when it's all said and done. It's very hard to get the guests in there, I mean, the guests are becoming the hardest thing to fit in there, because you know that interview format is kind of tough. We've only done three and we're trying to do a fourth, but, you know, we're already starting to get a little nervous....
So "Jerk" is the third one?
Evan: I think it's being cut in LA right now. We're not quite sure, we haven't heard....
Are you surprised when you get back what the editors do? Are there pretty sizable cuts, or do you give them a lot of extra?
Sarah: Well, "Girlie Show" came back to us...we originally saw a rough cut of it, because they knew they were going to be cutting it right up to the day it aired, so we got a rough cut of it a few days before it aired, and we were actually surprised how incredibly close it was.
Evan: We had no say in the second episode. The first episode, they flew me to Atlanta and I sat in on the cutting session. And that episode, there were definitely some parts that we did not writethe very opening, a couple of jokes. But generally, everything in "Girlie Show" is us. We were really happy. I don't know what's gonna stay in "Jerk." We know things are going to get cut because I have a really bad tendency to overwrite, and even with all Sarah's editing on my stuff when she goes through it...like, before the scripts go out, Sarah cuts a lot of crap.
Wasn't Cartoon Network going to do another talk show?
Evan: I don't know if they're doing Birdman. They've been talking about Birdman. An episode we just saw mentioned him, that his set's being built. He may be guest-hosting this week or next week or something. That's a guess on my part. The whole schtick is that Birdman is lethargic without the sun out. His powers on the Hanna-Barbera cartoon are solar powers, and I guess the joke is that he's going to be one of the most inattentive hosts since, I don't know, Chevy Chase. But we don't know much about what they're doing. We don't know when our episode's going to be on. It's kind of interesting. We don't know what they're cutting and everything. I can't tell people the jokes 'cos I don't know which ones will be in there. I know who the guests arewe know that. You know what I mean? We know the gist of things. They seem to like this episode a lot. They're very happy with it.
What's with the hardware store owner?
Evan: They interviewed him.
Just some hardware store owner.
Evan: Yeah. I took him because I thought it'd be funny to have a guy who's not famous talking to Space Ghost.
Like the time they had those pizza guys on there.
Evan: Yeah, but that was written into the script.
Sarah: That was scripted.
Evan: Those were actors. I believe that was scripted. You can tell that those are not real pizza guys, from what they're saying.
I thought they were a little quick.
Evan: I think that was the episode done by Letterman guys and they tend to like to make fun of people with accents. That's their big joke.
Do you even remember the Space Ghost cartoon, either of you, from childhood?
Sarah: I didn't watch much TV.
Evan: I saw it in reruns and really kind of hated it.
I never heard of it.
Evan: Are you interviewing anybody directly from the show?
Actually, we're supposed to interview Space Ghost. I'm not sure what that means.
Evan: Right. I guess that's the voice actor. The guy who came up with the show told us that he dreamt the show up: he had a dream where Space Ghost had a talk show, and more or less decided he would have to do this show one day. I mean, that's a better explanation than saying `I thought this up,' I think. I can't really see how you'd arrive at this show.
It worked for Coleridge, so why not? Have you heard of any of the guests having bad feelings about how they were treated?
Evan: Nah, I mean, we don't really hear.
Sarah: We haven't heard any feedbackif they've gotten it or not, we don't even know.
Evan: I'm surprised some of these people are even on the show. The only one I know for a fact wouldn't do the show is Burt ("Robin") Ward; he said it wasn't enough money.
Evan: Yeah, I thought that was pretty good. But obviously Adam West will take, you know, a ride from the airport and a free meal!
Like Burt Ward has something better to do!
Evan: Shoot pornography for Hustler.
Is that what he did?
Evan: Yeah, he used to. I don't really know why I know this. I don't want to know this.
Do they ask you to try and keep strictly with the stock Space Ghost footage? I notice you had inserts of Zorak as a rapper and a member of Devo.
Evan: They try to keep the budget down as much as possible, and that's one of the reasons that maybe the show works, maybe why it's hard to do is that you've got to write within this really tight budget. I think the show's got a $40 budget.
Sarah: They strictly say you can't do something, but you can ask for something. But if they can't do it or they can't afford it, they simply have to cut it from the script, so obviously we're not going to go around asking for a lot of ridiculous stuff. They can do a lot of it, because it's in a computer. So they can alter a lot of the stuff they've already processed. But if they don't have it, there's not a whole lot we can do.
Evan: Part of the thing also is that we try to work with the cheap quality. You know, the stick figures running in front of the theater and stuff like that. We know what the editor does, we know what the show is like, and a lot of times we'll actually write towards the cheapness. And I think that's what the whole show tries to do. It knows it's a cheap show. It uses cheap as a strength. People say, "You're writing for animation"well, yeah, it moves ... sometimes. But the fact is that the show is really kind of off-putting, because it's low-budgeted, it's got this really eerie quality because it's quietfor like, twenty seconds. Television is not quiet. Ever. And I think that really registers and you just have to work with that, write around that. If you're writing for something, you add character usually. Here, you can't do thatyou're forced to work within the format. You've got to subvert it constantly.
You're both famous for comic books
Evan: We're what?
Evan: You can drop that down a few notches!
I'm talking within the "comic world," or whatever.
Evan: No. (Laughs)
You don't think so?
Evan: Let's not get into it, but no. I know for a fact, no.
[Getting into it]
I don't know, it seems to me that I see references to it all the time.
Evan: Well here's the thing, I mean, think about it: if you read a lot of zines, after a while you'll think Lisa Carver's really famousbut she's not. She's very famous within the zine community. We're very famous amongst about, you know, 10,000 people. Which is more than we can feed, but....
I saw a Milk and Cheese t-shirt on Roseanne.
Evan: But you knew what it was. Fifty million people said, "Hey, Roseanne just said a really good joke wearing an ugly shirt!" It's really relative, you know what I'm saying?
I was just wondering what sort of a cross-mix you got, if you get reaction from the Space Ghost show and if people recognize your name from the credits: "Oh, I know who those two are."
Sarah: We definitely get some of that. I'll get letters that'll say, "I got the new issue of Action Girl and it's really great, and by the way, I saw `Girlie Show,' it was the best episode ever"you know.
Evan: "Signed, Mom."
Sarah: There's definitely a lot of people [that] pick up on the fact that we've done it. But then again, Space Ghostyou can't even see it in a lot of places.
Evan: Yeah, you know, the hundreds and thousands and millions of people who don't know who we are, don't care. Fans of something are gonna see the names popping up again and again. You're into something, things will register. I mean, we got the job through our comics...which is odd...but it was a fluke. David Greenberger, who does Duplex Planet, did an episode.
Evan: Yeah, he did the Donny Osmond one.
I didn't know that! I missed that one.
Evan: Oh, there'll be reruns!
Is there anything you'd like to say about your comics?
Evan: We do comics.
Evan: If you like Space Ghost, we intially got contacted because the guys who created the show read Milk and Cheese and said, "I like thisit works." We're glad people like the show. And our small contribution to it.
Do you have any idea how many people watch the show?
Sarah: No. I don't think anyone does, because The Cartoon Network isn't available in a lot of markets. I believe in LA, they can't watch The Cartoon Network.
You're kidding me.
Sarah: Which really makes no sense. But I don't know if they actually rate the network yet because they're really very marginal.
Evan: But it's getting good press, for a show that's only fifteen minutes long on a cable network.
Sarah: They might have some idea, based on the response they get. At the end of the show they have their e-mail address and phone number. And I know that they do get letters, because we've been forwarded a couple of letters that people wrote, really enthusiastic about our episodes. So they do seem to get a pretty good response.
Evan: They're making new shows, you know. It gets written up. People seem to like it. They get good press on it. I don't know...you should ask them.
I intend to. I will ask Space Ghost himself. Or Alice Cooper.
Evan: Alice Cooper doesn't even watch his own episode. Maybe if they showed it in church....
© Deuce of Clubs