If there’s anything the Internet has taught me in the time I’ve been using it, it’s that dubbing over and re-editing old cartoons is absolutely hysterical. This is what gave birth to viral classics like “I’m The Juggernaut, Bitch”, Eric Fensler’s G.I. Joe PSA’s (PORK CHOP SANDWICHES), “Grandma’s Kisses, the Bad Version”, and of course the modern trend of the abridged series. Re-editing old cartoons in goofy parodies almost always yields comedic gold. Now why am I opening with this? Well, some of Adult Swim’s earliest shows were built on this approach, and from my perspective, no series did it better than the network classic Sealab 2021.
Sealab 2021 first premiered on December 21st, 2000, almost 10 months before the official inception of Adult Swim. It was created by Adam Reed and Matt Thompson, who would later go on to create Frisky Dingo and current FX staple Archer. While working for Cartoon Network, the two came across old master tapes of the forgotten Hanna-Barbera cartoon Sealab 2020, and then rewrote and redubbed the dialogue to be more humorous. The network passed on it, but the two ended up revisiting the idea after learning how to do some basic editing and manipulating characters to act how they wanted. They produced new pilots and sent them to Cartoon Network around the time they were gearing up to create Adult Swim, and they picked up the show, airing three pilots in 2000 (season 0, so to speak) and officially premiering the first season on September 2nd, 2001, the day that Adult Swim itself officially started.
There isn’t really much to speak of in terms of plot. The series is a satirical parody of the original Sealab 2020, mainly focusing on the inhabitants and crew of the titular Sealab and their oddball misadventures. Notable clips from 2020 would be used as jumping-off points for the plots in 2021, or they would get redubbed to be funnier in comparison to the original context. For example, one of 2020’s episodes was about a break in the hull of Sealab causing a flood, and this was incorporated into one of 2021’s pilots, essentially turned into background noise as the characters humorously discussed the logistics of their brains in robot bodies. 2020 had an episode about the crew attempting to place a seismograph on the bottom of the ocean and encountering a giant squid, which was redubbed to instead be about the crew being sent to obtain Captain Murphy’s Happy-Cake oven, which went mysteriously missing (Sparks got rid of it to drive the captain insane).
The writing was rather skillful at how it incorporated the stock footage and character models, often writing episodes that would deliberately call attention to the inherent cheapness of the production. One of the most famous episodes of the series is “Fusebox”, in which the power goes out at Sealab and the crew tries to get it back on. Eight minutes of the episode is just one outside shot of the base with the lights out, as the characters yell at each other. Another notable cost-saving episode, the ostensible black sheep of the entire series, is “7211”. The episode is quite literally just a redubbing of a 2020 episode, “Collision of the Aquarius”, in which a nuclear-powered submarine crashes into the base and they have to prevent a nuclear meltdown from occurring. While the episode edits down the original to the usual 11-minute runtime, it utilizes the same script word-for-word, just using the 2021 names in place of the original characters.
Speaking of the characters, let’s talk about them, since they’re very much the heart of the show and its bizarre comedic proceedings. The characters all have their names changed from 2020, with Captain Murphy and Sparks retaining their names between shows, and minor quirks of the original crew are blown up to reflect the entirety of 2021’s characters. Let’s start with the captain.
It’s worth noting that Murphy’s voice in 2021 sounds nearly exactly like Murphy in 2020, but his personality and performance are exaggerated to reflect the captain as an unhinged immature psychopath who’s often more concerned about himself and his sense of instant gratification towards anything than he is for the well-being of his crew. He declared an inaccurate form of Martial law when items kept getting stolen from Sealab, he once attempted to impose Marxist ideologies on the base, and he even turned Sealab into a tourist attraction for ridiculously convoluted financial reasons. Captain Murphy was a dangerous child, and he made for an excellent source of comedy.
Up next is Sparks, the radio operator. Sparks in 2020 often spent a significant amount of time sitting in a chair, so in 2021, he’s literally always seen in his chair even when he’s not manning the radio. He could be in the ocean, and he’s still sitting in that damn chair. Unlike Murphy, Sparks is more subdued and controlled in his psychopath, often engaging in cunning schemes at the expense of the crew’s well-being, like the aforementioned stealing of Murphy’s Happy-Cake oven, making the crew sign life insurance policies only to murder all of them to collect the cash himself, or using them as test subjects for potentially life-threatening health supplements.
Marco Rodrigo Diaz de Vivar Gabriel Garcia Marquez is an engineer at Sealab, and he’s probably the sanest out of all the crew members (using the term “sane” somewhat loosely here). As the ridiculous name implies, he exists as somewhat of a Latino stereotype, and a rather funny one thanks to the performance of CHiPs star Erik Estrada. One humorous observation to make is that in 2020, his character was simply named Dr. Paul Williams, thus taking a character with the whitest name imaginable and turning him into a fiery piece of Latino man-meat.
There are two Debbies on the show: one white and one black. Black Debbie is not much of a prominent character, appearing a little bit in the first two seasons, and then having a somewhat recurring role in season 3 and 4. White Debbie is typecast as somewhat of a hormonal, not-too-bright, sex-crazed maniac, and while sometimes she’s the voice of reason, mostly she’s about as collected and calm as the rest of her crewmates. She has an on-off relationship with Dr. Quentin Q. Quinn, who is without a doubt the smartest member of the whole crew, but is just as prone to being unbalanced like everyone else, mainly expressing anger at being on a base with a bunch of moronic dangerous jerks. Quinn is also a cyborg, something that gets brought up in the first pilot and then referenced in an episode where he builds a robot body for Captain Murphy, thus leading the rest of the crew to demand robot bodies.
Stormy is on the same level of harmfulness as Sparks and Murphy, but whereas those characters cause harm due to deliberate intention and pure insanity respectively, Stormy’s just an idiot, no doubt the dumbest character of the main cast. Who knows what’s going on inside that pretty-boy head of his? Outside of the main cast, there are a handful of recurring characters, namely Dr. Virjay, the base’s doctor, and reactor room operator Hesh, voiced by Adult Swim fan favorite mc chris (MC Pee Pants from Aqua Teen). Hesh refers to himself in the third person frequently, and he often doesn’t interact directly with the crew themselves, usually only being seen on the video screen. He’s somewhat absent from the show in season 2, but appears more frequently in season 3 and 4, even getting to hang out with the crew more often than usual.
Frequent recurring gags are a staple of the show, with one of the most well-remembered being Sealab blowing up at the end of some episodes. I counted as I watched, and the base blows up at least 11 times across the entire run of the series, significantly less than I initially remembered. Mike Lazzo, the vice president of Adult Swim, often had his name misspelled in the ending credits, with such funny revisions as:
- Ola Kizz Me
- Melvis lazlo
- mklzz eaio
- Me lik a zoz
- Herr lazzo
- Mike (put my name back to normal) Lazzo
- And more…
Another recurring trope in the series was the tendency towards these “show-within-a-show” type of meta-narratives, where it turns out Sealab 2021 only exists within the context of another fictional world. Often this would be used for humorous ending stingers, such as in “Murphy Murph and the Feng Shui Bunch”, where the episode is revealed to take place within an Atari game being played by Shake and Meatwad from Aqua Teen Hunger Force, or in “Dearly Beloved Seed”, an unusually Hesh-centric episode that turned out to be a fanfic written by “MCHeshpants420”, which was actually just mc chris.
Other times, this type of meta-plot would be a central story point. The first season ended with a “behind the scenes” episode on the “set” of Sealab, with the characters going by their voice actors’ names instead of the character names and the show creators appearing as characters, being represented by stock models from Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kids. Season 2 featured a Deco Drive/Entertainment Tonight-style episode exploring the making of a fictional film adaptation of the show: Tinfins. The episode also contains numerous references to a fictional restaurant called Grizzlebee’s, a name that comes up quite often in the series around this time.
The show was absolutely hysterical and on-point for its first 2 ½ seasons, but then tragedy struck. In 2003, Captain Murphy’s voice actor, Harry Goz, died from multiple myeloma. This death cast a dark shadow on the show that it couldn’t easily recover from. Halfway through season 3, Murphy was written out (it was said that he went off to battle in the great Spice Wars), and he was replaced with a new character, Captain Tornado Shanks, voiced by Harry’s son Michael Goz. This is the turning point where the show, sadly, started dwindling in quality, and it wasn’t just because of the change in captains. There also seemed to be a pretty noticeable shift in the way that episodes were written and plots were conceived. During the first 2 ½ seasons, the majority of 2021’s episodes were very character-driven, with their actions and over-the-top personalities driving the plot and the jokes. After the halfway mark of season 3, episodes began to rely more on increasingly bizarre plot shenanigans that were often out of the characters’ control. These stories could theoretically happen to any character or character type, so it made the Sealab crew feel less important, generally speaking. The ocean disappearing around the base, a trillionaire purchasing the base, zombie invasions, and a running sub-plot about Marco dying (but not really) and his human-shark son Sharko (?) made it feel like the writers were struggling for clever ideas. Despite this, the series still managed to end on a high note with the final episode, another “interview with the cast” episode about the sequel to Tinfins. The audience asks various questions, often roasting the cast and the show for not being as good as Aqua Teen, ending with a nice montage tribute to Captain Murphy, and offering a sneak peek at the next season after the commercial break, which obviously doesn’t happen.
So that’s Sealab 2021 for you. One of the classics of Adult Swim that helped define the comedic sensibilities of the block for many years to come, and offered plenty of great laughs thanks to funny characters, entertaining writing, and a great voice cast. While it may have stumbled on its way to the end, the series still offered many memorable laughs and great episodes, and I’d recommend it as a must-watch, especially if you’re relatively new to Adult Swim and have no clue what it was like back in the day. And now, let’s end with Hesh’s wedding rap.
Final Rating: 8 Grizzlebee’s Onion BurstsTM served with Honey Maple Ranch Dipping sauce out of 10.
Sealab 2021 was produced by Williams Street Studios, 70/30 Productions, and Radical Axis.