A local radio and TV veteran imparts lively irreverence to a cartoon talk show host.

By Walt Belcher, Tribune Staff Writer

Look, up on the screen.

It's a talk show host.

It's a superhero.

It's Space Ghost.

Wackier than David Letterman. More cynical than Larry Sanders. Able to leap to conclusions without any foundation. Space Ghost leads a never-ending fight to stay awake during his interviews.

Today, we're unmasking the big lug and star of the Cartoon Network's hit series "Space Ghost Coast to Coast!" He's none other than former Tampa Bay area radio and television personality George Lowe.

Lowe, who grew up in Brooksville, is the voice of the thickheaded cartoon hero on a goofy talk show that has become a cult favorite.

"Yeah, I play him as the clueless guy at the party who doesn't quite get the joke," said Lowe in a recent telephone interview from his Atlanta apartment.

"I'm having a lot of fun with this, except when they ask me to make public appearances and I have to wear three layers of foam muscles and spandex." Now in its second season on the Cartoon Network (11 p.m. Fridays), "Space Ghost Coast to Coast!" could be the break that launches 37-year-old Lowe to national fame.

"I've struggled for a long time and paid a lot of dues for this," he says.

Lowe majored in broadcasting at the University of South Florida. While there in the early 1980s, he was the anchor of a student-produced newscast on WUSF, Channel 16.

He held part-time jobs at a number of Tampa radio and television stations. He did light features for the locally produced "PM Magazine" segments on WTOG, Channel 44.

He also worked at WRBQ, 104.7 FM, WMTX, 95.7 FM, and other radio stations producing comedy bits. For five years, he was the TV pitchman for Art Palmi Dodge.

In 1986, Lowe had a two-hour morning show on WTMV, Channel 32, when it first started up as a music video station.

"I tried to scratch out a living in Tampa," he says. "I did everything I could and hung on for the longest time but I never could get a toehold there."

Lowe left Tampa in 1988 for a radio job at Atlanta's WABW, where he produced a morning show.

"But there's no security in radio," he says. "I left and started freelance announcing. I almost went door to door like a "Fuller voice guy.'

"Then things started to click and I made inroads at Turner (Broadcasting System) and other places. And while "Space Ghost' isn't a full-time gig yet, it has been a lot of fun."

Back from '60s haunts

The Space Ghost character was created in 1966 at the Hanna-Barbera cartoon gristmill. He was a made-for-TV action hero, but there wasn't much action because of cheap, stilted animation.

Veteran announcer Gary Owens supplied the original voice and played the character straight. But the dumb dialogue came off as unintentionally campy. The series lasted only a season before Space Ghost faded away.

When Turner Broadcasting System bought the Hanna-Barbera film library, Cartoon Network Vice President Mike Lazzo decided to revive Space Ghost for the '90s.

In a sendup of other talk shows, Space Ghost has been cast as the Johnny Carson of animation. He chats with real-life celebrities beamed in over a little TV on his talk show set.

Owens auditioned for the part again. But network officials picked Lowe, who does radio and television commercials in the Atlanta area.

"They liked my spin on the voice. I play him as a little more whacked out, a little more acerbic than the original," Lowe says.

More than 20 shows will have been made by the end of this year, says producer Keith Crawford. One of them has been nominated for best variety special in the upcoming Cable ACE Awards.

"There's no schedule for production of new episodes. We just do a few and put them in the can and then do a few more," Lowe says. "There's a lot of repeats."

Space Ghost also has been added to Turner's TBS network as the host of an afternoon block of cartoon reruns, "Cartoon Planet."

"We're a small staff that goes for quality rather than quantity," says Crawford, who doubles as director of programming at the Cartoon Network.

"George is terrific. When he goes into the booth, we get the tape rolling and keep most of his ad-libs."

Look who's talking

Space Ghost's guest list has been impressive. Lassie, Fran Drescher ("The Nanny"), Letterman regulars Mujibur and Sirajul, Bob Denver, Susan Powter, Jim Carrey, Bobcat Goldthwait, Sandra Bernhard, the Jerky Boys, Judy Tenuda, David Byrne, Donny Osmond, Alice Cooper and Carol Channing are among those who have been grilled by Space Ghost.

The guests are interviewed beforehand on videotape by Lowe, the producers or the writers. Space Ghost's reactions are edited in, using some of the original animation from the 1960s.

"My reactions come after the interviews and so I can get away with being nasty or sarcastic," Lowe says.

Also on the show are two of Space Ghost's former alien enemies, a green mantis named Zorak (his bandleader now) and a robotic creature, Moltar (now his director).

"Space Ghost is easily distracted by Zorak or Moltar or hunger pains, or just about anything," Lowe says. "He can't stay on the topic. He's easily bored. But sometimes he gets in zingers."

When Adam "Batman" West dropped by, Space Ghost pleaded with him to share Batman's superpowers. He was shocked when West told him that he had none.

"Then your whole life is a lie," Space Ghost said.

In a reference to the way West makes a living off public appearances, he said, "See ya at the auto show, Adam."

When Dian Parkinson, the former "Price Is Right" model, who accused host Bob Barker of sexual harassment, was a guest, Zorak urged Space Ghost to ask her about "the affair."

Space Ghost thought he said "fair" and asked her how she liked the "pony rides, cotton candy and Lobster Boy."

"The writers are really very clever," Lowe says.

"I'm surprised at how many of the celebrities that we interview have even heard of the show. And some, like Michael Stipe (of R.E.M.), are big fans.

"Stipe was so excited that he drove himself over all the way from Athens, Ga., in blazing heat in his Volvo instead of asking for a limo to pick him up."

The Cartoon Network is seen in about 12 million cable TV homes nationwide. Tonight's episode is a repeat of a Jim Carrey interview.

Originally published in the Friday, October 6, 1995 edition of the Tampa Tribune.

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