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Sixteen years later, ‘Aqua Teen Hunger Force’ creators open up about 2007′s Mooninite panic

At the Boston Comedy Festival, they’ll screen a never-before-seen episode about the marketing fiasco that fueled a bizarre bomb scare in the city — and cemented itself in regional history.

Massachusetts State Police Bomb Squad officer removes a device from a support column of the Monsignor McGrath Highway in Somerville on January 31, 2007. It was one of several displays, meant to advertise a movie, that triggered panic and a large police response around Boston.CJ Gunther/EPA

On Jan. 31, 2007, life in Boston came to a halt after someone spotted a sinister-looking device beneath a highway overpass near Sullivan Square.

The mysterious object, with its glowing lights and unfamiliar logo, triggered a terrorism scare that lasted all day. A crush of emergency vehicles and bomb squad units descended on the city. The Orange Line and part of I-93 were shuttered. Helicopters hovered overhead and news stations aired nonstop coverage as officials found similar devices in other neighborhoods.

But the electronic squares that depicted an alien character called a Mooninite giving the middle finger weren’t bombs at all — they were harmless, illuminated promotional signs for a new film from the creators of “Aqua Teen Hunger Force,” a popular show on Cartoon Network’s Adult Swim.


Some remember it as an era-defining overreaction from politicians and police that showed how paranoid America became after the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks. Others regard it as a reckless stunt worthy of condemnation for the disruption it caused.

For years, the brains behind the show kept their thoughts about the notorious marketing fiasco to themselves.

Until now.

For the first time, the duo is opening up about the Mooninite Panic of 2007 at Saturday’s Boston Comedy Festival, where they will screen a never-before-seen episode of the show that satirizes what transpired. They also hope to make their feelings about everything clear — or as clear as the surrealist comedians ever get.

Dave Willis and Matt Maiellaro, creators of "Aqua Teen Hunger Force.”M. Von Holden/WireImage for Turner

But first, they said in a Zoom video interview with the Globe, they want to stress that they personally had nothing to do with the ill-fated plan to stash the light-boards across Boston, in an act of guerrilla marketing.

“We didn’t know anything about it until it was on the news that they were shutting Boston down,” said co-creator Matt Maiellaro. “We had no warning.”


Turner Broadcasting System, then-owner of Cartoon Network’s Adult Swim, took responsibility for the stunt. The media conglomerate hired marketing company Interference Inc. to promote the show’s upcoming movie. That firm tapped two Boston artists to secretly install the electronic devices — modeled after Lite-Brite boards — around Boston, one of a dozen cities where they appeared.

The first Mooninite sighting led to a high-level police response and a panicked search for more devices, which became national news.

“We came in that morning and were like, ‘This is great news for our movie!’” said Dave Willis, co-creator and voice of Meatwad — a talking ball of burger meat — and other characters from the show.

“We were going to go on the air and go like, ‘Boston, you are down on your knees. Cleveland, you’re next!’” he added, using the voice of the Mooninite. “And our boss is like, ‘There is no way we’re ever going to let you do this.’”

Instead, Turner and the marketing firm apologized and paid the city $2 million in compensation. Cartoon Network’s general manager resigned. Willis and Maiellaro were told to keep their mouths shut. They complied, Willis said, to avoid getting anyone “into any further trouble.”

Then-Attorney General Martha Coakley held two photos of Mooninite devices and their placement on overpasses during a press conference at Boston Police Headquarters on Jan. 31, 2007.Lee, Matthew J. Globe Staff Phot/The Boston Globe

But the backlash continued, with the show getting accused of perpetrating a “bomb hoax” meant to trigger panic — a notion Willis said was ludicrous.

“I don’t think it occurred to anyone in that entire marketing team that this could possibly be interpreted as an explosive device,” he said. “The fact that it was interpreted as one seemed kind of stupid to me, to be honest. And the fact that we ended up paying $2 million was maddening. It really cost $2 million of police overtime to find these 12 signs and tear them down? What a joke.”


To make matters even more surreal, the Boston artists commissioned to install the devices gave a press conference where they would only answer questions about ‘70s haircuts.

Willis found that moment “utterly ridiculous,” but felt it was appropriate for the artists to be dismissive of the press since they were “unfairly implicated.”

“I felt bad for them at the time. They were just temps that were hired to do a job and then all of a sudden everyone pointed the finger at them,” he said. “Then they kept the plate spinning with all their crazy [expletive] at their press conference, which was funny.”

The story’s reach stunned them.

Supporters rallied outside Charlestown District Court on behalf of Sean Stevens and Peter Berdovsky, the artists hired to place the Mooninite devices around Boston.Rizer, George Globe Staff/The Boston Globe

“In some ways it was probably one of our proudest moments, even though we had nothing to do with it,” Willis said.

That year, Maiellaro and Willis worked on an episode of the show that poked fun at the chaotic events. They wanted to air it on Adult Swim, but Turner executives spiked the idea.

When the movie came out that April, it brought in $5.5 million at the box office. Although it was much more than their $750,000 budget, Willis doesn’t think the debacle boosted sales, since the media and people outside of Boston had moved on from the story.


“Aqua Teen Hunger Force” aired until 2015. A second movie came out last year. A 12th season of the show is currently in the works and will air on HBO Max.

In 2015, a rough cut of the long-lost Boston episode circulated illegally online, adding to the legend of that day. Maiellaro and Willis aren’t sure how it leaked, but the episode being screened in Boston this weekend draws from some of the material of the original.

In it, the Aqua Teen characters hatch a plan to promote their movie by outfitting Meatwad in LED lights, and strapping him to a bridge in Boston. A bumbling police force shows up, mistakes him for a bomb, and blows him up. More chaos ensues as the episode goes on.

Willis said when revisiting the Boston episode, he and Maiellaro wanted to highlight the absurdity of the situation using their brand of surrealist humor, and weren’t trying to set the record straight.

“It’s our version of satire, which is sort of insane and elliptical,” he said. “I think it comments on it clearly in a way that a Boston local would truly get.”

Fans haven’t forgotten about the events to this day, and share jokes about the Mooninite scare online each year. On the 15th anniversary last year, Adult Swim tweeted an image of one of the displays, along with the date and tongue-in-cheek message “NEVER FORGET.”


Willis acknowledged that discussing a bomb scare — even one that’s become a punchline — is a delicate topic in Boston, which this year recognized the 10-year mark of the Boston Marathon bombing.

“I don’t want to imply that there isn’t a threat in this world,” he said. “I want to make sure that I’m very clear that I’m not being flippant about that aspect of things, because obviously that was horrible and horrific.”

He also conceded that the 2007 marketing plan could have been executed more thoughtfully (”No way should it have been put on a bridge,” he said). But as for the specific events of the Mooninite Panic, he’s not exactly sorry it happened.

“Maybe I’d say I’m sorry that I held you up in traffic 15 years ago,” he quipped, adding, “I certainly don’t want anyone to have felt one second of fear, but I know for a fact that wasn’t the intention.”

Willis, who said he’s looking forward to talking with people about what happened, still has an original Mooninite device at his home in Atlanta, where the slim rectangle attached to a battery pack hangs on a wall. Anyone, he said, could take one look at it and determine, “This is not a bomb.”

He held it up to the camera during the interview and turned it on. Glowing green dots appeared and formed the Mooninite’s body. White ones made up its face and a tiny hand flipping the bird.

“Still works,” he said.

Chicago Police commander Wayne Gulliford with several Mooninite devices found in that city around the same time that the ones in Boston were distributed.M. Spencer Green/Associated Press

Spencer Buell can be reached at spencer.buell@globe.com. Follow him on Twitter @SpencerBuell.