Just don't confuse going unrecognized with being unknown. Since debuting as an egomaniacal anthropomorphic milkshake on the premiere episode of Aqua Teen Hunger Force in late 2000, Snyder—a 1992 graduate of Las Vegas High School—has amassed a following that might be termed "cult" if it wasn't large enough to push Cartoon Network's late-night Adult Swim programming block to better ratings in the advertiser-driving 18-to-34-year-old demographic than The Tonight Show With Jay Leno, Late Show With David Letterman or Jimmy Kimmel Live. Fans on the street might not spot Snyder, who typically doesn't walk around in yellow kitchen gloves with a pink bendy straw protruding from his head, but they'd surely identify the whiny, nasal nag of Master Shake.
"It's not really far away from my real voice," Snyder confesses on the phone from his Los Angeles apartment, not that he needs to concede the point. As he peppers the conversation with snappy, smart-assed quips—referring to himself as a "super genius," pretending to tell a former math teacher about what she can do with her algebra now, calling himself a jagoff for laughing at his own lines—it's often tough to tell where Snyder ends and the Shake begins. "Master Shake is basically me when I'm super screaming and trying to be slightly obnoxious. That's really all it is."
But Master Shake's insufferable nature—he's usually found bullying one fast-food housemate, the dim-witted Meatwad, and clashing with the other, the level-headed Frylock—could scarcely be further from his portrayer's true personality, Snyder's friends are quick to say. "In reality, Dana Snyder is probably the nicest person I've ever met," offers Jay Edwards, producer and editor for Aqua Teen. "That character just plays into something that Dana thinks is really funny, the humor of being an asshole, maybe because it's so different from himself."
"It's a good release," Snyder says, "like when you see an uptight accountant visit the dominatrix to beat him up and treat him like a sack of crap. That's like what this is for me. I can be a loud, obnoxious, screaming asshole and get it all out of my system."
Voice work—in addition to Master Shake, Snyder plays recurring characters on Adult Swim mainstays Squidbillies (Granny), The Venture Bros. (The Alchemist) and Minoriteam (Dr. Wang)—drew Snyder from New York City to Los Angeles in 2005 and now provides his primary source of income. "It's basically my life, or at least my lifeblood," he marvels. The Shake, in particular, also supplies him a remarkable measure of street cred, as college-age cartoon-lovers line up at comic conventions to meet their unseen hero and track down hip-hop CDs featuring samples of his voice.
"It's super interesting to me—certain people hear that's what you do, and you immediately have a certain amount of cachet," the 33-year-old Snyder says. "Little do most people know how much I shouldn't. I'm such a nerd, just opposite what most of the fan base is like. But they meet you and they're like, 'Cool, dude. You rock. What kind of rock do you listen to?' and I'm like, 'I don't really listen to rock, sorry.' I listen to really bad music, strange supper-club albums ... 'live from the Palm Springs dinner room, it's Mandy and Marco.'"
So just how does a geeky kid with oddball taste in music go about becoming the world's coolest milkshake? (Forget Grimace—Snyder writes the purple McDonald's creature off as nothing more than a "distasteful smile.") The first spark for the unusual career path probably resided in his dad's old W.C. Fields records, impressions of which Snyder had mastered by the time he reached elementary school. "The principal was quite fond of Dana," his father, Las Vegas architect Bill Snyder, recalls. "And every time a dignitary or school administrator would come to the school, Dana would get called into the office to do voices for them. Later on, he did the announcements over the loudspeaker every day, always in a different character, a different voice."
Despite that auspicious initiation to the field, voice work hardly seemed Snyder's destiny during his formative years. Throughout middle school, he spent his free time recording home movies—elaborately scripted films starring children from the Snyder family's Green Valley neighborhood, including one toddler Dana Snyder laughingly refers to as his "stuntman. He was the youngest and the one we could grab and do the most with. I think he was just out of diapers, maybe 3 or 4, and he could just barely talk."
One project found Snyder piloting a night shoot by convincing neighbors to point their cars out of their driveways with headlights shining bright, then borrowing his father's keys. "Next thing we know, he's driving the car down the street with a little neighborhood kid tied to the bumper, laying flat on a skateboard with his hands out like Superman," Bill Snyder remembers. "We had a retired Air Force colonel living across the street, and I saw he was in the movie. So I said, 'How could you let Dana do that? He's 14 years old.' And he said, 'Don't worry, he had everything under control.'"
Snyder managed to top that ambitious scheme with another cinematic undertaking, involving the same neighborhood stuntkid. "I come home on a hot summer afternoon, and as my garage door goes up I notice this little kid, maybe 5 years old, tied to a chair, with tape across his mouth and a blindfold on," Bill Snyder says. "I immediately stop my car and untie him and start screaming for help ... I mean this kid is sweating. And in comes Dana and a couple of other kids, and I'm screaming at everybody, 'What the hell are you doing?' And the little 5-year-old says to me, 'Billy, we're filming here.' That's just the way our neighborhood was with Dana around."
Though Snyder continued making films and voicing fake radio broadcasts during high school, his primary interest soon turned to acting, thanks largely to the advanced theater program at Las Vegas High, led by a new advisor named John Morris. "I worried about his math and science, but when he really wanted to do something, like play a role, he was really focused on it," says Morris, now the theater department chair at the school, which has become the Las Vegas Academy. "He played Creon in Anouilh's Antigone, the 1940s French version, and he was spectacular. That same year he sang 'Shipoopi' as Marcellus in The Music Man, and he sold it. So I knew then he had the ability to do this stuff."
During Snyder's senior year, Morris picked him for the role of Oscar Madison in The Odd Couple, showcasing the advanced comic sensibilities that would later define Master Shake. "I still have this memory of him coming in after a long, hard day at the office," Morris recalls. "They'd had a huge fight, he and Felix, and he pulls out this bag full of Twinkies, bites one and then puts it down and squishes it into the surface of the coffee table, just deadpan. It was a brilliant moment that he came up with. That was the show where I really thought, 'This boy's got some comic timing.'"
Snyder went on to attend Webster University's Conservatory of Theatre Arts in St. Louis. "Our day was from nine in the morning until 11 at night," he says. "We had dance and music classes in the morning, then acting, movement and voice and speech in the afternoon. Then at night, rehearsal if we were in a show or building sets if we were on crew. It was not for someone looking for a general education."
After graduating, Snyder moved to New York City, where he and a friend began performing self-composed piano and voice cabaret material around Manhattan. Snyder also landed a regular summer stock acting gig at Hope College in Holland, Michigan. Still, Morris wondered what the future might hold for his former pupil. "I didn't ever figure that he was headed for Broadway," Morris says. "He was always headed for something a little more quirky."
For a couple of months in 2000, Snyder returned home to Las Vegas, bringing with him an original burlesque production called The Burlycue and dreams of taking it to the Strip. Though reviews were positive, he never made the necessary contacts. "One agent guy who came said, 'It's so nice to see a burlesque show that's not filled with old guys.' He loved it," Snyder remembers. "But he was maybe 1,000 years old. I think he was 70 when Bugsy was killed."
As it turned out, of course, Snyder needn't have worried about his future. Around the same time he was singing and dancing in his Burlycue, Dave Willis, a writer for Cartoon Network show Space Ghost Coast to Coast was on the lookout for an atypical voice to play a role on a new cartoon and contacted a mutual friend. "I went to college with a girl who went to high school with Dave, and he asked her if she knew anybody with an interesting voice," Snyder says. "She said, 'Call my friend Dana.' And when he did, he said, 'Here's the thing. We've auditioned all these people, and although the characters are supposed to be superheroes, they aren't really. But people are doing the voices all superheroey. The guy's actually whiny, self-important, egotistical ...' And I was like, 'I'm perfect for the part!'"
Only an "official audition"—Snyder reading a few Master Shake lines into Willis' answering machine—remained as a final hurdle. He nailed it, though not without a few stressful moments and a little liquid assistance. "A buddy from Las Vegas was visiting, and we had gone out drinking, so I went back to my apartment at three in the morning and did my thing," Snyder says. "And [Willis] calls me the next day and he's like, 'That was fantastic. I loved it. But I accidentally erased it and we need to play it for the big boss, so could you call and do it again?' So I call the next day and do it again, and he's like, 'Hmmm ... I can't put my finger on it, but it seems like that other one you left had something extra. There was something more fun about it.' And I was like, 'You mean the 25 beers I had?' Of course I didn't actually say that, but he asked if I could call and leave it again. At this point I was nervous, because I really wanted to do it. I could take no chances. So I went out again with my friend and we did exactly what we did the first night, like when they say if you go to an audition and they call you back you should wear the same shirt. And we came back and I did it again and that was it."
Snyder was now officially Master Shake, which meant exactly nothing when Aqua Teen Hunger Force aired for the first time on December 30, 2000. Snyder hadn't even seen a speck of animation before that night. "I hadn't seen a picture of anything," he says. "I didn't know if it was gonna be super-cartoony or super-realistic. And when it aired the first time, the cartoon wasn't really even finished yet. There was some stuff that wasn't entirely done, but they had to air it once in 2000 to be able to write it off at tax time or something, some weird budgetary thing."
Halfway convinced he'd seen the one and only episode of Aqua Teen, Snyder wound up recording six more episodes in 2001, and the show finally got back on the air—this time for good—that September. Snyder invited a few friends over for the big event.
"Everybody was like, 'Oh that was great' and 'It was exciting to see you on TV,' but they were also like, 'Boy, that's a weird show. What's that ball thing [Meatwad] supposed to be? Wow ... that was just ... weird.' To this day I still can't really judge whether I would watch the show if I didn't have anything to do with it."
Ascertaining exactly who does watch Aqua Teen can be a mighty tricky business. Though many presume college-age stoners comprise the majority of viewers, Snyder says he's perpetually surprised by the variety of fans he meets at autograph-signing sessions. "There's certainly the uber-frat-guy element. They'll come up and say, 'I love your show. We watch all the time.' But then the next guy will come up and say the same thing, but in real life those two people would be fighting," Snyder says. "It would be like in Revenge of the Nerds, if the nerds and the jocks both watched the same show."
Although each episode of Aqua Teen—No. 66 airs on January 7—is scripted by the writing team of Willis and Matt Maiellaro, Snyder deserves partial credit for the show's appealing idiosyncrasies, according to the show's editor-producer. "Dave and Matt write to their voice-over people's strengths, and I think they know when they're writing the Shake lines, Dana is generally going to come up with something better," Edwards explains. "So I think, consciously or subconsciously, they under-write the Shake lines, knowing that when they get in the booth, Dana's gonna bring his personality to it."
Snyder's background as a living, breathing onstage actor also gives him an edge over many of his voice-over peers. "He's a good actor, and it really helps," Edwards assesses. "A lot of voice-over talent is just that. They're like announcers—they have great voices, and they can read lines off the page, but it doesn't mean they can add emotion to those lines. Dana's exceptional because he can do that."
Master Shake, Meatwad and Frylock are set to supersize in 2007 with the release of the tentatively titled The Aqua Teen Hunger Force Movie Film For Theatres, the first Adult Swim show to hit the big screen. Aqua Teen's reach also extended into the musical realm, when DangerDoom—a hip-hop partnership between producer Danger Mouse and rapper MF Doom—employed the characters' voices on 2005 LP The Mouse and the Mask and 2006 online EP Occult Hymn. "Quite a few people have mentioned the DangerDoom album to me," Snyder says. "I knew it was good when my brother called me out of the blue and was like, 'Whoa, I'm listening to the new DangerDoom album and you're all over this. Just so you know, you'll have some cred in the hip-hop community.'"
Despite his success, does Snyder's thespian side ever balk at portraying a talking milkshake? Not even close, insists a man whose primary goal has always been keeping those around him laughing, through whatever "asinine"—his word—methods are at his disposal. "I've always thought of myself as much more of an entertainer than an actor. My goal all along has been to have fun and hope other people get enjoyment out of something I do."
Ironically, Snyder's voice work could soon pave the way for his most visible dramatic role—actually, make that three roles—on Saul of the Mole Men, Adult Swim's first live-action program, expected to begin airing in the coming months. "I'll actually be on-camera, not doing a voice ... well, I will be doing a voice but it will be the voice of my own body," explains Snyder, who has also started auditioning for other noncartoon roles. "When I first moved out to LA, I came out just to do voice-over, to focus on that and not spread myself too thin. Now, Phase 2: Dominate all of acting—television and film!"
Whether showing his face—and most everything else—as Saul's loinclothed Kiko the Wild Boy will raise his celebrity quotient remains to be seen. But for now, Snyder sounds content with his strange famous-but-not-exactly status, best typified by a recent trip to the Snyder family's East Coast hub in Allentown, Pennsylvania.
"We went home for Thanksgiving and all the family was there," he says. "All of a sudden all the relatives who watch Aqua Teen—high school and college kids—are crowded around me, standing in my grandmother's kitchen. I went from being the nerdiest to maybe the coolest guy in their whole life. How funny is that?"