Joe Strike talks with the creative forces behind FOX's latest primetime animated series.
You wouldn’t recognize Jonah Hill to look at him. He no longer resembles the chubby-cheeked, baby-faced high-schooler he played in Superbad (when he was already 24 years old) or the clingy momma’s boy in last year’s Cyrus. He’s dropped some 40 pounds since the spring and looks like an earnest, thoughtful young man – not an up-and-coming Hollywood star.
You won’t recognize him in Allen Gregory either, the just-launched Sunday night animated comedy on Fox. It might be Jonah’s voice, but it’s coming out of the mouth of the world’s most pretentious seven year old, a self-proclaimed prodigy forced to attend public school when his two-daddy household suffers a financial reversal.
Allen Gregory is the creation of Hill and his pals Andrew Mogel and Jarrad Paul, co-writers of Jim Carrey’s Yes Man. As Hill explained in a recent interview, he turned down Fox’s invitation to voice an animated pilot in favor of developing his own show with Mogel and Paul:
“We knew we wanted him to be a pretentious, delusional character and thought the most interesting way to do that would be to make him an adorable little kid. That’s how we started, and then we went from there. I'm a lifelong Simpsons fanatic and I wanted to create my own animated show one day. I figured if I was on one of their shows as a voice actor, they wouldn't want another show that I created. So I politely said no thanks and then went over to Jarrad’s apartment. He and Andy were writing and I said the three of us should create an animated show together.”
In spite of their complete lack of television experience the trio produced and screened a ten-minute presentation video for Fox. “It was a funny, fresh presentation,” recalls David A. Goodman, one of Allen Gregory’s executive producers and its showrunner, and earned Hill and company a 13-episode order from the network. An experienced hand was needed to turn the trio’s presentation into an honest-to-goodness TV series; after heading up Family Guy for five seasons (and developing a few animated pilots of his own) Goodman was the man for the job.
There was a slight problem to begin with, however: Fox cultivates animated pilots all year long; Allen Gregory’s pick-up came this past spring while other animated series received theirs in the closing weeks of 2010. The cream-of-the-crop animation writers had all been grabbed while AG was just getting off the ground.
As a result, “we have mostly new writers,” Goodman explains, “ones who have the voice, a similar point of view as the show’s.” Those writers include people like Michael Colton and John Aboud, on-camera veterans of VH1’s Best Week Ever. Jonah Hill is part of the creative process as well – “completely involved” says Goodman. The star takes part in the writing, sits in on table reads and supervises animation.
Bernard Derriman, director of AG’s pilot episode agrees: “Jonah was always involved in table reads, always there for recording sessions. I got to see him recording his lines, ad-libbing and everything else
“One of his ad-libbed lines is in my episode: Allen discovers Julie [his adopted sister] in his bedroom. She startles him and he says ‘oh my God, Julie, I thought you were a rat.’ A lot of that kind of stuff, which is cool.”
AG is animated by Bento Box, a hot young outfit based in California’s real Toontown, Burbank. The studio’s responsible for Fox’s other non-Simpsons, non-McFarlane Sunday night show Bob’s Burgers (currently in production for a second season), Entourage’s imaginary cartoon series Johnny’s Bananas and TBS’s Neighbors from Hell.
As Derriman, an Aussie expatriate and veteran of Disney’s now-shuttered Australia studio, recalls, “I was working for Bento Box from Sydney, boarding Neighbors from Hell and Bob’s Burgers via Email. I’m friendly with Joel [Kuwahara, one of Bento’s founders] and one day he said ‘if you ever want to get over here, there’s an office waiting for you.’ It was just a throwaway at the end of an e-mail, but I thought maybe I should do it, give it a go for a little while.”
Derriman lauds Bento Box as “a great little shop. It’s not a huge place – all the writers, directors, storyboard artists are under the same roof. It’s small enough for us to take part in the table reads.”
Allen Gregory is created in Burbank via Toon Boom software and physically animated by Korea’s Yeson studio. “I think we’re the first 100% digital production,” says Derriman. “The timing, the exits, all that information is digital within the storyboard files we send over, and Yeson animates off those same files. It’s a bit of a trailblazing effort.”
While Fox’s late greenlight for AG might’ve been a challenge for Goodman, it was business as usual for Derriman. “That probably affected the development guys and the writers more. We come on late in the piece, after the scripts are written and the casting is complete.” It’s no bed of roses directing prime time animation however; Derriman slips in a bit of Aussie slang when he observes that as directors, “We’re always under the pump.”
One of the most visually intriguing elements of Allen Gregory is James McDermott’s character design. McDermott, who also worked on King of the Hill and The Goode Family took Hill’s advice to make the characters (and Allen’s penthouse home) “like a page out of The New Yorker.” Indeed, the show’s characters look like they could comfortably inhabit one of the upscale magazine’s single panel cartoon gags. For the most part their compact facial features occupy the lower half of faces featuring oversized foreheads.
When asked if it was hard to make those tiny mouths and eyes expressive, Derriman says it really wasn’t a problem. “Actually, it was far more difficult on Bob’s Burgers, which had a very limited style as far as creating expressions. That show treated its characters like Muppets.
“Allen Gregory wasn’t too bad in that regard. We had the flexibility to move eyebrows around, contort faces and get the right expressions – we did a lot of that in the pilot. That’s the beauty of sending those files to the people at Yeson; they work off our actual drawings – and we draw quite cleanly. You get those expressions just right and they would come back like that, which is great.”
Perhaps AG’s greatest challenge is to make its pretentious, self-centered star a sympathetic character that viewers will want to spend time with. “I've learned through experience of playing different characters,” says Hill, “some of them whom are jerks or whatever, that when you play a character who is pretentious or obnoxious in any way, it's important to knock them down a peg. Right when you can't take it anymore, their rudeness or something, to make sure they are really knocked down a peg emotionally, and you see the insecurity that causes that kind of behavior.”
At least once during every episode Allen deals with such a moment, but usually manages to quickly bounce back to his precocious self. “One particular thing we do to help Allen is make him as small as possible,” Derriman explains. Wherever possible we have just the crown of his head just running along the top of a table. We also use lots of down shots and extreme close-up shots which Andy and Jarrad are always keen for.
“There’s only so much you can do when you’re working with dialog. It’s definitely a more restrained animated show, it’s definitely dialog-based. A lot of the challenge is in blocking a scene, the staging as opposed to having to do a big action sequence. A lot of the stuff in Bob’s Burger’s is pretty full-on extreme action stuff. It’s definitely a different beast in that way.”
Should Allen Gregory prove successful and go onto a long run, Goodman promises the youngster won’t be softened up. His apparent attitude might change according to his needs at any given moment, however. “He can be nice and charming, depending on what his agenda is. You meet people like him all over the place,” says Goodman. “In Allen’s case he’s pretentious, but vulnerable. He’s arrogant and aggressive to cover his insecurities.
“He’s seven years old and he wants to be liked.”
Seven Allen Gregory episodes are being produced for initial run, and scripts are now being written for the back six. “Leaving Family Guy was a big decision,” Goodman adds. “I’ve worked on so many shows that never made it to a second season. We don’t know yet whether Allen Gregory will be a success or a failure, a noble failure.”
Joe Strike is a regular contributor to AWN. He has written about animation, sci-fi and fantasy entertainment for the New York Daily News, Newsday and the New York Press. Joe has scripted the Nick Jr. series Wow! Wow! Wubbzy! and taught Mass Communications at New York's St. John's University. He is currently hosting “Interview with an Animator” [animator.interviews.com], a series of audience-attended conversations with noted figures in the animation community at a variety of New York City venues, including the Paley Center for the Media, The Society of Illustrators and the Museum of Comic and Cartoon Art. Joe can be reached via firstname.lastname@example.org.