Joe Strike talks with King of the Hill exec producers John Altschuler and Dave Krinsky the show's return to FOX for its 11th season.
One would think Beavis and Butt-Head creator Mike Judge would be a happy man right now. For one, his biggest hit, the long-running King of the Hill is returning from the limbo of near-cancellation to an 11th season on FOX Jan. 28, 2007, nestled in a Sunday night dream slot between The Simpsons and Family Guy. For another, the third edition of The Animation Show, the Judge-curated compilation of short cartoons is touring the U.S.
But then there's Idiocracy, Judge's scathing live-action satire of America's dumbed-down entertainment and consumer culture. After a long sit on distributor FOX's shelf followed by a brief, below-the-radar theatrical release (no advance reviews please, we're nervous), the film recently resurfaced on DVD to a more than decent critical reception and cheers from Judge's not inconsiderable fan base.
"Mike had no say on the [DVD's] cover art, its release or trailers," says Robert May, The Animation Show's PR guy. "Mike's just so over the moon about it, he's clamping down -- he's in no-comment mode."
For whatever their reasons, no one from Film Roman, the series' animation house, or any of FOX's programming execs were made available to talk about King of the Hill's return either. Fortunately, exec producers John Altschuler and Dave Krinsky weren't quite as reticent.
Even though it had vanished from FOX's schedule, "the show was never officially cancelled," according to Krinsky, "We told FOX we needed to start production by a certain date, but they never got back to us. We lost our offices, our whole staff."
Altschuler adds that, "Gail Berman [then the president of the Fox Network and recently departed from Paramount Pictures] decided they didn't need King of the Hill anymore. It was very surprising -- the show was better than ever, our ratings were excellent. The last three years its ratings have grown without any promotion, even though it was airing inconsistently at odd times -- we've been all over map."
In spite of occasional rumors about a series pickup, the renewal also caught the pair by surprise. "There were rumblings, but we'd heard them for so long," recalls Krinsky. "There was still some work going on. John and I and a couple of post-production people were all that was left. We lost our lease on our offices and were sequestered on the lot in a little tiny space. We were really in the end game, all our writers and directors had moved onto other jobs. Then one day the call came: 'Okay, it looks like it's happening.' Waaait a minute -- how do we start?
"That was the hardest thing. In order to get going you had to make sure you have directors, but the directors weren't go to sign on unless there was a commitment. You couldn't have a commitment unless the actors were signed on, John and I had to sign on, Mike had to sign on -- everything had to be pushed up the hill all at once."
Altschuler credits series producer Mark McJimsey for reconstructing the show's animation crew, which gave the two exec producers a base upon which to rebuild their writing team. "We lost a lot of great writers, but it kind of worked out for the best. The new group brought fresh blood and revitalized the show.
"We still had five key players -- Jim Dauterive and Garland Testa who are co-running show with us, [writers] Tony and Becky Gama-Lobo and Christy Stratton. They've got five, six years of experience so we've got a nice nucleus to work around."
The show's voice actors returned without a struggle. Krinsky says that "Kathy Najimy's (who voices wife and mother Peggy Hill) response was basically 'send me the contract, I'll sign it,' she loved doing the show so much," and Altschuler adds, "fortunately they all love this show. The fact is they get to do work here you don't find anywhere else, so it was very easy to get them back."
While King of the Hill is technically about to begin its 11th season, the 10th actually consisted of previously unaired season-nine episodes, including the series' 200th, which aired in May. This season's opener -- "The Peggy Horror Picture Show" -- revolves around a typical KOTH culture-clash premise, in search of oversized shoes for her large feet and already unsure about her femininity, Peggy unknowingly befriends a transvestite who mistakes her for a fellow cross-dresser. The characters' unfamiliarity with modern mores is a running theme of the series; in lesser hands the temptation to mock them for their lack of sophistication might be irresistible.
"There's a certain charm to the characters not being all knowing," Altschuler maintains. "Our biggest model is The Andy Griffith Show. Dave and I are from the south, we both went to school in North Carolina. The show is not about making fun of people in small-town communities, but making fun with them. It's gentle and it's accurate. We'll point out the foibles of our characters, but not in a mocking way."
Another running theme of the series (as spelled out on one of the show's DVD commentary tracks) is that, 'the experts are all buffoons -- the hero is the common man.' "That's why it's lasted long," Altschuler agrees. "That's what Mike Judge had in mind from the beginning. Most of what you see from New York and Hollywood is making fun of Middle America -- this is Middle America making fun of New York and Hollywood. That encompasses all the experts and authors who know how you should act."
Krinsky continues his partner's observation: "I think that's the reason the show's been on for 11 years and got picked up for a 12th. Everyone in middle America -- and that extends to the coasts as well, there are Hank Hills all over -- recognize themselves in the show's dynamic."
Some observers might assume that, like most long-running shows, King of the Hill's cast of characters have changed and evolved over the years. However, what some define as evolution, Altschuler sees as "drift."
"I think that was the big problem with the middle of the run. Mike was unhappy with the drift of the show around seasons four and five. Peggy just became crazy, Bobby just became gay, Hank started getting weaker and weaker until he was literally being ordered around by [conspiracy-theorist neighbor] Dale.
"If you don't police characters on a daily basis, you go for jokes. 'Oh, it's funny that Peggy is mean to her family at this point.' 'Oh, okay, we're tired, let's do it again.' If you do it again and again, what happened was people started hating Peggy's character and felt distant from her. The show just kind of lost its way. What we've done since seasons six and seven was just work on getting the characters back to where they started and keeping them there. Once your characters become softer and change, the audience just doesn't know what to expect. It's so much easier to let them drift and 'evolve' than to keep them constant. But the fact is [if you let that happen] when you wake up at the end of a season and a half, you're like 'wait a minute, who is this character?'
Altschuler and Krinsky say they try to "dimensionalize" the characters rather than evolve them, to find (in Krinsky's words) "small little relatable character stuff, nothing that changes the essence of who they are."
King of the Hill delights in throwing curve balls both at its audience and at the show's characters. An imaginary "politically correct" viewer might expect Hank and his conservative buddies to look down at their Laotian neighbor Kahn Souphanousinphone. In fact, the opposite is true -- the materialistic, upwardly striving Kahn and his wife Minh are the ones who consider themselves superior to the "redneck" Texas natives.
"That's why Asians love our show so much," boasts Altschuler. "Min and Kahn are my favorite characters, peoples' favorite characters. They're lively and real, not just 'PC' cookie-cutter wise people. They've got their own drive, their own ambition and comedy focus.
"Mike created those characters out of a lack of condescension. He said 'I knew this guy, let's develop him.' Mike used to be an engineer in Dallas. He was working on his computer's motherboard when his Asian neighbor came over, looked at him and either implied or said, 'what are you doing holding that, you dumb monkey?' Everything on the show is culled from life, from our experiences. That ability to not sit there and not worry yourself to death about what color the character is, but allowing all of them to exist as human beings is what makes the show work."
Beyond the show's writing and characterizations, the Hills definitely come closest to portraying actual human beings, thanks to KOTH's low-key animation style. While the rest of the Fox Network's primetime animated families resemble and act like cartoon characters, Hank and company are deliberately rendered in a low-key, essentially realistic style. For better or worse, King of the Hill could easily translate to live action, a transition The Simpsons, Family Guy or American Dad could never make.
It's a distinction Altschuler is proud of -- and one with a downside. "We're the most realistic of any of the shows. We deal with social issues and things coming into peoples' lives like South Park does, but in a more grounded way.
"One of our frustrations about our relationship with animation community is that they don't see or respect us because we're not a cartoony show. We've got the best animators in the business; their work is meticulous. We're reliant on acting in our animation. The other shows don't have quite as much because they go in for frenetic pacing and characters who are designed for bigger, more simple expressions. We often have to get an awful lot across with just Hank rubbing the back of his neck or raising an eyebrow. We have to police our style 24/7 to make sure our characters convey just the right emotion."
Hank Hill's occasional, tiny smiles come in for particularly close scrutiny. "Hank is a very interesting character -- he's not monolithic or sad, but he's not a gregarious, big grin, laughing kind of character. There's going to be gradations in his happiness that's tough to capture. That's where [the] show is meticulous. Our animators work so hard, their standards are so high. I kind of wish the fans recognized how difficult that is, it really is backbreaking. The other primetime shows all love us, they know what we do, but I don't think you'll see King of the Hill at many animation conventions."
Part of the series since its second season, Altschuler and Krinsky know the show and its characters inside out. Altschuler says the pair broke into the business by "delivering a lot of coffee," but Krinsky adds a few more details:
"We were both PAs out here for years. We didn't really have many contacts in the business. We would always work and save money to give ourselves time to write. We wrote couple of features that sold, then stagnated in development for a while. Then Carolyn Strauss at HBO called us about doing a show that Adam Resnick had created and David Letterman was producing in New York -- The High Life. That was our first TV job and it was just awesome. We were writers on the show, but Adam was so great and so egoless he let us do a lot of producing duties. We learned a lot there, but unfortunately the show only lasted seven episodes. When that ended, King of the Hill was just starting. We had a few offers, but we really liked Mike Judge from Beavis and Butt-Head and we liked what he was trying to do on King of the Hill.
"Mike appreciated that we understood this type of show in our DNA -- middle American characters taking shots at the people who were always taking shots at them. It's been a very good fit and we've been running the show for five years now."
Altschuler says another reason he and Krinsky mesh with Judge is that, "Dave and I didn't know anybody in Hollywood. We had to pack up our car, come out here and deliver coffee until we finally broke in. Meanwhile, Mike was in his bathroom drawing cels individually and timing them with a watch, making his first Beavis and Butt-Head short. He didn't know anybody either. We all just sort of came out of a middle class milieu. We weren't connected [to the industry] in any way, shape or form; we didn't go to Harvard, but we all found a way in.
"Mike is one of the more interesting thinkers in entertainment. Beavis and Butt-Head, King of the Hill, Office Space, Idiocracy -- they're all about the little guy looking at the power. King of the Hill is probably the sweetest of those, but our takes are no less hard hitting."
Those takes will continue to hit hard for at least another two years: FOX has renewed King of the Hill for both an 11th and a 12th season. Hank Hill's town may not be as wacky as Matt Groening's Springfield or Seth MacFarlane's Quahog or Langley Falls, but like those fictional towns (not to mention Andy Griffith's Mayberry), Arlen will be on the TV map for a while to come.
Joe Strike is a regular contributor to AWN. His animation articles also appear in the NY Daily News and the New York Press.