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Q&A: Exploring the Twisted World of Adult Swim’s ‘Superjail!’

Watch an exclusive clip from season four -- set to premiere on June 15th -- and read AWN’s interview with series creators Christy Karacas and Stephen Warbrick in which they discuss the show’s genesis and development, as well as what viewers can expect from the new season.

The psychedelic Adult Swim series Superjail! returns for season four on June 15, promising six brand new 11-minute episodes that will have you thanking your lucky stars for life on the outside.

Created by Christy Karacas (DariaRobotomy) and Stephen Warbrick (Beavis and Butt-headCelebrity Deathmatch), Superjail! is produced at Titmouse, Inc. in New York City. The densely animated series is set inside the eponymous prison, located in an alternate dimension identified as “5612.” Externally, Superjail is built underneath a volcano which is itself located inside of a larger volcano. Internally, it seems to constitute its own reality, where the fabric of time and space changes at the whim of The Warden, an amiable psychopath with apparently magical powers who uses the prison (and its inmates) to satisfy his numerous whims.

The Warden (voiced by David Wain) is joined by a regular cast of characters, including his harried encephalitic assistant Jared (voiced by Teddy Cohn), the craven Superjail physician known as The Doctor (voiced by Christopher McCulloch), the other-worldly Twins (voiced by Richard Mather), and head guard Alice, a grotesque, hulking transsexual with a touchingly girlish heart (voiced by Karacas).

While the first season of Superjail! focused on the wild and Wonka-esque activities of the prison staff, seasons two and three further developed many of the inmate characters found in the gloriously violent  background of season one. AWN spoke with Karacas and Warbrick to ask about Ash, Jean and Paul, Gary and Bird, and Turban Guy and find out what the show’s audience can expect from season four.

Check out an exclusive clip from the new season’s first episode, “Superhell,” airing on Adult Swim on Sunday, June 15th at 11:45 p.m. (ET/PT), and read the Q&A, below:

AWN: The focus on story and character has increased since season one, especially with the development of characters like Gary and Bird and Paul and Jean, and story arcs, such as between The Warden and The Mistress. What can we expect for season four?

Karacas: There’s just more of it. The inmates are definitely in it a lot more this season.

Warbrick: I know Christy feels the same way, but for me, I like it best when they’re all in it, when they’re all doing something.

Karacas: If you’re a fan, you know what we’re talking about. With season three things really came together, action- and writing-wise. I think this season it came together even better -- this season is really crazy, the fights are crazy, it’s really crazy again like in season one but it’s got all the story stuff from season three, and, like Steve said, the ones where the staff are the big part of the story but all the key inmates are kind of, like Paul and Jean, Nicky and Fatty, Ash and Turban -- when all those guys are in the story too it just seems really funny and full and there’s a lot of that this season and Ultraprison, too -- Charise, The Doctor….

“This might sound crazy, but for me it’s the sweet side of the show, the tenderness, that keeps it going. The action and violence are what people tune in to watch, but the show has its little sweet side and goofy, staged sitcom-y things that make it work.”

AWN: It sounds like you’re bringing the best of what you brought to the first season, while also adding many of the elements developed in seasons two and three.

Karacas: Yeah, that’s how it feels. I know we always say, ‘Oh this season is the craziest,’ but this season really is solid. I really like the episodes, they’re all really different but they all feel very -- I don’t know if confident is the right word -- the world feels really real, it just feels right. You’re never like, ‘Oh, I wish so-and-so was in this one.’

Warbrick: Yes, It feels correct.

Karacas: I think that’s why they were so fun to write. I think we figured a lot of this out in the third season, like the inmates and stuff. Like when we first had -- Nicky was in the first episode ever but he was just supposed to be this kind of ringleader guy, he wasn’t like a big character with a background. The more we use them, they just kind of develop on their own, and I think this season we kind of knew who they all were -- it was really fun to write for them because you’d be like, ‘Oh, Ash will be scared of this, or so-and-so might act like.…’ They just kind of became easier but also more fun to write with. Like, kind of throw them into situations and see what they’ll want to do. It’s fun.

AWN: Backing up a little bit, can you talk about the genesis of the show, and Barfight?

Warbrick: We made a short when we were working at MTV, and it got around to a friend of ours at Adult Swim and they liked it, and they wanted a show. That’s kind of how that happened. We weren’t sure what the show was going to be, I forget who threw out ‘make it in jail because it has riots in it,’ and we developed it for seven months, maybe, eight months?

Karacas: I think we were trying to do something that had, you know, how could we do the stuff in Barfight but add a narrative to it and jail just seemed like the perfect place, and then adding that twist to make it like, weird for Adult Swim, a wacky kind of Dr. Seuss, Willy Wonka-type world that seems… I remember we talked a lot about anything could happen there so there were never really any limits so it could be very animated, like ‘oh, they walk into this door and all of a sudden they’re in mushroom land,’ or whatever it would be. It gave it like no limitations in a way.

AWN: What inspires some of the new realms created for the credit sequences?

Warbrick: Uh…

Karacas: You might be disappointed this season.

Warbrick: We tried to add more animation this year. Let’s just leave it at that.

Karacas: It was kind of a weird…it wasn’t really a conscious decision or anything like that. The “Superhell” episode was just too long. And we’re like, ‘Oh, let’s skip the credits.’

Warbrick: It has been a trend, like things are just getting longer and we wanted to add more story, more animation, and that takes up 35 seconds of an 11-minute cartoon.

Karacas: You’d be surprised when you’re making these, it’s like, ‘30 seconds, that’s not that long,’ but you can cram a lot of jokes into 30 seconds. I know people love the opening credits, but we’ve seen them so many times that it’s like, ‘nah, it’ll be better to have more fights.’

“You’d be surprised when you’re making these, it’s like, ‘30 seconds, that’s not that long,’ but you can cram a lot of jokes into 30 seconds.”

AWN: So the format has been a little challenging for you guys -- cramming all of that into 11+ minutes.

Karacas: Yeah, because now that we’re on the fourth season, we’ve like, you know, we’re always trying to kind of one-up the last season and I think each season gets denser and denser and this season is really dense. When you see it, it’s like a ton of animation -- I mean, I know there’s always plenty of animation but this season it is really dense. Everybody who worked on it did an amazing job and they worked really hard and you really see it, in the gags, it’s really dense and it’s really fast…I’m curious what a normal viewer would think.

Warbrick: I just had to render out one scene in three pieces -- that’s how dense it is. It kept crashing everyone’s machine.

Karacas: The show has this really simple, hand-drawn look, there’s not a lot of different colors, but at the same time, we try not to use a lot of cuts, we try to follow things where there won’t be a cut for a really long time, and these sequences will be a pain to put together at the computer because the files just keep getting bigger and bigger. It’s hard to explain but sometimes there are scenes that don’t look that difficult but logistically they’re such a pain to do that way but we want it to look that way. And then there’s another scene that might look really crazy but it actually isn’t as hard, we just have really good animators.

AWN: The show is animated at Titmouse in New York. How many people are involved? How much time do you spend, roughly, on each episode?

Karacas: Oh, we’re so bad at these questions.

Warbrick: Yeah, somebody else asked that and we’re like, ‘I don’t really know.’ It’s such a staggered schedule…while you’re writing and recording one, you’re doing boards for another one…I would say that for one stand-along episode my guess is eight to 10 weeks, if everything goes great.

Karacas: Yeah, I’d say something like that. And as far as the crew, it is a big crew. Me and Steve write along with two other writers, and then I do the board department with one board guy who’s there all the time and one guy who comes and goes, so let’s say three board artists, and then three background designers, three to four character layout, and then animation and cleanup I would say is 15 to 20 people, depending where we’re at. And then there’s the sound design and the music, so you’re looking at -- it’s a pretty big crew for an in-house team. And that’s the thing -- it is an in-house show. I don’t think we could do it -- we would lose some of the hand-drawn crappiness look -- and I say crappiness in a loving way -- it’s kind of harder to do something like that and retain the look than it is to do something in a slick way.  It’s nice to just be able to do it in New York and have it stay in New York and not have to ship it.

AWN: It gives you an element of control, perhaps as well?

Karacas: Yeah, it’s nice because everyone’s in the same area and if you want to make last-minute changes it’s a little easier, like, ‘oh, this is good’ -- You know, when you ship a show to Korea or Canada or whatever, things are a little more locked and they’re a little more like a blueprint list of, like, ‘the character is going to go over here, pick this up,’ but with Superjail! we’re not as locked. We might get a last-minute idea and be like, ‘ah, it would be really funny if this happened,’ and even though it’s a pain, we’re like ‘ah, we can do it, we’ll just stay a little late and fix it.’ And that’s another thing, one thing I’ll say, the crew on Superjail! is so great; they’re really excited and enthusiastic, they work late a lot and they really love working on it and we try to encourage everyone to be funny and add jokes. There’s a lot of people who no one knows their name and stuff but I feel like their artwork and drawings add so much to the show…it’s a definite kind of group-team thing and I think the show really benefits from that.

Warbrick: Yup, definitely.

AWN: Is it true that you can’t feature cannibalism on Superjail?

Karacas: How’d you know that!? Yeah, we can’t feature cannibalism. Which is weird, because it’s in season one.

Warbrick: You can’t have cannibalism or pubic hair.

Karacas: And you can’t kill children.

AWN: In what other ways is your creativity stymied? Are there other notes you’ve been given?

Karacas: You can’t do anything with Jesus. But honestly? It’s so rare when we get notes like that, and whenever we do I feel like the creative solution is kind of funnier and weirder than what the original idea was.

Warbrick: Yeah, we did have something with Jesus once getting ripped off of the cross.

Karacas: It was funny -- he was allowed to melt and turn himself into Jailbot, which seemed even more violent to me.

Warbrick: Yeah, it seemed even more blasphemous, but that’s all right!

AWN: And yet Alice’s bulge is practically its own character. How do you get away with animating something like that on mainstream television?

Karacas: God, we should do one like that.

Warbrick: At first they didn’t like the bulge, but now no one says anything about it.

“Go as far as possible because you can always dial it back a notch and it will still be kind of crazy and funny.”

Karacas: Here’s some advice for any creative types or wanna-be cartoonists: when we first did the pilot--

Warbrick: Oh, no.

Karacas: This is a true story. I don’t think they’ll care now. When we did Alice, one of the jokes was to make that bulge, but not like it was a penis but that it was like, ‘what is it?’ It was like this weird, funny bulge, so in the pilot a couple times we drew a huge, like, obvious boner, it was an obvious dick--

Warbrick: [laughs]

Karacas: …as a red herring, thinking, ‘The network will be like, look, they’re gonna definitely tell us to get rid of this dick,’ but then we’re like, ‘look, can we have the bulge still and just make sure it doesn’t look like a dick?’ and it worked, so we’re always allowed to show the bulge however we want as long as it doesn’t look like a dick, and then it kind of turned into a joke where it’s like, ‘it’s a bagel,’ or it’s just this weird shape,” and I almost feel like if we hadn’t tried to do that they’d be like, ‘oh, you can’t have that bulge; it’s too crazy.’ So the red herring rule is always really good.

Sometimes we’ll be doing something in-house and a producer or even someone drawing it might be like, ‘I don’t know, are we going too far?’ and I’m always, like, ‘Go as far as possible because you can always dial it back a notch and it will still be kind of crazy and funny. That’s kind of good everyday life advice, actually.

Warbrick: It really is.

Karacas: If you want one thing, ask for the thing above it and then settle for that and it looks like you settled, but you got what you wanted.

AWN: You’ve had John Waters as a guest voice. Will he be back? Will there be more guest voices?

Karacas: I don’t think he will -- he was kind of a one-off character.

Warbrick: Yeah.

Karacas: But that was really cool, that was exciting for us, I think.

Warbrick: Yeah, it was.

Karacas: I mean, if there was a guy I was psyched about liking Superjail!, I think it would probably be him because he’s so, you know, his persona…

Warbrick: It was absolutely flattering.

AWN: Have you had other people call you up and say, ‘Hey, I want to be on Superjail!’?

Warbrick: No, I wish.

Karacas: [laughs] Yeah, I don’t think many people know what Superjail! is sometimes. I was shocked, we were shocked -- he asked to be on it, we didn’t ask him, we were like blown away. We were like, ‘Holy shit, this is awesome.’

Warbrick: I remember when we made Barfight, someone at MTV was like, ‘hey, Joel Schumacher really likes Barfight,’ and we’re like, ‘Joel Schumacher, really?’

AWN: So, how does it feel to have such an offbeat show progress into its fourth season? It must be very gratifying. I mean, you’re not even completely sure who your audience is at this point.

Karacas: Part of that’s age, and part of that is -- I mean, everything on Adult Swim is pretty offbeat, I think, and, but, Superjail! for me, I always think it’s a cartoonist-type, nerdy animator-type person’s kind of dream show, because, again, it’s very hand-animated and there’s a lot of classic, Looney Tunes-type Fleischer brothers gags and jokes -- I always feel like an animation person gets a big kick out of it so I’m always super psyched when normal people like it, but, um, I don’t know. Steve?

Warbrick: This might sound crazy, but for me it’s the sweet side of the show, the tenderness, that keeps it going. The action and violence are what people tune in to watch, but the show has its little sweet side and goofy, staged sitcom-y things that make it work.

AWN: That is so true. I had a question about Ash that we kind of already covered, you know, if we would see more of him, because he’s such a fantastically developed character, filled with a wonder and kindness that makes the horror of his existence all that much funnier. Or, like the love story between Jean and Paul.

Karacas: All that’s in there. There’s a lot more of Ash this season, and a lot Charise -- a lot of Charise love triangles going on this season.

Warbrick: There’s a love triangle, for sure.

Karacas: Let’s just say that Jared is going to have to step things up.

AWN: Christy, your band Cheeseburger does the “Comin’ Home” song for the show -- did you write that specifically for the show?

Karacas: Yep, I did.

Warbrick: We wanted “Rubber Bullets” from 10cc, but the publishers wanted a lot of money to use it so we couldn’t make it work. The guys were incredibly nice, though.

AWN: What are some of your biggest cartoon influences?

Karacas: Probably Looney Tunes, Tom and Jerry, Bevis and Butthead -- obviously I love Simpsons and South Park and stuff, those more for the humor, not so much the animation type stuff. I like a lot of indie animation, like Vince Collins, stuff you wouldn’t really watch on TV but … A lot of the old Sesame Street animation is a huge influence on me, I mean, especially on Superjail!, right down to even the colors and stuff. I grew up watching that stuff so I love all those old seventies and eighties -- I guess they were just weird, independent things that were on Sesame Street, like the pinball games, stuff like that. Ren and Stimpy, too. I haven’t watched it lately, but I remember when I first discovered it; I just couldn’t stop watching.

AWN: What inspires you most? How do you keep your creative juices flowing, and continue to come up with all these different ways to kill inmates?

Karacas: I think we just try to stay excited about things. One big thing with the show is we just try to make people laugh in the studio and it’s always fun. I’ll make up a board and see if it makes people laugh, if they have fun with it or not. It’s like when we write -- it’s always easier to write when you’re in a room joking around with a bunch of people, than when you’re aloe working at your desk, ‘cause it kind of takes the wind out of the sails sometimes.

AWN: Thank you for your time, guys -- we’re really looking forward to watching the new season.

Superjail! season four premieres Sunday, June 15th at 11:45 p.m. (ET/PT) on Adult Swim. The new season will be accompanied by a line of t-shirt designed exclusively for each episode, available at TitmouseStuff.com.