Joe Strike follows the journey of Iceboxs Queer Duck from its early webisodes to its new coming out party on DVD.
When the Flash cartoon Queer Duck premiered on icebox.com in 1999, Mike Reiss had no idea what was in store for his fey feathered friend. A confluence of factors drove the veteran Simpsons scribe to create Adam Seymour Duckstein, not the least of which was the chance to write without the heavy hands of TV executives leaving fingerprints all over his scripts.
Icebox came along at a time when I was extremely jaded with TV, Reiss recalls. I sort of quit for a few years. What they offered was, whatever you write we will produce. There was no money involved, but the idea of seeing something rendered exactly as Id written it just grabbed me. Thats why all the writers got involved with Icebox: Larry David, a lot of big names jumped at it. It seemed like part of the dotcom gold rush, but in TV your work is compromised so often that if someone says if you want to work for free we wont fuck it up, thats the greatest offer youve ever gotten.
Reiss created and wrote Iceboxs first series, Hard Drinkin Lincoln, episodes that were animated by New York City Flash artist Xeth Feinberg. Meanwhile, Reiss had come across a magazine article stating that the core audience for HBOs Sex and the City consisted of gay men, and realized to a great extent that viewership was a result of the near-total invisibility of gays on TV. Then came the icing on the cake.
At the same time Dr. Laura Schlesinger sort of declared war on gay people. Right there I said Im going to do a gay Bugs Bunny and Dr. Laura will be my Elmer Fudd. That was it Queer Duck came out of a double sense of outrage. It was a comedy act of conscience, of which Ive only had one in my career.
While Bugs sexual orientation has long been a matter of speculation in some quarters (largely as a result of his penchant for cross-dressing), Queer Duck is a loudly out and proud male nurse. In his very first outing, as a matter of fact, he tells a waiting room full of patients attention everyone, I have an announcement: I am a homosexual! to which a bored moose replies, so whats the announcement? A few episodes later, a shotgun-toting Dr. Laura pursued Queer Duck, Elmer Fudd-style through a gay disco.
Queer Duck was another cross-country Reiss and Feinberg collaboration. As with Lincoln, Reiss handled voice-over recording chores in Los Angeles, while Feinberg animated the episodes in his sprawling production facility actually, the spare bedroom of his Lower East Side walk-up apartment. I couldnt believe how funny, how great he made my work, Reiss says of his partner. Usually my dream in animation is that the animator can render what I have in my head I hope he gets the jokes and makes the most of the humor. With Xeth you always get something new back. Its like watching somebody elses work because he adds so much. Its a pleasure, its so much fun to work with him
Feinberg (whose unique first name began as an Internet ID) returns Reisss praise. When Mike first came up with the script, he didnt specify how the animals looked. He was open, waiting to see what came up from my sketches. My first instinct was cute animals and maybe thats what he was planning all along. We went around a little bit: what color Queer Duck should be, should he have an earring, but he was very much oh, I like that. I feel pretty lucky to be working with Mike. You couldnt ask for a better writer/exec producer.
Feinberg managed to design the characters, storyboard and produce the first three-minute segment in just six weeks. Meanwhile, Reiss was keeping his fingers crossed that the stereotype-stuffed cartoon (Queer Duck and his friends are all fabulously flamboyant) wouldnt be seen as gay-bashing. I told Icebox that if there was more than 20% negative feedback [from the gay community], Im pulling the plug. I dont care if its popular with people who hate gays, thats not who Im doing this for. Luckily the feedback was 100% positive. It was very heartening.
More than the feedback was positive: Queer Duck increased Iceboxs traffic 500%, and the rainbow-shirted waterfowl quickly caught Showtimes eye. The premium cable channel bought the rights to the character and commissioned another 15 episodes. Queer Duck moved over to Showtimes website and started running on the channel itself, alongside episodes of its popular Queer as Folk series.
According to Reiss, the channel gave him a big raise, the go-ahead to produce 10 more episodes and commissioned a script for a Queer Duck movie. Feinberg was in the midst of storyboarding the new episodes in January 2003 when Showtime pulled the plug and sent Queer Duck down the drain. No one ever told me directly, Feinberg says, but I heard it was due to random budget cuts. A month later I was reading in the trades that Viacom was reporting record earnings. Reiss later discovered that Showtime had decided Queer Ducks budget could be put to better use promoting Odyssey 5 and Jeremiah, a pair of now forgotten sci-fi series; that was money well spent is his sardonic observation.
Iceboxs Tal Vigderson managed to navigate what he describes as a long complicated situation to buy Queer Duck back from Showtime. His next challenge was to find financing for Reisss script and begin production on Queer Duck: The Movie. We had a number of deals that almost went through and then for one reason or another thats sort of the independent film world: youre really close and the checks coming on Tuesday then you get a phone call Monday night. That happened to us quite a bit. There were times when we thought this is never going to happen, its all a pipe dream.
It more than two years, Queer Ducks knight in shining armor turned out to be Paramount Home Video. The distributor realized an opportunity was waiting to score big with a micro-budgeted (rumored to be on the low end of the seven-figure range) cartoon starring a character with a cult following, backed by a script from one of the sharpest comedy writers in the business. The irony that Paramount and Showtime are both divisions of the same media conglomerate isnt lost on Reiss, who notes, it took two and a half years for the film to go from one floor of the Viacom building to the next.
Like the Icebox and Showtime shorts, Queer Duck: The Movie was Flash-animated in Feinbergs spare bedroom with the help of a handful of freelancers and a background artist. According to Reiss, sort of the reason we did it this way, was that we wanted to see what can you do does an animated movie have to have a compound with thousands of computers and hundreds of animators working around clock? We did it on our own. This is a movie made by six Jews on a home computer, he adds, exaggerating only slightly.
Production started last July and wrapped early this year, an amazingly short-turnaround time for an animated feature. For Feinberg, who was essentially used to operating as a one-man band, it meant brushing up on the latest version of Flash MX Pro and acquiring some unfamiliar management skills. I had to learn the new software so other people could work with me. With the mistakes I made, some of my decisions probably cost a month of time, even the way I yelled at my animators. I had to learn how to manage even four people, how to understand and factor in the way most human beings function.
The movie began as an animatic constructed out of 105 separate Flash files, one for each scene. After setting up the scenes basic parameters Feinberg would hand them off to an animator (often via email to a freelancer working out of their own home) to finalize the action and return a revised file. A lot of traditional people arent used to the idea you can go from a rough animatic to a finished thing and youre really working on the same file. Youre not taking it to the camera room or doing artwork in some other corner of the building. Every week or so wed put together an animatic that kept evolving until it pretty much became the final movie.
As the film neared completion, pressure built to finish it in time for its July 18 release. Towards the end I was asking for another week, just one more week to take a second look at things, Feinberg says. They gave what they could, but at end the final edit was in L.A. and I was still in New York making corrections that Paramounts legal department wanted. I spent a lot of time last few weeks doing things I always hoped I could, but there was a bit of background work and maybe a half dozen scenes that actually arent as finished as I wouldve liked. I look at the film now and go, ohhh, if only his hair had come out of another file.
Feinberg goes onto compare his experience directing the Queer Duck movie with his freelance stints as a storyboard artist on Ice Age and Robots. They have about 15 people working full-time, doing storyboards for four years, spinning their wheels. Queer Duck was the complete opposite I think this is it, lets go with it, I hope it works.
Its highly unlikely that Queer Duck will be mistaken for a contemporary CGI film or a classically animated 2D effort. Visually, one needs to reach back to Jay Wards glory days to find a similar design and animation sensibility. I thought about the Rocky and Bullwinkle thing, to be proud of the limited animation and get across the story, acknowledges Feinberg. The animation is in service of the story.
Mike Reisss story pokes fun at every gay stereotype imaginable while stopping along the way for several of Reisss trademarked music genre parodies, from Broadway show tunes and belt-em-out diva anthems to1960s girl group numbers. The plot that strings it all together focuses on a homophobic preacher out to cure Queer Duck, and the latters dalliance with the straight lifestyle.
Celebrities are parodied left and right, with Rosie ODonnell coming in for more than her share of put-downs. Shes the one person I feel bad about, Reiss confesses, and I have an apology and an explanation. I had a bunch of fat jokes in the movie equally apportioned out to Rosie, Oprah and Marlon Brando. While we were making the movie Brando drops dead and Paramount said, Please dont make fun of Oprah, Oprah is bigger than any of us. At the last minute all the fat jokes sort of funneled down to Rosie. I feel bad about somebody I think is a pretty good person.
A handful of notables are heard in the film for real, a half dozen personal friends who did this as a favor to us, including Conan [OBrien], who Ive known since he was 19, Reiss says. He signed on and didnt ask to see a script or anything. Bruce Vilanch played himself, Andy Dicks a friend, he played a couple roles, Tim Currys in there too. David Duchovny literally phoned in his performance from Maine. He plays Tiny Jesus he has four lines in the movie and gets four big laughs and applause in the closing credits.
Every other celebrity turned us down. Theres a freeze frame in the credits of 80 or so celebrities who didnt just say no, they said get lost! I wouldve gone easier on them if they had agreed to do the film. As soon as someone turned us down I sort of amped up the venom.
It may raise an eyebrow or two when people learn that Reiss is a raging heterosexual. I dont make a big deal out of it but no, Im not gay. The movies so gay, not only do people assume Im gay, they refuse to believe Im not. They say only a gay man couldve done this, you know things about gay life. Its a high compliment, it means Im doing my job right, but Im a straight man. Ive got a wife, and not a Katie Holmes kind of wife.
With Reiss and Feinberg both straight, it was really important we had somebody who represented the gay community as Queer Ducks voice, says Tal Vigderson, a role taken on with gusto by the out and about Jim J. Bullock. The ducks pals his lover Openly Gator, Bi-Polar Bear and Oscar Wildcat are all animal pun names Reiss thought up long before and, randomly assigned them to gay icons. Obviously Bi-Polar Bear is Paul Lynde. People cant place the voice, but Oscar Wildcat is John Gieulgud. Everyone thinks Openly Gator is Harvey Fierstein, but hes not.
Theres a character actor in L.A. whos in a lot of gangster movies, he plays very tough, gravelly men. He came in to audition for something for me and it was the gayest thing Id ever seen in my life. Hes a big, hulking man and he just sort of pirouetted into the room and flounced onto the couch. Its based on him and a more general sort of thing. A lot of the tougher character actors in Hollywood are gay men, like Raymond Burr.
A generation or two after Fritz the Cat, None of Queer Ducks creators seem overly worried about their movie coming under attack for taking cartoon animals into raunchy adult territory. It hasnt happened yet, says Vigderson, but Im open to getting that kind of controversy. We would have the same problem as South Park where they use children as characters and thats a very, very adult cartoon. In the meantime, Vigderson is hoping Queer Duck will register on Moral Majoritys gaydar. If those people havent got copies well be glad to send them. That kind of attention can only help our sales.
If those sales are as impressive as he hopes, Vigderson anticipates turning other Icebox Properties, including Zombie College, Poker Dogs and Superhero Roommate into direct-to-video features. I think low budget Flash is a great model for animation. What makes this movie good is the voice acting, the writing and the quality of the animation but you dont have to do a $100 million CGI film to make a good movie.
For his part, Reiss (who writes childrens books on the side) is optimistic that his already-written Queer Duck sequel will go into production. Beyond that, he says, My dream has always been to see a Queer Duck plush toy.
Joe Strike lives in New York City and writes for and about animation. He has recently completed a childrens novel.