Dr. Toon: The Animation Critic's Art - Post-Mortem
Not long ago, AWN featured a piece highlighting the animated comedy Allen Gregory and its creator, Jonah Hill. Since that time, the series has been savaged by critics, disdained by audiences, and apparently cancelled after seven episodes. Some reviews have been so unforgiving as to recall the horrors of the animation Slaughterhouse Fall of 2000 (see my November 2000 column).
Why did this sad little series fail? Dead toons tell no tales; the malodorous corpse takes its secrets to the grave. Except for the fact that we are burgeoning animation critics and can thus perform post-mortems, autopsies, and even eulogies if we so choose (don't you love this freedom?) The series failed because it stunk. That much is certain, but we can assume that it wasn't originally intended to stink. Let’s you and I, dear readers, sharpen our scalpels now that the coroner's report is in.
Jonah Hill, at this point in his career, could probably have pitched a show about the manufacture of peanut butter to studio executives, and the green light would have been his. In fact, he had an animated gig prior to Allen Gregory. The Fox Network invited the actor to lend his voice to an animated project, but that was apparently not in line with Hill's dreams of creating an animated show of his own. Hill huddled up with buds Andrew Mogel and Jarred Paul, co-writers of the Jim Carrey Comedy Yes Man (2008). That film was a pleasant holiday time-filler but nothing much out of the ordinary. It certainly gave no indication that the writers had the experience to handle an animated series.
Still, ego conquers all, and as I opined eleven years ago:
"When stand-up comics, sitcom writers, would-be film auteurs and semi-experienced trend-riders sign contracts to produce animated series for primetime the result is an embarrassment for all concerned."
Neither Hill, Mogel, nor Paul had any experience with animation besides watching it. Therefore, a consultant, David Goodman (late of Family Guy) was brought in to help. Believing that one can invent, sell, and successfully produce an animated series despite having no previous experience bespeaks great confidence, but ambition alone will never get the job done. In short, if you don't know what you're doing, either take the time to school yourself and learn how or…don't do it.
However, for Allen Gregory, things got worse. Because the show was picked up late – no doubt, by suits convinced that anything Hill did was golden – most experienced animation writers were already working on other shows. This left David Goodman with an inexperienced crew. As a result, Jonah Hill was pressed into duty as one of the writers. At this point any sane executive would have called the project off and told Hill to explore how an animated series was produced and come back next year when experienced hands would become available. There appeared to be a dearth of sane executives at Fox that day.
Allen Gregory was supposed to be a comedy about a preternaturally narcissistic young boy whose glaring disdain for his inferiors (which included everyone) was the show's point of humor. Hill stressed in the AWN interview that it was important for such a character to be "knocked down a peg" and that Allen was "pretentious but vulnerable", a seven-year old wunderkind who "wants to be liked." Whether it was due to the on-the-wing writing, misconception of how his own character operated, or Hill's change of heart somewhere in the first couple of episodes, something completely different emerged.