The “Ugly” Truth: An Interview with Ugly Americans' Devin Clark
Think that guy sitting across from you on the subway looks ugly? What if he had two heads? Or horns and a forked tongue, or maybe was a fish from the waist up? And there were plenty more like him all over town? Then you’d probably be living in the imaginary New York City where Ugly Americans, Comedy Central’s new animated series takes place. The concept: “Newcomers,” a bizarre assortment of monsters and fantastical creatures have become an accepted part of the population, and a small government bureaucracy, the “Department of Integration” tries to help them fit into society. It’s the brainchild (and by the way, bodiless brains are among the Newcomers) of one Devin Clark…
Joe Strike: Ugly Americans isn’t your first exposure to television
Devin Clark: It’s my first series. I’ve been doing animation forever, but most of what I was doing before, my bread and butter was branding: network design, advertising animation and stuff like that. This is a dream I’ve had for long time – an opportunity to do a series and create content is just phenomenal.
JS: Before that you were just dressing things up.
DC: Totally. I did a whole redesign package for Comedy Central back in 2004. Now I see some funny crossovers, like the branding I did for the network right before promos for the show – it’s a weird blending of stuff I’ve done five years apart.
JS: Where did the idea for Ugly Americans come from?
DC: It started as a compulsive drawing habit I have. A couple of years back I would fold a big sheet of paper into eight panels and draw the same type of creature in each, talking about one topic: eight monsters talking about religion, eight robots about the economy. It was kind of amusing to have these totally bizarre, off the wall and horrific creatures talking about banal topics.
I took the comics to Comedy Central three or four years ago. They were looking for content for their Motherload web channel. The comics became a web series, Five On.
Daniel Powell, the show’s exec producer was working in development at Comedy Central at the time. He paired me up with some amazing comedy writers and stand-up guys like Nick Kroll, John Mulaney and later Pete Holmes who had helped with the writing and voices in Five On. Then he came to me and said let’s turn this into TV show. We went through a lot of different show runners and he introduced me to David Stern. We hit it off immediately. He got the whole feel of the show, he understood the humor and brought whole thing to life.
The original web series wasn’t about plot or character development, but a lot of the character designs carried over into the series. Taking horrific creatures and dealing with them in a normal way is the heart of Ugly Americans’ humor. We figured out a way to bring the viewer into that world – that’s Mark Lilly, the main human character. As a social worker [for the monster-assisting ‘Department of Integration’] he has to help these bizarre creatures integrate into society and deal with the issues that arise. Also, David Stern’s father was a social worker.
JS: Did Daniel introduce you to Augenblick Studios too?
DC: I’d worked there before – the New York animation world isn’t a huge place. When Daniel Powell suggested going there to do the pilot, I was like, ‘hell yeah’ – Aaron [Augenblick] was definitely the man for the job, he would understand whole look and feel of the show – and he certainly has.
JS: Mark is helping ‘Newcomers’ integrate into New York society – Newcomers from where?
DC: We discussed that over many a beer. If you describe where horrific creatures come from, they’re no longer horrific. I feel a big part of why the show works is that you throw viewers in – ‘here’s our world, it has weird creatures living amongst us normal citizens’ and we don’t really explain why. If we took the time in every episode, “oh, a portal from Hell opened up and all these creatures flooded in,” I think it would break the spell.
I could rattle off a lot of different sources of where the creatures come from, but another thing we like to have at the heart of the show are histories that are incorrect. Mark’s always trying help people out, give them information about these different creatures. A lot of people have conspiracy theories about where they come from and maybe nobody’s right, maybe no one knows. We have a lot of fun with that – the whole idea of misinformation, or the government having wrong information, or history being written by different people and no one knows why.
JS: The stuff he’s getting out of books doesn’t jibe up with what he knows first-hand?
DC: Totally. Our demon did come from Hell, but it’s not Christian Hell – it’s an interpretation of universal myths, a lot of different ideologies thrown together. We don’t want to tie ourselves to say, the Christian faith or the way vampires that are depicted in Anne Rice books or in Twilight. We want to tap into different interpretations of monsters and weird creatures and poke fun at them and the genre in its entirety.
JS: The characters are all enjoyable to one degree or another. There’s no outright villain; even Grimes [the Department’s heavy-handed ‘enforcement officer’] has a kind of quirky, non-sequitur thing going on.
DC: Mark’s main enemy is the bureaucracy itself. When he’s trying to help people out, Grimes and Twayne, his demon boss who’s cut his budget, get in the way. They have motivations for the things they do, they’re not straight-up villains. We wanted to have more a real-world context to Mark’s life, no one goes around as villain or a main enemy – but in some way Twayne and Grimes are. They’re constantly creating barriers that prevent him from actually helping everyone who comes into his office. I guess they’re appealing villains if there’s going to be one.
JS: Will Mark ever win or is he always getting beaten down?
DC: No, no. There’s almost a creature of the week in every episode, classic ones like the werewolf, vampires, The Blob, King Kong. We build the episode around them and their stories generally end on a happy note; Mark helps them get through the system or they find some kind of solution to their problem – there’s definitely successes.
JS: The rest of the show follows Mark’s travails or his roommate’s or his coworkers.
DC: We follow one of the six regular characters either in the main or secondary storyline in each episode. Mark’s zombie roommate Randall’s got his own motivations, typically drinking or getting laid. But he periodically gets flesh cravings and hungers after his roommate’s brain and he has to deal with that.
Mark has to deal with several levels of bureaucracy. The next one up is his boss Callie, a half human, half demon chick he’s sleeping with, which creates its own problems. Callie’s demon boss Twayne is the head of whole department – but he’s kind of a low level demon, not Satan by any means. He’s got his own issues, trying to make his way in the world. Obviously he’s not that powerful or he wouldn’t be working for a teeny New York City government office.
Mark’s main co-worker is Leonard, a bitter drunken old wizard with chip on his shoulder.
JS: He’s more than just a drunk though.
You’re completely right. His motivation’s more like avoiding work in general. I like to call him pleasantly cynical. He’s been around forever, he’s seen it all. He knows just the right amount of effort to put in to make sure things don’t fall apart completely, but he’s definitely not going to go the extra mile.
We try to get a pretty deep understanding of each character. Even if it’s not apparent after the first episode or even the first seven, it gives them a lot of depth and keeps them from becoming two-dimensional foils or sitcom tropes that everyone’s seen before. Each of them has their own little edge and makes them more interesting than cardboard cutouts.
JS: What other influences went into the show, or into your art?
DC: My mom’s going to hate me for this, but I always mention that I found her underground comic book stash when I was probably way too young to be reading this stuff. I was probably ten or eleven and I’m looking at R. Crumb, all those crazy-weird, psychedelic dirty 60’s – 70’s comics. Something about their art style, the whole feel of these comics had a huge influence on me. I never got into the superhero comics, I was always looking for something more interesting. I read a lot of imported comics, Viz Magazine, Miyazaki – the first volume of Nausicaa was coming in – Tintin, I read a lot of Moebius’ stuff, Richard Corben…
JS: How many episodes has Comedy Central committed to?
DC: They picked up seven episodes and we may get an order for seven more – we’re keeping our fingers crossed.
JS: They screened the first episode at a downtown premiere party.
DC: That was so exciting, especially that episode. It existed as pilot before we turned it into a full 22 minute episode. I’d seen some of those scenes 200 times, but to get a lot of good laughs out of a fresh audience, there’s nothing more satisfying, it’s just so cool – I got a good buzz out of that.
JS: Any last words?
DC: I want to make sure I’ve covered everyone. I’ve already mentioned David and Aaron Augenblick of course. This is entirely a collaborative process; if it wasn’t for all the amazing people involved, the show wouldn’t be as funny, as beautifully animated or sound as amazing as it does. The most exciting thing is seeing everyone else’s excitement as they come on board the show –it’s a rewarding and phenomenal experience.