It’s been a long, tough slog from the grungy stages of Georgia’s college town clubs to a just announced season three pickup for the creators of Comedy Central’s hit animated series, Brickleberry. But after talking with Waco O’Guin and Roger Black, you get the feeling that despite the rough sledding, the journey has been worth it, because all they’ve ever wanted to do was make people laugh. These days, they’re making quite a few people laugh. An admirable, but not easily achieved goal. In any medium. But particularly difficult in episodic animated television.
Currently in its second season, averaging 1.6 million viewers a week, the show, executive produced by Daniel Tosh, is number one in its timeslot for all of television in the Men 18-24 demographic, according to Nielsen Media Research. Who am I to quibble with the Nielsens? A workplace ensemble centered on the questionable and mostly absurd activities of a group of dysfunctional park rangers at a second-rate national park, Brickleberry is a raunchy, ribald gag-driven whirlwind, a no-holds barred comedy slugfest sure to head butt the weak, the meek and the infirm. I recently had a chance to speak with Waco and Roger about the source of their humor, the inherent difficulty of the business of being funny and the years of hard work it took to finally get their show on the air.
Dan Sarto: Tell me about the genesis of the show. Where did the idea come from? Describe the tortuous path you took that brought you to Comedy Central? Very few adult series get made. How did you guys get yours on the air?
Waco O’Guin: It’s like hitting the lottery. It all started with me and Roger back in 1999. We had a sketch comedy show at the University of Georgia where we were both attending. It started getting more and more popular, we started selling out venues. Then we started doing shows around the Southeast. Then Roger got on the Howard Stern Show with his character Yucko the Clown. That helped us get hooked up with some guys and we got a live action sketch comedy show [Stankervision] on MTV2 in 2005. When that got canceled we started trying to shop other things, working with this company called Fox 21. So actually, Brickleberry started out as a live action show. But, when we wrote the script, they read it and said, “This is going to cost about $10 million to produce this pilot.” So it was the studio’s idea to make it an animated project. On our MTV2 show, we had little animated segments so we’ve always been huge fans of animation. So at that point, we rewrote the script to put more crazy stuff in it.
The actual idea for Brickleberry came from the fact my father-in-law is a retired park ranger. He worked at Yellowstone and a few other parks. He is a somewhat serious man and he took his job very seriously. Roger always messed with him. Every time he’d see him he’d call him Treetop, stuff like that. At my wedding reception, Roger had been messing with him all day and he just couldn’t take it anymore, so he grabbed Roger and put him in this park ranger hold, bent his thumb all the way back until Roger collapsed to his knees. This happened right there in the middle of the wedding, in front of everybody [laughs].
When we were thinking of ideas for a show, we were thinking about that, just laughing about it. Maybe we should do a show about these park rangers who are way too serious about their jobs. That’s where the original idea for Brickleberry came from. My wedding was in 2003. So you can see how long of a process it has been to actually get it on the screen.
We rewrote the script, gearing it for animation. Then we shopped it and shopped it. We got turned down by everybody. The good thing about Hollywood is that people always get fired. You wait a year or so, the studios have all new people and you can shop your show to them again. We got teamed with Eric Kaplan, who I think now is the head writer on Big Bang Theory [he is also co-executive producer]. He has an animation studio. So together we were pitching over at Fox, Comedy Central and a couple of other places. This was in 2007. Eric told us Fox would be a good test run for Comedy Central. There’s no way Fox is buying this show. One thing we learned, the more visual aids you have, the easier it is for the executives to wrap their head around this being a real show. We had all the characters drawn up and a bunch of future episode ideas. So, we pitched Fox and to everyone’s surprise, they bought it right there in the room. They knew Eric from his work on Futurama. So of course it really helped we had a producer attached that they knew.
It took us about a year to produce the pilot. They told us not to hold back, make it as dirty and racy as you want. They said, “Don’t worry about it. Go crazy.”
Roger Black: They just wanted us to do what we do. So we did what we do.
WO: So, the top guy at Fox sees the pilot, and he said, “There’s no way this can go on our network.” So Fox passed on the pilot. Then our agent at William Morris, who also represents Daniel Tosh, said Daniel had been looking for some other projects outside of his own show. He showed it to Daniel, he liked it and wanted to come on board. We knew that once he came on board, it would be a go at Comedy Central. But even with that, with the number one guy at the network, with the number one show, with a really good pilot, with lots of good ideas, even with all that going, we went in to pitch Comedy Central and they didn’t pick it up.
They wanted to do another pilot. Well, we didn’t want to do another pilot. So we took it to Adult Swim and pitched them. They wanted 10 episodes. Then Comedy Central said they wanted 10 episodes. So we had to twist their arm a bit. It was a long, long process to get this show on the air.
RB: Then we ended up here at Bento Box, which has been a really great experience. They’re a really good animation studio. They do Bob’s Burgers among others.
DS: Right. Now that you’re on the air, who’s watching? Who is the audience for this show? Who are you aiming to please?
WO: [Laughing] Young males.
RB: [Laughing] Yah. It does very well with that group.
DS: What ages? What’s your sweet spot?
WO: 18-24. That’s what they say. But the reality is it does skew a little younger.
RB: On Twitter, we see a lot of feedback from female fans as well.
WO: Yeah. Most of the time we’re number one in that 18-24 demo. That makes Comedy Central happy.
DS: So, where do the show’s ideas come from? Do you start with a theme? Do you start from a gag?
WO: For the first season, we had a lot of ideas banked involving state parks and the world of the show. We took those ideas and expanded them into ridiculous themes that we could animate. For season two, it was a little tougher. Mostly, we sat in a room and concentrated more on the characters. Everything starts with an idea, like, “What if Woody outsourced the ranger’s jobs?” or “What if there is a lake in Brickleberry that can heal people?” Ideas can come from anywhere. We got the idea for the Hello Dottie episode while we were in the post office. Most of our ideas come from real life experience. Any kind of idea can pop into your head at any moment. You have to write it all down right away, because as easily as it pops in, it can easily go away.
RB: Every episode is completely different. The way we come about each episode is always different. It’s about getting that first idea, then sitting in a room and talking it to death. We were basically locked away in a dungeon for 6 months writing season two. A lot of talking, a lot of false starts. Every episode has at least two stories, sometimes three. That’s a lot of stuff to think about especially with 13 episodes in a season. It’s hard. Writing is always the worst part of the process. It’s extremely difficult.
DS: I understand all too well the ebbs and flows of the quality of any volume of writing output. What’s the toughest part of the creative process for you? Is it tougher to come up with central story ideas, or is it tougher to come up with the gags?
WO: The gags are the easiest.
WO: The humor has always been the easiest part for us because that’s what we’ve been doing since 1998. It’s always been, “Hey, that’s funny. Let’s do it as a sketch.” What we’re newer to is coming up with a whole story that makes sense. Once you got that, adding the funny to it is the easy part.
RB: Getting that skeleton down and then hanging jokes onto it. You really need a strong story to build off of. It’s tough to narrow down the story. What is the best thing that can happen in this story? What’s the cleverest way to go about it when you can do “anything” you want. Especially with animation. You can do “anything.” You can go to outer space if you want. You almost get paralyzed by the possibilities.
WO: It’s almost not natural to have to think about that much stuff [13 episodes worth of writing] in six months [laughs]. You push yourself so hard. When we do the sketch comedy show, we take a year to do a 40 minute episode. We take our time. We don’t just have to push it out.
DS: Well that’s what makes the medium so difficult. That’s also why it makes the successes so rare. It’s difficult to sustain quality across an episodic show.
WO: Usually, pressure equals creativity. If you have to do it, it comes out somehow.
RB: It either produces creativity or panic attacks [laughs]. Sometimes both.
WO: Sometimes we work best under pressure.
DS: It sounds like you really don’t have a choice.
WO: Yeah. Exactly. If you don’t have a choice, it’s gonna come out at some point. The table reads sometimes won’t be great. We just go back and keep working on them until they get better. Luckily with Bento we’re able to make fixes all the way through color. We have in-house animators so if we think of a joke at the last minute, we can usually get it squeezed in. We’re lucky.
DS: Let’s talk about the broader landscape of adult animation that Brickleberry is now part of. Based on the numbers, both audiences and the network are happy with the show. There are only a handful of broadcasters doing only a handful of animated series for adults. How do you see your show fitting into the mix compared to say Seth MacFarlane and the ADHD block on Fox?
WO: I think it’s made it easier and harder in different ways. Family Guy and South Park paved the way for us. It would have been really hard coming out of the gate without those guys coming before us. I don’t know if people would have been ready for Brickleberry without first seeing those shows. With Seth MacFarlane, it makes it a little tough. Because of him, we don’t do any pop culture references. Nothing. There’s nothing left to do at this point. Any pop culture reference, which we love doing, we just stay away from it. You can’t think of a pop culture reference that hasn’t been done on Family Guy. In some ways that’s good because it makes our show more evergreen, with a greater shelf life.
DS: As they say, a blessing and a curse.
WO: Yeah. Plus, the network executives tend to get tunnel vision and say, “Hey, this works, let’s do more! Let’s do more family shows.” It was tough to get anything pitched at Fox that wasn’t another family show. How many do you need?
RB: Our show is a workplace ensemble comedy. We really didn’t want to do a family show.
DS: Well there is some precedent for animated workplace ensemble comedies. Archer is set as a workplace ensemble.
WO: Right. With a cable network, it’s easier to get stuff on that’s different.
DS: It seems to me that for media consumers, such as your audience, basically anything goes these days. There are fewer and fewer social taboos, though people’s opposition to various types of entertainment content seems to get louder all the time. Sometimes though it feels like there is a lot more opposition, because of the volume, than might actually exist.
WO: Yeah. I think it’s a few people pitching a fit.
DS: Well, sure. Often, that “fit” has a political agenda, which feeds on the attention generated by the protest as opposed to the protest’s results. The controversial position leverages someone else’s popularity to bring attention to a specific agenda.
WO: I don’t know if those people realize it or not, but usually, making a ruckus makes more people watch the show they’re upset about.
DS: Speaking of causing a ruckus, what type of guidance, oversight or communication do you have with the folks at Comedy Central regarding the racy content of your show?
WO: Well, you have two hurdles. You have the executive side and you have the S&P side [broadcast Standards & Practices]. With S&P, it’s, “Hey, you can’t say this word.” With S&P, it’s amazing that there are so very few things that they don’t let us do. Even if they say, “No,” we say, “Aw, come on. South Park did this…we’re just doing the same thing…” Usually, they say, “Oh, all right.” The freedom we have at Comedy Central as opposed to what we’d have had at Fox is amazing. Actually, we have to police ourselves. It’s a situation where just because they’ll let us do something, does that mean we really want to do it?
The executive side is a little different. They’re more like, “Is the story working?” Every now and then we’ll do something that S&P says is fine and the executives will say, “Yeah, well this is just too gratuitous, it goes a little too far. Why don’t you guys think of another joke here.” We’re really lucky we have the freedom to do the show that we want.
DS: As far as subject matter, what do you say to someone who says to you, “I’ve seen your show and it’s not funny. It’s just offensive.”
WO: Well we haven’t had anyone say that yet. At least not to our faces. There’s been plenty of that on the Internet. Look, the show isn’t for everyone. When we see a thousand people belly laughing, almost falling out of their chairs, and we hear someone else say that wasn’t funny, well, that may be their opinion, but obviously, not everyone feels that way, or we wouldn’t be on the air. Something like that doesn’t bug us when we read about it. We’ve been dealing with people online saying bad things about our stuff for years. We’ve even gotten death threats for some of the sketches we’ve done. At this point, there’s nothing that can really bug us.
DS: Are there places you won’t go with a joke or a story? Or, is anything and everything fair game?
WO: If you do it right, you can make practically anything funny. If you’re clever and don’t just try to shock for shock sake, you can make most anything funny.
RB: There needs to be a clever spin to it. If you don’t do it right, then people are going to get really offended and just not laugh.
WO: We’ve done things with our sketch comedy where we think something’s funny and when we show it to a group of people and it’s like, “Holy shit!” But remember, what we’re trying to accomplish here is not to shock or offend people. We’re just trying to make them laugh.
Dan Sarto is editor-in-chief and publisher of Animation World Network.