The Adult Swim series creator and executive producer discuss their “process” as Season Three at America’s worst college begins.
Summer semester starts early this year with the return of the offbeat Adult Swim series China, IL. Creator Brad Neely’s comedy about the “Worst College in America” is aiming the academic bar rather high for its third season, with guest stars like Donald Glover, Ike Barinholtz and SNL’s Kate McKinnon lending their voices to the madness and a season-concluding musical episode in the works. As Neely and Executive Producer Daniel Weidenfeld explain, however, the most rewarding part of their continued efforts is the freedom to experiment with story structures, buck the “Adult Swim” stereotypes and also, if possible, sneak a little naughty word or two past the censors.
Dan Sarto: What are some of the highlights and things to look forward to in Season Three?
Brad Neely: Well, we're still telling our 22-minute stories but this time we’re trying out new things with the shape of those stories, so that’s fun. We have a host of new talent coming in to do voices, in addition to our usual cast of Greta Gerwig, Jeffrey Tambor, Hulk Hogan and Hannibal Buress. And at the end of this season we also have a double-length musical and that’s like the cherry on top of the season.
Daniel Weidenfeld: It’s worth noting that Brad does all the music in the series. He’s going in and recording actual songs and source music that plays within the show.
BN: Yeah, I did like 52 songs for season two.
DS: Are there any larger arcs over the course of the season or will each episode stand on its own?
BN: Yeah, that’s always going to be the case. I really love the tradition of the sitcom and being able to hit reset at the end of each episode. We have kind of a “will they/won’t they” going with Steve and Pony but we don’t do that throughline kind of thing.
DS: Where do you draw inspiration for the stories you tell on the show?
BN: Well, mostly from my own shittiness. Like, whenever we’re in a room with a bunch of writers, me and Daniel, we just talk about how I suck and how the different facets of my personality can be crappy to be around, and then we just attribute that to a character and figure out a funny way to dramatize it.
DS: Like a race to the bottom, so to speak, from a characteristic standpoint?
DW: Well, there are three sides of it. Brad voices three of the main characters – Frank, Steve and Baby Cakes – and they’re all very different parts of Brad’s brain. Baby Cakes says what he wants and is a stream-of-consciousness sort of man/child. Then there’s Frank, who is neurotic and overthinks everything and is his own worst enemy. And then there is Steve who is just an overly confident ladies man, and all three of those parts of Brad’s brain are in the show. It kinda writes itself in a lot of ways.
BN: We like to make fun of us; of me as a starting point, but us. A lot of shows might go after people in Hollywood or things that are happening in the world but we really try to keep it local.
DS: Where do you start with the story development process?
BN: When we start, I come in with 50 to 100 starter ideas. We get a group of writers, usually six to eight people, in a room with Daniel and a writer’s assistant and we figure out which ideas we like. A lot of ideas are generated in the room. Then we break those down to fit into episodes based on which go well together.
DS: Does that initial brainstorming happen in small spurts or all at once?
BN: No, I keep notes all through my life. If something funny occurs to me, I’ll jot it down. Sometimes it’s just a little nugget like Rainbow Rat, or a bigger thing, like a quick story of me getting mad at the person who gave me the lotto ticket, you know? When I know we’re going to have a writer’s room meeting, I’ll take a day or two and dress up a 20 page document of ideas that I think could work in the show and send that out to the writers and say “circle your favorites!” A lot of those ideas won’t ever be anything and probably 50% of the show this season also comes from the conversations in the writer’s room – things that I didn’t bring in. But I like to not show up with a completely blank slate.
DS: Stylistically, China, IL is fairly minimalist. How much are you involved in the look of the series?
BN: I’m a control-freak when it comes to all of this. I do most of the rough designs for any character that’s going to talk. I’ll quickly jot down a sketch and hand it over to the real designers to make into a real person, but if it’s a character that’s got a speaking line I feel like I should try to build it.
For the look of the show, it was always intentional for me to have an honest representation of life. I come from life drawing and not really cartooning, so our show is more proportionally accurate to humans and the way that we depict human actions and gestures is important to me.
DS: What’s your litmus test with regards to the humor of the show? How do you arbitrate the humor and at what point does that happen?
BN: It happens at every point in the process. I feel like you have to keep your eye on those thousands of balls for each episode and make sure that what made you laugh at the very beginning stays alive through the long process of making it real.
DS: Overall, what’s the toughest part of this whole series effort for you?
BN: The time that it takes for the audience to see it. Whenever I started doing things for audience consumption I’d make it and put it out and immediately get a response all within a two-week period. These ideas we’ve been working on for closer to two years…
DW: We have a story that we’ve been working on for over a year and a half. It’s about a deadly virus that spreads…
BN: Oh right!
DW: …and we thought of it well before Last Man on Earth – which is a great show – but we were there first and no one will ever know that! [Laughs] I’m going to go everywhere saying, “We did it first!” It’s a hard thing. Animation already takes a really long time. I mean, now there are full series in line with episodes we’ve already done, so we don’t get to feel as original as we’d want to.
DS: What kind of relationship do you have with the folks at Standards and Practices?
DW: This is probably a hack thing to say because I think everybody probably says it, but Brad and I love the relationship we have with Standards. Every single time they come back with a note saying, “Well, you can’t do it that way, maybe you could do it another way,” we’ll find something even more shocking and most likely more offensive that will slip through the cracks. So it pushes us harder to work to come up with something a little less obvious.
BN: Yeah, I’m much more fond of the types of swears that we coin, which don’t get red-flagged. I like that much better than the stuff that just immediately comes to mind.
DW: The only thing that we got upset about that we couldn’t do was a scrabble game where we tried to get the word “quim” on there. We thought we snuck it by, but they were on to us!
BN: But later we ended up calling a character “Quimberly” and that was fine, so… [Laughs]
DS: Adult-targeted animated shows can be a very hazardous landscape. We’ve seen a lot of stuff come and go in the last handful of years, so what do you think is the single most important thing to make a show successful with adult audiences?
BN: Characters. Talking about real adult psychology and taking that and dramatizing it in a big stupid comedic cartoony way. It’s been a recipe for us. Knowing that what we’re talking about are actual adult issues that an adult can watch and say, “Yeah, I wrestle with that," but the way that we end up talking about it is silly and super absurd. That’s our recipe.
DW: The recipe for disaster, I think, in a lot of adult cartoon shows is being weird for the sake of being weird.
BN: That’s true.
DW: We’ll go crazy but there’s always a reasoning behind it. It will always service the story in some capacity. We’re never just trying to be crazy and edgy. We stay away from that and just try to tell the best stories that we possibly can, and everything comes out of respecting the audience and yes, sometimes we cram a little too much in the story, but we’re never lazy.
BN: We think our audience is a lot smarter than people might give them credit for. Adult Swim has a reputation for entertaining stoners or something, but I really think it’s more than that.
China, IL returns to Adult Swim on April 5th. For more information, visit http://www.adultswim.com/videos/china-il/ .
Dan Sarto is Publisher and Editor-in-Chief of Animation World Network.
James Gartler is a frequent contributor to Animation World Network.
Dan Sarto is Publisher and Editor-in-Chief of Animation World Network.
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