The notoriously outrageous Emmy Award-winning creator of ‘King Star King’ is back, expletives and all, with a new Adult Swim series that takes a bloody axe to some of your favorite kids’ stories.
Unleash the hounds! Or more aptly, “Unleash the evil, bloodthirsty, axe-wielding hounds!” JJ Villard has a new show, JJ Villard’s Fairy Tales, with a six-episode run premiering this Sunday, May 10, on Adult Swim. Yes, that JJ Villard. I know…bloody mayhem will certainly ensue. Bet on it. But don’t let that alarm or deter you. Actually, it should excite you, in a “Brece yerself, Margaret” kind of way. Villard’s cartoon worlds are anything but random or crassly conceived. Saunter into the director’s expletive-filled mind and you’ll find a creative stew brimming with choice cuts of cartoons, fine art, comics, sketchbooks, and yes, blood / vomit / violence. But there’s a fiery passion behind the madness, however stream-of-consciousness-like it may be, and the brave folks at Adult Swim were wise to set him loose riffing on venerated kid’s stories with his particular, “Villardish” approach.
The network describes the show as “a new, twisted, fun take on the classic Brothers Grimm fairy tales like ‘Cinderella’ and ‘Snow White.’” Their description of Episode One? “Boypunzel - Long haired boy is trapped in a tower by a witch.” What more could you possibly need to know? Let’s do this!
Villard burst onto the animation scene almost 20 years ago with not one but two animated short film hand grenades, lovingly described by Ottawa Animation Festival director Chris Robinson as “the ball-breaking Bukowski short, Son of Satan, and the crazy-as-fuck Chestnuts Icelolly.” Raw, nasty, violent, and for some, disturbing, as much for what they seemingly say about the creator as for what they say onscreen.
Fast forward to 2020. Villard’s journey from his days creating two highly provocative animated shorts to Adult Swim showrunner has been…well…interesting. He spent many years as a vizdev and story artist on several big DreamWorks Animation features, years he does not look back on fondly, which he discusses later. Then in 2013, he created, wrote, produced, and directed on the ultra-violent, cult hit, King Star King, for which he won a Primetime Emmy.
Villard’s path to Fairy Tales was equally unorthodox. “Mike Lazzo, the creator of Adult Swim, was flipping through a zine of mine, which was based on a sketchbook, and he saw this drawing I did in my sketchbook, and he fucking just hit up the Cartoon Network people and said let’s do a show based on this drawing.” A deal came quickly, of course. As it should. “He just called up the executives at Cartoon Network Adult Swim, and he said, ‘I want JJ to base a cartoon off of this and let's make it fairy tales,’” Villard says. “So, it was weird. It was based off a fucking sketchbook drawing that had Snow White written on it with a bunny and some like fucking robots and shit. From what I do almost every day for fun.”
“I've had a lot of development deals, and this one was by far the fastest moving one,” he adds. “I felt like, just like I was on my game sharing with Adult Swim the whole idea.”
Villard of course had some experience with fairy tales, having worked on Shrek the Third and Shrek Forever After at DreamWorks, though the experience was far from stellar. “I worked on Shrek Three and Four, so I knew fairy tales really well,” he shares. “I was a storyboard artist on those two shows, and I fucking lost my mind. I mean, I really didn't like working on those projects. Shrek Four wasn't as bad, but Shrek Three just turned out terrible.”
While storyboarding family fare may have driven Villard insane (a relative term in this context), boarding skills are what helped get his new show greenlit. According to the director, “I got Johnny Ryan, who's a famous comic book artist, and the head writer for all the Looney Tunes right now…and James Merrill, who wrote the third episode of King Star King that I won the Emmy for…I had those two writers, and we fucking blasted through a script. We handed in the script, [Adult Swim] they approved it. So, I was just ready to go. I storyboarded the shit out of it. And what I mean by that is, it's just like, an average storyboard for an 11-and-a-half-minute cartoon is 900 panels. I went almost to 1600. I over-boarded it because I wanted to skip the animation stage, which takes a whole nother six months of work. And I thought maybe I could impress these executives enough with great boards. And they said, ‘Let's do it, let's go.’ And so, they approved the show from the storyboards. This was also the first time I chose my own writers for a project, and I think that made a big difference, because I understood their humor and they understood mine.”
It’s almost passé to reference “sick and twisted” animation these days, except maybe in historical context; cartoons, both for kids and adults, for the most part, have obliterated most every social taboo, cultural stigma, and professed or legislated standard of decency. When The Simpsons, the one-time poster child for conservative lament about the demise of Western Civilization, can gleefully adorn advertising for the new Disney+ digital platform, we must agree, if anything is sick and twisted, it’s the irony of mainstream absorption of the very subversive entertainment that we used to pass around in brown paper bags. What does edgy animation even mean?
Case in point: According to Adult Swim, regarding Villard’s twisted, fun take on classic Brothers Grimm fairy tales like “Cinderella” and “Snow White, “The charm and cuteness of the original stories remain, but now they've been updated and packaged into a ball of raw, visceral, gross weirdness.” And now a word from our sponsors.
But in all fairness, every ball of raw, visceral, gross weirdness is not the same. And for Villard, his approach to cartoon animation is far from the bloody mayhem he depicts in the show. For one thing, according to the director, you must have empathy for your characters. “Well, a lot of people don't realize this, but you got to care for your characters,” he says regarding his development of the series. “Without empathy for your characters, it doesn't really matter how sick and twisted a fucking cartoon is. So that's the part where I think people are going to be really surprised…you actually feel for these characters. We put them through hell, but not for no reason.”
Another aspect of Villard’s development process is equally at odds with the stereotype of a sick and twisted cartoon creator. He’s an expert at taking studio notes. In fact, he craves them, using the confines of executive directives as a type of call to arms. “So, look, I'm a master at taking notes, and I like a challenge,” he explains. “Dude, if there’s one thing I pat myself on the back for, it's I listen to executives’ notes like a motherfucker. I mean, I take down what they say. It's part of the whole thing about making your own cartoon. It's part of the whole system. You've got to take notes, and I take notes really good.”
“So many of my friends don't do that,” he continues. “They get angry, they get pissed. It's just like, Okay, you got to weigh it out, which notes from standards and practices are important, which ones can you get away with not doing, which ones are very important that you have to fucking hit? It's a whole balance. Look, man, it's just part of the whole of making a cartoon. While you're worried about the layout guy doing your character design well, while you're worried about the background guy, fucking, using the correct red, you're going to get S&P notes coming through the email. It's just part of the whole fucking system of being a creator, and I embrace it all.”
Villard looks at executive notes as a personal challenge, a type of “come on, hit me with your best shot” exercise. He laughs as he compares his perspective to the Sonny Landham character Billy Sole from the film Predator. “You remember that guy in Predator who fucking stood on the log bridge and cut a fucking X on his chest with a big-ass knife and yelled, ‘Come on, fucking kill me!’ That's what you are as a creative. You're just like, ‘Let's go!’ That's why I think Ren and Stimpy Season One and Two are the best seasons, just because there were so many limitations that John Kricfalusi had to deal with. And those limitations create better humor because you're like a little kid in Catholic school. Like, ‘I'm going against what the nuns told me to do. I'm drawing on the desk right now.’”
He also fully embraced Adult Swim’s three no-no’s for the show, though his past work is a veritable celebration of the trio. “We were told three major things from Adult Swim. ‘No religious jokes, no sex jokes, and can you stay away from vomit and fart jokes?’ Dude, fart and shit jokes can only take you so far. You know? It's just like you can't...I mean, if you look at the new show, there's no sex jokes, there's no religious jokes, and rarely do you see a vomit or fart joke. Yeah, it was a challenge because King Star King is overloaded with that shit. And surprisingly enough, I mean, how insane is it that a cartoon that's so overloaded won an Emmy Award? It was the first Emmy Adult Swim ever won for an animated cartoon.”
In addition to getting to choose his own writers, Villard was able to put together and run a crew of his choosing. “I'm a good show runner,” he declares. “Like I fucking...I cater to my artists. I make sure to have personal relationships with them, just because we're all in this together. You know? And the end result is going to be what gets aired. So, let's just make it the best fun we can.”
But Villard is equally adamant about his crew putting in the time and effort to get the work done; he has little patience for “slackers” who have problems with the discipline of a creative process he clearly adores. “What discourages me are people that start shit within the team, like people that spoil the well,” he notes. “That type of thing for some reason really pisses me off. Like someone that's not doing their work and going around telling people on the team, just saying like, ‘Man, this show's hard now. Fuck this shit.’ They’re going home early and just not doing their work. I have very low patience for people that complain about their work.”
His disdain is palpable. “Dude, totally. Look, I know. We're artists. But how hard is it to be a fucking responsible artist, where you gotta be in at work at 9:00, and you gotta stay till 6:00, and you gotta be able to be consistent? I mean, is that very difficult? If they have one bad day out of the five in a week, I'm Okay with that. It's just like make sure the work comes in on time, and you put your best effort and yeah, that's it. And thankfully, we have. With Fairy Tales, not only did we do a great show, but we only came in three weeks over, which is an insane schedule, because we had no reoccurring characters. And more important than that, we came in under budget. That's fucking insane. And that's a union shop over at Cartoon Network Studios. We worked our asses off, and I know how important it is to execs to stay on schedule and all that stuff.”
While a Season Two pickup for Fairy Tales is out of his hands, Villard has more fun, twisted stories to tell. “Adult Swim is waiting to see how Fairy Tales does,” he says. “I'm more than happy to do a second season, but we'll see. What happened is right when I finished Fairy Tales, Netflix was banging on my door and saying like they really wanted me to do a show. So in between seasons of Fairytales, I'm working with Netflix on a new show. Listen, I love Adult Swim. They’ve been really good to me. I love Fairy Tales. But if we do continue, I want to get into American folklore, like Aesop's fables. I want to get into some Bible stories, some scripture shit. I have a lot of ideas for this show.”
Dan Sarto is Publisher and Editor-in-Chief of Animation World Network.