The Emmy Award-winning ‘Regular Show’ creator sets his sights on a distinctly older crowd in new animated HBO Max comedy about becoming an adult while not growing old.
How do you top a series like Regular Show? How do you follow-up and improve on an insightful and funny Emmy Award-winning animated kid’s show about a pair of lazy, procrastinating, impulsive, forgetful, slacker best friends named Mordecai (a six-foot-tall blue jay) and Rigby (a hyperactive raccoon), whose lazy afternoon adventures were seemingly always interrupted by zombies and misadventures with their friends? When the show’s eight-season run finished back in 2017, many in the animation community lamented the loss and wondered, what series creator J.G. Quintel would come up with next?
For Quintel, the challenge was clear: age up your creative focus, shed the network shackles, and start running with the big kids. The result is his hilarious new animated comedy, Close Enough, produced by Cartoon Network Studios and now available on HBO Max; a worthy sophomore effort, the show draws heavily from the creator’s own life, a humorous blend of funny yet relatable 30-something characters trying to function as responsible adults while not growing old in the process.
We recently spoke to the CalArts graduate about his jump from kids’ show phenom to new kid on the adult animated series block. He shared his thoughts on the liberating move from kids’ to adult entertainment development, migrating from premise-driven storyboarding to more script-driven production, and creating a new set of animated characters and stories based on his own, now much more adult, life.
Dan Sarto: Where did the idea for Close Enough come from?
J.G. Quintel: Back when Regular Show was getting close to wrapping up, I was thinking of new show ideas. It's funny. Regular Show ran for eight seasons; at the beginning, it was closer to when I’d gotten out of college, so it was very much based on my school experiences. So, it was about like working a bad job, being with your buddies, and those types of stories.
By the time Regular Show ended, I had changed as a person and kind of grown up a bit. So, when I was trying to come up with my new show, I thought, "I've kind of gone on to do different things that I can't do with Regular Show." Things like getting married, having kids. I couldn't really do those types of stories, but that's kind of where I was.
So, I ended up using myself again as reference material, took character designs from my student films as a starting point, and came up with the idea of living in L.A., being married and starting a family, having a roommate, and combining all of those elements together. It all developed into a show about transitioning into your 30s and having more responsibility. And that's basically what it is.
DS: Stories that hit close to home with you, so to speak.
JGQ: Yes. It's hard coming up with something that doesn't resonate with you. We’re just trying to come up with stuff that makes us laugh. Like in the writers’ room, it's all stories from the crew and me, and we're just trying to make each other laugh. We're not trying to come up with really out-there, weird things. We're trying to come up with relatable stories.
DS: You finally get a chance to create a show for adults. But even adult animation has changed since you started creating Regular Show. Certainly, the ways people watch this type of animation have changed considerably.
JGQ: Everybody's talking about how animation is kind of exploding right now, with streaming and adult animation in particular. A lot of people from my generation grew up watching Saturday morning cartoons and are super-into animation. When The Simpsons came out, that was a really big deal, because it was more adult. Having grown up on that, it was like, "Oh man, I want more shows like that."
With Regular Show, yeah, it was a kids’ show, but it was for adults as well. Again, we were making it for ourselves at the time. We were just trying to get each other to laugh. That's why so many of those adult undertones are in the show. If you were watching it with your kids, you would like it too.
The only reason we got a shot to make Close Enough is the fact that so many adults are into watching animation, which is really cool. There are a lot of shows coming out that aren’t for kids. A lot of the stories won't even resonate with them, because they’re about adult issues, and adult problems.
And it's really fun to tackle those types of issues. Because for my entire career, it's been all about entertaining kids; there's a certain creative limit that you hit when you're doing that type of entertainment. Now, we're able to just go as far as we can to make it even more for ourselves. And because adults are more into animation now, they'll probably check it out, and they'll be like, "Oh, my God, this is really good. This is super-funny. It's dealing with stuff that I'm dealing with." And I think they'll really relate to it.
DS: Has your development approach changed at all in creating a show for adults? Has HBO Max provided any guidelines or constraints as to how far you can push the humor?
JGQ: Initially we took it on in kind of the same way we did with Regular Show, just with the new characters in mind and the new kind of rating in mind. Usually, when I'm looking at story pitches coming in, or we're looking at some work, I'm just using my own taste as a barometer for like, "Is this okay or not?" You watch it. And if something hits you the wrong way and you're like, "Oh, that's too far. It's getting way too crass," you figure even though we could do it, why do it. It’s like, "I don't think that's funny. And it's mean-spirited." So, we cut that kind of stuff.
And then there'd be something with a lot of heart, or uniquely animated. We're really into stuff that animates well and moves, which is a lot more work, as opposed to just a talking heads bit. You'll see stuff come in pitched, and you're like, "Oh, that's too flat. Let's make that more dynamic or let's try to come up with a really interesting way for that to animate."
DS: Was there any specific design aesthetic, or inspiration you were following, in creating the look of the show?
JGQ: Well at the beginning... when I first pitched it… I storyboarded a short pitch so that I was able to pitch basically a whole board. I designed the characters based on how I draw. I didn't try to change my style. So, it very much fits within the style of the Regular Show world.
As the show picked up steam and we started bringing more people on, including designers, many were from Regular Show, as well as new people. So, they were working off that aesthetic, but building on it. Some of the character designs from my earliest pitches, we punched them up, constantly going over everything, trying to add little things and making sure we liked how the characters looked.
As far as the world look, I've always liked more realistic design elements, where a building looks like a building, and the proportions are all very realistic. With a show about humans, it just felt quite easy deciding how it should look. Because it's like, "Oh, that's a house. That’s a person, so that's how big a door would be… that's how big the room should be."
Everything has almost a live-action sensibility to it. But then at the same time, wanting to take advantage of animation, we also push things to go very surreal. And so, it goes way beyond what live-action can do. But I definitely wanted the look to be something that if you were an adult and you weren't particularly into animation, you might say, "Oh, I want to check that out. That looks like a normal set of people. Yeah, they're drawn, but it's like humans, I get that." They would check it out and be drawn in, and then we would show them what animation can do. Whereas I think there are a group of people, if they see cartoony-looking characters, they're going to shut down and be like, "Eh, it's not for me. I'm not going to watch that."
So, I wanted to try and make this as broad as possible for people who might not even give animation a shot, not realizing that it's totally funny, and you should.
DS: In your development process, do you write first, or do you draw first?
JGQ: I come from a premise-driven storyboarding background. That's kind of where I started. And a lot of that involves looking at an outline. And then you're just thinking of little beats and trying to come up with funny stuff. I laugh a lot at funny animation and the way things move. And so, I tend to draw the characters a lot, and I'll have little word bubbles of them saying stuff to each other and trying to come up with new situations and build off that. As that builds, I'll probably fill a sketchbook or two, and then I'll start to pick out like, "Oh, who are these characters? How do they go together? Where do they live?" And I start thinking of places and then general stories start coming up.
One of the best ways to pitch an idea is to show people as close as possible to how it would play. And I think a storyboard is great for that, because you can pitch the voices, they can see the staging and the way the characters look and how they behave with one another without getting into what a bible would do. I tend to do bibles much later as more of a guide for the crew coming on once that becomes reality.
But before that, I like to just make the board. And a lot of that is just sitting around thinking of the characters. You come up with a simple story and then run them through it, draw it all out, pitch it, and make tweaks. And then you pitch it again to someone. And if they think it's funny, then you move on from there. That's how I like to develop at the early stages of coming up with a show,
DS: What have been the most challenging aspects of creating a brand-new show for a new and different audience?
JGQ: It’s been a unique experience. Yeah. There are different challenges. First, it was particularly challenging because we were aging up. So right away, you're going to be pickier. With kids’ animation, there are notes, and you go through all that with the network in delivering episodes, but it's definitely a lot more forgiving. With adults, they're way pickier. So, the network needs to be as well. There is a lot more combing through, trying to figure out exactly what the show needs to be; what is the best version of this show?
At the beginning, we pitched to TBS, and we used the Regular Show crew to make the pitch. They said, "Yeah, keep going. We want to see more," so we used the Regular Show crew to storyboard two episodes. We wrote a bunch of ideas, then boarded them. We even animated a trailer, which eventually was released in 2017, as part of our pitch to get the show greenlit.
Once it was greenlit, we went through another round of really cracking the characters and the world; what is the show like and what is the format? Just going back and forth and back and forth. We even worked at trying to figure out a nice hybrid for making the show as far as how we wrote it; we were like, "Well, we want to do scripts, but we also don't want to lose the premise driven vibe. What is good about premise driven shows?"
We kind of did a combination, where we would let board artists make tweaks and rewrite and do stuff like that. But that ended up being very unwieldy. Because, again, everybody has a different idea of what’s funny.
The was a lot of content to comb through and piece together. So, we eventually galvanized around a more script-based version of production. Some of us would continue tweaking and punching up with the premise driven mentality, but it wouldn't be the whole crew.
When you make a show, the beginning is always tough. I mean, I feel like everybody talks about first season blues. But nothing is set in stone yet. Anything can be changed. Anything can be questioned. You can always make it better. We went through a very long period of making sure that this thing would be bulletproof. And I think it's super solid. I can't wait for people to see it.
For people who know about Regular Show and people who are in animation, I hope that they'll give it a shot. But I really want to get people who don't typically pay attention to animation.
Dan Sarto is Publisher and Editor-in-Chief of Animation World Network.