Writers and showrunners Benji Samit and Dan Hernandez provide the low-down on ‘Koala Man,’ the new Down Under animated series, a Hulu Original from Michael Cusack, Justin Roiland, and 20th Television Animation, premieres January 9.
From the Land Down Under, where students allegedly ride kangaroos to school (see below), comes the new Hulu Original animated series Koala Man, the brainchild of the redoubtable Michael Cusack, heretofore known for the series YOLO: Crystal Fantasy and Smiling Friends. Written by Benji Samit and Dan Hernandez (Central Park, The Addams Family 2), who also serve as showrunners, the family comedy features a dad who lives a not-so-secret identity as Koala Man, an Australian suburban superhero with no powers, but with a burning passion to snuff out petty crime and bring order to the community. The series is produced by 20th Television Animation, and its executive producers include the co-creator of that studio’s hit adult animated original series Solar Opposites, Justin Roiland, also known for Rick and Morty.
With a star-studded cast that includes Sarah Snook (Succession), Jemaine Clement (What We Do in the Shadows), and Hugh Jackman (Wolverine) as Big Greg – head of the town council and former host of Australia’s third most popular fishing show, “Fishing Big with Big Greg” – Koala Man is clearly poised to bring glory to the small New South Wales town of Dapto and its colorful residents. In anticipation of the show’s imminent unveiling on Monday, January 9, we spoke with writers/showrunners Samit and Hernandez about the series’ birth and development, and their commitment to realizing Cusack’s singular vision.
AWN: How did the show get started and how did you two get attached to it?
Benji Samit: Michael has been doing his stuff in Australia in this sort of alt animation space for years, and that's where Koala Man came from. It was a series of shorts that he made for YouTube in Australia. And at one point, Justin [Roiland], who has his finger on the pulse of a lot of what's going on in animation, discovered Michael and he had him do the Rick and Morty Bushworld Adventures. Justin had started to develop things with 20th Century Animation, like Solar Opposites, and they really just loved Koala Man. At the same time, we had been working with 20th Century Animation, and they sent us Koala Man, and they were like, "What do you think of these shorts?"
And we just thought it was so funny. We loved Michael's point of view, his voice, his style, and so we sat down with him. He came to LA and we just immediately hit it off and had a shared vision for what Koala Man could be. Michael's point of view is very specific and it's not necessarily the most widely accessible storytelling, but he wanted to create something that could appeal to a wider audience. And so we really did have this perfect arranged marriage that just worked. Hulu came on board, and everyone had a shared vision that started with us and Michael, and it just has been an amazing project to work on for that reason.
AWN: There aren't that many folks that can say the show they “started” to develop is the show they ended up with. That must be very rewarding for you as creators.
Dan Hernandez: It's extremely rewarding. So often you start with an idea, and then someone makes a suggestion, and you're not 100% sure about it, but you try it, and then that continues, and suddenly the project you have at the end is nothing like the show you started with. And you don't even really like it anymore because it wasn't what you set out to do. We were really fortunate that Michael's vision was so clear, and Justin really helped shepherd us and vouch for what we wanted to do. And to 20th Animation’s credit, they've been unbelievable champions of us and all of their creators, which is one of the reasons we love working with them.
AWN: What is it about Australia, that kind of laid-back, droll, not especially sophisticated take on life that is just so funny to US audiences? It's at the heart of Cusack's work and of your work with him on this show.
BS: I think there's an element of Australia that in a lot of ways is not that dissimilar to the US – it’s a large land mass with rural areas, metropolitan areas, different types of people. But there are also some weird aspects in the way they do things, all the weird creatures they have. It's like an alt reality version of the US. Half of our writers were in Australia, and so the American writers would just sit back and listen to them telling stories from their lives. And it got to the point where they could start making things up and we would just believe it. “You rode on a kangaroo to school?” Oh, that's weird, but maybe.
Also, there's that thing when you're trying to write American shows and people are telling stories from their lives, and you think, oh, that's good, but The Simpsons did an episode like that, or Family Guy already did it. But Australia has never had an adult animated half-hour sitcom before. And so any idea that was an Australian idea, it was just like, that's an episode. No one's ever done it. So it was really freeing to have an entire season's worth of episodes that came together pretty quickly.
DH: At the same time, the show is set in “Australia” in quotation marks, which is Australia from Michael's surrealist point of view, where all of the cultural things are real and very specific, but the events around them are heightened or supernatural or crazy. And so there's a fun mashup between the very low to the ground – here's a guy who cares about how long the grass is growing – and the fact that there’s also a monster that he has to fight. That was a fun juxtaposition that gave us a lot of energy for telling this cracked superhero story.
AWN: You’ve both written for live-action and animated TV and film projects. How did you approach development on this show?
DH: These are real places and real – I won't say real people – but real types of people that are close to Michael's heart and to his upbringing, in their own kind of bizarre way. And, from a writing point of view, we always feel that the best genre work, especially when you're doing a comedic take on it, has to involve a real love for the source material. We felt that the best way we could honor Michael’s inspiration, and the funniest way to make fun of superhero stories, was to tell a legitimate superhero story within the confines of the emotional reality of Koala Man in his world. So we tried to avoid anything that felt like a cheap joke just for a joke's sake. We really tried to build it from a real Australian thing, like “bin day” in the first episode, or a conceptual thing like tall poppy syndrome – this idea that anyone that gets too big for their britches needs to be chopped down, which isn't exactly something that we Americans are as familiar with, but that every Australian immediately understands.
And that was so interesting to us and so different. And we felt like there was a real verisimilitude in approaching the stories from those points of view. And then, at the same time, it's about a guy who's having a midlife crisis – a guy who’s committing to do something that he isn't that good at, and probably shouldn't commit to, except that, deep down, he actually is a hero. He actually does stand for something. It's easy to look at him as sort of a pedantic rule follower, but there is something beautiful about someone who really, truly loves his town, loves his family, and wants to make everything better.
So as we were crafting the stories, we really tried to keep that emotional reality of this is a small town, it's not a remarkable town in any way, but, as with all towns, if you dig into it deep enough, there’s something that’s a little rough and a little strange. So that was how we approached the storytelling in the first season: What are the emotionally real parts of his life, and how can we wed that to something extremely elevated and extremely unexpected? What is the craziest thing that we can put this very normal man with no powers up against and somehow have him come out on top?
AWN: How did you actually craft the episodes before they were designed and animated? Did you script them? Did you work with board artists?
BS: We fully scripted them with a full writers’ room – outlined the whole season, wrote the whole season, and then worked with amazing board artists who came up with new great physical moments and gags. And, with each step of the board process, we kept rewriting. We were rewriting and rewriting and tweaking things up until the final sound mix, but we also treated it like some of the live-action projects that we've written, where we fully wrote the season before getting into any production.
DH: We did have a secret weapon, which is Michael's ability to instantly draw a character, or sketch out a scene, or give us a visual look or style or comp to illustrate what his vision for the show was. It was really useful to us, compared to other projects where we have to wait for some of these things to come back, or for people to extrapolate what we meant on the page. In real time, we could have a rudimentary character design that we could reference as we're writing for these characters.
BS: Some of the best animated shows are ones where the creative team includes that artist, that animator, that visionary who can see it. You're not just writing something and then bringing in animators that didn't create the show to try and bring it to life. Michael was there to draw every single character. In the writer's room, we're talking and coming up with an idea, and then he just lifts up a piece of paper and there's the character. It just completely changes the creative process when you can see it as you're brainstorming it.
AWN: Was there anything especially difficult about putting the show together and getting this first season done?
BS: Probably having to do it all over Zoom. The production and animation is all in Australia, most of the actors are in Australia, and so it's us on Zoom, having to keep Australian hours in addition to our American hours. So that was tough. So much of it was everyone being on the same page, and no one stopping us from doing anything that we wanted to do. Creatively, it's been the dream. So it's more process annoyances just because of us being thousands and thousands of miles away.
DH: But, that said, Princess Pictures and Bento Box’s partner, Princess Bento, who are both in Australia, were incredible and really helped facilitate everything. I think that in any first-season show, there's a learning curve as you get the production pipeline up and running, and sort out the best way to do things and the right order of operations. I think that, thankfully, we figured that out relatively quickly, but the time difference really added an extra layer of difficulty.
AWN: As mentioned, you two write for live-action, you write for animation, you write for episodic, you write for features. Does the series work offer creative opportunities or challenges that are unique?
BS: The first thing that comes to mind is just the freedom that we have. So much of the feature work we do is for giant IP and existing franchises, where we're just getting permission to play with the action figures a little bit. And there are expectations we have to live up to. With this, we're creating a world and we're doing whatever we want to do. We're also producing the show. In features, we sort of show up, write our pages, and say, “have a nice day, see you at the premiere.” Here we really get to craft this thing and get our hands dirty.
DH: In a movie, everything needs to be wrapped up with a bow on it by the end of the third act – it’s a singular thought, it's contained. If you set something in motion in the first act, by the end of the third act, it will be paid off. In a longer format, where you have more room to breathe, you can have a longer fuse on some of these things. So, you can set something in motion in episode one that doesn't really bear fruit until the finale, or you don't really understand the full weight of it until later on. By the end, you're surprised by how invested you are, not only in the comedy of what's happening, but in the emotional stakes. So it's a different kind of storytelling. But we also want these episodes to be standalone. A lot of what we love about something like The Simpsons are individual episodes, individual moments that we remember.
In a feature, you wouldn't necessarily have time for more silent moments, more lyric moments, more philosophical moments, because the story needs to be propulsively moving forward, and all of these things need to be wrapped up. Here, we can leave an episode on a note of ambiguity, or on a note of tension, and it really is like, what's going to happen? Or we can drop something, say, at the end of the pilot, where there's a big reveal, but we don't necessarily have to touch that for a few episodes. But now it's in the air, and we as an audience know it's in the air, and when that rears up again, it's like, oh shit. Sometimes, in the writers’ room, after we discover something retroactively, I say, we better go back and change it earlier and then everyone will think we're smart.
But that kind of manipulation of the way that the narrative unfolds is a more complex web in television, even though it seems like it should be easier. We don’t want it to feel like one giant movie, because it's not. They're bite-sized pieces. But if you sit down and watch it in one sitting, you're going to go on a journey that you don't expect to go on. I think that that's what television can do, especially in the streaming age.
Dan Sarto is Publisher and Editor-in-Chief of Animation World Network.