The ‘Harvey Birdman, Attorney at Law’ creator talks about his latest off-the-wall Adult Swim animated comedy – which begins its second season on June 19 – as well as the earliest days at Cartoon Network, the birth of ‘Harvey,’ and the creation of a new series for a new era.
Once upon a time, in the early 1990s, in a city known as Atlanta, businessman Ted Turner founded a cable TV station called The Cartoon Network. Dedicated primarily to children’s programming, including a heavy dose of classic animated series and cartoons, the channel also presented original animated programs that pushed the boundaries and challenged the conventions of the time. Its first original production was Space Ghost Coast to Coast, which transformed a 1960s Hanna-Barbera superhero into a talk show host, and, in later seasons, featured increasingly off-the-wall humor and surreal touches.
Among Space Ghost’s fans was Erik Richter, who decided – undoubtedly after careful consideration – to leave his home in Northern California and move to Atlanta to join the fun. After writing a couple of episodes of Space Ghost, Richter, along with Michael Ouweleen, created the spin-off series Harvey Birdman, Attorney at Law, which premiered on Adult Swim on September 2, 2001 – the same night that the programming block launched. Harvey Birdman, which ran through 2007, reimagined another 1960s Hanna-Barbera superhero (and sometime Space Ghost guest host) as a lawyer, while upping the ante on the surreal, parodic style of its predecessor, and winning many devoted fans along the way.
Which brings us to Birdgirl, the latest creation of Richter and Ouweleen. Now on the cusp of its second season, Birdgirl – which is technically a spin-off of a spin-off of a spin-off – follows the misadventures of Judy Ken Sebben (aka Birdgirl), who, after her father’s death, becomes the CEO of her not-so-green family corporation. After assembling a ragtag gang from among the company’s minions, she and her Birdteam spend their nights trying to undo the unfortunate decisions of the prior generation, as well as contain the havoc wreaked by one or another of their own company’s dubious products.
Will they fail? Spectacularly! But, as the press notes helpfully inform us, it's not about the solutions we come up with, it's about the new problems we make along the way.
Recognizing that there was probably no one better suited to talk about Birdgirl, Harvey Birdman, and how to make life-changing relocation decisions, we tracked down Erik Richter and prevailed upon him to tell all.
Dan Sarto: I must start by saying that some of the earliest animation I ever latched onto was Harvey Birdman and Space Ghost Coast to Coast, and all these years later, they remain two of my favorite series.
Erik Richter: Thank you for that. Space Ghost is actually what brought me to Atlanta. It was like this beacon of WTF – like you can't believe somebody is doing this on American television.
DS: Taking these iconic cartoon characters that we all grew up with and using them satirically was unprecedented. No one else was doing anything like that with such high-profile IP.
ER: It's true. That was sort of all in Ted Turner’s DNA – buying those libraries, launching those networks. There was an economic reason for doing it because it was cheaper, but there was also just wanting to try it out. That was kind of how [VP of Programming] Mike Lazzo programmed back in those days – it was like, if you could make Mike laugh or if it was something he hadn’t seen before, he would be interested. There really was a reliance on gut feelings.
DS: Speaking of DNA, Birdgirl is clearly derived from Harvey Birdman, which came out of that freewheeling style of creating shows. What was the thinking that gave rise to Harvey?
ER: First of all, Harvey was premised on the idea that these characters exist even when they're not on camera. So, what has Birdman, from the 1960s Hanna-Barbera series, been doing all these years? I didn't think he would be like Tim Allen in Galaxy Quest, just getting drunk in a condo somewhere. I thought he actually would have been okay, figuring out the next stage of his life. Maybe after a month of drinking in a condo somewhere. But an attorney was just such a ridiculous thing. And then, it was like, well, if there were a cartoon attorney, who would his clients be? Other cartoon characters.
Finally, what made the whole thing come together was Gary Cole, who played Harvey. As soon as we heard Gary read for it, it was like, well, of course this is Harvey Birdman. There's something about Gary's easygoingness that was really, really funny. Like Gary is the antithesis of Harvey Birdman, because he doesn't have imposter syndrome like Harvey does. And the combination of those two things – Gary just kind of seeming really happy, moment to moment, and the character who's worried that he's going to get fired every five minutes – was just kind of magical. And that's where the show came from. There was no long, intricate roadmap. It was more like, who would his coworkers be? OK, he needs an assistant. And then, at some point, Birdgirl makes an appearance. We just went with our inspirations.
DS: And how did the current series come about? Were you looking around for an idea for a new series or did Birdgirl just call out to you?
ER: Both. We did the Harvey Birdman: Attorney General special [in 2018], in which Birdgirl features prominently. And, while we were doing that, my partner Christina Miller said, “Why is there not a Birdgirl special, or a Birdgirl series?" And I thought, well, who better to run a series called “Birdgirl” than me? Once again, Mike Lazzo was involved, and Keith Crofford, who was an executive producer on Harvey Birdman. Our first idea was that Harvey and Judy have thrown up a shingle in Pensacola and they're still practicing law and maybe tending bar at night. And that would've been a funny show, but it became far more interesting when we thought about approaching it the same way we approached Harvey Birdman – taking into account that imaginary period of time since we last saw Birdgirl.
So, she's gone to law school. She's working for Sebben & Sebben, her father’s company, just like the kid of any fabulously wealthy scion. Then her father dies, and she becomes the CEO. And that really seemed interesting, because it not only allowed us to develop her as a character, but also to revisit all the jokes we made in the past about Sebben & Sebben, which were so innocent. “We pollute the world.” Ha ha ha. It's like, well, now the piper has to be paid, right?
DS: A lot of it is quite provocative. Do you ever get any pushback from the network?
ER: Very little pushback, if any, usually – which is both liberating and also handcuffs you, because then you're the one making those decisions. It's easier to have somebody to blame for not being able to do what you want to. I work with very smart people – the writing staff for this season was insanely smart. It was an all-female room, with the exception of me. And it was like, somebody would say something, we would all laugh, and then we would decide if it actually seemed like a usable idea.
For example, in the new season, there’s a bit about Judy’s childhood toy. She has this beloved childhood toy that she pulls out of a box, and everyone else sees it as a sex toy. And she’s saying, “You people are sick. This is an innocent, beautiful child's toy. What does it say about you that you see it as this other thing?” That was an idea in the room that made us all laugh, but there were people who wanted to just move on. But it was a really interesting idea because it not only gives us a glimpse into young Judy – we intentionally didn't go too personal with her in the first season – but also a funny entry point into looking at her sexuality. You can't please absolutely everybody, but we try very, very hard to be inclusive. We're not being mean-spirited about it. So, if a particular joke is like, whoa, hopefully the bigger picture of what we're trying to do is still being communicated.
DS: What's your favorite part of the process and what's the most challenging?
ER: My favorite part is always creating the stories. But since this took place during COVID, and our room was entirely remote, there was a depth to it this time that I had never experienced before. Our Zoom meetings were a kind of life preserver for us. It was a daily reason to get up, and it gave us a reason to actually see other people every single day and hug virtually. It was not just having very funny, inspiring people around you, but it was also feeling that things are going to be okay because I'm talking to people right now who are seeing the same things I am, and they seem okay.
And then the other part is working with this cast, who are really funny and, in their own way, are writing as much as we are. I mean, we're coming in with the structure and we have things we need to hit, but we always leave room for them to improv or to add something and, nine times out of 10, it's hilarious. Many of them, if not all of them, are live-action talent, so they're used to working in a cast and playing off people.
So those are my two favorite things and that's why I absolutely love doing this.
DS: And what's been the toughest part for you this season?
ER: Honestly, the post. Normally we would do post-production in Atlanta. Harvey was all done in Atlanta at Turner. Atlanta's in the DNA of these shows. There’s a very, very trusted editor and sound designer. And normally I would go there, and we would edit an episode for three or four days. And then the same thing for sound design and sweetening. We’ve been doing all of this remotely, but they're not getting the experience that they enjoyed. I mean, they haven't complained, but I think they're being robbed of the pleasure of us laughing together, and running over to get a sandwich, and just talking. So, it hasn’t been as much fun. And I would like to go back to normal, or some version of normal...
DS: We're heading that way.
ER: We are.
Dan Sarto is Publisher and Editor-in-Chief of Animation World Network.