EXCLUSIVE: Brad Neely and Daniel Weidenfeld Talk China, IL Season 1
Brad Neely and Daniel Weidenfeld are set to bring Adult Swim's latest animated hit China, IL to NYCC 2011 Saturday, October 15
Currently airing Sunday nights on Cartoon Network's Adult Swim is their latest animated hit, China, IL, which comes from the creative mind of comic book artist and TV writer Brad Neely. The comedy series revolves around Frank and Steve Smith, "The Professor Brothers", two off-kilter teachers residing at the University of China. As part of Adult Swim's new Sunday night line-up, Brad Neely and executive producer Daniel Weidenfeld will be bringing China, IL to NYCC 2011 this Saturday, October 15th, for an exclusive Q&A and screening of a never-before-seen episode.
We managed to catch up with both Brad Neely and Daniel Weidenfeld for a chat about the series before they head off to face their fans in person. This is our conversation.
What do you guys have planned for NYCC 2011? Adult Swim is known for always having such a great presence at Comic-Con...
Daniel Weidenfeld: What pressure. You come right out of the gate. We're in talks to have a surprise guest there. Someone that is on the show, hopefully. Otherwise, we have an upcoming episode that we are going to screen. And we are going to give fans an opportunity to ask questions. Brad has his own thing going on. When he goes out there, he has to do all of these comic book signing, and all of that stuff. This is really a chance for fans to interact with Brad Neely, because he doesn't often get to do that.
Brad Neely: It will be an all-nude panel.
Can we speculate that Hulk Hogan is the surprise guest?
Brad Neely: I wouldn't get your hopes up. There is always that possibility. He is like Santa Clause. He just shows up places. We don't even know.
Daniel Weidenfeld: Sometimes he's in our office. He sleeps there.
Daniel Weidenfeld: No, actually, we cook him dinner.
You also have Greta Gerwig on the show...
Daniel Weidenfeld: Out of all the people, it will probably be Greta Gerwig. Of all the surprise visitors, she is the most likely to show up. Though, it might just be me and Brad. Don't show up and be angry. If there is a surprise guest, it will probably be Greta Gerwig.
What about Jeffrey Tambor? He loves going to Comic-Con. Didn't you see Paul?
Daniel Weidenfeld: He is too busy.
Yeah, too busy doing nothing.
Daniel Weidenfeld: Jeffrey Tambor is a busy man.
What was the process of taking a show that was on the internet, which was then turned into an Adult Swim Special, and turning that into a weekly TV series?
Daniel Weidenfeld: When I was over at Super Deluxe, and I worked with Brad on the shorts...Basically, when we got the call to make the quote/unquote China, IL TV special, we were really serving two masters. When I was working at Super Deluxe, I wanted to make the best show possible. Super Deluxe wanted four great web shorts. Adult Swim wanted to make a great quarter-hour show. Within each part of the Super Deluxe series, there were three acts. It became a complicated story. I was very happy with what Brad did. But it isn't representative of what we've turned this show into. Or what the shorts were, even.
Brad Neely: Exactly. I really love the original, four-part China, IL. But, you know, that is a different beast. This is an actual television show. It has a narrative structure. It has flowing animation. You have to play by different rules whenever you change formats.
Daniel Weidenfeld: A couple years after Super Deluxe went under, Brad and I talked about doing a show. The idea was, lets just do "The Professor Brothers". So, we went back to the same world, and "Baby" Cakes is in it, but is basically this is a show about these two guys. Now they have eyes...If you go back to the pilot episode, the show is very different. Structure, character, esc...So, after we made the pilot, they loved the show, and they loved the world. We decided that we needed to flesh this world out. Which is how we ended up at China, IL, a show about the university, and the town. Its like Springfield on The Simpsons, rather than being a show solely about these two brothers.
Brad Neely: For me...Maybe I was being evasive when I made the shorts...But I always saw them existing in the same world. When you look at the "Baby" Cakes shorts, and he is talking about his dad, there are the Professor Brothers, right there in "Baby" Cakes' room. I always saw it that way, but I never took the time to specify that. Which was great about the shorts. It was this weird world where there was a lot of overlap, yet there were also stand-alone aspects. In talking to the network, and talking amongst ourselves...
Daniel Weidenfeld: We all discussed this...The show had no eyes. We made a decision right before production to give pupils to the characters. It gave them a whole new life and expressiveness. Some of Brad's fans didn't like that.
Brad Neely: The are mad. They are super mad. The honest thing is, when I am drawing personally, I have been drawing with eyeballs lately. You go through phases. I had a long run of drawing those Orphan Annie style of eyes. That worked well for print. But as soon as things move, the characters start to look like zombies.
Daniel Weidenfeld: That was the progression.
You compare the town of China to Springfield. Does that mean you will be introducing new characters in every show, during every season?
Brad Neely: For the most part.
Daniel Weidenfeld: We have to keep ourselves from generating characters. Whether they have no lines, there is probably only one episode where we don't have a new character.
Brad Neely: Even in that episode, there are probably thirty background characters that were generated just for that episode. You watch the shorts, and some of the characters, you don't know who they are. In this show, you might not know who a character is, but we've given him or her a name. And there are background characters everywhere.
Daniel Weidenfeld: We have a running bet around the office. How many individual characters have been created? Some people are betting in the 300 zone.
Brad Neely: I think there are 107.
Daniel Weidenfeld: That is a lot of characters for a handful of quarter hour episodes. Especially since only about twenty-five people have seen them all.
Do the voices and characteristics of these people immediately come to you once you've drawn them? Or is it a long process in discovering who some of these people actually are?
Brad Neely: Every character is different. Sometime you hear the voice, and you draw to that. Sometimes you have a drawing, then you hear someone's crazy voice, and you force them together. That's funny. Every single one of them is different. Just like how every baby walks differently.
Daniel Weidenfeld: In an upcoming episode you'll see in February called "Dream Weavers", "Baby" Cakes' imaginary friend has a lot of hair. He is sort of a weird dog character. He is kind of a villain. Brad asked, "What kind of voice do you want for this?" We went through a bunch of voices, and couldn't find one. But now, we have Jordi Mollà, who is, like, the bad guy in every single gangster movie about Columbians. He is amazing. He is the voice of it. He is a serious, dramatic, actor, doing this voice for an animated character. It is this thick, Spanish accent. Brad landed on that as a joke. But it made a lot of sense.
Brad, when you are voicing three of the characters, is it easier for you to sit and write dialogue for them? More so than the other characters that you have to hand off to another actor? Or is it sometimes more difficult?
Brad Neely: I think that it's easy. But we'll get in the booth, and Daniel will be on the other side of the glass. And he'll tell me, "Maybe you should emphasize this word instead!" It's always a partnership to get from the page to the actual delivery of the lines. Just when I think I am nailing it at the keyboard, we will scarp that line, or Daniel revises it. It's always a surprise how it will end up.
Adult Swim has become such a trusted name brand in animation and comedy. Are there any specific guidelines or rules that you have to abide by under their banner?
Brad Neely: No, I wouldn't say there is anything to stay brand loyal. But they are stringent lovers of quality. More so than I have ever experienced. Right in the trenches of these episodes, they want to make sure that we aren't creating something flippant, or trashy, or shocking just for nothing. They want this to matter.
Daniel Weidenfeld: I've been in this world for a while, and people need to understand, just because there are crazy stories, and you have this strange university, or a milkshake, a meatball, and some fries...At their core, there is something grounded about all of the shows. You have to start at a relatable place, and then get crazy. Its not just Da-Da nonsense. When you do that, the quality gets lost. With all of the stories you will see throughout the course of this first season, they all come from a grounded place. Then they spiral into our own version of that.
Brad Neely: There have been plenty of times when I turn in a script, and the Network says, "The characters are behaving against their personalities." They tell me, "Frank would not do that." I look at it and say, "Shit! You are right." It is a partnership. All the way.
Have you guys interacted with fans of the show up to this point?
Brad Neely: I am a man of one zip code. I don't get out much.
Daniel Weidenfeld: Comic-Con will be the first time.
I went to an Adult Swim panel back in 2004 or 2005, and when the fans don't like something, they aren't shy about telling you. Some of the stuff these fans got up and said shocked even me. Have you been briefed on this behavior? It's almost like dealing with a stand-up heckler in a way...
Brad Neely: I am just going to break down and cry. I will cry in front of a lot of adults. And people. I am not ready for that. Are you trying to tell me that I should be ready to get my balls chewed off?}
Maybe. This one guy stands out very vividly in my mind. I think it was after they showed a clip from Squidbillies, which wasn't on the air yet. After it was over, this guy just goes up to the mic, and very straight-faced, very serious, goes, "You guys can do better." I'd never seen that happen before.
Brad Neely: (Laughs) I love that guy. We might be doing something that we think is amazing, but we can always do better.
Daniel Weidenfeld: That is true. I'd say, "Alright! Let's hire this mother fucker!" Actually, I wouldn't want to hire someone like that...
Brad Neely: I can always take a little criticism.
Daniel Weidenfeld: All day long, this is a house of criticism. And it's a two way street. To hear this coming from a Mama's boy that can't pull himself out of the basement, I think it might be very refreshing. It is pretty amazing. There are some crazy people. But to Adult Swim's credit, they have given them an amazing opportunity to participate with the network. That's why there is such brand loyalty. The fans feel like they have a say in what does and doesn't get made. That's not necessarily entirely true. But it does make the fan feel like they have a voice. That is probably why Adult Swim is the most popular network between 24-34 year old males. 24-34 year old males are some angry people.
They are! Tell me about voice casting for this show? You locked down some amazing performers, with Greta Gerwig and Hulk Hogan, Jeffrey Tambor, you, Brad...
Daniel Weidenfeld: Besides the quality of this show, the thing I am most proud of are the people we were able to bring on. Every single person, in some capacity, is someone that Brad and I respect with all of our heart. Or they are people we idolized growing up. Dave Coulier was the voice of Ronald Reagan.
Brad Neely: Fuck, yes!
Daniel Weidenfeld: Also in Episode 1, we have Jason Alexander. He was the biggest person that we idolize. Jeffrey Tambor, like you said. Chelsea Peretti, who is an up and coming comedian. She is phenomenal. Natasha Leggero, who is another great comedianne. Jordi Mollà, Tommy Blacha, Hulk Hogan. Gary Anthony Williams, of course. These are all people we really respect so much. That has been the most fun part of this for me. And then I get to work with Brad, who is my closet friend in the world. I am working with people I love. If the four year old me...No...The eight year old me had known that I would be working with Hulk Hogan some twenty years later...I don't know what he'd do...He'd come up and shake my hand. Yeah. Maybe he would body slam me. He, Brad Neely, and Greta Gerwig are the three main people on the show. Frank's voice is so iconic. You know the show immediately. There is the style of the art. But you know this is a Brad Neely show when you first hear Frank's voice.
Do you have an upcoming episode that you are particularly excited for fans to see?
Daniel Weidenfeld: Oh, boy. I am in love with all of them. But Episode 5 seems to be an in-house favorite. It has so many real, grounded, emotional things. And also the crazy.
Brad Neely: It's also the only episode without a guest star. Quote-unquote. There is one new character that does come in. We will most likely be showing that one at Comic-Con. It is a crazy story, about a real, relatable college place. It says, "When you have too many consequences of risk in life, life can be shitty." So, if you are at Comic-Con next Saturday, you will be able to see it early.
Any live-action China, IL aspirations?
Brad Neely: Man, that is how bad things happen. No!