The best TV show about college returns. We talked to the man behind it.

September 22, 2013

Frank Smith, Leonard Cakes, and Baby Cakes in season two of China, IL. (Adult Swim)

Brad Neely is a comic book artist and animator, best known for his Web videos set in the fictional town of China, IL, including the series "I Am Baby Cakes," "The Professor Brothers," and "China, IL." The latter has been adapted into a TV series of the same name by Cartoon Network and Adult Swim, with Neely as the head writer. The second season premieres at 11:30 p.m. this Sunday, on Cartoon Network.

He also made the popular Web video "Washington," and created "Wizard People, Dear Reader," a re-dubbing of the first Harry Potter movie. In 2007 and 2009, he worked as a writer for South Park. We spoke on the phone Friday. A lightly-edited transcript follows.

Congrats on the new season!

Thanks, man. We're really excited and nervous.

How's the transition been from 11-minute episodes last season to a half hour format for this one?

It was actually fitting into a more comfortable shoe for us. The 11-minute format was a little cramped, and we were forcing a 22-minute show into that smaller amount of time, so it really facilitated the kind of storytelling we wanted to do.

It's funny that you say it's more comfortable, given how short the original Web videos for Baby Cakes and the Professor Brothers were.

I let the form dictate the content for me. You have to respect the format you're working with, and the shorter format had me wanting to talk through first-person storytelling narratives. That would work for my limited animation style, and I'd be able to use a kid who's doing a diary, and a teacher who's doing lectures. That seemed to work for that format.

When we went to 11 minutes, we had to jettison the first person storytelling aspect, because it just didn't translate to the television audience. And I had to learn to write for that. I had no idea what i was doing.

And you had to transition to working with other voice actors too. What's that been like?

I love that aspect. Working with people on a larger scale, collaborating, you just get so much more feedback. You're challenging yourself. Getting that immediate criticism, it just makes everything better. In 11 minutes, we had voice talent bringing surprises to the material we weren't expecting, and going through it in the writer's room that was a great way for me to kind of expand and take on other peoples' criticisms as well. Vernon Chatman helped out, as well as my executive producer Daniel Weidenfeld. When we went to the 22 minute format we had a writer's room, six to seven people, talking out very, very, detailed outlines. It's been fun working with people.


This season features an appearance by Kenny Winker (left). (Adult Swim)

Where'd you gather that group of writers from?

That's really Daniel's foray, I don't know very many people in this world, and my network is pretty limited ,but we were able to bring in a good number of people with a lot of experience. We had some people who had worked on King of the Hill, a friend who'd work on the South Park writer's room with me, and some younger people who went on to work on New Girl or Community. We wanted a mix of younger voices and older voices.

And also a mix of animation and live-action comedy people, from the sounds of it.

I think that one thing we really tried to focus on with China is to tell the most interesting character-driven stories we can, and then make sure we're pushing the animated quality of the show, to tell grounded stories that suggest that it's something you can actually relate to, but then they go into space and spontaneously combust. We talked about mixing Seinfeld and The Simpsons together — having a core of four people, like Seinfeld, but within the unlimited world of The Simpsons.

How was it, both on South Park and on China, transitioning from doing your own, very spare animation to having a team take that over? Was giving that up difficult or liberating?

Equally both. It was a hell ride for me, definitely an education by necessity. I had no idea what I was doing, but scrambled and stayed open and listened to anyone I could who knew what they were doing. I didn't know what I was doing when I was doing the Internet stuff either. I was just following my gut and following my laughs, and we were getting a substantial amount of views

South Park, that was just more of a voyeuristic opportunity to watch people at work who knew what they were doing. Trey [Parker] and Matt [Stone] know what they're doing, and they're working at an accelerated pace, so it was an opportunity to make a whole lot of notes.

When I started working on my own show, it was just the scariest part of my life, man. But we've done one season, the network was enthusiastic, the audience seemed to be happy, we were bumped up to a larger format which seemed more comfortable.

Do you record the voice actors together or separately?

We like to maximize my control freakishness, so we keep people separated. It helps me move faster in the editing process. When you get people together, that spark is so fun that the improvisational element can grow long, and I have a cramming problem already. So we move the actors in, one by one, and bully them into doing what I need them to do.

So you're in L.A. now but you're originally from Little Rock, no?

I don't mean to contradict you, but that's wrong!

I mean, it's your life, you're probably a better source on it than I am.

I'm from Arkansas, that is true, but like most people who are from Arkansas but not from Little Rock, we take offense when people assume we were from the capital. I'm from Fort Smith. My wife and I lived in Austin TX for ten years and moving to L.A. was tough. It was a challenge for us to leave friends, and the South, and family, for what seemed like a goofy risk. Television's calling, you don't know how to do it at all, so let's move our whole life out there among strangers, and evil. Luckily my wife is a very adventurous lady.

Frank attempts to find the clue hidden within the $2 bill that will help him find the treasure he seeks. (Adult Swim)
Frank attempts to find the clue hidden within the $2 bill that will help him find the treasure he seeks. (Adult Swim)

What role does she play in the show, if any? Are there any plot lines or characters she helped inspire?

I run a lot of stuff by her, for sure, always being conscious of running a risk of annoying her by being all, "Is this funny? Is that funny?" But the best thing she gives me is a response to "Am I wasting my time with this pursuit? I'm singing about the dumbest things, I wrote 9 fake Beach Boys songs, is that an appropriate way to deal with my time?

Okay, I'm going to have to hear more about these nine fake Beach Boys songs.

For season 2 I made 50 or so new songs that are worked in throughout. In one of the episodes, Steve has a lifelong aversion to the Beach Boys, that within the episode we explore and figure out why, and so I made nine Beach Boys songs, songs in the style of the Beach Boys, and they're covered throughout that episode. And it kind of ruined my life. It was really hard. Creatively, I fell to the bottom of the pool there.

Brian Wilson was no dummy.

Yeah, it was a hard thing to imitate. It was my wife, actually, who had the idea. She and I had talked about the Beach Boys before, and I had a problem with the Beach Boys. I felt like their harmonies always hurt my ears, that they felt like yellow triangles going into my ears, the way they'd work up to that "awwww" s--t. They have such a clean thing they're running that I guarantee you there are dead bodies in the sand. I brought up this conversation in the writer's room, and we were like, well, maybe there's an episode there.

These cultural allusions that make it into the show, stuff like the Beach Boys thing or the running Kevin Costner joke in the second episode this season — are they all just fixations you have, or things you think it'd be funny for specific characters to be into?

I can't do the latter, I can't really fake interest, or if someone said, "Do something about this celebrity that you don't really have real interest or adamant disinterest in," I don't know that I could muster that. Kevin Costner, I could talk about Kevin Costner for hours. Any pop culture thing that makes it into the show does so because I can't stop talking about it. There are Batman references in every episode accidentally. It was pointed out to me by an editor who works on the show, and I realized that I put Batman in every episode of show.

Like, references to the Batman universe or just Batman, the guy?

It's just Batman, actually one of my characters saying, "I'm Batman" or someone asking, "What the Batman?" or when I'm helping out in the storyboarding, and giving my two cents on what a shot should be like, I'll say, "Like the shot from Batman" or "Can we put a Batman in the background?"

It seems to be a golden entertainment idea. Batman, so far, has really been a successful idea, and I'm just trying to put a few shakes of that pepper on what I'm serving. [Laughter in background]

Sorry, I have an old friend visiting from Arkansas, and he's in the room with me, he's here for the China premiere party and he can't help but giggle when he hears me go on about Batman, since he's known me since I was like 12 and I'm still doing it.

Wizard People, Dear Reader seems like another example of you getting a few shakes from a golden entertainment idea. Can we expect any Harry Potter references on the show, or Wizard callbacks?

We went Wizard-free this season. I might have been conscious of putting that golf club back in the bag. I've been thinking about wizards lately, about Harry. That John Williams score will get in my head when I'm riding through the wild night, narrating some f--king movie.

I've been thinking about the first Spider-Man, with Toby Maguire, and how that if you turn the sound off it's pretty much, it could be, "Harry Potter Takes Manhattan." It's two dudes and a girl, and they all went to school together…

There's always some poor kid, with a sucky life, who's visited by someone from a hidden world of awesomeness

Right, it's "I have a sucky life -- oh wait, I'm a god, f--k all y'all." And then there's this one thing you need to do: you need to kill a slightly lesser god.

Joe McCarthy and Baby Cakes have caught some unsuspecting witches during Prank Week at the university. (Adult Swim)
Joe McCarthy and Baby Cakes have caught some unsuspecting witches during Prank Week at the university. (Adult Swim)

Your work, and I don't want to sound too grandiose about it, but it has an interesting theology. There are the Professor Brothers bits on the Bible, references to various gods, explanations of why God doesn't talk to us anymore, etc. Did you grow up religious?

I come from a religious background. I attended a lot of churches as a kid. My mother is interested in that fare, my dad not so much, but I went to a lot of church, and I listened a lot. It's kind of  low-hanging fruit for irreverent comedy. I have a natural issue with God, for sure. I say to myself when I'm alone sometimes, "Think about God." It's an automatic response to things. I think about God on a daily basis.

Are you still a believer?

Jury's out, man. I mean, it's impossible to say either way. There are times when I'm like, "There's no God, no way," but then I'm pretty sure a ghost is in my house and that f--ks everything up. I'm like, "Okay, there is a God," and then like Syria happens and I'm like, "Ah, I don't know."

So your evidence for God existing is…occult phenomena?

[Laughs] I mean, all religions are occult, just some of them have been around a little longer.

Your earlier work obviously has content that's not safe for basic cable. What has dealing with standards and practices been like?

That's a kind of a fun part of the challenge. It's like a hurdle, and something that you would otherwise sprint through. Network notes are great. We have a really great relationship with adult swim, and we just view them as our first audience, and we give them a chance to correct things. If they don't think jokes work, well, thank God they have a chance to address that.

But if it's, "This guy's bloody head shouldn't spurt blood," and we say, "Can it flow down his torso?" And they say, "Sure, as long as it isn't airborne." That's my job, "Can it be airborne or can it flow down the decapitated torso?" You can do a lot with doo-doo. You can say dick, but not Jesus. We can't say "Goddammit" but we can say "God damns you, you dick butt villain." When someone says, "You can't do that," that's when the funny instinct gets triggered, because I think the funny instinct comes from an impulse of, "Fuck you."

I go to sleep saying that thing. "Ghost, in my living room, don't think about it and my show airs this Sunday."

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