Animated series have an interesting shelf-life, and it seems to have little to do with how funny or clever they are.
Some become legendary and stay on the air for decades, like "The Simpsons" and "South Park," until no one can quite remember what life was like before they existed. Some are canned before they can find their niche (Comedy Central's short-lived "Freak Show"), some suffer poor ratings but are given the time they need to gather a cult following (HBO's "The Life & Times Of Tim"), and some are downright awful but never seem to go away (ahem, "Drawn Together"). Then you have the ones which are mildly successful on one network, canceled, and then syndicated/revived by another network looking to salvage them (See "Futurama", and "The Goode Family"). So what exactly makes a "good" animated series great?
On March 17, Comedy Central is rolling the dice on another animated series, "Ugly Americans," in the coveted after-"South Park" time slot on Wednesday nights. A promising "horror-comedy" set around Mark Lilly, a social worker for the Department Of Immigration in a New York City filled with zombies, freaks and fairies, "Ugly Americans" has all the right qualities to become Comedy Central's next powerhouse cartoon. It has great writing (David Stern of "The Simpsons"), great voices ("Saturday Night Live" cast members to guest star), an edgy concept, and a vivid fantasy world embedded in New York City, to boot. However, its success will depend on the audience relating, or finding humanity in a show containing only one actual "human."
Let me start off by saying: this is a show I'm rooting for. I have a soft spot for comedy rooted in horror/sci-fi realms, so when I attended a secret screening party of the pilot last Thursday, I was expecting a lot. The event, hosted by Comedy Central and Nerve.com, was held at Carnival at Bowlmor lanes, a carnival-themed space apropos of the freak-show nature of "Ugly Americans." After the screening and several free beers, I got to sit down with the show's creator Devin Clark, Matt Oberg (the voice of Mark Lilly), and Randy Pearlstein (the voice of Leonard the Wizard), to talk about the show's potential audience, setting it in New York, and whether or not there will be sexy vampires.
Creator Devin Clark didn't want to create a show about monsters, per se. He wanted to make a show about people. "Ugly Americans" attempts to normalize an absurd world, providing viewers with real problems being faced by real, albeit unbelievable, characters. "You know, they're not monsters, they're people; so let's treat them like normal people with normal problems," Devin said.
Devin said he couldn't have developed the show without "The Simpsons" writer David Stern, who enthusiastically helped him create the multi-faceted world of "Ugly Americans."
"Comedy Central was like, 'We like this guy's character design but he can't write for shit', so they brought on David Stern, who has like 20 years in television. I mean he knows his stuff," Devin said. "We just went out, had a couple of drinks, and tried to meld our brains together to come up with the pilot. He knew how to handle the absurd characters in a way that made them accessible."
Like all good animated shows, "Ugly Americans" is rich in small details that the close viewer will appreciate. Matt Oberg, voice of main character Mark Lilly, revels in the nuances of the show. The screening was his first time seeing the fully finished pilot, and he was amazed to see how all the work he witnessed in the sound booth came together. "Remember 'MAD Magazine'? All the little things in the margins? That's what it was like for me to see the pilot. There is so much chaos on the side [of the show] but the heart of it is simple," Matt said. "Hopefully people will get into that."
WATCH A SNEAK PEEK:
Part of the "chaos" of the show involves Mark Lilly's group meetings with the fantastical beings who migrate to the city each day. This part of the show allows for some of the best humor, as Mark attempts to solve the farcical problems each "person" encounters. "Even if they are absurd problems, we're normalizing them," Devin said. "Like OK, say you've just been turned into a werewolf: what kind of terrible, awkward bureaucracy would you have to go through in order to be registered as a werewolf?"
These bureaucratic problems Devin is referring to are laid out in the pilot by main character Mark Lilly, who asks viewers to sympathize with the City's "freaks" as one would with a new race of people (i.e. "I know they all look the same to you..."). Mark claims everyone in New York, despite what they look like, is basically going through the same thing: "Over-worked, under-paid, and looking for love."
Randy Pearlstein, voice of Leonard Powers (a wizard who works with Mark Lilly) as well as "Spongy Brain" (don't ask), explained the show in perhaps the most simplest of terms: "It's about five outcast geeks who without each other would fail, but together can make it happen." If that doesn't sound like a true "New York" story, I don't know what does.
Which brings us to the uniquely altered-state of New York City as the setting for "Ugly Americans". One of the first things I noticed is that "Hell" is actually a neighborhood in New York, and no, it's not Hell's Kitchen. An escalator (leading down, of course) takes you to a realm of the City with sinfully fancy restaurants serving "Unbaptized Baby Arm Soup", among other things.
WATCH A SNEAK PEEK:
New Yorkers will definitely enjoy the show for its NYC references. Devin even hinted at an episode where a "horrific" New Jersey is portrayed (hard to imagine, no?). "We go to Jersey for most of Episode 4 actually, the 'blob episode.' It's sort our homage to the mafia and mob stuff like 'Sopranos' and 'Goodfellas'. That's kind of our shot-out to that Jersey/mafia thing," he said.
Matt thinks the show might finally be giving NYC a proper representation. "Where else would the show be set? New York is full of all these characters and chaos, yet it has often been portrayed as 'Sex and The City', or you know, 'Friends'," Matt said. "Maybe you have to have a show with monsters and zombies in it to show what New York really is.
While "Twilight" and "Avatar" have recently brought the sci-fi/horror/fantasy theme into popular favor, Devin doesn't think that part of the show is going to draw the most viewers. He's hoping people relate to the show's more traditional sit-com aspects. "We're drawing on the world of horror, fantasy and sci-fi [which is] very niche and typically relatable to a smaller audience, but how we structure the show itself is actually a pretty standard sitcom with a very standard four-act structure [including] a, b and c story lines," Devin said. "Not to say formulaic, but it's much more traditional than say, an Adult Swim show."
Devin and I talked about the failure of "Freak Show," a Comedy Central animated show with David Cross and H. Jon Benjamin, similar to "Ugly Americans" in that it was centered around grotesque/oddball characters. He thinks the show failed because it was more suited to what he calls the "Adult Swim Model," where comedy trumps animation.
"[Cartoon Network] supports the writers; they support the comedy, but they're not necessarily about the design and the animation," Devin said. "Unfortunately with 'Freak Show' the animation wasn't up to par with the comedy. A lot of people were turned off by the look of the show. David Cross was hilarious; I think he's amazing, but they paid too little attention to what the show would actually look like."
Devin thinks the animation style of "Ugly Americans" will help it to avoid the same pitfall of "Freak Show," which he thinks may have been better suited for Cartoon Network. "It works really well for Adult Swim, because they work with a limited budget and make these amazing 11-minute shows, but Comedy central was like 'All right, we saw what happened when we tried that."
Matt confirmed the show will definitely address the recent "Twilight"-inspired mass obsession with vampires. "'Ugly Americans' does not pull punches on the vampire craze," Matt said. "There's an episode that deals with that subject head-on. It's a whole Robert Pattinson thing that involves sexy vampires and Larry King." Larry King? Hopefully he does a guest voice (which would be awesome). This prompted me to ask the guys if they could reveal some of the confirmed guest voices, but I wasn't given much. Apparently, I'm not the only one who's aware of the hit-or-miss nature of new animated series.
"Legally I'm not allowed to mention some of the voices involved. We've got some great people from Saturday Night Live, but I think they're holding off to see if the show actually does well before we use their names to promote the show," Devin said.
Ouch! However, Devin said Comedy Central did get a high number of "unexpected" people to do voice-overs for the show before any actual episodes were finished, so that is promising.
"The people at Comedy Central went out and approached a lot of people just with scripts, no finished episodes, [...] and the response we got was amazing," Devin said. "People who I'd never thought would be possible to get involved in the show, got on board. It was really exciting to see who would help out on a show that hasn't even aired yet."
Matt was slightly less tight-lipped about upcoming guest voices, but also unsure of who was confirmed "Jack McBrayer does a voice in episode six, or seven. Also Kumail, and John Mullaney, I think. You'd better check that," he said.
Well, whichever SNL stars will be gracing the sound stage of "Ugly Americans," I'm hoping the show does well enough that they won't mind having their name on the show. Randy is confident that the show will do well, despite how people view the non-traditional characters and setting. As for the "Twilight" effect, "People who love vampires will love this show; people who hate vampires will love this show," Randy said. "If you're indifferent on vampires, well... Read a book"