If you can’t get enough of “The Simpsons” and “Family Guy,” then you’ll love the new kid on Fox’s Sunday animation block, “Bordertown.” Or so says the show’s cast and crew, who turned out to New York Comic Con to introduce the kooky cartoon in a series of roundtable interviews.
Created by “Family Guy” veteran Mark Hentemann, “Bordertown” is set on the U.S./Mexico border in the fictional city of Mexifornia, where two very different families live side by side. “One is Bud Buckwald’s,” Hentemann said, “He’s a border agent kind of modeled after Archie Bunker from ‘All in the Family.’ He’s a white guy who’s losing his place in the world. He was once part of the white majority in his hometown, but now he’s a minority.”
The “All in the Family” connection was a big draw for “The Simpsons” veteran Hank Azaria, who fronts “Bordertown” as Bud Buckwald. “I’m a huge ‘All in the Family’ fan, and always felt like that could never get made now,” he said. “They’d never make it in this politically correct world we live in. A cable outlet wouldn’t do it, and a network would never do it. This show is the closest I’ve seen to some modern version of that. Serious, serious racism on display as a comedic launching point.”
The counterbalance to the racist Bud, whom Azaria calls “an utter failure” and “a genuine idiot,” is his neighbor Ernesto Gonzalez, described by Hentemann as “a Mexican immigrant who is hardworking and has built a successful business and is doing a little bit better than Bud. And it drives Bud crazy. And those two families are the center of this show that hopefully we can build a world around in the way that animated shows uniquely can.”
“They sort of have a Flanders and Homer relationship,” Azaria added. “Bud hates Ernesto, but Bud hates everybody. I guess he especially hates Ernesto. He does not like immigrants … Ernesto is doing a lot better than he is. He can’t deny it, like Flanders.”
Ernesto and his son J.C. are voiced by Nicholas Gonzalez, who elaborated on the “All in the Family” inspiration, saying, “You can even extrapolate the characters out of that, because Meathead is like J.C. He lives in Bud’s house … He’s the annoying, proselytizing liberal. He’s just constantly on a soapbox to the point where it’s not just that he’s liberal, but it’s to the absurd. Him and his girlfriend, Bud’s daughter [Becky], are always right up in Bud’s face. He’s seeing the world changing, a world that’s passing him by. They’re all for it, and so you have all that contention in one house. ”
Becky Buckwald and her mom Janis are voiced by “Family Guy” star Alex Borstein. “She sounds a little bit like Chewbacca and Kathy Griffin,” Borstein said of Becky. “And she’s massive, physically massive. She’s extremely confident, extremely liberal. She’s dating the Mexican boy next door, partially because she likes boning him. Mostly because it drives her father crazy that she’s dating a Mexican boy. But she’s really outspoken. She’s a true feminist. And she’s very sexually aggressive.”
She described Janis as “cautious and caring, but she’s also a little sassy. She’s a little dirty, which I like. Her main job on the show is to very gently guide her very stupid husband, her racist, idiot husband, into the next generation. He is slowly having to come to terms with the fact that he’s no longer a majority. The color of the United States is changing, and his is washed away. As we all know, white isn’t really a color. And she’s really there to help break the fall when it really hits home that he’s no longer The Man. Never was. She knows what the right thing to do is, but tries to help him find it on his own instead of forcing him in that direction.”
“30 Rock’s” Judah Friedlander joins the Buckwald clan as son Sanford, whom the comedian said is “very stupid, very confident. And definitely a drug and alcohol addict problem guy. And yet still maybe not the biggest disappointment of the family.”
“He’s, like, 26, but he’s got about the mind and temperament of a four-year-old, where he gets excited and upset extremely easily,” Friedlander continued. “He’s also loud. He’s just yelling all the time. … He’s not just stupid, he’s out of control.”
As you might suspect, each character is set up to satirize a branch of modern politics. As Azaria put it, “For a show about a Caucasian racist, it is an equal-opportunity satire situation. Every angle gets parodied, every point of view in its extremity. If it’s extreme enough, it’ll be made fun of.”
This not only includes seething racists, entitled man-children, raging feminists and “proselytizing liberals,” but also Donald Trump. Hentemann detailed how he initially pitched “Bordertown” years ago, and worried the race and immigration issues the show lampoons would be resolved before it got on air.
“I pitched this initially in 2007 to Fox,” he began. “George Bush was president and immigration was an issue. And Fox didn’t pick it up, but they didn’t throw it out completely. I was worried that immigration was going to get solved and this is going to go away. And the show’s not going to be relevant anymore.”
When the show went into development, he and Alcaraz began working on an episode about a “border wall,” but feared it’d be too out of date to have much impact. “We finished the episode, and two months later, Donald Trump announces his candidacy and just brings it roaring back into the national conversation,” Hentemann shared, before joking, “We should give [Trump] a writing credit.”
Gonzales revealed the border wall plot isn’t “Bordertown’s” only “case of life imitating art.” “El Chapo escaping prison? My character Pablo Barracuda tunnels out — I mean we all did it before,” he said. “What we deal with is straight out of the headlines, a lot of times beforehand. You’re going to see a lot of things that are familiar to you in this world. It’s very important I think, and animation is just another medium in entertainment and information where we need to see different faces and voices represented.”
While making the show funny was an obvious priority, so was opening up the discussion of race and encouraging greater representation on television. “People want to see themselves,” Gonzalez said. “And it’s also what exists out in the world. It’s what we’re surrounded by. What we see on TV is not the world we’re living in.”
Representation behind the scenes was important, too. “I think as one of five Latino writers on the show — which is a world record for any primetime network show accept for a telenovela — this show also has an imprint of the stories that we tell,” Alcaraz said. “That’s what new and fresh about the show. It’s not just about the U.S./Mexico border stories. It’s also about the demographic change, but from the other side, too, from the brown side. So that’s why I’m working on the show. … It’s a big pop-culture moment for Latinos because we’re invisible on TV. I’ve been doing screenings all over the country, and audiences are going nuts for it.
“And the stuff that we thought was really offensive, they embrace it,” he continued. “There’s a scene where the Virgin of Guadalupe comes out of a taco and beats up one of the characters. My friend’s mom — she’s, like, 70 years old — she didn’t like anything on show, but she said, ‘I like the Virgin part.’ A 70-year-old Catholic woman! Because the thing’s unusual, and you don’t see it on television. And we’re going to bring it, thanks to the power of cartoons. Bringing serious issues with cartoons is why we’re here at Comic Con.”
“It’s fun that it’s a family sitcom, but it’s also about something,” Borstein said. “It’s making an attempt to be political and take a stand and be about something, which is kind of rare.”
“It doesn’t preach to the choir, either.” Friedlander added. “No matter where you fall in the political spectrum, you’re going to like this show. You’re going to be laughing a lot. Whether people are left or right, they’re still going to be laughing at it.”
Creating a space where all people on the political spectrum can laugh and maybe learn something was what inspired Hentemann to begin with.
“I was racking my brain over what could I do that ‘Family Guy’ or ‘The Simpsons’ or ‘South Park’ hasn’t already done,” he said. “And I immediately knew: the border. What’s interesting to me is that whites are going to become a minority in this country in 2017, a historic shift in the United States demographics. My family growing up my dad told our family’s immigration story a thousand times. My worldview is from the lessons I learned from my father and his father, coming over to the United States and work the four jobs. It seems like everyone in America has an immigration story. It’s just how far back it goes. That was all very interesting to me. It seemed an opportunity to do a comedy that has some teeth to it.”
“Bordertown” premieres Jan. 3 on Fox.