China, IL (say it as “China, Illinois”) returns Sunday for a second season on Adult Swim, and it’s not quite the show it was before.
Of course, the same characters — headlined by the Professor Brothers, Frank and Steve, and man-child Baby Cakes — are back, as is the dysfunctional institution of higher learning at the center of the series, the University of China, IL. This time around, though, the episodes have doubled in length, and the show’s animation staff has made a concerted effort to improve the visual quality. None of that is to sacrifice the show’s unique sense of humor, which in its first season included an appearance from a time-traveling Ronald Reagan bent on revenge.
Spinoff Online spoke about the new season with creator Brad Neely — the Professor Brothers and Baby Cakes originated on his series of popular Internet shorts, like the famed JFK history lesson — and executive producer Daniel Weidenfeld at Titmouse Studios in Los Angeles, where the show is produced.
Spinoff Online: Brad, Daniel, let’s talk the big change in Season 2 — China, IL doubling in size from 11 to 22 minutes an episode. You guys definitely seem excited about it. Was it something you pushed for, or was it the network’s idea, and things just worked out?
Brad Neely: I think we both felt it together, at the same time. Adult Swim does a lot of stuff in the 11-minute format, so it was the way to start out, but we quickly realized that we were suited to telling 22-minute types of stories, because all of Season 1, we were really cramming a 22-minute show into 11 minutes.
Daniel Weidenfeld: It certainly was a perfect storm, too. I don’t think Adult Swim was necessarily planning on doing 22-minute episodes ever, and then once we premiered, they started doing more in the half-hour space. We were already cramming so much into every episode, this was a natural fit to build out their prime time block.
Neely: We had always seen our show as a mix of Seinfeld and The Simpsons — The Simpsons‘ world, but the storytelling style and characters of Seinfeld. That kind of multiple story strand television really is suited to a longer format.
So instead of being a learning curve of, “How do we tell longer stories now?” it was more like, “How did we tell shorter stories before?”
Weidenfeld: Yeah! Now they breathe. When I go back and rewatch the first season, they’re so jam-packed. I love them, but there’s not as much room to showcase our characters interacting with each other, and just being charming and funny. They just were telling that story, and that’s it. There’s always an A story, a B story, and in some cases a C runner throughout. They were great, and really ambitious, but I’m just so happy that we’ve had this opportunity to do half-hour shows.
The space allows you to do even more world-building, which already appeared to be a priority, and adding to the cast. You mentioned the show has something like 300 characters?
Weidenfeld: We probably have, I would guess, 80 to 90 who have spoken over the course of these past two seasons, which is still insane for 20 episodes. We have 300 characters, everyone with a name who just exists in this world, that we will just plug in at points.
For this season, the big additions include Hannibal Buress’s character —
Weidenfeld: Matt Attack, the all-American athlete.
Neely: He does some one-off voices, too, for us. Chelsea Peretti, who did Crystal last season, continues to do Crystal, but she also does students, girlfriends and one-offs. We have Ryan Flynn, who’s a great comedian, who does Flip Flop and Pemsy.
Weidenfeld: We also have Michelle Buteau, a New York comedian who’s great — she plays one of the students, Wendeloquence. Tommy Blacha plays a bunch of characters. Jason Walden, who played Sammy in the first season, continues to, and does a lot of ancillary voices.
Neely: Then we have people who only do the one thing: Hulk Hogan does the Dean, Jeffrey Tambor just plays Professor Cakes, Greta Gerwig only plays Pony. Occasionally she’ll do something, but we really just try to keep her exclusive for Pony.
Weidenfeld: And then Brad, of course, who does the three main characters, writes and does all the music. It allows production to go much more smoothly. We’re just lucky that we have this much control over the actual show. If we watch an animatic, have to cut something, want to change a line, or feel like something’s not working …
Neely: “You know what would be good right here? A 30-second song in the style of …” We can make that happen.
Looking at the cast as a whole, it’s a real eclectic group — you’ve got stand-ups like Chelsea Peretti and Hannibal Buress, a sitcom legend in Jeffrey Tambor, indie star Greta Gerwig, Hulk Hogan, who speaks for himself . They’re all from different worlds.
Weidenfeld: We’re so lucky. We both are friends with a lot of these younger comedians. We can call up Chelsea or Hannibal and have them do a voice, and I love that, and they’re incredible and it’s great to have that kind of energy and excitement — but that Greta and Jeffrey and Hulk are so supportive of this show, and are doing it for no other reason than the material itself is speaking to them in some way, that’s the biggest honor in the world.
Neely: They bring something you just don’t hear in a typical voiceover actor, which we’re very strict about. We get all the voices, we get our 22-minute radio play to time — it’s locked, before we do any drawings.
Weidenfeld: And one thing we do, especially with the voice directing, starting with Brad — we don’t want any voices that feel generic, just like typical animation voiceover work. We’ve used some great voiceover people — E.G. Daily is incredible on our show — but the voices we want out of them are more naturalistic, and that’s what we get. Especially putting Hannibal on a show. Chelsea, her range is incredible. We’re just looking for uniqueness with the types of people that we bring in.
I’m sure you guys get asked about Hulk Hogan a lot, but you’ll have to indulge me. It’s a very interesting element of the show, and it seems it’s something he’s really into, not just something he shows up and does.
Weidenfeld: He is excited about Brooke’s involvement, as well. He loves it. It’s really great that we have Brooke, and that she’s so talented. That gives him an additional investment.
Brad had to go to Tampa to record him once, but for the most part, he does all of his recordings in Tampa remotely. He came here once, and I’ve never seen anything like it. When he recorded here — and a lot of famous people pass through Titmouse, because of the number of shows and the types of shows that [are produced] here — but he was the Pied Piper. When he came, there was a line of 3,000 people just following him around. I had never seen anything like it. He has that effect, because we grew up idolizing him.
Neely: When he left, it was like an emotional shockwave. Everybody was drained.
Weidenfeld: There was so much work to be done, and that’s the only time — it was like 11 a.m. — there was a collective hour break of people not knowing how to deal with it, because they just saw Hulk Hogan.
Neely: He’s a special person, and we’re really lucky to have him.
Music is a big part of China, IL. Do you typically have the idea for the story first, and find out where the music will fit, or do you have musical ideas that come separately and help guide a story?
Neely: We have two very music-heavy episodes, and those musical ideas, just in an abstract sense, came about as we were writing. We have a Beach Boys-centric episode. We have an episode where “our” Bruce Springsteen, whose name is Kenny Winker, comes to town. We knew that there would be a lot of his music going in. Those are the only times that the music was a part of the inception of the episode.
Weidenfeld: We have an episode where Baby Cakes essentially is Home Alone. We hadn’t written the lyrics yet, but we knew, “This is the perfect space for a Baby Cakes rap.” So we were able to do Baby Cakes rapping about Home Alone.
Neely: We’ll take that chunk in the radio play — “This will be a 20-second song, this will be a 30-second song.” Sometimes we’ll just put a Beastie Boys song in there, just until I get around to doing it, so animators can get started. But not a whole lot.
Weidenfeld: And we’ve talked in the future about doing an all-musical episode, which would be so fun. It would be a difficult thing to write up front, but a Music Man style episode would just be incredible to do. And Brad could do it.
Along with the longer episodes, the animation is takes a step forward in Season 2. How important was it to tighten up the visual look?
Weidenfeld: These episodes would have been impossible to make if we didn’t. We got really lucky with this guy Mike Mayfield, who’s doing another Adult Swim show right now called Mr. Pickles. He did the first season, and had worked with Brad on another project, and was instrumental in turning Brad’s original style into what we had the first season. We added pupils, we made some pretty big changes to that original art.
But [Griffith] Kimmins, our new director, and Angelo [Hatgistavrou], who’s our animation director, what they’ve done — there’s a fluidity now that just didn’t exist last year. There are character models for everything. The acting is so precise and human.
Neely: We were able to double-up on our crew, we had a little bit more planning. We had gone through the trenches of season one. Griff was our animation director on season one, so he had seen what worked and what didn’t, so we all were able to pow-wow about, “How do we make it easier for ourselves?” The last thing we want to do is waste our animators’ time, because animation is a bitch, and we don’t want anyone to feel like they did superfluous work. So we really try to plan for the most efficient machine.