Michael Jelenic and Aaron Horvath are controversial figures at Comic-Con International in San Diego, and they know it. Their show, “Teen Titans Go!” has proved a smash hit for Cartoon Network, but through its rejection of continuity and willful silliness, the animated series has drawn the ire of fans who had flocked to the more traditional 2000s version. But “haters gonna’ hate,” right?
CBR News spoke with Jelenic and Horvath at SDCC, talking about the show’s success, haters and how the Justice League and Weird Al figure into Season Three. We soon discovered the rapid-fire banter of Beast Boy, Robin, Cyborg, Raven and Starfire has some true-to-life inspirations in these producers and pals who regularly finish each other’s sentences, and bolster each other’s jokes.
CBR News: So you guys are 100 episodes in. What is it you’re hoping to do with the next season?
Aaron Horvath: The next hundred?
I was going to say the next hundred, but I didn’t want to intimidate you.
Michael Jelenic: We’re already intimidated.
Horvath: Would you say we’re about 70% through? I think we have about twenty left to write. 18 left to write?
Jelenic: Out of the first 50. Added to the — well yeah. This is too confusing.
What kind of math are you guys doing?
Jelenic: This is “Teen Titans Go!” math.
Horvath: This is how we make the show.
Jelenic: So we’re 75% into our 50 things after the 100.
Horvath: If you look at some kind of pie chart, you’d see that it’s about 75% done.
Jelenic: Most of the pie-chart is blue. Some of it is red, though.
Horvath: We have written and produced animatics and have animation —
Jelenic: And Season Three is actually premiering at the end of July. We’re going to have a week of premieres that culminate in Season Three. Just like we had a week of episodes [play every weekday] leading up to the 100th episode. Which — we smashed the ratings.
Horvath: Smashed ’em.
Jelenic: Smashed ’em.
I believe that. The show’s like popcorn. You can’t stop with one.
Jelenic: You can’t.
Horvath: You got to keep going.
Jelenic: [“Teen Titans Go!”] is the number one kids show on television. I tell this to everyone I walk into, even strangers. If I get coffee at Starbucks, I tell them. And everyone goes, “No, no, ‘Spongebob’ is.” And I go, “No. It’s our show.”
Horvath: It is our show.
Jelenic: We’re very successful.
Horvath: Write that down. “Very successful.”
[Dutifully types on keyboard] “Very successful.” And modest.
Horvath: Success story is what we’re trying to —
Jelenic: I’m the successful one. He’s the drunk one. [Giggles.]
So is there anything you want to tease about Season Three?
Jelenic: Well, we don’t tease because bullying is bad.
Horvath: Yeah, that’s a good point.
How about a hint?
Jelenic: Oh, hinting. Okay. We should talk about that thing.
Horvath: There’s a Justice League two-parter crossover episode featuring a very special guest star, voicing Darkseid.
Jelenic: We cast maybe the most —
Horvath: menacing —
Jelenic: voice ever.
We heard it’s Weird Al, that’s awesome.
Horvath: Wait a minute! I wasn’t there for the record. [To Jelenic] Are we sure that’s a good idea?
Did you really miss the record? Because if Weird Al was there, I’d miss the birth of my own child to make it. And I say that as a woman, so —
Jelenic: I know! I got a picture with Weird Al.
Horvath: You did. I was too uncomfortable. I was too distracted. I was a little too starstruck and I couldn’t get a picture with Weird Al.
Jelenic: But he plays a very funny version of Darkseid.
Horvath: Starfire gives him a lozenge for his throat because he’s very —
Jelenic: You know, he’s very [grumbles a low growl] very deep, as you would expect him to do. And then he gets a lozenge, and she sounds like Weird Al. Which is not how anybody expects Darkseid to sound. [To Horvath] And then tell them the plot, so they can write that down.
Horvath: Cyborg wants to join the Justice League.
Was that plotline inspired in part by the fact that Cyborg is going to be in the Justice League [live-action] movie?
Horvath: Yes. Absolutely. And then our running joke throughout the episode is Robin, being like, “You in the Justice League? That would never happen. If anybody it would be me.”
Have you guys met the new Cyborg (Ray Fisher)?
Horvath: We have not. For me there’s only one Cyborg in my heart. And that’s Khary Payton [who voices Cyborg on the show].
In the recording sessions, how much room do you leave for improvs and ad-libs?
Horvath: A lot. The actors are incredibly talented. The whole thing is we staff the crew with incredibly talented people from the top all the way through.
Jelenic: We’re also extremely lazy. So there’ll be large chunks in the script that say, “Actors write your own dialogue.” And then they do. We’ll say, “Sing a song about cheese now.” And then they go off and sing a song about cheese.
Horvath: They’ll be like, “So I’m just supposed to do this?” And we’ll be like, “Yeah!” And then they do it and it always turns out great. Really, it’s just a platform to support all these talented artists and let them shine. It’s not all about me. Or you [gesturing to Jelenic].
Jelenic: It’s mostly about us.
Horvath: We are amazing. It is mostly about us.
Horvath: If we’re being honest.
So the show — as you pointed out — is incredibly popular —
Jelenic: It’s number one.
[Laughs] I’m sorry. The show — as you mentioned — is number one.
Jelenic: Yes, thank you.
But it’s also gotten flack from fans who missed the kind of darker version, “Teen Titans.” What’s your response to that kind of criticism?
Jelenic: Yeah, they can come talk to me I don’t give a —
Jelenic: Sorry . [Laughs] Our actual response is — [to Horvath] — say it, the political line we’re supposed to say.
Horvath: Haters gonna’ hate?
When in doubt invoke Taylor Swift?
Jelenic: Exactly. I know now working on the show —
Horvath: Can we talk about Taylor Swift? What a sweetheart.
Jelenic: I know what it’s like to be Taylor Swift. Because as someone as successful as Taylor Swift, and getting hate that’s undeserved —
Horvath: and unwarranted —
Jelenic: I know there’s just people who are just angry, and you just have to let them be.
Horvath: We haven’t met her yet, but when we meet her I think we’re going to have a real kinship.
So “Teen Titans Go!” is the Taylor Swift of Cartoon Network?
Jelenic: Yes, where everybody wants to hate — and by the way my favorite thing [pulls out his phone] — because there’s a ton of hate online for the show, despite the fact that it’s number one.
Horvath: He reads it all.
Jelenic: I look at it all. I could go to my Twitter right now and read you some hate that’s been written on Twitter about the show in the last five minutes. I love it. I love when people want to punch me in the face or worse. But yeah — even when they enjoy the episode they still have to hate on it. Like, “Oh, I still hate the show, and it’s not my Teen Titans. But it’s funny. But it’s garbage. The show made me laugh all day long, and made me feel better about myself. But it’s still garbage.”
Where you at all nervous to take the property in such a different direction, especially since “The Dark Knight” spurred a whole new wave of gritty, dark superhero media?
Horvath: I wasn’t nervous about it. I got nervous about mid-way through when we started making episodes where they are just saying “waffles” over and over again. And we started doing some weird stuff, and you’re like, “Wait? Hold on. These guys are superheroes. Are we doing the right thing here?” [Laughs.]
Jelenic: I’ve worked on a lot of comic book shows. And usually I’m the outsider, like I’m the one who’s the low guy [on the ladder] as far as comic book knowledge goes. But Aaron knows —
Horvath: Jack shit.
Jelenic: [Laughs] Yeah! He knows a lot less than anybody I’ve ever met.
Horvath: I know a lot about Spider-Man because I read a ton of Spider-Man comics when I was a kid.
Jelenic: So he didn’t feel any need to [get caught up on the comics] —
Horvath: Just a dope. Just blissfully unaware.
Jelenic: And I suddenly became the comic book expert. Like how did that happen? And so his point of view was able to — because I was usually the guy on the show who was able to take stuff away from [what’s been done in] comic books. Like I worked on “Brave and the Bold” and I’d say, “Hey, why don’t we do it this way,” and then I’d have all these comic book people say, “Yeah, that’s good, but let’s make sure we put this in.” But suddenly that whole thing switched and he’s the guy who wants to push it as far away from being a comic book show. And I’m like, “Okay, well maybe we can do it like this.” And now the show has nothing to do with comic books pretty much.
Can we expect any more cameos from other superheroes next season?
Jelenic: Yeah, like we were talking earlier, we have the Justice League coming in. And we have a lot of comic book fans who work on the show, so there’s constantly these Easter eggs in there. And we so draw from the comics for inspiration. We take the characters who were in the old Teen Titans show, and do episodes about them. So that influence is still there, but we definitely look at this show more as a comedy show than as a superhero show.
“Teen Titans Go!” Season Three will debut later this month.