A full and successful graduation from new media to old media comedy stardom is still a rare thing. Brad Neely, however, showed that it could be done when he moved from making web shorts like “Cox and Combs’ Washington,” “I Am Baby Cakes,” and “The Professor Brothers” to Adult Swim, where he is now entering his third season as the star and creator of “China, IL.”
Neely, along with “China, IL” executive producer and former “Eric Andre Show” producer Daniel Weidenfeld, spoke with SPINOFF ONLINE about the upcoming season, set to debut April 5. In addition to heaping praise on the show’s eclectic and impressive voice cast, they discuss their views on “controversial comedy,” the battle between Funny or Die and Super Deluxe, and whether we’ll ever see more “George Washington” shorts or a sequel to “Wizard People, Dear Reader.”
Spinoff Online: What has changed about “China, IL” as we head into the third season?
Brad Neely: Did you say what’s shameful going into the third season?
What’s changed, but if you want to go with that…
Neely: Now that you say it, upon reflection, there’s a lot I’m ashamed about. A lot I’m about to dump onto America.
Daniel Weidenfeld: But what are you more ashamed of this season than last season?
What do you confess to your priest or spiritual advisor?
Neely: Oh, man — not much. The first rule of Hollywood is, be honest with no one. They’ll use it against you later. I was just encouraged to lie to my doctor by pretty much everyone in my life. “Wait, you were honest with your primary care physician? Don’t ever do that. Why were you honest with them?”
So, what has changed this season? A lot more of the same. We have a bigger cast, and we’re excited about that. We have a double-length musical episode at the end of the season, but we’re kind of following the groove that we started with season two.
Any challenges moving from the 15 minute to the 30 minute format last season? Anything that you’re hoping that you can get a better crack at this time around?
Neely: No, just the surprise that we’re still trying to put too much in. When we went from 11 to 22 [minutes], we thought, “Great! We can finally comfortably tell the stories that we were trying to force into too little time. But we still have a problem with just too much content because we get so excited we want to include it all.
Weidenfeld: The amazing part is, we did this hour long musical special, which is going to be our season finale, and usually doing an hour is really hard, but this has been the most fun ever. Because instead of having to cut 10 minutes out of an episode once we record, we have room to build and build and build and the story is still there and everything makes sense. I mean, everyone will be the judge once it airs. But it’s actually been refreshing to not have to worry about cutting and, like, actually let the show breathe the way we want it too. Next season, we’ll hopefully have hour long episodes. Ten hour long episodes.
Neely: Everybody now is making this movement to half hour dramas, so we’re gonna do an hour long comedy every week.
[Laughs] The voice is cast is super impressive. Tell me how you attract folks like Greta Gerwig, Donald Glover and Christian Slater?
Neely: I think the minimal involvement that comes with our request must be attractive. You know, our records are quick and silly and fun. They come in and we let them riff. We just learned from season one with Hulk Hogan and Greta and Jeffrey Tambor — go ahead and ask, all they can do is say no. So we ask all sorts of crazy huge stars if they want to be part of it. A lot of people say no, and a lot of people say yes.
Weidenfeld: Part of it is shooting for the moon and shooting for the stars and hopefully things hit. Like, we’re both separately huge fans of this guy Evan Peters — who was in “American Horror Story” and the “X-Men” movie — and we just asked, thinking maybe he was too busy, and he was like, “Oh, I really want to get into voice [acting]!” He happened to just really want to get into voice work at the time that we asked, and he’s great in it. Then there’s also — we’ve been lucky enough to be around this world for a long time. I don’t know Donald all that well, but I know him a little bit, but he happened to be a huge fan of Brad’s work. Hannibal and Chelsea we’ve just known for a long time, so it’s an easy ask. But it’s nice to have really great Golden Globe nominated actors next to really incredible up and coming comedians. And Brad is sort of the anchor, with the three main voices in the show.
There’s a scene at the end of the second episode that went out for review. I’m not going to spoil it, but, it kind of made me go to that part of my brain where I kind of let out an, “Uh oh…” for you. Like, “Here comes controversy.” I’m talking about the crucifix scene. Brad, you came from the web, where there really aren’t any rules. I’m wondering if TV has more difficult to get away with stuff, if it’s changed your way of thinking when you’re trying to tell a story because of the way that people are kind of policing comedy on social media?
Neely: I don’t think about that stuff, you know? I do what I feel is right and funny and appropriate in my own mind, and in the mind of our writer’s room and the people that I work with. I take everybody’s opinion when we do anything that could be possibly controversial. The network has their own creative take on whether or not something is too much. They have their own legal and standards. We don’t ever ask for something that we just know will be wasting everyone’s time, because you don’t want to spend all this time recording and drawing something that the network just says, “We can’t show that.” So by now, we have a pretty good sense of what they will allow, or what will be deemed appropriate by them as an entity. I feel like, if anyone is to blame, it’s the network. [Laughs]
To follow-up, do you worry that the sense of what can get through, that it’s going to have to change in time because it’s becoming harder to push the envelope and harder to be risque in comedy without getting significant blowback? Like the #FireColbert thing.
Neely: Colbert’s replacing Letterman.
I know, but there’s certainly more of a vocal fanbase that launches campaigns designed to get shows off the air. It’s not usually super successful, but it can be a distraction.
Weidenfeld: I do believe that no one can truly get shocked anymore. And we do some crazy stuff, but for a moment, like, I didn’t even consider that controversial while we were doing it. I mean, of all the things that we do, I think that is probably the least — and if we’re going to be criticized for anything there’s a whole bunch of other stuff.
It’s so obviously such a stupid joke in the context of what we’re doing. I mean, that’s parody. We’re just parodying “The Exorcist.” At the end of the day, of the things that keep us up at night — I’m not that afraid of that.
I heard on the Nerdist podcast that you sold the rights to the “George Washington” short for $250. Not to bring up a sore point — but is it beneficial for every artist to get fucked over at some point in their career?
Neely: It helped me to not trust anyone, for sure. I mean, that’s the truth. And, you know, it’s hard to speculate on potential futures, like what would have happened if I owned “Washington” back then. Having not had “Washington” when I was asked to do more, I said I couldn’t and instead made “Baby Cakes” and “The Professor Brothers,” so that’s something to chew on.
But just for the record, I have repurchased the rights to that motherfucker, and that makes me feel like a big man. [Laughs]
Is there going to be more, or did you just want to win them back?
Neely: Nope. Nope, just wanted to put it on my shelf and feel like I reclaimed something that I was stupid enough to give away. Just a personal thing.
Funny or Die is obviously doing pretty good, and it kind of launched around the same time as Super Deluxe — where you both worked. What do you think the difference is between the two? What do you think that has that Super Deluxe just didn’t?
Weidenfeld: I think the main difference is that Super Deluxe just was a little too ahead of its time and spent too much money sort of expanding everywhere, trying to get as much talent as they could, rather than focusing in on, what was the best stuff we had and how do you build a brand out of it. It was sort of all over the place. Funny or Die, at the end of the day, the reason that they started is because rather than accept X amount of dollars per episode to sell something to Super Deluxe, Will Ferrell’s like, “I’d rather own it.” And he just made his own videos for no money and he owned it.
You couldn’t buy everybody, and at the end of the day, I think that lead to — there’s a brand behind what Funny or Die is doing that Super Deluxe couldn’t fully build, because it was just so expansive and we didn’t curate enough. We had incredible stuff, and it was probably one of the most fun times I’ve ever had, working with these amazing people, but it was a hodgepodge. I think, at the end of the day, Funny or Die is just a little more curatorial.
Did you hate that? Was that a boring answer?
No, it was a good answer. Honestly, I wouldn’t tell you if it was a boring answer, but I don’t think it was a boring answer. I wouldn’t go, “Oh, that was terrible. Oh, my God, drone, drone, drone…” I wouldn’t say that, but it was good.
Weidenfeld: Well, know that you can!
It was fine. Honestly, I’m playing Xbox, I’m not even paying attention. The transcriber will deal with it, it’s not really my problem. But…
Brad, has there been any movement on the “Wizard People, Dear Reader” sequel, the “Potter Takes New York,” Spider-Man and Harry Potter mash-up?
Neely: Shit. That is a deep fucking cut. Um, no, man. I can’t do that. I want to. Sometimes I’ll see a flash like that, but I feel like some post-athlete seeing some new kid dunk and thinking I can do it. I just don’t have the time, and I feel like the times don’t have me.
Do you miss the Warner Bros. lawyers, though? The interaction, the working with them?
Neely: [Laughs] No. Actually, they work for me now. They tell me about this show. It’s a weird thing how that works. You know, I miss doing something that was back when I was so ignorant of so much stuff. Just making that for my friends and thinking only of making my friends laugh — and then having that get out into the world and then realizing that other people could laugh at something that I had made for myself and friends made me realize that maybe I can continue to do that on a larger scale, reaching people that I don’t know. That initial, “make something for, like, six people,” that I can’t ever do again.
That was a boring answer.
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