One of the latest additions to the Disney Channel's slate of original animated programming, Big City Greens, is also one of its most popular. Following the Green family as they transition from life in the country to that of the bustling city, the series was renewed for a second season before it even premiered last year. For creators (and brothers) Chris Houghton and Shane Houghton that early vote of confidence led the creative team to up the ante for Season 2, with a whole bevy of prominent guest stars and escalating antics while keeping the focus on the family emotion at the animated series' quirky core.
In an interview with CBR ahead of Saturday's Season 2 premiere, the Houghton brothers discussed how they approached the new episodes of Big City Greens, working on other Disney Channel animated shorts starring the series' characters, collaborating with guest stars -- including Jonathan Van Ness and Christopher Lloyd -- and how growing up in rural America helped to inspire and inform the show.
CBR: So, Season 2 of Big City Greens, you've got Cricket and the rest of the family settled into Big City. You were renewed for a second season before Season 1 even premiered, with a lot more lead time. How did you approach Season 2?
Chris Houghton: Yeah, good question. We knew that in Season 1, we needed to spend a decent amount of time establishing everything in Big City Greens; we needed to establish the characters, their relationships to each other and how they're generally feeling about this big move. And after 30 half-hour episodes with 60 cartoons, we got into Season 2 and what we discovered pretty quickly on was we can expand a little bit, we can introduce new characters, we can get weirder with our stories, which we do. We've just been able to explore more and expand more.
Shane Houghton: Early on in Season 1, we would come up with these really fun and crazy ideas but we kind of held back; we said that feels like a Season 2 idea. And I think part of that is, like, we have to establish a firm foundation of who the characters are and their relationships to one another before we go too wild. But now we're in Season 2 and we're like, let 'er rip!
You mentioned you're introducing new characters. You had impressive guest stars in Season 1, but I feel like you guys really upped the game in Season 2. Was it a lot easier or did you have people approach you to be on the show?
Chris: Yeah, it has been easier to get guest stars.
Shane: Now that the show is out and people know what it is or can Google it, it's easier; or some actors have kids or grandkids who have seen the show. So that definitely helps in getting people on board. And, when all else fails, you know, blackmail.
How cool was it working with Jonathan Van Ness in the season premiere?
Shane: He's so funny and charming and sweet. He came in -- and I think he was a little nervous just at first -- and once we got into it, he was just rolling. It didn't take long for him to just go full Jonathan Van Ness on this character.
Chris: The thing is, because Jonathan Van Ness is in the first episode of Season 2, the thing we're a little bummed about is -- because animation takes so long to produce -- the Jonathan Van Ness character in Big City Greens does not have the iconic Jonathan Van Ness mustache, he hadn't grown it yet!
Shane: He's got a full beard. We gave him, like, a 5 o'clock shadow.
Chris: We can't keep up with his ever-changing facial hair. Hopefully fans will forgive our vast oversight.
BILL GREEN, CRICKET GREEN, GRAMMA ALICE, TILLY GREEN[/caption]
You guys grew up in small-town Michigan. I assume there's no shortage of stories to put Cricket and the rest of the family through. Even though you did 30 half-hour episodes for Season 1, moving into Season 2, there's still a lot of material to draw from.
Shane: So we've just recently written our 100th 11-minute [cartoon]. So yeah, we're cranking through stories but we always pull from some sort of grounded situation and a lot of Season 1 really pulled from mine and Chris' experiences growing up in our small town of St. John in mid-Michigan. And we pulled a lot of characters and relationships from family members or community members or friends that we had.
Now in Season 2, we're still doing that, but also our writers have had very similar experiences and there's a lot of writing staff contributing really funny or weird or awkward stories that happened to them into Season 2 stories. But I feel like there's kind of a balance and we're shifting now that we've hit a lot of our childhood and now we're really mining everyone else's as well.
In the lead-up to [Season 2], you guys have been involved in a lot of digital shorts across Disney Channel platforms. Chris, you've done just about every single episode of Random Rings, right?
Chris: Yeah, just about. We had a couple that were [Big City Greens character] Tilly and then others we've doubled up on or it's just Cricket, and those have been fun! As the show grows and the audience for the show is growing, so has the production. The TV show is always the core of everything but a lot of our audience is on YouTube and they've really responded to clips of the show and they wanted more. And so it's just been this great vehicle to try out different, short-form content ideas.
We did Random Rings, we did Broken Karaoke -- which is a parody of the Descendants song "The Queen of Mean."
Shane: We did Theme Song Takeover where Gramma adds her own lyrics to the Big City Greens theme song which turned out great.
Chris: It's been fun. It's fun to have new challenges on different mediums. Just the fact that they're shorts brings up different creative challenges, like, we realized we had to fill up some end tag content.
Shane: There's always that, "Hey! If you liked that video, click on this next video!" at the end of YouTube videos. And we found a fun way to engage the people watching these videos by having Cricket and Tilly just kind of banter back and forth with one another over those kind of thumbnails of episodes to click on. And we started playing these games where Cricket and Tilly would ask people to comment on a specific thing -- there's one where Tilly is talking in a kind of mesmerizing voice and telling people to comment if they're hypnotized and I just love all those comments of people saying they were actually hypnotized by the thing.
It's certainly different with animation but, watching Random Rings and all that, how much do you allow for improvisation when you're coming up with Cricket and Tilly's dialogue?
Shane: Random Rings is actually entirely improvised.
Chris: We try to come up with some kind of prompt, like, who is Tilly calling, but once we get into the call, anything can happen. We just kind of have to roll with it and then, of course, we kind of edit stuff down so it's a little tighter and more coherent. In the show, not a ton of improv. By the time we get to the [recording sessions], we've written and rewritten the jokes so many times that we kind of know what we want.
Shane: It's all pretty tight in the show but that's what's fun about making these Random Rings. It's a completely different challenge to improv all the dialogue from Cricket and Tilly and just see how the call goes and how it all ends up.
CRICKET GREEN, GRAMMA ALICE, BILL GREEN[/caption]
To circle back to the guest star question, one of your guys' guest stars is Christopher Lloyd. I feel like we're all of the same era where he kind of looms heavily as Doc Brown or Uncle Fester. How cool was it getting to work with Christopher Lloyd and can you offer any hints about his role in Season 2?
Shane: He was incredible. He came in and he's just so Christopher Lloyd. He's got that voice and that cadence that just feels right. He was very sweet.
Chris: He referred to us, like [Christopher Lloyd impression] "Boys! Boys!" Like, it was just everything you would want out of Christopher Lloyd.
Shane: He was actually in New York when we were recording and we were in Los Angeles and so we had a Skype camera up for a video call and he thought we were in the other room. He kept saying, "Come on in here, come on in here, I want to talk about the character!" and we're like "We can't, we're in Los Angeles," and he thought we were joking with him, like "No, seriously, come on in." [laughs]
Chris: And we're like, "Mr. Lloyd, we're so sorry, we cannot."
Shane: "I would love to but it would take a very long time."
Chris: He was just great and really dug into the character.
Shane: I kind of want to hold off on who he plays. It's a really special part of the episode and you'll know it when you see it.
Chris: He screams in on a DeLorean [laughing].
Shane: [Doc Brown impression] "Cricket, we have to go back!"
You guys mentioned you were going weirder and wackier in Season 2. Before this, you guys worked on Gravity Falls which is a very different show. How much cross-filtration in those sensibilities are we going to see moving into Season 2?
Shane: Gravity Falls is like mysterious weird and supernatural weird. Our show is still very grounded, we're not going to have monsters or ghosts pop up, but we do have a lot of weirdos; a lot of weirdo people and situations and reactions.
Chris: And we're just trying to go for funny. We really like that Big City Greens is accessible, we liked that people can just tune in to any episode. And so we just try to push character and push funny. So Cricket's ideas get weird and bigger and schemes get crazier. And Tilly gets just more Tilly, you know, odd and specific.
In one episode, we go into a dream she's having and she's hosting this weird, trippy Pee-Wee Herman/Mister Rogers talk show for mermaid children just for a weird dream [laughs].
Shane: It's the most surreal thing we've done on the show.
Chris: And it's just that kind of weird. It's still the characters at heart of each scene and overall story of the episode. But it's all of us just trying to see how far can we push things.
Shane: When we started the show, we always a recipe for the show that was two parts funny, one part heart. And, moving into Season 2, we really wanted to amp up the weirdness of everything but I just think that means the core recipe is still the same: It's still really funny and it's still really sweet. So you just see more of that in Season 2.
GRAMMA ALICE, TILLY GREEN, CRICKET GREEN, BILL GREEN[/caption]
As an aside, I saw that you guys wrote the end theme to the series. How did that all come about?
Shane: Yeah! So we needed a song for the end credits and Chris and I are both musical. We grew up doing musical theater together in high school. We were even in a couple bands together that were not good but we both play multiple instruments and we just knew we wanted to write a song and contribute to the kind of musical language of the show.
So one afternoon we kind of met up in my apartment and kicked around a couple of ideas of what we wanted the theme of the song to feel like and, lyrically, we landed on this song about kind of what it's like to be a kid in the country on a summer day and you'd go out and there's all these things to do and explore. Your curiosity would drive you but, along the way, you'd always get kind of beat up or scrapped up and you'd have, like, bloodied ankles and grass stains and you kind of got beat up but it was so much fun! You just had to do it all again!
Chris: That's kind of the spirit of the show; that's Cricket and Tilly.
Shane: Yeah, that's kind of the core the show. And then Chris came up with the chord structure, basing it on some fun folk songs, and then it all kind of came together. Our composer Joachim Horsley helped produce it and put it all together and made it all sound so sweet.
Chris: That guitar track is actually me playing guitar in my apartment and our composer just lifted it and threw it into the final, produced track.
As we're poised to go into Season 2, as the writers and showrunners of this thing, what do you find personally rewarding and proud about this show? What keeps it fresh and makes you want to come back for more?
Shane: Whenever we do something a little bit scary or challenging on the show to produce, it's always invigorating to me and Chris. We're doing an episode where we animate about half of it in CG animation; we haven't worked in CG animation!
Chris: It's kind of old, chunky-looking CG, like early 2000s CG.
Shane: Yeah, like an old PC video game-style CG animation.
Chris: It made our producer really nervous and that's always a good sign, like, okay, this is different! This is a new creative challenge!
Shane: We have a half hour Christmas special that's also a musical which is something we haven't done before; to produce songs within the story and have the core cast sing. And, also in that holiday special, there's some stop-motion animation which was another new thing for us. Basically, whenever we could find a new challenge for ourselves, it always gets us excited and keeps us going and just helps keep the show fresh.
Chris: We're kind of like kids playing with blocks. You build a tower and it's really fun to build the tower...but then it's kind of fun to knock it over. So we're always looking for ways to kind of poke this or [make ourselves] nervous. Something that might blow up in our faces. So there's fun to that.
Big City Greens stars Chris Houghton, Artemis Pebdani, Marieve Herington and Bob Joles. The animated series returns for its second season on Disney Channel and Disney NOW Saturday, Nov. 16, at 9:30am ET/PT.