Tony Millionaire Talks "The Drinky Crow Show"

Tony Millionaire is a cartoonist, illustrator and author who's best known for his popular nationally syndicated weekly comics strip, "Maakies," for which he has earned multiple Harvey and Eisner awards; as well as graphic novels including Dark Horse's "Sock Monkey." Now, along with writer/co-executive producer Eric Kaplan ("Futurama," "Late Show with David Letterman"), Millionaire is bringing his award-winning comics strip to Cartoon Network's Adult Swim under the name of "The Drinky Crow Show."

The new series, which premiered last weekend, follows the dark, comic misadventures of popular "Maakies" characters Uncle Gabby and Drinky Crow, who is a depressed, tormented, romantic crow that seeks to kill himself either through alcohol or bullets. Uncle Gabby is an overweight, drunken monkey sailor who devotes his life to sleeping, eating, drinking and defecation. Together, the two cause mischief and hilarity whereever they go.

CBR News spoke to Tony Millionaire about his new show, working with Adult Swim, working on "Maakies," his graphic novels and his relationship with the rock band They Might Be Giants.

CBR: To begin with, can you talk about the genesis of bringing your "Maakies" characters from the comic strip to the television screen?

Tony Millionaire: Basically, I got a call from Nick Weidenfeld at Adult Swim who wanted to sit down and have a meeting about making a show. I had said to him, "You know what, I've had sit-down meetings already so many times before about these things and it never works out." And he said, "No, no, no, I'm really serious. If I want to sit down with you, it means I really want to try to get a show done." So, we did.

We had Dino Stamatopoulos, who is now the voice of Drinky Crow, in line to actually produce it and then he got "Moral Orel" as his own show. So we waited around for a long time, then Eric Kaplan came along. Eric is a TV writer/producer who has an animation company in Pennsylvania but lives here in Studio City and we started to make the show. We made the pilot, got it on the air, got a bunch of people to vote for it, and now we're in the middle of starting season one.

Is it satisfying, seeing your comic strip become a cartoon on TV?

It is because when I saw the first tests for the show, I really didn't like it at all. But then I thought, I got to really make this look as much like the strip as possible. So we did a process where you take the CG models and then put the drawings on top of them. So that my drawing style, my actual drawing hand, is seen throughout the show. So you really see my drawings moving a lot.

How has it been working with Adult Swim? Do you feel that they are a good fit for your show?

Yes, it's practically the only place I could go. My humor is kind of raunchy and there are a lot of newspapers that won't even take it. It runs in alternative newsweeklies so it's not really for kids. So yeah, Adult Swim is perfect for it.

Were there any adjustments that Adult Swim asked you to make in adapting your strip for television?

No. I called them up and I said, "Do you think we should tone down the humor a little bit, it is going to be on TV?" They said, "No, no, no, make it more. Make it worse." There's a lot now that you can do, especially on late night TV, that you couldn't do before. So it looks kind of like a kids cartoon but it's not at all.

What's it been like working with Eric Kaplan?

Well, it's been great. He completely understands and completely gets the humor of it. The thing is with television, it's a lot different than writing a strip. When you're writing a strip, you can do stuff that is much more like the process of writing. In television, you've got to think about what the actors are going to do, what the motion of it is going to be like and how that is going to affect it. So you can't write long sentences of prose because then if an actress says them, it just doesn't sound right. It sounds like it's going on and on and it gets dull. So you got to be able to shorten it down and then have things actually happen, rather than words explaining what's going to happen. Which actually describes the nature of comic strips too. When you're writing a book everything's words, when you're writing a comic strip you got to really pair it down to the fewest words you can and then when you're doing a TV show you can go even further.

What I did was sit with Eric and we just, for like a month, walked back and forth trying to figure out how we were going to bring it to TV and then I remember a time when he finally understood it. He goes, "Oh, he's drinking because he's heart broken." I said, "Yeah exactly." So that's when he read all the books and all the strips. He was able to then write scripts that were true to the characters and true to the strip. Then I can go back in with him and go through it and sort of straighten him out.

The alternative rock band They Might Be Giants perform the show's theme song. You've worked with them in the past on other projects; can you talk about your relationship with the band?

Yeah, I knew those guys John [Linnel] and John [Flansburgh] from way back in, I think, the '80s or early '90s when I was living in Brooklyn. It was the early '90s, I guess, and my friend Brian lived in a house with John Linnel. So at party's we'd meet together and all the sudden they started becoming more famous. Although we were living in Brooklyn and there were a lot of artists around, they were very nice about hiring people that they knew to do T-shirts and stuff for them.

I remember the first T-shirt I did for them had a picture of Drinky Crow on it, so it must have been the '90s. Then after a while they asked me to do an album cover, which I did for the front, back and the booklet inside. And just from over the years, I've known them such a long time that when somebody said what are we going to do about the theme song, I said, "We'll call John and John." So I called them up. They sent us five or six different theme songs because they're so prolific.

Which characters from "Maakies" can fans expect to see on the show, and are they going to be any different than they are in the weekly comic strip?

Well, Drinky Crow will always be Drinky. Uncle Gabby, he's like the goofy one, the one that's always chasing after woman or trying to invent crazy new things. Becky Thrye ("Weeds") plays The Captain's Daughter and she's in it quite a bit. We needed a real strong villain so I used the French Alligators even more on the show than I do in the strip. Because when you want to get something going with the cartoon, you want to get some blood going. So it's good to get some of those fights going like I do in the strip.

The setting of your comic strip has been described as being sort of 18th century nautical. How would you describe the setting yourself and what was your inspiration for it?

Yeah, it has been described as 18th century nautical, I consider it 19th century nautical but that's just a matter of numbers. It's also that even though the show looks like it takes place at that time, it really doesn't. It's just a setting so that I can do very modern humor and stories. If someone's talking into the telephone, of course it's going to be a telephone with a hand crank on it. Or if I'm going to make a joke about an ATM, I've got one where there are rivets all along the side of it and there's steam coming out the top of it. If I'm going to have a car, there were no cars in the 19th century so I just draw like a '1920s car. In other words I want it to look old fashion, like old comics did but if I need an object I'll just draw an antique one.

Have you been surprised by the success and longevity of "Maakies," and what do you attribute that to?

I attribute it to my incredible genus and talent. [laughs] The thing about the strip is that it is very personal to me. I'm really glad that I don't have any editors trying to steer it in any direction at all and I've always been very fortunate with that. That's one of the advantages of working with alterative weekly newspapers. Basically, the only editing I get is, "Where's the strip? You're an hour late!" So I'm able to really do what I want to do and I really try to be as honest as I can with it. If anyone makes a joke around me I usually write it down and people will say, "Don't steal that from me."

Do you often draw from your own real life experiences?

Oh yeah, of course. When I lived in New York -- now I live in Pasadena because I have children -- but when I lived in New York, some of the days were pretty bleak. So the comedy really just came out of that sort of madness and depression of being a drunk in New York City. So I tapped at that as much as I could.

Which do you prefer, working on your weekly comic strip or your graphic novels and books?

Well, the "Sock Monkey" books were actually something that I wanted to do so you could read them to kids, kind of. For "Sock Monkey," I took a lot of that sort of drinking and dirty humor out of it. But the good thing is that I've been working on three to four different things at a time, so I can switch off to whatever I feel like doing when I want.

The thing about the comic strip is that every Monday, I've got to sit down and draw it. I always wait 'till the last minute because I want to use the best possible joke or story that I can come up with.

As far as the books like "Sock Monkey," I will try to sketch out one or two pages during the day to pencil quickly. Then at night when the kids are in bed, I can sit down, turn on the lights, crack open a beer and just draw the inks. Because it's very relaxing at night to sit here and stay up to two or three in the morning and just draw and ink.

I'm working on a new book now too, which is the "Billy Hazelnuts" book. I'm working on book two right now and it's pretty much the same deal. If I'm in a Sock Monkey mood, I'll write a Sock Monkey book or if I'm in more of a rambunctious mood I'll draw the Billy Hazelnuts books. I'm also working on a children's book that is extremely late but that's something else that I can pull out if I'm in that mood.

What comics or other books have inspired and influenced your work?

I would say my biggest influence was those old comics from the 1920s like "Popeye," "Felix the Cat" and "Mutt and Jeff." Then I started reading Patrick O'Brian. Since the '90s, I've read all twenty of them and then I've read them all again. I spent years reading nothing but Patrick O'Brian books so I could really get down the feeling of being on a ship with a cannon pointed at you, you know.

Finally, what would you tell someone who's not familiar with the comic strip or your work to interest them in checking out "The Drinky Crow Show?"

If you like stories about drunken crows and singing monkeys riding around on ships, chopping each other in half with swords, then you are going to love this show.

"The Drinky the Crow Show" airs on Sunday nights on Cartoon Network's Adult Swim.

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