The world of New York City is not what it seems in the Comedy Central animated series UGLY AMERICANS (which has its second season premiere tonight).
In the hilariously bizarre series (which features animation in the EC Comics vein), Mark Lilly is our hero – a social worker for the Department of Integration who has to deal with zombies, demons and wizards on a regular basis.
The key to UGLY AMERICANS success is it plays everything very seriously, deriving the comedy out of the outlandish situations surrounding our hero.
Creator Devin Clark spoke with ASSIGNMENT X this week in an exclusive interview about UGLY AMERICANS, what to expect in Season 2 and how distributing it can be when a wizard births an apprentice.
ASSIGNMENT X: How is the season being split this year?
DEVIN CLARK: We did 14 the first season, but we were following the SOUTH PARK model which splits their season in half, so we did seven and seven. So it almost felt like doing two seasons, within the first season. Now, we’re doing ten that will air behind FUTURAMA. So we’re doing 14 episodes at once, rather than split in half. Ten of those are going to air this summer and the other four are going to be shelved for a potential third season … knock on wood.
AX: Can you talk about the inception for the show. Animation series are so hard to come up with a sustainable concept, yet you found a successful way to do it with this unique world.
CLARK: The show draws from three of my favorite things – comic books, horror movies and comedy. When I was putting together the show I wanted to incorporate all the things I was passionate about, because I knew if it got picked up, I’d have a fun opportunity to play in all those genres and worlds that I’m obsessed with. The core element of the comedy is probably influenced from me absorbing a lot of British comedy as a kid. It’s based within that context of taking something absurd and over-the-top and normalizing it.
The core premise of UGLY AMERICANS was based on a web show I did for Comedy Central originally, which was a man on the street-style interview show called 5 ON where the people being interviewed are these horrific and absurd creatures, but they’re talking about pretty normal concepts. That core idea of taking the horrific and the absurd and normalizing it became the premise and the seed of building out the world of UGLY AMERICANS.
AX: What did you learn during the course of the first season that you took into Season 2?
CLARK: Probably the biggest challenge for the first season, besides just kind of ushering people into this crazy world and laying down the premise, was just understanding who our characters were. We had a pretty clear idea of who these six main characters were and how they existed within their basic template of the demon boss, the deadbeat zombie roommate, etc. As we went through the season, the writers became a little more familiar with the potential places that we could take these characters. We also saw what the actors brought to their characters. So we started to push them in the direction that the actors were able to take them.
Michael-Leon Wooley who does the voice of Twayne just has this amazing range and can pull off the big intimidating demon boss mode, but he can turn on a dime and do this whole bumbling momma’s boy thing too. It’s hilarious, so Twayne became a much more deep and complex character and in this season too, we wanted to explore the background and the reasons why our characters were so messed up and who they really were. So we get a little deeper into their histories and their families, because we know people get the idea of the show now, they know what we’re doing in this world, so we wanted to take the chance and really explore them.
AX: I think the beauty of UGLY AMERICANS is the more the show is kept straight with the dialogue and situations, the more absurd and fantastical the episodes can get.
CLARK: We know the world is crazy, we’re pulling in from every horror, fantasy, science-fiction fantasy genre and creature we can and throwing it into New York City. That unto itself is going to be insane, but it’s important to us that our characters act as if they’re normal. And just within that, you get a hilarious situation. So having the responsibility of dealing with these crazy creatures as Mark does being a social worker, you’re thrown in even deeper to the madness of this world and this one individual trying to fix things and integrate and make everything okay. It’s definitely a fun approach to take and how we push the audience into this world.
AX: Did you go for the summer camp theme for the premiere because you knew the show was coming back in the middle of the summer?
CLARK: One of the biggest challenges for us is we don’t have the insane turnaround rate that an animated show like SOUTH PARK does. They can make an episode from script to airing in five to seven days, which is just unheard of. Our turnaround time is more like nine to seven months. We look in the future, we know we’re going to be airing in the summer this time, we know there is the final HARRY POTTER film is coming out – so we went, “alright, those are two little nuggets of ideas we can incorporate into that.” We can’t be as relevant to pop culture as some other shows, but it just means we have a little more of a challenge of making jokes that are a little more evergreen and poking fun of the genre in a much broader spectrum. So we’re not just making fun of wizards in general and not just that one episode of HARRY POTTER.
AX: Can you modify the show a bit if something comes up that you need changed?
CLARK: That’s the nice advantage of animation. The production schedule is slow, but it also is endlessly malleable – even within the last week of production in doing the final mix. If there is something that’s just not working, we can literally swivel around in our seat and tap an animator on our shoulder and say “hey, change this character or change this line” and it’s not some crazy reshoot where someone goes out and does it. Someone just has to draw it. As long as we can have those animators on hand, we can turn around new scenes and add new dialogue and new gags up until the last minute. For instance we have Charlie Sheen make a cameo in an upcoming episode [Sheen doesn’t voice the role]. You know, if a week before that airs, we realize he’s not quite relevant, if there is someone else that plays the part of the quintessential party bachelor, we’ll switch it out. We do have a little leeway in the way we can affect things, but not much.
AX: How much do your actors add to the process?
CLARK: A lot of our actors are stand-up comedians and comedy writers themselves and even though we start with a final script and go into the booth, these guys are hilarious people. Natasha Leggero and Kurt Metzger, they’re stand-up comedians and they bring amazing improv stuff. So sometimes, no matter how offensive the jokes we write, we always know the actors will add their own twist on things and beat the jokes that we’re writing.
AX: What other stories will we be seeing this season?
CLARK: We do delve a little deeper in all the characters’ neurosis. Mark is this goody two-shoes and doing the right thing, but why the hell is he dating this demon chick who is clearly abusive and sadistic? So we get into maybe his own little obsession with fixing broken women. We meet one of his ex-girlfriends from college and find out a little bit about why they broke up and the dark story there and the broken hearts Mark has left along the way.
We also have an episode where demons are all about invading earth and enslaving humanity. Since we normalize all our creatures, this thing has become a cultural phenomenon. Rather than something they’re actually planning on, it’s not just an annual celebration where they do an Armageddon Pre-Enactment. Sort of like a Civil War Re-enactment. They pre-enact what it would like to invade earth, which is just a big celebration to have in Times Square. Of course, Twayne has avoided being involved because of his little issues and ends up getting drafted into Satan’s dark army for this pre-enactment and Mark, in an attempt to get him over his fears from being away from home, unleashes some pretty grim stuff.
Callie’s parents get back together in one episode and give birth to a sister for Callie who because of being a supernatural creature, ends up aging one year, every day, and we have an homage to the OMEN in there. Mark and Callie end up taking over the responsibilities of her parenting dealing with this demonic child.
And the first episode delves into Leonard’s background. He’s a deadbeat alcoholic wizard, but he’s also responsible for raising an apprentice. So being the deadbeat that the was, right after giving birth to his apprentice, he left him on the back stoop of a Chinese restaurant and didn’t bring him to his wizard ritual until a week before he has to do it. That’s the one where we are poking fun of summer camp and the whole wizarding world.
AX: That whole egg birthing sequence is probably the most disturbing thing I’ve seen on an animated series in some time.
CLARK: Doing the records for that were hilarious. Randy Pearlstein is a really funny guy and improv artist. Just seeing him acting in the booth and screaming and yelling about his pain was to die for. I think I was crying because I was laughing so hard.
We’re having a lot of fun in playing off the characters of who they are and what they are. People already know what this world is. So we’re delving a little deeper. We’re veering away from the creature of the week and poking fun at these Hammer horror mainstays like vampires and werewolves and trying to explore what makes the UGLY AMERICANS world unique unto itself.
AX: What are some of the episodes that don’t have huge horror themes?
CLARK: One episode pokes fun at disappointing TV show finales. We have this ongoing show Grimes has been obsessed with, which has a terrible finale and pokes a little fun at LOST. He gets so enraged, he makes a mission to rewrite that final episode and it ends up unleashing some repressed memories of being a cop in the ‘70s, so it’s an opportunity for us to make fun of those ‘70s cop shows like STARSKY AND HUTCH and CHiPS and stuff like that. We’re pulling in a lot more genres this time. It’s not just horror. We’re poking fun of the ‘80s camp movies, we’re poking fun of ‘70s cop dramas. We’re all big movie buffs, beyond horror, so we like to tap into every genre we can.
AX: Who is the biggest horror nerd on staff?
CLARK: Aaron Augenblick and I are massive horror fans. When we first came to him about producing the show, he was also a huge fan of EC Comics like I am, and so we were both very excited about building out this world and making it feel like this old grainy, inky comic books. One of the opportunities we have every episode is that cold open, where we have this real stylized horror moment, so we’re always looking back at our favorite horror films and doing little homages to one of our favorite films. The third episode has a little homage to INVASION OF THE BODY SNATCHERS and we also poke fun of the BLAIR WITCH PROJECT in one of our episodes coming up.
AX: How obscure can you get with the references?
CLARK: If it’s for one of the main dialogue jokes of the scene, we’re not going to go obscure, because we want to be as accessible as possible. We want people who don’t know anything about horror, comics or fantasy and still know this is a funny joke and get the context. For us, the opportunities for those really obscure gags are in the background, like the name of the store will be some weird obscure reference to an H.P. Lovecraft book. Or we’ll have some creature who is like some random background character from STAR TREK. We definitely use those background stores and populating New York as an opportunity to throw in as many weird, obscure creatures as possible. We hope the real fans pick up on those and dig the jokes.
AX: Have you done any Dario Argento or Lucio Fulci references?
CLARK: Not yet, though we have Romero zombies walking around in the episode where we go to Jersey – some of the guys there are based on characters directly from DAY OF THE DEAD and DAWN OF THE DEAD.
AX: Any final words?
CLARK: We have a hilarious crew of writers and they really bring it. I know they have a blast coming up with premises for this. It’s a fun give and take. Sometimes they’ll see a little character like the Bird Man in the pilot episode who poops on that guy and says “suck my balls.” They’re like, “this just isn’t some exchange between him and this Bird Man, this is literally the Bird Man’s language” and they’ll just run with it and take it into a direction we never saw it going. We have a whole episode about the man birds and their crazy dialect and culture. So we do have a lot of fun.
(additional reporting by A.C. Ferrante)
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Click on link: AX’s review of UGLY AMERICANS – Season 2 premiere – “Wet Hot Demonic Summer”
Click on link: AX’s review of FUTURAMA – Season 6B premiere – “Neutopia”
Click on link: AX’s Exclusive Interview with FUTURAMA’s David X. Cohen – Part 1
Click on link for: SOUTH PARK – “You’re Getting Old” review
CLICK HERE for AX’s Blu-ray review of SOUTH PARK: THE COMPLETE FOURTEENTH SEASON
CLICK HERE for more SOUTH PARK reviews