Adult Swim has become safe harbor for all manner of untraditional comedy shows, bizarre animations, and the just plain weird. Dave Willis and Jim Fortier have been a part of several of those shows. Starting work on the amazing Space Ghost Coast to Coast, Dave went on to produce Aqua Teen Hunger Force, which is often considered the flagship of Adult Swim’s more contemporary batch of aggressively strange comedies. A few years ago the pair reunited to bring something new to the network with Squidbillies, which mixed one of the network’s most offbeat aesthetics and character sets with a more traditional family dynamic and humor style. Four seasons later it seems the family of childishly-scrawled hillbilly squids has earned its place among the Williams Street pantheon.
With the DVD of the fourth season recently dropping (you can grab it from CHUD RIGHT HERE), I was able to speak with Dave and Jim over the phone, even as we discovered that we were not far from each other in Atlanta. It’s a good chat that covers the unique characteristics of the show, the influences, the perks of making it, and how comedy in general has changed in the internet age. Enjoy!
Renn: So with a show as unique as Squidbillies that has stuck around for several seasons now, as you sit to prepare Season 4 were there any special goals or challenges you had in your mind?
Dave: The goal is to get to ten episodes, and then pencils down. It’s really about quantity more than quality. It’s about finishing as many episodes as we can in a short amount of time. Uhh, no. I don’t know.
Renn: Okay good, see- if you were Tim & Eric, you’d have the kept that joke up the whole time and I wouldn’t know what to do.
Dave: No, we’re not that. But, I don’t know. We just finished an episode, just finished writing our last script for the next season and it’s a nice breather because we can just sit down and produce the show rather than- you spend so much of the time bouncing between the writing and producing, and when we can focus on putting it together is a nice time, and also kind of refill the pot a little bit. We’re always sort of –at least, speaking for myself– always a little bit running on fumes near the end, and when we start over again it feels fresh again.
Jim: You know what, this season right here that we’re talking about we did have, I wouldn’t say “pressure,” but there was a little bit more of a focus on trying to integrate some other outside folks in terms of music and guests. Because we felt like we were working hard to make the show and we’re trying to have it catch on and get some press, and up to a certain point we had people that liked the show, but it just wasn’t getting a whole lot of notice. So it was an opportunity to work with music acts that we liked, and maybe widen the scope of the show and pick up some new fans.
Dave: We definitely run some through that Americana thing and sometimes the show is just an awesome excuse to get to meet people that you’d love to work with, or would just love to meet. So you write a musical as an excuse to do that.
Renn: What were the particularly great collaborations that you got to do in this season in particular- not to put you on the spot…
Dave: Oh definitely, all the musicians were really great to work with and to be in a room with someone like Lucinda Williams who is just one of the great songwriters, and to have her do the voice of some bird that gets hit by a car is really one of the cool, stupid perks of doing this job. It’s the dirty little secret that everyone seems vulnerable to a request to be animated in a cartoon, so it’s a fun way to get to meet these super talented artists and work with them.
Jim : And diminish their reputations to a certain degree.
Renn: Dunno, I feel like David Allen Coe kind of fits right in- you don’t have to take him very far for that.
Dave: Did you say David Allan Coe fit right in?
Renn: You mentioned appreciating the idea of Americana a bit earlier so going back to that… You’ve done and do shows that allow you to kinda do whatever the hell you want, whereas this show with it’s specific aesthetic… do you find yourself able to tackle themes with it that you wouldn’t involve in another show?
Dave: Yeah, well we make the show down here in Atlanta and we both grew up down here in Georgia, for the most part. So there are thigns that bug you and things that always amused you that are specific to this region that are fun to poke fun at and goof on. I mean, we did a whole episode on the fact that you can’t buy beer on a Sunday, and I don’t think that’s the case when you get North of the Mason-Dixon line. You know? It doesn’t cross their minds to make that illegal. Or evolution in schools. I tend to start thinking a little more politically towards the show and a lot of times Jim reminds me that’s not always funny and it just sounds like someone is grinding an axe, so I think we’re definitely good at balancing each other out on that front.
Jim: That said, we have an awesomely hilarious episode on the G3 summit coming up.
Dave: Not really, but it’s kind of hard not to do it when your governor is one of the big-time birthers and shit like that is just like… eugh
Renn: I know exactly what you mean.
Jim: But the music too- it was a choice to go with that style of music. I mean, it’s down South but there’s just as much hip-hop, if not even more down here. I think that was also just a pointed way to set ourselves apart from much of the rest of the block, which is great, but there’s so much hip-hop and metal around that it’s kind of nice to open your show with a low-key acoustic song.
Renn: So I think it’s fair to say you guys are “pioneers” of this short-format kind of show that has gotten so popular, and even kind of led the way in an era where internet comedy was going to become such a thing. Talking a little about working in that format, as you have with all these different 11-minute shows.
David: Well, we both started here at Cartoon Network in our 20s at a show called Space Ghost Coast-to-Coast and we spent years learning to make and mastering the quarter-hour. [laughter] So we spent years in training and working on the shortest television show on TV, and we learned many tricks like… at page 13, if you’re not done with your script, just have something blow up and then roll credits. No B, C, or D stories, only A stories. And if you run longer than 13 minutes, plump it up to 27 minutes and..
Jim: Double episode!
David: Put a “to be continued…” in the middle. It counts as two in the budget.
Jim: That’s right.
David: [laughter] I don’t know- it’s kind of funny that the rest of the world sort of changed to it, and not it’s past us. Now if it was an internet short and you saw it was 11 minutes, you’d be like “…sigh… I’m not watching that. I need something that’s super funny that’s somewhere within 30 to 40 seconds. Maybe I’ll stay with it.”
Jim: And someone has to fall down to keep me interested.
David: Yeah, get kicked in the nuts.
Renn: Does that affect your thought process at all. I know anytime I click on an internet video more than 2 minutes long I immediately reconsider. Do you feel any pressure from that, even with an eleven minute show, or no?
Dave: Um, I think we still do things the same way, but some shows it really sped things up in a way. I mean Family Guy is sort of manic. I don’t think we think to compete or to try and be just a joke delivery device. I think we just write the show the way we want to, and speaking for myself, the more story oriented it is, the more it enjoyable it is to watch, or to rewatch.
Jim: If I can take the risk of saying this, it’s a little more character-driven. You hopefully know these characters now, and you’re sort of interested to see what they’ll do in these situations with these different things we’re trying to address and they don’t necessarily have to come in to a laugh track and spit out a catchphrase. Even though there are catchphrases in the show…
Dave: We have one now.
Jim: We do. We’re working very hard on it.
Dave: It’s not a catchphrase until we repeat it endlessly and put it on a shirt.
Jim: It sounds like a cop out and I think there are “joke” jokes in the show, but I think I agree with Dave- it’s not just designed to cater to the short attention span in that way where even in the 10 minutes it’s just like joke joke joke, and then on to the next scene. Hopefully we let you watch the characters stew and be stupid and fumble around a little bit more.
Dave: I do think we strive to write more traditional, or at least a little more traditional jokes on this show than say, Space Ghost or Aqua Teen. It’s the closest to something more narrative you know? Which is kind of, a little bit more of an anomaly in the Adult Swim world. Not that it’s not all jokes or all humor, but it’s more of a different, sort of an older school approach.
Renn: So this might be kind of a cliché question, but since you’ve been sort of trail-blazing in this format- what kinds of humor did influence you, that you’ve now filtered through this quarter-hour lens?
Jim: Aw geez. Dave, we probably watched a lot of the same stuff.
Dave: I mean, we were in high school when the Simpsons came out. It’s kind of hard to avoid that one- that Christmas one came out when we were…
Renn: Yeah, Christmas ’89. And there’s nothing wrong with being influenced by earlyish Simpsons.
Dave: My IMDB page says I’m 34 years old, so I’ve got to try and tweak it.
Jim: Sorry, I outed ya.
Dave: But no, I mean. That’s one of those things- it’s just so all-encompassing, you can’t really avoid it. I think this completely dates me but we watched a lot of The Block and certainly as a kid I always responded to Steve Martin, the stuff that’s ridiculous and silly. Like I know George Carlin has a great place in the history of comedy, but Steve Martin was always my hero because he was just so insane. Well, I don’t think he was so much insane as he was wild and crazy, but… Shit, I don’t know. [laughter] We both have the Hee-Haw box set, we love the Blue Collar Comedians… I mean, that’s our fear, that we get lumped in with all that.
Jim: In fact, we tried to an episode to separate ourselves from all that. But I watched all the stuff like Beavis & Butthead, later on King of the Hill, Mr. Show, Monty Python, we used to stay up and watch Saturday Night Live even in the late 70s when we were 8 or 9 years old. All that kind of stuff, nothing surprising really. Just taking in everything I was allowed to watch.
Renn: Fucking love Mr. Show.
Dave: Yeah, Mr Show. That’s sort of like, I think, when we were all working on Space Ghost that was kind of in its heyday on HBO. The people in our department were the only people who seemed to be aware of it. That show was sort of what you wanted Saturday Night Live to be.
Renn: So to wrap up, what do you have peeking over the horizon for you guys?
Jim: We just, I think Dave mentioned, we just wrote the last of the next ten [Squidbillies] that we’re going to premiere in the fall and I think Dave’s still working on the new Aqua Unit… is in progress.
Dave: Yeah, we’re premiering those Aqua Unit Patrol Squad 1‘s now, and we’re in the middle of writing for 2012. We got picked up for more Squids in 2012, I think. As soon as we get these done, we’ll get crankin’ on those. And ideally, we’ll just keep both of these shows going for 30 years, and we’ll just keep this conversation rolling Renn.
DISCUSS THIS on the CHUD Message Board
Like / Share it on Facebook (above or below) if you think it’s great!