When I interviewed Brad Neely, the creative force behind Adult Swim’s “China, IL,” I started by saying, “Tell me a little bit about your approach, because Salon’s readers aren’t totally in your target demographic.” I was trying to make a point about stoned teenagers being Adult Swim’s most fervent audience. Neely neatly cut me down to size. “Smart people don’t watch our show?” He’s right’: Nothing could be less true. Call Neely’s humor what you want—surreal, crude, nonsensical—but its dumbness is a deceptive cover for a sharp and fascinatingly broken worldview.
Neely, a former “South Park” writer, came to Adult Swim sideways. He got his start creating offbeat viral content online—most famously, a sung-spoken ode to George Washington that spun history into fabulous myth (“Let me lay it on the line / he had two on the vine / I mean two sets of testicles / so divine”). That followed “Wizard People, Dear Reader,” an unauthorized, alternative audiotrack to “Harry Potter And The Sorcerer’s Stone”—like “Mystery Science Theater 3000”’s RiffTrax, except a lot weirder, and much more precious. It speaks to the versatility of television that this is where Neely has ended up. Adult Swim’s “China, IL” lets Neely pursue his varied interests—animation, songwriting, voice-acting, and humor—at the helm of his own show.
The show is about a particularly crappy college in Illinois—the history department, in particular. Twin brothers Frank and Steve are both uniquely deadbeat professors; their teaching assistant Pony (voiced by Greta Gerwig) is the most competent teacher on staff. The dean of the university is voiced by no one less than Hulk Hogan—and daughter Brooke drops by for a few episodes, too. “China, IL”’s professors are not inspiring; the show’s students are not motivated. They’re just kind of there, taking advantage of the system for all that it’s worth. That’s not even that much, as is best illustrated in the characters of Professor Leonard Cakes (voiced by Jeffrey Tambor) and his son Baby Cakes (voiced, as are Steve and Frank, by Neely himself). Professor Cakes has tenure and Baby Cakes gets to attend classes for free… but what’s the point? Neely himself never attended college, and it (hilariously) shows.
The third season of “China, IL” premieres Sunday night at 11:30 p.m., and based on the first two episodes, it’s promising a tighter, smoother viewing experience. It’s unlikely that the show will break out into the mainstream at this point, given the wackiness of the humor and audience reception so far. But it’s a delightful oddity well worth having around. I spoke to Neely and fellow executive producer Daniel Weidenfeld about making big ideas dumb and human stories gross.
“China, IL” is an unabashedly immature, gross-out show. Could you talk a little bit about the tone and content that you guys go for, and what interests you about that?
Brad Neely: We followed suit with what we see as our predecessors like “South Park” did. Taking bigger, real ideas—whether they be social or personal or philosophical—that we find are fresh or worth dramatizing. And then we dramatize it in the dumbest, most juvenile, most dumbed-down way that we can figure out. So we might talk, like this season, about this debate of whether or not there’s a gay gene—if there is, are bisexual people marginalized? That’s a thing that we wanted to talk about, which arguably is not exactly something that young, pothead teens want to discuss. And then we dramatized it by way of making it about toppings on pizza.
Our show could easily be dismissed because of our overt sexuality, and gross-out body humor, and the fact that it’s a cartoon. But we find that due to those things we’re able to satirize and discuss a lot of super-deep, meaningful stuff that’s going on with us personally as well as in our culture.
Daniel Weidenfeld: It’s looking at very highbrow things in a very lowbrow lens.
BN: It’s doing a show about academia where Hulk Hogan, the most alpha male in the world, is the dean of this university. Everything is filtered through that, and we’re able to actually say some pretty heavy or more serious things just through the dumbest possible way.
DW: It’s trojan-horsing it. We’re not just trying to be weird for weird’s sake, we’re trying to actually do and say something. It just comes through with a lot of bodily humor.
BN: I’m always really surprised when someone might level the accusation that we did something weird just for weird’s sake, because everything makes sense to me. I’m always hurt that my metaphor didn’t come across. (Both laugh.) “What do you mean? Wait, no! We’re talking about gender politics in ‘Fame’!” (Laughs.)
I love this, because in my experience a lot of humorists sometimes absolve themselves of the political or intellectual parts of the writing. Like: “Oh, it was just a joke and we thought it was funny.” But you guys are owning up to something big you want to say—and then you’re like, “How can we also make this dumb?”
BN: We try to lay some firm bedrock to build this house of shit upon. In our writer’s room, in the early phases of somebody’s story, not every story has a political agenda—but every one of them has something meaningful, whether it’s about a psychological hang-up, or one of the characters’ crises of age, or over-drinking. We have to, in our room, go step-by-step with the writers, like: “Okay, if we want to talk about this, let’s argue right now. How do we feel?”
How do you feel about your characters that you’ve created? What interests you about making these characters do dumb things or act in not the best way possible? How do you feel about them at the end of the day?
BN: Baby Cakes and the two brothers, Frank and Steve—I do the voices for those characters, as well and write for them. I feel like each of them represents a part of me. Even if we’re going to talk about large social stuff in the show, at the end of the day we don’t feel right about making fun of other people out in the world. We won’t take down Britney Spears in an episode. But we will, over and over, take down certain aspects of myself, or of ourselves in the writers’ room.
Frank and Steve. Those two guys, I feel like, are great archetypes for two different sides of how my behavior can manifest itself badly. With Frank, he’s super insecure and neurotic; he can lash out and overreact and take all the wrong steps, because he’s so uncertain about himself. And then the opposite is true for Steve, who is so certain of himself that whenever that certainty might come into question, he behaves in a psychotic manner.
DW: With Steve, in the first few seasons, I really think we were protecting him in a lot of ways. He was too cool. You see how much we over-intellectualize the show. In this season, and parts of last season that we think are the most successful for Steve, he goes to crazy lengths. He reacts in the worst possible ways. He starts off as cool and confident, but if he loses any control he spirals. It’s the control thing for him.
And Baby Cakes is the third part of Brad, which is just the id, the stream of consciousness. So you have these three things. One of the things that makes this season much more different than the first two is that in the room, it is like therapy, in a lot of ways. We’re dealing with different types of Brad as we’re writing and figuring out what these stories are.
Brad, it’s really interesting that all of these writers are as involved with your struggles with your psyche as you yourself are.
BN: Yeah, well, we buy their lunch. (Laughs.)
I first learned who you were, Brad, through your viral George Washington video. And “China, IL” is about a history department. Does history have a specific fascination for you?
BN: History is just stories, and I always love stories. I love how everyone can see a story in their own way. What attracts me to history is the false authority that comes with it. Everyone thinks that they have history in this objective way—like history has this sense of objectivity, which is just not the case. Of course the old adage is that history is written by the victors, all of that. But I think that it goes much deeper. And it’s troubling for me, in a philosophical manner, just about how certainty, especially about the past, is unattainable, and that we all manipulate whatever we need to accordingly.
So it seems fitting for a couple of assholes who are completely self-involved and self-fulfilling, who turn everything towards them, to have at their disposal stories like history that they can manipulate to be actually about them. “Funny that we should be talking about Teddy Roosevelt, because a lot of people have mentioned that we have a lot in common.” Of course it’s not true. History always just seems so grand but so fragile and manipulate-able to me.
Why is this your format for these things? Why animation? Why the dumb jokes?
BN: I mean, I started out not having every option available to me, and I thought, “Hmm, I’ll select animation and television. I guess I’ll gladly dismiss literature and classical music.” It just kind of happened like this. I was here, in Austin, Texas. I did not go to college. I was extremely poor and came from a poor background. I just happened to play in bands and I happened to draw cartoons. And then I did this alternate audio for the “Harry Potter” movie when the internet was just getting to be popular and that got large enough to clue me into, you know, maybe I can go from making my friends laugh to making more people laugh. It seems like there’s evidence here, so maybe I can mash all of these interests together in one thing where I have control over it and could do on the cheap, because I had no funding or backing or interest. So I was able to do “George Washington” with all of those elements, and then that became popular, so it seems like all of the sudden I had a skill set that people were interested in. From “Washington” I went to Super Deluxe and got the job working with “South Park” as a writer in their room, and everything snowballed from there. On a daily basis I ask myself, “Is this right for me? Is this career right for me?”now that I might have more options, but it’s hard to turn away from an audience that’s telling me what I’m communicating is working. Communication to me is just so hard that if you have some of it you should hold on to it.
It sounds like with “China, IL” you’ve gotten the opportunity to pursue a lot of different creative avenues.
BN: Yes, we have nothing but support creatively from the network. I get to write as many songs as I want, I get to be an actor. We blend the genre, we don’t work in just the mystery genre. Cartoons to me have always been postmodern in just their disregard for the tone or style or genre that other types of art might be still expected to maintain. We’re able to do horror in one moment and then slapstick in another and then swing it into a western. All of that freedom allows us to facilitate whatever scenes we want to explore from one episode, from one story, to another.
Do you feel like you get more feedback from people who did go to college and find your version of it amazing, or people who didn’t and feel blessed that someone is showing how completely dumb it all is?
BN: I get both of that. My sister is a professor and my father-in-law is a professor and they find commiseration in the way that I will depict things. But I get a lot of people’s support that, like me, don’t have a real sense of college. My idea of college is just “super high school.” Dealing with a half-hour comedy, animated show, we can keep it simple, where the dean is the principal and classes have actual bells, which I don’t imagine happens at Harvard or anything. I feel like I’m able to hear from both of those audiences in a supportive way.
You have these fantastic voice actors on the show, not just recognizable actors but from all kinds of different industries. Hulk Hogan being on the show is still an object of fascination for me. And Jeffrey Tambor and Jason Alexander and of course, Greta Gerwig. How are you finding these people? Is it just making friends and getting them on the show?
BN: I don’t have friends, so that’s out. (Both laugh.) It’s interesting: From the get-go I wasn’t planning on doing anything that felt like a cartoon. I watch a lot of dramas, and I like naturalism, but I also like just a bag of all different approaches. To have Hulk Hogan with all of his experience as a showman—there’s a certain professionalism that he has that no one else in our cast has. But to add to that with the new, fresh, seriously weird Greta Gerwig take on acting, and you have Jeffrey Tambor with all his experience—and his recent work on “Transparent” is a great indication of just everything that he’s able to do.
We got lucky that these people were interested, but we just learned early it doesn’t hurt to ask. If they say no, it doesn’t mean they hate you. So we asked people that we genuinely have a respect for. If they think it’s funny, they’ll come and give you some of their time.
What is the most memorable fan reaction you have gotten to the show?
BN: I’ll have to think about it. [Background conversation.] Oh! That’s very good. Our writer’s assistant just reminded me. So, I have a four year old kid and she watches this thing on the internet called “Family Fingers.” It’s like one song, one production, that they do over and over. I think they do it in other countries. But it’s a song like, “Daddy finger, daddy finger where are you? Here I am, Here I am, how do you do?” And they do it from the thumb down to the pinky, like daddy, mommy, brother, sister, baby. It’s become this billion-viewed thing on Youtube. Companies will do it without licensing people—there’ll be a “Shrek” one and a “Batman” one. And my daughter watches them. And then surprise, somebody did “China, IL.” And it was so fucked up.
DW: It is the strangest thing you will ever see if you don’t know what it is about. It’s this creepy song with all the characters cut into it—like, the phrase “daddy fingers” is already a red flag. (All laugh.) You’ve got to look it up, it’ll blow your mind. You’ll be confused.
BN: You will, you will. But I hear this song all the time and when I’m at work I’m like, “At least I don’t hear ‘Daddy Fingers.’”