Talking With ‘Out There’ Creator Ryan Quincy

This post is brought to you by Out There, premiering tonight at 10:30/9:30c on IFC.

Ryan Quincy has been working in animation for well over a decade. He spent 12 years on South Park (he’s featured in the behind-the-scenes documentary 6 Days to Air) and now he’s taking his original characters to IFC in his new animated series Out There (which premieres tonight at 10:30/9:30c on IFC). I had a chance to chat with Quincy about the show, his “out there” character designs, and fainting in sex ed class.

Tell us what Out There is all about, and how it came to IFC.

Out There is about two best friends, Chad and Chris – 15-year-old boys, virgins for years to come. They live in this small town in the middle of nowhere. Chad is an introverted, sensitive wallflower, and Chris is an anarchist cheerleader, devil-may-care type kid. The show centers around these two kids and their whole experience navigating through adolescence and this very strange town that they live in.

This idea is based a lot on myself growing up in Nebraska during my adolescence. I mine a lot of stories from all that stuff so in the episodes that we’ve done, there’s a lot of that coursing through its veins.

This was something that I pitched to Jennifer Howell at 20th Century Fox in 2008 during one of my breaks from South Park. We would have these hiatus periods to go off and do these other things, and I had always been doing my own characters at work and making videos. So I pitched this idea and I went off and made three shorts, and they loved them. They were really well received. And then we wrote a pilot script for Fox, and they loved it. But at the time, Sunday night on Fox was pretty tough to fit into.

Around that time, IFC was starting to do original programming, with Portlandia and the David Cross show. That tagline they have of “always on, slightly off,” just felt like a custom fit for Out There. And I noticed IFC didn’t have animation, so I felt that Out There could be their South Park or Simpsons. So we reached out to Dan Pasternack there, and he fell in love with the show, and they gave us some money to go write a pilot script. Of course, it was a roller coaster ride to get the green light, and eventually we did.

You mentioned you based the show on your experience growing up in Nebraska. Could you talk some more about that?

The whole landscape is very much inspired by the flat, Midwest wasteland, which was pretty bleak, especially for a teenager. And I think that was symbolic for how we felt emotionally, too. But a lot of the subject matter and stories – like where Chad passes out in sex ed class – happened to me. And Chris is a cobbled together amalgamation of several different best friends I had. Also, the time period. We never really come out and say what year it is, but it’s a time that predates computers and cell phones and Facebook. So you just had to walk around and entertain yourself and light stuff on fire to keep things lively. But we don’t really call it out. It’s the same thing with how the characters look. You don’t really question it. It’s just how they are.

Let’s talk about the characters’ looks. Some of them have animal-like features. You’ve said that the characters’ appearances reflect their inner emotional state.

I’ve gotten a lot of questions about the look of the characters, and I felt that was the best nutshell answer that would shut people up. [Laughs.]

I was heavily influenced as a kid by Dr. Seuss and Maurice Sendak and Richard Scarry and all that kind of stuff. I was a child of the 70s and 80s, so all that stuff was thrown into the stew. I would draw characters that would be more human-looking characters, but then I just started to give them animal noses and claws. It just started to feel more interesting to see these characters go through very universal human experiences.

It sounds like you named the show Out There to shrug off some of those concerns. Like, “Just go with it.”

You always hear, “That seems a little out there.” Or, “The characters, the way they look, that’s pretty out there.” I kind of clung on to that and thought that should be the name of the show. Everywhere I took the show, people would ask, “Why do they look the way they do?” I feel like that’s a very American way of always wanting things explained. People wanted to rationalize the look of the characters, like was there something in the water, or a meteor hit. And I felt like trying to answer that question was missing the point of the whole thing.

Out There does seem like it’s setting itself apart from other animated shows. It feels more sincere and melancholy.

Definitely. It’s more like an animated dramedy. There’s funny stuff in it, but there’s pathos and authenticity. At the same time, you want to try to keep it funny. I think a lot of adult cartoons are kind of loud and in your face, and fast paced and I think this is to be a welcome reprieve from some of that stuff. It’s a little more slow burn.

That slow burn is reminiscent of the realism in King of the Hill. I notice your executive producers [Tony Gama-Lobo and Rebecca May] came from there.

If there were any show that was in the same orbit, it would be that Mike Judge stuff – King of the Hill. That’s what’s exciting to me, to do those kinds of shows, and still make them animated. Tony and Rebecca definitely brought a wealth of knowledge from King of the Hill, and I thought it was a good partnership.

Your costar Justin Roiland [Chris] is also an accomplished animator. Does it help to have a voice actor with an understanding of the overall process?

Yeah. Justin’s amazing. We talk shop all the time. And even when we’re recording, he has great feedback, and he’ll say, “Maybe we should try it this way.” He’s just great to have on board, to have his input too. He’s fantastic.

And you have a supporting cast with tons of familiar voices – Megan Mullally, John DiMaggio, Fred Armisen, Linda Cardellini. As you’re writing, do you find yourself starting to tune your characters’ voices to the comedic personas of the actors?

Yeah, definitely. That was one of the hard parts early on. The whole casting process was grueling. I kind of had an idea of what the characters sounded like, but then someone like Megan Mullally comes in and breathes life into a character. I originally wrote the mom character as barebones, June Cleaver-y. But what Megan brought was this grit, and so much charisma and energy to Rose. We had already written the first three or four episodes, and then we were like, “We got to give Rose some more stuff.”

That was the same thing with all the characters. Once the voice actors came in, they helped define so much who the characters were, and that helped out so much in the writers room. And Fred’s so good at ad-libbing and John DiMaggio – our whole cast is just great at improvising. We’ll be like, “That’s better than the stuff we spent a month writing.”

You spent over 12 years as an animator for South Park. We learned from the documentary 6 Days to Air that South Park is a pretty strenuous process. How is it different to be running your own show?

It’s a lot more stressful, but I think it’s a lot more rewarding. South Park was like a sprint. We would do a spring round of 10 weeks, with those crazy intense hours. Then in the fall, same thing. And then you’d have some breathing room in between.

But with Out There, we’re jam packed. It’s like a marathon, but we’re doing it at a sprint pace. There’s just a lot more things that I have to look at and approve and figure out. But that’s why I moved out here, so I shouldn’t bitch too much.

Trey Parker and Matt Stone are known for their discipline in story structure. Judging from the episodes I’ve seen, Out There shares that complexity in storytelling. Can you talk briefly about how you break the episodes?

We start off by bullshitting in the room. I’ve read interviews of what Paul Feig and Judd Apatow did with Freaks and Geeks – just have everyone talk about their most embarrassing moments from high school and childhood, and that gets the snowball going. And you find something like passing out in sex ed class and figure out how to build an episode around that. Other people chime in, and you start building the house of cards.

But what I learned so much from doing Out There, with the help of Tony Gama-Lobo and Rebecca May, is just tracking characters and story structure. They really helped so much. I really like to do that superfluous stuff and go off on weird tangents. We still do that a little bit. But you still have to keep track of the characters, and make sure there’s an arc to them.

And I learned a lot of that stuff at South Park too. It was amazing to see how Trey and Matt could do that in that short amount of time. The story was so important. Both of them have been such huge champions of the show. It’s been a really great process so far.

Erik Voss is a writer and performer living in Los Angeles. He hosts the Evil Blond Kid podcast and performs improv on the Harold team The Cartel at the iO West Theater.

Talking With ‘Out There’ Creator Ryan Quincy