The Ever-Expanding World of ‘China, IL’

Season 3 of Adult Swim’s China, IL premieres Sunday, April 5th at 11:30 p.m and according to the show’s creator, Brad Neely, this season marks the first time that the creative team has truly felt both comfortable and in control. In addition to China, IL, Neely is also known for Wizard People, Dear Reader – his alternative audio accompaniment to Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone – along with consulting work on South Park and his unique blend of art, music and video shorts on I talked to Neely (and China, IL Executive Producer Daniel Weidenfeld) about the show, the humor of history and the blurry lines of copyright infringement.

How’s it going?

Brad Neely: Really, really well. I just ate two chicken sandwiches back-to-back.

From where?

BN: Chik-fil-A. I’m trying to be good, so I got the grilled kind.

How do you feel about their politics?

BN: Well, you know, I never mix politics and diet.

Good policy. Season 3 of China, IL premieres Sunday, April 5th on Adult Swim. That’s a nice Easter present. Any Easter eggs hidden in the premiere?

BN: Yeah, we have Easter eggs all throughout. We love to hide little things. There’s the Rainbow Rat. If you can find the Rainbow Rat, you get a really big prize. But you have to come and tell me about it at this Chik-fil-A down the street.

A lot of people felt that Season 2 was very different from Season 1, not just in the length, but also in the storytelling. Most fans felt that it hit its stride in Season 2. What kind of changes are in store for Season 3?

BN: We too thought that Season 1 sucked (laughs). When you try to cram a 22 minute show into 11 minutes… in Season 2 we were given the appropriate amount of time. In Season 3 we’re just really starting to feel like we’re in control of that amount of time even more. We’re not slaves to the standard A, B, C storytelling. We really have fun with the format and structure. Some stories are just one person talking this season. At the end, we have a two-part musical that’s like an hour special. We’re a lot more comfortable this season.

So much of your work is of a musical nature. Did you used to play in bands?

BN: So many. It’s an epidemic in America. Young, white men forcing their girlfriends to come watch their terrible bands as they age. I did that for a long time. Finally, I found a place to dump all of that interest: in cartoons.

You have some pretty impressive cast members in the show with Hulk Hogan, Jeffrey Tambor, Jason Alexander. How do you go about pitching people of that caliber on a very surreal, bizarre animated show?

BN: Well, you get a box and prop it up with a stick, then tie a string around the stick. For each of these people you have to put something special in there. Like for Hulk Hogan, we just put a crate of 5 Hour Energy drinks in and snagged his ass. Anyway, for each one it was kind of a surprise. My Executive Producer Daniel Weidenfeld – he’s in the room – has always been really good at not feeling shy about the prettiest girl in the room to dance. What’s the worst thing they can do, say no? Sometimes they’ll surprise you. Maybe they’re bored. Maybe they’re looking for a shakeup. In the case of Hulk Hogan, he was just like, “Why not?” Jeffrey Tambor, “Why not?” We got a lot of people this season that we’re excited about: Kate McKinnon from Saturday Night Live; Hannibal Buress is back; we used Cat Power for the music; we’ve always had Chelsea Peretti, who’s great. We’re really excited to keep pushing with the casting.

The universe of China, IL is really deep in terms of characters. What’s the writing process like when trying to keep everything straight?

BN: It’s crazy. I think we have like, 700 named and designed characters now. I’m lucky enough whenever we’re writing to have the freedom to start from zero every time. Of course, we have our core characters with Frank, Baby Cakes, Steve, Pony, and The Dean. We want to pay in to those characters and grow them, but it’s always fun to just think, “What if we had this big, fat, two foot tall lump of flesh with a big mouth full of soft teeth and say it’s Donald Trump’s kid? Let’s try that out.” We swing for the fences on the ‘this won’t work’ stuff. Whenever you think, “This won’t work,” for me, that’s usually a good sign.

Daniel Weidenfeld: One of the best parts of the show is that Brad does three voices. We can take ideas out for a ride and see what works in the room. Whatever people respond to… Brad is such a versatile voice actor and artist. He’ll draw something on the board and do a voice for it and that’s how we come up with up an idea like Donald Trump’s kid, or some of these other very weird things that we’re going to do over the season. If people in the room respond to it and everybody’s laughing, we know we’ve found something.

BN: The truth is, I have a lot of suckiness about myself and unlike a lot of other shows, we like to make fun of us. We like to make fun of me. What do I do that sucks? What are my personality problems? Then we dramatize it in a silly, cartoonish fashion. Daniel helps me exploit those suckinesses.

Often, as shows progress into multiple seasons, you get extra help from the network in terms of finances and technical upgrades. Have you been able to expand what you want to do with the show creatively thanks to its success so far?

BN: Oh my god, that’s a dangerous question to ask. It boils down to, “Do you feel supported by this network?” I always feel like, creatively, this network has my back. They’re really good at realizing what I’m trying to say and helping me say it in the clearest fashion. From the very beginning, I’ve been lucky on the creative side of this whole relationship. As we keep going, we know more about our characters and they know more about our characters and sometimes they’re able to tell us, “That doesn’t seem like a thing Baby Cakes would do.” And we say, “Ok, cool.”

DW: Our biggest hurdle is making sure that people know we’re on the air again.

There are always die hard fans that will find the show wherever you put it. But how do you attract new viewers?

BN: Hopefully with getting people like Donald Glover on the show, Ike Barenholtz, Kate McKinnon, those types of names, fans of their other work will be interested. Also, word of mouth. Hopefully people are still talking to each other in places like colleges. That’s where I imagine the show is being watched, but sometimes my imagination is…

DW: If you have any ideas, we’re open.

How about your interest with history, especially historical icons and rewriting their stories? What’s your personal fascination with history, presidents and war?

BN: That’s not unusual. I feel like history is just extended memory. I like America. I think it’s a cool place. I’ve been watching a lot of History Channel. History Channel has become an obsession for Frank on the show. He wants to get a show on the channel. But I really don’t know. I know my wife would love to know the answer. I don’t have a lot of hobbies, other than the History Channel.

I might not have phrased the question well. What I was meaning was more along the lines of what do you find funny about history? Why is that subject fertile ground for you, creatively? For instance, bringing Ronald Reagan to life again through the cartoon, or the George Washington rap.

BN: The supposed objectivity of history is laughable. Everybody always tells it as if they were there and there’s a complete ledger, as if the minutes were taken. There’s so much speculation. That’s where comedy comes in for me. I like flawed narrators. I like people who think they’re authorities, when it’s very clear that they are lacking. I like people who think they’re qualified to teach, but don’t have all of the answers. History has always been like that since day one.

When did you create the George Washington rap?

BN: 2003, I think.

I still see that video being posted on Presidents’ Day. How does it feel to have created something that, for some people, is connected in a weird way to history?

BN: That gives me a lot of pleasure. I’m able to do something that doesn’t fade. We try to tell stories that are more universal than topical. I really like topical stuff, like South Park and SNL, but from the get-go we’ve tried to make our content the type that you could watch tomorrow, or ten years from now, and it would still be relevant. I’m glad that Washington still works. That recipe that I had back then is still what I’m creating from today.

Let’s talk about inspiration, borrowing and downright stealing for the sake of art. A big story right now is the Marvin Gaye vs. Blurred Lines lawsuit. In your art – from your use of historical characters, to the the use of Harry Potter for Wizard People, Dear Reader – where do you draw the line between inspiration and actual theft?

BN: That’s tough. I feel like it’s a case-by-case thing. I don’t want to weigh in too much on the Marvin Gaye stuff other than saying that I’ve always been a big Marvin Gaye fan and when I heard that song I said, “That is Marvin Gaye.”

DW: As a testament to Brad as a musician, when he heard that song he said, “That’s a ripoff.” A year ago, when he heard that Sam Smith song, he said, “That’s a Tom Petty song.”

BN: I really think it comes down to if you’re doing satire or parody… if your intention is comedy, like SNL does, or Weird Al Yankovic, as long as the comedy is built into it, I’m comfortable with it. That’s why I felt comfortable with Wizard People, along with the fact that I was a cashier and didn’t think I would be making millions of dollars like Pharrell or something. It was a free thing I did in my downtime. I was like, “Nobody is going to get mad,” but, SURPRISE, they did. I think the comedy angle is what keeps it safe. It’s like the press: you’re commenting on something. It’s a way of being critical, rather than doing the same thing, just in a slightly different way.

The Ever-Expanding World of ‘China, IL’