Tomorrow night on Comedy Central, as South Park’s end credits fade out, one of the most foolish things you could do is not watch what comes on next. Scott Gairdner’s (Funny or Die, Late Night With Conan O’Brien) Moonbeam City is a neon-soaked dose of animated madness that feels like the love child of Archer and Major Lazer. The ‘80s-adoring, synth-embracing cop show stars Rob Lowe as Dazzle Novak, Will Forte as Rad Cunningham, and Elizabeth Banks as Pizzaz Miller, and that’s the most normal thing about it. I talked with series creator, Scott Gairdner, on his inspirations for the show and what to expect this season from Comedy Central’s new animated series.
This is such a unique, stylized show. Did you have a long history of trying to move it forward, or was Comedy Central receptive right from the start?
It was sort of a slow development process, but they’ve been a part of it from pretty early on. Right away they were the network that responded to it the most. We had the characters, the world, the style, and we knew we wanted to do a hyper, neon, sexed-up ‘80s adventure. So we knew all of that, but when we came to Comedy Central initially, it was a whole other idea that we had. It was actually more of a sexy primetime soap opera, kind of like Melrose Place. It was kind of more analogous to the look which we had picked out for it. So it was actually about models and photographers and stuff, and Comedy Central responded to the idea and the area in general, but talking about models and photographers they said, “Keep in mind that this network is watched by young dudes. So if you would like to go away and think about what that means for a while and come back to us, we’re happy to hear you talk about it again.” So we went off and thought for a while, and Richie Schwartz of the company Olive Bridge who’s our executive producer who got it into development said, “Why not give them guns?” That’s how it is for dudes. “Give them guns! Make them cops.”
The Miami Vice influence has always been in there. So that’s what we did and that saved the entire thing. I realized, man, I actually don’t have any ideas for photographers and models, but I’ve got a lot of ideas for cops. It’s funny, it was kind of like a preview of how the relationship with Comedy Central’s been, where they give you just these solid nudges in the right direction but it’s up to you to figure out how to do it, which is very nice. It’s not like you’re handcuffed to them or particular changes on their agenda. They really empower you to figure out your own solutions to things, and it’s been a great way to work.
Was the model show still called Moonbeam City, or was there a different title?
It was called Glamour Now, back then. Which is still a phrase that I like. But yeah, it kind of taught me that in development that you can’t go into situations with a full idea of exactly what the show is, or with an attitude that if they have this idea that’s counter to my idea, then I’m walking and you don’t get my show! The whole experience definitely taught me that it’s a conversation and they need to be a part of it. In this case I was so glad that they had had that idea to change it, and that Richie our producer had that idea. It’s been really fun getting the ball rolling, but then watching how not just producers, but also animators, writers, and our showrunner have really evolved and changed it. It’s super fun.
To go off of that point, cop shows and decade pastiches have been done to death, but yours still feels distinctly different and exciting. For instance, I love that the cops seem to be more of an actual problem for Moonbeam City than the street thugs and gangsters are. Are you a big genre guy? Do you prefer to be taking a broad structure like this and subverting it in the end?
You know, I really admired Eagleheart.
Eagleheart’s the greatest. And you can sort of see its imprint here.
It’s so good. Andrew Weinberg, who created that show, and Michael Koman also worked on Moonbeam City. I really liked that show because it sort of showed how you could do something that’s a pastiche and took a starting point like Walker, Texas Ranger in their case, and cop shows in our case. Like you said, it’s the starting point, but then you slowly warp your show into its own thing. I think parody can be sort of limiting, and we really just wanted this look and feel to be the starting point to go to all of these crazy places. To not be handcuffed to, “Boy, this kind of bad show sure does this kind of bad thing, don’t they?” And it’s worse that that’s what parody or spoof is, but nevertheless I’m still a huge Naked Gun fan and wanted it to feel like that, too. Just silly, lightweight, and fun.
Along those lines would you ever want to do something as ambitious as Eagleheart’s final season [Paradise Rising] and telling a larger, more connected sort of story?
Oh boy, I’m a giant fan of the final season of Eagleheart. That was so crazy impressive, and quite an experience. I think that eventually we might. I’m curious, if we get to do more of the show, where it’ll end up going. It seems like in the first season it was nice to just do one-offs and just to learn the world more, but you’ll see that there’s thematic elements that run from episode to episode, and as we think about season two, hopefully you’ll see more plot elements carry over. The big thing that I’m proud about throughout the season is the arc of Rad Cunningham, Will Forte’s character. In his first appearance or two, he seems like kind of maybe a one-note clichéd bully type character.
Just this giant selfish baby.
Yeah, yeah. Not unlike the Karate Kid or Val Kilmer in Top Gun, but as the season goes on you watch this guy just break apart. He’s just a shell of a person who’s very sad and scruffled and goes so far out of his way to puff himself up and make himself look like he’s confident when he’s just a very disturbed child inside. I’m excited for people to sort of see how the arc of Rad Cunningham plays out. The very sad, upsetting arc of Rad Cunningham.
That’s very exciting. So I guess in that sense you are kind of interested in fleshing Moonbeam City out more and showing more of the sub-structures within it, turning it into more of a Springfield or South Park in terms of its scope?
Oh absolutely. The Simpsons and South Park are obviously two of my favorite things in the world. What’s so great about those shows is that they are worlds that you get to explore, and you can branch out from the main characters and explore all of these different worlds from within the city. In our first season we tried to do that. You meet a lot of people. You go into a lot of different subsets of Moonbeam City culture. You meet the mob, you meet drug dealers, you meet gangs, you meet evil dolphin racetrack owners, you go into high-security prisons, and into the world of kids’ stunt shows at Mooniversal Studios. Each episode is already a different little world that you get to explore with the wraparounds of the Moonbeam City police.
That’s very true. With you pulling from this ‘80s mentality and riffing on so much of that, do you have a favorite bad ‘80s movie that people need to immediately track down and watch?
Ohh, that’s a good question…
Or, “We need to do a this episode.”
Let me see. I don’t want to miss the good ones…I’m definitely a huge Knight Rider fan in particular. I saw that it was on Netflix and thought, ah that might be a sort of hacky thing to get into with the Hasselhoff machismo and a talking car, but I’ve come to just get really wrapped up in the silly, dull, cheaply-filmed-in-North-Hollywood aesthetic of that show. He definitely gave these vacant stares that became Hasselhoff’s thing. That was definitely an influence on Dazzle. I actually just saw a screenshot of “the stare” on my computer and then I looked at Dazzle next to it and went, oh yes, clearly there’s an influence there. It’s like those Hasselhoff eyes are copy and pasted onto Dazzle.
I will say, we do an episode that’s about virtual reality and kind of a scary, CGI escape, not unlike Lawnmower Man or Disclosure with Michael Douglas. Actually Disclosure in general is a pretty big influence on Moonbeam City. Just the slapping, and the shadows, and the gritty melodrama of it. Also, in researching that area of virtual reality movies, I became pretty enamored with the movie Freejack, with Mick Jagger and Emilio Estevez, and if you watch what I believe will be our ninth episode, “The Legend of Serpent Lake”, well if you’re a Freejack fan…
It’s finally going to pay off.
If you’re a Freejack fan and you read Splitsider, boy you are really going to be in for a treat with the “Legend of Serpent Lake.” Yeah, Freejack is kind of a masterpiece.
Every character in Moonbeam City pretty much has the best name that’s ever been created. Do you have a giant list of ridiculous names that you’re constantly pulling from, or do you come up with them on the fly when you’re writing?
That actually was kind of a little warm-up exercise in preparing for the show. I would just write a page of any possible word that could be a name. We didn’t limit our writers to that, but a lot of great names came out of that area. I can’t take credit for Flux Nicholson, which is one of my favorites.
’Stereo Campari’ just works!
Also a Ryan Perez. He really played the Moonbeam City name game very well. The show is paying tribute to this area, which I am very passionate about, which is sort of malls, hotel bars, and theme parks that haven’t changed since the early-to-mid ‘80s. So a lot of these names are like, “What would a hotel revolving restaurant be called in 1982?” You’ve got ‘Odyssey’, and ‘Vista’, and just this sparkly, trendy yuppie veneer of these places and I love that they still exist today. You can go to them and it’s like stepping into a time machine. But there is this massive list of names out there. The way I described the name formula was to take a perfunctory boring last name and attach it to a first name that a twelve-year-old girl would name her horse. If you can get that right, the rest is easy.
You’ve assembled a murderers’ row of voice talent between Rob Lowe, Will Forte, Elizabeth Banks, and everyone else. How did all of these people come to join the show? Were they your casting choices, or were they just attracted to the project?
They’re definitely all names that I thought of and hoped to get in a perfect world, and I guess it’s a perfect world because they all said “yes.” It’s truly a cast of first choices, which really surprised me. Every one of them I was like, “Well that’ll be a fun ‘no’ to get,” but they were all on board, the first of which was Rob Lowe, who I just thought would be such a perfect centerpiece.
He’s so good in this. He’s perfect.
Yeah. He completely nails the tone. I always like actors and voices that are just gentlemen with perfect diction. I feel like I know how to write for that voice really well, so getting Rob Lowe for that is a dream. Even the guest voices, we got John O’Hurley from Seinfeld, who also does the voiceover in our ads. I did a Funny or Die video with him a few years ago and he was just a dream to work for, so we wrote this role with him in mind. Adam West too, who I feel like kind of invented this style of playing a straight, handsome leading man. So to get him to play Dazzle’s father was amazing. He just opened up this area that so many people play in now.
We’ve been very lucky. Crazy guests, too! As a big comedy nerd and fan, I try to cast people that I really admire when it’s appropriate, so getting to throw out a name like Catherine O’Hara, and actually getting her was insane. Kevin MacDonald too, who’s my favorite Kid in the Hall. I was honored to have him. I specifically liked the way Kevin McDonald played harumphy women so much on Kids in the Hall. My wife and I have used the phrase “That’s a Kevin McDonald woman” for a long time. Just this super doughty, straight out of a ‘20s movie, sort of proper lady. He played a dual role for us doing this husband and wife, and getting to write a Kevin McDonald lady that was played by Kevin McDonald was a huge honor.
The music in the series is phenomenal too, can you talk about that at all? The name of the group is Night Club, right?
Yeah, Night Club, which is actually Mark Brooks, who directed six of our episodes including the pilot. I went into Titmouse – we interviewed a number of animation studios – but I was the most excited about Titmouse because of Metalocalypse, Black Dynamite, and China, Il, and a lot of what they’ve done. It just felt like a perfect fit. It was so calm and casual there. It almost felt like a relaxed film school-esque environment, and that’s how it’s been ever since.
In that first meeting I was introduced to Mark Brooks, and Chris Prynoski who’s head of Titmouse, said, “You should meet this guy, he makes exactly the sort of music that you want for the show.” He handed me a sticker for their band, and it was neon-pink on black, which is exactly the color scheme that we wanted to use. So we checked them out, and they’re this duo, Mark and Emily Kavanaugh, who are these really talented musicians. So it’s been really cool to have this one-stop shop where the director is also making all of the music, so you have a real tonal continuity – to use a really gross, pretentious term – but it’s just been so cool and he’s just such a student of music. He can nail any genre.
I’m a big music fan and an ‘80s geek, too, and you don’t just want stuff to feel generic like, “Oh, there’s the keyboard!” There are just so many subsets to play with. A Duran Duran-type track is different from doing a Gary Newman-type track, which is different than ‘80s industrial or a flesh theme. We were definitely very influenced by The Cars, so it was nice to work with somebody who understood those nuances, and like you said earlier, with ‘80s stuff you don’t want it to be generic. It needs specificity and it needs to be really fucking cool. And Night Club is really fucking cool and they make great music. The song “Aquatica” in one episode is something I’m incredibly proud of. It’s one of my favorite things from the season. Yeah, “Aquatica” is a real auditory journey.
You see that same signer pop up in each episode. It almost feels like the show has its own in-universe band. Was this a concept that you always envisioned for the show, or did it slowly become apart of the series’ DNA?
There are actually a few musical acts rotating through the world of the show’s music. The same band that does “Aquatica” I think pops up in a later episode. I did know that I wanted to incorporate music into the show big time. The show definitely came out of a sensibility I tried to have in the sketches I made for YouTube or Funny or Die, and I feel that really stupid songs went over really well, and really specific pastiches always turned out strong. Songs are just so fun to do. If you can pull them off, man…A song that you’re finishing and watching, and going, “Man, this is so stupid!” That’s the money thing.
I mean you have he production behind it to pull it off. I think it really sets the show apart. Major Lazer, have you seen any of that?
It’s very different, but it has songs like that coursing through it and it becomes such a different entity. It’s so fascinating to watch something like that because it hits you in a much more powerful way.
It definitely makes moments feel bigger than they might be, and conveniently it turns into a case of less writing and more performance. This show is kind of doing movie plots every week, so we want them to feel stupidly huge and music really helps us achieve that. There’s this one little line that kind of accentuates a lot of solemn Dazzle speeches, and there’s been a ton of moments where we’re like, “Hey, this is running a little slow, why don’t we try putting some music in?” And you find yourself just laughing because it juxtaposes these ideas. Taking something like solemn, stupid thoughts and using angsty music to reinforce it. I’m also a big Jetsons: The Movie a fan, and that’s an influence here, too. There’s something aesthetically about that movie, and there’s music in that that’s just super dopey and fun.
Finally, this does take place on the moon, right? I guess you don’t have to answer that if you don’t want to, but if it does, I think it’s kind of great that you could have something that’s ostensibly set off of Earth and yet you don’t tell any stories about space or space travel. I think that’s very cool and you don’t see very much of that…if it’s on the moon.
That’s a good question. You know, I haven’t thought about that and I wouldn’t rule out the possibility that it’s not on the Earth. It’s definitely its own universe. We really wanted to do a show where we don’t get to make pop culture references, except for songs referencing certain styles or that person is supposed to represent that celebrity, but you can’t get a laugh where you reference some old movie by name because it doesn’t exist in our world. It’s sort of this alternate dimension – it’s the future of the ‘80s. If the sort of forward-thinking aesthetic in Tron and Blade Runner, and the ‘80s Tomorrowland in Disneyland and the Epcot Center, if that experience overcame the world and if that actually was our future – which is what I wish every day when I work on this show.
I can’t manipulate the world and make everything scary, and steel, and angular, and full of neon, but I can make this show at least. But to answer your question, it very well could be the moon. It’s definitely its own universe. We’ve also started – there’s a country they go to called Krakmoonistan. Or we were talking about a time where we did have to make a pop culture reference, but said, “What if we just make it Phillip Seymour Hoffmoon?” That’s how we change things for our universe. We just jam the word “moon” in there.
People are going to start connecting the dots. What else are they going to think when you’re constantly moon-ifying words! Even their pallid complexion makes it seem like they’re on the moon without the same access to the sun.
That’s a good point. Another aspect is that in the Moonbeam City universe everything is powered by laser, which is mined from the ground instead of oil. Raw, crude, laser takes the place of oil, and I think the constant laser radiation bubbling up from the ground might have something to do with the pale skin, but I don’t know. I don’t want to impose my opinions down here. I appreciate that one though. It’s up to the viewer really where it’s set and how the universe works.
Moonbeam City premieres on Comedy Central September 16th at 10:30pm, after South Park.