TV

The Men Behind the Squids: Talking With ‘Squidbillies’ Creators Dave Willis and Jim Fortier

The Squidbillies creators talk about their recent DVD release, the fine art of animating the adventures of cartoon hillbillies, and their dream guest list.

Among the strange shows on Adult Swim, Squidbillies has to have possibly one of the oddest pitches to new viewers: it follows the trials, tribulations, and usually drunken exploits of the Cuyler family and their matriarch, Earl, a God-fearing, gun-toting, non-voting gentleman of southern distinction who also happens to be a green squid. Early spends most of his time attempting to get rich, outwit the law, get some lovin’ from the local ladies in this recent-ish addition to the Adult Swim lineup.

With June 21st release of the fourth season of Ozark squid comedy on DVD, we thought we’d take some time out to chat with Squidbillies creators, Dave Willis and Jim Fortier. Willis and Fortier are Adult Swim vets, working on the late night Cartoon Network schedule all the way back to the Space Ghost: Coast to Coast days, with Dave other prominent work being Aqua Teen Hunger Force (recently retitled Aqua Unit Patrol Squad 1).

MTV Geek: Between you two guys, there’s years of experience working with Adult Swim. What’s keeping 11-minute cartoons fresh and interesting for you after all this time?

Dave Willis: It’s not fresh, frankly! [laughs] What keeps it fresh? That’s a loaded question.

Geek: Well, what keeps you coming back?

DW: Let’s go back to that one.

In the case of Aqua Teen, we just changed the title of the show. That sort of freshened it up a little bit. That’s like changing the expiration date on a dozen eggs—saying that they’re fresh instead of admitting that they’re rotten.

Geek: Alright, what do you enjoy about working on your shows for Adult Swim after all this time?

Jim Fortier: I mean, we did a musical episode that’s on this DVD and it was really fun to work with other musical artists. [That] was certainly something I was very psyched about. It was kind of cool excuse to get to know a bunch of cool musicians and kind of do something different and challenging. And we cover it pretty extensively on the DVD and the episode came out pretty great.

That was one of those things where we try to get new artists to record a scene and it’s kind of a fun, stupid thing to do because no other show on TV constantly changes their theme, and their lyrics and the artist performing it. That’s certainly kind of a fun thing.

Geek: Yeah, the musical episode was actually one of my favorites from the season. How different was producing this one from your normal production process?

DW: I thought it’s way more challenging because if the joke doesn’t work in the song, you can’t just rewrite it. It’s like you’ve got to rewrite the whole structure and break it down. Like, I just cut this Lonely Island CD, Turtleneck and Chain and it’s funny. And after having made the musical, and [gone] through a lot of rewrites on it, I kind of have a new respect for people who can do the music thing and have it come out really funny. You know, when people are set up to expect this jokey song and then you can still sort of defy expectations and make ‘em laugh, that’s really challenging.

And it was really challenging for us also just to structure it and to have it make sense—and to make the visuals match what the song was doing and enhance it. It was a lot more challenging than just making a regular show. I don’t think either one of us is a Broadway fanatic by any stretch, so I don’t think it was trying to be in whatever play we wanted to be in in the 9th grade. I don’t think either one of us really care about that.

Geek: So it sounds like this was more of a one-off than something you guys will try again.

DW: [Pauses] It would kill us if we tried to do it again. It’s just the two of us and it’s sort of hard to pull it together with the small staff.

I think we should mention Shawn Coleman, the guy who did a lot of the music for us, he does all of our sound design. He did a great job sort of pulling all that stuff together.

Geek: Given the small size of your team, what’s the production timeline like—what’s the division of labor there? Who’s doing what and when?

JF: It’s sure to be a boring answer, but writing a script can take anywhere from two days to a week—usually, if we have an idea we love [it’s] the former, not the latter. We record over a couple of days. It usually takes no more than two hours per character, sometimes a lot less. Then the guys get in and do an animatic—they do an audio cut and an animatic. And generally, we try to shoot for about an eight-week edit schedule on an 11-minute show until it’s ready to be kicked out the door to animation. And while that’s going on we’re getting character designs done, getting backgrounds done. Radical Axis is our animation company and they’ve got a lot of great people. Working on Flash, working on designs, doing a lot of modifications on the characters—I told you this was boring.

DW: [Laughs]

JF: Radical has another eight to ten weeks to put the episode together. Towards the end of that, Shawn Coleman has the show for about a week or two to do his audio stuff. And that’s about it.

DW: The thing is, we don’t do storyboards or animatics like traditional animated shows. We don’t send it to Korea or overseas—it’s all done in Atlanta. A small group of people.

JF: As you can see from the credits, there aren’t a lot of people involved.

DW: It’s like a few Flash guys. It takes a while because we don’t have a warehouse of guys working on it around the clock. We have five to seven animators working around the clock.

JF: Some excellent ladies, also—animation directors and artists on the team. Yeah, it’s just Dave and I [and] we have a couple of other writers that help us out from time to time and we have between three and five editors to work with. We have three guys who are always with us and another couple of guys we lean on sometimes—it’s a small group there. And Shawn Coleman is our audio guy, and we have the Radical Axis animation director/producer. And that would entail about 15 people at the most at any given time.

It’s not like watching four minutes of credits on a half hour animated show.

Geek: Is there any kind of advantage to having a smaller team?

DW: It definitely makes the show more idiosyncratic. The more people that work on the show—maybe there’s a magic number: if you have a certain number of like-minded people, it’s only going to get better. [But] as more hands touch it, there’s a certain point where it reaches a tipping point and it gets all sweaty. And too many people are touching it and it’s watered down.

I think Conan O’Brien said something about comedy, he said something to the effect of, “The things you laugh about the hardest are maybe not the best things but they’re the most revealing of who you are.” People that love our show are crazy about it. And certain people that don’t like it—well, I don’t know if they’re going to like it if we add three more writers. [Laughs] It’s a distinct point of view.

JF: We have a great situation here where we’re not being lorded over every minute of the day, so that’s an advantage from a working/creative standpoint. And that’s something you don’t get everywhere you go, at least as far as I hear. So we like that.

But it can be stressful, because there’s a schedule you’ve got to hit, and you’ve got one or two other writers you can lean on. And Dave and I also produce the show, direct all of the voiceover, pretty much approve all of the backgrounds. We’d doing it all and it’s great because you don’t get as bored as you might when you’re just doing one thing all day. But it all kind of rests on your shoulders which is good and bad, depending on what day you catch us on.

And Dave’s doing that whole thing for a whole other series, so he has more handfuls of hair being pulled out.

DW: Exciting and funny hair. Hair we enjoy pulling out.

JF: Ronald McDonald hair. Thrilling.

DW: Yeah.

JF: Comedy hair.

DW: Comedy hair.

JF: Charles, wake up!

DW: He’s writing it all down. He’s writing it down on a tiny little post-it note.

JF: “I need milk, I need bread—what the hell am I doing here?”

Geek: Since you’re running the whole show, how difficult is it for you to drag in additional voice actors and musical guests? Do you have a process for that? Or is it just catch as catch can?
DW: It’s weird. It all sort of feeds together. Like T-Pain is a huge Adult Swim fan and he lives [laughs] down the road a piece. No, he lives up in Cobb County or something. But he’s going to be in an episode this season and it was one of those things where someone knew him in the building and he’s a huge Adult Swim fan. So we just called his people and were like, “Yeah, alright, come on in!”

Weird stuff like that happens all the time. We’re sweeten[ing] the show right next door to Mastodon recording their new album, and we just dragged them down the hall to do a voice for Aqua Teen. There’s a lot of that in the creative community—people know other people and you ask somebody, “Hey, do you think you could get so and so to do a voice for us?” And we send Melissa Warrenberg, our line producer out [and she] contacts these people and says, “Would you like to be a squid in a cartoon?”

JF: No! [laughs]

DW: Ha, yeah. You’d be surprised for how many people that’s an aphrodisiac. You’d be surprised how many people wouldn’t mind being in a cartoon.

We just had George Jones—George “No Show” Jones, “The Possum,” country music legend and now Squidbillies theme song recorder. Here’s an 80-year-old man recording a song for us. It’s crazy.

Geek: Do either of you have a dream guest for the show?

DW: Big Time Rush. [laughs]

JF: That was really quick.

DW: I’m looking at the MTV Geek site and it says Big Time Rush is doing a comic book. I’m gonna forward that to my five-year-old daughter’s Twitter account. She’s gonna go bananas.

JF: George Jones was an idea that you had bouncing around in your head so that was a realized thing.

DW: It’s kind of nice to uncover all of these 70’s and 80’s redneck kind of [stars]. From growing up in the South, Kenny Rogers, Burt Reynolds—I mean, they’d be on the short list. Merle Haggard. Hank Williams III recording a theme.

JF: Charlie Daniels would be great. Willie Nelson would be great. I mean, it’s got to fit what we’re doing, but we’ve asked a few people who weren’t interested for whatever reason.

Who could imagine? Talking squids… not appealing to them.

Geek: What are you most excited about for the coming season?

JF: It’s hard to say. I think the episodes are really good. I can’t remember any of them.

DW: [laughs]

JF: We’ve got Elizabeth Cook as a guest. We got Jesco White to come back and play Early’s dad again. I think there’s a solid batch of ten—they come out in September. We’ve got the DVD which just came out. We’ve got some good shows on that one as well.

DW: Are you familiar with Jesco White?

Geek: The name sounds familiar.

DW: Look up “The Dancing Outlaw.” There’s a documentary that came out in the late 80’s or very early 90’s in West Virginia. And it’s just this crazy guy who huffs gas and dances on cardboard on the side of the interstate.

Geek: Isn’t there a movie about him that just came out recently?

DW: The Jackass guys did something—The Wild and Wonderful Life of the Whites. [Ed. There were two: the feature film, White Lightning and a new documentary called The Wild and Wonderful Whites of West Virginia].

It’s kind of tragic and a little depressing, but the original is very funny. And we used to steal lines from that and put them in Space Ghost scripts back in the 90’s—like that’s how far back we’ve been following this hillbilly’s career. “Career” if you [could] call it that.

We’ve had him come into town and do the voice of Early’s father a couple of times and he’s great. He’s dyed in the wool. It’s like, you hear so many redneck accents [from actors] and they’re trying to do something and it’s all fake. I just saw Cars 2 and Larry the freakin’ Cable Guy is all over that he’s from—where’s he from?

Geek: He’s from the Midwest, right?

DW: He’s from France or something? [laughs]

JF: He’s from Nebraska or something?

DW: He’s definitely not from the South.

But we just tried to bring what we know and love into play.

Geek: Anything you’d like to say to fans of your show? Besides “watch the show?”

JF: “Thank you.” Please buy [the] DVD. Watch the new episodes in September and thanks to all 12 of you for following us.

DW: The DVD is great. It has a ton of special features and stuff. A lot of time and a lot of effort got put into that stuff. So don’t steal it, just—if you’re gonna steal it, make sure you get some of the special features too. Because those are also worthwhile. Just make sure that one person buys it, so that he can put it up on BitTorrent.

No, I mean the DVD’s great. We’re really proud of the upcoming season of episodes and think they’re going to be great.

The Squidbillies season 4 DVD is out now and season 5 will be airing on Adult Swim starting in September.

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