Imagine a world where your girlfriend/boss was a sexy demon who shoots fire out of her huge boobs. Then, add in a zombie roommate who’s obsessed with chasing live tail and harbors a deep compulsion to eat your flesh, a wizard co-worker who gets hammered often and works very little, another demon superior who’s Dwayne Johnson-diesel, and an office full of creatures such as a fish-headed man and a timid koala with the body of a dude, minus any genitalia. Oh, and you’re a powerless human, by the way. Sounds pretty creepy, right?
On the contrary, it’s actually hilarious, a land where droll humor pervades and horror mythology gets turned on its head with every punchline and visual gag. It’s also the set-up behind Ugly Americans, the funniest animated show to hit Comedy Central in quite some time. With its second season premiere airing tonight at 10:30 pm EST, the half-hour genre mash-up is looking to gain a much wider fan base, coming off of a successful first season that earned the show a loyal, though not Cartman-sized, following.
Ugly Americans centers on Mark Lilly, an average Joe who lives in New York City populated largely by various monsters, all of which go about their daily lives like you or I, though with tentacles or some other kind of grotesque deformities. Mark works at the Department of Integration, where he’s tasked with helping law-breaking creatures slow their roll and become normal, unproblematic citizens.
Animated in a stark style that recalls the old EC Comics of the 1950s (Tales From The Crypt, Vault Of Horror), it is a truly bizarre, and really damn funny, cartoon oddity. Needless to say, we’re big fans over here at Complex. We recently caught up with creator Devin Clark and executive producer Daniel Powell to talk about the show’s origins, its comic book roots, why anyone who’s ever been intimidated by in-laws or woke up with a mean hangover can relate to it, and what’s in store for the new season.
Complex: Ugly Americans doesn’t seem like an easy show to sell. Are you guys at all surprised that it’s made it to a second season?
Devin Clark: I don’t know, really. You always have to manage your expectations, and we were obviously hoping that we could come back and stick around for a while. But, you’re right, it is a unique show. We really have to thank Comedy Central for having the patience to stick with us as we find an audience. I think we’ve slowly been building equity with some fans.
Daniel Powell: For me, it was a little surprising, actually, because the show is so far out there. But, at the same time, it feels like there’s this growing emergence of appreciation for horror and this kind of “geek” culture. It’s pervading pop culture a lot more than it used to, so I felt like we were in the right place at the right time with a show like this. Everyone has an awareness of werewolves, vampires, and demons now; it seems like we’re at the perfect time to poke fun at the whole horror world. It worked out for us, and I’m psyched to keep making more episodes.
Are you both lifelong horror fans?
Devin Clark: Yeah, for sure. I grew up reading comic books—the first written stuff I ever read was comic books, even before I started reading books and what not. I was a visual kid, and I’m still a huge horror fan. This show allows me to combine three of my favorite things—animation, horror, and comedy—into one thing, and it’s kind of like a dream come true. It’s phenomenal.
Daniel Powell: I was a big collector, but it was more about superhero books, and sci-fi/fantasy stuff. That’s where my interests come from, but obviously Devin being the aesthetic voice of the show makes it more important for him to have the deeper comic book background than me. My nerdy side is just an added bonus. [Laughs.]
Devin Clark: The monsters live in my brain! [Laughs.]
Which comic books did you collect as a kid, Devin?
Devin Clark: You know, it’s funny, I never really got into the superhero stuff; I was always drawn to the weirder, more bizarre stuff. My mom was actually a comic book collector, and I found her secret stash of ’70s underground comic books when I was probably too young to be looking at them. I just got turned on by the whole R. Crumb, gritty, weird, underground stuff, and that influenced what kinds of comics I read later as an adult.
I really got into the indie titles, like the old black-and-white stuff rather than the superhero books. I was reading TMNT and Cerebus The Aardvark. A lot of the Manga that was coming in at the time, which was weird and far out, not like the stuff we’re getting now. I also really got into the old E.C. Comics horror stuff. For me, it was more about that gritty aesthetic that I was drawn to in comics.
The first season DVD has some very E.C.-inspired cover art, actually.
Daniel Powell: Yeah, it was really cool that Comedy Central let us do that, because, normally, their packaging has a very specific look. We wanted to go in a different direction and they were very cool with it.
Did the powers that be at Comedy Central jump onto the show’s concept immediately, or was it a tough project to get made?
Devin Clark: [Laughs.] I would say that it was not easy. I pitched the show to Dan, actually, when he was an executive in development at Comedy Central. I pitched it as a web show, a short-form kind of “man on the streets” interview show, and I pitched it with a comic. I had drawn all these panels, where each panel had a creature within the panel and, like, eight robots in one panel sitting around and talking about these esoteric topics.
So that alone was a tough sell. I think it took about a year to get that picked up by the head muckety-mucks at Comedy Central, even to get them to let us do a web show. Dan really did a phenomenal job of moving internally and pushing for the show. We got to do six episodes of that, which was called 5 On, through Atom Films, with a really funny crew of writers and voice actors, including Nick Kroll, John Mulaney, and Pete Holmes. That show and that idea of creatures treated as normal citizens was the seed of the Ugly Americans premise, which then took about another year after 5 On came out to work into a pilot. So, it’s been a while. [Laughs.] It’s been a four-year process.
Dan, when he first presented the idea to you, did you immediately get excited?
It was just a matter of convincing my superiors internally that it was a viable idea. Fortunately, at the time, Futurama had just been brought to Comedy Central as an acquisition, before they started doing original episodes on the network. And it was doing really well in repeat blocks, so I was looking for something that could potentially be a companion to Futurama repeats; Ugly Americans seemed like it could be a good horror companion to the sci-fi world of Futurama. In the amount of time it took, the syndicated Futurama episodes ran their course, but fortunately the show was picked up for new original episodes.
It’s funny, because when Ugly Americans first launched, we launched behind South Park, but now, with the coming episodes that we’re about to air, we’re actually behind new episodes of Futurama. So the whole idea has come full circle from when I first pitched it.
The genre worlds of horror and fantasy have so many monsters and character types to choose from, and Ugly Americans has an insane amount of diverse characters. How’d you go about deciding which monsters to develop main characters from and which to only use as bit players?
Devin Clark: Well, certain things were dictated by the type of character we wanted. Like, a deadbeat roommate as a zombie is a really easy sell—that makes perfect sense. And a hot girlfriend who’s also a little maniacal and evil and probably the last girl you should be dating, clearly that should be a demon. So certain ones fell right into place and made a lot of sense.
There’s nothing funnier than a drunken wizard. [Laughs.] They embody this ultimate power, but this guy [Leonard Powers] is just pleasantly cynical and a total alcoholic who avoids works. So the funny coupling between the potential these characters have on a fantasy level and what they actually are as personalities is what drives the show, I think. The head muckety-muck of the DOI (Department of Integration), Twain, is this total bumbling boob, but he’s also this really terrifying demon.
I think we just try to find characters and monsters that could play off of their own personalities, going off from their weird little foibles and human qualities, and also their genre-specific traits. Just having been a nerd and total geek my whole life, it’s the coolest thing to work on. My first job was at a comic book shop; I’ve absorbed a ridiculous amount of mythology and monsters from comic books to role-playing games, as well as movies and TV, so I think they all kind of exist to some degree in my brain and seep out into the designs when we start figuring out the characters for the episodes.
And, also, we get to create new creatures, so that’s a lot of fun for me, to be able to come up with these new devices and mutants, like our man-birds and our guy with the hand-head. I love it; I got into the show just to do character design, and I still get to do it.
Who can forget the girl from the first season with no head and eleven boobs covering her upper body?
Devin Clark: [Laughs.] Totally, right. Every man’s perfect dream lady: no head and a ton of boobs!
It seems like you guys have free reign to be as wild and inventive with the show as possible. Do you make sure to keep some kind of filter on it while dreaming up the characters and bizarre set-ups?
Daniel Powell: Yeah, we want to keep the show grounded to some extent, in terms of the characters’ experiences; it can’t just be complete unfiltered insanity, otherwise the audience wouldn’t have anything to hang their hats on. There has to be an emphasis on relatable themes. One of the things I love in the pilot episode is when Mark goes down to hell to meet his girlfriend’s father for the first time it’s that stressful experience, but with the added obvious metaphor of literally going into hell to meet his girlfriend’s father, who’s basically like the devil incarnate.
Obviously, it’s a very weird situation, but I think the core of it remains: meeting your girlfriend’s father. How intimidating that can be is a very relatable theme. So we try to keep some semblance of our character actions and themes very grounded, so it’s not just unfiltered insanity.
Devin Clark: Yeah, and it’s a tricky line to balance, because the show is so crazy with the wide variety of creatures that are involved. We’re always straddling this line of utter insanity while trying to make it relatable enough to the audience so they don’t think they’re having some kind of acid flashback fever dream. [Laughs.] We’re always balancing those lines. And we want some level of sincerity, too; we don’t want to sell out our characters. We want them to care about each other and be likable. Not everything can be cynical and sort of devoid of any emotional impact, but we have to balance that with the inherent weirdness of the world, and that’s fun.
When you guys sat down to map out this second season, did you look back at last season and find things you wanted to improve upon?
Devin Clark: Well, we knew that the audience was already on board with us, and understood the premise going into the second season, so we didn’t feel like we needed to go through the same formula, where we introduce the monster-of-the-week, have Grimes arrest it, and then throw it into Mark’s lap to deal with the responsibility of trying to integrate this creature.
People already get the idea of what we’re trying to do with the DOI, so I think we just wanted to take the opportunity to explore the background and quirks of our six main characters. So we delve a little deeper into Callie’s relationship with her dad and the pressure to take over the business. We deal with Mark’s weird obsession with needing to fix people, and why he is with Callie. Does he only date women who are broken? This season, we dig into the characters’ backgrounds a lot more.
Tonight’s season premiere, “Wet Hot Demonic Summer”, gives some background about Leonard, the drunken wizard, and also my favorite character—definitely not mad at that.
Daniel Powell: Yeah, I think he’s my personal favorite character, too. We read a review once that pointed out how Leonard is basically omnipotence. [Laughs.] Because he can summon and conjure any magic he wants but he’s so lazy and drunk that he doesn’t take advantage of any of his powers whatsoever. He’s perfectly happy having no responsibility.
Devin Clark: Zero motivation. [Laughs.]
Daniel Powell: Pretty much. So we thought it’d be funny to see what happens if he were to be suddenly saddled with the responsibility of having a kid.
And in a clever bit of timely satire, his new “kid” looks and talks a hell of a lot like Harry Potter.
Daniel Powell: [Laughs.] Yeah. It’s so hard to do topical stuff, because we’re not South Park—we can’t turn it around that quickly. From the time we start an episode to the time it actually airs, nine or so months pass. But, in this particular instance, we realized that the last Harry Potter movie was coming out in July, and it’d be premiering right as our show started airing again, so we took advantage of that. Plus, our world is so full of wizards that it made perfect sense; there are also references to Lord Of The Rings and The Wizard Of Oz in the episode—any famous wizard we could find. [Laughs.]
Even though it’s tougher for us to be super topical, we still try to work in some social commentary. Generally, the entire show has some level of satirical commentary about the melting pot, race relations, and things like that. But, obviously, we don’t hit it over the head too hard. It’s just difficult to get any more topical than that because, in nine months, the national conversation will have changed completely. Jokes that were funny at the time that you wrote them all of the sudden become completely dated or played out. So we have to try and be as evergreen as we can. Also, with Comedy Central, The Daily Show might replay for 24-48 hours and then there’s a new Daily Show; our show has to be able to repeat for months at a time and not feel dated.
Last season, we did an episode where we made fun of Twilight, because we knew that wasn’t going anywhere. [Laughs.] So topical humor is possible, though it’s tricky.
Ugly Americans has its loyal audience, but it’s still growing, in terms of establishing a bigger fan base. Are you guys happy with the growth pace so far?
Daniel Powell: Yeah, it’s hard because of the turnaround time; it’s so long, and it’s tough to maintain momentum. Our first seven episodes last season did really well, but then unfortunately there had to be a five-month break until the next seven aired. Fortunately, we have ten episodes in a row this season, so it’s a little bit of a longer run. It definitely takes a little longer for an animated show to build equity with the audience just because it takes longer to get us back on the air.
Hopefully, as these new episodes get underway, the word will start spreading. I feel like, when people watch it, most people enjoy it; it’s just that, with a trillion TV shows on the air, actually getting them to watch it can be difficult enough.
Well, let’s get them excited right now—what’s in store for this new season?
Daniel Powell: Well, the Harry Potter episode is our one major, real pop culture reference.
Devin Clark: We always use our cold opens to reference horror movies; that’s one of our biggest moments each episode where we get to really step out and wink at pop culture. In one episode, we have an homage to Invasion Of The Body Snatchers, and then we poke a little fun at some of the ’80s movies that people love. We have our “summer camp” set-up in the season premiere, and we have one that’s playing off of Oliver Stone’s Wall Street, which just had its sequel. So we tap into a little bit beyond the horror culture this season.
One of our big episodes will make fun of the phenomenon of long-running TV shows having extremely unsatisfying endings. [Laughs.] It references shows like Monk and Lost, and Grimes gets so outraged by the horrible ending of his favorite series that he goes on a mission to rewrite the end to his own liking. We make fun of a lot of ’70s cop shows, like C.H.I.P.S. and Starsky & Hutch.
We’re just having fun taking every genre and every creature we can, throwing them into the mix, and seeing what we can get. It’s a pretty crazy ride this season; I don’t think people will be disappointed.