The comedic revolution will not be televised, but you can catch it if you have an Internet connection. Increasingly, comedians are taking advantage of the wide-open web to create low-budget, short-form series on their own instead of monkey-dancing for suits so they'll fund their funniness (and inevitably alter it, as investors are prone to do). Some of what has been produced online is terrible, mind you, but the point is that the humor is out there to be judged democratically by mouse clicks.
One shining success in this new format is Childrens Hospital, former Daily Show correspondent Rob Corddry's absurd send-up of the ubiquitous medical shows, ranging from sexy dramas like ER and Grey's Anatomy to the goofball comedy Scrubs. The series started as 10 five-minute webisodes on TheWB.com in December 2008 before Adult Swim scooped it up and expanded it to fit a 15-minute time slot in July 2010. Currently airing its fourth season, Childrens Hospital is an Emmy nominee for a new category that was created because of shows like it that don't fit into traditional boxes: Best Special-Class Short-Format Live-Action Entertainment Program. Quite a mouthful, and an honor.
Complex recently spoke to creator and star Corddry, who plays clown-faced, blood-smeared Dr. Blake Downs, about the Emmy nomination, absurd comedy, hospital waiting rooms, and why clowns suck and people who have a phobia them are even worse.
Interview by Justin Monroe (@40yardsplash)
First off, congratulations on Childrens Hospital's nomination for the Special-Class Short-Format Live-Action Entertainment Program Emmy!
Oh, thank you very much! It’s a brand new category, which is almost as cool as getting nominated. The creation of this category means that they’re recognizing what all of my friends and I are doing.
Why do you think so many comedians are doing short-form comedy on the web and increasingly on television?
It's a path that they’re passionate about, and they can just do it [without asking for funding]. And they can also get a little bit of money to do it, too. Now some of these shows are getting on cable. These casts are full of people who are doing things that they love, which I think is better for TV and jokes in general. And who needs twenty-two minutes?
You had the opportunity to make Childrens Hospital a full 30-minute show. Why did you feel the project was better suited to be half of that?
It started off as a five-minute show on the web and I didn’t think it could be longer than that. The show is like a joke machine gun and I’m not sure if this kind of comedy could sustain itself past 11 minutes and 15 seconds. I also think, with half hour shows, or even 60-minute shows, that I could cut them down to 11 minutes and 15 seconds easily and not lose any of the story. [Laughs.] It’s a lot of filler and we just pack a lot into those 15 minutes.
Do you typically write episodes precisely for your allotted time or shoot a lot and trim during the editing process?
We’re always talking about the possibility of doing a two-part episode but I will always have to cut whether it’s a script or it’s a finished piece. I think the story itself will dictate how long it should be and we kind of know like how long an 11-minute thing is.
You mentioned short-form casts being full of happy, passionate people. It seems almost like comedians are returning to their comedy troop origins.
Yeah, it definitely feels like, “Guys, we can put on a show! Right here in our tree house!” I cast all of my friends I hang out with and share a sense of humor with, and I think one of the reasons people like the show is that they can tell we’re having fun and we like each other. The reason we're doing it is not money, ’cause it changes. [Doing it for money] changes tiny, maybe subconscious things that you wouldn’t be able to pinpoint, but feel.
I’d never do a network show that I wouldn’t mind doing for seven years. And also I’d never do something on network television that I don’t have as much passion for as I do Childrens Hospital.
How difficult is it to find unexpected ways to keep Childrens Hospital absurd?
Doing the show, I’ve learned gradually, perhaps too gradually, what absurdity is and the best way to write the most absurd jokes or episodes or shows. The great thing about absurdity is, apparently there are no rules. That’s the only rule, basically. You make up your own rules for each scene or each joke, so the opportunities are endless. If you’re doing satire you’ve gotta realize that you can only use relevant material. Relevant material might actually be a comedy killer for us. [Laughs.] It’s best off being as meaningless as possible.
This season, we’re adventuring out of Childrens Hospital in all kinds of ways. I lost sight, in a good way, of what a normal Children’s Hospital episode is. So every episode is like its own weird, stylistic world or way to tell its own story.
Has there ever been an idea that was too crazy, even for your absurd show?
No. We kill a lot of episodes, sometimes even weeks away from shooting, but mostly because the story isn’t working, we can’t figure it out.
I honestly don’t believe people when they say that they’re scared of clowns. I think it’s an easier way to say, 'I’m cute. I want attention.'
There was one time that we killed a behind-the-scenes sort of episode where we went and we saw the actors that play these characters on this mythological TV show Childrens Hospital that had been on for 18 years. We’ve done behind-the-scenes a couple of times, but in the context of a fake news show called News Readers, which is actually a spinoff that we just finished shooting. It was getting confusing and we realized we were doing it just to do it, just to be cool, and there was nothing funny about it.
There’s no reason to tell a story that way. You can’t start with the structure first. The good thing about our show is that you write something and then you figure out the best way to tell the story and then it gets crazy.
Confusion for confusion's sake is bad, but you don't necessarily need continuity on Childrens Hospital.
No. God no. That day and age is gone! [Laughs]. You can never count on anyone watching anything in any sort of order, so you write for that.
Having experienced the freedom of doing absurd, short-form comedy on Adult Swim, while working with your close friends, how difficult would it be for you to do a network show now?
I’m sure I’m gonna have a nasty wake-up call at some point. [Laughs.] I’ve had so much freedom and fun. I listen to my friends who work on network shows and just, like, bang their heads against their computers. [Laughs.]
I’d never do a network show that I wouldn’t mind doing for seven years. And also I’d never do something on network television that I don’t have as much passion for as I do Childrens Hospital. Like, never give ’em your babies. Give the networks the shows that you don’t mind them making their own, that you’re not precious about. I guess I’m setting myself up to not be totally frustrated because that’s not why I’m doing this stuff.
Paul Scheer, star of Adult Swim's NTSF:SD:SUV::, recently told me how much easier it is to be creative there than at a big network. What has been your experience doing Childrens Hospital for Adult Swim?
We do get notes, but very rarely, and mostly they’re story notes, creative notes on how to make the story better. Very rarely do we get those types of typical cliché network notes, if ever. And we don’t really have to take them, either. They’re pretty cool about it. I mean, its not on paper; that [policy] could turn at any minute if they hire the wrong person. [Laughs.] It also helps that we were a web-series first and we sort of got grandfathered in.
Did you have any horribly, fucked up experiences with clowns and doctors as a child?
I didn’t think so, but I remember back when I was a kid my doctor was this 65-year-old man who talked slowly in a deep voice and he had scary-ass clowns everywhere in his office. I remember staring at them as a kid and not being scared, but definitely realizing that’s not soothing to a child, having that perspective. [Laughs.] I honestly don’t believe people when they say that they’re scared of clowns. I really don’t. I think it’s an easier way to say, “I’m cute. I want attention.”
It's obvious that I don’t like clowns. Of all the so-called comedians out there they take themselves so seriously and I just hate it.
What is the best reaction that you’ve gotten to the show from medical professionals?
In the actual Children’s Hospital in LA, they thought we were writing episodes based on things that a spy in their workplace had told us. [Laughs.] Like, what kind of hospital is this? We do some crazy shit! We went there once because my daughter needed stitches in her chin and they were like, "It's gonna be a 10-hour wait," and we actually only had to wait like seven and a half hours because they like the show. [Laughs.] Those are the benefits, man. You get through the emergency room in seven and a half hours.
How have the clowns received it?
A friend I grew up with and was in boy scouts with is a clown. He was actually the Ronald McDonald in the northeast for a while and with the Ringling Brothers, and now he goes to hospitals and performs for kids and cheers them up. It's a wonderful thing he does. I got this feeling from his Facebook messages that he did not care for the show. [Laughs.] It's obvious that I don’t like clowns, you know? Of all the so-called comedians out there they take themselves so seriously and I just hate it.
Are they worse than mimes, though?
The fine line, I guess, is that mimes are at least more physically skilled, which I appreciate. And I like sleight of hand. But I’d say I have no patience for mimes, either.
Interview by Justin Monroe (@40yardsplash)