You may be familiar with cartoonist Brad Neely from web shorts like The Professor Brothers and Babycakes or his deranged Harry Potter voice-over Wizard People, Dear Reader. Neely's latest project is the new Adult Swim show China, IL, a surrealist comedy about a college full of academics whose perpetually drunk antics put the student body (and reality itself) on high alert.
io9 spoke with Neely and executive producer Daniel Weidenfeld about this fifteen-minute cartoon freakout, which is rife with time-traveling former presidents, riots at the Math Olympics, and psychic arm-wrestling matches involving the school's dean, who's voiced by Hulk Hogan.
The China, IL shorts that ran on the web a while back were panel-by-panel cut scenes, but this series is totally animated. How was that shift?
Daniel Weidenfeld: The originally China, IL was created out of circumstance and created as web shorts for Super Deluxe. It was a four-act, eleven-minute episode with three acts within each act, so it was really complicated. We did it as a web show, but we were really trying to incubate it as a television show. And then two years ago, Adult Swim came back and wanted to do the animated version of The Professor Brothers.
Brad Neely: I don't think we've even begun to figure out the show's typical story. Every time we write, we think, "Oh! We have a chance to do a new one! We can do everything different, with genres! This one's an action movie, this one's a scary movie!" We'll have a couple weird love stories and a wrestling episode. We're trying to tell as many different things as we can do in a quarter-hour.
How did you get Hulk Hogan to voice The Dean?
Brad Neely: We couldn't fight him off! He came to my front yard every morning when I woke up!
Daniel Weidenfeld: For a long time, we were trying to figure out the character of The Dean. We talked a lot about these great actors that we wanted to get, like Jeff Goldblum, Bryan Cranston, or William Hurt. But then we realized that this isn't an academic school by any stretch of the imagination! It's run by this aggro-masculine guy who puts people's lives in danger. And Hulk Hogan was our idol growing up.
Brad Neely: We wanted a Mr. Burns who was also the alpha male — a Mr. Burns who wasn't afraid to kill.
Daniel Weidenfeld: In terms of casting, we've been able to get an amazing group of people: Jason Alexander, Greta Gerwig, Jeffrey Tambor, Gary Anthony Williams who does Uncle Ruckus from The Boondocks. We've also got a lot of great emerging talent.
Brad Neely: It's a weird collection of people. If you look at the cast on IMDB, it's like "What the fuck?"
How about Babycakes, that enlightened man-child? How did you come up with him?
Brad Neely: Everybody has those thoughts, but in this cynical world, we're so afraid to voice them because we're afraid to be pretentious, so I came up with a big dumb fatty to say all those inward moments that I and everyone else has. I just needed to come up with a palatable mouthpiece for them.
Brad, one of you hallmarks of your work is this mutable sense of history. Stuff like Bible History, George Washington, and even the first episode of China, IL — with its time-traveling Ronald Reagan —play with this sense of a fluid timeline. What's the appeal of messing with the historical record?
Brad Neely: For me, I don't really like topical humor. I think that can get you in a box real fast. History is something that we all have in common and can reference. Anyone from any time can be involved and not feel pigeonholed. It's a way to keep things timeless.
Daniel Weidenfeld: We're really trying to explore these characters but tell universal stories in the most bizarre and — excuse my language — most fucked-up way imaginable.
I really love Frank Smith's (the bearded Professor Brother) voice. How did you come up with it?
Brad Neely: When I do voices, I like to imitate people I know and change it just slightly. That was a friend of mine.
China, IL airs Sundays at midnight on Cartoon Network's Adult Swim.