A master class with China, IL’s Brad Neely and Daniel Weidenfeld

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China IL's Daniel Weidefeld and Brad Neely

Brad Neely’s China, IL occupies a strange space between Family Guy and Seinfeld. The pacing is quick and the cartoon often invokes pop-culture references in some of its most memorable jokes; like The Beach Boys being murderers or Ronald Reagan owning a time machine. Simultaneously, as Neely and executive producer Daniel Weidenfeld are quick to mention, the show features characters that are realistically flawed, making us root for them even when they are committing awful, inexcusable actions. Seinfeld‘s Elaine may not have murdered anyone, but she can’t garner the sympathy one develops for the island of misfits that is China, IL. It’s a powerful comedic weapon that draws critics and stoners alike back to the Adult Swim show week after week.

Neely’s work has a consistent voice of cynicism and sarcasm that takes on many different forms. His early web comics, which include “George Washington“, as well as proto-versions of China’s Professor Brothers and Baby Cakes, imbue their narratives with historical references. “Wizard People, Dear Reader“. Neely’s botched retelling of the first Harry Potter film, is both a hilarious reinterpretation of a childhood classic and a commentary on our general pop-culture knowledge and how fandoms develop lore about films that pervade society in strange ways.

Having been a fan of China, IL and much of his work for years—not to mention losing at least one boyfriend for showing him a Neely clip on Sodom and Gomorrah—I figured it was about time I sat down with Neely and his executive producer Weidenfeld to pick their brains for a long chat about artistic choices, pop-culture influences, and what makes them laugh.

Brad, you went to the Pennsylvania Academy of Fine Arts…

Brad Neely: Just for a semester.

Having had some formal art training, was is it a conscious choice for you to draw the characters in your comics so crudely?

BN: Well, I would say that they’re pretty un-crude drawings, compared to the rest of animated television. I think they’re very true to the way that humans are shaped proportionately and how they move physically. I think that whenever somebody says crude, they might mean to say simplified.

Are there any specific animators that you work consciously against, or by whom you are inspired?

BN: Yeah, I didn’t really set out to be an animator or a cartoonist. I come from fine art and life drawing, so my cartoons are a result of my pace—being forced to be useful in a factory, go as fast as you can, draw as many drawings as you can in a minute. So I set out to make a very simplified, but true to how bodies in space work, show. I don’t like giant heads. I don’t like bubble eyes. I don’t like four fingers on a hand, I like five.

Daniel Weidenfeld: I think if it were up to Brad, he wouldn’t even be in animation. “Animation,” I say in quotes, because those early films were just images cut together, like an animatic. But those only came into existence because they were the one thing Brad could do entirely on his own and get it out to as big of an audience as humanly possible. It was right when YouTube and streaming videos online started. He could do the voices, he could do the editing, he could do the music. If it were up to Brad, he’d probably be writing a novel or making a record, or doing all of these other things, but the audience would have been smaller. He just sort of fell into animation. When we were working at Super Deluxe together, he was doing every single thing in a closet in his apartment in Austin, making everything in two weeks. You wouldn’t hear from him, and then you’d get an email about what a Beach Boys episode might be like, and then two weeks later, it would magically show up in the mail. Animation was an easy extension of that, but it was really hard at first—to let go of doing everything on your own. It wasn’t necessarily anything he fell into because he wanted to do animation specifically.

China, IL

I was wondering about the color palate of the show; it seems to be decidedly muted. Most characters are almost comically pale, and the setting in general: the buildings, the grass, the sky, are all very bleak. I was wondering if that was a choice in the mise en scène to embody the bleakness of China, IL.

BN: I have a very specific palette that I brought to Titmouse, the animation studio with which we make China. I had a specific palette of handmade colors that we used. They weren’t chosen or assembled to create any specific mood, those were just what I like to see in a frame together. Like, if we’re gonna use blues, use these blues. If we’re gonna use yellow, we only have two or three yellows and two or three oranges. That might be indicative of my mood whenever I was choosing those things, and if that’s bleak, that makes sense, but it wasn’t like, “This will be a subtle way to manifest in the audience a sense of dire straits.” The band, Dire Straits [laughs].

Was your original vision for China to be the animatic style in which your shorts were created when you moved to Adult Swim, or was the plan always to create more fluid animation?

BN: No, when I did the animatic style, that was just out of my complete lack of faculty. If I was able to animate, or understood animation or anything to do with computers, those things would have moved. The only thing I knew how to do was drawings on paper with pencil, and I would scan it in, and I would color it in Photoshop, and I would align it to time with the audio in iMovie. So that was really out of just being poor and uneducated, and working in haste that those early shorts were what they are. It wasn’t like, “I’m gonna innovate this way!” I feel like if we tried to do that on television we would have a viewership of like, only Daniel and my families. When you’re watching things on television, there are so many embedded expectations that we might not even be aware of; that when I started making television I was immediately confronted with. Seeing the character designs without pupils moving around, I’m like, “These people look like zombies, we gotta put pupils in these people!” The same thing with fluid animation, you just have to do it, otherwise, it just feels wrong.

DW: We have characters doing so many unlikeable things in so many different episodes that adding pupils gives them humanity. It makes us at least sympathize or empathize with what these characters are doing.

BN: Yeah, that “eyes are the windows to the soul” thing, it really is true. When you take the pupils out, it becomes a really weird Saturnalia of weird fucking zombie people…

DW: Doing insane things…

BN: And you just hate it. I hated all of them. As soon as we gave him pupils, I started rooting for them.

So is your goal to create sympathetic characters? As you said, a lot of the antics are obviously extraordinary and often horrible. I don’t know if the audience would necessarily think that Frank is a good person.

BN: I think so. And [we sympathize] because they do terrible things. I take that cue from Seinfeld. I loved those characters and they were awful humans most of the time. I don’t subscribe to watching or believing in only heroic epics on display. I do try to show the ambivalent inner workings of the average human being, where they hate and love equally; they do right and wrong, whatever that is, equally. We try to find the funny in that weird see-saw of what goes on inside these people, and I think that’s what might make them more endearing to an audience: they’re not archetypal bad guys or good guys, they’re a mix of both, like all of us.

DW: We’ve had Pony kill people before, and we’re not trying to condone murder, but what we’re trying to say is, if we’re pushed to these situations, if you’re pushed to that brink, the audience can say, “Yeah, I would react that way.” That’s what we really want to get out of audience. We heighten it to absurd degrees at times. My least favorite question—apologies if you’re going to ask this—is, “How high do you get before you make these shows?” It’s not that we’re on some drug or on some elevated plane, we just like to try to be as creative as possible; how would you react if pushed to these insane lengths?

BN: And we’re just trying to stick to normative storytelling. You have to push far. Fuckin’ Othello killed his wife! He didn’t just have a really angry conversation with her, you know?

Brad, you only went to art school for a semester, yet China takes place on a college campus. What was the impetus for setting it on a college campus? Were you trying to relive a missed college experience?

BN: No, I have a lot of spite towards the college lifestyle and I’m so glad I missed out on it. I tried schools out. I would go, do a semester or two, mostly take art classes, and then just run out of money. I’d get an initial scholarship—like at the Univesrity of Arkansas, I ran out of money, and I quit. And then I got into PAFA (Pennsylvania Academy of Fine Arts). Same thing, scholarship, go for a little bit, scholarship’s gone, just leave that motherfucker. I don’t know. I’m sure that it’s good for everybody. My sister’s a professor, my father in law’s a professor, so I hear about this place called “college” often, but I don’t think we set out with any kind of goal to take down a school. It’s another example of how things fell into place.

Initially in the shorts, I wanted first-person storytelling devices, so I made a person who wrote a diary, and I made two teachers who told lectures. That would enable me to be able to have them tell stories, and use descriptive language, so I could cut away from them and show what they were talking about, and have that juxtoposition of whether or not they were describing what you’re seeing accurately. That was my choice to do the professor thing initially, not because I wanted to take down school, or hated professors, or watched too much Animal House, or something. So later when we started making China, it was out of us wanting to reuse those characters that we set it on a college campus; not necessarily the city or jobs that they had, but what was going on inside of them that made us interested in the Professor Brothers and Baby Cakes. I had always envisioned them living and working in the environment of a college campus, but to me, that was just a type of Springfield [The Simpsons], a setting that had authority tiers, and that’s what we liked to play with—the Dean, of course, having ultimate authority over everybody; teachers over students; and then, within the students, there is a caste system of cool.

I’d define your work as somewhat postmodernist, as you reflect on pop culture in your comics and animation. A lot of it is based on uninformed pop culture, like, in “Wizard People, Dear Reader”, you purposely created a misinformed interpretation of Harry Potter. And a lot of the Professor Brothers’ lectures seem to be of the same vein—a surface level misinterpretation of history.

BN: I don’t believe in a complete, perfect, master narrative. I don’t think anybody has it right. I think there are levels of having it wrong. But that’s why I do that. I think everybody gets it wrong, and I love when people think they are the master of the universe, and they hold court and tell you how it went down 700 years ago just because they read a few articles? Like, who gives a shit? That’s what I’m drawn to, just the fact that we’re all struggling to try to piece together a good idea of what reality is, but nobody has it completely perfect because that’s not within the limits of humanity.

Is there a reason you decided to place the Professor Brothers in the history department specifically?

BN: Yeah, exactly for that reason. The category of history is the most egregious about that.

DW: The idea of an “expert” in history is totally absurd.

BN: It’s crazy to me. Of course, everyone knows there was an Abraham Lincoln and he was shot, and we all know the facts, but what happens often in history that we cannot avoid is subjective interpretation that comes in. That’s not just conscious; there’s the unconscious misinterpretation of facts as well. I think the Professor Brothers and Baby Cakes are as subjective as it gets.

In addition to historical references, there are obviously a lot of popular culture references in the show. With more specific references like Ronald Reagan or The Beach Boys, are they based on your personal experiences or opinions? Or do you hate the idea of popular culture in general, and wanted to make a comment on that?

BN: No, I don’t hate pop culture. What I hate is people thinking that history is more important than pop culture, or that they might be different things. I like to mash it all together. It’s all as valuable and as important as each other; it’s all assailable.

DW: The opinions that Steve has and that characters have on the show do come directly from Brad and his point of view. The reason we did that Beach Boys episode, for example, is that Brad was sure that all the Beach Boys were serial killers, for no other reason except for the fact that their music, to Brad, sounded like yellow triangles being shoved into his ears. That was probably one of the funniest quotes I’ve ever heard.

BN: I was making the joke that no one has music that clean without having done something horrible. Compared to like, the musical content of the Rolling Stones, I’m like, “I’m sure those guys are okay dudes.” But it’s like a murderer trying to display how nice of a citizen he is, or something. The way that they sing about surfing and girls’ hair was just so suspicious. I’d never leave my kid with a Beach Boy.

The way that they sing about surfing and girls’ hair was just so suspicious. I’d never leave my kid with a Beach Boy.

When you do episodes about such specific cultural icons, is there any research that you do going into the episode, or do you write based on solely your prior knowledge?

BN: I try to hang on to my initial point of impact in all of its ignorance, but in the writers room, we do as much research as necessary as to not make us seem like an angry mob.

DW: We almost did a Fred Durst episode this season, and we did some research into some of his videos, and we came to the conclusion that he was as disgusting as we all thought. He didn’t need any help. He was too easy of a target.

Daniel, as the executive producer in a show filled with so many pop-culture references that often portray their subjects negatively, is there any kind of fact-checking or approval process that goes on at Adult Swim before you put new episodes out?

DW: No, I mean, a lot of it is loving. Even Reagan, I think there’s a real admiration, in its absurdity, for what we do. We had one episode this season that we couldn’t do, and it was sort of a McDonald’s episode, and we used Grimace in a non-negative way. If it were up to Brad, he would eat a double fish filet with cheese every day for the rest of his life. It wasn’t a negative thing about Grimace, but ad sales said we just couldn’t do it; McDonald’s gives too much money to this network—even if it’s not negative, we don’t even want to take this fight on. We’ve been able to get away with pretty much everything we do.

BN: We wanted to talk about Arby’s.

DW: We have [Donald] Trump’s kid coming up in this episode, and we were a little worried about that, but we got away with it because it was just so absurdly obviously fake. We never say Donald Trump’s name. We haven’t had much trouble; ad sales has been the biggest hurdle, and we just move on.

BN: It’s interesting that we’re talking about it, because we don’t see ourselves as a show that goes after or takes down celebrities or corporate entities, we like to think that our show as more of a satire show than a parody. We’d rather talk about American fast food culture than specific fast food, and we like to talk about American entitled second generations rather than specific people. But sometimes, in order to achieve that satire, it’s easier to use one of those familiar names.

DW: There’s some unknowingly prescient stuff that we have just sort of stumbled upon. Like this weekend, we have a big LGBT thing in the background of this episode. This is like a week after the Bruce Jenner thing, but we didn’t know that this was going to be a huge story. We did an episode that aired a couple of weeks ago where Pony is the last woman on Earth; we did that before we knew Last Man on Earth was going to be on the air. We have a Mother’s Day episode that we had no idea was going to be airing on Mother’s Day. We have a thing in a couple weeks with Steve Urkel, and like, a lot of people suddenly started doing these huge Urkel episodes. There’s a lot of stuff in there where we’re hitting a lot of pop-culture buttons, but we never went out to be like, “We’re going to take this down.” It’s always been a sort of larger satire. In this week’s episode, it’s crazy, we’re doing an episode about whether bisexuality exists, or is there a gay gene?

BN: If there’s a gay gene, does that marginalize bisexual people?

DW: But we’re telling that story through pizza laws in China, IL, where they mayor says you can’t eat anchovies on pizza, only pepperoni. We had no idea that there would actually be a “pizza law” in Indiana [Religious Freedom Restoration Act]. So there’s all these things that we’ve done, and Brad isn’t Nostradamus, but it’s just really funny how all of this stuff is happening as the episodes are airing.

Do you like that about the show, or are you annoyed that it seems like you’re skewering topical issues?

BN: It’s difficult, because we started two years ago on this season. We had some stops, just due to the weird way television works, but these stories have been in the works for two years. That’s the struggle; to stay excited and keep it alive and fresh all the way through making the season.

DW: It doesn’t annoy me. If the joke is the exact same, or we’re doing the exact same episode, that would kind of be like, “Aw man, that sucks.” But it’s so specifically from Brad’s point of view, so no show will do exactly what we’re doing. And if we’re doing something that people are talking about, I think that’s a success personally, because it’s a big thing that people care about. We’re just doing it our own way. If anybody were to do an episode that we had done, or like, from a narrative perspective, down to character’s reactions, then I’d start to get upset. But the show is so unique, I don’t think anybody could copy it. So I’m at peace with it; I kind of love that there’s other stuff out. Because that means that, without necessarily trying to take on pop cultural stuff, we’re in the pop cultural lexicon.

Would you say your show is written for a specific audience? It obviously takes a lot of prior cultural knowledge to get some of the references.

DW: For the pilot, I can definitely tell you that the show wasn’t made for my parents. They didn’t understand it at all. We crammed so much in; even in the first season, I feel like there was too much crammed in there, where it was too fast and high speed. I feel like now, without saying we’re like Seinfeld, because I think that’s a tall task, I think we’re truly a show for everyone. It might get a little violent, it might get a little blue or crass at times.

BN: But for the references, I feel like they don’t interrupt or disrupt what the real story is. Last Sunday’s episode referenced Mississippi Burning. I don’t recall having watched it, I know what it is, but I’d never seen Mississippi Burning. I don’t think you have to know, it’s just like a thing to use. People don’t have to know Henry VIII and all of his wives for Steve to be lecturing about it, it just could enhance the thematic levels for somebody if they happen to care about that sort of thing, but we make sure that a person who’s never opened a book, but who knows human nature, could be entertained by our show.

I can definitely tell you that the show wasn’t made for my parents. They didn’t understand it at all.

Is there any plan to incorporate more lecture material into the show? A lot of your earlier animations are mostly based on historical or biblical stories.

BN: Much like how Cheers doesn’t show a bunch of guys just drinking for three or four hours, once you get to television, those things are more about the setting. And we try sometimes, but it just grinds the narrative pace to a halt. The thing about the shorts online is they’re two- to three-minutes, and you can dedicate to one thing. Like I said before, those were specific to a first-person storytelling type of comedy. The world of China is diehard third-person narratives that we are watching as if they are happening in front of us. So once you commit to that sort of thing, it’s very difficult to just have, all of a sudden, a very long interlude of someone just talking.

DW: And just to compliment another show we like—because there are other things Brad and I are doing together too, where we discussed the idea, “Is this a great opportunity to do these lectures?”—Drunk History is doing it so well right now. Retelling and reimagining a historical event from a flawed narrator. That’s the recipe for it, and they do it great. They do the reenactments the same way Brad would sort of edit time, and they’re doing such a great job with it. Let them have that, and we’ll do something new. We’re not doing a new “Wizard People” or “George Washington”, other people have started doing that, so let’s always turn right when they’re turning left.

Daniel, your resume clearly indicates a theme of absurdist comedy with your work on The Eric Andre Show, and there are elements of China that can be described as absurdist. Is there anything that specifically draws you to that form of humor, as opposed to more mainstream sitcoms, despite your love of shows like Seinfeld?

DW: The reason I got into comedy, I think, is because of Mr. Show and early Adult Swim, in high school growing up and watching it, and that’s what’s always been attractive to me. I think it’s much harder to tell a story the way we’re telling China, than to just do something so cookie-cutter and broad. We’re trying to tell different stories and do new things. Even with Eric, it’s an absurd show, but at the end of the day, it is so relatable because it’s based on a talk-show format, which everybody knows. You can get away with anything. So if you can hook people in with the relatable and then constantly surprise them, which is what we’re doing with China too, that’s all I want to do. That’s what Mr. Show did with the sketch show; that’s what Adult Swim has always done with animation, and now with their live action stuff. That’s what speaks to me, it’s far more interesting than just some softball down the middle.

BN: When we’re writing China, it is sort of blending those two aspects. We always talk about the big “fuck it” spirit that made me and Daniel immediate friends, just like, “Fuck it, that’s funny. I don’t know why I’m laughing, but that’s funny.” You blend that with, “That matters. That reminds me of humanity. That’s a fresh thing to say about humans that would not be an Everybody Loves Raymond episode.”

DW: And on top of that, I think the wrong recipe for Adult Swim is crazy, on crazy, on crazy. If you look at any of the successful shows on Adult Swim, there’s meat behind it all. They are saying something, and they are telling a story, and it’s not just crazy. I think a lot of people might not dig deep enough to actually see that, and see us as a network for stoners who are up late at night, but they’re actually telling novel stories and saying actual things. It’s the ones that are just pure crazy that aren’t successful and won’t last.

BN: It might be interesting for a reader to know that that’s the kind of conversation that we have with the network when they give initial thoughts on a script or a rough cut. They give us the, “This isn’t clear enough. That character wouldn’t do that. Why did he decide to do this?” Real-deal storytelling notes.

DW: [Mike] Lazzo [Senior Executive VP of Adult Swim] and my brother when he was at Adult Swim, and Walter [Newman, Adult Swim Program Development] who’s over there now are these deep thinkers who are trying to make sense of these insane things that we’re doing. There’s a lot of thought about what they do, but then again, Lazzo might say he wants crazy, crazy, crazy, but at the end of the day, there has to be this nugget of something relatable underneath.

I think a lot of people see [Adult Swim] as a network for stoners who are up late at night, but they’re actually telling novel stories and saying actual things.

Are there any upcoming projects or China plotlines that you can hint at right now?

BN: Daniel and I are in the middle of a big secret project…

DW: That we can talk about mid-May.

BN: That we can talk about mid-May, and you can call us up then and we can talk about it. But it’s really big and it’s halfway done, and we’re really excited about that. That’s a big, secret, fun thing. As far as episodes though…

DW: The big one is, we’re doing an hour-long musical special that Brad wrote and did all the music for.

BN: And we have Cat Power on that; I wrote three songs for her. And Jeffrey Tambor, who’s always in our cast, he sings.

DW: Greta Gerwig sings, Evan Peters from the X-Men movie and American Horror Story, he’s in it. It’s an hour-long musical special that I’m particularly proud of, just because Brad made such amazing music, and it’s incredible that Cat Powers is singing his songs.

BN: A career high, for sure.

DW: I believe that airs mid-June. And then we have this episode coming up this weekend, the pizza law episode and the LGBT story, and then the Mother’s Day episode which is huge.

BN: We have an episode that airs on Mother’s Day where we meet Baby Cake’s mom, finally, and we meet Steve and Frank’s mom and dad, and we meet Pony’s parents again. It’s called “Parent’s Day.” We have Kate McKinnon in our cast and she’s been lending voices to a lot of recurring characters, but she voices both Babycake’s mom and the mom of Steve and Frank.

DW: Donald Glover’s in this season. We’ve got Hannibal Buress and Chelsea Peretti, Danny Trejo and Christian Slater have guest starred. Bob Balaban plays Steve and Frank’s dad. There’s been a lot of incredible guest stars, along with our stellar regular cast, this season. That’s one of the most fun parts of this whole show. When Brad’s in the booth it’s amazing; that’s one of the times I get to sit back and enjoy, from my side of it, how great these scripts are. But then we also have, on top of that, such an amazing group of people, episode-in and episode-out, who make the show even more special than it already is. We’re really lucky.

In addition to that musical episode coming up, both your animated shorts and China have incorporated tons of original music. Do you have any musical background?

BN: Just the background of doing it since I was fifteen or so. I didn’t go to school for music. I barely know how to play instruments. The only instrument that I can tell you how to make a chord shape on is a guitar, but I play all the instruments for all the episodes and stuff, just because I feel like I have to. I’ve figured it out for each song, and then I forget it. I couldn’t play or remember the lyrics of any of the songs that I’ve made for China, because I just make them so quickly. I’m staring down the barrel of forty-plus songs that I’ve gotta make for this other thing, and that’s not exactly scary now, when it might have been in the past. Like, I made fifty or so songs for season two, thirty for season three.

Do you think original music adds something to a show?

BN: I just can’t help but do it, I’m a musical person and I feel like, just from the shorts and from what the audience might be, they might expect music from China. I do feel like it lends one more touch of uniqueness to the show, not using music that other people made, or popular music. If there’s any sense of pop music in China, it falls under my jurisdiction and I have to make it.

One last question: since I do live in Illinois, do you guys have any sense of where exactly in the state China, IL is located?

BN: Weirdly, we’ve come to realize that there actually is a China, IL. We didn’t know that when we started out, but our lawyers got in touch with us. Not only is there a real China, but there’s a Steve Smith in this China. It’s like a small township somewhere. We made up the name because I’m always astonished at the lack of imagination that Americans use when naming their towns, they just name it after places that they’ve heard of, like Paris, TX for instance. I just went a step further and named it after one of the biggest nations: China, IL. It also, on paper, had a similarity to the way Chicago, IL looked, to me, so that’s why I picked that. And then it turned out to be real.

Well, what a coincidence. Sorry to hear about the legal issues.

BN: Oh, we didn’t get in any trouble. They probably have like, ten dollars.

DW: I think Turner [Network] just bought them out. [laughs] They own the real China, IL now.