"The music business is run by lawyers and accountants, and they don't really care about the integrity of art."
"You can make nicely crafted things, whether they're poems, sculptures, paintings, records, CDs, whatever. But they'll just be that -- nice. They won't be unwieldy as personal expression often can be."
"What do a toilet bowl and a woman's vagina have in common? They both need to be cleaned with Lysol."
"It's a done deal. By the end of 2003, Saddam Hussein will either be out of power or out of the realm of the living. So who's next in line for the coveted position of dictator -- uh, leader -- of Iraq, home to the largest supply of crude reserves on Earth? Here's the list of nominees."
"In a segment that seems designed to honor yet another one of rock and roll's seminal yet fallen heroes, MTV just can't help talking about why it, not Nirvana, mattered so much."
"For white people, it will be different. They will be advised to refer to the U.S. Federal Standard 595B Color Chart (or the Ralph Lauren color chip guide at Home Depot) to determine the range of colors permissible in a potential spouse."
"And that's where some of the roots of this are: bizarre delusions in the minds of people with too much time on their hands that somehow I deprived them of being major label rock stars."
"I don't give a fuck about that stuff. I feel comfortable being called a punk band, because I feel that's what we came out of."
"In other words, Heavy Metal 2000 is a movie built, like Julie Strain, to satisfy the pleasure of our friend dick. Its depth, as postmodernists used to enjoy arguing, lies on the surface; that's where its signifiers float and that's where the horny eyeballs land."
Predictability is a Disease: An Interview with Adam Reed and Matt Thompson, Sealab 2021

by Sandra Fu

Ever get the feeling at your place of work or worship that the lunatics have taken over the asylum and there's nowhere to run? Then welcome to Sealab 2021, an underwater freak show of psychotic megalomaniacs, conscienceless brutes and interracial love machines, all with a gut-busting sense of humor. To call Sealab 2021 postmodern is an understatement: it's basically Hanna Barbera's Sealab 2020 revisioned with contemporary hot-button issues and more far irony than Ben Stiller was able to shove into Reality Bites.

But it's also the brainchild of Adam Reed and Matt Thompson, two laid-back cats with the best job in the world. And that may not be much of an introduction, but once you're done reading what these two have to say about Sealab 2021's heady version of adult animation, why prime-time television blows so hard, Tony Danza's limitless talent, and what they really do all day long for Turner, you won't need much more in the way of information.

Dive, fools!

Sandra Fu: Would you characterize your show as adult animation, vs. say, cartoons?
Adam Reed: I would say Sealab is adult animation. Cartoons, as I define them, somehow magically appeal to every age group. Bugs Bunny was written for adults, but kids love it -- and have for 60 years -- whereas SpongeBob Squarepants was written for kids, but has a huge adult following. And I don't think Sealab has that. In fact, even its age range among adults is pretty narrow. My mom, for example, doesn't really like it. She likes me, of course, just not this kind of humor. Whereas she's nuts about Bob Spongecake.
Matt Thompson: Cartoons for kids -- for whatever reason -- always look good. But I think more and more, adults don't care about how good it looks. There is even a side benefit to looking kinda crappy. Like we do. Something about being low budget makes it have more of an independent feel. You know, this is not the product of a Disney warehouse of thousands of animators -- and that is a good thing. Also, the lower the budget on how good something looks means that more attention is paid to the words being funny. You can't rely on the visuals carrying the day. If we were putting out a cartoon that was fully animated, we would have to worry much more about how it looks. We do care how it looks, but only up to a certain point. What we really care about is the words and situations being funny. The only example of someone doing both is The Simpsons. But we don't have one million dollars lying around to make one episode so we can't do that. Lack of money makes you prioritize.

SF: What are your feelings on the art form, and do you think it's been restricted to younger mainstream audiences for too long, considering how many great mature animators there are like Bakshi, Miyazake, Groening, etc.?
AR: Actually, I think adult animation has been around a darn long time. I remember begging to go see American Pop as a kid because it was a cartoon movie -- and being a bit shocked that it was as adult as it was. I've yet to see Fritz the Cat, though I hear it's NAUGHTY!
MT: I think the emergence of adult cartoons mainly has to do with our generation growing up on great kid cartoons. We all loved them, but don't want to watch them anymore because we are grown-ups and now they're boring to us. But watching adult cartoons does two big things for you: it makes you feel a bit like a kid on Saturday morning and animation gives you unlimited possibilities -- like someone's head exploding and popping back on. You can't do that in live action. This makes things unpredictable, predictability being a disease that has infected the majority of live action sitcoms on TV.

The lunatics have taken over the underwater asylum.
"The main focus of our show is unpredictability. It's about how bored we are with almost every single thing on television. I know what Grace is going to say to Will before she does -- and as a viewer, that pisses me off and makes me not watch. How many times can you rehash plots and situations that were covered already on F Troop?"

SF: How do you think your show fits into Adult Swim?
AR: We like to think of Sealab as the flagship of Adult Swim. And pretty much everybody would agree with that.
MT: Our show fits in with being the dirty one. For whatever reason, we are going to cuss more and show more racy situations. Also, we are probably the least absurdist comedy. We have real people in what could be real situations, while other shows have giant insects and talking food. This is not a good thing or a bad thing, it just is. My favorite Adult Swim show is Aqua Teen Hunger Force. I just love it. Shake kills me.
AR: Aqua Teen is also one of my super-favorites; I always make up an excuse to go over to Williams Street, then I sneak in to watch the rough cuts. Shake can cheer me up no matter what.

SF: How has it been working with Cartoon Network on what can sometimes be borderline controversial material? Have you run into any control issues?
MT: Cartoon Network has been great to us. Episodes are being toned down from time to time though. But, this is not coming from [executive producer] Mike Lazzo and Williams Street. It comes from Turner censors that decide what level of adult programming they want to put out there.
AR: Williams Street is terrific regarding content. The infamous Black Debbie segment was instantly jammed into the S&P department's shredder, but Mike Lazzo really went to bat for it.
MT: We'll see something that was done on South Park and pout that we could never get away with that, but we don't own our own TV station, so tough crap. Adam wrote a Christmas show where we talked heavily about different religions, basically taking them all to task on their lack of tolerance. The script came back to us with a big, "NO, can't do that." So we changed all of the names of the religions, making them all made up names. For example: "Catholic = Cthonic," "Judaism = Krebs." Then it was all OK, we could say whatever we wanted. It actually turned out to be funnier using made-up religions.
AR: That was "The Feast of Alvis Christmas Special." The weird thing is that by using made-up religions, we got this funny show out of it that was possibly more subversive than the original.
MT: I watched South Park's Christmas episode where Santa and Jesus blow away a bunch of Iraqis and Jesus takes a shotgun blast to the chest. We could never get away with that. But, for the most part, we can do whatever we want.
AR: We do run into a lot of legal issues, and have to make a good number of changes to keep Uncle Ted from getting sued.

SF: What kind of audience do you think your show attracts?
MT: We are aimed straight at college guys. I would be surprised if there were ten girls out there that liked the show. First off, you have to ask yourself, who is up at 11:30PM on a Sunday night that would watch cartoons? The answer is college guys that play too many video games and probably smoke too much pot. Probably shouldn't say the last part, but it is true.
AR: Yeah, college kids and people two to five years out of college, mostly men. The kind of people who still have milk crates and boards for bookshelves in their first "grown-up" apartment. The kind of people who make their dogs wear bandanas. But we honestly aim it towards us; if it makes us laugh, that's great. And as long as our interest is sustained, the milk-crate crowd will probably like it.
MT: If they can make eight years of Who's the Boss? I think we can keep it going for a while. By the way did you see Tony Danza hosting the People's Choice Awards? He opened with a rap by Italian Ice. Is there anything Tony Danza can't do? Maybe we are in trouble.

SF: Where did you guys come up with the idea for the show, and how do you feel about how it has turned out?
MT: Our show is basically a workplace comedy, like Cheers, but turned on its ear with insane situations. Instead of Norm coming in and asking for a beer, he asks if someone could please put his brain in a robot body. But still, the show focuses on what is happening in a work environment, where everyone is trapped at work. They can't just leave.
AR: In the development stage, I remember us talking about shows like WKRP, NewsRadio and M*A*S*H a lot. Sealab is just a place where these people work, a backdrop for the dumb stuff they do, the petty squabbles. M*A*S*H is probably a good analogy, since they were trapped in Korea like our gang is trapped underwater. Only we try not to be as preachy as later M*A*S*H shows. "It was a baaaaaby!"
MT: We knew if they couldn't leave, this would limit our drawing of new backgrounds, money being a main consideration. Also, we were looking for an old cartoon to force this idea into. Again, not having to draw new characters being a money saver.
AR: We were PA's at Cartoon Network, spending days and days organizing the tape library, which was jam-ass full of all these shows no one had ever heard of, and which were never going to air. The goal was to find a show that we could re-dub because back then we didn't know how to edit. We just used a 30-minute Sealab 2020 and wrote dialogue that matched the existing lip-flap. And it was the unfunniest thing you've ever seen. Cartoon Network, wisely, passed on it.
MT: We thought they were crazy, so we quit and moved to NYC. We did a bunch of crappy TV up there, mostly behind-the-scenes shows for Showtime. In the meantime, we learned how to edit things, how to make limited animation. So we went back to the Sealab idea and did it again, five years later. This time we cut characters out and made them do what we wanted them to. It was a billion times better and Cartoon Network bought it. Now when we go back and watch the original '95 pilot, we get dry heaves.
AR: We were unaware that they were looking for programming for Adult Swim. It was all just good luck and timing. And the funniest pilot ever made for television.

SF: Have you used Sealab to subvert or satirize American culture? Or are you more interested in just goofing off and having fun with it?
MT: It's a little bit of both. Sometimes we comment on culture and sometimes we are just weird. Our main comment is on TV and how terrible most of it is, how heavily TV has become tied into marketing products. We did a recent episode in which we promoted our own show the whole time, tied in with a fictitious chain family restaurant called Grizzlebee's. This comes a little bit from our own background of doing TV shows that promote the show itself. Also, there seems to be a big comment on purchasing things to make your life better, consumerism in general. It's all just crap. But the main focus of the show is unpredictability. You hopefully don't know what is going to happen next on Sealab while you are watching an episode. This is more of a subtext thing, but it's about how bored we are with almost every single thing on television. I know what Grace is going to say to Will before she does -- and as a viewer, that pisses me off and makes me not watch. Reality shows are less predictable than sitcoms are now and I think that is one of the main reasons behind their surge in popularity. How many times can you rehash plots and situations that were covered already on F Troop? All that said, we are just trying to make ourselves laugh and we really don't care if you like it or not. Probably the wrong attitude for a TV producer to have -- but again, we don't care.
AR: I think it's about 50/50 on subversion vs. goofing off. It's a pretty great job. We have a really fun staff, this big rambling loft in an old cotton mill, and a very communal atmosphere. But we do try to make some sort of social commentary now and then. Race usually comes up, and I think we try to nudge people a little bit. We're nowhere near as good at it as say, All in the Family, but we do try to slip a message in now and then. One thing I really like is how Quinn has become such a major character, and he's the only smart one who's always the voice of reason. That wasn't in the original show bible, but it's evolved into that. And I'm sure there are people in a cabin somewhere with a satellite dish who are pissed off about our interracial dating, and that as soon as the spring thaw comes and they can get down out of the holler, they'll come shoot out our porch light. But, you know, screw 'em.

Don't sweat the small stuff. "You can't rely on the visuals carrying the day. If we were putting out a cartoon that was fully animated, we would have to worry much more about how it looks. We do care how it looks, but only up to a certain point. What we really care about is the words and situations being funny. The only example of someone doing both is The Simpsons. But we don't have one million dollars lying around to make one episode so we can't do that. "

SF: With Adult Swim, Cartoon Network seems to have branched out from 24-hour animation for kids to 24-hour animation for diverse age groups and interests. So do you feel that you are contributing to a greater movement to legitimize not only animation as an art form, but perhaps television as a distributor of art forms rather than a home for formulaic entertainment?
AR: Um. Yes? Wait! No. A little bit. There have been so many great shows on television, and not just the classic sitcoms that everyone pines over, but recent ones also. Sports Night comes to mind; I Tivo every episode that Comedy Central airs at like, 5:30 am on Sunday. But they never last. Here's the thing: it's not the fault of television or the execs who make programming decisions for the major networks. It's the fault of the American viewing public. All the schlock and dreck that's on television? People watch it. It's a business, you know? The soap has to get sold.
MT: My first reaction to that question would be that you are presupposing that we are doing something important, when in reality we are just fucking off and trying to make ourselves laugh. But the last sentence appeals to me. "Rather than a home for formulaic entertainment?" If we are doing anything at all that viewers realize is nothing like the formulaic crap that is out there, I would be pretty happy. But again, we don't care. Well, maybe a little.
AR: I think HBO has had the best comedies in the past 10 years. Larry Sanders, Mr. Show and Curb Your Enthusiasm are the funniest shows that America has produced. But HBO doesn't have to sell soap. And it really saddens me that just because a show doesn't have an insidious laugh track, it's considered cutting edge or, even more sadly, ahead of its time. I will never, ever make a show with a laugh track. Even for a big-ass dump truck full of money. Okay, that's a lie. But they're AWFUL. But people are comfortable with that. They like the formula. And there's not necessarily anything wrong with that, I guess. It's just not for me, which really makes me admire Cartoon Network for developing these weird shows and putting them on the air. And even more so for not panicking if the ratings don't come in right away. They've let these shows find their sea legs and allowed the audience to come on board at their own pace. And now the ratings are up like a zillion percent. And we're all really rich.

13 March 03

Sandra Fu has published articles on everything from bulimia to pissing while standing up for Melt Magazine, Migente.com, drDrew.com, drKoop.com and more. She's currently finishing her first novel, Sycamore Circle.and rifling through a shoe collection than would turn Imelda Marcos green.
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