Tuesday, October 14, 2014

INTERVIEW: Co-Creator Mike Shoemaker on Hulu's The Awesomes

Hulu's The Awesomes just wrapped its second season (directed by my best bud Sean Coyle!), but as co-creator Mike Shoemaker explains, there's still plenty of super-comedic action on the way for the animated offering, which features voice work by comedy greats such as Seth Myers (also co-creator of the show), Bill Hader, Kenan Thompson, and many more. Shoemaker, a lifelong comic book buff, first conceived of the idea along with Meyers in the early 2000s when the pair was working on Saturday Night Live. But as he explains, the show's journey from concept to cult favorite was long and circuitous before finally becoming a Hulu original. Keep reading for some highlights of our conversation:

Can you give us a sense of where the show originated?

Well, Seth and I met at SNL in 2001, right around 9/11 actually and one of the first things we kind of bonded on was that we both like comics. And so we became closer friends, and then in 2007 we had this idea like, “Oh, why don't we do a comic book show, basically, about superheroes.” And then right away, like once we had the name, like all the characters just flew into place immediately, and they were all mostly based on people we knew. Like, it was more casting than anything else, 'cause the way that you do things at SNL is you think of who you have, and you figure out who they're gonna, who's gonna be in the sketch.

You cast the people that you have, that are there in the building. So that's kind of what we did. And once we knew, like, Kenan would be this superhero, and Paula Pell would be this superhero, and Emily Spivey, it just fell into place, and then that was the show. Then it took another seven years to actually make it. Because we shopped it a bunch of places, then it sold but then it wasn't quite the right place. But the idea really started when he and I became friends, and the first thing that we both enjoyed together.

So Hulu was the end of your journey in terms of trying to get it to air. At what point did you realize that off-network was sort of the way to go?

When the networks suggested that. (laughs) Actually, that's not true. In the first place, we always knew that it would be, you know, not an NBC show. No one was doing animation at the time. I don't even think Family Guy had come back at the time that we had first thought about it. It was, so but we just, we never thought there would be that, but we thought that we would wind up on Syfy, which is where we did, actually. First place.

And then MTV, but I can't say that we thought of going to streaming 'cause it did not exist. And the first time that we knew it existed is when someone said, “Hey why don't you go to Hulu?” Andrew Singer who's one of our executive producers said, “Hey, Hulu might be interested, and they're a cool place, and they would like what you like about it.” And that was what did it, and that really was the answer. Hulu really liked what we like, which is telling a serialized story – which, nobody does that -- in cartoons, and understood that it was a comic book as much as it was a comedy show.

What was the learning curve  for you guys having come from a sketch comedy background, having to work within limitations, to come into animation where it's like well the sky's the limit.

The learning curve was difficult. We knew nothing about anything. We didn't know, we didn't know anything about animation and we didn't know, we really didn't know anything about the half-hour format because I had to say, like, “Can someone get me a copy of, like, a show that we know so I can see how many pages it is, and in which version of Final Draft...?” It took us forever to figure that out. That's how far away we were from it, 'cause sketches were sketches. And then, “Wait, how many commercials are there?”

The learning curve was everything. We didn't know any of it. All we knew was we did know comic books, and we knew therefore the kind of arcs, the kind of things you can get away with in comics books. And we knew, and we knew our actors, and we knew what they would be funny doing. But everything else was a lesson. We didn't know how to find an animation house, what kind of animation it should be, should it be overly stylized or less stylized.

We knew we wanted the characters to look like the actors a little because that's how we started imagining them, and so they do. I think they do even more so as the seasons go on. They look more and more like, you know, like you see more and more Kenan and more and more Seth than they were at the beginning. But no, it was all learning curve. It was great though.

You mention being a big fan of comic books. Is that sort of a struggle you have, where you sort of have to balance how inside you get versus playing to as wide of an audience as possible?

Well, I have to say the world helped us by having superhero movies become popular. Because when we first conceived of it, there was no Avengers. There was no Avengers movie. Like, there had been Batman movies but, you know, there were no X-Men movies. Every movie had to explain why a superhero existed and, you know, Warner went to great pains of having the individual movie for each one, but now you can do a movie and say, “Oh, this one has lightning powers, and this one has that power.”

People would say, “Oh, in this world some people have powers, and some people don't, and there's superheroes or not superheroes.” So we, less and less, like, we don't have to explain how they got this way so much. They understand it as much as you do when you see a new person in the X-Men. When they do the gathering scene on the X-Men and the one X-Men, the one before this one. Where they go around the world...

First Class.

Yeah, yeah. Nobody asks how, you know. I mean they were mutants. They didn't have to get hit by a gamma ray. And so the world solved it for us, and they understood, “Oh, superhero teams are made up like this.” And then we could just concentrate on the actual characterization.

One observation I've had about the show is that even as a comedy show, it takes itself more seriously than the '60s Batman, for example. 

Oh yeah, well, I think of it as a drama in some sense. Like, the idea that his father didn't want him to run this team and that his girlfriend was in love with...you know, there's love triangles and real father-son problems all the way through it. And there's all those things. So it's the drama that drives it. You know, to see them you see the idea of Mr. Awesome trying to reform Doctor Malocchio. And that's because he feels somehow responsible. And you see Hotwire worrying about her brother...It's very dramatic. Like, the storylines are dramatic. The things that happen are funny because the characters are funny. But we take very seriously the dramatic arcs.

So, the word came out just a few weeks ago that you will be coming back for a third season. Do you see an endgame for this show or do you see this as something that could just go indefinitely?

Honestly, I see it like the Justice League or the Avengers or the X-Men. There's permutations that could go on and on. People could leave the team, like already in the second season we had a new member, Concierge, and she was an assistant and then she joined, which is also very comic book.
Someone would be, you know, helping out and then they get powers. And she really always had powers by being kind of like the Oracle of this universe, so no. I see, I see, like, if people left, we get new team members, or it expands and there's like the Teen Awesomes.

I think it's a universe and therefore it could go on for a very long time depending on, I mean the hard thing, we have really, really talented, in-demand cast that, you know, those are the people we started with. And now Rashida [Jones] is one of the busiest people in show business. And it was before Seth had a talk show or even a glimmer of a talk show. You know, like Kenan and Bill [Hader], like they all, we didn't know that, I mean I knew that they had the talent to do all this. Paula Pell is like one of the busiest in the world. She just wrote The Nest and she's got like movies all over the place and we drag her in to do this. You know, Emily Spivey is all over the place, Taran [Killam] is shooting his own movie. So if anyone ever has to leave there's always a way in a team book to get someone else in there.

I'd love if you could share one story about executive producer Lorne Michaels with us. 

What I will say about Lorne is that what he provided all of us with a family. He provided us a wonderful large, extended, dysfunctional family that we're all part of. And it grows every year, and it grows to include people, like as Amy [Poehler] goes to do another project, I consider all those Parks and Rec people part of the family. And say like, like all of the people that did Up All Night, including Emily Spivey, who's in our show. And all the people at 30 Rock. Seth's show. Jimmy [Fallon]'s show.

Everyone is kind of in it, and what Lorne provided is when you go to your next place that you have already met the people that you want to collaborate with because they've already kind of come through. And so what it provides us is the ability to, you know, without going through show business, that you text, you know, your friends. They're like, “Oh, I'm doing this thing, I have a thing for you, you're gonna do it, right?” And then you ask. And that is how it's supposed to work.

And that's what he gave us. He gave us, you know, like superheroes looking to fit in, he gave us all a place that we all fit in and where we could find each other.

So he really is like the Professor X of your whole operation.

Yeah. I'm not the first to say it. Chris Rock I think is quoted as saying it. It's the X-Men, and they're all mutants, but they all have a power.

****

Big thanks to Mike Shoemaker for taking the time to chat with me. To hear the audio from this conversation, listen to episode 55 of The MovieFilm Podcast at this link or streaming below. Check out the first two seasons of The Awesomes on Hulu now, and keep it peeled for season three coming soon!

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