Animated Shorts: Drinky Crow & Peter Cullen
by Steve Fritz
Date: 04 September 2008 Time: 03:31 PM ET
Drinky Crow Premiere Date Set
Yes, one could say this is a benchmark column for me. More on that later. Business first.PREMIERE DATE SET FOR DRINKY CROW Well, if you’re going to share a toast with anybody in the comic book and animation industries, name anyone better than Tony Millionaire? After all, the man who has given us such incredible comics like Maakies and Sock Monkey has a way of making the low comedy of alcoholism as wondrously high art as the work of such animation gods as Winsor McKay and J. Stuart Blackton.
As interviewed last year, Millionaire first drew Drinky Crow back in 1992 at a bar in Brooklyn. The bar owner gave him a free beer for every time he drew the character, particularly for a circular said establishment used to promote itself. It wasn’t long before the daw with a drinking problem (when he wasn’t drinking) was surrounded by an Irish ape named Gabby and a cast of characters that mixed the aforementioned McKay with some solid Segar. It wasn’t long before they were collected under the title of Maakies (collected by Fantagraphics). From there, Millionaire struck a deal with Saturday Night Live, who did a set of six animated shorts around them, but only aired two. That didn’t mean they weren’t noticed. The first person of importance was Futurama writer and producer Eric Kaplan. It wasn’t long before Kaplan was a co-creator of Maakies spin-off, The Drinky Crow Show. “He’s fantastic,” says Millionaire. “He’s such a good writer. I talked to him for a long time about Maakies was all about. At one moment, he just shouted ‘Oh! Drinky Crow is heartbroken!’ That moment he got it completely. Now, whenever he has another writer come in to help him, he pretty much has to re-write the whole thing because he’s been about the only one to get it.” Then there were the powers that be at Adult Swim, particularly Nick Weidenfeld and Kim Manning. They gave Millionaire and Kaplan the greenlight to do a pilot, which was given a sneak preview on May 13, 2007 along with Superjail, That Crooked ‘Sip and Fat Guy On The Internet. From there, [AS] asked fans to vote for their favorite clip, with Drinky Crow getting more than enough for the all-night network to move the show into series. “I was very fortunate to get them,” Millionaire says of Weidenfeld and Manning. “From the beginning, they really wanted the show to be like the strip. They were always sending me notes saying about getting too far away from the strip. That was very good for me. It made me realize they wanted something that was true to the comic. In fact, they were truer than Eric in the beginning. They were also very helpful because some things that were truer to the strip wouldn’t come out as true in the cartoon and the other way around. They always wanted me to remain true to the strip.” Now the reason for celebration is very simple. A series launch date is set for November 23. “It’s great because they originally wanted to put us on January 9,” says Millionaire. “Then we said we’d be done by November. So if you wait until January to put it on the air, by that time, when you put in another order, all our crew is going to leave. We’d have to set up a whole new crew. “So we tried to do it for September premiere. Then Adult Swim said they like to do it for September. Then we realized we realized we would be able to turn all ten around in time. It would be more like five in September and then five later. So November 23 turned out to be perfect.” According to Millionaire, if you thought the pilot was impressive, wait until you see the remaining nine episodes of this premiere season. “Each episode is self-contained,” he explains. “It usually ends with someone getting killed. Some episodes a character can get killed four-five times, too. Then again, the best funnies sell death. Look at classic Looney Tunes. “We have an amazing crew in Romania called Mirari Films, in Transylvania actually. They really make cartoons in Transylvania! Truthfully, they’re very good. We also have another producer, Matt Danner, who is in charge of working with them. We do the storyboards, voice recordings, background and character developers here, then we email it all to them. Then they send the stuff back and we start post-production. It goes back and forth like that. Matt is usually flying over to Romania every other month to keep things running smooth. The Transylvanians have been around for a few years though. They’re very good. They don’t end up like those Gene Deitch Tom & Jerry cartoons. They were very weird cartoons.” This doesn’t mean Millionaire’s creation isn’t going to be testing our limits, either. If you saw the pilot, you know it ended with one fly simultaneously eating the corpse of another while laying maggots, inside the severed body of Gabby. How Millionaire and Kaplan managed to balance between funny and out-and-out gross is anyone’s guess, but they did it. “Gabby is just a slob,” says Millionaire. “Actually, the show is more about him than it is about Drinky. He’s the comedy type, the clown. Everybody loves the clown, right? Someone getting eaten up by a hippopotamus is funny, if Gabby does it. He’s a funny, goofy monkey. He’s so full of himself that when bad things happen to him, we laugh.” Aiding and abetting this magnificently warped and wicked humor is an incredible group of voice artists. “Originally, Dino Stamatopolous was supposed to produce,” says Millionaire. “hen he got to do Moral Orel, so he didn’t have time to do it. Now he’s doing the voice of Drinky Crow. It’s a good choice because Dino is a good, solid American drunk. Gabby is Dave Herman. He’s also in Office Space. He also does a lot of voices for King of the Hill and other shows. “The Captain’s Daughter is Becky Thyre. That’s my wife. She is also an excellent voice artist. She’s been in shows like The Oblongs and has been doing voice work for years. She’s the best talent I could find and is part of my family! Sometimes there’s a problem where we both have to be at the studio and can’t find a babysitter. Then we’re kind of screwed. Otherwise, it hasn’t been that tricky. A lot of the other female voices are done by Pam Adlon, who’s the voice of the kid (Bobby) in King of the Hill.” As for the immediate future, Millionaire, Kaplan and company are hard at work at completing their first ten episodes. “It’s been like three years so far,” he notes. “A lot of it was waiting around for people to give us the go ahead. Once that happened, production was real quick. We’re still working like crazy over here. We are working on 5-6 episodes simultaneously in various stages of production. For instance, we just finished the initial drawings for the last episode. The first four are completely finished. “It’s great, but it’s too much like work. I mean every day I design the characters and do the set-ups, some thumbnail sketches for the storyboard guys and rough sketches of all the characters. Then every night I have a meeting with the director online. I’ll give him notes. Also, a lot of stuff I don’t agree with, but they agree with and force it. Then I have to say, ‘yeah, what you did makes more sense.’ With Maakies all I have to do is grab an eraser and pencil and off I go. There’s been many times where I told people a joke and they didn’t get it until I draw it all out.” So pop a cold one for Mr. Millionaire. He’s given us one solid reason to celebrate. PETER CULLEN TALKS ABOUT THE BIG BOT For being the voice of Eeyore from the Winnie The Pooh series alone, Peter Cullen has earned his place among the voice acting. immortals. “It’s nothing,” Cullen quips, reenacting the voice of the sad sack stuffed donkey. “It’s another day, another dollar…but I like him” There’s another reason animation fans think the world of Cullen though. He’s the original voice of that great big robot in disguise, Optimus Prime. He recaptured that magic in the Michael Bay directed/Steven Spielberg produced, live action version last year. Since the Blu-Ray version of the Bay film came out this week, Paramount Pictures thought now would be the time for the media to have a series of quick chats with the still quite active actor. “My first gig was on Mighty Man and Yuk, with Frank Welker, in 1979,” Cullen recalled. “He played Yuk and I played Mighty Man. I worked on Sonny & Cher for five years before that, as part of the regular comedy cast.” When Cullen got the casting call for Transformers, one has to realize that animation, particularly TV animation, was incredibly deep into its dark ages. The only glimmer of hope was Filmation’s just launched He-Man series. Something as radically detailed and developed as Tranformers or GI Joe was virtually unimaginable, even to Cullen. “When I auditioned for it, by that time I had done my share of silly characters over the years,” he recalls. “All I was told was Optimus was a leader, and he was also a truck. For another cartoon I had been Pete The Train, so I applied that to what I thought of as Optimus The Truck. Otherwise I relied on the synopsis and character breakdown. “Now they were looking for a new contemporary character. A hero unlike Batman, Superman or any of the other generic superheroes of the day. Optimus was a non-yelling, big guy obviously, with all the best of humanity’s traits.” Cullen is also quick to cut down rumors that he based the leader of the Autobots on John Wayne. “It’s hard not to throw a little John Wayne into it when you’re playing a big guy,” he says. That was a mistake as well. Optimus is actually based on my brother Larry, who was an officer in the Marine Corp. He served in Vietnam. When he came back, his voice was as low as mine, but he had a tone in it of understanding things I could never have imagined. That’s what I applied in the audition.” Suffice to say it got him the role. What surprises him to this day is just how beloved the character has become. “I was surprised by it. I still am,” Cullen admits. “Quite honestly, I thought about it a lot. Optimus was wiped out in the 1986 movie and to have fans demand a rebirth even then was surprising to me. Still, it really didn’t hit me until a few years ago, when I was attending a convention. There I saw firsthand what an effect he had on so many people. It still amazes me. It really does! I tell you, when you do voice over, you usually don’t get that, that adulation. I’m impressed by it. I cherish it. It makes me feel like I’ve done something that was really a positive in my life.” As for working on Bay’s film, Cullen admits he put a few upgrades into the role. This was due in part to Bay not having a clue as to who he was. “I think because of his relationship with Sam, Michael Bay wanted me to be more one-on-one with humans,” thinks Cullen. “He wanted me to show more warmth. He also wanted me to act like he was dealing with humans for the first time. Then again, I don’t think Bay thought of me as an actor, even though I spent two-thirds of my career doing voice work. I actually had to audition for the part. Then he became quite satisfied I could do it. After all, my job was voice over and he got it. “I think we get a real measure of just how big Optimus is when we stand him up against Shia LeBeouf and all the other actors. Huge! That actually effected my acting. Bay and I agreed, because of that size, less is more. We never disagreed about that. In the end, it was a pleasurable experience.” As for the present, Cullen is apparently still one of the busiest voice actors practicing his trade. He is slated to recap his role of Optimus in the Transformers sequel Revenge of the Fallen. He is also kept quite busy on the current Disney Pooh series. Hopefully, we’ll be hearing a lot more from this animation great for the foreseeable future. ON HITTING #500 One of my earliest memories is when I was a pre-schooler at the turn of the 50’s. I remember grabbing a box of Cheerios one weekday morning while my father was getting ready for work. From there, he and I sat into the living room in front of the tube and watched a Betty Boop cartoon called “There’s Something About A Soldier.” The Rube Goldberg-inspired machine that turned Fearless Fred into an uniformed trooper fascinated my then pre-K mind to no end. I also remember after a hot day my dad coming home from running a brick and mortar company, taking a shower, and then sitting and watching the likes of Huckleberry Hound, Rocky & Bullwinkle, Popeye and many other animation classics with me. Zoom three decades later and I’m now a professional freelance journalist. I mainly wrote about music and was anxious to break out of that trap. My personal involvement with animation goes back to 1989, when I was a TV columnist for a still-standing entertainment magazine entitled Paper. As part of that gig I had the pleasure of interviewing a major underground comic artist who was about to debut his first animation special on Fox. His name was Matt Groening. This interview was quickly followed by a true animation legend, Chuck Jones. That was it. Any opportunity I had to interview/write about something/someone in the animation world, and I got the gig. Not just for Paper either. I had a rep of being the go-to guy for anything animated for a number of other magazines. I didn’t mind being called “that animation guy,” either. So move on a little to 1992. Cartoon Network is about to launch and I had the pleasure of a sit-down with the network’s first president, Betty Cohen. Imagine my pleasure when she recounted one of her greatest childhood memories was sitting in front of the tube as a little girl, with her father, watching the further adventures of that flying squirrel and the bull-headed moose. That was when I knew my generation indeed had arrived. Animated Shorts started as a bi-weekly, online column way back in 1996 on the site that’s now known as www.Mania.com. There had been some previous incarnations, primarily for magazines, as far back as that eventful year in 1992. Still, when I changed the name to this, there was finally enough activity in the animation industry to see the column go on to weekly to its current rate of twice a week. And talk about activity! The simple truth is I’m never short of stories to write about. As you read this, the various TV networks are getting ready to launch their Fall programming. Films such as Igor and Bolt are waiting in the wings. The direct-to-DVD market is firmly established, as is original programming for not only the internet, but other platforms as well. The idea of a TV show launching on a cel phone was a pipe dream back when I started (much less cel phones), yet look at the history of Lil’ Bush. There’s a lot more to come. Just say original download-to-own for starters. The simplest truth of all is this. Animation is the ultimate art form in combining art, technology and commerce. When they all work together, you end up with a wide variety of entertaining programs ranging from long living standards like Matt Groening’s The Simpsons to soon-to-be hits like The Drinky Crow Show. It’s finally losing that sad characterization of only being “children’s entertainment.” All over the U.S., parents are finally able to sit with their kids and watch shows such as Avatar: The Last Airbender, Spectacular Spider-Man or Phineas & Ferb without guilt or the excuse of “keeping an eye on what the kid’s watching.” Yes, I don’t think nothing is going to beat The Batman for top box-office money maker this year, but films such as Horton Hears A Who, Kung Fu Panda and Wall*E are also making several hundred million dollars each. In other words, animation has arrived. There’s still plenty of growth going down. I think one of the most exciting areas is in sites like aniBoom or organizations like The Animation Show and the Toonstitute. Advances in software and computer tech in general is finally bringing the costs of cartooning down to the point where I won’t be surprised if we see a lot more Parkers and Stones in the very near future. Also, with platforms such as the internet and telephony also growing in leaps and bounds, there are more access points than ever. It’s a long way from the days of just ABC, CBS, NBC and some independent TV stations I knew when I grew up. But most important, even though it’s been nearly 50 years since I watched that Betty Boop short with my dad, one of my most distinct pleasures these days is being the big guy on the couch watching the young’uns enjoy Naruto, Chowder or Spongebob. It tells me that as much as things have changed, certain good things remain the same. So, in conclusion, I’d like to thank Matt Brady and Mike Doran for putting up with my shenanigans over the last few years. I also want to thank you readers for putting up with me and this column for the last decade-plus, wherever it was. In the meantime, I got to get to work on next week’s columns. Expect an awful lot more of them, too. Next Column: We start a two-parter with the voices of Next Avengers.