You'd have to have low standards to consider China, IL's college one of higher learning.
Adult Swim’s China, IL began its third season in early April, with fan-favorite characters like Babycakes, The Dean, Pony, of course Frank and Steve, along with some new students this season including Donald Glover and Kate McKinnon.
It's been a year and a half since China, IL's last season, so Newsarama sat down with creator Brad Neely and writer and Executive Producer Daniel Weidenfeld on all the happenings going on in the University of China. In addition to that, we have an exclusive first look at May 3's episode, "Bi-Topping-Ality."
Newsarama: Brad, Daniel you guys are back for a third season after a few years. Welcome back!
Brad Neely: Thanks, man!
Daniel Weidenfeld: We gave them the slow burn!
Neely: We waited so long so people forgot everything! We’re just telling everybody this is our first season.
Nrama: What does it take for China, IL's college to be the worst college in America?
Neely: Oh, a lot in this country, as everybody is competing. If I had to guess though, I would say killing your students, having sex with your students, that’s up there, but Yale’s got that going.
Nrama: So we had the season premiere a few weeks back, and it seems we’re going back to the Frank and Steve rivalry again, will that be the main focus or are you going to expand?
Neely: The Frank and Steve dynamic is something we gravitate towards because the juiciness of sibling rivalry. How one brother can be seen as the golden boy while the one struggles in the family that just seems like a fruitful storytelling area for us. I’m not sure, but Daniel, you might help me out here, but we only focus on that for the first couple of episodes.
Weidenfeld: The bigger difference is for the first two seasons we really protected Steve a lot because he was just so fucking “cool," ya know. Fucking all the students and he was our...uh, what’s his name? Ted Danson…
Neely: Sam Malone! He was our Sam Malone. It was a lot funnier for us to push him to the brink so Frank is the neurotic one in the relationship because Steve now is so insecure not being on top so he acts crazier than Frank sometimes. So there’s the new dynamic in the relationship that you’ll see them together.
Weidenfeld: It’s the undercurrent of everything. If Steve died, I don’t know what Frank would do. With the younger brother/older brother dynamic, even if my brother and I are fighting I’m the younger brother, he’s the older brother and it’s a hard thing to get around.
Nrama: When playing Super Mario Bros., you’re always going to be Luigi.
Weidenfeld: I will always be Luigi.
Nrama: It seems like you’ve taken these characters and just amped their personalities. Ronald Reagan is back as president and he’s utterly insane. What is like taking somebody like Reagan and incorporating him into this world?
Neely: Well, mainly it comes from my influences and that it all seems normal. Growing up in the 80’s and reading Dark Knight Returns or watching Phil Collins videos, Reagan just seems like a standard American president to just have in there. You know, Reagan has his specifics, but they just seem to stand for a cowboy president. So it just seems easier to do this than to wrangle up the current load of politics of what is Barack Obama like...what did he do to this immigration bill?
Weidenfeld: And the nice thing is if you’re familiar with Brad’s work with JFK and George Washington, Reagan is the only president we really knew growing up. We were able to see him being mythologized and we’re just taking that further.
Neely: Yeah, he was my president during my childhood and he was just America’s Dad.
Nrama: How did you wrangle Dave Coulier of all people to do Reagan’s voice?
Neely: It’s strange really, because if you keep asking some people, they’ll say yes eventually. We just asked him and he said sure.
Weidenfeld: How did we come up for him for Reagan? Because you wanted him for the pilot, but thought we had somebody else.
Neely: Right. We went to him for something else, but we knew he had a Reagan in his back pocket just because he’s a great impressionist. I hadn’t seen him do Reagan, but I thought there’s no way Dave Coulier doesn’t have a good Reagan. We had gotten him to come in and play to host a kid’s talent show and we just happened to ask “hey, do you have a Reagan” and he killed it!
Weidenfeld: He’s a bigger part of this show than we ever thought he would be. We bring him back every year.
Neely: He has the best goddamn Albert Brooks and Super Dave Osborne impressions and I didn’t even realize those guys were impersonatable, but when we bring him in he goes on for a few minutes to figure things out. This one time he did an interview with those two guys talking about ice cream.
Weidenfeld: For ten minutes!
Neely: Yeah, usually I hate it when somebody wastes my time, but I could have watched that all day.
Nrama: Last season you were expanded to 22 minutes, from the 11 minute slot, which came from the 4 minute shorts. How does that affect your writing process when you’re able to expand a bit more?
Neely: It’s great! I always felt we were trying to cram in a full show in those 11 minutes. I grew up like most people watching normal sitcoms and 11 minutes felt like a short story by comparison. When we went to 22, it just made sense. Our goal was to tell the same structure as Seinfeld, you know, two or three stories going on at once and hopefully they’ll weave together throughout and come together at the end. A full 22 minutes just serves that a lot better.
Weidenfeld: Yeah, going back to the first season, I felt like this is great, but it’s still crammed. We had a half-hour special that season and it just felt like it could breathe a lot more and we’re not cramming everything in there to try and make it work. We lost a lot of jokes that season and even with our season finale this season, an hour long musical, I mean this is going to sound crazy, but it really sings. No pun intended.
Nrama: No, that pun was intended. C’mon.
Weidenfeld: The charm of the characters get to come through and we have these songs that help the story breathe and doesn’t feel rushed in the least.
Neely: Or too long.
Weidenfeld: Or too long!
Nrama: You have mainstays on the cast like Hannibal Buress and even Hulk Hogan, so what’s it like working with these people, some of which are staples in pop culture? Especially when it comes to the joke delivery and working with guys like Hogan who don’t have a comedic background.
Neely: They’re all pros in their own way. That’s something I’ve never had to worry about because they’re all pros that know what they’re doing. Everybody has their strength, but they don’t come in having doing all this back history work on their characters, so sometimes they might not know the intention of the line because they haven’t seen or read everything about them. So usually what we do is correct them when the time comes like “that’s not supposed to be in a form of a question” “oh, got it” and then we go from there. Every time we bring somebody in they read what’s on the page and nine times out of ten, we get their take on it.
Weidenfeld: We have the luxury of having Chelsea Peretti and Hannibal Buress come in and Kate McKinnon is a new character and Donald Glover--
Neely: Donald Glover! I have wanted to work with him for a long time as he has such this great comedic voices that are able to make something that we think is funny a whole lot funnier. We’re always finding things we don’t expect from people, Hulk on the otherhand is a super pro and comes in and is game for anything. That’s what makes him so great on the show, aside from him being a hero from my childhood, he’s up for saying anything. We cast these people not necessarily because they could tell a joke because you can coach anybody into telling a joke, but because of their inherent personalities and weirdness.
Nrama: You had Hulk’s daughter, Brooke, on last season doing voice work. Are there any stories from those two working together?
Neely: She’s actually doing a lot of voices this season, she’s one of our core cast members. Those two, we had to record together once and the playfulness and kind of inherent competition in their blood that makes them the gladiators they are was fun for us to watch.
Weidenfeld: By the way, Hulk Hogan does not care about us. I don’t even know if he’s in the show [laughs], but what he does know is that when we got Hulk and Brooke in a room together, I’ve never tried to see somebody make somebody laugh so hard. It was the most fun he had on the show, I think, just doing it for her. It was amazing to see because he is an amazing father and cares for Brooke so much that we brought Brooke in because he had said she is trying to get into voice work and we’re like sure whatever. She came in and so interested in all the aspects and her range was truly impressive and just one of those wonderful surprises.
Neely: We are very lucky Hulk Hogan has a wonderful daughter.
Nrama: Is there somebody from this coming season that you haven’t worked with, but have wanted to and finally get to do so?
Neely: Man, so many. We are so lucky this season. As we said before, we have Donald Glover and he plays a character named Transfer Billy throughout the season. Kate McKinnon, too, which is just fucking awesome. We have Cat Power to come in and sing on the musical.
Weidenfeld: I think we have the biggest balls in the world to keep asking everybody to come in on the show, but all the people we’ve had come in have been incredible. We’re just lucky to have such an amazing cast.
Nrama: Who did you have come in and help with the musical episode?
Neely: In what capacity?
Nrama: Well, lyrics, music...did you even have any help?
Neely: Just me, buddy. I ran it by Daniel here and our producer and our writer’s assistant and bring everybody in and ask “what ya think?”. That’s the brain trust behind all the music in China. I’ll write like 30 or 40 songs for the season, but that’s how it gets done.
Weidenfeld: Brad writes all the music, Cat Power has three song. Greta [Gerwig, Pony on the show] has a couple of songs in it. Jeffrey Tambor has a song that he sings in it. It’s pretty much Brad throughout.
Neely: There were going to be like 18 or something song and then I started dying so we’ve scaled it back.
Nrama: Was that every too daunting when trying to finish scripts and working on music at the same time?
Neely: Just the time, man. I feel like we have a good plan and operational thing going on here and we never have moments where we’re caught with our pants down. We know where we’re going, we know we have content when we get to it. The only that really stresses us out is that there’s never enough time in the day. Luckily, I have some great people to help me organize my day to get the best out of me.
Nrama: How would you compare this season to the first season?
Weidenfeld: It’s gotten longer than the first season!
Weidenfeld: I think we really found our footing in this season in the types of stories we want to tell and you can pick up the tone of the show better and it’s not so much topical, but getting to the things we want to say, but through broader metaphors.
Neely: We know these characters better now and I think we can bring an idea now like the discussion of a gay gene, does that marginalize bisexual people? We’ll put that on the table and see how we can talk about it and dramatize it in a big, dumb cartoony way.
Weidenfeld: We’re more confident. I mean we were confident before, but this is the first project that Brad had ever done for TV. So first season we crammed so much into the first season and we sort of grown into it, but we didn’t even know if there would be a second season. There’s this confidence in this season, not so much in us as we’re both terrified of failure every second of everyday, but there’s a confidence that in the making of this show now.
Neely: If we get a fourth season, I’ll...uh, I don’t know how to turn this into a joke, so I’ll say I’ll just feel at ease.
Nrama: What are you excited for fans to see in this season?
Neely: Oh, boy. The songs, the guests, and I guess the blood and the sex and the fear and the death. Yeah, those things.
Weidenfeld: Again, the fear and the death are probably up there.
Neely: And the sex! And the sex!
Weidenfeld: And the sex! Also, we look into this and it’s like a record. For us, it’s not just looking at each episode like a single, but it’s a weird interesting set, but I think if people watch it all as a whole, they’ll find interesting things that we were trying to do. The jokes work by themselves and as a whole and I hope people see that.