Interview With The Minds Behind Adult Swim’s ‘Eagleheart’
For all of us lovers of absurd, alternative and over-the-top comedy Adult Swim’s ‘Eagleheart’ is a series to be reckoned with.
Starring Chris Elliott as US Marshal Chris Monsanto, the show is a fast paced vortex of hilarity and exaggeration condensed into a quarter-hour episode. Actually, sans credits and commercials the series edges out at roughly eleven minutes, but in that time we are given an unconventional comedy series where uproarious laughter proves to be the inevitable reaction.
Backed by the comedic talents of Brett Gelman and Maria Thayer—rounding the team of US Marshals with Elliott at the head—and created by the brilliant minds of Michael Koman (‘Late Night with Conan O’Brien’/’Important Things with Demetri Martin’), Andrew Weinberg (‘Late Night with Conan O’Brien’/’The Tonight Show with Conan O’Brien’) and Jason Woliner (‘Human Giant’/’Saturday Night Live’), ‘Eagleheart’ is an absolute win for Adult Swim.
We recently spoke to the creators about their opinions of the show along with the creative process and its evolution.
GuySpeed: Something we love about your show is that it’s comedic but plays like an over-the-top drama. How would you describe ‘Eagleheart’ to someone?
MICHAEL KOMAN: I think there’s a Looney Tunes quality to the show. We all love cartoons. When we’d talk about ideas we’d references old cartoons a lot. Looking back on it I do notice a similarity of Chris Monsanto kind of being a Bugs Bunny character. The main people are at the core of it but surrounded by people who are drawn like straight people.
ANDREW WEINBERG: We treat it like whatever is going on is very real and serious. Then just by that nature it’s hopefully funny and absurd.
JASON WOLINER: It’s like a really stupid, over the top action show starring Chris Elliott, kind of a surreal action show.
GS: How did ‘Eagleheart’ come about?
MK: Weinberg and I were still writing at ‘Late Night with Conan O’Brien.’ We wrote a pilot that was loosely based around a Chuck Norris type character. It was an aging action star who has a failing show and what it’s like behind the scenes.
AW: We did a Walker Texas Ranger lever bit on Late Night, so we watched countless hours of that show and became pretty fascinated with it, how ridiculous the show itself was. We just became obsessed with Chuck Norris as a real person and the stamp he put on that show. He was like the creator, the executive producer, the star and most episodes were directed by Aaron Norris, which I think is his brother.
MK: We made the pilot and the strongest parts were the clips of his television show. So then Andrew, Jason and I started over and thought if we wanted to make a crazy action show with Chris Elliott at the center, what would that be? It was strange because they [Adult Swim] had picked up the entire season before we had done this. So we kept the name ‘Eagleheart’ from the original pilot and tried to build a show around Chris.
JW: And we felt that from the time they came up with it Chuck Norris had been so referenced in comedy already and on the Internet. We really didn’t want to do anything Walker related anymore. The only thing that lasted from that I think is that he wears a hat.
AW: We should mention that when we were casting the network brought up Chris’s name. We were imagining a more serious actor but jumped at that chance because we’re all huge fans and didn’t want to pass up that opportunity. He came in and said he really liked the script but didn’t think he was right for it. We convinced him he was. Then it evolved somewhat during that season, figuring out the middle ground between what the network wanted and what we wanted. I think we found what it is…hopefully.
GS: You guys were already hooked up with CONACO at that time?
AW: Yes. I think because Michael and I were working for Conan at the time we had to show it to them. So that was our first step. We wrote the script and showed it to Conan. He liked it and CONACO was onboard.
MK: We were literally obligated to show it to Conan’s company. We were really lucky that he liked it. I think we would have had a much ore difficult time doing the show if Conan had not been a part of it.
GS: The writing in the show is incredibly funny. What’s the process?
MK: It’s the least romantic thing ever. We rent an apartment for a while and talk about it for months. Then we plug in a computer to a TV and sit and make outlines. When it’s done we split and write an episode over a few days.
JW: We almost arbitrarily will split up who writes an episode. We have to write an outline to submit to Adult Swim, usually two pages, where we describe the episode.
AW: It really is the three of us sitting around coming up with ideas, bits and characters. We’ll have a story that one of us came up with latched to a character that another came up with that has references to something another came up with. It kind of jumbles so we all have a hand in all of them.
MK: Pretty much everything is a collaboration with the three of us. Once we’re done we’ll invite a couple of friends in to come and pitch ideas.
AW: We had Greg Cohen who’s an old Late Night writer. He’s brilliant. We had another Late Night writer, Andy Blitz. This year we had Blitz again, Brian Reich and Luke Maxwell. But then it comes down to the three of us.
GS: Are there any improvisations?
MK: It isn’t really Chris’s style to do that. Plus we have the tightest shooting schedule so if we were to improvise we’d go into overtime. We take as much time to write as we can.
JW: We shoot episodes in two and a half days so there isn’t that much time.
AW: Sometimes Brett, who is a brilliant improviser, will come up with something on the spot but we don’t have the luxury of screwing around. After we write the episode we’ll send it to Chris and his partner, Adam Resnick. They’ll go through it and add jokes that are really from Chris Elliott.
GS: Jason, is this at all like doing ‘Human Giant’?
JW: It’s the same basic idea. ‘Human Giant’ was a small group sitting around trying to make each other laugh. There was probably a little more disagreement in that group because we never wrote as a group before we had that show. On ‘Eagleheart’, we are on the same page with almost everything. Human Giant was a much lower budget too. If I watch it now it feels like a student film but I think that was part of its charm.
GS: Michael & Andrew, was it much different writing together at Conan then here?
MK: In a certain way. There’s definitely a lot more production here. ‘Eagleheart’ feels like we were figuring it out as we went along.
AW: It was a culture shock for me in the sense that I had no experience writing a narrative story. Most of the things at Late Night were a series of beats or a character. This was a totally different thing. Even the idea of starting out by writing an outline was totally foreign. I must say though, I do hope it carries some of Conan’s sensibilities of his show. I think it does. I’m fairly confident he likes it.
MK: This show is all about telling a crazy story. We really had to learn to tell a story—I feel we’ve gotten a lot better at that.
GS: Jason, you seem to wear a lot of hats—writer, producer and even director—Is there one thing you like doing best?
JW: All of them are really fun. Writing can be super fun because there isn’t that much pressure, especially in the beginning. Directing can be fun too but it’s a lot of pressure. Things are constantly going wrong or being put in front of you that don’t look like what they’re supposed to. Everything has its ups and downs but directing is real fun.
GS: You hear so many horror stories in show business about writer’s rooms. It’s great that you guys have these solid friendships inside the room.
MK: It wouldn’t be worth doing if we didn’t actually like each other or the show. With all the work that goes into it and the time it takes, you need to get along. We all work so well together.
GS: Your fans seem to have latched onto the violence and bloodshed of the show when it occurs. When did you discover that violence was funny?
AW: I guess it’s funny to us to have that stuff happen and people treat it so nonchalantly. Someone will explode before their eyes and these people won’t even register it. It’s also fun for us to see what our crew can pull off. Having a cannon that blasts blood all over Chris is always fun to watch.
MK: Also, I do think it goes back to cartoons. It comes out of loving things that are over the top and ridiculous. The silliness of something very excessive happening and the character having almost no reaction to it is great. One of the first things we wrote was from a Popeye cartoon. Popeye is fighting, he starts tickling the guy’s stomach and the guy falls asleep. In our minds there was always something funny about violence if it’s not real. I don’t think with our show you actually get the sense of people getting hurt.
JW: We really just make what’s funny to us. Sometimes that involves crazy blood shed. Chris is so willing to get shot in the face with blood cannons so it’s definitely fun to do that stuff.
GS: That’s great that he’s so open to having blood splattered on him.
AW: Oh yeah! The second death punch where he blows up the old lady, it actually blew his wig off. They had to digitally put it back.
GS: That scene, with her blood and guts just raining down on him was hilarious.
AW: That’s inspired work.
GS: Andrew and Michael, you’ve been writing together for quite some time.
AW: Yeah, I had started at Late Night about six months before Michael. We met and suddenly found ourselves working on things together.
GS: When did you guys begin writing with Jason?
AW: When we were looking for directors to shoot the original pilot he came in. We both really liked him and hired him.
MK: I actually tried to hire him when I was at ‘Important Things’ [Important Things with Demetri Martin]. I always thought Human Giant was so well made. He was our first choice and I was so happy that he agreed to do the pilot because I don’t think the show would be what it is if he hadn’t.
GS: Because of the success of the first season, how did you feel about going into the second season?
MK: I think, in our minds, we felt the first season should have been better. We felt there were points where we missed the mark. So we were just so happy that we were going to have another chance to do it again. We felt the stories should be bigger, have bigger turns and be crazier.
AW: The network loves all that weird and crazy stuff.
JW: It was exciting. It took the pressure off of starting scratch like we had in the first season.
AW: Our goal with the second season was to make an even more exaggerated version of what it was first. Plus having involved more Brett and Maria more was very important.
GS: How is it different working with Adult Swim as opposed to the other networks?
JW: I usually had little to do with the networks. Adult Swim is a lot like MTV where in if they like something they pretty much leave you alone. I can’t see us doing ‘Eagleheart’ anywhere else honestly.
MK: The show definitely wouldn’t exist anywhere other than Adult Swim.
AW: For Michael and I, when we were at Late Night, Conan pretty much had free reign. I don’t think the network ever told him what he could or couldn’t do. It all boiled down to what Conan wanted on his show. He was the only person we had to please. We were expecting Adult Swim to be pretty unconventional and say just do what you do and send in the tapes when you’re done. That was not the case at all. They had an idea of what they wanted. They were investing money in this. They wanted to get what they paid for.
GS: Is there any relief involved in having the show at a quarter-hour time slot as opposed to a half-hour?
MK: The first year I do think we were torn asking if it was the best way. But the second year we realized it is. I think there’s a satisfaction with the fifteen-minute format that you don’t get in a half an hour sometimes.
AW: We’re definitely forced to move fast. You have to watch it in some sort of sensory deprivation chamber so you see and hear everything. We’ve debated if we should try the half-hour but aren’t sure if it would take the fun out of it.
JW: The quarter hour allows us to go in crazy directions. You don’t have to play off multiple story lines or emotional story lines. You can enjoy the crazy ride.
GS: There is something cool about that quarter hour slot.
AW: Yeah, I think a perfect world would be like thirteen or fourteen minutes. With credits they’re like eleven minutes and fifteen seconds. We overwrite and ultimately have to lose things that we like because there isn’t time for it.
MK: Though I do wish commercials didn’t exist just so the show could be a full fifteen minutes. When we’re cutting the shows it’s always the last minute or two that’s the most painful. You’re always cutting something that you feel if you just had a little more time to breathe it could be great. It’s stunning when I watch it on TV. It’s over so fast and so much work went into it. All I’m saying is that I’m a big baby.
GS: Why the change from the original story idea?
JW: Adult Swim didn’t want to do that behind the scenes thing anymore, neither did we. They said just do the parody show and we didn’t want to do that either. Through the first season it was a process of getting to a place where we were both excited about the show.
MK: Also, partly, it just didn’t seem funny enough at first. We wrote that pilot before Chris [and Jason] was involved. Because Chris is so funny if he’s not playing a character that’s written for him it’s harder. Then he can’t do what he usually does. So we felt it’d be better if we based something off of the character he does do.
AW: We were aware while editing that we weren’t sure it was all working. Chris is great at what he does. He’s not like Daniel Day Lewis who can go in and out of totally different characters. So it wasn’t the best fit for Chris. Ultimately what we ended up with is a much better show I think.
JW: I think we did arrive at a place where we’re all satisfied.
GS: How do you feel the show has grown since the beginning?
JW: We tried to make the stories a little denser this year. To me this feels like the first season. The previous one felt like a long pilot. Chris’s character would change a lot. In this season everyone is still crazy… Brett is still almost brain dead, full of rage. Maria’s character is a lot more drawn this season as opposed to just being a voice of reason. Now you can definitely see that she is as crazy as the other people in the show.
GS: I read that you guys don’t like having too many familiar comedy faces on the show. There’s something interesting to that.
MK: Yeah, I think it was more of an experiment than a rule. We thought it’d be good to limit the comedy actors to the leads of the show and then surround them with straight actors. But at the same time we had Brian Stack in this season and he was fantastic. We also had Ben Stiller. So I don’t know if that rule is all that valuable because these guys are terrific.
GS: What is the most difficult thing about doing the show?
JW: I’d say the whole thing is pretty difficult. The editing takes forever. We went a month over schedule on editing. I think the most important thing is trying to keep in mind what originally made you laugh about an idea. Scrutinizing everything through the process to make sure you’re still holding onto the thing you held in the first place, that’s important.
MK: This show is pretty specific because we don’t have a writing staff. It’s the three of us. I’m amazed when people run full network sitcoms. When Tiny Fey is overseeing twenty-two episodes and other people are writing it and she has to rewrite their scripts to make it sound like the same show? That to me seems like the hardest job in the world. But the hardest part of ‘Eagleheart’? If you don’t do a good job and your name is on the show… you did a bad job. If something is off or doesn’t work it’s ultimately your fault. At Conan we could always hide because we were anonymous. It was always Conan sitting there and everyone blames him. But with this show it feels a little more like we f’d up if something goes wrong.
AW: I’d say getting what you see happening done in the short amount of time you have with the money you have is difficult. In the pre-production when scripts are approved you have days to do things. But as the production period progresses you get less and less time to see and approve things before being shot.
GS: It seems that the job gets harder as the season goes on.
AW: It really does. There’s a luxury of time in the beginning. Towards the end everything backs up.
MK: It’s all based on a pretty tight schedule of when Adult Swim wants the show to air.
GS: What would you say you love most about doing ‘Eagleheart’?
AW: I think it’s that we’re not writing to service somebody else. It’s fun to do these stories and to see it all come together.
JW: I just love to come up with ideas and work with my favorite people in the world. It’s all you can ask for in a job.
MK: That we get to do a show with Chris Elliott. To me, everything is based on the people you work with. He’s always made me howl laughing. I know there’s not many times you get to have a dream in comedy and this is it.
Watch Eagleheart on Thursdays at midnight on Adult Swim.