Comedy Central finds a terrific companion for South Park, Devin Clark and David Stern’s horror-comedy about life with zombies, demons and werewolves called Ugly Americans.
Let’s get something out of the way: If you dig comic books, have an interest in mature, funny and well-drawn toons, chances are you are going to get hooked on Comedy Central’s new series Ugly Americans. If you also go weak in the knees for zombies, demons, werewolves and hand-eye monsters straight out of Pan’s Labyrinth, then get ready for the ride of your life as David M. Stern and Devin Clark’s clever creation begins its initial seven-week run in March.
Loosely inspired by Clark’s original web series 5ON, the half-hour show follows the adventures of a young New York City social worker who has to help vampires, werewolves, land-whales and other oddities adjust to life as a Big Apple citizen. It doesn’t help that his roommate is a zombie and his moody ex is a demon lady co-worker.
Clark, a New York-based illustrator and comic artist, first came up with the basic premise of the show as he was waiting for his train at a subway station. ‘I’m a compulsive artist, and I’m always sketching,’ he says. ‘I had this big sheet of paper and I divided it up into eight different panels, and I figured out it would be fun to have eight weird creatures being interviewed on a certain subject,’ he recalls. ‘Then when I pitched it as a web show for Atom Films, they said it would be a good idea to have these characters talk about topical things, like presidential candidates or the environment.’
With the aid of comic actors Nick Kroll, John Mulaney and Pete Holmes, Clark came up with a web series (done in Illustrator and After Effects) that showcased his monsters and became a fast hit on atom.com. Before long, Atom Films’ cable partner Comedy Central asked Devin to expand the show and create a bigger concept that would work as a TV series. That’s when writer/exec producer David Stern (The Wonder Years, Monk, The Simpsons) came on board as head writer and show runner.
‘We approached a few writers, but David was the one who really got it,’ notes Clark. ‘We kind of meshed our brains together and came up with the idea for the show.’
Stern remembers how he instantly clicked with Clark as they chatted about how to expand the three-minute-long web toon to a half-hour TV show with a four-act structure. With the aid of New York’s acclaimed indie studio Augenblick Studios (Superjail), the producers created an 11-minute pilot that blew away the execs at Comedy Central. ‘Only a few people at the studio knew about it,’ says Stern. ‘Which worked to our advantage because there’s that element of surprise’people haven’t heard all the pilot’s jokes 15 times.’
Stern also credits Clark and exec producer and Comedy Central’s seasoned vp of original programming Daniel Powell with putting together the perfect team for the show. ‘I’m a sitcom writer and can’t even draw a circle,’ says Stern. ‘Many times in this business, they start with a script and then find an animator, and if there’s no chemistry between them, there’s a division that can’t be fixed. We had Dan overseeing the whole project, and Devin was the creative visionary’he plays the role of Matt Groening over at The Simpsons‘and Aaron Augenblick does some fantastic animation work. Altogether, it has been one of the best experiences of my career.’
For Clark, it was crucial to keep the show’s animation in the heart of his fave city. ‘A big priority was to tap into the animation community of New York City,’ he says. ‘I’ve been a fan of Augenblick’s animation, and we thought it would be fantastic to have Aaron and his team work on the show. We are using Flash to create the animation, but it looks like a traditionally animated show, because of the way Augenblick uses Flash’it involves a lot of drawing; Flash isn’t used as a puppeting tool to move the art around.’ Top-notch Canadian animation house Cuppa Coffee joined the production when it was picked up for episodes, partnering with Augenblick’s operation to handles the animation. The Toronto-based studio, primarily known for its excellent stop-motion animation work, staffed up a massive unit of 2D animators to handle the show’s intricate work.
Since Clark is a huge comic-book fan as well as a true aficionado of horror movies, the chance to work on this monsteriffic show has been a real dream come true. ‘The series has given me the opportunity to come up with 175 character designs just for seven episodes so far,’ he enthuses. ‘We can create numerous weird background characters, creatures with eyeballs in their hands, etc. and pull from this huge bank of movies and comic books that I love.’
Clark, who counts comic-book artists Jack Kirby, Will Eisner, Johnny Craig and Jack Davis and animation greats Hayao Miyazaki and Ren’ Laloux as some of his idols, says he was drawn to indie, moody fare from an early age. ‘Both my parents were artists, and I guess I’ve been drawing since I was old enough to hold a pencil ‘ I got a taste for independent artist-driven comics when I was very young. I was looking at Art Crumb’s work when I was 10′which isn’t really appropriate for a kid that age! But I’ve always loved those comic books more than the shiny, superhero ones, because they were gritty and were more based in reality.’
Doing the Monster Mash
‘We get inspirations from the wild characters the animators like to draw,’ says Stern. ‘We’ve been rocking along at a breakneck speed, but it’a lot of fun to explore this world which is full of weird creatures. The key is to find interesting new hooks on characters we might have seen before. What’s different about our show that we treat these creatures like they’re normal’that they’ve all been around before and an accepted part of our reality. Our main character’s job’Mark Lilly, who is a social worker at the Department of Immigratio’is to domesticate all the freaks and make them responsible members of society. He’s also our guide in this crazy world.’
The fact that the artists and the writers get to play with a variety of new freaks and monsters in each outing has been a huge asset for Stern, who used to write on slower-paced shows such as The Wonder Years and Monk. ‘My favorite thing about the show is that we get to take extraordinary situations and find the ordinary in them,’ he admits. ‘We get to re-invent Manhattan from top to bottom, and we also have this alternative history of the city. We get to reference events like the Zombie Civil Wars of the 1960s. That’s why you don’t find yourself repeating yourself and writing yourself into a corner, like some of the other shows I’ve worked on. You can cram so much more into each act’the pacing is really magnificent!’
Since Comedy Central will be pairing Ugly Americans with its perennially popular hit South Park on Wednesday nights, there’s a good chance that the series will find a stronger fan base than the cabler’s other toon experiments Drawn Together and Lil’ Bush. Regardless of viewers’ response, Clark believes that he has already seen the rewards of his creativity and hard work. ‘I guess it’s hard to define, but there’s nothing quite as satisfying as seeing a finished episode after working on it for such a long time,’ he admits. ‘It’s the fruition of all those months of blood, sweat and tears. I just saw the promotional teaser for the show after they aired the season finale of South Park, and it was the first time that I could say, ‘Hey, that’s my show, on Comedy Central!’ It tingled my spine!’
Ugly Americans will premiere on Comedy Central on March 17.