This month, animation fans will be introduced to an awesomely offbeat and original new kind of superhero from Down Under. Created by the brilliant Aussie mastermind Michael Cusack (YOLO: Crystal Fantasy, Smiling Friends), the new show Koala Man follows the adventures of a middle-aged suburban dad (voiced by Cusack himself) who sets out to clean his small town of Dapto from evildoers of all shapes and sizes and often ropes his poor family into his adventures.
In addition to Cusack, the new Hulu show features the voices of Hugh Jackman as the popular Big Greg, head of the town council; Sarah Snook as Kevin’s wife; Jemaine Clement as Bazwell, a nerdy dandy who mentors Kevin’s son, Liam (also voiced by Cusack) and Demi Lardner as Kevin’s popularity-hungry daughter, Alison; with Rachel House as Vicky’s coworker Janine and local bowling club owner Louise, Jarrad Wright as Kevin’s neighbor/BFF/superhero sidekick, Spider, and guest roles by veteran actors Miranda Otto and Hugo Weaving.
Celebrating a Unique Voice
Koala Man is executive produced by Solar Opposites and Rick and Morty co-creator Justin Roiland and Pokémon: Detective Pikachu writers Dan Hernandez and Benji Samit. As Hernandez and Samit point out, one of the main reasons the show stands out in the very crowded adult animation landscape is the distinct voice and vision of its creator, Michael Cusack.
“It was part of our job as showrunners was to make sure Michael’s authentic point of view was not lost in translation,” says Hernandez. “When you look at his work on YOLO: Crystal Fantasy or Smiling Friends, it has such a strong point of view and visual sensibility. We didn’t want to lose that special Adult Swim style that makes Michael Michael. But, we also knew that this show was double the length of those other series, and it had a little more of a seasonal arc narrative. So, the question was, how do we take everything that Michael is all about and put it into a longer format and not lose that alchemical thing he has that is so brilliant?”
Samit points out that the overall visual look of the show all comes from Cusack. “All of the character designs come from his own sketches,” he says. “A lot of animation these days looks like it could be all the same show. We are very fortunate that we have a vision that comes from our show creator, Michael. Even when we are all in the writers room, he is doodling. It’s so great to have someone like that in a writers room where we are talking about a character or a story idea, he just draws it and says, ‘Here it is!’”
The origins of the show go back about four years ago when Cusack created the Koala Man character for a series of shorts, which caught the attention of the development team at 20th Century and exec producer Justin Roiland (Rick and Morty, Solar Opposites). The cool 2D animation for the show is produced by Melbourne-based Princess Bento, which is a joint venture of FOX Entertainment’s Bento Box in L.A. and Princess Pictures in Australia.
“We’d been working with 20th Century on several projects, including Central Park, and then asked us to take a look at Michael’s shorts,” says Samit. “We thought it was hilarious, and we had instant chemistry with him. We were totally on the same page about what the show would be. It was one of those arranged marriages that worked out perfectly. Then, we went on to cast the show and make the pilot and then pitched it to Hulu, and soon we had this amazing creative partnership that continues to this day.”
About half of the show’s writers are Americans and the other half hail from the land down under. “One of our advantages is that the voices and the subject matter are so authentic and fresh,” says Hernandez. “Australia is very similar to our country but it’s also significantly different, so we set out to explore all those differences. There has been so much American adult animation that it’s sometimes hard to think of a completely original idea, but there haven’t been as many exploring Australian life. Every time one of our Australian writers would suggest something, we’d be like, ‘Oh, we’re doing that! It’s a great idea!’”
Samit mentions that because of the pandemic, the writers room had to be conducted via Zoom, so that allowed them to bring in original Australian voices into the mix. “Our writers were in different places in Australia, so we actually got to understand some of the regional differences over there as well. They’d fight over how things would be done. They’d say things like, ‘Oh, that’s now how we play kickball. This is how we play it!’ We tend to view all of Australia as one big culture, but of course, every region is different from others as well,” adds Hernandez.
The acclaimed showrunners admit that one of their favorite parts of the job was seeing how many crazy situations they could get Koala Man into. “We challenged ourselves not to put things in that we have seen a million times before and not be afraid of being too conceptual, abstract or surreal,” says Hernandez. “But we also wanted it to be very accessible and not feel like homework to watch. The plots had to be good superhero plots. They still needed to present real threats to the characters. Threading the needle between absurdist situations and real stakes was a real challenge, but it also helped us create a lot of awesome villains for Koala Man to go up against. I hope that people enjoy the villains as much as we do during the course of that first season.”
Samit adds, “We had so much freedom on this show. More than anything else that we’ve worked on, we were able to go for what makes us laugh and what would be shocking to us. We asked ourselves, ‘Hey, can we do that?’ and Hulu said we can. They were great supporters of the show since the first day. We were really never held back from doing what we wanted to do on this show.”
Hernandez is also quite grateful to have landed such a stellar voice cast for the show. “It may sound like a cliché, but this was a dream come true,” he says. “To have Hugh Jackman on board for this crazy thing was something that we could not have anticipated other than as a fantasy in our wildest imagination. Everyone we worked with on the show was the best of the best. If anything, it taught us that you never know who is going to say yes unless you ask. That has been a rewarding lesson!”
Chuck Jones and Matt Groening
When asked about their biggest animation influences, Santi quickly singles out The Simpsons.“That show got me into comedy, and when I look back at my childhood, that was the show that pushed me towards television.”
Hernandez also mentions The Simpsons, but he also gives a lot of credit to his mother, Lorna Hernandez, who is a professor of computer animation (at the Art institute of Florida and at Univ. of California in San Diego). “She instilled in me a love for all the classics; Chuck Jones, Tex Avery and the early Looney Tunes. I even gave her an original Daffy Duck cel from Quackbusters (1988) for her birthday because Daffy’s her favorite character. As I got older, I have tried to add new tricks to my frames of reference by studying anime and shows like Cowboy Bebop!”
The talented writers hope that audiences will embrace their new show and find it funny and entertaining. “I hope they’ll be surprised by how invested they are in Koala Man as a superhero and how much they really care for these characters,” says Samit. “I hope they laugh and think it’s silly, but at some point they feel really invested in the fate of the characters.”
Hernandez agrees. “When you embark on these kinds of genre explorations, you have to do it with love and an understanding of what makes these tropes work. So our hope is that by the end of the first season (eight episodes), viewers will say, ‘Wow, I laughed my ass off, but I also saw an amazing superhero story. That our show stands with these other superhero stories in a diagonal, twisted way. But Koala Man is a hero, and that’s a surprising thing!”
Koala Man premieres on Hulu on Monday, January 9.