Inside the Inbred Horror Comedy of ‘The Heart, She Holler’
“Anything can happen,” says Alyson Levy on the Brooklyn set of the Adult Swim show she produces, The Heart, She Holler. “People can come back from the dead or, you know, maybe they weren’t dead. We don’t know. There’s no reality to it. It’s just the world unto this that has its own rules.”
Tonight sees the return of grotesque soap opera-inspired live action comedy, which follows the debaucherous exploits of the inbred hillbilly family The Heartshes. Season one began with the emergence of Hurlan Heartshe (Patton Oswalt) from the cave he’s lived in all his life, following the death of his father (Jonathan Hadary). Hurlan is due to take over the town, much to the chagrin of his sisters, the oversexed Hershe (Kristen Schaal) and overreligious and telekinetic Hambrosia (Heather Lawless).
The creators, part of the Brooklyn-based art collective PFFR, have also produced Adult Swim’s Xavier: Renegade Angel and Delocated. “We are just such an island unto our ourselves,” says Levy. “I don’t consider us in any way show business. It’s just our own thing, that we’ve been lucky and Adult Swim just lets us keep doing.”
The surreal 11-minute show comes from Vernon Chatman, John Lee, and Levy, the creators of cult favorite Wonder Showzen. They wrote the part of Hurlan for Oswalt. “I’m suddenly at breakfast with them in New York and they showed me this family tree of the Heartshes,” said Oswalt on the show’s set in April. “That’s all they had. They had no scripts; they had nothing. And then they invoked this book by Michael Lesy called Wisconsin Death Trip, which is one my favorites. And once I heard that, I’m like, ‘Yeah, I’m in. Let me know when the scripts are ready and we’ll come and do this.'”
“And then we told Adult Swim,” said Levy, “And they were like, ‘Okay, great. No pilot. You can just do the six episodes.’ Which was kind of our plan. We’ll get it to be to the point where they can’t say no.” The six-episode first series ran in November of last year, and was picked up for a 14-episode second season, with Amy Sedaris taking over the role of Hershe from Schaal, who left New York last year.
“Originally, the part was written for Kristen,” said Levy. ”But then when she had to go, Amy just felt like this is the absolute perfect person and of course she should be in the show. She should have always been in the show, right?” Sedaris, whose eclectic resume includes co-creating and starring in beloved comedy Strangers with Candy, writing her own craft and hospitality books, and being one of David Letterman’s all-time best guests, said she hadn’t seen the show before she was offered the role. “This is perfect for me, she said. “At first I thought, what can you do in 11 minutes? [But] this is perfect. It couldn’t be any longer.”
Schaal’s version of the character had drawn comparisons to Sedaris’s 46-year-old high schooler Jerri Blank from Strangers with Candy. “I was thinking about that,” said Sedaris. “Because they’re both little whores. Jerri was more like a loveable tramp. I don’t know if they’d get along cause they’d probably eat the same foods, so I don’t know how that would go. But I was like, what is it about me playing whores all the time?”
The second season sees an expansion of the backwater town, with guest appearances from David Cross, Amber Tamblyn, and John Gemberling. The dimwitted Hurlan, who spent much of season one barely comprehending his surroundings, is given a bit more to do this season. “It’s the classic thing of a guy that wants to have more of an impact on life and learns, in some pretty brutal ways, that it’s probably better that you kept your mouth shut and just let things happen to you because you should not be trying to affect anything,” Oswalt said, still in his costume, which today includes a cat paw sticking out of his chest. “It leads to horrible, horrible things. I’m just gonna leave that be.”
“I think there are more secrets revealed in this season about how the dynamic of Heartshe works,” said Joseph Sikora, who plays Hambrosia’s sheriff husband. “The mystical rules and powers that dictate the ebb and flow of activity are a little bit more revealed. Just when you think this person’s in control, they may not be.”
The plot of the show can be difficult to describe, as evidence by Oswalt’s own description. “I mean, I’m finding it out everyday,” said Lawless. “I have very little idea of what’s going on, so I can only imagine what other people watching it are gonna unveil. It’s a confusing little menagerie.”
“Menagerie?,” Sikora echoed. “Oh that’s actually a secret, what Heather just said. What an awesome hint. Menagerie.”
The Heart, She Hollers airs weeknights at 12:30 am ET on Adult Swim.