Talking to Brad Neely and Daniel Weidenfeld About Season 2 of ‘China, IL’
This weekend, Adult Swim’s animated series China, IL is set to return for its second season, and for season two, the show is expanding from 15 minutes to a full half-hour, making it one of the rare Adult Swim shows to become a full-length series. Created by Brad Neely, who honed his chops on the internet for years with web series like The Professor Brothers and I Am Baby Cakes, China, IL follows the faculty and students at University of China, Illinois, the “worst college in America,” and it features the voice acting of folks like Greta Gerwig, Hulk Hogan, Jeffrey Tambor, Hannibal Buress, Chelsea Peretti, and Neely himself, who does the bulk of the series’ voice work.
I recently had the chance to talk to Brad Neely and China, IL writer/executive producer Daniel Weidenfeld about the new season, rebelling against notes on the show, and how Seinfeld and The Simpsons serve as examples for them.
So Brad, what’s your musical background prior to this?
Brad Neely: Growing up as a teenager, I had punk bands and me and my friends would do improvisational hangouts, like where we would set a recorder and just go. I think that’s what I’m drawing from whenever I make music for the show, just making those kids in that room laugh.
So you’ve always been recording songs in the style of ones on the show?
Neely: Yeah, actually. It’s fun to thing about. I really don’t talk about that much, but yeah, I’ve been recording songs since I was 14.
Do you have a favorite song that you’ve written for China, IL?
Neely: For this season, there’s a Kenny Winker song that makes me crazy, but I think we took the lyrics out ’cause it happens in a bar. I like “Time to Drink” too.
Daniel Weidenfeld: I love that time travel song from the first season too. That’s a fun one. That was really the first one.
Neely: I did a lot of Beach Boys music for this season, like a full record’s worth.
Weidenfeld: The Kenny Winker stuff is good ’cause it’s real rock stuff.
Neely: “Get Your Hard-on Out” is the song. It goes, [singing] “Get your hard-on out” and for some reason, we can say that. We can’t say “Jesus,” but we can say, “Get your hard-on out.”
[Laughs] Do you have any plans to release an album or a collection of the music?
Neely: I’m doing stuff for my website, Creased Comics. I like to do comedy songs that go with images. I like comedy music that is a part of that.
Weidenfeld: But you’ve talked about a pop record on your own. Like a non-comedy genre record.
Neely: I know, yeah. I have a plan to do a hundred songs in a hundred days, but that’s whenever I don’t have other things to do, which will probably be never.
And you’re relaunching Creased Comics, right?
Neely: Yeah, yeah. We’re kind of slowly making it alive right now, but I’m daily putting out single panel comics. In September, in conjunction with China premiering, I’ll be putting out handmade videos like I used to.
Weidenfeld: We showed one at Comic-Con during our panel, Brad’s latest one. Just a bunch of dicks set to music. It’s really good.
Neely: Like, non-TV friendly stuff.
Weidenfeld: The unfriendliest.
Neely: [Laughs] Aggressive.
Weidenfeld: [Laughs] Pretty hateful.
Do you guys ever run into trouble with what you can get onto TV and what you can’t?
Weidenfeld: I find when something comes back that you can’t say, we’re able to skirt around it and make something funnier. Like, being told, “All right, come up with an alternative to that” allows you to think a little harder and make with something funnier. That’s at least what I’ve found. When S&P [Standards & Practices] comes back with something, sometimes we’ll pitch an idea that’s more insane without realizing. It’s like, “Yes, it’s much funnier. Let’s do that version.”
Neely: When someone tells you no, I think that triggers the basic rebellion instinct that makes all of the comedy. Like, “You can’t do that,” then you get mad, then you get creative and figure out a way.
Weidenfeld: This wasn’t even a Standards thing, but we did that promo song for Season 1. It was “I See You at UCI,” and we turned in this whole Baby Cakes rap. [Adult Swim exec Mike] Lazzo and the network were like, “Well, you know, this is good, but we really want to sell that idea that is a school. We want to get the name of the school.”
Neely: The name of the show.
Weidenfeld: Brad at first was so fuckin’ mad. He was like, “I’m gonna show them.” He came up with this “I See You at UCI. I See You at UCI.”
Neely: “China, Illiniois. China Illiniois, China Illiniois.” Over and over again.
Weidenfeld: It was like, “This is actually so much better than the previous thing.”
Neely: Sometimes, that spirit of “fuck you”–
Weidenfeld: [Laughs] And it worked. It was like, “They were right.”
Neely: So I’m gonna end up being one of those guys who has to be punched in the face before he makes anything.
[Laughs] Have you run into any trouble being that type of guy so far?
Weidenfeld: Just in your personal life.
Neely: No, no. I mean, it’s a good thing to just stay on your toes. I think whenever you get comfortable, you get boring, so when someone gets in your face about something, it’s a good thing.
Weidenfeld: That’s why we even just talk about taking notes. When we get notes on something, we’re so close to it. Whether the pitch or the idea that somebody’s giving us a note on is exactly right or not, what matters is somebody has a misunderstanding while watching our show. It’s like, “Oh, let’s try to make this at least more clear.” There’s something that’s not hitting if the first people to look at this have some sort of misunderstanding. Sometimes, getting notes sucks, but at the end of the day, it’ll always make the show better, I believe. You’ve just gotta figure out how to make it your own and not just cave in to everything.
Neely: We’re lucky that the executives that we work with at Adult Swim really understand our show, what we do, the audience that we both are perceiving. The notes that they give us are the way to make that more receptive to them.
What’s your writers room like? Is it just you two?
Neely: No. It used to be for Season 1, we had Vernon Chatman help out in the outline phases and weighing in on scripts. I wrote all the scripts, but now when we do the larger, 22-minute [episodes], we have a room full of maybe six to eight people. We talk out the episode, then we make a detailed outline right there in the room with the writers. We all weigh in on it. We send it to network, get notes, revise it. When we’re all cool with it, I will take it and make it into a script. Then, that goes through note passes.
Weidenfeld: These outlines are so detailed. They’re 22-page outlines for the most part. But yeah, we had a great room. We had a woman [Rebecca Addelman] who’s on New Girl now, we had a guy [Jack Kukoda] who was on Community last season. This guy Greg Cohen, who’s on American Dad! and used to work with Robert Smigel and Dino Stamatopoulos a bunch, who’s just brilliant.
Neely: Kyle McCulloch, who I worked with on South Park in the writers room there.
Weidenfeld: This young woman [L.E. Correia] who was our writers assistant but then became a writer midway through the season, who I’d worked with on Eric Andre Show. We had such a good room of like-minded smart people.
Brad, what was being in the writers room at South Park like? What was your contribution to the show?
Neely: Pretty much just my lunch order. They don’t need you over there that much. Trey [Parker] does a lot of the hard work, along with Matt [Stone]. I was only there for two runs. Their writers room, due to their production schedule being so tight, it’s erratic and in short bursts. There isn’t really a whole lot of digging in. When he has a problem, he’ll call people in and be like, “This is my issue.” And that’s because he’s a genius.
Are there other shows you look to in terms of being an influence on China, IL?
Neely: Absolutely. We made a conscious effort to create China by way of Seinfeld meets The Simpsons. It’s the animated world of The Simpsons, with four core characters and that storytelling structure where multiple strands are going at once — not just A or B..
Weidenfeld: There’s some dominoes usually that will interconnect all the stories at least midway through the third act.
Neely: That’s our recipe, Seinfeld storytelling set in a Simpsons world.
Weidenfeld: I watch so much television. It’s all I do. Brad doesn’t really watch anything except from Ancient Aliens. That’s really the only other show. That also helps keep the show fresh ’cause there’s nothing else to compare it to or know what’s going on. South Park is the other show you do watch and keep up with pretty regularly. There’s a fresh perspective always. You’re not colored by everything else that you’re watching on TV.
Do you ever find you’re writing stuff that’s eerily similar to stuff on TV that you haven’t seen?
Neely: All the time. There’s such an avalanche of media out there that there’s no way you can be aware of it all, so it’s important to have savvy people all around you. There are things where you’ll come up with an idea and you’re like, “That’s just so good. It has to be done.” Then, we all Google it. “Oh, there it is. That was a Happy Days” even. That’s part of the tough thing, finding that fresh spot. Of course we have to do a tuition story. Everybody’s done a tuition story, but how do we make it fresh? How do we make it special?
Do you guys have a dream guest you haven’t been able to land yet?
Weidenfeld: A bunch. Michael Keaton was one.
Neely: Bruce Willis.
Weidenfeld: We wanted to get Michael Richards. A lot of ’em we get are people who we’re just friends with, which helps the core group. Brad worked with this guy Ryan Flynn on his Fox pilot a long time ago, who I’ve been aware of and am a huge fan of. Hannibal [Buress] is an old friend, Chelsea [Peretti]’s an old friend. Jason Walden, who plays this character Sammy, is like family.
Neely: A couple of the ones that we were like “Let’s try,” then they really liked the script, so they said, “Let’s do it.” Hulk Hogan, for instance, or Greta Gerwig or Jeffrey Tambor.
Weidenfeld: People that’ve really been so supportive or enthusiastic about this show are doing it not because they need to but because they really want to. That’s the most exciting thing to hear. Greta and Jeffrey in particular get so excited about the material. That is the biggest honor in the world.
Who are some new characters that you guys are bringing into the show this season?
Neely: Hannibal Buress plays Matt Attack. We have a lot of students now that we’re focusing on.
Weidenfeld: It’s one of the benefits of doing a half-hour show. We sort of pitched and talked about the idea like a reverse Animal House, like the teachers are crazy and the students just wanna learn. We’ve really been able to show the students are kind of crazy too. They do their own fucked up things, have their own issues.
Neely: Chelsea Peretti plays Crystal Peppers. Ryan Flynn plays Pimsy and Flip-Flop. Those are two really important characters. We’re growing out the news reporter. His name’s Golden Bowl. He’s played by Gary Anthony Williams. Steve has a new girlfriend every episode pretty much. Brooke Hogan handles a lot of those. EG Daily.
Weidenfeld: Yeah, she was on it. She was great. But it’s mostly just some new students and some guests here and there. [Ronald] Reagan’s coming back, so Dave Coulier’s a part of the show. Kenny Winker. Some one-off guests that are weird characters, without giving too much. Heather Lawless is in it, and she’s been fantastic. She plays two characters in an episode. We’ve been so lucky just to be able to get the people that make the show – on the page it’s really funny, but it’s even funnier once it’s being read. We have Brad obviously doing the heavy lifting with the voices. I mean, every episode, he’s probably at least 40% of the lines. To have that, that also allows production to be smooth and seamless. Then, if we need to pick something up, we go, “Oh, this joke isn’t playing while we’re recording.” Rather than have to wait for somebody else’s schedule, we just go next door and do it.
Season 2 of China, IL premieres this Sunday, September 22nd, on Adult Swim