Talking to Rob Corddry About ‘Childrens Hospital’
The season finale of Childrens Hospital airs tomorrow night at midnight on Adult Swim, and for the show’s first half-hour episode, creator Rob Corddry promises sex, explosions, and something different from what viewers have seen before. That’s a tall order, since the joke machine of a show revels in changing up its formula, constantly experimenting with genre, gleefully breaking continuity, and this season arbitrarily changing settings from its only occasionally-referenced regular location in a Rio de Janeiro hospital for American expat children to a U.S. army base in Japan. In true Childrens Hospital style, the choice allowed the comedy new storytelling opportunities, which it more or less embraced before going off on its own idiosyncratic tangents.
I talked to Corddry recently about the show’s fluid reality, writing process, and season finale.
By going into so many different directions, formats, plots – you’ve created this sandbox for yourself where it seems like you can do anything. Is there anything you won’t do? Or do you ever have a moment where it’s like, “Oh no. That doesn’t follow the rules of the show?”
Yeah, absolutely. And I like the description of a sandbox. I think that’s a really cool way to visualize it. But there definitely is. Sometimes they’re hard to put into words. Sometimes it’s only me as sort of the – there’s three of us who executive produce the show and have developed it, but really it’s like, if there’s ever an argument, I’m sort of the veto. I very rarely do that.
But I’m also sort of the tone police and more times than I’ve ever vetoed, I say “I don’t know why, but we can’t do that.” Mostly, for concrete examples, I could say I don’t really care about messing with continuity, obviously, of our fictional world. But for the world that exists, our backstage fictional world – the world of characters where we play these characters on the show Childrens Hospital – I’m very strict with that continuity. My showrunner for Newsreaders [Jim Margolis] is so annoyed by it because like, “We can’t have Blake Downs on the show?” And I was like, “Nope. But you can have Cutter Spindell.” It’s something that I just sort of get off on – that part of it, the mythology and stuff like that. So that’s something I police.
Is it also that instinct or what you’re feeling that determines which ideas and jokes become part of that mythology? Like, the hospital being in Brazil and Malin Akerman’s Valerie Flame actually being Derrick Childrens, played by Jon Hamm — those things recur versus one-offs like Chief actually being an able bodied superhero, which hasn’t come back.
[Laughs] Right, there you go. Actually, there will be sometimes when we’ll have arguments – and they’re very much friendly discussions – about why we can’t say that Chief is a super villain in season five because we already said she’s a superhero. You know what I mean? And we didn’t have that exact argument, but it’s case by case. We’ve also said that [Rob] Huebel is married all of the sudden to Alicia Silverstone and then he’s not and Lake [Bell]’s character dated Josh Groban. There’s a lot of stuff that we’ve just destroyed. But at the end of the day, we all have a meter for this, just how funny the joke is. If the joke is better told by breaking continuity, then let’s do it. But we’re not going to break continuity for the sake of it.
You have the writer’s credit on most of the episodes in the first couple of seasons when it was a web series. Now with more writers like Jason Mantzoukas, Ken Marino, Erica Oyama, and all the others, how does the Childrens Hospital writers room work, if there is one?
There isn’t. And it changes every time. We’re actually experimenting with one for Newsreaders. Basically, we have two sessions, usually one in LA, one in New York, where we get our friends together – a bunch of comedians that we like – and everybody pitches jokes and we pay them a couple hundred bucks for their time and then we just take this huge document of jokes and mix it with our document that we’ve been collecting. Then we just sort of go through them, one by one, and just say “What is this, what is this, what is this?” And then we’ll end up after a while with 12 or 14 full episode ideas. Then we’ll either say, “I want to write that one,” or “You should write that one,” or “We’ve got to farm these five out. Who do we want to get? Well, this guy was really good, Mantzoukas is sort of our ringer, this guy was great at the round table,” you know, so it’s just like that. We always branch out, too. I like having very interesting people. Like, Diablo Cody wrote one this year. I like really opening up the world a little bit.
This year, how have you worked with everyone’s busier schedules? It seems like you have to pare down the cast to a different set of people every time.
Yeah, I think maybe Zandy Hartig who plays Nurse Dori is the only person in every episode. Someone said there should be an episode that is strictly about her, which I think is great. She’s awesome. But it’s nearly impossible every year – just from season one, it’s been impossible. It’s getting way harder for sure. You know, just stuff happens. Like, if we were shooting now, Malin would be completely unavailable. She was very unavailable last season. Erinn Hayes has been unavailable too because they’re getting work, which is unfortunate for us but it’s a good thing too. But also we have the luxury of being as loose as we are sort of built into the show by necessity born out of the lack of money and how hard it is to schedule these huge stars. And also, I’m not in as many episodes this season as I was before, mostly just because I was writing most of the time, and I hate acting in the show. Acting is, of all the things I like to do, I think it’s the thing I’m most comfortable at, at least practiced in. But I just cannot stand it on Childrens because I have so much else to do, and at the time it just seems so dumb! I’m like, I have to stay here for hours just to say this over and over again? [Laughs] I’ve been writing it over and over again.
The finale that you’re doing for this season is a half-hour. What kinds of challenges and opportunities did that present?
There weren’t really any extra challenges because it’s a half-hour, because ultimately that’s just two episodes put together. It took the same amount of time to shoot that we would two episodes: four days. But it definitely was a challenge since we didn’t even know if these were going be two parts or if they were going to let us show the full half-hour. We had to sort of be careful when we were writing the commercial breaks. It’s definitely challenges that are all fun. The hardest part was that we just kind of really shot ourselves in the foot this season. We got really cocky and we were like, “We only need six episode ideas.” And if we didn’t like an episode a few drafts in, like a month before shooting, we’d just chuck it and start writing a new one. So we really got behind. We chucked a lot of episodes, and we got really behind. So I was writing – literally writing – three different scenes for that finale as they were shooting a scene from it downstairs.
The show gets a lot of great guest stars. Is there anyone that you’d love to have on?
There’s so many people I’d love to have on. But like, a great get – Oh! Have you heard about this kid, Bobby De Niro?
I really love working with those guys. Like, it’s cool working with like Ed Begley, Jr. and guys like that who I’ve sort of grown up loving. Like, Kurtwood Smith was awesome. Jane Seymour did Newsreaders. There are a lot of people that are icons to me, and I guess like I would sort of like – Ray Wise is on Newsreaders specifically because watching Twin Peaks was like acting school for me in college. I’m probably the only person that’s ever said that. And you know what I would say, and I’d probably regret this the second it happened: Ed Harris. Make it happen.
In a specific kind of character or just any role?
He’s always like playing a NASA guy or something. I see him as a very traditional, maybe like an old ’50s FBI type. You know, like a Hoover-era FBI guy who’s really, really sensitive and cries a lot.
That’s a good twist. Do you have any new shows you’re working on?
Yeah, I am working on one with a bunch of buddies, actually Jason Mantzoukas and Brian Huskey and our friend, Jesse Falcon. We’re working on a pilot right now, but I don’t want to say too much about it because it’s just a pilot and it might never ever happen, and you’ll hear about it soon enough, I guess. We’ve just started the development phase. But yeah, they created something, and I’m producing it and developing it with them.
Is it also sort of short-form or is it like a half hour?
We haven’t even decided. Adult Swim is so cool they’ll let us do anything we want. I would say it’s probably short. I don’t see a reason to do anything longer than that. [Laughs] And it is for Adult Swim.
It seems like they’re sort of great supporters of you. They’ve given you this freedom to do kind of whatever you want.
There’s no reason to work anywhere else. They’re amazing. It’s really uncommon.
You’re also doing a lot of acting in other projects, like Rapture-Palooza, Hell Baby, and the upcoming Hot Tub Time Machine 2 along with guest starring on shows like Happy Endings. Have you gotten offers to work in other sort of network capacities?
Yeah, I’m definitely always looking for that thing, that thing that I would love to do and I could do for five to seven years and it would put my kids through college. Network TV is also kind of weird right now. It would take a really special situation for me to really want to sink my teeth into that. But I am more excited about not just the cable networks, but the internet networks or the Netflix family of networks. I think they’ve started to understand the importance of giving the talent and creators freedom and not having to be dependent on ad dollars.
I think your show’s been a part of that, demonstrating the viability of unconventional models and audiences’ ability to find unique content.
It’s definitely a piece of many different shows and movies that I think largely my kind of family of comedians have been doing. People understand that, like, these guys – this is what they like doing. They like doing it all, and so why don’t we just let them?
It seems like alt-comedy and improv have come into the mainstream and there’s a greater number of different ways for you to get your projects out there and for fans to find them. I think it’s all coming together in this great time right now.
Yeah, I mean the only problem is that it’s so easy to say for you guys, to say, “Oh, well there’s the Gary Sanchez family.” Like Will Ferrell and Adam McKay and his whole team, and Adam Sandler’s family of movies, they’re all sort of repertory companies. But we don’t really have a figurehead. We’re more like a commune of UCB and The State and all of the people we came up with, all of the standups and writers that came up at the same time. It’s definitely more of a supportive — I’m not saying those guys aren’t supportive — it’s a different kind of world, and it’s hard for the press to say, “Oh, I’m talking about this group.”
At the same time it speaks to the ensemble nature and supportiveness of that community. That everyone sort of works with each other, does other things.
You know what, too? I will credit the UCB with sort of creating that vibe. The first thing I learned in improv, the first level of class in 1997, was if you don’t worry about looking good and you make your partner look good, you will look good. And so, you just surround yourself with people that you like and get you and everything works out, really. And I’m so surprised that most people just haven’t done that up until now. It’s a simple thing.
The special half-hour finale of Childrens Hospital airs tomorrow at midnight on Adult Swim.
Joel Arnold is a writer and improviser living in New York.