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Wednesday, November 20th, 2013

Talking to 'Eagleheart' Writers Jason Woliner and Andrew Weinberg About the New Season

Adult Swim's absurdist Chris Elliott action-comedy Eagleheart returned for its third season last week. This year, the show's creative team (made up of creators/writers Andrew Weinberg and Michael Koman, and writer/director Jason Woliner) opted to turn Eagleheart into one long serialized story called Paradise Rising, covering Elliott's character Chris Monsanto's 10-episode quest to prove his innocence in the death of a fellow US Marshal.

I recently had the chance to talk to Andrew Weinberg and Jason Woliner about Eagleheart's shift in focus, why they don't like using comedic actors as guest stars, and how it's not the sort of TV show you can just have on in the background.

What made you guys decide to do Eagleheart as one long continuous, movie-like story this year?

Andrew Weinberg: We thought it was an element that the show was missing that keeps people invested enough to watch week to week as opposed to whenever it occurs to them. It was a challenge for us because none of us had ever written that kind of episodic TV before, just [to] see if we could write an interesting story and keep it going through the whole season remains to seen.

Jason Woliner: [Laughs] We didn't want it to just be the show that every week would go crazy in a different way because we thought that would become boring, so it was just a way to kind of give things stakes and more of a challenge for us too to see if we could keep the show as crazy and also reward investment week to week.

Would you like to do that for next season too, if the show gets renewed?

Woliner: Yeah, I think if we do more of this or something else. What we wanted to basically do was something that was closer to a quote-unquote real show but not let go of what this show is able to do that we don't see other shows doing — most other shows. There are some shows. The Heart, She Holler is great. There are other shows too, but you don't really see a lot of conceptual comedy shows on TV in this way anymore that are really writing-driven.

The season premiere is 20 minutes long, twice the length of a regular episode of Eagleheart.

Woliner: The fourth episode is also a double and possibly the last [one is too], but so far, they've said no, but we're gonna try to convince them otherwise [Laughs]. The last episode is really insane, and we so far have not been able to figure out how to fit it into 11 minutes.

Weinberg: Whole parts of it would have to come out.

Woliner: Because it does tie up this whole story. There is kind of a beginning, middle, and end. Even though this season takes very strange turns, it does get pretty neatly wrapped up. We'd love to figure out how to get it to people. We'll see.

What's the title Paradise Rising mean?

Woliner: It's revealed in episode seven. Can't talk about it. Just to talk about it would ruin a dumb joke.

Would you guys want to do half-hour episodes instead of quarter-hour ones in the future?

Woliner: There's something really fun about doing the half-hour ones, but there's also something with the 11-minute one that you lose in the half-hour one. Things that can be funny because of how fast they're moving, which I think at a half-hour might just get annoying but within 11 minutes. Momentum of the story can actually make things funny where you're punching them in the face with the way the plot is. The second one is one of the most dense episode we've done. It's not a show you can be on your phone and half-watch. Our favorite time is watching it with people [at live screenings] because in a movie setting where you're just watching it, it actually plays best. Most TV shows, you're still used to being able to say something to the person next to you.

Weinberg: Turn your head occasionally.

Woliner: In this show, if you miss 10 seconds, it kind of falls apart. [Laughs]

Weinberg: The quarter-hours are actually 11 minutes. I think an ideal length would be like 14 minutes. To get the quarter-hours at 11 minutes, we have to cut a lot. Anything that isn't vital to the story ends up going, and there's a lot of things we think are really funny but because they're not absolutely necessary, we have to cut them. I think 13 or 14-minute episodes…

Woliner: Yeah, that would probably be the best length. This season, we had to lose a lot of jokes I really like just to make it to the right time.

It seems like you guys definitely prefer working with dramatic character actors to having comedians play guest parts.

Woliner: Most parts of the show are just the reaction that we just kind of want to be doing things differently from most of the comedy that we're seeing now. Even though we like a lot of these shows and know this whole world of funny people out here, we did make a choice to try to keep this show its own little world.

But in the past, you've used Ben Stiller or Conan O'Brien.

Woliner: Yeah, those have definitely been rare cases. A few times, we've used our comedy friends. Like, Brian Stack was in last year, and he was hilarious and Andy Blitz was in something.

Pete Gardner's in it a lot.

Woliner: We didn't know him from the comedy world. He just auditioned during the pilot, and we put him in as this frustrated director working with Chris. We liked him so much — he's such a great guy and so funny — that his role has gotten bigger and bigger as the show's gone on.

Weinberg: I think because we like to treat this world very seriously, that would be hurt if you had familiar comedy people that you knew. An inherent level of winking and not taking it seriously comes with that.

Woliner: One of the things that's funniest to us is writing these really stupid lines and then making actual good actors say them.

Weinberg: Seasoned dramatic actors.

Woliner: There's just a level of getting a respectable adult to say really stupid things that's just funny to us and hopefully, that comes through.

Is that ever strange, working with serious actors and trying to explain bizarre plot stuff to them?

Woliner: Everyone gets it.

Weinberg: People that do drama all the time, they love a chance to do comedy and they want to show that they get it.

Woliner: It isn't like other shows where you're expected to come in and be funny 'cause in this, you are funny just by being a good actor and committing to the reality of the moment and the situation. It's very rare actually that people will come in and try to add funny flourishes. Most people have been awesome. Character actors know they're a little weird-looking and they're there to do their jobs. [Laughs]

Weinberg: [Laughs] A little weird-looking.

Woliner: We have an episode with a bunch of overgrown shoeshine boys this year, and they're all pretty weird-looking.

Weinberg: They're called "weird-looking man-children."

Woliner: They know what they're doing.

Weinberg: There's an episode that has an obese guy in it, living in a mens' home. They sleep in bunk beds. There's a joke that this guy's too fat to climb up to the higher bunks. You're looking at a real man who's obese, and he's making jokes about how obese he is.

Woliner: Just to feed his family. It's kind of sad.

Weinberg: His family is himself.

Woliner: [Laughs]

You guys are bothered by people calling the show a Walker, Texas Ranger parody, right? Does that drive you nuts?

Woliner: Yeah, I mean, I don't give a shit anymore. At the very beginning of the show, the pilot that Michael and Andrew wrote like six years ago or whatever was inspired by the idea of what it would be like to work with a maniacal Chuck Norris-type on a show like that. By the time I was involved, by the time they picked up the pilot and we had to figure out the show again from scratch, there had just been so much bad Chuck Norris comedy that we were like, "Let's throw all of that out. Let's not make it about that at all." We tried to do that, and then Mike Lazzo at Adult Swim, who has been our biggest champion and we love him to death, but at the time, he kind of hated us. He was like, "You can't do that."

We didn't want [Chris Monsanto] to wear a cowboy hat, we didn't want him to be a Texas Ranger, we didn't want any of that stuff, but we had to keep certain elements of it. I think the only thing that drives us a little crazy is getting lumped in with that world of Chuck Norris comedy, which some of it was funny a long time ago and it kind of had its moment and became something that every shitty, hacky internet comedy person could do. We never wanted the show to be a straight parody or even a parody. Almost if anything, you'll see this season, we still hope it's funny, but if anything, it's almost like a weird drama in that cartoon universe.

Weinberg: It was never meant to be a parody. The original half-hour pilot, the show that was a parody of Walker was two minutes of the half-hour episode; the rest was all behind-the-scenes. Adult Swim was like, "We just want the parody show." As Jason said, we weren't interested in making that, but that's what they bought and that's what they wanted and that's how it was pitched and presented at first.

Woliner: And honestly, that is probably smart of them and it is a lot easier for people to be like, "I want to watch a thing that makes fun of this dumb thing" than for us, [pretentious voice] "It's a conceptual, Chris Elliott version of a blah blah blah."

Weinberg: At some point, I feel like it's worked against us that people see posters of a guy in a cowboy hat, and they're like, "That seems dumb. I don't want to watch that."

Woliner: I do think there are people who would really like the show who probably haven't given it a chance because they think, 'Oh, it's that Walker, Texas Ranger parody show.' That's probably been the most annoying thing about it.

Weinberg: And the fact that some writers insist on sticking to that where I don't know what else we can do at this point to transcend the "Walker parody genre" [label].

Yeah, since it made it to air, that hasn't been what it is at all.

Woliner: Yeah, our friends in comedy get it and you get it and a handful of writers get it, but I do think it's kind of a stigma that the show has to deal with.

 

Eagleheart airs new episodes Thursday nights at midnight on Adult Swim.

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