Understanding the Hushed Beauty of Ben Jones’ Duck Stoner Series, ‘Stone Quackers’
Ben Jones has been quietly killing it under your noses all year. His animated series, Stone Quackers, was the newest program to hit FXX’s ADHD animation block, paired up with the Lucas Bros Moving Co. to create a more than wonderful double dose of absurdity every week. Created alongside Whitmer Thomas and Clay Tatum (Power Violence), who also act as co-execs, writers, and voice the characters of “Whit” and “Clay,” the series is based on the their collective childhoods within the unusual and secluded city of Gulf Shores, Alabama. Stone Quackers (which is all available on Hulu, and should be viewed immediately if you’re unfamiliar) approximates this into the non-adventures of a number of adolescent ducks that are presumably high all the time.
The series opened with a slow start but has become a regular mainstay for bonkers television, containing ambitious installments like an homage to David Lynch’s Blue Velvet. There’s also a top-notch voice cast that is more than familiar with the weird, featuring talents like Heather Lawless and John C. Reilly.
It’s also goddamn gorgeous to look at.
As Jones’ Quackers approaches the end of its freshman season, let’s pull back the feathers on the show and examine just why this new comedy is so special.
Jones got his start in the much more freeform world of the Cartoon Network series, Problem Solverz, a series that was meant to be “a visual and conceptual experiment to investigate the wonder and beauty of kids’ shows, storytelling, spirituality, and drawing.” Jones has learned from this experience and managed to refine his brand of crazy into a more precise weapon of insanity. He elaborates, “the shows I make for ADHD are very much deliberate television shows, so there is inherently a greater freedom; in that I am at peace with the format and excited to be working with in this structure.” And while only having a meager one season under its belt so far, Stone Quackers has already begun to muck with that structure.
The art of how Stone Quackers got all of this right is in the deliberate slow build that is done through the first few episodes of the series. It almost feels like this pace was turned to in order to ground the audience to these characters and universe before you start getting into the crazier episodes about things like vandalized severed heads. This was no accident though, and Jones explains that it was a very conscious effort on their part. “I think the slow build happened in the writing itself. We wanted to get to know ourselves as these characters. I really prefer strong character studies over crazier plot based pieces. For Quackers I like things and people getting crazy, but maybe not the way we experience the craziness.”
One of the other elements that Stone Quackers has gotten so good at is the very loose feel to its dialogue. Jones cites sources like The Larry Sanders Show, Fawlty Towers, Snuff Box, Alan Partridge, and the title sequence from Chris Elliot’s Get A Life as inspirations for the show, and those voices are very much felt in Quackers’ DNA. There’s a very natural, overlapping style to it all, and with the bulk of the voice cast also being credited as writers, it’s easy to see how improvisational patterns can be fallen into. As loose and natural as Jones tries to keep the scripts, he hopes you’re taking an improvised feeling away from all of it. He certainly succeeds, with these ducks who are old friends very much feeling like old friends rather than just being billed (see what I did there?) as such.
Stone Quackers also hasn’t been afraid to embrace its weirder, darker side, with cast members like Heather Lawless already coming from twisted ilk like Adult Swim’s The Heart, She Holler. Jones talks about what an asset Lawless is: “When you have an amazing actress like Heather Lawless it allows you to write really compelling intense situations, and since she can do almost anything, and go so deep into these really dark dark dark places, you feel safe, and you want to go deeper into the cave with her.”
While the show has gone down many disturbing wormholes, one of its more unique, standout installments was the show’s tribute to David Lynch, “Blue Feathers.” Even though the episode was a slick, impressive piece of television and total love letter to the auteur, Jones had more than a few reservations pulling the trigger on it. He explains that virtually everyone was terrified of making the episode, except for executive producer and developer, Angela Petrella. It’s this ability to embrace risks and make ambitious episodes — even if they’re going to go over a lot of peoples’ heads — that causes Stone Quackers to stand out and slowly excel to the front of the Animation Domination High-Def pack.
Amazingly, as the show keeps all of these plates spinning each week to continuously entertaining results, Jones reveals that the efficient nature of all of this is very much a fluke. “The truth is the whole show is a miraculous plate of spaghetti and meatballs tossed up into the air in slow motion. There is no way to control or even know if it will make it to air in one piece. This is its greatest strength, and greatest weakness. We have lots of ambitions, but mainly we are just trying to forge forward like a blindfolded duck driving a bulldozer.” Blindfolded duck or not, it’s working, and if this is the formula they use, as precarious as it may be, then why not keep riding it out? Sooner or later you get comfortable with chaos.
Even if the production process and writing for the show may be a more haphazard experience, there’s no argument that clearly the art design of the show isn’t something that’s being neglected or left to the final hour. Stone Quackers has this gorgeous water color-esque style and palette to it all that’s just a delight to look at. Jones explains that the approach was hardly there since conception: “Sammy Harkham, the great comic artist, came in one day when I was trying to design what the show would look like. He had a cigarette in his mouth, was talking on his phone, cup of coffee in his hand, saw what I was doing and said, ‘Just make Ponyo you dipshit.’ And so I did (tried).” Regardless of whether it’s a shameless Ponyo rip-off or not, it’s one of the best things about the series and it just works so well for it. It has such a distinct, polished look in comparison to the other ADHD fare, and it’s such a solid fit for the show. It just adds to the surreal nature of everything.
Stone Quackers is still very much a young chick, but it’s opened my eyes and impressed me a lot with its unconventional first season. It demands your attention more so than any other of ADHD’s content (and Lucas Bros. Moving Co. has been killing it this season), and now is the time to make the leap. Hopefully the series will go on for many years to come, giving us further misguided, soul piercing adventures with these weirdo ducks.
Stone Quackers airs Thursdays at midnight (so the break of Friday) on FXX’s Animation Domination High-Def block and is also all available on Hulu.com