Talking ‘Guy Suavé: Homicidal Spy’ with Jay Johnston and Eric Von Hoffman

johnston-hoffmanEric Von Hoffman and Jay Johnston have helped create, write, and star as many characters during their time on shows like Mr. Show and W/ Bob and David, but no character has been more important to them or stuck with them for as long as Guy Suavé. A foul-mouthed spy who first debuted as a character for them at The Annoyance Theatre in Chicago in 1995, Suavé has been seen on stage and screen — including a pilot for Adult Swim that was filmed in 2011 — but now he’s making his first appearance on the page in Hoffman and Johnston’s graphic novel titled Guy Suavé: Homicidal Spy.

Hoffman and Johnston have collaborated for over two decades, including on some of the most classic sketches in television history, but they still keep coming back to Suavé.

What prompted the creation and debut of Suavé some 23 years ago?

Eric: Jay and I have both been big spy fans forever. We kind of first teamed up in Chicago and we did a Guy Suavé show at The Annoyance Theatre, and Jay wanted to be involved with it but he was in sunny California working on Mr. Show at the time, which was a pretty good excuse. He wasn’t involved in the stage show, but once I got out here we’ve been going at it since then.

What makes a character stay with you for over two decades?

Eric: In the beginning it was just kind of, because you enjoy writing it or drawing it, then mentally you fall in love with the characters and want to keep adding traits to them and putting them in things that you haven’t seen other spies deal with before.

Jay: I would say that one of the primary things is that early on the jokes we’re writing in it and his whole attitude is letting cynicism take over and a little anger or whatever, and having fun with that in that realm. Then as you get older, it takes over your own self, and you become cynical and then you really love it. He’s a monster, so it’s wonderful.

Eric: Part of it is the wish fulfillment thing of being able to do stuff that you haven’t seen other spy genre stuff do. It feels like everything’s been done, but it hasn’t. Originally it was an answer to the Bond movies with Roger Moore, which were, to us, a little more comical — which is great. We wanted at the time to have a grittier, darker spy. It was kind of an answer to that when it started off.

You had the pilot seven years ago but it didn’t go. However, I feel like stuff has come out since of the same tone and done well, so maybe it was ahead of its time. Is the world more ready for a Guy Suavé show than they were in 2011?

Eric: It’s very possible. One of the things that was restricting us was the language. For Adult Swim, even back then, they weren’t able to get away with as much as they are now.

Jay: In that way we’re constricted or restricted in a sense, but the thing was, it just kind of destroyed the pacing. It sounded like a truck backing-up convention.

Eric: Lots of beeps.

Jay: Eric still has the standards and practices letter that was sent to us regarding the amount of language specifically, what they would ask us to get rid of or bleep or change or whatever. It was four pages or something. Top to bottom, single-spaced, “this line, this line, this line,” and it’s an 11.5-minute pilot.

Eric: “Guy’s use of ‘pussy’ in this context needs to be censored for broadcast.”

This must be a problem that doesn’t exist with the graphic novel, right?

Eric: That’s one of the big reasons we wanted to do a graphic novel. There’s absolute freedom. You can do it and show it exactly as you envision it.

Jay: Because there’s so much control over the image and presentation; you can forgo some of the saltier language because you have support in other ways.

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guy-suaveIt seems like there is a large contingent of comedy writers who love comic books and graphic novels, including Mr. Show alumni. Did you guys always talk about comics or expect to get into writing a graphic novel one day?

Eric: Back in Chicago, we self-published these kind of promo items for a show, and I’d come up with a comic book, and I’d write it with Matt Walsh and other guys and we’d self-publish it. Then I did it again in LA when we had a show at iO West.

Jay: Then you got a publisher. I think Kinko’s was the name?

Eric: It was always something we’ve enjoyed doing, and I’d been looking for the next opportunity to spend all the time it takes to put one of those things together. This opportunity came up, and it just seemed perfect because Jay and I were talking earlier — what did we say?

Jay: When we did the pilot, it allowed for certain things like gaps, the pacing — the beeps and all that stuff just stood in the way, and then we were trying to rewrite and re-pitch it and it naturally or organically became a fuller telling of the story to do it with a graphic novel because you get to control all the elements of the images, the language, the pacing. In turn, it has informed the show and helped us to streamline the characters and the story, and make it bigger and cleaner as far as presentation — sort of “clearer,” I guess. Not cleaner, because it’s filthy as hell.

Eric: The pilot, those are 12-minute shows basically at Adult Swim and this thing, what it’s become, it really is kind of a trailer almost for what it is now. Now what would be great is a limited series somewhere.

Jay: Like a trilogy. The first season would be the first book and that type of thing.

Eric: This is really just book 1 of a trilogy. It’s all about the life of Suavé, but books 2 and 3 take on different personalities and genres. We’re looking forward to getting the whole thing out there eventually.

Jay: On a more serious note, every iteration of the story — book 1, book 2, book 3, the entire trilogy — boobs throughout it. I mean, the use of boobs and the presentation of them.

In your time on Mr. Show, what was a favorite sketch you wrote and a favorite sketch that somebody else wrote?

Eric: Well, I love everything I wrote. No. So many favorites, are you kidding? I always come back to talking about the “Everest” sketch, which a lot of people — that’s like on everyone’s favorite sketch list. I remember watching, cause I think this is right before I joined the staff, but I went to a lot of the tapings. I remember the “Everest” taping because they did two shows a night, and it was just totally different. I almost wish there was a live version you could watch because there’s a lot of fun stuff. Every time it was done, of course, they had to re-set everything up. I don’t think the audience was expecting what it became eventually.

Jay: Yeah, we wore them down to absolute no laughter the last couple times the fall happens. One was cut from the airing version.

Eric: And a sketch that I wrote? Everyone kind of collaborates. But it was fun working on the “Teardrop Awards” sketch. So many great lines in that.

Jay: “Bugged Drug Deal” was also awesome.

Eric: Hilarious. Do you have a favorite?

Jay: I like “Everest” certainly. The writer on that was fantastic, anyway. “Everest” was my favorite because that was something that was kind of based on a true story, so it was pretty funny that they took to it so well. It was just this story I told at lunch one time, and they were like, “You gotta write that up.”

Eric: Was the repetition always a part of it?

Jay: Yes, cause in reality it happened twice. We were so amazed that it could happen twice, that talking about it — “What if it happened three times or four times?” — the rule of three and just pushing it so far that you’re maybe getting lost in it. That someone else wrote “House of the Future,” where all the furniture and everything talks to you while you walk through it for blind people.

Eric: It’s very stilted. It was like an old infomercial or something.

There’s a cliche that showrunners can be scary or hard to work for, and that it can be a nightmare for some young writers. Do you think showrunners should be “hard” on writers to make them tougher, or not in your experience?

Jay: You want to be tough to pay back the universe for all the shit you took as a young writer. You want to be tough, but you also want to nurture, and I think that every goddamn thing you do is a learning process. I think Bob and David were a great balance, and you’d feel like you were favored by one and not the other. Which is fine, I had no problem with that, but as a young writer you’re certainly looking for any support. So whenever that comes, as long as it’s a good note, I think it’s important for it to be verbalized. Saying something isn’t funny or is a pile of shit — no one wants to hear that and it doesn’t help anybody.

Eric: Luckily that didn’t happen on Mr. Show.

Jay: Well… I don’t know if you were there when Bob threw that script on the floor and said “This is a pile of shit.” I won’t say who he said it to or what sketch, but everybody was a little knocked on their asses by that one.

Eric: Really?

Jay: He goes “This is a pile of shit, we’re not doing this.”

Eric: Well, he was right. We didn’t!

Jay: I didn’t write it. I don’t want to give that impression.

Finally, going back to Guy and the history of the character, are there other forms of the backstory that people can read or watch up on? Such as the 2003 movie Brainwarp that I can’t seem to find anywhere.

Eric: Absolutely. I have a YouTube page, and it’s got a lot of stuff from shows that we did at the Annoyance where we started developing these things. There are some live videos from the late ‘90s to kind of prepare you maybe for some of the characters that are coming up. We can’t show the whole Adult Swim pilot, but that’s okay because it’s kind of different from that now. The trailer up there now kinda does the job. The Brainwarp DVD thing, that was one of the times when we were trying to shoot some video of some of this stuff to see how it would look, kind of experimental, and it wasn’t meant to be released. And it was. It’s not really…

Jay: This is a subtle apology.

Eric: It’s where it was several years ago but now it’s at a whole new level I guess. It’s fine to check the stuff out, and there’ll be nods to things that you’ll see, but we’re looking at it as if it’s an all-new thing.

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For more info on the graphic novel, head over to Hoffman and Johnston’s GoFundMe page here.

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