Make The Funny Happen: Conversations With The Cast And Creators Of ‘Teen Titans Go’
Inspired by the DC Comics superheroes, Teen Titans Go is big, loud, and uncompromisingly silly. Recent episodes have included animated puppets, time-traveling with George Washington, and a subplot devoted to Starfire wearing a rubber mask of an old man's face and referring to herself as Jeff.
Nearly every character is voiced by their actor from the original 2003 Teen Titans series, which, paired with Dan Hipp's vivacious art direction, makes for a frantically fun trip down the more ridiculous avenues of childhood. As the second season of the Warner Bros. Animation series kicks into high gear on Cartoon Network, ComicsAlliance spoke to Tara Strong (Raven), Scott Menville (Robin), and Greg Cipes (Beast Boy), and producers Michael Jelenic and Aaron Horvath, about getting the band back together, testing what they can get away with, and keeping things weird.
AARON HORVATH AND MICHEAL JELENIC
ComicsAlliance: Where did the decision come from to bring back these characters and the show?
Aaron Horvath: They were begging us for years.
Michael Jelenic: Not us, particularly. Warner Bros.
AH: They wanted to bring these characters back and we said, fine, we'll do it.
AH: But they had to meet a steep list of demand. [laughs] Which included some very fine shirts for me.
MJ: I didn't get a shirt. Aaron is wearing a nice shirt.
I'll give you the real answer; he gives you the nonsense. Basically, Teen Titans was a huge property in 2003. The action show was very successful. It was something that the company was always looking to bring back. But in the current environment, where action shows aren't necessarily doing as well as comedy shows, they wondered, can we put a spin on this show? Can we make the show more comedic than the original? It seems like it'd be a natural fit, of all the action properties out there; let's make Teen Titans a straight up comedy. And that's what they did. We decided to bring back the original cast because they had good chemistry, and so far, it's worked. For everybody except for fans of the original show. [laughs]
CA: I have to disagree. I was given this assignment in part because that cartoon was my favorite when I was younger and I was really into it. I know there's a lot of dumb fan drama because I know comic book fans don't like change. But I actually enjoy it as an extension of the original show.
AH: Oh yeah?
CA: I have very intense feelings about the original show. I was 13 when it came out. I learned to write from writing Teen Titans fanfiction. Like, full disclosure.
AH: That's what we were basically doing. Teen Titans Go is Teen Titans fan fiction.
CA: I think it's a lot of fun. Art director Dan Hipp has such an incredible visual style, and it's so distinctive and I love how it's really characterized the show. How did you find him? Did you ask him specifically? Did you have a very distinctive style in mind?
MJ: We were looking for an art director and [WB Animation executive] Peter Girardi mentioned his name. I wasn't aware of his work at the time. I called him out of the blue and luckily he picked up his phone. Other art directors, I didn't have as much luck, but Dan was interested and he came in, met with us, and his only condition -- he said he'd love to do it if he worked from home a few days a week, because he lives somewhere out in the desert, like six hours away. He only comes in a couple of times per week. He's brilliant. He's a brilliant artist.
CA: Did you guys, in any capacity, work on the old show? Or are you totally new?
AH: I was at Warner Bros. at the time the show was being made. I sort of was into what that vibe was, and I knew all the guys working on it. I think part of the reason why we're working on the show is specifically because we aren't associated with the old show. I think anyone on the old show probably would have been a little bit more reverent to that than we would be. They probably would try to make more or less the same version, because its a great version. There's nothing wrong with the old show. In fact, it's arguably better than our show. Right?
MJ: I'd argue that.
CA: I think it's apples to oranges.
AH: The original show is apples and Teen TItans Go is oranges. The only good thing about oranges is orange juice. It is a lot more satisfying to make orange juice than apple juice.
MJ: You're right about that.
CA: Yeah, but oranges, you can take the segments and bring them to soccer games. Apple slices get brown.
AH: That's the whole point. Our show is like oranges because when you're a kid, those orange wedges are the best fruit. So, our show is better for little kids like oranges are better for little kids.
MJ: Oranges are fun. You take the orange slice, put it in your mouth, and you've got orange teeth. That's like our show.
CA: Something I've noticed that's fun about the show, and I think it's real interesting knowing now that you guys weren't working on the old one, is how you bring back stuff from the old show. What is it like, pillaging the old show for material for the new one?
MJ: It's fun. One of the first ones that we did last season that was a lot of fun, one of my favorites was an episode that was based on Nevermore.
CA: Oh yeah.
MJ: That was such a fun concept, like Raven splits into five different things, and it's five different personalities. For us, making a comedy show, that's perfect. That was super fun. I have a lot of fun pillaging the old show. It looked great and they had a ton of fun characters.
AH: We also pillaged the old cast. Also, I like pillaging episodes of Welcome Back Kotter and turning them into episodes of Teen Titans Go.
MJ: The good thing is, our audience has no idea what that is.
CA: I know you guys have a comic now. I feel like in a lot of ways, licensed comics, especially for DC, are the only all ages comics that they put out -- though it is changing; they have Gotham Academy and the new Batgirl. I know when I was a teen, I was like, "Boy, I like that Teen TItans cartoon and I went to get the Teen Titans comics," and they were not for me. They were also not great. Lets put that delicately.
MJ: I personally loved all those comics and all the properties of DC and Warner Brothers.
AH: I support everything they do. That said, it is nice we have some superhero characters that are made for children, which is a crazy concept.
We're going to do an episode -- it's not been written, but it's going to be about how people who grew up with comic characters look at comic characters, and then they're 40 and still want to appeal to these comic characters that were meant for them as children, because they don't move on to other things. Which is fine, I don't mind that, but then they degrade children-based [stories] -- so we'll do that, but we'll do it with clowns instead. [laughs] Teen Titans, Cyborg and Beast Boy are going to remember that they really like clowns, and then they're going to say, "Let's go get a clown for our birthday." And they have a clown, but it's not the clown they remember.
MJ: They hate this clown. It's a different clown. They're going to boo him.
AH: They're going to spend the rest of the episode trying to make the clown more adult-friendly.
CA: Like a Frank Miller clown?
AH: Yes. Frank Miller clown. ... I think its insane when people attack anything for a kids' audience. These are essentially characters in tights! [laughs] There's nothing realistic about this scenario at all. It's all fantastic. There should be a place for comics for kids. Can we all agree?
CA: I felt very betrayed, when I was 13 and I went to go to the store, and there was very little for me. Even though I was spending my hard earned money on Teen Titans merchandise. They didn't want it enough to make a comic for me.
AH: They chased a certain audience in the '90s, because I think it was sort of a collector's audience. They were making tons of money, and now you can't find comics at the store. You got to go specifically to comic shops. But the digital age may change all that. It may make it a little easier to find. Our job is to just make stupid Teen Titans Go episodes.
CA: Do you guys have any favorite characters, episodes, moments, songs?
AH: My favorite song... its an episode that's not out yet. Can I talk about it?
AH: This is how stupid we are. We have an episode about a bathroom.
MJ: Oh yeah. This is good.
AH: And it starts off with some characters, they have to use the bathroom, and a creative executive came to us and they said, by the way having characters stand outside a bathroom needing to go is never, ever funny.
MJ: Never funny. On any show I've ever been on, it's never funny.
AH: We took that as a challenge, so we extended the whole moment to super long proportions. We put a musical number in there about holding your pee, and that actually is my favorite song. So look forward to the episode called, 'Serious Business.' That's what happens in the bathroom. It's also a magical place.
MJ: As we've come to learn.
AH: Robin comes to learn... he thinks a bathroom -- in and out, five minutes. But in fact a bathroom is a magical place, and we will learn why its magical. One of the most special endings in Teen Titans -- if that ending does not make you cry, you don't have a heart, or you don't have a bathroom. [laughs]
CA: To sound pretentious in the Cartoon Network press room for a moment, what is the Teen Titans Go theory of comedy? How do you make the funny happen?
AH: [laughs] Do we display any bits of humor while sitting here? We have no theory. We're both pretty stupid, right?
MJ: That's fair to say.
AH: One thing we both despise; we both despise borrowing comedy. We see that all the time. People taking comedy from other shows and putting it in their show and passing it off as their own.
Animation is the worst offender of it. People are still doing these Chuck Jones gags -- oh look, a pretty girl walks by, the eyes come out. That's not Chuck Jones, but it's the same gags for 60 years, and that's not -- that's called stealing. [laughs] We want to just do something different. Even if it seems like it's not well thought out or doesn't seem like we're trying, but our only goal is to do something that's new and interesting.
Occasionally we do steal, subconsciously. Accidental thievery. ... We have to do 104 episodes, so it's real easy to borrow from other sources. We just rely on what makes us laugh and try to do stupid stuff. I always tell people, our theory is be stupid. Don't try to make smart comedy. I don't want to hear some clever word play.
MJ: That's what really kills us. For me personally, cartoons that have to have the morality tale shoehorned in and cartoons that rely way too heavily on verbal humor bum me out. I like to see people get hit in the face. Sometimes in the genitals, also funny. People falling out of windows.
AH: Sometimes funny? Always funny.
MJ: It depends on the genital, but 99% of the time you're going to get a laugh.
TARA STRONG, SCOTT MENVILLE AND GREG CIPES
ComicsAlliance: So, you guys are reunited for Comic-Con. Are you finding a lot more response to the show?
Tara Strong: Definitely. I think people were really nervous at first that it wasn't going to be a good because it wasn't a continuation the last version but I think people are letting us know online that they're on board, we're on board. We're having so much fun.
Scott Menville: I met a fan for a different show I was on a few days ago and she loved the original series, she was skeptical about this one, and she wanted to hate it. She said, "Now I love it more than the original"; I thought that was cool.
Greg Cipes: It's just awesome. It's just mad. The ratings are also reflective of what's going on.
CA: How do you think the storyline in the show has evolved since it started?
TS: I think they're braver and crazier.
SM: That's a good word; braver.
GC: You never know what to expect.
SM: They just get riskier and wackier. Unchained.
TS: When you think you can't get crazier than a meatball episode or a peeing in an elevator episode, it does.
SM: Or a talking couch or all the Titans dying at the end of an episode.
GC: Which I think is a beautiful formula that's been created. The show is rooted in the original cast and the original energy of the show, so there's the roots there, but it's also now flying and free. That's what [producers] Michael and Aaron have brought to the show. Warner Brothers has acknowledged that and is allowing it to happen. I think it's rad and it's paying off.
CA: As actors are you finding, after you've done so many episodes, that it's easier to get into the characters? Or are there more challenges at this point?
SM: Absolutely. We know these characters so well from doing five seasons of the original series and now we've almost completed recording two seasons of this. We know these characters inside and out.
TS: I think your job is harder in this version.
SM: I drink a lot of water during the show, they have me screaming a lot.
TS: He's got a few episodes where he's imitating all of us.
GC: I think Robin is the funniest on the show. He trumps Beast Boy and it pisses me off. [laughs]
GC: Beast Boy is a little angrier in this show.
SM: I think Cyborg is the funniest, but that's just me.
CA: How much input do you have into the characters' story lines?
SM: [Greg] wrote an entire song that made it into a song that aired, so that's a lot of input right there.
SM: We're allowed to improvise. The writers write these wonderful scripts, but they're not attached to any lines necessarily. So, if we have one that can be better than a line they've written, they're open to it, which I think is a mark of a secure writer.
TS: It is nice they let us play around. We don't come up with episodes but we play within the episodes they've already written.
CA: What's it like to play the same characters years later in such a different context and tone?
TS: I think we're all grateful to be back together. ... We just have so much fun together.
GC: We're family. We've been doing it for a long time together.
TS: Wait a minute, that came out wrong. [laughs]
GC: We're actually all moving into a house together.
TS: Teen Titans Tower.
GC: A new reality show.
CA: There are a lot of other shows that you guys do voices on that are here at Comic-Con this weekend. Have you found in the last couple of years there's a lot more attention on the actors? Are you getting recognized outside of your voice?
GC: I see people dressing like Tara Strong. Tara Strong cosplayers. It's amazing.
TS: [laughs] it's amazing, since the internet, people can look up who their favorite voice actors are. I think our predecessors had no idea how many childhoods they touched or how many people they meant something to. We have people coming up and saying, "Oh my god, you were my childhood, thank you for my childhood." They walk up to us, the know us, the recognize us.
CA: Do you record together? What's the atmosphere like? How often do you have to stop because you get the giggles?
GC: Our voice director is constantly yelling at Tara. [laughs]
GC: We knock out two to three episodes every week. Four hour sessions, plus pickups.
SM: Usually two episodes.
GC: So much fun, and we're messing around the whole time, for sure, and we do get in trouble. Surprisingly they let us record together. It's happened on other shows where the cast mess around so much that they literally have separated us.
SM: I'm on a Disney show right now called The Seven D. That happened at the pilot. We all recorded together and after that, you'd come in and record with one or two other guys because we were just goofing off too much. This one is fun, we read the scripts at home, come in, no rehearsal, and just go for it.
GC: I rehearse.
SM: Out in your car?
SM: We all record together, and I was just talking about a fun episode that's coming up where the Titans go camping and we each get to tell a ghost story, and as voice actors it was very cool, each of us got about three pages of dialog where it was only us talking. While each actor was at the mic, the other voice would sit at the couch in front of the mics and listen to these little story monologue things, which was cool.
TS: That was fun. Are we allowed to talk about that?
SM: They said I could talk about it.
CA: Can you tell us about the stories you tell?
SM: I can't tell that; I'm surprised they even let me say that much.
GC: I can give you a hint. My story is about a log.
TS: I'll give you a hint; your story isn't scary. [laughs]
GC: Are you kidding? Logs can be scary.
CA: What do you think live recording together adds to the show?
TS: We all play off each other so much, and how someone says something can directly affect how we're going to say a line. I remember one episode, everything [Scott] said was so crazy that it inspired me, like, "OK, crazypants."
TS: OK, crackerjack, OK, wacko. Whatever it was, in every single -- and that wasn't in the original script but he was just so crazy.
SM: That one ended up being a comedic gag, one of your little tags like, each time.
TS: Which would not have happened had I not heard him do it. Playing on the full cast is definitely beneficial, especially when we all like each other. I really think it translates in the show how much we all love each other and how much fun we have. Even if we get in trouble. It's worth it.
CA: Are there good snacks there?
TS: Not really.
SM: We kind to tend to sing about snacks.
GC: We get really hungry, actually. Every session.
TS: It's either fruit or donuts. There's nothing in between. [laughs]
CA: Do you guys have any favorite episodes coming up, or maybe in the ones that have filmed recently?
GC: They all blur together.
TS: I like 'Lady Legasus', that was fun. [laughs]
GC: That was so fun.
TS: I like when Raven plays with Ponies, that's a little shout out to my bronies, that's fun.
GC: There's a Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles crossover in an episode coming.
SM: The one we're screening today is pretty funny with a nod to her other show, My LIttle Pony.
TS: Anytime you go crazy, is funny to me.
CA: Is there anything left you think you'd like to pitch? You guys have done such weird stuff on the show; do you bother trying to guess what might be coming next?
GC: It'd be rad if we showed up, Scott knocks on the door, as us, as humans.
SM: You pitched that before, right?
TS: Yeah, when I was working on Chowder we had an episode where, right in the middle of filming, we lost money, so suddenly it's the voice actors in the studio, but we were ourselves. And then we have a car wash on top of Cartoon Network. So maybe that'd be fun if they did an on-camera thing.
GC: Or animate us.
TS: That'd be cool.
CA: How does it feel to sort of be part of the DC Universe but such a different part?
SM: I think it's fun. To me the, true DC Universe [is] all the dark stuff, so this is a chance to step into an alternate reality of the DC Universe and just go nuts.
GC: I think we're also breaking new ground. Even the first incarnation of our show, it was kind of a new style of animation at the time. Then all the other shows copied Teen Titans, and now it's happening again where we've pushed the envelope and now we hear, "Oh we have to do a show like Teen Titans Go." So it's cool that DC and Warner Brothers are allowing this show to be as free as it is. Because it's working.
CA: When you were told about the new direction, what went through your mind?
TS: I was nervous, for sure.
SM: I was too.
GC: I wasn't scared at all.
TS: Once we started though, I was like, OK this is pretty darn funny.
SM: I'd definitely raise my hand and object sometimes. Like, guys, I don't think Robin would do this. Then they'd say, yes he would on this show.
CA: How often do you get recognized for your characters?
TS: At Comic-Con, all the time. In my daily life, here and there. Gamestop, they always know me at Gamestop. Sometimes at a grocery store I'll get, "Are you Tara Strong?" I think people know me too from my Vines and Twitter.
SM: Definitely here at Comic-Con for sure. In real life, as voice actors, you get to be Clark Kent. I have done some on-camera acting, as these guys have done too, and so a lot of times it's, "Hey, did we go to high school together? Do you work out at my gym?" That kind of thing.
CA: Any bizarre fan encounters?
TS: Yeah. [laughs] Mostly at cons. "Sign my butt so I can get it tattooed." That's pretty bizarre.
CA: You've had that?
TS: Yes! [laughs]
GC: Our fans are so sweet, though. There's never really a problem.
TS: [in voice] Maybe you don't have a problem, sometimes I have problem. [laughs]
GC: Well you're a hot mama.
SM: Most people are very positive and cool, I find.
CA: Are there any guest stars?
TS: Wil Wheaton.
SM: Wil Wheaton is Aqualad. Kevin Michael Richardson, coming back as Trigon.
GC: Didn't Mike Tyson come on the show? There's some other guest stars.
TS: I think I would have remembered Mike Tyson.
SM: Yeah, I would have remembered Iron Mike.
GC: Maybe I'm just wanting him to be.
CA: Who else would you like to see on the show, apart from Mike Tyson?
SM: I'd like to get Henry Rollins back on. He did two episodes in the original series as Johnny Rancid. He was such a cool guy and I got to hang out with him for like an hour on a big long break while they were re-writing stuff. I think it'd be fun to have him back to reprise his role.
TS: I think it'd be cool to have the entire cast of Game of Thrones. For my own fangirl. Jon Snow, Daenerys. That'd be great.
CA: Are there any elements or characters from the original 2003 series that you'd like to bring to the new one?
SM: It'd be nice to get Slade back on.
TS: Yeah! That'd be good.
GC: Ron Perlman. It'd be great to have him back.
CA: Anything else fans got to look forward to?
GC: Everything. Be very excited, because you never know what to expect with Teen Titans Go. That's the fun of it.
CA: How crazy can the show get?
TS: I think the sky's the limit.
SM: Just when you think they can't get any crazier, they'll turn in another script where someone is peeing in an elevator. [laughs]
TS: I'd like to say meatball's the limit.
CA: Any more songs from you?
GC: Yes. There's songs from -- there's a whole bunch of songs.
TS: It's really fun when we get to sing, actually. Sometimes they let Raven pop-star out [laughs], which is just so not Raven.
GC: Constantly doing new songs on the show.
CA: Like about waiting for the rest room?
SM: Make a song about it?
GC: That's a good idea.
CA: That's coming up, apparently.
GC: Oh, really?
SM: When we record them it takes so long before they air that sometimes when we really do--
GC: We've done 100.
SM: We're basically done recording season two, so many haven't even aired yet.
CA: Do you watch it at home?
TS: I do, my kids love it and I love it. It's funny.
GC: It's my dad's favorite TV show.