J.G. Quintel Is Not A Bird: The ‘Regular Show’ Roundtable [SDCC]
Cartoon Network's Regular Show is hands down one of the most enjoyable shows on television, and it can also be one of the hardest to figure out. Centered on a pair of slackers in their 20s -- who are also a bluejay and a raccoon -- and their job working for a park with an immortal white gorilla, a ghost, and an extremely angry gumball machine, it often takes a strange turn into magical realism. Clearly, it raises a lot of questions, and thanks to Comic-Con International, I was able to ask a few of them, finding out about the show's guest stars, the way the characters have developed, how they've managed to get away with some of the edgier scenes, and the upcoming half-hour special that's slated to kick off Season 4.
Check out video from the roundtable discussions with show creator and star J.G. Quintel (Mordecai), supervising producer Sean Szeles, creative director Mike Roth, voice actor Bill Salyers (Rigby), animator Sam Marin (Muscle Man) and writer Matt Price!Roundtable with Sean Szeles, J.G. Quintel and Mike Roth:
On the parts of the show that come from real life, although he is obviously not a bird, and how they spin them into the more fantastic elements:
J.G. Quintel: Right, that would be the part that's fake. We all work in the writers meetings together and I think we all try to come up with things that we remember from growing up and things that make us laugh, and we like things that play a little more real, so it all comes off as things that are really natural and not cartoony. Sometimes, they do branch from real things, like when you pocket-dial somebody with your phone and they listen to you talk and do something for a really long time. Things like that end up making it into the show constantly.
Mike Roth: Or when you have a huge crash pit in your back yard and you don't know what to do with it and you have some spare cars.
Sean Szeles: You don't want it to get too magical too quickly, or have it be just a random thing that happens. We try to always make the fantastical come out of the regular situations so that it feels more natural.
JGQ: We always try to sew it together so that it doesn't feel super random, but yeah. For little kids especially, growing up, everyone remembers moments when it's really intense where something happens to you for the first time and it's such a big deal, and when you're an adult you look back on it like "eh, that was no big deal." Playing more into using animation to show how that can be, how your imagination blows things out of proportion, we like to play with that in every episode.
On the appeal of the show to an older audience and the statistics that a third of Cartoon Network's audience has always been adults:
JGQ: Really? That's really cool. The ratings that they really keep track of, at least on shows like Regular Show, are up to about 14 years old. They do keep track of the household rating as well, but they're looking at boys, kids, that kind of stuff, and I think boys are our biggest chunk for sure, probably because we all came from that place.
SS: Because we're all boys?
JGQ: We're all boys. There are a lot of girls on the show too, though, we have about half girls and half boys. It's really cool. But it's nice to know that adults are watching it, because we're all just making it for ourselves, and when you see that adults like it, it feels great. You want to be able to watch stuff with your kids and not feel like "ugh, they're just talking down." Kids are smart.
On what they've gotten away with in a TV-PG show:
JGQ: There's a lot of stuff that we try for constantly and get shot down for, and there's a lot of stuff that they let us get away with -- I don't want to say "get away with" like we're pulling something, but... there's a fine line. The show is TV-PG, so it's not for little kids. There is a rating, and we get away with about as far as you can go before they're like "okay, that's it." We're not going to get away with things that Family Guy gets away with, but it makes it pretty challenging to try to keep it entertaining. Things like Muscle Man being skinned in the Halloween episode, that's pretty horrific!
JGQ: There was another version of it that we couldn't get away with because it was playing it way too straight, so we tried to be a little jokey about it and that made it okay. There are ways to soften it a little bit, but I think sometimes the concepts make it through and we're like "wow, I can't believe we got that on TV." There's some stuff coming up that I'm really excited about that'll push that even further within this third season, so keep your eyes peeled.
On Mordecai's relationship with Margaret:
JGQ: It's not based on reality, except that everybody's been there, where you've wanted to ask somebody out and you're too afraid. Going through that part of life and trying to put that in the show, where he just can't make the move and he always sees her with other people so he's like "aw, she's got a boyfriend." It just feels like that happens at least once to everybody.
SS: It's definitely autobiographical for me. I've been in a lot of those situations, where it's really awkward trying to talk to girls. It's fun to put that realness into their relationship and try to make it as awkward as possible.
JGQ: I feel like a lot of times, shows just play it like guys just go up to women and ask them out, and it doesn't really work that way, I don't think.
MR: For a lot of us on the show, we've all been in this situation where you like a girl and want to ask her out, where you think she wants you to but it's a leap of faith.
On the challenge of writing for a bird and a raccoon:
MR: We try to treat them like real people. We take our own life experiences, that's a lot of what we do in the writers meetings, try to start from something that we all relate to and build from there. We don't treat them like a bird and a raccoon, we treat them like two guys in their 20s with jobs. Benson, a lot of times, is a boss that we've all had, the boss that gets upset when you're slacking off, and we try to keep it really relatable. Sometimes we'll pitch an idea and not everybody's on board because it's not relatable, so we'll kill it and do something else. We'll find something that we can relate to and move from there.
On response from fans who have sent them art:
JGQ: Yeah! There's tons, we've started this wall where we'll print out really cool things. We've seen kids' birthday cakes that are Regular Show themed that their parents have made from scratch, people that have made Halloween costumes of the characters. A couple months ago, someone stitched a Mordecai doll that looked really cool, so that's in my office with a paper Pops. They come in every once in a while and it's so cool. People are watching the show and... I don't know how they get the address.
SS: The Internet.
JGQ: Is it on the Internet?
SS: Yeah! I think I've gotten some drawings from people, I remember when we were doing the signing last time at WonderCon, someone was showing me their drawings, like a kid. They were really awesome versions of the characters and they looked so cool, so I kept one of those.
MR: My mom's a schoolteacher, she teaches computer science, so I get fan-art all the time from the kids. They get really excited. I got to go into a school and talk to some kids, and it's really cool to wander around your high school with your fans. You get a lot of cool stuff from kids. Feedback's always really nice, you always get to see what they're into and what they're not into.
JGQ: People definitely want to see certain characters come back, so we always have to think "Oh, did that character die or not?" So many characters die in the show that we can't really bring them back.
SS: Maybe. We could find a way.
On the show's use of pop music in the episodes:
JGQ: We'll be in the animatics usually. A lot of times in the storyboard pitches, the board artists will play a song during their pitch and if it really works, we'll put it in the animatic. If it works in the animatic, we'll cut the pictures to it so it looks like it works, then we see if whoever owns the song is willing to license it to us. Obviously we can't get anything crazy huge, but a lot of times it's doable. We've been able to put in a couple per season, and we try to keep it to songs that'll be a minute or so, a good chunk so that we're not just paying for a couple seconds.
On upcoming special episodes:
JGQ: Happy Labor Day, everybody! Now get back to work! We are actually doing another Halloween special, and we're also going to have a half-hour special to start our fourth season coming up this year, which we're really excited about. It's our first half-hour story, and then we've got a Christmas special coming up in the same season, so this year is going to see three half-hour specials back to back. It should be really cool.
On guest stars like Tyler the Creator and Paul F. Tompkins:
SS: We pursue them, just because a lot of times, I like his comedy. His wife is actually the voice of Margaret, Janie Haddad Tompkins. A lot of times when I'm writing an episode I'll go "oh, he'd be great in this part, JG, we've got to get Paul F. Tompkins!" He's really funny. Other people, like the rap episode, we just thought it would be really cool if we could get real rappers to come in who were good at this, so we just tried to get people like Tyler the Creator and Donald Glover because I like their music. They said yeah, I think they were fans of the show, so they auditioned. That was really cool.
Roundtable with Bill Salyers, Sam Marin and Matt Price:
On the influences that led them to working in animation:
Matt Price: I've been writing on different comedy shows for a little while, but my biggest comedy influence was listening to Steve Martin records and Saturday Night Live was probably my biggest influence as a kid. That made me want to write, and my mother's also a puppeteer, so that made me want to write real stories. So the Steve Martin / Mom combo. A very rare combo. I would read Cruel Shoes a lot.
Sam Marin: I'm an animator, so I grew up liking Disney movies. That's my biggest inspiration for animation, and I went to school for it at Cal Arts, so I know J.G. from that. For voice acting, I started doing it for my animated films with some of my friends from school, so that's how that started.
Bill Salyers: I've been acting since I was a kid, around 15. Mostly stage stuff and then some cable stuff. A few years back, a good friend of mine, Scott Adsit, who's a regular on 30 Rock, co-created an Adult Swim show called Moral Orel. They recorded the first season, and they called me up when I was ready to go do summer stock in Santa Fe, and said "we've got the first season in the can, but we're not satisfied with one of the voices. Would you be willing to come in and record?" I thought he was just kind of being nice because he was a friend of mine and I was getting ready to leave town and was kind of busy, so I was like "it's kind of a bad time." He's like "The studio's five minutes from your house," so I said "sure, whatever." I was nervous, because there was no way I was going to get on an Adult Swim show, you know? So I go in and I read for the part of Reverend Putty, and I got it. That started me as a voice actor, and while I was doing that, I started working on other things, and not long after, I booked Regular Show.
MP: I think it's rare that you get asked to write something, professionally I'll say, that you really really love. I've written on some shows that I did not really enjoy that much. Regular Show is inspiring to me, because I've found that here's a show that actually pays me to be here, and I really love it. I think it's a high-quality show. It's really funny. To me, that's inspiring, it makes me want to keep doing this and do other things. "Oh, you can do this, all TV doesn't have to be filler." No disrespect, TV!
On taking input from each other:
MP: Never. I just met them this morning.
SM: I try all the time, though.
MP: They call all the time. A lot of emails.
BS: He's got people that are impossible to get through.
MP: All of my spam folder. No, I guess the short answer is that I'm all the way at the beginning of the pipeline.
SM: We don't cross paths.
MP: We literally don't cross paths, except on our Coronado vacations. We're in two different places. We have had many conversations about Sam screaming too much as Muscle Man, because I know that hurts your voice. We've had that conversation.
SM: "Let's go easy."
BS: It's amazing to watch, any time Sam has the line "blah blah blah, or you're fired!" it's like standing next to a nuclear reactor. It's amazing. Sam goes for it. We all do. I think there's sort of this impression people have about voice actors that you're just standing behind the mic, but we're pretty much full-body acting. We're just doing it in front of a mic. We're playing the moment, so that it comes out through the voice.
On the development of characters:
MP: A lot of it comes from J.G. and Mike Roth, who are really great at making sure the characters are grounded and real, but also that they stay within the world. They do evolve. Like "Gut Model." I love Muscle Man, because I find him to be the most complex character. He's offered to be a gut model, which is ridiculous, but he wants to do it because he feels like he's unwanted at the park. That to me was very touching. That's a classic example of how J.G. and Mike want the characters to have heart, but not so much that it's like "oh, now Margaret's having a baby." They evolve in very real ways. Also, when I watch the show, I love that they [the actors] bring that other layer to it. They take that and add onto it. It's equal.
BS: I think you need both parts of the equation. We have to really own what these characters are feeling, and that makes the audience care about what those characters are feeling, but it's much harder to get that buy-in if you don't have good writing. I need to be able to have something to bring something to it.
MP: It's like, you take a character like Pops, because Pops is so big, and yet you make him real somehow. That always kind of baffles me. He has real emotions but he's a giant-headed child. That's really hard to do.
SM: There's something kind of sad behind Pops, because he just wants love. You can tell.
MP: That' the key to our comedy show: There's a lot of sadness underneath. The key to a good cartoon, you infuse a little sadness.
On matching the voices to the characters:
SM: The drawings helped me initially get a good idea of how the character will sound, and you just start doing a voice that inspires you and gives you a good feeling of how they'll act. For me, I was working on J.G.'s shorts and Regular Show, I think it was the drawings that were our way into the characters.
BS: For me, it was just one of those rare, great funky moments. I didn't know J.G. or Sam, I didn't know this project, I got audition copy from my agent and submitted an audition. I was lucky that something in what I did matched something that was in J.G.'s head, so the character you hear me doing in the show is pretty much the character that I did for the audition. It's just that over time, I've learned how he interacts with the other characters and how he'd be more apt to say something. Early in the process there was more of an "okay, do it like this," but now there's less of that. He is kind of like that little brother, but you can't make him whiny all the time because that's tedious to listen to. Because of the writing, we've seen more of what shaped him and why he's kind of needy. The fact that he didn't graduate high school. He's trying to overcompensate.
On their dream character to write, animate, or play:
SM: I'd want to do a super-hero show. Working on a comic book show would be cool. Like Spider-Man. I really like Spider-man and Batman, and I think it'd be fun to play those characters. Actually, animated Harry Potter. I changed my answer.
BS: It's going to sound so trite and expected, but I really love Shakespeare. I haven't done it in years and I love working on stage, so I'd love to work on Shakespeare.
MP: I'm going to say "Bald James Bond." You know, like an average balding guy, but he's James Bond. Bald Bond.
On their favorite episodes:
MP: Can I give three? I love "Mordecai and the Rigbys" because I love music, and to me that was a lot of things about the show that I like. It had a heartfelt story. "Eggcellent," I love. We worked on that for a long time and I love how it came out, and again, it embodied many of the things that I love. And "Gut Model," was so stupid. That' such a dumb idea, and I love it. I love Muscle Man.
SM: Mine is "Eggcellent." I like when it gets very dramatic because it's really funny.
MP: Like when he hit Benson?
SM: Yeah. It gets really funny, but then it also goes into kind of an Indiana Jones parody that I thought was good.
MP: We prefer "homage."
BS: Obviously all the Matt Price episodes. Really, it's like when you're sitting next to your wife and somebody goes "who's your favorite person you've ever dated?" There's a writer here.
SM: Who is your favorite person you've ever dated?
BS: Anyway... There was an episode, I don't remember who wrote it, but it started with Rigby dead, and Skips had killed him, and Carmina Burana was the music for that episode. There's been a few episodes, and the titles float around in my head. From a selfish standpoint, I really like any episode where something horrible happens to Rigby because he's being a dick. I like those.
MP: So you like a lot of them.