Posts Tagged Comedy

Interview with Dani Michaeli, Writer for Aquabats

aquabats-super-show

The Aquabats ended their first season with a brilliant ending and a stoked, cult fanbase eager for a second season. Dani Michaeli, one of the talented writers for the show (as well as Spongebob SquarePants and South Park), was willing to help expand on the details on what exactly occurred over the course of these 13 episodes in the interview below. Be sure to check out his Twitter account.

TMB: The Aquabats is a cult rock n’ roll band that combines the kitsch of superheroism with the novelty of music comedy. What were some of the difficulties, if any, in taking that concept and stretching it out into a TV series?

DM: Every new live action TV show faces challenges translating fun scripts into real things that happen in front of a camera with sets and props and all within a budget. When you’re doing a show that has so many different elements and since it’s a kid’s show — heightened elements, the challenges are steeper. You want your monster to be cool and interesting and the locations should be unusual. You need action and sometimes stunts. On “The Aquabats Super Show”, there are also three minute cartoons and one minute cartoons and fake commercials. We learned some big lessons fairly quickly so we could get the most expensive effects for the most important moments.

TMB: It’s pretty odd, yet bold, that The Hub, a channel dedicated to well-known toy properties, picked up the Aquabats SuperShow as a series. Any idea how it was greenlit?

DM: My anecdotal understanding is a few very important people believed in the idea  and had (justifiable) faith in Christian Jacobs and his ability to deliver a great show. Christian is a co-creator of “Yo Gabba Gabba!” Bob Higgins knew Christian from when Bob worked at Wild Brain (producers on “Yo Gabba Gabba”). Now, Bob works at FremantleMedia Enterprises, which financed “The Aquabats Super Show!” Also, it’s my understanding that Ted Biaselli, who is an executive at the Hub, was excited about doing a show with the Aquabats when he was at Disney earlier in his career. “The Aquabats Super Show!” is a maverick TV show with unconventional heroes and stories. I think it’s extremely cool of Bob Higgins, Ted Biaselli and also Donna Ebbs and Margaret Loesch (also of the Hub) that they took a chance on such a unique idea for a show with so many subversive elements in its format.

TMB: Generally, where do ideas for episodes come from? Do you draw inspiration from the Aquabats live shows? Or draw ideas from the 70s children shows that they parody?

DM: All of the above and more. When I started working with Christian and his team, many of the ideas were already in place and had been building for years. Villains like Space Monster M, the Time Sprinkler, Cobra Man, the Floating Eye of Death and others were already in the mix. The Aquabats came with a very rich mythology. Their stage show has always incorporated hilarious fights with a super creative cast of characters. Also, Christian had been pitching the show since 1996 in various formats and has even had earlier pilot versions of the show with other networks. As showrunner, creator, lead singer of the band and onscreen leader of The Aquabats, Christian Jacobs gets final say on which stories are tackled and how they are done. Christian’s influences include Japanese giant robot and monster movies and TV shows, 70s children’s shows like the Sid and Marty Krofft shows, cartoons and crazy, obscure, colorful kids movies from all over the world. He has a vast knowledge of movies (and a great collection too) that live in the realm of the fantastic, but also comedy and action movies. Myself and the other writers have similar influences to the degree where we could often get carried away talking about stuff we love. Each of us brought our own influences too. For example, I’m a big comic book buff so naturally that effects how I look at super heroes.

TBM: I mentioned the very great and very surreal twist ending here. You mentioned you planned it pretty much from the onset – how much planning was involved?

DM: A lot of the planning went into making sure nothing we did contradicted the ending. Initially, we had other ideas and threads that could work as hints or building blocks of a larger story, but we wound up cutting out a lot of that detail so we didn’t sacrifice the individual stories. Part of the goal was to make the live action parts of the episodes be able to stand alone, but there is a build of ideas, some of which come to a head in the finale. We wanted The Aquabats to have faced some tough foes and hard times, surviving by the skin of their teeth and with limited resources (and money). When they are stuck in a time loop in the animated episode within the finale, hopefully there’s this feeling that facing those battles again is kind of brutal punishment. Also, the animated adventures are such short sequences, we wound up having to do many drafts and versions to get their journeys to line up in a way that is hopefully satisfying.

TMB: How’d you get involved in the show? You past credits include Spongebob and South Park.

DM: The production offices for “SpongeBob” are in Nickelodeon’s animation studio in Burbank. I was there for five and a half years. This gave me the opportunity to meet a lot of awesome people in the TV animation community that exists around Nick and the other nearby studios. An extremely cool and talented animator named Thurop Van Orman (creator of “Flapjack”) knew The Aquabats were looking for a story editor and Thurop referred me to Christian Jacobs. I believe that helped a lot. The instant I researched the band and saw the development materials, I knew I would love working on the show.

TMB: Is there a major difference in writing for an animated show than live-action? Specifically, in relation to the The Aquabats itself, is there a difference (for lack of a better word) vibe in writing the animated portions than the live-action ones?

DM: The easy answer is the animated segments are less restricted to the physical world so, for example, we could have The Aquabats travel through space, fight space bees and a giant space worm, blow up the moon, etc. But crazy imaginative and improbable set pieces were written and executed for the live action parts of the show too. We were always bumping up against questions of how to turn our weird imaginations into things that could be photographed. That said, directors Jason deVilliers and Matt Chapman (who both also wrote awesome scripts for the show) and the extremely talented crew managed crazy results on a budget. A fight with a giant robot monster as it destroys a city, an attack on Detroit by a giant bug, a fake old Western town controlled by an android sheriff, a coal mine guarded by a giant winged naked mole rat… You wouldn’t expect any of that to look good on a budget, but they pulled it off. Production designer Helen Harwell also deserves a lot of credit for spreading out a small budget and pulling off the impressive Battle Tram interiors, a miniature pineapple plantation, an evil roadside carnival and many other elaborate sets. So the real major difference is the cartoon parts were serialized, while the live action stories followed more of a “monster-of-the-week” format. Although, we didn’t stick precisely to that format either.

TMB: What about the Gloopy segments? Who comes up with those?

DM: The [Gloopy] segments were a combined effort by a sketch comedy group called Mega64, writer/director Julianne Eggold and the dedicated crew.

TMB: Assuming a second season has been confirmed, what crazy adventures will the Aquabat find themselves in?

DM: I believe nothing is set in stone. I am hoping some of the villains from the first season have an opportunity to revenge their past defeats.

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Aquabats and the Dismantling of Television Repetition

The season finale of The Aquabats SuperShow! completely shattered television conventions, and you didn’t see it. Here’s how The Hub’s strangest show made the Sopranos’ season finale look like a joke.

The Aquabats

To adequately explain how The Aquabats SuperShow! brilliantly yet subtly subverted television convention, it’s important to understand what The Aquabats SuperShow! is: a bizarre combination that parodies both various ’70s “children” shows – with their terrible costumes, D-list actors, and cheap sets, all surrounding around even cheaper animated shorts – and the assortment of ’70s Japanese action shows that built themselves around the same concepts, except replacing the animated shorts with poorly choreographed fight sequences. It’s in effect The Banana Splits mixed in with cheesy tokusatsu action, updated in its sensibilities, so that all the cheesiness and cheapness are now part of the joke instead of being anachronistic embarrassments.

The set up of every episode is similar: the Aquabats get involved in a weird situation and ultimately prevail in a goofy, rick-rollicking manner. All of this is mixed in with various music cues (they are a band, after all), fake commercials from “Gloopy,” and most importantly, animated shorts that star the Aquabats themselves in scenes straight out of a random Hanna-Barbara action cartoon. This is all part of the joke of the show. So what’s the big deal?

During the season finale, specifically the cartoon segment, the Aquabats meet a space-god type figure who forces them into what he calls an infinite time loop. The team is whisked away, appearing in a somewhat familiar scene: performing a song at a party by a pool. Eaglebones (oh, the names!) mentions they may have done this already, and indeed, it seems rather familiar to the audience of the show in a vague sense. Cut back to the live-action part. The team is up against a large maniac with a powerful headdress that shoots lasers. The battle lasts for a while, with the team really working together to defeat who is dubbed Space Monster ‘M’ (and oddly enough, this is a particularly dark battle, with people actually dying and what one might call real stakes). Eventually, Space Monster ‘M’ is stopped, but not without hurling the Aquabats into space. They are stuck floating inside their Battletram as they drift off into the void. And, suddenly, this looks very familiar too… because, in the case of the cartoon and the live segment, this is where viewers entered the series during the premiere. In the very first episode, the live-action portion began with them performing by the pool, and the cartoon began with them floating helplessly into space. The series didn’t just metaphorically come full circle – it LITERALLY did.

I doubt any TV show has even come close to this kind of mind-fuckery so unabashedly clever and surreal, so in-tuned to its internal trappings and mechanisms to pull something like this off so successfully. It helps that The Aquabats itself is already surreal, but it’s nothing that far removed for a number of parodies out there (Wonder Shozen, Black Dynamite, everything Adult Swim) so as to be particularly unique. And there’s nothing particularly unique about a show utilizing meta-comedy to comment on the structures and tropes of television. Animaniacs made a name for itself doing just that. Frank Grimes on The Simpsons lived it. Invader Zim’s pilot episode had a great moment upon returning from its commercial break with a “5000 Years Later” title card. Ren & Stimpy goofed a bit on it in “Space Madness.” And Louie works on those meta-levels in ways that no comedy before has done.

But The Aquabats didn’t just comment on the structures and tropes of TV; they didn’t simply satirize and parody Hanna-Barbara, the Krofft brothers, and the Super Sentai franchise. It was a direct commentary on the nature of repeats and syndication, the “infinite time loop” that has characters essentially redoing they same thing over and over again at another time or on another channel. In this case, The Aquabats internalized the gag in an almost self-defined Moebius strip, of live-action and cartoon being one and the same. The live-action Aquabats, upon finding their cartoon in various, auspicious places, are indeed watching themselves, and not just a goofy version of themselves.

Such a reveal completely changes how to view the first season, which at first comes off as a surface-level goof-fest of fun, camp, and comical excitement. Now, looking back, it all makes sense beyond comic sensibilities. The “Previously On” sequences (which mix together actual events from the previous episode with random and completely absurd shots that has nothing to do with anything) are purposely nonsensical from a practical standpoint, as these previous events rarely have anything to do with the situation the Aquabats find themselves in at the beginning of the episode. And yet, strangely enough, the Aquabats cartoon is continuous; each animated short directly connects the to next one in the next episode. It’s visual gibberish, which seems to reflect the random order of TV scheduling, whether its new episodes, repeats, syndicated shows, or marathons. Think you’ll be lost watching a random Aquabats? You will be… and yet, you won’t be. Like time-travel, thinking about it too much will probably make you go cross-eyed.

Bravo to The Aquabats SuperShow, rewarding its cult-following to arguably the biggest mind-fuck in TV history, bigger than Lost, St. Elsewhere, and The Prisoner. They somehow pulled off the idea behind La Jetee/12 Monkeys in a satirical kids cartoon on a brand new network, and almost got away with it. It will be interesting to see how things are pulled off in season two, but The Aquabats have enough freedom to pull off whatever bullshit it needs to do to escape its original trappings… and it will be awesome.

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The Gilded Age of Television

The television landscape may be doing some pretty great forms of entertainment, but the severe lack of diversity has been more problematic than critics seem willing to admit. Why?

I feel bad for Lena Dunham. The creator and showrunner for HBO’s Girls has gotten a lot of flack for the lack of racial, social and/or sexual diversity in her critically-lauded show, and it’s not really her fault. She has no responsibility to speak for an American society that now has more minority babies than Caucasian ones, or for the scores of homosexual people concerned over the future of marriage. The onus is really on the executives to greenlight and schedule shows that involve minorities, as well as promote them with the same rigor that they would their flagship shows. Girls have been receiving the backlash primarily on two fronts: 1) its very premise and characters make it impossible to deal with the real – and complex – issues plaguing the modern twenty-something, and 2) its pedigree have been exalted so much by both creators and critics that they seem unwilling or incapable of criticizing the very problem that the so-called Golden Age of Television represents. It’s a self-fulfilling prophecy that borderlines on conspiratorial; critics praising shows of a singular and narrow vision for their jobs encourage creators to create shows of a singular and narrow vision for critics to praise, and so on. This problem has extended from the AV Club to even our beloved Hulk.

Points 1) and 2) are noticeable in the promo photograph for Girls:

Girls Promo Photo

(Check out the parody here, which touches upon the larger point, even though I don’t quite agree with it.)

Look at it. Just look at it. Not a single person of color or minority – and this show takes place in New York, so no one will deal with the pressures of casual racism. Not one of them is gay, so they’ll never deal with the issue of coming out (or “passing”). Hell, not one of them is geeky or fat or even different in anyway, which are all real issues twenty-somethings deal with. This photo alone showcases such a strange and narrow vision of expectations, and the show, from what I’ve heard, only confirms it. Please don’t get me wrong. Denham has no responsibility to “speak” for those outside her singular vision (although this is a serious problem with auteur theory that critics fail to address – more on this later). But everything that is endemic about TV today is encapsulated right there.

We’re not in a Golden Age of Television. We’re in a Gilded Age of Television, an era that professes a greatness that masks the numerous issues that are facing the TV landscape. There is great television out there – from Mad Men and Breaking Bad, to Community and Happy Endings, to even shows like My Little Pony and Adventure Time and Regular Show. It’s stuff I truly enjoy watching, but even with this sample we can see how the “macronarratives” lean towards the heterosexual, WASP vision of the world.  (Yes, even MLP – Take a look at the comments section on Youtube for any showing of the episode “Over a Barrel.” And I know that a Youtube comment section is the seventh level of hell, but I still recommend looking because it did foster a debate worth having.)

The issue, as I see it, has always been concerning auteur theory, an ideal but extremely flawed method of thinking about collaborative forms of art that ties distinctive styles and techniques to a singular person. In the broadest form, it’s a fine way of thinking about film or TV, but over the years the inherent flaws of auteur theory – the danger of discounting those “other people” who worked on the film; the limits of tying inherently “free” techniques to one (often straight, male, white, and American) person; disparaging different forms, styles, ideas, and media as having intellectual merit over others – completely fell by the wayside. Critics were careful to note these problems at the beginning of auteur theory formulation; now, it’s as if these dangers were mere trifles. There are those creators that are defined “great” and those that aren’t, and it’s odd that those “great” people are mostly, well, similar to their physical and sexual traits, defined within intellectual paradigms.

Nothing represents that most distinctly then Roger Ebert’s takedown (and subsequent non-apology) of video games as art. It’s not that I agree or disagree with him, but it’s sad, borderline embarrassing, how Ebert frames his argument, then follows all that up with some arbitrary poll when his readers can vote whether they would rather play a game or read Huckleberry Finn. As if this whole thing amuses him, the masses of people with their over-the-top and implied-uneducated-and-therefore-unworthy opinions, because of course he’d never actual, maybe, sort of, kind of, think about the issue a little. This is the modern form of criticism. It’s no longer informative, debatable, self-aware, and cautious; it’s direct, declarative, non-ironic, and bold.

And even in regards to Murray’s misappropriated essay from above, after the general disappointment and backlash against it late in the comments section, you would think there would be some sort of re-thinking of the approach the issue of “micronarrative” representation over at the AVClub and in criticism in general. But in a recent Girls review, head editor Todd VanDerWerff posts the following comment in response to the continuing Girls backslash:

“People seem completely unwilling to extend this show even an inch of intellectual/critical charity, as if every minor deviation from their own reality on the part of the show’s reality is somehow a huge failure. It’s just fucking wearying.”

Which threw that idea out the window. (Which goes doubly so for this screed on a recent Girls review, at least the second half of it.)

I know Todd and met him a few times in New York and in Los Angeles. He is a very nice person and definitely has a solid head on his shoulders. I’m pretty sure he didn’t mean to come off glib or dismissive, but hearing “it’s just fucking wearying” is irritating. As if we’re supposed to, once again, follow that auteur theory road that Dunham is a part of, and play their game of television art and be satisfied, because those who don’t or refuse to or even have legit reasons for their dislike is “wearying”. Poor Todd and critics like him, forced to think maybe other people have a point.

This, I believe, is the inherent reason to the internet’s backlash to people like Ebert or to shows like Girls or to places like Cartoon Brew. They simply do not, or in many cases will not, acknowledge the flaws in their criticisms or attempt to explore, legitimately, the criticisms of other places. They will not participate in those debates in any meaningful fashion; not to say they need to at every single occasion, but it’s that they don’t even bother. I have my issues with people like Jim Sterling at Destructoid or Penny Arcade’s Tycho Brahe (aka Jerry Holkins) or Kevin Smith, but their willingness to mix it up with the average person and willingness to explore ideas garners more points from me (and most of the internet) than most critics these days.

If more critics fall to honestly explore the problems with modern television (well, in entertainment across the board), then this Gilded Age will only grow worse, these opinions will become “rules,” and criticism will no longer be the critical thinking/exploration method like the days of old, but the biased preference of “universal” rigidity of today – which is really, really male, straight, and white.

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