Devin Clark on the Mirthful Monster Madness of “Ugly Americans”
by Luke Y. Thompson on April 18, 2012
If you turn off the TV after watching South Park these days, you’re missing out. Ugly Americans, a satirical cartoon of a vastly different stripe, depicts a parallel New York City overrun with demons and monsters living casually among everyone else, aided by do-gooder social worker Mark Lilly from the government-run Department of Integration. It’s a vast world that we wanted to know more about, and creator Devin Clark was available to give us a few answers.
Nerdist: A lot of animated series start simply in terms of the characters, and then gradually expand on the mythology of their universe, and it seems like Ugly Americans came right out of the gate with a really intricate and well-thought-out backstory. How long did it take you to come up with the world before you ever animated a frame?
Devin Clark: I don’t know how thoroughly we built out the universe, like as far as creating a show bible or anything like that. I think a lot of it is just to blame on the fact that I absorbed an insane amount of science fiction and fantasy material over my lifetime, so a lot of these monsters and creatures are just the product of reading too many comic books, I think, and watching too many horror films. I think one of the things when we were putting together the Ugly universe was that we did want to have creatures that were unique to the show, and a lot of the approaches on the design of those characters were to make sure they were humorous just to look at. And so when I was coming up with, like, the man-birds, and the land whales, and things like that, I wanted them to be horrific creatures to one degree, like within the proper writing, and proper context, but also just be utterly absurd and ridiculous to look at as well.
But ultimately, you know, we’re just poking fun of, and absorbing, the entire mythos of all those horror tropes that we all know. So we have our werewolves and our vampires and our zombies and our fish-men, all like the Hammer horror stuff, and so we didn’t have to write down too much or commit to too much right from the get-go, because we knew that we were just going to include basically everything and anything. It was fun. I think for me, being a fan of comic books and science fiction and fantasy, within those genres the world itself is so important, that one of the things I was the most excited about and looked forward to when we were developing Ugly Americans was building out the world, and making it feel like a real place. At least, a full place.
N: So at this stage in the game, do you now have a series bible of rules of the way the world works, or is it still just whatever’s entertaining, that’s what you’ll do in a given week?
DC: No, ultimately, we’ll bend a rule, and try not to break a rule just in lieu of a joke, but ultimately we are trying to make comedy, and so we don’t try to commit too strictly to any specific mythos. But as we’ve gone through and done now 31 episodes, we definitely have set certain precedents that we don’t want to veer away from. You know, our zombies act a certain way, and there are so many different ways of approaching zombies, with the zombie genre existing now, with 30 years of movies, ours have a certain personality, a certain type of behavior, they’re a little more like the Romero craving brains/walking around dragging their feet types, rather than the 28 Days Later angry plague zombies. There are certain rules that having produced 2 seasons of episodes, we are committing to things. Our hands are tied from being as wishy-washy as we were in the first couple of episodes.
N: Are there larger story arcs that are going to come into play, like demons infiltrating the US government, and so forth?
DC: You know, it’s funny, last year when we were thinking of plots for the second season, I think we got pretty obsessed with the whole 2012 end-of-days thing, and a demon being involved in that, and we did imagine at one point doing a much larger arc, but it got a little overcomplicated, got a little grim. Ultimately we’re trying to make a comedy show, and also we want episodes that are stand-alone. People who haven’t seen the show before, we hope they have some basic understanding of who the characters are at this point, but we want each episode to be able to stand alone on its own and not be dependent on seeing the previous episodes to understand what’s going on. So in brief, no. No larger arcs.
N: Aside from the classic horror tropes, what sort of inspiration did you have besides the particular specifics of the premise, and the Department of Integration, and all of that?
DC: We pulled from a lot of genres. We took a big page out of the book of DC Comics and those kind of horror comic books, at least stylistically. But as far as the humor, I think a lot of that is kind of borrowing from British comedy, to a large degree, and that was taking things that are normally treated very horrific, and making them absurd, or making them normal, normalizing them. So I find that there’s endless room for comedy within taking something absurd and making it normal, or something normal and making it absurd, and the idea of treating these creatures like normal citizens just seemed like the perfect vehicle for our comedy show.
N: Does that level of comedy insulate you from possible censorship a bit? Like the name of a character like Boneraper, you’d think might cause trouble on some other show, but maybe the fact that it’s so absurd keeps it insulated and makes it feel less like a hot-button thing?
DC: Yeah, since we are taking such a bureaucratic approach to the horror, I feel like no one really questions it. It’s like, that makes perfect sense if you come from some kind of blue blood, stand-up demon family, you know, rape may well be part of your name. There’s nothing questioned there. It’s funny, of all the things that we’ve had pushback on, that was never one of them. For whatever reason, the logic of demons having horrific and offensive names just made perfect sense to Comedy Central and they were cool with that.
N: On that note, is there anything you can tell us that you tried to get away with but you didn’t get away with?
DC: Most of the time, we were able to figure out a happy compromise. For instance, the manbirds: initially in the first draft of the manbirds episode, I think they were fighting with their actual penises. You know, that’s like a whole 22 minutes of birds slapping each other to death with their cocks. Comedy Central, I think rightfully so, were not totally game for that. So we came up with this idea that you don’t actually ever see their genitals, their genitals are hidden behind this protective sheath, which is basically, you know, their ding-dong. But we explained that mythos and we laid down that pike early on in the episode, which then gives us as much freedom as we want to have with graphic imagery of birds beating each other to death with their penises.
N: The Atlantis episode where Callie changes genders was actually pretty radical, and positively so, as a statement in terms of the relationship between love and gender. Is there an intentional social statement there? Or was it just that you thought that would be funny?
DC: For sure, I feel like it’s such an easy target, and such an easy topic to tap into the squeamish factor, and I feel like it kind of gets done to death in a way that we’ve all seen before and it doesn’t tell us anything new. The show definitely is, in its heart, as ushered by Mark Lilly, trying to give a positive message. He doesn’t always succeed, and sometimes causes more trouble than he intends by trying to do the right thing, but I think ultimately, we have a positive message. Mark Lilly’s very pro-integration, he’s very open-minded, he’s a very liberal guy, he’s trying to help people, he’s trying to do the right thing, and so in the topic where we’re poking fun at gender roles – a character like Mark Lilly really opens it up to, like, being game, and being okay with like, giving this a try and making it work, and kind of seeing past just the surface. I don’t know, I think it was definitely unique to our characters and our main character specifically, that let us take a much more nuanced approach to what would normally just be obvious gender comedy. I think that’s one of our favorite episodes from the season; pretty psyched on that one.
N: And then this season you also did a Fantastic Voyage-type episode, which is a rite of passage for a lot of cartoon shows. How hard was it to stay away from all the various other shows that have done that, from Futurama to Family Guy to The Simpsons? To do your own spin, when so many other cartoons have given it their spin already?
DC: Since they’re going within Twayne, we thought it would be really fun to show what the inside of a demon was about, and we had just a blast doing all the character design, our little amoeba-slash-Avatar race of bacteria that live inside his belly, and the totally bizarre organic anatomy and crazy color palette – it gave our animators an opportunity to really step out stylistically. I think that was one way of being a little different, and kind of doing the Dances with Wolves B-story within his anatomy was another way of steering away from that. Ultimately they weren’t trying to kill any cancer or save his life, they were trying to apprehend a serial arsonist. I guess there were a lot of ways we kind of strayed away from the previous ways that folks have done it. It is kind of a mainstay of the science fiction genre and any show that is tapping into that is paying homage to that.
N: You’ve got a great format going with the intros of the show, where they’re all these classic horror tropes and then there’s always a twist on it to show something way more ridiculous than the scary thing that you thought it was. Is it ever hard coming up with those or do you just have a million of those ready to go?
DC: No, we definitely haven’t run out of ideas yet. Whenever we’re doing the writers’ room and fishing for ideas, we amass a ridiculous amount of possible storylines and different ways of introducing those concepts within the cold opening with their little horror mysterette, but as soon as we run out of movies to make fun of, then I guess we’re out of ideas. We tap into more genres than just horror, you know, we’ve had episodes that are poking fun of ’70s cop shows, and we’ve had a cold open that tapped into every genre of horror film there is, from the Hitchcockian Birds stuff, the ’80s John Carpenter style. I feel like we kind of have an endless well to draw from when it comes to horror homages.
N: In the world of Ugly Americans, is New York the only place that’s overrun by different races, or is the entire world like that?
DC: The entire world is like that. Unfortunately we haven’t had the opportunity to really go there yet, but in the “Drive Me to Hell” episode where Grimes wants to rewrite the last episode to his favorite show, he hates the ending; and one of the ideas was that as we’re driving across from New York to L.A., you get to see a little bit of that, of the United States of Ugly Americans. Unfortunately when you only have 22 minutes, we can’t get in everything that we’d like to do, but yeah, certainly, the whole world is completely overrun, or coexists, I should say, with every horror, fantasy and science fiction creature you can imagine.
We even have little rough historical backgrounds of some of the creatures. Like we imagine the vampire lineage came from Eastern Europe at some point, and big waves of immigrants came to New York initially, and maybe they worked in the garment district, who knows. I think we poke fun of and blend together the idea of the United States immigrant story and the idea of the true horror mythos of creatures like vampires and werewolves and stuff like that existed as fairy tales and myths for hundreds of years. I think we like to integrate our history and the history of those creatures and believe that these monsters have coexisted with us for as long as the idea of them has existed. Of course, vampires have been around for many, many generations, and are well integrated within our society. Whereas maybe the zombies only got here a couple decades ago and are still having a rough time getting jobs, you know? We definitely have some plans for playing around with those ideas.
N: Since you mentioned the time constraints, what are the chances they’d ever let you do something feature-length? Either direct to cable or even theatrical or DVD?
DC: With all the abilities to raise money now, via the internet and stuff like that, I think even if Comedy Central wasn’t interested in doing a movie, we could just do a little Kickstarter drive and hopefully get a little equity to do a feature-length animated Ugly film. That’d be awesome. The television world has changed a lot in the last 20 years and there’s a lot more opportunity to create material. YouTube, Hulu, Netflix, they’re all starting to fund projects, you never know. We hope to keep Ugly going on Comedy Central, obviously, but there’s definitely lots of opportunities for doing it other places now.
N: Are you guys renewed for another season after this one?
DC: We’re not picked up yet, but we’re still running episodes for this season, so I’m sure we’ll know soon.
N: We certainly hope so. One last question, is Frank Grimes based at all on Homer Simpson’s arch nemesis of the same name?
DC: I can tell you this: David Stern, our original show runner on Ugly Americans, used to write on The Simpsons. He wrote the second or third through the fifth season of The Simpsons, and I do believe he may have been involved with that episode and so there may be a slight homage to that character, but I cannot deny or admit to any connection.
Ugly Americans runs Wednesday nights at 10:30 p.m. on Comedy Central. The current season finale airs 4/25.