Comic-Con 2011: Interviews with Jonah Hill, David Goodman, French Stewart and Others for ALLEN GREGORY

     July 28, 2011

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Following the Allen Gregory panel (recap is here) that featured a 10-minute clip of the new Fox pilot, I got the opportunity to participate in a round table discussion with the producers and cast of the show. The footage gave solid confirmation that the collaboration between Jonah Hill (Superbad, Get Him to the Greek), French Stewart, (Third Rock from the Sun) Nat Faxon (Beerfest) and some seriously comedy-savvy producers is a winning combination. I love the retro animation style they went with, and some of the material is definitely going to push the boundaries of PC Television in ways we haven’t yet witnessed. Watching the footage made the interview even more exciting because it was apparent that they have something special on their hands. In two surprisingly intimate group interviews, I sat down with David A. Goodman (Family Guy), Jarrad Paul (Yes Man), Andrew Mogel (Yes Man), French Stewart (Richard, Allen’s father), Jonah Hill (Allen Gregory DeLongpre), and Nat Faxon (Jeremy, Richard’s life partner). The show follows Allen Gregory, a spoiled but adorable 7 year-old who is being raised by his father Richard and Jeremy, Richard’s neglected life-partner.

All the writers and actors were clearly excited about the project and answered everything with a level of refreshingly genuine enthusiasm. Hit the jump for more.

In the interview, we discussed the making of the characters and the story, how they feel about airing the show within such a strong block of other animated shows on Fox, what’s the method of developing each episode, in what ways animation differs from live-action, and how one of their characters shows a strong resemblance to Donnie from The Big Lebowski.

Here’s part one, wherein I talked to David A. Goodman (executive producer), Andrew Mogel (co-creator and producer) and Jarrad Paul (co-creator and produer) and if you want the audio, click here.  Scroll down for Part 2 where I interviewed French Stewart, Jonah Hill and Nat Faxon. (Also, I apologize in advance for any stuttering in the audio. This being my first interview of any kind, I was occasionally shitting my pants.)

Question: So, simple first question, tell us about the show?

Andrew Mogel: The show is about Allen Gregory who is the most pretentious 7 year old that we’ve known, played by Jonah Hill, and he has two doting gay fathers that tend to his every whim, and the pilot episode he’s going back to public school for the first time with kids his own age and he just finds that disgusting.

Is there concern of having a pretentious 7 year old your main protagonist and having audiences actually connect with him right away?

Mogel: At the center of it it’s really about this kid that wants to fit in. You know what I mean, deep down he wants these kids to like him even though he’s insulting them. [laughs]

Jarrad Paul: And he’s got too much bravado to actually show his true feelings so he just kind of acts like everything’s great and it’s going his way and he tries his best to make it happen but he’s having a hard time.

David A. Goodman: I think the thing that is clear to an audience member, hopefully is clear, and relatable is that: he’s in a new situation, he wants to be liked, and we’re very clear on making sure that those motivations are clear so that when he’s being a jerk to people, the audience understands that he’s just like the rest of us. ‘Please like me’ is at the core of everything.

Paul: Yeah. There’s a balance. You can’t just be a jerk 24/7.

Compared to, especially on Fox, you know their animation, there’s a much more down to earth feel? There’s not gonna be space ships coming down?

Mogel: We tried to base it in a real world, and the look of it too, we wanted it to look more human.

Paul: And acting wise, we go for like, subtle acting and facial acting as opposed to more broad stuff…

Goodman: The advantage of animation though is that, one you’ve got Jonah Hill, a full blown adult playing a seven year old, which you can’t obviously do live action, unless it’s very expensive. And also, and I think this is really true, that characters in animation can do much more heinous things to each other than you can do in live action. You know, the British seem to do be able to do it, [laughs] but otherwise American sitcoms you can’t be really mean to each other. You can in animation. I mean, we used to joke about Family Guy, that every character in Family Guy has raped someone.  [laughs] You know, and somehow that seems to have gone unnoticed by the audience. We’re not going that far, but I think definitely the style has a fun meanness to the characters but again there’s heart underneath it. You understand when watching it. So that’s another reason why the fact that it’s animated is a necessary thing.

Paul: And a lot of the meanness is oblivious meanness. Meaning they have these self-driven goals and they don’t realize what they’re doing to other people. A lot of it’s misguided, and Richard doesn’t realize that he’s holding Jeremy captive in his relationship.

Mogel: Jeremy used to be straight. He had a family, he had a wife and kids. And Richard somehow seduced him into this gay relationship. [laughs]

Paul: And Jeremy kind of just goes with stuff and he doesn’t really vocalize things strong enough and he’s kind of stuck there.

With the character of Jeremy, did you get any inspiration from Donnie from The Big Lebowski?

Paul: That’s hilarious. We love that movie. We didn’t, but we love that movie.

Would you ever think of a character telling Jeremy that he’s out of his element?

Paul: That would absolutely fit.

Mogel: Donny, you’re out of your element!

Being on Fox, how much are you looking to push the boundaries?

Goodman: What’s great about Fox is that you have not just two hit shows but two cultural phenomenon’s at 8 o’clock and 9 o’clock on Sunday night. And they’re launching us at 8:30 on Sunday night. And Fox as a network and studio, because they have the safety of those two hits, they are willing to take creative chances with this show that no other network would take. And so, the fact that Allen Gregory is in love with his 70 year old principal, Principal Gotlieb, and that his discussions really do push the boundaries in terms of sex and a 7 year old talking about sex, the fact that we’re allowed to take these chances and are encouraged to…you know Peter Chernin, one of the producers on the show is constantly like ‘push it more and more’ you know, because they know that that’s what the Fox audience on Sunday wants. But story wise we definitely push the boundaries as much as we can within the voice of the show.

You guys have those bits where Allen Gregory has a fantasy with his principal and poops his pants, which is something you’d expect from Fox animation. But some of the funnier bits in there were the real subtle stuff, like where Richard slaps Jeremy. Is that something that is more your guys’ humor?

Mogel: Yeah we love that stuff. The shitting his pants; that was always…we wanted this moment where he is a kid. At the heart of it he is…you know what I mean? The climax of that presentation was to show that he is a child and we wanted that moment. But yeah we love the smaller, subtler kind of stuff. That’s why we want it to be human and look the way it looks.

Do you think that subtle humor is kind of what things are going with now? I remember in the beginning of Family Guy it started as a little more in your face, and now there’s a lot more comments put to the side.

Goodman: Well they’ve always had ‘em. I think there’s always been in Family Guy…like with Stewie asking Brian how his novel’s going doing that classic bit of [in high voice] ‘oh you got the character motivation…” and it goes on and on. And there’s definitely a connection to that in this show. This show does that times 10. And again, Family Guy and the Simpsons pave the way for the audience for the writing on those shows. They’re not writing those characters as cartoon characters. What’s going on there is adult humor. So just in that general umbrella, that allows a show like Allen Gregory to exist.

ALLEN GREGORY (2)Now the animation style, how did you come up with it? It seems very unique compared to other things on Fox. Was that a mission to find a unique style?

Mogel: Definitely. Like Jonah said at the panel, we love the New Yorker vibe and it felt like the right attitude for Allen Gregory, so we started there and with the help of Bentobox and so many people helped guide it to what it is. But with the color pallet we wanted to do something a little different that felt more cinematic in moments.

Goodman: I work very closely with these guys and I’ve come from a different place, having worked with Futurama and Family Guy which have a different look to it…They place the cameras, where it’s animated but there’s a feeling of, this is how it would look if it was a movie.

Mogel: Almost like multi-camera vs. single camera.

Paul: And we do different set ups for every shot [laughs]

Goodman: Yeah, and it’s a lot of work but it lends a style to this show that really is unlike any other animation shows currently on television.

—-

Part two of the interview. For audio, click here.

jonah-hill-imageJonah Hill: Yeah that was a pretty wonderful experience getting to show that in front of like 500 people, or how ever many people it was there…it was cool ‘cause that was the first thing…Actually no, in SNL I wrote some sketches that I did on there…but it was cool, I’ve been working on it for so long that it was wonderful to hear people actually laugh at it, and not just hear ourselves laughing at it.

How different is it working on film to television and animation?

Hill: Well animation specifically just takes a long time. So what was interesting to me is when you’re writing something on a movie we write a scene and it’s like ‘alright now we’re done with the writing part let’s go out and shoot it’ you know you get to go make it. And with this when we’re done with the writing it’s like ‘let’s ship it away to Korea for like 8 months and wait for a little piece back that’s nothing like you thought it was gonna be like, you know. So, it’s just slower. But the reward is just so great that it’s so beautiful and different, you know, like it’s really cool.

(Fellow voice actors French Stewart and Nat Faxon join the round table.)

Faxon: This feels like a crazy blast right here.

Hill: We’re just partying really hard. [laughs]

What’s it like sort of having your name as the driving force behind this show?

Hill: I just think that people are gonna say ‘who is that?’ It just seems surreal, I don’t know. I gotta say that Jared, Manny and I really feel like there was nothing and then there was something, you know. That to me really is like the coolest part. We drove up here together, friends, and were saying that this started in Jared’s apartment on a blank sheet of paper to now being at Comic-con here showing it, talking to you folks about it. That to me is something that is really different and special and cool.

You guys are these great comedian minds. Is there a lot of adlibbing to the readings?

Hill: These guys are so funny that it’s like, crazy. They’re so immediately – we auditioned people for these parts and right away, when Nat [Faxon] and French [Stewart] came in, we knew we wanted them without hesitation. And it just, they got what we were trying to do, and from the first recording session, they got who their characters were. Just, we had to do like no work in directing them and explaining everything it was like ‘these guys know exactly what the hell they’re doing.’

So do you guys have to adlib anything?

Stewart: The nice thing is that you to come in and you got this script that’s already really funny and really well-crafted.

Hill: I’d almost say perfect [laughs].

Stewart: And everything else is just bonus flavor. No it’s really nice and enjoyable. They give you some leash but at the same time, you know.

Jonah_Hill_Image_1Hill: We’ll pitch them new jokes while we’re shooting or recording and then, yeah. These guys have adlibbed a ton of stuff that’s made it into the show. It’s so bizarre, specifically French’s noises, and things, really make it in like [chhhh]. He’s giving Richard like, this weird, he almost like, scats kind of. This thing where we never would have ever thought of that. It’s just something he brought to his character. It’s pretty exciting for me because as an actor you’re so focused on your own character and to get to have created some characters and watch these wonderful actors play them and act them has been a really cool experience, you know? We’ve tricked such talented people into being in the show.

You mentioned at the panel that you guys are right after the Simpsons, stepping into the pedigree of Fox animation. Do you guys feel intimidated by that?

Hill: For me, I would say that I created a show that’s going on after the Simpsons. That’s all I need for the rest of my life. That’s my personal feeling. I’m obviously intimidated to be in between that and Family Guy, but the fact that it’s like, Homer would be on and then you would watch our show is like beyond a childhood crazy dream, you know. It just doesn’t make sense, it’s hard to think about…

What do you like most about voice acting?

Faxon: Just being able to be hung over.

Hill: Not shaving, terrible clothes…

Faxon: Nakedness, not having to stress. It takes me between 45 minutes and an hour and a half to get ready every morning so it’s nice not to have to do that.

How long are the voice sessions for an episode?

Faxon: You mean per character?

Yeah.

Stewart: You’re usually in and out in an hour, hour and a half. It just depends on how big your episode is, you know. And then you come back and do punch-up here and there. Every now and then they’ve got a little piece that they’re missing from an episode that they just need you to do one line and get out, so it just depends. It’s great.

What are you guys gonna think when action figures are made of your characters?

Hill: If there’s a doll of this my mind would be blown to pieces. Bentobox and Fox make Bob’s Burgers, right. And they said that this is they’re second year here and people are dressed up as the characters and to me, if we were lucky enough to have a second season and come back here and people were dressed up, like, my head would explode. My head would explode, like there would be nothing crazier than that.

Get ready for it.

Hill: I mean, McBride, like Danny McBride, like I text him…we’re walking down the floor and we see an Eastbound and Down bobble head of Kenny Powers and it’s like, ‘that’s fuckin’ crazy’. If people respond to this show I’ll be…we think it’s funny so it’s just crazy. It’s like us sending Allen Gregory to school. That’s what we were talking about. It’s like him going to school and our baby is just getting judged and tries to make friends and, you know, you feel like a protective father, yeah…what if they don’t like them.

Can you tell us about your characters?

Faxon: I play Jeremy one of the two gay fathers. The, I am the reluctant gay [laughs]. The classic, you know, like you’ve seen in – I was happily married with kids for years.

Hill: Very happily married. Like not a problem in the relationship.

Faxon: And now I was asked, ‘so how did that transition work’? And I’m like ‘I think it just did’…It just happened and there was no…we were talking about that earlier, like meeting my wife and children.

Hill: That was one of my – where Jeremy’s family comes.

Faxon: Yeah that’s just where I get browbeaten.

Hill: And Jeremy’s just a good guy. But then you realize that he’s kind of fucked up too ‘cause he let this happen. Like right when I start to feel so bad for him, like what a good guy, I’m like, there’s some darkness there because he like has allowed this to go down.

Faxon: And for a long time…like things are happening but he’s not saying anything.

Stewart: Yeah like kicked to the curb in one episode and then really miss it and wanna come back.

Hill: He’s just a glutton for punishment.

I love where he dresses off as Tinkerbell in that photo.

Hill: That was my wrap gift, for season one, where we have those framed.

Just to hear you guys talk, you guys are just riffing on things. It seems like there’s just so much fun making this show.

Hill: We went out last night with our writers who we introduced…were you guys there for the panel? Yeah, the writers we introduced and our cast like Jarrad, Manny and I, David, like, we all went out last night and stuff and had this big dinner and went out and it’s just the coolest group of people and everyone is so funny and cool like, it would just be a damn shame to not get to continue that, you know. It’s extremely fun.

Can you explain where the character [Allen Gregory] came from?

Hill: Umm…God it’s really quiet in here. [laughs] The character, we wanted to play you know, Jarred and Manny had written this great script called Himmelfarb and I was maybe gonna be in that film and Jared lived in the same apartment building as I did and I was really hell-bent on creating an animated show and thought that their voice would be good to combine with my voice to write something together. And their main character in that movie was very delusional, kind of pretentious figure. And we were like, well that might be a cool character for me to play ‘cause we like that character. And then we just had the idea to make him seven. [ laughs] and the most adorable, like, he’s the last character visually that we locked down because it was impossible to get him cute enough for us. We were sending in pictures of nephew and like [laughs] you know, we’d go on the internet and type in ‘adorable kid’ and we couldn’t make him cute enough because we wanted when he said something horrible to juxtapose that with how cute he is.

Stewart: Now if you’re ever in trouble with the police they’ll go to your computer and they’ll be like ‘7,000 entries of adorable kid’ [laughs]…’must be cute’.

Hill: Yeah if they open the 7-year-old boy file, I’ll be in deep shit.

We were talking about how it’s easier to get away with things with animation. Do you think it’s easier to show some more heart as well? Do you prefer the connection that animation provides as opposed to live action?

Hill: I think it’s personally harder to convey emotion. I think the most prideful moments in Allen Gregory are when you feel bad for him or sad because being an actor, for me, it’s like it’s all in your eyes and your face expressing something and it’s a bunch of people animating that expression. You have to really have animators that get what you’re going for and even then it’s like, I’m still gonna look…you’re gonna get more from like a human being hurting than an animated character hurting. Then you watch those movies like ‘Up’ and you’re like hysterical crying in the first…[laughs] so I think those are the moments in the show I really am like, wow I can’t believe I actually feel bad for these little cartoon people.

Faxon: I think it’s also what separates this show form the other shows, like animated shows on Fox, in the sense that it does have heart and it does have, like relationships and stuff that you sort of…it’s hilarious but you do sort of care about it, a little more than, say maybe Family Guy or one of those that do a lot of flashbacks and jokes and stuff…I think this is more like story telling.

Stewart: And the fact that the animation is more sort of lyrical and beautiful and there’s something whimsical about it…that I didn’t see coming when we were doing it.

Hill: But Simpsons though has amazing moments in it where there is so much heart that you’re like…I remember this episode where Homer’s mom comes back and she had abandoned him and at the end he’s just like…she abandons him again. And they go to a very sincere kind of sad place and sweet, and like I remember being a kid and seeing that and going like, why do I…it’s Homer but I’m sad. I dunno, if there’s a couple moments like that in our show that’d be really cool.

What’s the creative process in trying to find each character’s voice in the show? Do you look at it visually and think, now I know how his voice will sound?

Faxon: I think it varies depending on that project, but I think for this it was…

Hill: We all kind of sound like ourselves. [laughs] Except French is like some weird Reggae scat. [laughs]

Faxon: I think they wrote such a great script that it’s very, sort of, evident on the page. I feel like what direction…

Hill: I mean they’ll tell you it’s airtight. [laughs] Not a hole in that script, we really just kicked the shit out of it…damn near perfect. So they pretty much got exactly what to do. We illustrated it for them. It’s like, you know, the guy who does the inking in the comic book and the guy that does the outline – he draws everything. The inking is just coloring inside what we already drew, you know what I mean? He’s picking a color saying maybe the shirt’s red, I don’t fucking know…I’m totally kidding…Please write that I’m joking. [laughs]

You mentioned in the panel that the art style is kind of Wes Anderson influenced, and it seems like a lot of the humor has that kind of subtle Wes Anderson feel. Like the moment where Richard slaps Jeremy in the car. It’s just really subtle, like that. Do you feel like that’s drawn from places like Wes Anderson?

Hill: Well that’s also them too. That’s something where like, Richard’s a character where when people came in, people were doing the biggest caricature that you could imagine. And French goes bigger sometimes but he’s really grounded in playing that guy. And that right away, we got his energy, what he was going for with Jeremy like, it was just perfect. It would be crummy if it was done over the top or wasn’t as subtle. To me the biggest Wes Anderson moment would be when he’s leaving Patrick and he’s like ‘I’m proud of you.’ You know, just seemed like such a Rushmore type vibe. I think we all love Rushmore very much and that was a film about like an outcast in school and a fish out of water and you know…

Stewart: And also the Louis Vitton lunch kit that has the wine and sushi.

Hill: We got kind of obsessed with Louis Vitton. We would walk by…I would find myself going into the Louis Vitton store and taking picture and sending them to these guys and like…we just thought that that was his label, his brand…and the Porsche Cayenne was funny…

(The group begins ragging on Jarrad Paul (producer) for driving a Porsche Cayenne and breaking his rental lease)

If you guys could go to the convention floor without getting recognized where would you go first?

Hill: We walked the floor yesterday. I had like 20 security guards with me but it was just your normal everyday Comic-Con experience, 20 bodyguards making sure nobody looks or touches you. No, it was really fun. What did we see? We saw that Danny McBride bobble head which we were pretty excited about. It was cool, I like to see all the merchandise that you can’t get easily, like online or at stores where people either make stuff themselves or…There’s kind of a cool homemade vibe to a lot of this stuff. And the collector’s mentality is just insane, like I have that as well where it’s just collecting things in general. I saw someone notice something they were excited, like super excited to see and it’s just a great thing to watch. Some that they’ve been looking for like some figurine or whatever it was, and I just saw their eyes like, it’s like it’s Christmas or something. And it’s cool to watch a vibe like that, some where people are so excited, you know.

(To Jonah Hill) You tried stand-up in Funny People for the first time. Would you ever consider doing stand-up again?

Hill: I dunno…there were parts of it I loved and parts of it…I really didn’t like it a lot. It takes years and years to get great as a stand-up and I had 6 months, you know. Maybe if I wanna put those years into it, you know, maybe, but I don’t have the drive for that right now. Like what I do is so different than what a stand-up does, and visa-versa that, just because I like comedy doesn’t mean it’s like, I’d be a great stand-up comedian.  I like acting, yeah I like collaborating. And I felt it was just so solitary up there, you know. Like I love writing with these guys and working with these guys and like, you know, it’s so collaborative that it honestly just felt lonely up there, ‘cause you’re just by yourself.

You think it’s too easy to get in your head?

Hill: There was a great profile on Harold Ramis in the New Yorker where he talks about why he stopped performing and he said ‘I just got tired of my self-esteem being in the hands of a bunch of strangers’ so it’s like, go up and you’re saying please tell me I’m good, you know. And for me it was like, in a movie there’s such a disconnect, or TV show, where if you don’t read reviews or anything, you just put it out there and hope people dig it. You don’t have to sit there and hear them decide whether they like it or not, you know.

Show’s great.

Hill: Thanks man, tell your friends.

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