When you’re on a live set, sometimes you get to see some surreal stuff, sometimes you get to see some awesome stuff, and sometimes when you’re very lucky, you get both at once. Such was the case last March, when I visited the set of Childrens Hospital in Los Angeles, California where I sat down for an exclusive interview with series creators Rob Corddry, David Wain and Jonathan Stern to talk about the hit Adult Swim series’ 6th season and the logic behind absurd comedy.
Corddry, who just wrapped filming for the day, sat down across the table from me in full Blake Downs clown makeup, and as the interview continued, proceeded to remove his face paint with a stack of baby wipes. If you’ve never watched a clown take off their makeup before, it’s a fascinating transformation, and just the right amount of weird for an interview with the creators of TV’s most popular surreal comedy.
During the interview we talked about keeping the bizarre plots grounded with logic, having a writer’s room for the first time, how they film the series, fitting so much in an eleven-minute episode, why the 6th season is the best one yet, and more. Childrens Hospital also stars Rob Huebel, Malin Akerman, Ken Marino, Megan Mullally, Lake Bell and Henry Winkler.
Talk a little bit about the creative process that goes on for a show like this where’s there so much freedom and maybe not as many rules.
ROB CORDDRY: Well, actually the more something appears not to have rules probably, and especially in our case, the more rules there are. Because, especially with absurd comedy, there is still a logic you have to follow, so we actually hold ourselves to some pretty strict rules so that we don’t get – so that it’s not just random humor as opposed to absurd comedy. That’s at least the restrictions we give ourselves.
DAVID WAIN: I think we’ve progressed from – in terms of the rules – from not knowing what the rules were but just going by feeling, like this feels right and this doesn’t, and over time being able to actually verbalize and define why this is right and why this is wrong.
What are some of those rules?
CORDDRY: One thing we’ve had for a while that we’ve now found, we discovered that there is an actual word for, is lampshading. Lampshading is our bread and butter.
JONATHAN STERN: Yeah, though I still can’t quite define what it is [laughs].
WAIN: I think in reference to the convention or the trope that we’re doing within the actual [scene] – putting a lampshade on it.
Like the ticking clock scene you just shot?
CORDRRY: Yeah, exactly.
STERN: This episode, to me, is very hard to actually explain the definition of.
WAIN: This episode, as with many, is a specific episode-long joke, which is that a fan wrote it, so that has it’s own new set of jokes.
STERN: I think we have a lot discussions about point of view. The point of view of the fictional writer of the show. This particular episode is very clear, it’s a guest point of view, but generally we have conversations of – would the makers of the show do this? They wouldn’t make an intentional joke? They think they’re making a drama.
WAIN: He’s talking about the fictional one-hour drama in the show. As far as Point of view goes, we have kind of a in-the-writers-room, inside sort of abbreviated lingo we use, which is POV. It’s the first letters of each word. Point of view. POV. So it’s just something we say between us. When we’re together we’ll say like, “What’s the POV?” And we know just just from having worked together for so long, and our own shorthand, that means “point of view”.
Sure, that kind of thing develops naturally over the years [laughs]. How do you guys work together in the actual writing process?
CORDRRY: It changed this year. We used to write a lot of episodes ourselves and farm out episodes to friends and then give notes via google docs. Now, we decided that was an unsustainable approach because we would never go into shooting a season with all our episodes written, and end up scrambling for the rest of the season, so it wasn’t that much fun.
WAIN: We changed to a writer’s room this season, and I think the bigger thing we did even more than that was just doing it a lot earlier, the whole thing.
CORDRRY: Yeah, having to plan for a writer’s room, and schedule a writer’s room-
WAIN: Forced us to get it all done earlier.
CORDRRY: Yeah, forced us to get it done earlier and we got it all done for the most part in four weeks. And then we had months to do our own work on it and our own writing.
WAIN: As with any show, once any outside writers or even writer’s room writers do it, then we do our own passes and notes and tweaks to bring it fully into the voice of the show. In past seasons, each of us having two kids, would spend all weekend, every weekend, early early mornings, late late nights in between shooting re-writing everything. The whole season.
WAIN: It was miserable.
STERN: Well, it was a good excuse to get away from the kids.
CORDRRY: This year, it was so tight that we were able to do it in one weekend at a beautiful seaside resort, [laughs] taking leisurely time away by ourselves as well. It was a lot of fun.
STERN: But don’t tell my wife we’re not still working on the weekends, ok. As far as she knows…
I promise I’ll only tell the internet. I would image that made the filming process a bit smoother. What’s a normal day like on the set of Childrens Hospital?
WAIN: It’s a normal – a twelve hour shoot day generally. We don’t have money or ability generally to go into too much overtime. We shoot five days a week, and it’s two days per episode.
STERN: On the average.
WAIN: We shoot two episodes every four-day shoot block. Usually that’s one director who comes in to do that. So compared to most any other show like this, it’s very very fast.
STERN: Remember, these are quarter hours, so comparing it to another show-
WAIN: And yet it betrays it though, because our quarter hours – each episode still has its own separate cast, it three or four storylines, it has the same number of scenes as an old fashioned one-hour drama so it’s pretty much all the production elements that would go into a full blown hour-long episode for every quarter hour.
STERN: Instead of people spending three pages talking about the operation, they hit all the bullet points in half a page and move on.
WAIN: Squeezing into the eleven minutes has been an incredible discipline of how we communicate story and comedy in the absolute most efficient way, because an extra five seconds, we don’t have.
STERN: And we make the assumption that the audience goes in known so many tropes and clichés of television. We don’t have to re-explain those.
I interviewed someone who said network TV shows are written to tell you what’s going to happen, show it happening and then tell you what just happened. You guys get rid of all that.
WAIN: If you ever watch the old shows like we grew up on, Charlie’s Angels, that kind of one-hour bit. It’s deadly slow.
STERN: They used to do this thing on Hulu where they did five-minute cut downs of one-hour shows like Love Boat, Fantasy Island, Charlie’s Angels–
WAIN: You got the whole thing.
CORDRRY: I have a friend who writes for network shows and he’s like, “It happens all the time. I’m four or five pages under and I wrote the story that I have to write and now I have to pad it with garbage.”
Are there some ideas that got away? Maybe ideas you had over the last few years that never made it to the screen, but you would have liked to see happen?
STERN: Well, that all three of us would have liked to see?
WAIN: That’s what this show is all about, it’s the dumping ground for all our ideas [laughs]. Everything we really want to do, we just make it happen here.
CORDRRY: There’s a bulletin board in my room, which I had transferred from our office which is all the ideas that we didn’t get to this season or just weren’t quite A-list in our opinion. There’s about 30 of them that are still very much contenders for next season. There’s some ideas up there that really make me laugh.
STERN: The tough thing is – we generally give a lot of deference to each other, but when it comes to what the story episodes will be about, we look for unanimity, and that’s more selective.
But I imagine that’s helpful to keeping the show true to the vision of what you all originally came up with.
WAIN: There are very few things that I’ve really, really loved that we’ve not been able to do. Usually if we reject something, I ultimately agree that there’s a reason.
CORDRRY: I think the only thing I can think of that was a big fight was the Love Boat episode.
STERN: [Laughs] I mean, in hindsight it probably would have been a disaster, but at the time it was heartbreaking. Until we heard the table read of it, and then it became clear. I guess table reads serve a purpose. Unfortunately, we generally should do table reads more than – that particular one we did just two days before we were supposed to start shooting that episode.
WAIN: That’s another thing. In past years, we did a lot of that switching gears and changing the entire episode within a day or two before shooting.
CORDRRY: We trashed an episode – David and our writer’s assistant wrote an entire episode in one day and we were shooting it in four.
WAIN: She was a staff writer.
CORDRRY: She was a staff writer, that’s right! A former staff writer.
WAIN: We just wrote it as fast as we could both type at the same time on the same shared google document.
CORDDRY: We were shooting it days later.
STERN: You would never know which episode it is. It’s right up there.
WAIN: And the way we conceived it at the last second was just by pulling out three threads from the reject board. And it turned out to be a very good episode.
Is there anything in particular you guys are really excited for fans of the show to see in this new season?
CORDRRY: Oh my god.
STERN: A lot of things.
WAIN: Yeah, it’s been such a fun season. Before we started the writing, I was like, “Shoot, have we already done all the things that we can think of to do on the show?” And then these fourteen episodes are all exciting, they’re all totally different from each other.
CORDRRY: It’s the best season we’ve ever done, and the most satisfying, the most fun. I’ve never had this much fun doing it, and it’s always been fun.
STERN: I would say, if we run out of stories we can tell in the format of Childrens Hospital then television’s out of stories, because we can shift gears into almost any kind of genre we want to.
Does that ever become an overwhelming amount of options? Do you ever feel like there’s too many ways you can go?
CORDRRY: There’s so many ways we can go, meaning there’s always so many ways we can go with one idea, which is harder. That’s more of a struggle, because we each have an opinion about where we see that going. So sometimes we’ll try and convince the others that the picture in my head is the right picture. So that’s a little more of a struggle, but it’s a fun one. We like talking about all that stuff. That’s just the writing process in general, I guess.
Out of the entire series run, is there an episode that stands out either because it was very fun to film or maybe you were really proud of it when you saw the finished version?
WAIN: I think one of the most fun ones – speaking personally, there’s many, it is impossible to pick because we do so many different things. They’re all different. But the one that comes to mind that was particularly fun to shoot was the live episode.
STERN: I would say the same thing.
WAIN: Because we did do it all in one shot, so it was just an exciting day.
CORDRRY: It was a fun day.
WAIN: They adrenaline of “Ok, here we go, action!” And then doing the whole thing was exciting.
STERN: This was the last episode of the first TV season. The second season. It wasn’t actually broadcast live, but we treated it as if it was.
How difficult is it for you guys to get the cast together? Because everybody’s constantly booked on such disparate projects.
CORDRRY: It’s incredibly difficult. This season it was easier. Still difficult, because they’re busy all the time, but luckily we decided to do the season in the summer.
WAIN: But we kind of had the same issues. People are on vacation.
CORDRRY: Right, of course, but it’s not as intense because no one’s working on a show. There’s less work happening.
STERN: Every year we deal more and more often with contractual descriptions as people get cast on TV series.
WAIN: Outside – we don’t restrict anyone.
STERN: The other shows on, so they can only be on so many episodes of Childrens Hospital.
WAIN: It’s a challenge. We’re making this TV show starring all of these people, but they’re all only coming when they’re available, when they can, and that’s just not normally how TV’s done. So it’s interesting. We’ll often have to re-write episodes and write someone out at the last minute.
Now that you guys know the actors so well are you able to write more towards each actors strengths?
STERN: That’s been one of the greatest areas of improvement I think.
CORDRRY: I learned how to do it in this show. I think I can now probably do it with anything, but I never really knew what people meant when they said “write in that person’s voice” or “write to their strengths”. It was an abstract idea until now. Now I totally understand what it is. I don’t know if I can explain it [laughs].
[Laughs] Of course that was my next question.
STERN: Well, when we write for Blake it’s all single-syllable words. Kind of second-grade level.
CORDRRY: Well, Blake gets the roles that don’t require a certain human quality [laughs]. You know what I mean?
STERN: I was just doing the dig on Corddry.
CORDRRY: But you were right, it was very insightful.
WAIN: One of the things that happened early on was this notion that certain elements of the characters are completely unimportant to us [laughs]. We’ll throw them out the window every episode. Who’s dating who, and also just general important life facts about these characters we’re very flexible on depending on the story needs and then other things we’re very stringent about. The continuity of the whole thing just depends on how we feel.
I was curious about that, particularly in the context of the show within the show.
WAIN: That universe, the show behind the show universe, we made a decision early on has to be 100% consistent, and there’s no room for just dropping any plot point that we have introduced in the past.
STERN: That carries on in Newsreaders, the spinoff of Childrens Hospital, which is going into its second season on Adult Swim. It’s a news magazine format, but once in a while this upcoming season we see some of our behind the scenes characters.
WAIN: Yeah, their world, their side of things.
CORDRRY: I can explain why, in a way, the show itself, the soapy hour-long drama, we can eschew continuity, is because we have said before that this is the best hour-long drama on TV. We’re considering it an hour-long hospital drama and all of our previously-ons, for the most part, our previously-ons have never been seen. You’ve never seen what we’re referencing. So that actually means there’s a lot that people haven’t seen. It’s almost like the show is on. There’s twenty-three episodes on in some world [laughs]. You guys are only seeing part of fourteen of them.
STERN: And we’ve been on for how many seasons?
WAIN: It gets a little funky, but we do make reference to the pilot that was in the ’60s.
CORDRRY: Yeah, time is – I once tried to make an excuse for it. It got cut. I forget what it was, but basically Owen, Rob Huebel’s character, said “You know that this hospital exists on a temporal shift, don’t you?” Which explains one day making sense, the next, and that you were the same age in the ’70s.
WAIN: We had an episode we didn’t shoot, we just started writing, which was all about the history of what happened with Henry Winkler’s behind-the-scenes character, but we found ourselves running into a lot of walls.
CORDRRY: It was going to be a LOST type of thing where we explain the whole thing, but then we kind of lose that freedom of playing with it. If we define it, then we actually have rules around it.
WAIN: Sometimes, it’s like the way I think about love. Love is what you make of it.
CORDDRY: What does POV mean again?
Childrens Hospital returns to Adult Swim March 21st at 12AM.