Few cerebral animated series in history have found success critically, commercially, and culturally, but that trend has been changing in recent years. The Simpsons has long been praised for its smart writing just as South Park has been rewarded for its sharp, satirical commentary over the last 20+ years. More recent additions like Rick and Morty, Big Mouth, and BoJack Horseman have taken aim at older audiences in order to present more adult subject material coupled with a mature and cerebral storytelling approach. But with the exception of Big Mouth, which loosely covers the difficult realities of human adolescence and puberty, each of these shows lives in its own brilliantly created yet fictional world.
That’s where CollegeHumor’s new animated series WTF 101 sets itself apart. The show, created by Mike Trapp (Bad Internet), presents stranger-than-fiction tales that actually happened in our real world in hilarious ways that will not only entertain audiences but might just teach them something in the process. A cynical and possibly mentally unstable teacher leads her detention classroom on wild and dangerous adventures to learn about horrific facts from nature and human history alike. It’s like an NSFW version of The Magic School Bus. I had a chance to check out two episodes and absolutely loved the premise, pacing, humor, and animation throughout; you can check out my full review here. But to dig further into the creation of the series, I was able to chat with Trapp himself. He revealed some amazing details about his team’s research process, teased some stories that might have made it into this season, and even mentioned some hilarious ideas that didn’t quite make the cut.
WTF 101 may prove to be this year’s smartest animated series, and to see why, you’ll have to read our Q&A below:
Where did the idea for WTF 101 first come about?
Mike Trapp: I think that people naturally like learning true, incredible things, but a lot of the most interesting stories are also wildly inappropriate for children. It seemed like a natural juxtaposition to take the format of a kids’ educational TV show and use it to teach all the horrific, surprising things you never learned as a kid.
How did that kernel of an idea grow into an NSFW Magic School Bus led by a cracked-out sort of Ms. Frizzle?
Trapp: We knew if we were going to teach these terrible stories, we wanted the rest of the world to reflect a sad, horribleness. Initially the show was going to follow adults in night school since we would be teaching mature topics, but adults have too much agency. They can leave whenever they want if they don’t like being in a class taught by a maniac. So instead we settled on the idea that these lessons were a punishment for kids in detention. Then we sort of painted a brush of “awfulness” over everything: these are the worst students in the saddest school, learning the worst lessons from a sadistic teacher.
Did shows like Rick and Morty or Big Mouth directly inspire WTF 101 or was it more like their success proved something like WTF 101 could work?
Trapp: I actually started working on this show in early 2017, several months before Big Mouth premiered. Rick and Morty, on the other hand, was certainly an influence, but I also had to be sure the character of Professor Foxtrot didn’t verge too close to Rick. In its simplest form, they’re both antisocial scientists taking unwilling kids on traumatizing adventures. Early versions of Foxtrot were more misanthropic in a Rick-like way, so I had to reimagine her instead as someone delighted with the horrors of the world and unaware that others don’t share her enthusiasm.
What was the story-breaking process like in figuring out which topics to cover in each episode and which specific examples would make the final cut? (ie What was your research process like?)
Trapp: I had three really great researchers on the project. Kaz Phillips, Josh Fruhlinger, and Jeff Eckman. We all brought in a list of shocking, little-known facts and then used those to try to build an episode. For example, one of our researchers wanted to talk about The Cadaver Synod, when the corpse of Pope Formosus was put on trial. From that we could have made an episode about “Weird Things People Have Done with Corpses” or “Strange Things Popes Have Done” Or “Sham Trials.” With these in mind we’d hunt down more stories about corpses, and popes, and injustice until we found three great ones that fit together. Usually some other story we unearthed while researching would inspire a different theme, and the cycle would continue. In looking for things with corpses we learned about The Doctor’s Riot of 1788, which then made us ask if we could find more unusual examples of riots and mass hysteria. It was basically a more structured version of falling into a Wikipedia hole.
The excellent theme song/opening sequence really sets the tone and style for the show. Did it go through many different versions before the final one?
Trapp: I love how the song came out! The final version is pretty close to the original idea. We wanted something with the feel of an 80s/90s cartoon theme song: synths, saxophones, an overeager singer. I wrote the first pass at the lyrics and Zach Robinson perfectly nailed the composition. The lead singer is Jason Paige, who also sang the Pokemon theme song! That has nothing to do with the show itself, I just think it’s cool.
The Dunning-Kruger school (more on that in a minute) has a sign that acts like an opening gag, ie The Simpsons’ Couch Gags or Bob’s Burgers’ menu. How many different signs did you and your writers come up with?
Trapp: One of the great things about working at CollegeHumor is that I’m surrounded by a group of extremely funny people who are available at a moment’s notice. I sent out a message asking for “announcements you’d see at the worst school in the country” and immediately got back more than we could ever use. My favorite was “Dunning-Kruger High is Proud of Its Graduate” – a simple, sad use of the singular.
I love that WTF 101 combines the insanity and animated violence of Rick and Morty, the bald-faced straightforwardness of Big Mouth, and the “education for adults” aspects of shows like Drunk History. How did you strike the right balance with all of these?
Trapp: Oh, gosh, I hope I did. The facts were the most important element to me. We tried to pick stories that are outrageous enough to be entertaining by themselves, so if the jokes fell flat, or were a little light it was still entertaining. One big inspiration you didn’t mention were the “gross ups” of Ren & Stimpy. We wanted to have at least one moment per episode with an extreme, detailed close up of something truly disgusting.
I think that adding the real-life examples of the examples covered in each show during the credits is absolutely vital to the message of the show itself. Was it important to you to make sure viewers knew these were things that actually existed/happened?
Trapp: Very, very important. A lot of these stories are hard to believe and with an animated, ten-minute show we do occasionally oversimplify or visually exaggerate some parts. That makes it hard to tell where the boundary between fact and fiction is. The real images at the end provide an anchor to reality and remind the viewers that this is all mostly true. Even people who were reviewing the scripts, who knew I was writing true stories, still thought I had made up specifics that were totally factual. I think we say. “These things are real,” three different ways between the opening and closing credits, but that’s still not as convincing as seeing a picture of an actual thing.
I also love that each episode ends with a sort of reality check or PSA. Are these mini-monologues representative of your personal viewpoint on the world and things like natural selection, etc?
Trapp: I’m actually, generally, much more optimistic than Professor Foxtrot is. Since this was modeled on children’s cartoons, it seemed natural to me that there should be some Big Lesson that everyone learns at the end, but if we were doing the fucked up version, the kids should probably learn the most cynical, misanthropic version of that lesson. A lot of times those monologues came from first imagining what the wholesome lesson might be (“Violence doesn’t solve anything”) and then imagining what the cynic’s response would be (“Regardless of its efficacy, people enact violence all the time, so you better be ready to defend yourself.”)
There are a LOT of cerebral Easter eggs and sight gags scattered throughout this series, like the school’s sign out front and the classroom’s posters; plenty for fans to find. Are there any you’re particularly proud of?
Trapp: One of my favorites actually didn’t make the cut. The school was originally going to be named after King Frederick II, who was Holy Roman Emperor in the thirteenth century. He held the idea that if people were not taught any language at all they would naturally speak a deeply innate, perhaps divine language. To test this idea he tried to raise infants with as little human interaction as possible, and in doing so killed several of them. It’s an awful story, but it seemed perfectly inappropriate to name a school after a man committed to keeping children ignorant and neglected.
What can you tease about the future of the series? And what’s up next for you?
Trapp: I’m hoping we’ll be able to make a second season of WTF101. Like any other show, I think it all depends on how well people respond to it. We have dozens of other interesting stories our researchers found that didn’t fit into an episode, just waiting to be animated, and I left the finale a little open-ended. We’re planning to release a new show every month on Dropout, so right now I’m working on reviewing some series that have already been shot, and writing a brand new one that will hopefully shoot later this year.
WTF 101 can be found at CollegeHumor’s streaming service DROPOUT.