China, IL’s Brad Neely praises the “pine trees and blood” of his home state

China, IL’s Brad Neely praises the “pine trees and blood” of his home state

The Internet features more than its share of negativity and snark—sometimes you’ve just gotta vent. But there’s plenty of room for love, too. With Fan Up, we ask pop-culture people we admire to tell us about something they really, really like.

The fan: As a cartoonist, animator, writer, and musician, Brad Neely’s output sits at the intersection of the profound and the profane—his most widely circulated work, the musical short “Cox & Combes’ Washington,” is a foul-mouthed rap cataloging the almost-historically accurate badassery of the United States’ first president. That spirit carries over to Neely’s Adult Swim series, China, IL—set among the students and faculty of “the worst college in America”—which begins its second season on September 22.

The fanned: Neely’s home state, Arkansas  

Brad Neely: I grew up in Arkansas, my wife grew up in Arkansas, both our sets of parents pretty much grew up in Arkansas—her mom grew up in Memphis. But I feel like talking about something that I like [Laughs.] that might be surprising—a lot of people don’t talk about Arkansas. It’s a forbidden state. 

The A.V. Club: Besides it being your home state, what makes Arkansas better than the other 49 states in the union? 

BN: I wouldn’t say better. But I do think that it’s time someone comes out and speaks against the depiction of Arkansas in standard Hollywood formats. You know most of the time everybody’s got super-wet hair and they’re ungroomed and every man looks like a pedophile and it’s a scary place. And it is kind of a scary place: There’s a lot of guns and death and nature and dirt, but in a very clean way. Whenever I think about the real parts of me, the core of me, I think about Arkansas. I think about pine trees and blood and my mom singing and my dad killing animals. [Laughs.] That seems like Arkansas to me. 

AVC: Which makes sense, because Arkansas’ nickname is “The Natural State.”

BN: I think they’re trying to say “primal,” because when you live there, you don’t know if at night, the cloud is going to make a tornado just for you. There are dark shadows in the water. I grew up near the Arkansas River, which is just this brown, scary artery of the world. I don’t know; I romanticize it obviously. I’ve got a poetic sense about Arkansas because I’ve been away from it a lot.

AVC: If you could move the hub of the entertainment industries from Los Angeles to anywhere in Arkansas—so you could live there and keep making China, IL—where would you move it?

BN: I don’t know if I would do that. It would probably not work. It’s like trying to grow oranges in Montana or something. My family worked in the oilfield industry: My dad, my granddad, one of my brothers does it. If I went there, I would probably start doing what my family has always done, which I love and I respect. [Laughs.]

You hear often, “Ah, I got out of there!” or, “I can’t wait to get out of here and go somewhere real!” I don’t think like that about Arkansas or the South or Middle America. It was a struggle to leave Austin, Texas: My wife and I lived there for 10 years and to move here to Los Angeles was a struggle. It still is a struggle. I wake up every morning and I think, “Should we move back, should we move back to the South?” I guess what I’m trying to say is that if I’m going to talk about Arkansas as a thing that I’m a fan of, it’s that lifestyle as opposed to the lifestyle that is out here. [Laughs.] 

AVC: Communing with nature, being in touch with the land? Those sorts of things?

BN: Sort of, yeah. Walking around in a small town… I grew up in Fort Smith, Arkansas. It was small, but there was a community theater where I sang and acted and there was support for me to do that sort of thing. I got the best art education in the world from my father-in-law, who teaches at the University Of Arkansas. I was able to nurture all of those sides of me, while also being able to see deer in my front yard.

AVC: Do you frequently find yourself defending Arkansas’ honor?

BN: All the goddamn time! We have two guys out there for Arkansas: Billy Bob Thornton and Billy Bob Clinton. And they have both done crazy things, but not any crazier than people from Connecticut or highfalutin’ states. Clinton was a Rhodes Scholar for Christ’s sake. He’s a fucking genius. He can do the New York Times crossword puzzle in, like, under a minute. So I’m constantly trying to be the defender of Arkansas because I really hate that spirit of, “Oh, we have to go to a metropolitan city! I want to paint pictures. So I must go to Paris or New York City.” That was probably true 100 years ago, before the Internet, [Facetiously.] because the Internet is 100 years old of course. Now it’s a fucking different world; you can love where you come from and not leave it.

AVC: How did your experience in the University Of Arkansas system influence your portrayal of the University Of China, IL?

BN: I didn’t really go to college in a traditional sense. I didn’t finish—after high school, I did a semester at the University Of Arkansas-Fayetteville and I failed. I got Fs in all my courses. I came back to Fort Smith, which has a branch of the University of Arkansas, so I was like, “I’m just going to go to art school, I’m going to take art classes and do what I do well and not try to act like I’m a smart guy.” So I just started taking art classes from Don Lee, who taught me everything there is to be taught about how people conduct themselves in a visual representational mode. And his lovely daughter—who I’d known since I was 13—was around, and we started dating and then we became married and we had kids. 

How that informs China, IL: I had this very small slice of an understanding of how college life is. To me, it’s high school for adults, and I guess I’m depicting it that way. My sister is a professor. She teaches Middle Eastern studies, and she speaks Arabic and stuff. She’s immersed in it, my father-in-law is immersed in it—I’m around professors, but I’m kind of misinformed a bit. My information is broken and that’s what makes China wonky and interesting, because it’s what’s so fucking wrong about college.

AVC: So it’s like that episode of The Simpsons where Homer goes to college and expects it to be like a cheesy frat-house comedy?

BN: Yes. I always think about him singing that song about Animal House. [Adopts falsetto and sings Homer’s version of the Animal House theme.] I think that informed me more about college than me actually going to college. I didn’t see Animal House until after we started making this show. I was like, “I guess let’s just watch some movies set in college.” I started the short-form stuff because I was like, “I have to do short-form storytelling stuff because I’m not an animator. I’m a storyteller. I can’t animate, so I need to just be telling stories. So I’m going to have a fat kid writing a diary and have someone teaching classes”—and I was like, “Well, I guess we’ll put that in a college.” And then, before I knew it, those worlds were merging and we were just building out those worlds around them and I was like, “Oh shit, I don’t know what a college is!” [Laughs.]

AVC: So with all these academics in your life, how do they react to the way Professors Frank and Steve Smith conduct themselves?

BN: We talk about the weather. It doesn’t come up a whole lot. Whenever I come home and get around family, they’re like, “Great, we’re really proud of you. So tell me about your daughter. How’s that house you guys are renting?” I barely talk about work with them—it’s boring. I mean they’re interested in like, “How’s Hulk Hogan? What’s he like to be around?” Because that’s serious: I’m around an actual giant. “What is it like to share a space with the world’s most famous giant who one time picked up a man named Andre The Giant and threw him to the ground? What’s it like to be in a room with that?”

AVC: In the first season of China, IL, Frank’s classroom has a poster of a flaming landscape with the caption “Arkansas.” What other references to the state have made their way into your work?

BN: I talk about it all the time, it turns out. The final episode of the seasonis about hog infestation. It’s happening all over southern United States, where wild boars are just overpopulating—they tear up the land and land owners and cattle ranchers have to hunt these things and put Kevlar vests on their dogs because they have horns and shit. My dad is a hunter, and it seems like his primary interests have shifted from deer to hogs—he’s so interested in hogs, that I made an episode about it: Chinabecomes infested with hogs. And the Arkansas state animal is the razorback hog, so it just comes out. I can’t believe I’m talking to The A.V. Club about Arkansas. What am I doing? 

AVC: It’s hard to separate yourself from the place where you were born and raised.

BN: I wouldn’t try. I’m a proud Arkansan. Have you ever heard of an Arkansas toothpick? It’s a knife, and in one of the upcoming episodes, we have Ronald Reagan impersonating Bill Clinton and he says, “I got to go give a woman the old Arkansas toothpick”—meaning fellatio. Arkansas keeps sliding toward the forefront.

AVC: If someone was planning a vacation to Arkansas and wanted to get the best, most memorable Arkansan experience possible, where would you suggest that they go?

BN: I would suggest that they go to a little-known place on the White River where you can do trout-fishing in these canoes. The fog comes in the morning, and at dusk, over the water, you can hear it coolly moving through the trees. And there’s this sloping bank that you can lay on, and one night my wife and I went out there—we’d been in the city and my dad had come out there—and we laid out there and looked at the stars. It was beautiful. 

I have no idea where it is, but my dad put us in a car and drove us there. I couldn’t tell you where it is, but if you found it, it’d be really hard to leave.

AVC: So you would suggest they ask your dad for the location?

BN: I would suggest that you just enter the border and start asking people, “Where is it on that White River where the fog comes in?” And some guy is going to be like, “Oh, shit I know where he’s talking about!” And, in between, you’re going to find a bunch of hogs and bunch of really good food and the nicest people in the world. Before you know it, you’ve spent a good part of your life in a really wonderful state.

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