Vernon Chatman and John Lee of The Heart, She Holler 

Vernon Chatman and John Lee of The Heart, She Holler 

Vernon Chatman and John Lee have a strange interview history with The A.V. Club, having danced and joked around questions twice before—once while promoting their feral-genius not-for-kids kids show Wonder Showzen, and once while promoting their philosophizing-manimal cartoon series Xavier: Renegade Angel. Having determined that The A.V. Club “won” the first round and Lee and Chatman the second, this conversation about the duo’s new Patton Oswalt-starring Adult Swim live-action miniseries The Heart, She Holler—which debuts this Sunday, November 6, and continues over the next five nights—acted as a tie-breaker of sorts. (In other words, Lee and Chatman aren’t terribly interested in or good at typical Q&As.) But we were able to extract some information about the new show, which stars Oswalt as a Southern man-child who’s been raised in complete isolation, but who quickly takes the reins of his family business—running a backward Southern holler called Heartshe. Like Lee and Chatman’s other ventures, it’s not for everybody: It’s weird, absurd, shrill, thrilling, gross, bloody, and unlike anything else on TV—including Lee and Chatman’s other shows. They spoke to The A.V. Club about their actors, Halloween, and the philosophy of poop jokes.

The A.V. Club: Where are you speaking so low and sexily? Is this going to be a sexy interview?

John Lee: Because I’m talking so calmly? Josh wants this interview to be sexy, Vernon.

Vernon Chatman: Oh, we’re doing this sex-style?

AVC: John started it, he’s talking all low.

VC: Maybe it’s you! Maybe you’ve just got sexy ears, my man! This is a new record, your pants are already off. Josh is sopping wet already.

JL: We have proof. We have sonicular proof of your moistness. We like to say we’re unsoppable, Vernon and I.

VC: You can’t get us wet. Okay, get us wet!

AVC: All I’d have to do is say something like, “Wow, The Heart She Holler is great!”

JL: I’m hard, but I’m not wet.

VC: You know what gets me wet? Sincerity. I’m rock-wet and sopping-hard. So can we consummate the interview?

JL: We no longer fight, we like to love now.

VC: And we already blew through the sincerity part.

JL: What key do you want for this interview? [Plays some musical instrument in the background.]

AVC: Well, the last couple of times we talked, I wasn’t able to really ask many questions, so I didn’t bring many this time.

VC: That’s fucked up, because we’re so sick of playing that game, and we just want to do right by all the actors and crew and executives who got this show going by not dicking around. We’re professional, what do you got?

AVC: Well, if you’re ready to be professional, then I assume you’ll have an answer ready that pimps the show no matter what I ask.

VC: I don’t think that a professional interviewer would challenge the professionality of the interviewee. Would you ask The Beatles that question?

AVC: That was more of a statement than a question.

JL: An insult, you mean. You’re dragging us down to your standards.

VC: An unprofessional statement.

JL: Anyway, sorry. Real quick, fuck you, but from now on let’s go professional.

VC: Fuck you is a given, but I think we can all get past it. Now it’s like we’re a child, and you’re treating us like a child!

JL: Treat us like a different child! Do you have any children?

AVC: I have a baby son, do you guys want to say something cruel about that?

VC: It’s that kind of judgment that’s wrong with this country. How old is the little sweetie?

AVC: 17 months. Do either of you have children?

JL: There are three among us.

VC: We just walk up to kids in the park and whisper, “There’s three among us,” and they join our brood. Me and John are co-raising our children.

JL: We don’t call us parents, we call us “support circles.”

VC: We trade off every 10 minutes, just to keep a sense of instability going.

AVC: What are your kids going to be for Halloween?

VC: Can you send us a picture of you? They’re going to be you!

JL: I’ve always wanted to do a familial costume of gnomes.

VC: But every year John just does a family of lawn jockeys. All right, we can start the interview.

JL: At this point do you even care to interview us, or do you just put on the recorder and hear us ramble?

VC: Let’s turn it around. Let’s do something real, something fresh.

AVC: We didn’t hear what John’s kids are going to be for Halloween, though.

JL: An evil witch and a superhero, a generic superhero. They’re making me dress up as a daddy cat. I think it’s going to be a cat with a saddle thing with stuffed cats inside it.

VC: To be fair, every year you choose your mom’s outfit.

JL: I think I’ll direct a Delocated in my daddy cat outfit.

AVC: Could we get a photo of you in the daddy cat costume?

JL: No. Maybe.

AVC: Did The Heart, She Holler show start with the name? It’s such a nice phrase.

JL: No, it didn’t. We came up with it later, which is a little different because, the other shows, Wonder Showzen and Xavier, we kind of had the names.

VC: Wonder Showzen was going to be called Kids Show, and it started with a song, “Kids Show,” but it had to be changed for legal reasons. The lawyers were uncomfortable with the name.

JL: [Laughs.] But there’s nothing legal about it. 

VC: What, about comfort? It’s in the fucking Constitution.

JL: Yeah, the word “comfort” is in the Constitution, like, 19 times.

VC: Yeah, but people don’t know that. As a matter of a fact, the original Constitution had a pillow sewn into it, a goose-down pillow. 

JL: It was a series of pillows.

VC: Yes, pillows in between your legs to keep you from crushing your own balls at night.

JL: John “Big Balls” Adams. 

VC: So did your child start with the name?

JL: Did you inject a name into your wife and get her pregnant?

VC: Did you and your wife go out and get drunk one night, get into the back of a truck and put a name inside of her? No. 

JL: While you were having sex, you moaned your future child’s name the entire time?

VC: Oh my God. It’s a good thing you didn’t tell us your kid’s name. You shouldn’t tell us your kid’s name. Just, like for example, what is it? [Laughs.]

JL: Just real quick, what is it? We won’t integrate it in this question just real quick.

AVC: You guys are probably very good at talking women into having intercourse with you, aren’t you?

JL: I’m going to give you a little bit of insight into Vernon’s and my…

VC: Butthole.

JL: [Laughs.] This is the truth: We always had a 5-minute mark. We would literally start to talk to people and within five minutes, they would walk away.

AVC: People of the opposite sex, you mean?

JL: Uh, we consider all people the opposite sex from us.

AVC: So then if it didn’t start with the name, can we talk about the origin? I think a lot of people were speculating that it came out of the “Horse Apples” episodes of Wonder Showzen.

VC: We couldn’t say that, otherwise MTV would have a lawsuit, so that’s absurd.

JL: In other words: Yes. We would actually hold The Onion responsible for our lawsuit, legally. And you’re agreeing to it, right? You guys would be responsible.

VC: So, yeah, we wanted to do a show involving human beings and emotions involving melodrama. No one’s ever done a show about human beings. Let’s tackle that, and then that’ll be off the table for everyone else. We’ll kind of piss on that territory. We did a lot of research on pissing on people and we got to know how they reacted and we wrote it down. 

JL: And for a long time we’ve wanted to do a show where the punchlines are nightmares.

AVC: Can you give an example?

JL: Life.

VC: Life—get it? It’s fucked up.

AVC: Perhaps a bit more specific?

JL: No, no, that’s good, you chuckled at it. But it’s truly a nightmare.

VC: Well, like this, for example: I was walking down the street and a bum said that he hadn’t had a bite in three days, so I bit him.

JL: I fucking chewed on a homeless guy’s neck.

VC: He was already poverty-stricken, probably due to some of my policies that I endorse.

JL: So we would actually say, let’s show you biting a homeless man. Let’s bite him.

VC: And so we bit a lot of homeless people, we put it on tape, we showed it to the network, they green-lit it for six episodes.

AVC: Is six an insult? Don’t shows usually get 10 or more?

VC: It wasn’t an insult until you said that.

JL: Here you come with a slap in the face.

VC: Thanks for popping our bubble.

AVC: It feels like an hour-long movie. Is that how you intended it?

JL: No, we didn’t. It’s episodic, but there’s a through-line that carries it.

VC: That’s a fun thing, to actually tell a big story while you tell small stories, and back yourself up into such a fucking corner that you don’t know how to get out of it and then the show gets picked up.

JL: [Laughs.] Or you can back yourself into a corner when something doesn’t work, and then you’re like, “Fuck, how do we get out of this entire mess?” The mess of making television, that is.

VC: Yes, we’re constantly running backward toward an ever-fading corner.

AVC: Will there be more at this point? Do you know yet?

VC: You know at this point, obviously, because you know everything.

JL: Yeah, what insult will be next? Are 14 more episodes an insult?

VC: It seems like we’re going to do more, but we can’t make that announcement and if you print it—

JL: MTV will sue us. 

VC: —you’re going to be in heaps of trouble.

JL: [Pause.] It seems likely.

VC: So, where do you think it should go? Help us out of this corner.

AVC: I guess you’re doing my job for me, so I could do your job for you as well, a kind of tit for tat.

VC: And we’ll come over and raise your kids.

AVC: Thank you. If I could just get them in your family circle for a little while…

JL: It’s a share circle, not a family circle. Season two is going to be based on Family Circus.

VC: It’s going to be based on the dotted line in Family Circus. That pesky dotted line.

JL: Yeah, all the characters are going to snort the dotted line.

VC: That would be a really great spin-off show: that dotted line. But of course, that show would never get picked up because the fucking line is black and there are no black executives in television.

AVC: What issues are you guys trying to solve with this particular show? 

VC: Well, we’re trying to start a race war. I think a race war would really hasten the cleansing rain that needs to happen, and we think we’re a little OCD about our cleansing rain. We think there should be a cleansing blood rain in America every 10 minutes, and then we won’t get sick. And we’re passionate about families. We should all love each other. I think if anything, the show should be the final statement on what went wrong with the Euro. Or where it could have gone, really.

AVC: Patton Oswalt described the show, and I wonder if you guys agree, as what the worst hipster in Brooklyn imagines a Southern town is like. 

VC: Well, first of all, he was talking about you when he said that.

JL: And you just didn’t get it. 

VC: Did you realize he was winking and pointing at you when he said that?

JL: You were just too disinterested or too cool to notice what was in front of your face. 

VC: You had free-range handmade marmalade stuck on your chin. But no, I think that Williamsburg hipsters are…

AVC: Mostly Southern?

VC: … an invention of the real South. It’s like, “Oh, you don’t get it?” They’re actors. It’s not a real thing. It’s a savage satire. They’re ripping New York a new one. They’re actors who they hire to walk around in those ridiculous clothes, who started to think they were real. They just got too into it and started making fun of the South.

JL: Like all great ideas in theater, it starts to eat itself.

VC: When you watched the show did you eat yourself at all?

AVC: I was not able to actually swallow.

JL: You didn’t actually inhale. You just sort of sucked on it.

VC: You just chewed? 

AVC: I gnawed.

VC: Bit?

JL: Teeth or gums?

VC: Does your wife know you can do that? Did you have a rib removed to be able to do that? The network told us that if you watch all six episodes and if you’re not compelled to eat a part of your own body, they’ll give you $1,000. So you can write them and take care of that.

JL: But you have to prove it. 

[pagebreak]

AVC: Speaking of network executives, do you guys have to run anything by anybody as you’re shooting? Do you get objections, or do you have completely free reign?

VC: We want people to care more than they actually do. 

JL: Yeah, why do you think we’re like this? [Laughs.]

VC: We’re in this position where if they don’t like something, they just huff and say, “Well we don’t understand this and we wash our hands of you. So do what you want!” And they say it all huffily like it’s this insult, and then we go, “Oh no! We have to do exactly what we want?” 

JL: And then we deal with the conflict crap later.

VC: And then we get another season and then get canceled. [Laughs.] So the record shows: lather, rinse, repeat. Josh has been quiet for a while. Are you eating yourself?

AVC: Currently? Yes. 

VC: You’re folded over? 

JL: When I was a child I used to chew my toenails. 

AVC: I did that as well. 

VC: You chewed John’s toenails? So it was you! You motherfucker. John will wake up, he’ll have nightmares and say, “Oh it’s like a punchline.”

AVC: So what was the pitch for The Heart, She Holler like?

VC: We don’t pitch. We’re above pitching. 

JL: We sent them a poem.

VC: We screamed into an envelope and we sent it to them. 

JL: A sonic poem. It’s such a compelling item to receive that you have to call back. And once they called back, they’re hooked in. 

VC: The key to pitching shows is just knowing when the network’s fiscal quarter is up. 

JL: And when they’re desperate to get rid of money. 

VC: That seriously is all it is. And we’re giving you the top, top secret that we’re confident you won’t publish.

AVC: Should we try that question again? What was the pitch like?

JL: We’re lucky enough to have such a good relationship with Adult Swim that we don’t have to pitch.

VC: I mean, we pitch, we say, “We want to do a show. Here it is.” But yeah, we never did a pitch meeting. We just said we want to do a show. And they can regret it…

JL: Yeah, they can regret it all the time.

VC: They literally pick it up, they get excited and think, “Oh the idea of a show with these guys is always great!” [Laughs.]

JL: And then somehow after we talk to them, they always say they regret it. It’s the running theme of our lives. Maybe you understand this, Josh. 

VC: Yeah, is that your child’s first word? Regret?

AVC: When you’re calling Patton Oswalt, what do you tell him the show is about to get him excited?

VC: We bought him a really expensive omelet. If you get him a-giggling, he’ll say yes to anything. 

AVC: Is that true of the entire cast though?

VC: No, not everybody’s ticklish. Some people are German. 

JL: All these actors are passionate about what they do, and we just combine our passions into this passion project. And we ate passion fruit and watched Passions. We were actually quite lucky. Ninety-nine percent were our first choice. People like us, Josh! People respect us! Have you heard of this?

VC: Patton’s in a position where he gets to do his own thing and he gets to do really big things, so he can just go, “Whatever you want, I’ll do it.” And it really helps us out because it’s the kind of legitimacy we need.

JL: Yeah he’s kind of perfect in this role. 

VC: And he’s got a lot of room to grow. Patton is so hyper-verbal, he goes on these sprees and rants. It’s not his whole thing, but that’s when he gets to that crazy level that’s so funny. He’s so good at that that we just thought, “Let’s take away his number-one move and make him pre-verbal,” with the goal of getting him to that place. But then we wrote it a lot slower. We just kept him a man-child. 

JL: It was not our intention for him to remain in the infantile state. It just happened. 

VC: It was a really surprising. We took away what you would sort of think is his prominent, comedic gift and he fucking nailed it by just being really physical and really, kind of, having heart.

JL: He’s got a really great doe-eyed quality.

VC: And it really saves the show because not only does him being in the show give us legitimacy in terms of people wanting to give us money, but the heart is kind of the last thing we think of, like, “Oh yeah, the show needs heart, humanity.” And that was supposed to be the premise of this show. But he just gave it to us instinctively in a way that grounded it. And that’s all I have to say about that motherfucker.

JL: That asshole. 

AVC: That was like four minutes of sincerity in a row. 

VC: You believed it? You idiot! God, you don’t know hipster-speak.

JL: You need to learn. There’s a whole new thing that’s beyond sarcasm.

AVC: So have you thought about where the show might go?

JL: We’re in denial until we actually have to sit down and do more. We’ll try to fuck around as much as possible to avoid it, to the point where we’re like, “Oh now we’re doubly screwed. We should start writing jokes.”

VC: We don’t think for one second until we get a check. 

JL: We tend to write just hillbilly jokes for hours, which is really quite easy.

VC: The first drafts of the scripts were, like, 90 percent hillbilly jokes.

JL: And then we’d take the best ones and figure out a plot according to these stupid jokes.

AVC: Structurally, it’s really the most straightforward thing you guys have done. Is that fair to say? 

JL: Structurally? I think it’s as straightforward as Xavier

VC: It was straightforward, it was just dense and you didn’t get it.

AVC: No, I’m the only one who got it. That was the problem. 

VC: Oh so you admit it. You see? We tricked you. 

JL: We won that last round, motherfucker. We won. 

AVC: You did. I won round one, you guys won round two. 

JL: Oh good. We double won now. I think Xavier was straightforward with the concept and this is straight forward as a concept. 

VC: You know what? We just put our passion into it.

JL: And we got some passionate actors and they’re passionate about the project.

VC: It’s as straightforward as the format requires. Wonder Showzen was straightforward for what it had to be, and Xavier was straightforward for what it had to be, and this is as straightforward as it is.

JL: I think this is more accessible because it’s adult human beings. It’s not some creature or it’s not these little snarky children. Once it’s an odd creature or snarky children—which I think are the same thing—it’s a way to remove that there’s human beings that you have to sort of acknowledge and deal with. I think it just makes it more accessible. That’s the trick we’re using on you. 

VC: This show could be 10 times more insane than Xavier, and maybe it even is, but because there’s recognizable and skilled actors doing it, not shitty CG and our crappy voices, you got suckered in, once again. 

AVC: It certainly feels a little more inspired by soap operas or something in the real world. Is that fair?

JL: Same with the other shows. Sesame Street existed. Highway To Heaven existed. 

AVC: Is Highway To Heaven the inspiration for Xavier

JL: We based it on Michael Landon’s life. If you really understood it, why would you ask that question? 

VC: If you took Michael Landon to his logical conclusion, that’s Xavier. But we always have taken a format and then tried to not make it parody or not just rely on the format as a mold for our nightmares.

JL: I’d like to say we honor the format.

AVC: One nod to the format is this sort of “catch-up” at the beginning of every episode. 

VC: Yeah, but again, that’s the kind of thing where we literally don’t do that as a way to nod to the thing. We need to catch people up. That’s trying to make it kind of entertaining.

JL: I literally thought you meant catch-up like ketchup and I was wondering, “Do I not remember?”

VC: Oh yeah, it comes with the hot dogs. In Josh’s case, it comes out of your hot dog. 

AVC: So if Wonder Showzen is Sesame Street, and Xavier is Highway To Heaven, what is The Heart, She Holler? Dallas

JL: Completely original. No references. 

VC: Some shows do a really good job of parodying an actual thing, but we just use a format and then pour our own garbage into it and just stay in the restrictions of that format. So it’s not a thing

JL: I think you would have to answer that question in your opening paragraph.

VC: That’s the other thing. Is there an editor at A.V. Club? Is there a way to cut out some of the bullshit? It’s like, we have a conversation and we completely fuck around and have side conversations. Is there a delete button at The Onion? Are there standards at all?

AVC: Nope.

VC: Well what else? You must have a question. 

JL: You must have three more questions. 

AVC: I’ve snuck so many into this conversation and you guys didn’t even know. 

VC: We’ve snuck so many answers in. We’ve snuck so many things into your mouth. You have no idea. You should lock your windows. 

AVC: Oh, they’re locked.

VC: But your toes are completely well groomed and pedicured.

AVC: Thank you. 

JL: Mine are very toothsome. 

VC: Revenge pedicure.

JL: I actually flavor my toenails. So when I chew on them it’s a little more pleasant. 

AVC: Do you want to say anything nice about your other actors, besides Patton? I thought it was nice that Kristen Schaal let you make her look so horrible.

JL: Kristen looks awesome. Come on man, take that back. 

AVC: But she looks awesomely horrible and crazy.

JL: I think she loved it. 

VC: She was definitely a little nervous at first, but she is made of elastic. She just kind of takes over and morphs into exactly what she needs to be and then can’t turn it off. You could hear her in the bathroom, yelling, speaking out as that character, like, at lunch. 

JL: She screamed when she slept during this entire production. 

VC: Yeah, she’s in rehab.

JL: Emotional rehab. She was great. And Heather Lawless.

VC: Yeah, Heather was crazy committed. 

JL: We realized Heather’s character has no jokes, but somehow she made it quite funny and compelling. 

VC: Because Heather is funny in such a specific and not-dependent-on-anything-else way. It’s internal. So when she commits, she commits so phenomenally. It’s all repression. It’s like something in the room explodes. And she committed to that so hard. It was really impressive. Impressive on the set but then when we watched it, you realize how much funnier it was that she did that because she never went for the joke. 

JL: I felt like we were hurting her or damaging her. A couple times I was like, “I don’t think what we’re doing is gonna help Heather in her life.” 

VC: She’s just so sincere and committed to the idea and that’s exactly what it needed. I think she knew if you do anything to kind of bounce outside of this or go for the…

JL: Go for the cheekiness or the cuteness or something. Kristen gets to be a great screaming asshole. And then Heather, she’s like an internal monologue with 10 of herselves all at the same time. 

VC: Yeah, she’s like a whole different show is going on if you could put a camera inside of her. 

JL: It would be a bigger nightmare than this show.

VC: It’s all the funny lines we don’t write.

JL: We’re like the Thelonious Monk of jokes. 

VC: It’s the space between our lack of jokes. 

JL: It’s space between the silence.

VC: The awkward silence of an audience shifting and clearing their throats. We’re the John Cage of uproarious laughter. Leo Fitzpatrick plays the preacher, and whatever he does he just can’t help but have this very unique and particularly awkward personality.

JL: I use “compelling” for him a lot, because he has this weird, fragile humanity, which is really nice. We use all these people who are very good at emotions because Vernon and I are very poor at emotions.

VC: Yes, this is our most emotional right now.

AVC: Where did you guys find Jonathan Hadary, who plays the dad? 

JL: He came in and had such a creepy Warren Oates quality. His lip just kept turning up. We thought the lines were disgusting, but he just made them gross. He kept a little rape in between his teeth so he could just suck on it later on in the day. Just a little incest in between his teeth and gums. So when he out-creeps us, he’s pretty much hired right there.

VC: And he looks so much like Warren Oates it’s just disturbing. He’s a Broadway actor. He played King Arthur in Spamalot, which you should check out. It’s so good. It’s so much better than the movie. Oh and the doctor!

JL: Kevin Breznahan. Such a kook. He would tell us stories while we were eating lunch, like, about a triple murder, and you’d be like, “Oh what paper did you read this in?” And he’s like, “No no! This happened to me when I was 8!” [Laughs.] He’s such a great rubberface.

VC: He has the goofiest face. We cast him based on his face alone. I think that we are very much into just pouring in as much stupid as possible, because we have enough innate pretentiousness… It’s always the war between pretentiousness and stupidity. 

JL: Can you have innate pretension?

VC: That’s such a pretentious question! You fucking elite, liberal-latte fuck-head. But we just cast him because he’s a really good actor, but he just looks like comedy. He looks like a drawing of comedy itself. He came in, he’s supposed to be the doctor, it’s like this stupid joke of a shit-kicker town with a shit-kicker doctor. He walks in wearing like flip-flops and overalls and no shirt. Like, he literally got on the subway like that?

JL: We just put a doctor’s coat on him and were like, “Thank you. You can go back home now.” 

AVC: All right, let me ask you one big pretentious question so you can answer pretentiously: What effect do you hope The Heart, She Holler will have on the world?

VC: The answer is Foucault. Derrida.

JL: We kept worrying when we were making this that we were just shooting fish in a barrel, but I realized at the end that some barrel fish need to die. That’s my hope of the show: that barrel fish will die.

VC: Yeah, because there’s fucking infinite barrels and infinite fish right now and the fish are taking over the barrel-sylum. 

JL: That’s a Foucault essay. This is all based on the essay he wrote. Just the one essay. 

VC: Fou-cault! Fou-cault! Derri-da! Derri-da! Originally the characters were named after philosophers and writers.

JL: Each family was going to be named after one. There was going to be six different families.

VC: But seriously, that’s our war between stupidity and pretentiousness. Which one won?

AVC: I think they all won. Or it’s a draw.

VC: They’re basically the same thing. It is full-circle. It’s like when a snake eats its own ass. That’s a poo joke but also philosophical. 

JL: But when its ass eats its own brain, it’s a philosophical conundrum. 

VC: When a snake’s ass eats its own brain, that’s what people will come away with from our show. That finally the snake’s ass is going to get revenge.