Rob Corddry walks us through Childrens Hospital’s third season
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What started as a web series in 2008—a labor of love to kill time during the WGA strike—has become one of Adult Swim’s breakout shows during the past two years. Childrens Hospital, created by Rob Corddry and starring a host of modern comedy favorites, spins hospital melodrama into a world of pop-culture satire, tightly packing its 15-minute episodes with jokes about news-magazine shows, Run Lola Run, and community theater, to name only a few. The A.V. Club sat down with Corddry in between writing sessions to walk through Childrens Hospital’s third season, episode-by-episode.
This, the first of three parts, covers episodes one through four, beginning with “Run, Dr. Lola Spratt, Run” and concluding with “Home Is Where The Hospital Is.”
“Run, Dr. Lola Spratt, Run” (June 2, 2011)
With a young boy trapped in quicksand, the flummoxed team awaits the arrival of quicksand-extraction expert Lola Spratt.
The A.V. Club: This episode begins with another welcome cameo from Jon Hamm.
Rob Corddry: Jon Hamm is part of the greater mythology of the show in that he is Malin Akerman, basically. The two most beautiful people in Hollywood are each other. It’s only fitting. He came in just on a Saturday ’cause that’s when he was available, and we built that crazy set, that gorgeous set for just one shot—two shots actually. Just one little thing. But that opening is one of the most satisfying things I think we’ve done. It’s getting the team back together, which is a trope that I love. MacGruber also did that perfectly—there’s no beating that. It’s just fun to see what our characters do when they’re not working at Childrens Hospital.
AVC: What made writing the third season different?
RC: We definitely found our legs and realized that there’s no reason to have any continuity of having storylines carry through episodes like we did on the second season, which I think was a big mistake on the second season. Because who cares, really? This is a show about jokes.
AVC: Do you really think people were thinking about the story? It didn’t seem like there was much.
RC: No, no, no. When I say “story,” I meant the illusion of the story, in that there were a couple of storylines that carried over into two or three episodes. The first season had a through-line of Cat and Lola’s relationship. And then the second season picked that up, mostly just as a joke engine. But we were then locked into a certain order, which I don’t really like. And really, who cares? Now, since we’ve committed last season to not giving a shit about continuity, it becomes interesting when you choose to respect continuity. And then it become interesting when you don’t. And a line between respecting and not respecting is just a gut thing at this point. If the whole room doesn’t agree, it usually comes down to my gut. For some reason, that’s too random or that’s too... like the whole Brazil thing. It was something that took a long time for me to get on board with. It was a random joke that David [Wain] wrote the first season, and then we just started nodding to it. Then people got excited about it, then our writers got excited about it and kept wanted to make Brazil jokes. But I was like, “Ah, less is more of that shit.” Of course, then we went to Brazil for a 20-second scene.
AVC: What made you decide to do the stylized Run Lola Run segment?
RC: Kind of like most things at Childrens, it just occurred to me in the moment, writing it. The thing that is hardest about writing comedy that nods to genres is to not outright spoof it, like Scary Movie or Family Guy does. Like our Do The Right Thing episode in season two kind of did it: You have a feeling throughout, then it’s the blatant homage at the end. Also, it’s kind of fun because an eighth of our audience has never even heard of Run Lola Run. So to them it’s just fucking cool.
AVC: There’s also this weird moment when Lola arrives and goes to break the axe out of the glass box on the wall, only there’s no glass, so someone says, “Smash!”
RC: So we were contemplating that for a while. On the day, we couldn’t afford breakaway glass. It’s really expensive. So it’s like, “Just fake it. We’ll either CGI it, not CGI it an put a sound effect it, or we’ll just have somebody say, ‘Smash!’ That might be funnier.” So we had our assistant editor record the scratch track “Smash!” and that’s why it’s so—like most editors, there’s no life in it whatsoever. There’s no skill or craft, it’s really just like, “This is my job.” We decided then that that’s the way we’re gonna go.
AVC: It’s just surprising that you spent so much time and energy in this animated sequence having her arrive, and then this moment was the opposite of that.
RC: Yeah, such high and low stakes at the same time. We did another thing in a later episode, where we did one of our “Previously ons,” which we call POs, that was basically a totally different—instead of “Previously on Childrens Hospital,” we did something where we had a totally different voice like [higher voice] “Remember the Childrens Hospital doctors?” It was a take-off on soaps. Soap intros and “Previously ons.” And we didn’t know who would do that voice, so we had one of our editors do that voice and he was great, we loved it. Then we got Paul Rudd to do it. So Paul Rudd recorded it, and we end up not using Paul Rudd, and we use our editor’s because we liked it so much. [Laughs.]
AVC: Because it’s just so straight?
RC: Something like that. Perhaps we were just married to it. Perhaps we were a little proud of ourselves. But it was really better. We’d gotten used to the pace of it and the read. But I do think that Rudd kid’s gonna make it.
AVC: Because your show is such a joke-engine, how often do you find yourself coming back to sitcom or sketch-comedy tropes?
RC: Because we’re a joke-driven show, we really try and craft these jokes. And not only come up with the best joke we can, which is what everybody tries to do, but our goal, and this is sort of impossible, is to write a new joke. Because they’ve all been written. Every joke feels kind of familiar, part of why you laugh at it. But sometimes we’ve said, “Wow, I’ve never heard that kind of joke before.” And that’s our goal.
AVC: That sounds impossible.
RC: Yeah, like with Family Guy. One of us will be like, “Ah, you know, we have a Goodfellas joke this season. Ah, you know, Family Guy spoofed Goodfellas.” First of all, Family Guy, I don’t care. I’m not going to use them as a measure of, “Oh shit, we can’t do that.” They’ve done everything.
“Ward 8” (June 9, 2011)
Owen’s old partner, Chance Briggs (Nick Offerman), returns to infiltrate Ward 8, the wing of the hospital for disturbed children. Sarah Silverman guests as Blake Downs’ ex-girlfriend, also a clown, whose child is sick and needs the healing power of laughter.
RC: That is one of our best episodes, written by probably our best writer, Jason Mantzoukas. It’s one of our most popular, one of the most satisfying—not just for the Nick Offerman of it all because, boy, it’s fun writing for him. I like those hidden places in the hospital that we’ve never referred to before but that exist, suddenly. Jason even pitched again like, “Let’s do another Ward 8.” And I was like, “Nah, let’s do something else. What else is there? Pitch me something else.” And he actually came up with something really—well we had been thinking of something for years.
AVC: You’re talking about the new season?
RC: It might be the first episode. I’ll tease it a little bit. My original plan, when this was just a web series, whatever that was—this show was born out of a spirit of “Who gives a fuck?” basically. I said when I come back for the second season, it’s just going to be a law show. It’s going to be the same show, same names for the characters, except they were never doctors. And it’s called Childrens Lawspital. And that has become something even cooler now in what might be out first episode in season four.
AVC: As far as this episode goes, there are a lot of kid actors who have to act really despicable. Do you have to push these kids into really dark places?
RC: We don’t give the kids a lot of that stuff. And yeah, kid actors are really depressing. If somebody counted the numbers, for a show called Childrens Hospital, there’s actually very few kids in it. Because I don’t like them. I don’t want to spend time with them, and I feel bad for child actors, and I almost 100 percent of the time hate their parents. [Leans into recorder.] Yes, I’m talking to you. You know who you are. It’s just a really depressing exercise, but we have to do it. I wrote a part for my 9-year-old niece last season, like a Doogie Howser-type storyline. And I realized halfway through writing, “I don’t want to do this. I don’t want to be the guy who gets her into this.” She’s probably a great actress; she’s definitely dramatic. But I was like, “Nah, I’m gonna cut the story.” And I cut the whole story.
AVC: Just because that’s a whole other realm of your relationship with her?
RC: Yeah. I don’t want to do it. I don’t want to be a part of the problem. I don’t think kids should do this.
AVC: This episode has, like, 12 kids in it.
RC: Older kids, they’re easier to work with. Let me tell you, there’s only one kid I can think of right now—two kids, that I worked with in the last three years of doing this that I didn’t like. The kids are great; it’s the parents that are terrible. All those kids were actually awesome. All the kids who had big roles, like the kid who used to beat up Owen Maestro, we’re always reserving the right to cast them again in a different part. Like, who cares? Our casting directors too, they cast really good kids. I cast those kids with my wife, in bed, at like, midnight. My wife is very good at casting kids in bed. Take that as you will. I invite you to interpret.
AVC: This is also the episode that we start to get a sense of one of the running jokes this season: Everyone is sleeping with everybody, and there’s no continuity about who’s in a relationship with whom.
RC: Yes, and that was something we consciously said while writing that season, and we really followed through with this season. Instead of a normal show that would track the continuity and make sure these relationships would make sense, we took great pains to track the continuity to make sure that these couples have never been together before. And at times they just act like they’re married. This coming season we do that, and there’s an episode I’m writing now where we actually rely on the history that we set up. For one reason, we’re running out of new combinations, so much that I now have to throw myself in the mix, and Blake’s sort of autism and problem with carrying on relationships comes from me not being able to write a kissing scene for myself. I just feel icky about it.
AVC: Your character once again has to fall back on the “healing power of laughter” thing in this episode. Does that get repetitive to write?
RC: I hate the healing power of laughter. And for some reason people really like that idea. People joke about it on Twitter—people always say something about it. Like, I tweeted about a cancer benefit my wife did last week, I got a lot of like, “Why don’t you heal them with the healing power of laughter?” tweets. Like, “Ah!” That was a one-off joke. We go back to it because it’s convenient, but he did go to medical school. It’s kind of a failed experiment, and Blake knows that. This season was more about the clown mythology and race.
AVC: Well, you created the character who had to wear clown make-up for the entire run of the show, so you brought this upon yourself.
RC: And I’m fucked because it’s terrible. When I started writing the show, I didn’t know what I was going to play or if I was going to play anything. And Jon Stern, my producing partner, was like, “You’re going to play the clown right?” And I was like, “Oh, yeah. I guess. If that’s what you’ve read.” Makeup sucks, and that makeup’s really heavy grease paint. You don’t even notice. I feel bad for women now, because your eyelid skin is the most sensitive skin on your body. It’s just so paper-thin and thinner. And that make-up is really heavy. So I get really tired after a while. I shoot in the morning and then I shoot at night, and all I do during the day is producing, and I’m like, “Uh, I’ve gotta wear this makeup all day?” Even the first season, I directed the whole thing in clown makeup, basically. It’s awful. What I’m saying is wearing that makeup is a way harder job then policemen have, firemen have, and the people that dig holes for a living have. I have no sympathy for them.
“The Black Doctor” (June 16, 2011)
A black doctor joins the hospital staff, which brings up racial tension between clowns and regular folk. The episode also spoofs the giant house where characters on Grey’s Anatomy live.
AVC: Did you feel the need to diversify the cast?
RC: No. It was an afterthought. I’ve never been a fan of the opposite of colorblind casting. I’ve never been a fan of affirmative-action casting. I’m going to cast my friends and the people I know, and it just so happens that I’m really racist and only know white people. [Laughs.] It was really a desire to work with Jordan [Peele]. And then somebody said at one point, “It also doesn’t hurt us that we’re the whitest show on television”—second only to The Daily Show when I was on it.
AVC: Was that why you called it “The Black Doctor,” because it’s a way to call attention to the obvious?
RC: Well it was also a play on Blake. Like, who really is the black doctor? Because as far as Dr. Brian is concerned, there’s not much attention paid to his race, as far as that episode goes. But Blake’s journey is all about race. And of course, Blake is black at the end. So it’s mostly about Blake. I don’t know, titles are very arbitrary, just whatever makes us laugh. We were gonna come up with a scheme, but we just call it what we like.
AVC: This episode comes back to spoofing Grey’s Anatomy, and there hasn’t been much direct spoofing of that show in a while. What made you decide to come back?
RC: I’d say even only in season one it was Grey’s. But yes, we’re losing things gradually. We’re using less of the very Grey’s Anatomy voiceover. We’re really just spoofing—and I don’t even like to use the word spoof—we’re only, for lack of a better word, spoofing TV drama in general. I watched a lot of House last year to prepare for this season, and it’s definitely apparent in the scripts. But that’s not even a medical show. That’s more like a procedural detective drama. I don’t even watch any of those shows anymore for research. Again, it’s about writing jokes. [The apartment thing], that was influenced by Grey’s Anatomy. And we love that set, so we wrote more for it as we went on. It was a great set, and we liked shooting there. We’re not doing that this season because it’s expensive. Then we were thinking what the replacement would be. A bar? And the discussion was, for a long time, that it would be a municipal pool. [Laughs.] They just hang out at a municipal pool, and no attention is paid to that. That’s just where they have those kinds of conversations. And that was one instance where I understood why that’s funny, but my gut just said, “No, that’s not the voice of the show.” Great attention is paid to justifying shit. And that’s a tough one.
AVC: So as far as adding Jordan Peele to the core cast, did that require an increase in the show’s budget?
RC: I think we have a 4 percent increase built into our contracts.
AVC: So do you have to rotate people out in order to get people in?
RC: Yeah. Unfortunately we can’t afford to have our cast in every episode, because our deal is such is that we have to pay residuals—kind of a sticky part of our deal. And we also have no money, and we wanted to give our cast a little bit of a raise this season. It’s nominal. They’ll read this and be like, “That’s a raise?” It’s not even gonna feel like a raise to them. But we’ll never pay them what they’re worth.
AVC: You started by basically just bringing your friends on. At this point do you go through casting channels?
RC: For certain things, but no for the most part. Big guest roles, we just cast our friends, me and David mostly. I’ve pretty much known everybody that’s come through—except for like, Ed Begley Jr. or Stephen Root. Those are kind of fun things that our casting director suggested or we’re like, “Here’s a great idea.” But Alicia Silverstone, I did a movie with her the summer before. I was just like, “I like spending time with her. I’m going to cast her.” We spent two days together. It was very nice.
AVC: At some point, do the managers and agents have to be involved?
RC: For the most part, I want to talk to them personally. That’s what you try to do. There is a machine in place that is sometimes faster then I am, or there’s so much to do that I’m like, “Fuck! I should have been the one to make that contact.” But that is very important to me, me or David, to make the first contact—also because then we can subvert the whole agency/management thing, because those people will fuck us. There’s one manager that I have to deal with every year, total dick. He does not quite understand his client really loves to do this show for fun, and it’s not about anything else, and he goes to great lengths to not give a shit, and it drives me crazy.
AVC: But don’t you talk to this person, the client?
RC: Yeah, I did. And they take care of it. But that’s the machine, even though we kind of exist outside of it in a lot of ways. It’s still—the way things are done is annoying.
AVC: As far as the people that you’ve worked with since the beginning, have you seen them get more comfortable with the show and its sense of humor?
RC: The cast people share a sense of tone with me. People that I hang out with means I like joking with them. But even my best friends will write a joke and I’ll be like, “That is so far from what a Childrens Hospital joke is!” I can’t even explain it. First season, Megan Mullally is in bed with Rob Huebel, and she’s got her crutches in bed, and she actually starts jerking him off with the crutch. But she’s like, “Rob, I’m gonna wear my lab coat.” And I was like, “No. No, that’s crazy. You wouldn’t wear a lab coat in bed.” And she’s like, “Rob, look at the show you’re making and explain to me why I can’t wear a lab coat in bed?” And at the time I was like, “Yeah, right. Wear your lab coat.” But to this day I’m like, “There shouldn’t be a lab coat in that scene. It’s too much! It’s a joke on a joke.”
AVC: Is it hard to say no to your friends in that respect?
RC: Yeah. It’s really a good exercise in knowing why I’m saying no, being able to explain it. If I can’t explain it to my friends, then maybe they have a point. It has really becomes an egoless process for me. I just want to make the best show I can. But that said, sometimes my response has to be, “I don’t know why.” If I can honestly say, “I don’t know why that’s not right,” that’s hard. That’s sometimes a hard pill to swallow for an actor.
AVC: How often is it that you’re having these intense discussions about something, and how often is it just effortless and you just move on?
RC: I’d say it errs on the side of pretty intense discussions. We argued yesterday. We had an argument that was an hour or two long. It was me and Jason versus Jon and David. And it was like—I said before, so nice and fun in that it was completely ego-less. I was really trying to understand the joke they were pitching, and trying to clearly state why I thought that was wrong or why my idea was right. I don’t even remember what the argument was about or what the resolution was. But I know it was worth it—it was good work, and we came to the right decision. I don’t even know if I won or not.
AVC: Your argument was eight times as long of the entire episode that will eventually contain the joke.
RC: Yes. It’s fuckin’ nuts. That was an extreme example, but that’s kinda fun. We’re taking these stupid fucking jokes very seriously.
“Home Is Where The Hospital Is” (June 23, 2011)
Valerie learns that Sy, the hospital administrator, is living in the hospital, and she tries to convince her friends to let him stay with them. Chance Briggs returns to take down a kid who’s abusing the Make-A-Wish foundation.
AVC: There are a lot of jokes in this episode about how pathetic Sy is. Is Henry Winkler cool being a punching bag?
RC: The original concept for Sy is that he is the typical hospital administrator. Everybody hates the hospital administrator in these hospital shows—or the man, they hate the man. We wanted to write the nicest character, the nicest hospital administrator ever, and have everybody still hate him. That didn’t really take. We asked Henry Winkler because he’s the nicest human being in the world, and because he’d do it. He’s one of those guys that truly lives up to his sterling reputation. Then it became that Sy’s the kind of guy that, in a very good-natured way, will do anything to make a dollar for the hospital. That’s his game, his macro-game. I don’t think that it’s so much to see him as a punching bag; it’s just so much fun to see him do anything. I’m just into it. I’m into writing for Henry Winkler. It’s great. I feel like we kinda underused him a little bit, and now we’re figuring out how to use him and really serve Henry Winkler as an actor this upcoming season.
AVC: This episode also comes back to the everyone-hooking-up-with-everyone well. This time, it’s Ken Marino and Erinn Hayes.
RC: Yeah, that’s what I was talking about. And that actually played a big part in ordering this season. We put that one early because we wanted it not be close to another episode when Ken was dating Chief and was dating Malin. We didn’t want them to come right after one another, because then people start to think about it, and I don’t want them to think about it at all. I just want them to accept these characters are dating, they’ve been dating forever. I like to think of Childrens Hospital as like, 14 episodes, 11 minutes each, but really, in the world of Childrens Hospital, we do 46 episodes, and they’re an hour long. This is just what we’re seeing. This is what people who live in your world are seeing.
AVC: Do you think of Childrens Hospital as a sketch show?
RC: No. When I was doing sketch, like, every night back in the ’90s, my favorite kind of sketch shows were the ones where there was a though-line in the sketches, and then shit would connect at the end. That’s why I got into improv, because that’s the goal in long-form improv. So that was really satisfying to me, connections. Human beings like to make connections inherently. So no, I hated doing sketch shows that were just random sketches thrown together with blackouts and music cues in between. So it’s quite the opposite I guess. There’s more a story to sketches than there is to Childrens Hospital.