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 in the last 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 second of three parts, covers episodes five through nine, beginning with “Nip/Tug” and concluding with “Childrens Hospital: A Play In Three Acts.”
“Nip/Tug” (June 30, 2011)
A hot-shot plastic surgeon joins the hospital staff, Blake realizes that Valerie raped him, and the staff is less than sympathetic.
Rob Corddry: Seth Morris played my rival clown. And he’ll play something else next season because he’s one of my favorite people in the world and I want to be around him.
The A.V. Club: Nick Kroll plays multiple characters, too.
RC: And he will play a new character next season, just because I love Nick and he and Seth are really great character actors, and they’re two of my best friends and I just want to be with them a lot. Seth is actually the godfather of my daughter. I met Seth in Level 1 improv at UCB back in ’97 when they were up in Solo Arts. They had just gotten here from Chicago and they were taking over comedy in the city. He and I were in our Level 1 class, the first improv we’d ever done. He broke his ankle halfway through the UCB semester. I was so excited. I was psyched because now I was the funniest one in the class. Then he came back on crutches and I was like, “Fuck this guy.” Rather than try and beat him, I invited him into my sketch group.
AVC: When you were on The Daily Show did you still perform at UCB?
RC: So funny, I was just thinking about this today. I, about six months, maybe even a couple months into my tenure at The Daily Show, I was freaking out because I had a big improv show one night, and I had to go to some shithole and interview some crazy person. I was freaking out about it like, “Goddammit, this sucks!” And Colbert looked me in the eyes and very seriously said, “Hey, you got the job. You have the job. This is your work.” And I was like, “Oh my God, this is not just another fun thing I’m doing on Tuesday nights to make ha-has. This is a very serious job.” And from then on, I couldn’t really schedule things, because I didn’t want to let people down. So no, I pretty much stopped doing improv, and I suffered for it. Still to this day, I’m not as good as my friends like Seth and Brian Huskey, who plays Chet. They do a little more than I do. We’ve been improvising and doing sketch together for 15 years, but they’re so much better than I am because they’ve worked out their muscle. So I hold them back, and I also don’t have fun anymore because I’m not at the level I could be or should be or want to be. So I don’t do it really anymore at all. Unfortunately.
AVC: It’s got to be hard because you start in that world. And you have to give it up at some point.
RC: Comedians like Marc Maron will tell you that you’re not pure. And I get it.
AVC: That’s his mode in every episode of WTF.
RC: But I get it, I get what he’s saying because he’s 100-percent pure. I really respect that. But also, I’ve always wanted to be an actor. I didn’t get into this game to be the best improviser in the world. I didn’t choose improv as a stepping stone, it just happened to become one.
AVC: Do you still derive pleasure from you job? At one point doing comedy was what you did for fun, but now it’s the way you pay the bills. Is it still fun?
RC: We could fill three of these recorders up with my feelings on your question, so I will say in a nutshell that I only do things, for the most part, that I love and care about. In any line of work, the first rule is to care. So my job is not—it feels like work. It’s really hard, in a way, Childrens Hospital. It’s always satisfying. But, no, I hate going to see comedy. When a pipefitter punches out he doesn’t want to go watch people fit pipes. So that is gone, I have no interest in it. And yes, also, it’s not as fun as it was back in 1998 when I was doing improv seven nights a week, sometimes three shows a night. That was fun. That was a whole different fuckin’ thing. I think, and this sounds trite, I am very lucky that I get to do what I love to do, blah, blah, blah, blah. But yes, a lot of the times it feels like work. And there’s a lot of parts of it that suck. I’m away from my family now for three weeks. That is heartbreaking to me. But the thing that is taking me away from those people, I can’t even really fathom that.
AVC: We’ve veered away from the episode, but this is the episode with the 20-second scene in Brazil. That was a soundstage, right?
RC: Really? Did you see it? There’s no way that’s not Brazil!
AVC: Well, now I’m confused. When I first saw the episode, part of me was like, “Did they really fly to Brazil to just shoot this 20-second scene? ’Cause that would be a crazy…”
RC: If that was your reaction, that was exactly the kind of reaction we wanted to get. And your answer was, “Of course not ’cause that would be fucking stupid.”
AVC: But part of me thought that you were that crazy.
RC: Let me frame it in a way that would make it seem even crazier, more stupid, ’cause it was. We sacrificed things all season so that we could protect the money it would take to do that trip, which happened about a month after we wrapped. And, we had been editing for a month or so, so we had a rough cut of that episode and there was no need for that scene at all. No need. And it was 20 seconds long in an episode that was already running long. [Laughs.] There were so many reasons not to do that, and really it came down to two things. One, that people would appreciate that on some level, which it sounds like you did. Two, that it was reason to go to Brazil for four days on Adult Swim’s dollar. Not kidding. Also, the response to it was like, “Eh.” But lines like “The healing power of laughter,” test through the roof. And I say that metaphorically, we don’t actually test the show. But things like spending 50 grand to go to fucking Brazil, people are like, “Oh, yeah. I remember that I think.”
AVC: So to be clear: You really went to Brazil for a 20-second scene?
RC: We really went to Brazil.
AVC: You blew my mind.
RC: And everybody else in the cast were really pissed that they weren’t in the scene.
RC: Well, it’s funny. We had to ADR all that shit because it was so loud in Brazil that we couldn’t use any of the audio. So that’s all ADR. And of course, you couldn’t get that guy to ADR because he’s a local in Brazil. So we had Mather Zickel, the guy who plays La Fonda in the Newsreaders episodes, do his voice. So that’s actually Mather, and he was brilliant. “Cocaina, cocaina.” He totally undersold it. His best performance, I think.
AVC: In non-Brazil-related things, the episode also featured Dr. Pierre Chang from Lost.
RC: Casting is tough because you get all these great people for roles like that, one or two lines that come across your desk. People that are auditioning even, or names. And you’re like, “This guy?!” It’s kind of like you don’t get a job because you’re overqualified. That’s too much. He’s a perfect example of bad casting, because people go, “Oh my God that’s the guy from Lost! Wait, he only had one line.” I gave him, or somebody else, an ad lib about the Dharma Initiative and we ended up cutting it because it didn’t hit the way I wanted it to, and it seemed kind of weird. You know what it reminded me of? I was in Old School and I’m basically an extra in Old School, all my lines were cut. And I’m the Guy Behind Luke Wilson, it actually has a name in the credits: Warren. So then I did that, and immediately got cast in The Daily Show while finishing up shooting Old School. So I was on The Daily Show for a year before Old School was released and some people toward the end sort of recognized me and were like, “Why did they not give the bald guy from The Daily Show any lines?” It was weird and jarring and strange.
AVC: So when you get somebody, you want to give them something.
RC: Yeah, that guy was great. Fuckin’ underused, unfortunately. We needed an Asian guy that role and you don’t want to give an extra an upgrade because those people are nuts. [Laughs.] They’re not actors. That always kind of bums me a little bit.
“’70s Episode” (July 7, 2011)
Flashback to the 1970s, where Glenn is returning from Vietnam and there’s a hot dog shortage. Lola is making a splash as the hospital’s first female doctor.
RC: We call these “The Special Episodes,” the ones that veer from the normal structure of Childrens Hospital. And that is by far my favorite. That is so fun, so great. Less story than anything we’ve done, more jokes. And also not relevant to our audience whatsoever. I wanted that episode to be like, you didn’t have to get all the references to be able to enjoy it. The references will still be absurd if you don’t get it. I’m not sure if we succeeded. I saw it in front of an audience, I don’t remember where we played it, mostly young people, and they didn’t care for it. That is one of my favorite episodes to write, too.
AVC: If you’re writing a joke or an episode that has a bunch of references, whether or not the audience gets those references, there’s still enjoyment in the fact that a reference was made. People can tell, and they’re willing to go along with you—or look it up.
RC: I get what you’re saying. But that’s a cheap—it’s relying on a reference for a reference’s sake. There’s been times in my life where I’ve recognized something as a reference and laughed because I didn’t get it. It made me laugh because—I don’t know why it made me laugh, and it was cheap. It was based on some insecurity within me, that I didn’t get it, I wasn’t smart enough, I didn’t get the connection. I don’t ever want to rely on that.
AVC: Is there anything specific about the ’70s that appealed to you?
RC: Why also is Erinn Hayes’ character entering and Lake Bell’s is not? Well, in my mind, Lake wasn’t even born. [Laughs.] To make Lola so much older—it’s so fuckin’ stupid. Also, this is an older episode of Childrens Hostpital; we said that this show has been on for like, 16 seasons, so that’s what, 14 seasons ago, and took place it in the ’70s? [Laughs.] Fuckin’ so stupid. It makes no sense. Some of my favorite jokes ever are in that: that Chief’s name is Chief because she’s Choctaw Indian. There’s a lot of fun jokes, fun little one-liners. For instance, my friend Curtis, the black guy who's like, “No way man. [Women can’t be doctors.] This ain’t like making no chicken cacciatori or beef stroganoff.” He had this one line that ended up in the credits because it was so fucking funny: the hot dog crisis, he improvised, “My father was hot dog, he was murdered.” [Laughs.] There’s a lot of weird cameos in that and shit. It’s so much fun, man.
AVC: There’s still voiceover from Michael Cera in this episode. What’s the deal with Michael Cera at this point? Does he work for like one day and do all his voiceovers at once?
RC: Yes, yep.
AVC: Do you know him personally?
RC: Yes, I know him. We’re like best acquaintances. I’ve met him and hung out with him on a number of occasions, but he’s not somebody I know very well. And he wants to do more. And I want him, and I’m like, “Fuck. We can’t use Michael Cera.” I don’t ever want anyone to see him, that character.
AVC: You could always do an episode where you go into the office and there he is.
RC: We have an episode this season, which I’m writing, and I’ve written one outline, and it’s the hardest episode I’ve ever written. It’s called “Who Is Sal Viscuso?” And they try and find him, the doctors try and find him. The doctors figure out they don’t know who the hell he is and try and find him. With hilarious results. But it’s fuckin’ hard, man. Maybe too much work is going into this episode. Ultimately, he might not be in it. Also, by the way, Sal Viscuso is—people think Radar O’Reilly did the P.A. in M*A*S*H. It’s a direct ripoff/homage to M*A*S*H. But Radar did not do the P.A. announcements, an actor named Sal Viscuso did them, so that’s where he got his name. And Sal Viscuso actually contacted me on Facebook and, believe it or not, he’s available to do a walk-on if we need him! [Laughs.] And four people get a chuckle out of it, you being one of the four. You, me, David [Wain], and my dad. He’s gonna take time out of his busy schedule—I’m such a dick. He’s a very nice guy. But that’s some of the shit—and Childrens Hospital is full of it—that only makes us laugh. That just we love.
“Father’s Day” (July 14, 2011)
Jesse Plemons appears as a death-row inmate about to die, and Blake eagerly awaits the execution so he can give his heart to a needy boy. Plus, the hospital team tries to track down Cat Black’s dad.
RC: That was a hard episode. It was a really hard episode. We came up with this reveal joke at the end where you think Henry is Lake’s dad, and it turns out not to be true. We wrote that too late, and the art department—we didn’t have enough of a meeting about it for them to get it right. And that joke ended up working with a lot of editing and, actually, some CGI. The idea was that, boy, this diner had to look a little bit like a prison waiting room in order for that to work. I think it works, but that’s one of those things where if we had come up with that idea a day earlier, it would’ve worked better. That was a really, really frustrating episode to edit.
AVC: Why Jesse Plemons?
RC: Because I was deep into Friday Night Lights at the time. [Laughs.] We wrote that for him. The character’s name was Jesse. We never hear it, but it was Jesse, in the script. I just fuckin’ love it! I knew he got comedy ’cause he was in Observe And Report. And man, any chance to work with someone on Friday Night Lights, one of the best TV shows of all time—and he was just the coolest dude. I geeked out with him, the poor guy, more than I’ve geeked out with anyone. Just talking about the show. And he got it. He was like, “Yeah, I understand why everybody likes it so much. It’s really great.” [Laughs.] He was just really excited about the show. The funny thing about him is he’s a dramatic actor, at heart. He also didn’t get the Baba Booey reference. [The character] is trying to kill time before he’s executed, so he just starts talking nonsense, and one of the things he says is, “Baba Booey, Baba Booey.” I’m a big Howard Stern fan. And on the day [of the shoot, Plemons] said, “Ba Babooeh…Ba Booya,” something like that. He just pronounced it wrong. It was like, “Oh, wait a minute.” And I said, “All right, add ‘Howard Stern’s penis’ to that, and it’ll work.” So he did, and it was funny. It was really funny.
“Stryker Bites The Dust” (July 21, 2011)
The team is sent to therapy to cope with the loss of a beloved doctor friend (who dies during the “Previously on” segment), and Blake deals with a gang of clowns who don’t think he’s the real deal.
RC: So dumb. That is one that is one of the better typical Childrens Hospital episodes, in that there’s kind of a clear story. We realized writing it, “Oh, story is maybe more important than we thought, and we should have at least some semblance of some.” And we effectively wasted Rob Riggle’s talents.
AVC: You were talking earlier about how there are people that you feel bad you can’t give more to when they’re on the show. Then comes Rob Riggle, who you purposely kill off right away.
RC: Well, that’s kinda the joke. It’s kind of a MacGruber rip-off. Like I was saying before, it’s a familiar joke. You set up a beloved character and then fucking kill him like that. [Snaps fingers.] It’s the only episode we’ve ever done that doesn’t follow the “Previously on” title card, snare hit, Childrens Hospital title music [sequence]. There’s no title card, there’s no Childrens Hospital music. It goes right into his funeral, and then we just show a couple credits, because we had to cut right to him dead. But oh, so underused. Such a good sport. But we’ll get him back; it doesn’t matter. Although now that I say that, it’s one of those things that might bum me out a little bit. That’s something where I might have to respect the continuity that he is Brock Stryker, a doctor that has been on the show for, like, 12 years that we got rid of, like George Clooney on ER.
AVC: It seems like the only mythology you have to follow is the mythology of the show being on for that long.
RC: The show-within-a-show, kind of. Yes, that’s the stuff; that’s the continuity. The mythology. We strictly follow the mythology of the show. And that’s in our Newsreaders episodes where we see the characters that play these characters. I might be breaking news here, but we just got Newsreaders picked up as a spinoff. So, Newsreaders is gonna be Adult Swim’s fake news show. And it’s gonna have nothing to do with Childrens, except it’s gonna hopefully star Mather, and just be a fake news show. One of our problems was—it’s so funny—“How do we make this dissimilar from The Daily Show?” I was like, “Well, it has nothing to do with The Daily Show, in that everything is made up. But how do we make this dissimilar to The Onion?” [Laughs.] Because that’s all made up.
AVC: Do you watch The Onion News Network?
RC: Yeah, I have watched it. I don’t think I watch anything religiously. But it’s different from what we’re doing in that it’s hard news. There’s no winking at all.
AVC: Are you going to be involved with that show as a showrunner?
RC: No. Jon [Stern] and I are the showrunners of Childrens Hospital. It’s very much our show, the three of us [Corddry, Stern, and Wain], though I am the creator. But with Newsreaders, we made a point to make sure we agree that this is the three of ours’.
AVC: Did you pitch Newsreaders as a series, or did Adult Swim ask about it?
RC: Oh, we weren’t pitching any spinoff. We were thinking about a spinoff with Offerman. We wanted to do [Offerman’s character] Briggs. We wanted to do, basically, Childrens Hospital, but with a cop show. It was all about Briggs. But, first of all, he got Parks And Recreation, so that made it impossible, and also then Paul Scheer and Jon Stern started conceiving of NTSF:SD:SUV::, which is kind of that, in a way—or not, but it would be stepping on that. So when we were shooting this season’s Newsreaders—it was the last episode we shot—I said to Jon, “Oh! This is a spinoff.” He’s like, “You’re right. I’ll call Nick [Weidenfeld, Williams Street executive producer] right now.” Or, no—Nick was there. We said, “Hey, this is a spinoff.” He said, “You’re right.” And then, we formally pitched it to the head of Adult Swim, and he was like, “Yeah, of course.”
“Childrens Hospital: A Play In Three Acts” (July 28, 2011)
An Our Town-like take on the show involves Owen leaving the hospital for another one where the punishment for making a mistake is a punch in the stomach.
RC: I hadn’t originally conceived of that to be so stylized, at least the dialogue, and my notes to them—it was hardest to do the costumes for that. Because I was like, “This is present day.” I want it to be sort of timeless, and they didn’t quite get that. It definitely is not timeless, and it was hard. If they were going to do what I was really poorly explaining to them, it’s my fault that it cost too much money, and we committed to doing that in a time period. And in my head, this was the play on which the show Children’s Hospital was based. The timeless, Our Town, Spoon River Anthology play. We even call that Our Town. That was our problem episode. I thought that was going to be, up until we figured it out, it was going to be our glorious failure.
AVC: What do you mean?
RC: This was in the editing room. In the editing room it was not working, it was terrible. We were like, “Fuck, we failed.” Then we realized you just can’t cut it like a comedy show. We cut it fast, like comedy. You have to cut it like when PBS airs a play. So we cut it like that, slowly, and that was the secret.
AVC: Why this particular format, of all things?
RC: That was David’s idea. David was shooting Wanderlust at the time, so he came and wrote with us for a week, and he just came up with this idea. And we were like, “All right, I don’t quite know what you’re talking about.” And in my memory, we talked about it, I said, “I don’t get it,” he wrote it, and I went, “This is awesome.” In an hour’s time. That’s why I remember it. You know, that’s so purely David Wain.
AVC: Rob Huebel has a big part in this, and Ken Marino plays two parts. How conscious are you of spreading the wealth throughout the ensemble?
RC: This is something I stress out most about. Because we’re never going to serve these amazing actors to the level that they should be served. Because I’m under no illusion that anyone watches this show for anything but the “Amazing, how did you get them?” cast. It’s a constant source of stress. My assistant, when I start staying up at night freaking out about it, would do a flow chart. She would count—not lines, but make sure that it was balanced. And I don’t think it was balanced last season. By the way, none of these people have complained about it, but I don’t think we ever really serve Megan Mullally, but how can we? She’s such a tour de force. I’ll never satisfy myself in that regard. But it’s very, very conscious. And it’s also, we have to balance that with not being able to put them all in every episode. We can’t afford it. It’s a drag. And the larger answer is that I think we failed last season.
AVC: Do you feel like it’s an impossible task?
RC: I think it is. It’s a constant struggle. It’s the nature of our circumstance, and it’s a drag. I’m constantly apologizing to people. They don’t care, they’re my friends, they’re doing this for fun. As an actor, I get it, I’m sure on some level they’re like, “Eh, bummer.” I actually have sort of purposefully taken myself—I’m a very minor character in the show. I’m definitely number eight in the call sheet because of that. I hate acting in this show. I would much prefer somebody else do it. But the clown is a character, and also a very iconic marketing niche, a useful marketing niche.
AVC: A very terrifying marketing niche.
RC: To some. To some pussies.