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 between writing sessions to walk through Childrens Hospital’s third season, episode-by-episode.
This section covers episodes 10 through 14, beginning with “Munch By Proxy” and concluding with “Newsreader.”
“Munch By Proxy” (Aug. 4, 2011)
Alicia Silverstone plays Owen’s ex-wife, who asks Owen to save their baby. Valerie meets Death, and beats him at a game of chess to save her own life.
Rob Corddry: This is not my favorite episode. I’ll tell you why. Of all those barebones, meat-and-potatoes Childrens Hospital episodes, it’s not my favorite. I love the idea of Alicia’s storyline, especially because it’s the biggest vegan in pop culture to play that role. And she helped me conceive of it. We discussed that together. It’s my writing I’m not happy with. I don’t think I quite executed that episode. It’s interesting that I can’t remember what the other story was, and you can’t either. It’s not the best episode of Childrens Hospital. It’s telling that I want to stop talking about it.
The A.V. Club: It seems like you’re such a perfectionist when it comes to certain things, like you’ll have a two-hour argument over a joke, but if an episode is just so-so—
RC: So how does one fail? If you’re a perfectionist, everything should be perfect, right?
AVC: Well, it’s an impossible goal. I guess sometimes you just have to turn it in?
RC: Yeah. There’s no end. There’s a ticking clock, and you’ve got to do it. I don’t know how people make 23 episodes of half an hour each. It’s hard making compelling television. Yeah, you just don’t have enough time to do everything. This season, we started writing a couple of months earlier so we could get better at that. But we’ll never be 100 percent satisfied with everything, of course. God. That’s the hardest part of it, I think.
AVC: Especially in comedy. It’s hard to identify that thing, sometimes, that you’re missing.
RC: Absolutely. It’s so subjective, and it changes in the editing. It’s really kind of a crapshoot, in a lot of ways. A lot of jokes are really lucky. I don’t know what to say beyond “That’s a bummer.”
“Night Shift” (Aug. 11, 2011)
Nick Kroll returns as the manager of the night shift, where all the weird stuff happens. Blake’s brother, played by Paul Scheer, wants to make a porno in the hospital. Owen dies, and is resurrected to finish a magic trick.
RC: Jason Mantzoukas wrote that. He’s the best writer I know. He’s incredible. By the way, our episodes are about 15 pages long. We have a very strict regimen. Our writers turn them in. Either we pitch them the ideas, or we assign them ideas, or they pitch ideas. We approve their pitch, we approve their outlines, we note their outlines, we get another outline, and they do two drafts, and then we do a producer’s pass on it, I do my pass on it. That’s hard and fast. Jason is above the law. Jason does not give us outlines. He gives us a 25-to-30-page draft, and we give him notes, and one of our biggest notes is, “Could you cut this down to a workable thing?” He does not take that note, but thank God, because it’s our job to do that. In terms of Jason, Jason alone. He’s the only one.
AVC: So you have to edit it down after you shoot it?
RC: No, we edit the script. The onus is on us to get it down to a workable [length].
AVC: He won’t actually do that work for you?
RC: We ask him to, but he just doesn’t do it. It’s not his thing, and that’s why we don’t care, really. We say, “You do whatever it is you do that has made you our most successful writer, we’ll do the other work.”
AVC: What about his episodes do you love so much?
RC: He is—and David [Wain]’s a lot like this too, because David is also an amazing writer. I’m just a so-so writer. But Jason’s the best story writer I’ve ever met. He is the guy, by the way, in Hollywood, if a movie isn’t working, they call in Jason. He watches it and tells them exactly why it’s not working and how to fix it. And he’s always right. And also, he can write a joke. I’m a great joke writer. I can write jokes all day long. Stories are rough for me. I’m learning. Jason can do both, and he’s also 10 times the joke writer that I am. He’s truly special in a lot of ways. That’s why he’s that guy. It’s infuriating.
[As far as the ending,] we have meetings where we take a script that is locked, it’s already in shooting draft, and we do a last pass on it, because we want to make sure there’s nothing extraneous. I think of it as shaking the apple tree to make sure there’s no apples left. Nothing extraneous, and we can do better, we can beat any of the jokes. And we had no satisfying way to end this.
AVC: How did it end originally?
RC: Oh, I don’t remember.
AVC: It just ends?
RC: Probably, because Jason’s obsessed with that idea, killing off a main character, then having him really dead, which is what we’re exploring in this upcoming season, season four. So I think that’s the direction he was going. [The ending] came out of this daylong writing session between me, David, and Jon [Stern]. We pitched the idea like, “This is the worst idea ever, but we have to say it.” And Whitney [Teubner], our writer’s assistant, said, “That’s awesome.” The three of us were like, “Eh.” Then we played with it a little bit and it worked. But Whitney was the one who was like, “That’s the winner,” and to this day, it’s her favorite joke. It’s one instance of a real satisfying story resolution.
AVC: It’s also an episode, like “Ward 8,” that explores a part of the hospital that you don’t normally see. In this case, it’s the night shift.
RC: Night. It’s cool. We did have to cut that episode down a lot. Me and Paul Scheer’s scenes were largely improvised. Those were kind of underwritten. My fault. I don’t think that was the thing that Jason wrote to begin with. Those were underwritten. Paul and I, for the most part, improvised, at least the main scene.
AVC: Did you know he was going to be your brother from the get-go, just because of the physical resemblance?
RC: We’ve been wanting to do something like that for a long time, because I get more compliments on The League than anything else. In the same breath, Dave Koechner is constantly praised for his performance in Hot Tub Time Machine and Human Giant, so it’s like, “I want to figure Dave Koechner into the mix too.” It’s largely because, you know, Paul’s awesome. It’s a perfect way to use him.
AVC: He wears a hairpiece on his show NTSF:SD:SUV::.
RC: Yeah, right? Unfortunately to the detriment of their marketing. I looked at that poster, I was like, “Wait, did Adult Swim rent out our billboard to someone else?” Then I was like, “Oh, that’s NTSF!” It’s a shitty fucking billboard.
“The Chet Episode” (Aug. 18, 2011)
The episode follows Chet the ambulance driver as he attempts to woo the Chief and realizes he’s slowly going insane.
RC: This is one of the classic examples of not giving a fuck about continuity, because if you cared about continuity, then Chief is imaginary. [Laughs.] Yeah, I don’t know what else to say about that, only in that Huskey, after season two, we were like, “More [Brian] Huskey.” And I wrote that for Huskey—I didn’t write that actually, Seth Morris wrote that. Me, Seth, and Huskey were in a sketch-comedy group called Naked Babies forever. Huskey wrote Seth’s episode, Seth wrote Huskey’s episode. Because nobody writes their voices like each other. Just the whole, “Let’s leave our main characters behind and explore this one peripheral character’s world where something really fucking intense and episode-worthy is happening at the hospital.”
AVC: It felt like an episode of Scrubs or something, like, “Now we’re going to have the Todd episode, and follow this one character.”
RC: So psyched that you compared us to Scrubs. I’ve never watched Scrubs. I’ve caught a couple scenes here and there, and it just wasn’t my thing. I didn’t glom onto it.
AVC: There was a time, seasons three through six or so, where it was really, really good.
RC: Well, here’s the thing. I was shooting the end of season one, and I was staying in a hotel near the hospital, and it wasn’t even the Scrubs hospital, this was a different hospital we shot season one at. This was in a hotel, because I had to get up at four and I didn’t want to travel, and I watched Scrubs for the first time that night. And I was like, “Holy shit, this is funny.” [Laughs.] I’ve been dissing the show, and it’s funny. I still bristle at comparisons, though.
AVC: There was a time where Scrubs was legitimately a really funny show, and it was a single-camera comedy when there weren’t a lot of those.
RC: They do, also, take real flights of fancy that are fucking—when they work, they are historical. I don’t like the whole “cut to a fantasy scene, then cut back” thing, but whatever, that’s just not my thing. I get it. When they do that well, it’s brilliant. But oftentimes first or second season, our mantra would often be either, “too Airplane-y” or “too Scrubs-y.”
AVC: What’s the opposite, then? If that’s too flight-of-fancy, is it, “This is just too dramatic?” Is that the other side?
RC: No. Our whole thing is that everyone takes these stupid lines very seriously. They almost seem to be winking at the humor a little bit, which is a different thing—not better or worse, just different. I don’t know what the opposite is. I think it’s just “Not funny enough.” We don’t have a mantra on the other side, it’s just mostly “too Airplane-y.” “Too Airplane-y” is our go-to. We never do jokes like, “Here’s a quick premise,” and cut to that premise. Those jokes are very funny, and satisfying, and easy to write. It’s just not our language, if I may be so bold as to say we have a language.
AVC: I almost missed the entire reunion during this episode. I only stuck around after the credits because Lizzy Kaplan was listed in the first page of the credits, so I figured I must have missed something.
RC: That’s interesting. You then may have proven me wrong, because I think I argued for that. There was a big debate on whether to just come out of the episode and not cut to credits… Nobody would ever pick that up. I imagine a lot of people missed it because of that. Also, probably a lot of people missed it because they don’t know what the fuck Party Down is. I think we have pretty much the same audience. I didn’t care. That was my most fun day of shooting, by the way. We got all those guys together for an hour or two, and to have them there, and seeing that, I was like, “Oh God!” It was so satisfying to me, because I was such a fan of that show.
AVC: How did you come to the decision to not reference the reunion at all, and stick it in the back of the credits?
RC: Well, because it just didn’t feel right. The really reductive answer is that it didn’t feel right to cut from our style, our quality shooting-wise, on Ken doing his bar mitzvah speech, and then cutting, boom, to Martin [Starr] watching, in a very hand-held, fuzzier grain. It was jarring, and distracting. It was a big debate. I don’t remember what my position was, but I’m more than willing to take the blame.
AVC: So why do the Party Down scene at all?
RC: I don’t know, it’s like, “Why go to Brazil?” This is a lower-stakes Brazil, because we’re all fans. There’s so much crossover. We’re all friends. And by the way, we didn’t write any of that. They just improvised that, because we couldn’t. We asked [Party Down writer] John Enbom to write it, and he was like, “I’m too busy, and I don’t know if I can do it legally.” That’s why we changed the bowtie color. People got really hung up on the bowtie color. We had to change it. They wouldn’t let us use the bowtie color.
AVC: So it’s okay to call the episode “Party Down,” and have everyone in the episode play their Party Down characters, but it’s not okay to have them wear pink bowties?
RC: Yes. Just like it’s okay to reference the man named Jesus Christ, but it’s not okay to say “Jesus Christ.” You know? You can say Jesus Christ. I can say “dick.” I said “wet trim” in an episode. I cannot say “Jesus Christ.”
AVC: What are meetings with Standards And Practices like?
RC: [Laughs.] Adult Swim has probably the best standards-and-practices department in the business. They’re fans, they like comedy, they get it. So they really are just like, “Oh, this legally will get us in trouble, so don’t do it.” But it’s not some arbitrary pairing of fucking assholes who are trying to keep their jobs to please networks and advertisers and lawyers alike. Network public-standards people can kiss me right on the dickhole. But it’s different on a lot of cable. The standards-and-practices person at The Daily Show was also the same way. For cable, it’s different. And also, on Adult Swim you can do whatever you want. It’s cable, it’s after 10 o’clock. But it’s technically also a children’s network, so they have to pay some regard to that.
RC: Yeah. Such a drag. You know, he was also not in the Parks And Rec Entertainment Weekly cover because he was doing something. It was at the same time. He couldn’t make it, and we had to shoot then, we had everybody else. But at one point they improvised—and I was a fan of this, but I understand the argument against this, and I deferred, because there was a line where Ken goes, “Uh, what time is it?” And Megan goes, “It’s 7:50.” And he goes, “Shit, 10 more minutes until Parks & Rec.” You know? And there was even one thing where he mentioned Adam Scott, and Megan’s like, “Who’s Adam Scott?” It’s too much, but I’m just a geek for it and cannot be objective about it. I agreed that that was well cut.
AVC: David Wain is also in that episode. How often does he try to write himself in?
RC: Anybody who knows David Wain will laugh at the idea that he would ever posit that he was in too much. David is known more as a director and a writer, so he is not given his due as a brilliant performer as well. And I think he feels that. So he loves performing. But I’ve never been like, “Less Jewy McJewJew.”
AVC: So do you have to say to him, “You should probably be in this episode”?
RC: No. Not at all. We conceive of Jewy McJewJew episodes. Actually, we just trashed one yesterday in our big meeting. We had a “Jewy McJewJew teams up with Paul Scheer, Tinkle Button,” and then they find more nemeses of the doctors, and the nemeses band together to take down Childrens Hospital. But in execution, it was just too big a cartoony concept for a show that is already—the secret is to base the show in reality, on a level, and not be in fucking Crazytown already. So we trashed it yesterday, trashed the idea. So no Jewy this season, so far. He might show up.
“Newsreaders” (Sept. 1, 2011)
The follow-up to last season’s finale traces the mythology of the “actors” who play the characters on Childrens Hospital as they venture off to spin-off shows.
AVC: Why did you return to this format?
RC: Um, I don’t know. For a lot of reasons. I’m good at it. From my experience at The Daily Show, I know how those kind of things work. I love the mythology. We love those characters. Sometimes they’re even more fun than our characters on the show. We were trying to think of an episode that involves those characters that is not a Newsreaders, because we’re going to do another Newsreaders this season, but then that’s it. We’re going to kill Newsreaders, because it’s going to be its own thing. I don’t know, there’s just nothing not-fun about it.
AVC: The episode has all of the characters starring in their own spin-offs. Do you allow the actors to write those for themselves?
RC: No, that was the last episode we wrote. It was never intended to be the finale. It was half-written when we started shooting it. It was the last episode we shot. It was half-written when we started shooting it. We thought, “Okay, because this is more about editing than it is about writing.” They’re more fluid, these news pieces. Which is good. Like The Daily Show, none of those pieces ever turn out the way they were conceived. Incidentally, that was the only thing we shot outside the hospital, we shot in one of those shitty studios in Burbank that has a set for every kind of thing. So we even kind of wrote the show for what we had.
AVC: Just for budgetary reasons?
RC: Yeah. Jason Mantzoukas may have pitched his idea, the one he shows up in, the cameo. But it was mostly just us having fun with it.
AVC: Do you think of the seasons as having an arc?
RC: Yes. No. The seasons feel really different, because we’re just getting better at it.
AVC: But it’s not about, “This is the season of this, and this is the season of that”?
RC: Nah. In hindsight, yes, but no, not in foresight. Not in the planning stages. What we do, our process in a nutshell is that we get our friends together, our funniest friends together in a room, which includes some of the cast, to pitch ideas. And then we get the cast together, there’s a lot of overlap there, and they pitch ideas. And then the three of us just kind of go through the ideas—it’s exhausting—and put stuff together, expound on stuff.
AVC: You, Jon, and David.
RC: Me, Jon, and David. And then stuff gives us ideas. And then a season begins to—this year we did it more formally. We actually made index cards to put all the ideas out. Color-coding, like, “POs,” [“previously ons”] “A Stories,” “B Stories,” “C Stories,” “Special Episodes.” Most people pitched special episodes, because they’re the most fun, so this year we expressly said—and this might be what you mean by a plan—we said, “We need more ideas for just bare-bones stories. Don’t pitch episode ideas, pitch story ideas, we’ll put them together.” Because I like to think of, “Oh my God, these three stories go together, and I can see a way they connect at the end.” That’s still my goal. It doesn’t happen every episode, but when it does, it’s the best. I’ve become more focused on that as we go.
AVC: Do you have a better sense of what you want Childrens Hospital to be? Is it what you want it to be?
RC: Yeah. It’s what we want it to be, we’re just getting better at it as we go. Sometime when we got picked up, maybe sometime during the second season, someone said, “We have to figure out what the show is, so that in a couple of years, after it’s hugely successful, we’ll be able to kind of step aside and pass it off, and let it exist on its own to people who are in the know.” And I realize as we’ve gone on that’s not what I want. Once I feel like I want to step away, because I’m doing other things, or for whatever reason—I can’t imagine what reason that would be right now, but it’ll happen—then I’m just going to kill it. Kind of like the British model, in a way, but I think they kill too early. I figure a lot of this show is based on gut and instinct, so I feel like I’ve got to trust that I know when to pull the plug.
AVC: That’s probably the best thing you can do for the show, walk away when it’s over.
RC: Yeah, and I don’t even care about, “Oh, leave the people wanting more.” There’s nothing calculated about it, except that I don’t want it to become a formula or whatever.
AVC: But it sounds like there’s a lot of conscious effort to make sure it’s not formulaic. That everything is so different. Even the relationships are different.
RC: Maybe, but I think that’s inherent in the absurd nature of that kind of comedy. Believe me, I love a fucking formula. I’d kill for a math equation that I could plug jokes into. We’re desperately wishing we had a formula. But maybe that’s what will happen. Maybe we’ll find the formula, and we’ll be like, “Oh, we figured it out, this is no longer that fun.” It’s more like, to be heavy-handed with it, it’s now, “We’ve figured it out, let’s move on to something else.” I’m afraid of that, though.
AVC: So part of it is the challenge of figuring it out.
RC: Yeah, definitely. Part of it is knowing instinctually what’s right and what’s wrong for the show. That, I’m still not able to explain to you. But that’s the most I’ve ever said out loud about it, and the most I’ve ever thought about it. It’s really just kind of a gut thing.
AVC: Are interviews the only time you think about this show on an intellectual level?
RC: That was my experience doing Marc Maron’s podcast. I learned a lot, I expressed some opinions I’d never said out loud before. That is very true. You only really believe something after you say it out loud a couple times. Practice what you preach, or say it before you spray it. Once you go black, you never go back, that’s what it is. Those conversations you have when you’re taking a show on with other people, you’re really just working out your own thoughts. And having a one-sided argument in your head with someone, that’s the best way that human beings think themselves out. So yeah, interviews are the best way to do that. I feel like you just killed Children’s Hospital. Now I understand it too much. I said too much, I understand it too much. It’s dead, and you fucking killed it.