Vernon Chatman and John Lee of Xavier: Renegade Angel
- Arrested Development’s Jeffrey Tambor on the show’s return and inevitable movie
- Katie Aselton on going from mumblecore to thriller—and directing her own nude scenes
- Michael Cera on the evolution of George Michael Bluth and working in Arrested Development’s writers’ room
- Sarah Polley on laying her family history bare in the new documentary Stories We Tell
- Noah Baumbach on how Frances Ha helped him see New York City with new eyes
Interviewing John Lee and Vernon Chatman is like heading into some sort of slapstick street fight: The duo, who created the brilliant, now-deceased Wonder Showzen and the otherworldly cartoon Xavier: Renegade Angel (whose second season begins airing February 12 on Adult Swim), don’t really answer questions so much as use them as jumping-off points for (often filthy) skits. Last time the duo spoke to The A.V. Club, they actually succumbed to some questioning and answered at least a few queries with relative sincerity. (Advantage: A.V. Club.) This time around, Lee and Chatman may have won the interview war: They discuss (sort of) the end of Wonder Showzen, the genesis of Xavier—an Adult Swim cartoon about a beast-man whose new-age philosophies always backfire, and a continuation of their anti-religion, anti-stupidity stance—and their burning hatred for an A.V. Club writer. (Not this one.)
Vernon Chatman: Did we talk to you last time? I can apologize for that.
The A.V. Club: It was good! It was one of the few interviews where you guys chose to actually answer some questions.
VC: I guess we got cornered.
John Lee: What’s going on? How’ve you been?
AVC: Well. I’ve been enjoying your new show.
VC: Did you see the whole first season?
AVC: Yes. Is that actually going to come out on DVD?
VC: Yes! We’re announcing that seasons one and two will be coming out on DVD. We don’t know when, but it’s definitely coming out.
JL: The DVD case is fur, Xavier’s fur. We skinned him and sacrificed him for the DVD packaging.
AVC: The last time we spoke, you guys were talking about how you were essentially daring MTV to pull the plug on Wonder Showzen.
VC: You fucker! That didn’t backfire at all.
JL: Look at us now! We’re the puppetmasters. MTV2 does whatever we say. We go to the press and tell ’em to cancel our show, boom. Done.
VC: The great thing when they pulled the plug is that we died and went to another dimension. We know what it’s like to be on the other side.
AVC: How did things ultimately end there? Was it just bad ratings?
VC: The show definitely committed suicide.
JL: But that’s no reason to end something! You keep it going in spirit!
VC: If you can get a show to actually kill itself, I think the next season would be more interesting. But they didn’t feel that way.
JL: I saw the third season.
VC: We made a third season, made a bunch of DVDs, then took ’em up in a helicopter and dumped them in the Hudson. Some adventurous scuba aficionado could really watch the third season.
AVC: What was the third season like?
JL: It was a lot like Cigar Aficionado, the magazine. If you could visualize that magazine…
VC: If there’s a scuba-and-cigar-aficionado combo, that’s pretty much the same as the third season of Wonder Showzen.
AVC: The last two episodes of Wonder Showzen [a half-hour puppet-on-the-street interview segment called “Compelling Television” and a half-hour Hee-Haw parody called “Horse Apples”] seemed almost like calculated fuck-offs to whoever might be watching.
VC: It was a calculated fuck-off to our parents.
JL: I think “Compelling Television” is maybe one of my emotional favorites.
VC: We were so limited by having a show that was just a parody, so the last thing you want to do is the show that you already have. So we just tried to turn it into something else.
JL: And with “Compelling Television,” we went out to make that as a little Clarence bit, and it ended up just being something else. It wasn’t actually a comedy bit, so we couldn’t put it in the show. The only solution then is to make an entire episode.
VC: We were so kind of not respected at the network that we were almost able to make that into something. Because we didn’t care.
JL: I actually don’t even respect you, Vernon. Not just the network. That was me.
VC: That was you? That felt good.
AVC: Was there more you wanted to do with Wonder Showzen?
VC: We were going to try and find an old, grizzled comedy writer in his 60s or 70s and then a young high-school kid, and then give them the show.
JL: Who’s that comedy writer that looks like a lion?
VC: Bruce Vilanch.
JL: And a young Harmony Korine.
VC: And just hook them up together and just give them the show, and not tell anybody about it.
JL: Our names would still be on it.
VC: That would be the third season, and then the fourth season would be a reality show about those two.
JL: Mostly bathing each other.
VC: And trying to think of mnemonic devices to remind them to wash their asses. We could squeeze 40 episodes out of their juice.
AVC: How soon after Showzen ended did you start working on Xavier: Renegade Angel?
JL: We pitched Xavier before Wonder Showzen even got picked up. We pitched it as a live-action show to the head of Comedy Central, who called our agent and said, “Why did you even send them if they’re gonna do a joke pitch? That’s not funny, to just come in and waste my time.” He thought that we were doing a prank, which we were, but then we turned it into a show. So really the prank is on us. We prank ourselves to the bank.
VC: But the gold bars are made from chocolate.
JL: And that chocolate is made of shit. And that shit is the shit of Xavier.
VC: And Xavier is a chocolate gold bar.
JL: And that shit is premièring February 12. We actually had a première party for Wonder Showzen, and the only executive who made it to the première was an Adult Swim executive, Nick Weidenfeld. The MTV people were all late, and we thought that Nick seemed like a nice guy, and he has a handsome beard. We sent him a painting that Jim Tozzi of [Lee and Chatman’s production company/band] PFFR made, and we said, “This is the show we want to make.” They said, “Make 10 episodes.”
VC: As long as we could work his beard into it.
JL: If you want a show, you’ve gotta go to RISD, and you’ve gotta learn beard management.
AVC: That leads me to the only good question I have for you today.
VC: We’ll be the judge of that.
JL: Don’t beat yourself up!
VC: I think “How’s it going?” was pretty good! Did you write “How’s it goin’?” or, like, “How are you doing?”
JL: Was there an apostrophe? Because you sounded so casual, it was really good. You’re so casual, I can see your apostrophe.
VC: I can feel your apostrophe rubbing up against my body.
JL: This is going to be the greatest question of all time. You are going to fucking retire after this question. Do you promise us? Is this the best question? Do journalists have like an award, like the Golden Queschie?
AVC: I didn’t even say it was the best question, just that it was the only good one!
VC: Well then fuck us, right? It’s our fault that it’s a shitty question now.
AVC: It’s not even my question, and it’s rhetorical. But it’s the question that most people who watch Xavier seem to ask…
VC: So you lied, you just took credit from people. This question comes with a lot of backstory.
JL: It’s really the question that’s the journey here. And isn’t that what it’s really all about? Next question!
AVC: Okay, the question that people ask when they see Xavier for the first time is “What the fuck?”
VC: Is that a come-on?
JL: There’s cum on that question! That’s a self-answering question! That question fucks itself, and its babies are the answer, and the answer is “What the fuck?”
VC: That’s like Jews For Jesus who obsess over Blue Velvet. It’s all the same thing.
AVC: Maybe it’s not a question. Maybe it’s just a statement.
VC: So after all that buildup and how you were saying it’s a great question… You think a statement could win a Golden Queschie? That is so avant-garde. Do you want to direct the third season of Wonder Showzen?
JL: I think you could be our Bruce Vilanch. Go off and do it.
AVC: Well, that seems to be the reaction, anyway.
JL: I got less of a reaction from my family. My family didn’t even finish it. My family literally said, “Oh, I’m thirsty!” and went and got a beverage. And then they all were like, “I’m thirsty, too!” And then it was “I’m thirsty-three” all the way up to “I’m thirsty-eight.” But you’ve got to admit that our show sells more RC Cola than any other show on television. We probably should’ve done a deal with them. I think we’re about to. Vernon’s dad invented RC Cola, he’s the “C.”
VC: My father’s reaction to Xavier was that he invented a time machine, and he went back in time and pulled out.
JL: Pulled out of my mother, though!
VC: Yeah, he pulled out of John’s mother, and then into mine.
JL: He backed into your mother? You’re a butt-gina birth?
AVC: So presumably there are people in your families that don’t get what you’re doing at all.
VC: If somebody doesn’t like it, they’re out of the family.
JL: You should re-do that in a mob voice.
VC: You’re asking if anybody likes this show?
AVC: Not exactly, I’m asking if there’s anyone…
JL: I’ve not watched the show. I’ve never even seen it. We made the show and I never even watched it after that.
VC: That was quite an experiment. Have you heard anything? I hear it’s okay. It’s kinda like a “What the fuck?”
JL: It’s very clear what the fuck. If you really watch it the right way, if you really pay attention, you won’t have that question. I think Xavier… If you are the voice of a generation, that’s how you make it. I think Xavier is the voice of a future generation. He’ll be truly understood by the unborn. But they’ll just mostly get the poo jokes.
VC: The show is a warning to children and adults about the dangers of spirituality.
AVC: That’s an almost-serious answer!
JL: Shit. Redact that right now!
VC: I have my lawyer on the line, and if that makes it to print, I will kill my own father, and you’ll be responsible for that.
AVC: I think we just exposed you both as serious people.
VC: I remember the last interview we did with you, your last words were, “Well, if that’s how you want to represent yourselves…” And then click.
JL: We said, “Is that okay?” And you cracked our nuggets. And the liquid is all over you now. Our nugget juice is pouring on you right now. You haven’t noticed? This was like two and a half years ago! You haven’t noticed that you’ve been dripping with juice and goo? That was our goo, our truth goo.
VC: You won.
AVC: Do you sincerely hope that Xavier exposes ugly truths about the world?
VC: He has. He provides a beauty that we’ve been needing and searching for.
JL: Not like a postcard beauty or slow-motion teardrop beauty… I like to think that it’s as if your brain could cry. That’s what he’s providing—the clarity of your brain-tears.
AVC: When you’re writing for Xavier…
VC: Wait, are you accusing us of writing?
JL: Do you mean we’re hucksters? Sorry, go ahead.
VC: Xavier consumes us. He consumes both of us, all in his mouth.
JL: It feels good! There’s nothing circular about it, and there’s nothing back-and-forth. It’s a Möbius strip that’s a straight line. There’s no curves in the line, but it’s still a Möbius strip.
VC: We like to say it has more twists than a bag of pretzel sticks.
AVC: How long does it take you to do one script?
VC: We just did it. In the time that it took you to formulate that question… Let’s write an episode right now. You wanna do it?
JL: How long does it take to make an episode? It takes four months to write a season. Two weeks per script.
VC: We spend a lot of time on lunch, the fanciest lunch we can get.
JL: The thing is, we write all the scripts in real time. So if we write for an hour, that’s 60 minutes of an episode. But the thing about the writing, the most difficult part, to be honest, is our lawyers. Vernon and I have to write in separate rooms now.
VC: Will you inform Mr. Lee that we’re not supposed to be talking about that?
JL: It takes us way too long to write an episode. Other people write Adult Swim shows in days and hours.
VC: I know the Venture Bros. guy said he writes an episode a half-hour.
JL: He didn’t want that to be known.
AVC: What about the animation? Are you very involved in the process?
VC: Our animation company is in San Francisco, so we hook up iChat to watch over them every minute. You know how Spielberg doesn’t go to the set anymore?
JL: He directs from his hospital bed.
VC: We also direct from Spielberg’s bed.
JL: We can’t animate. That’s exhausting. I would fucking kill myself.
AVC: So how does the process work?
JL: We write and then do the voiceover, and then do storyboards and then send it their way. Then they rape its corpse and turn it into crystalline brilliance.
VC: This is all done via technology. When we sit down to start a script, people will come up with a character, and we just start writing down ones and zeros until we have enough, and then we just feed it right into the ol’ butthole. This is how I understand it. I’m not the most technical person.
JL: He’s so bad at jargon, he doesn’t even know the word “jargon.”
AVC: How involved creatively are the animators?
VC: They have all the freedom in the world to do exactly what we tell them to do.
JL: If you interviewed them, they would probably say we’re miniature Hitlers.
VC: They can follow any whim that we tell them they must do.
AVC: You must have kindred spirits there.
JL: There’s people at the animation company that got Xavier symbol tattoos. They’re committed.
VC: We were wishing that the show wasn’t real, just so that we could cancel it and say “It was a prank, and now you got this retarded tattoo on your arm.”
JL: But then we saw their other tattoos, and thought, “Well, that one’s probably the best.” Feature films, Horton Hears A Whatever—they take like four years to make. Our animation company, for very little money, they do a feature film’s worth of… I would call it entertainment, other people might call it something else. They basically do that in 10 months for a little bit of money. It’s kind of Olympic what they accomplish.
VC: The scam that we pulled is that they do animation for videogames, so they don’t have to get Hollywood money.
AVC: How did you settle on that videogame-inspired style? I’ve read people comparing it to Nintendo 64…
VC: Was that someone every person who’s ever seen the show?
AVC: I guess it was.
VC: CG just has this clumsy earnestness about it. It’s totally ambitious and totally limited, so when it fails, it fails in a really lame way. It’s partially because it’s motion-capture suits. The whole show is mo-cap, and the guy who plays Xavier is a horse. We just have a horse walking around, wearing a man suit. They reassign his arms and legs, and that’s how we get him to look so powerful.
JL: Somehow, that animation is perfectly beautiful, honest, and truthful.
VC: It reaches a reality that even reality can’t really reach. It’s a new dimension, emotionally. It’s also a desperate clawing toward entertainment. Imagine a hurt possum that just got run over, his back half, and he’s just clawing to get to the other side of the road. He sees his family, and you just hear the sound of the clawing.
JL: You feed that into a machine, and that’s what CG looks like.
VC: It’s beautiful. You can’t not look at it.
AVC: And yet you take a chance on people being immediately repelled by it, because it looks so strange?
VC: No one is saying they like it. We wouldn’t like a hurt possum, we’re not animals.
JL: There’s something really great about CG. People celebrate how real and amazing it looks, like when someone stands up and walks out of the room, but only a dumb person would stand up and walk out of the room like that. Somehow, the people who make it tout how amazing that is. “Look at the hair, how it flows!” People are like, “Look at Shrek’s hair!” And that’s because the movie was so crappy that that’s all you could look at.
VC: We wanted our character to have the most hair of anyone on TV, after Robin Williams. I think we did it.
JL: Can you make that the pull quote?
VC: Can you send this interview directly to Robin Williams and Bruce Vilanch, along with a jar for their tears? A bag for his hair and a jar for his tears?
AVC: That’s the name of my autobiography.
VC: That’s the name of your autobiography? Who wrote it?
AVC: I hope you guys will write it for me.
VC: We’ll be ghostwriters. You see how talking about Xavier illuminated so much truth about you? That’s what we try to do on the show.
JL: We hold a candle to other people’s spirits.
VC: We try to hold a candle directly to people’s hearts, until the burning smell makes them pass out.
AVC: You say it sarcastically, but there’s enough social commentary in the show that it seems like you’re trying to reach people.
JL: We’re trying to reach through people, past people, to something better. If you really want to reach people, you’ve gotta reach through their chests, past them, to another dimension.
VC: Because people are fucking over. They’re done for. And Xavier is showing them that. Also, transcript person, if you send us your address, we’ll send you some cookies. Because transcripting this shit is not fun.
JL: We apologize.
AVC: You guys sent a note to an A.V. Club writer that said something like, “Now that you’ve reviewed our show, why don’t you try watching it?” Which I thought was pretty funny, and so did he.
JL: Yeah, we sent a DVD! Because he posted something about the show the day after it premièred, and we were like, “We’ll send you DVDs if you want to review it!”
AVC: So it wasn’t necessarily out of anger.
JL: Oh, it was definitely out of anger, just like everything else.
VC: You should see me eat cookies. I fucking hate that shit. I just punch ’em into my mouth.
JL: He shits out of anger. He shits anger.
VC: Liquid anger. I’ve gotta see a doctor.
AVC: I think that his biggest criticism is that he felt the show was designed to repel viewers, which I think maybe you guys would agree with.
VC: I think his face was designed to absorb my fist.
JL: I wholeheartedly disagree with that. That’s just boring to do, trying to repel people. Who cares?
VC: What was that guy’s name?
JL: You mean “What was that asshole’s name?”
AVC: Scott Gordon.
JL: You fucker, you turned on him! Actually, we were psyched, because that was the most press we got for season one.
VC: I think it just means that he likes us!
JL: Can you send him a “Yoo hoo!” from us?
VC: We sent him a note, and he sent us a pair of sopping-wet panties. What was that about? It was blood, but still, pretty hot.
AVC: You’ll be happy to know that he’s come around to the show.
VC: If he comes around here, we’re gonna beat the shit out of him, what do you think about that? Is he toothless?
JL: Send us a fucking picture of him. What does this fucker press? What does he weigh stripped? Give us numbers. Is he beefy? Is he cute? He is?
VC: Aww, we can’t stay mad at him.
AVC: Back to the meat of that question…
JL: People are gonna be repelled by anything.
VC: Just look in the mirror.
JL: But that doesn’t mean that’s a problem, you’re still a good guy!
AVC: It does test the limit of what entertains people.
VC: There are certain aesthetic humps that you have to get over to enjoy our show. I would just say, “Get over our hump.” That’s our message.
AVC: And what can you promise on the other side of your hump?
VC: A larger, more erotic hump. And we can promise a goo that is so slippery that you’ll slip down into a dimension of even larger, wider humps. Humps of truth and beauty.
JL: We call them truth humps. We tend to judge each show by how many TH’s we have per episode. Our minimum is 10, our maximum is 40. What’s the THPM, like how many truth humps per minute. We also do the LLPM, how many lady-lumps per minute.
VC: Those numbers are low these days, sadly. But we don’t need to get into personal shit. But anyway, are you repulsed? That’s a pretty strong word.
AVC: I think the barriers of entry may be slightly high for most people.
JL: They’re not barriers, they’re just really tight holes.
VC: Really nice holes.
JL: And if this guy’s complaining about it, I think it reflects more on his girlfriend.
VC: If he wants saggy holes, he should stay in the relationship.
AVC: Are people getting the show? Are they watching it?
VC: You watched it! But you legally have to watch it, right?
JL: When you show it to people, do they come around to it? Do they get it right away?
AVC: I don’t think people ever get it right away. It takes time.
JL: Maybe you’re wrong. Maybe it’s just no good.
AVC: It might be terrible.
JL: Maybe we should think about what we’re doing, Vernon.
VC: Let’s figure out if this repellent guy has any ideas. But he came around. Did he redact that statement?
AVC: I’ll have him send you a cake.
JL: I don’t know if we told you this story about Wonder Showzen season one, but this is emblematic of how the plug got pulled. When we finished season one, we got sent a gift from the executives. When we opened it up, it was rotten fruit and a juicer. We knew right then that it was a threat, and we were done with.
VC: Doesn’t that sound like something the mafia would do? If an executive sends you rotten fruit, you only have one season left.
JL: We had to go out with a bang, which was a very mundane Errol Morris-meets-Jim Jarmusch episode. And then “Horse Apples,” the complete opposite.
AVC: It was a brilliant way to go. I didn’t mean it in a bad way when I said it was a “fuck-off.”
JL: I mean it in a bad way. I’ll take it.
AVC: I think I enjoyed those last two episodes in a very specific way that I don’t enjoy anything else.
JL: [Laughs.] I think you just got to the heart of what we’re trying to do.
AVC: Well hallelujah.
JL: Can we do the Jeff Buckley version of “Hallelujah”? Because it’s the most popular and the most beautiful. On the online version, can you post a hyperlink to the Jeff Buckley version of “Hallelujah”? Make the whole sentence blue, and when you click on it, it’s just “Hallelujah” on a loop. Wonder Showzen is definitely the Jeff Buckley of TV shows, in that now it’s at the bottom of a river.
VC: Aww, c’mon.
AVC: Was that an honest “Aww, c’mon”? I can’t imagine what would actually offend either of you.
VC: I was saying that about the show! Not Mr. Buckley’s estate.
JL: The two questions we always get are “What are you on?” and “Do you guys have any hearts?” And the only way to prove it is to rip open your chest and show it to them.
VC: And then smoke a shitload of crank right in front of them. A lot of people take crystal meth, and then they’ll, like, disassemble their sleeping sister into small parts. We go the other way.
JL: We reassemble their sisters.
VC: And then smoke a little, to unwind.
JL: We’re doing it right now. You should call your sister, Josh.
VC: I think you’ll find a lot of heart in Xavier. There’s episodes about heart. It’s very sad.
JL: So when people say, “Josh, you met those guys,” what do you say? Give us the dirt. You can be totally honest, because we’ll tell you what we say about you after.
AVC: I don’t know that I’ve ever had that conversation, but what I would say is “They don’t answer any questions, but if you wait long enough, they sometimes do.”
JL: [Laughs.] You revealed your technique! That’s the Errol Morris technique. We used the same technique. You’re using our technique!
VC: You fucking asshole.
JL: You’re shittin’ in our shitholes. You motherfucker. You’re trying to get us to illuminate something about who we are on the inside. You cocksucker, this was not part of the deal! You want us to trade a little piece of our souls for some fucking promo? Because our show premières on February 12, on Adult Swim.
VC: Aww, c’mon.
JL: That was a sincere “Aww, c’mon.”
VC: He’s doing it again! That silence! He’s trying to get us to talk. It’s like we’re a fucking washcloth filled with diarrhea, and his silence is him squeezing and wringing.
JL: His silence is squeezing with two fists, and one is the good cop and one is the bad cop. Guess what? They’re both fucking pigs to us.
VC: So, what else you got? What’s the worst question you wrote down?
AVC: Here’s one: Who’s worse, rednecks or hippies? You tend to target both.
VC: Is there a difference? There’s no difference anymore.
JL: There’s redneck-hippie-continuum.gov, you can check it out. You can see where you are on it, if you take a stress test.
VC: Down at the family center.
JL: We believe in individuals.
VC: You fucking hippie. But if you’re trying to put us in a box, then you’re a redneck. But we totally believe in boxes.
AVC: What makes you laugh on TV?
JL: There’s one thing, contractually, that makes both Vernon and I laugh.
VC: America’s Funniest Home Videos is the only thing I laugh out loud at.
JL: But guess what? There’s a dark horse a-comin’. I think the funniest new show in 15 years—and this is based on seeing 20 minutes of one episode—is Howie Do It. But America’s Funniest Home Videos, honestly, this is the most honest answer I’ve ever given: It’s the only show that I laugh out loud at. And then Howie Do It is second. What about you?
JL: What about tickles?
AVC: Physical tickles? Sure, those make me laugh.
VC: They should design a TV where a hand comes out and tickles you.
JL: Physical Tickles would be a great album name.
VC: It’d be like Videodrome, but a hand comes out with a feather and just gets you in your sweet spot for 30 minutes. And then you learn a lesson. That lesson is usually “Put on your pants.”
AVC: Is there a story arc for Xavier that you guys have in mind?
VC: Is there a story arc for humanity? That’s like asking us what the story arc is behind mythology. It’s the same thing.
AVC: Is there an end point in mind?
JL: Get a shovel, dig up Joseph Campbell, and ask him. Ask his corpse. A lot of people go to Jim Morrison’s grave and drink a lot of wine, and then they turn around and piss because they’ve drunk all that wine, and they don’t realize they’re pissing on Joseph Campbell. We bought the plot between the two of them for Xavier.
AVC: Do you ever see yourselves doing something with broader appeal?
VC: I think that the broadness comes to us. It will arrive. It can’t go the other way.
JL: We can’t get any worse, right? What do you think? We started a production company, so if you have any broad ideas, we’d love them.
VC: We’re producing Jon Glaser’s new show, called Delocated, for Adult Swim. Season one premières February 12. And we’re producing a show with Ben Jones of Paper Rad. See that? That was all business. And there’s one other business thing: the Xavier movie.
JL: Should we tell people about that? We shouldn’t really talk about it, but it’s totally in the works.
AVC: Feature-length, in theaters?
JL: It’s kinda like a Joe Dirt…
VC: I told you we shouldn’t talk about it.
JL: Probably what happened is that nobody said the idea for Joe Dirt out loud. Now that I just vocalized it… Mistake.
VC: Somehow I’m losing faith. We’re also talking about producing the new Vince Vaughn movie, You’re So Money.
AVC: I don’t believe you.
VC: You’re giving up! We fucking beat you! We won the interview, 2 to 1.
AVC: I have no doubt.
JL: It’s not 2 to 1, it’s 2 to 0, because he quit. It’s like you didn’t even show up. Nice talking to you. We’ll talk to you at our next failure.
AVC: But they’re all artistic successes, even if…
VC: Wow. There’s a red mark from the back of your hand on my face right now. Do you play tennis, perchance? You should definitely play tennis with a compliment like that. Let’s not leave it like this.
JL: You’re coming over Friday for the tickle, right? We have a tickle-off every Friday. We’ll give you our address.
VC: Don’t fuck us over! Make us big!