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Fax Bahr and Adam Small on their new claymation series.

By Steve Fritz     January 08, 2001

Starting this Friday, UPN will be taking animation to places it's never been to...all over the North American continent. That's when the net unleashes Gary & Mike, the latest creation of former Mad TV execs Fax Bahr and Adam Small, as well as Will Vinton. Believe me when I say this series is going to leave a lot of its competition in the dust.

At its core, Gary & Mike is a road-trip buddy sitcom. Gary is a super-nerd who's ultra conservative family has a coming-of-age tradition of following the Lewis and Clark trail. Mike is Gary's buddy, a total slacker who's idea of seeing his friend off is to have a rock band perform at the retirement home at which Gary works. It doesn't matter that the band is fronted by Ahmet and Dweezil Zappa.

Mike never quite thinks things like that through. That explains why he's also on the run for his life. It didn't dawn on him that you score a new girl the day before she's getting married (to someone else, natch) her dad is going to get upset. Her dad, Officer Dick, is one of the toughest cops in town, and now has a death wish on Mike that would scare the pants off of Charles Bronson. So now Gary and Mike are on the run in the United States, pursuing the trail blazed by Lewis and Clark, but also being pursued by the human version of a T-2. It makes for good comedy.

The backgrounds on the series' creators is just as diverse, to say the least. Bahr first made a name for himself as a documentarian, earning Oscar consideration on his first film, Hearts of Darkness: A Filmmaker's Apocalypse. The documentary covered Francis Ford Coppola's making of Apocalypse Now, and was a highly revealing documentary of how a monstrously large Hollywood production could go wrong at every turn. He also did Citizen Steve, which was a bio of super-mogul Steven Spielberg. Making films like that probably went a long way towards securing Bahr's personal future, so it seems like a shock that he would then move on to Mad TV and animation.

'How did I drop so far?' asks Bahr rhetorically, and not without a tad of sarcasm either. 'You know I find that the projects are all kind of related to me. All have a good story to tell. The making of Apocalypse Now was a good story, only in a different format.

As it turned out, Small was another documentarian, his major credit being a torching look at the L.A. punk scene of the 1980s called Another State of Mind. 'I always loved sketch,' adds Bahr. 'Adam and I actually met doing sketch comedy. I was directing a late-night sketch theatre and Adam was one of the actors.'

Whatever else, the two not only appeared to have similar backgrounds, but the right chemistry. It also didn't seem to hurt that among the other sketch actors they knew was Jim Carrey. Small, Bahr and Carrey co-created Fire Marshall Bill for the Wayans Family's In Living Color. This probably went a long way towards getting them attention from Quincy Jones, who was putting together another sketch show, Mad TV.

It was at Mad that another element of Bahr and Small's quirkiness came out. Hired as exec producers for the still-ongoing series, they discovered animator Corky Quackenbush and created one of the animated greats of the last decade, the 'Ragin' Rudolph' bits. Parodies of the old Ruby-Spears puppetoons of the 1960s, the 'Rudolph' bits mixed the saccharine sweet X-Mas homeyness of the original holiday specials with elements borrowed from director Martin Scorcese's Raging Bull and Coppola's Godfather epics. The 'Rudolph' bits also stood out because they were also done in detailed stop motion animation as opposed to traditional cel.

'I've loved Claymation animation since the days of Davey and Goliath,' says Bahr. 'What we love about dimensional animation is you can build this complete other world, but still end up having it look related to our world. That's something you don't get with cel.

'I loved Touche Turtle,Wally Gator and Beanie & Cecil,' adds Small. 'That bit where Dishonest John use to take off a mask of his face and underneath was just his face really used to disturb me. Of course, I loved Bugs Bunny. With Davey and Goliath, I couldn't get into the whole God thing, but I was always fascinated with the whole thing. Gumby was also okay, but I didn't love them as much as the others.'

'As it stood, 'Ragin' Rudolph' was one of our funniest bits of all time,' says Small. 'It's really what kept Mad TV on the air that first season. That was the whole germ for us to do Gary & Mike.'

As it turns out, Gary & Mike was a project that Bahr and Small had been working on since the days of In Living Color. Originally, they had intended it to be live action, but the budget it would have taken to make the series work was extremely prohibitive.

'That was in 1993,' recalls Bahr. 'Then we turned in the pilot to the budget guys and they said that it would be a $6 million episode. That was because we probably used more locations in that one pilot than most series use in an entire season. As you can imagine, the original producers politely declined. So we went on to do Mad.'

The success of 'Rudolph' was what made Bahr and Small decide to dust off the Gary & Mike script and try again. 'It was while we were doing Mad that we decided to look over Gary & Mike and see what we could do,' says Bahr. We realized we can do it all in Claymation. We could make up all the locations inside our studio instead of going to the real places. What we love is every week is just a completely different adventure. We were just up in Portland doing a show where Gary becomes kind of like The Natural for flipping corn dogs, and wins the national corn dog competition. Every show has this different flavor, depending on the town they're in.'

'One of our goals here is to make people really get involved in the story and actually forget their watching puppets,' adds Small. 'To do this we make our stories as elaborate as we can make them. We're both directors, editors and actors, so it's total production for Fax and me. I mean when we work with the animators, we will act out the moves we want the puppets to perform. We also act out shots for the cameramen. We're also in the final mix soundwise. So we just go from top to bottom. It's the ultimate. As nothing is real, we can do any fantasy. We don't have to close off a street to shoot. It's all make believe and really an interesting process. We are literally creating something from nothing.'

They also love working with the legendary Will Vinton, whose past work includes an Oscar for the theatrical short Closed Mondays, The PJ's for the WB, as well as creating memorable commercials characters such as The California Raisins and the M&M's. In fact, Vinton created the process we now call 'Claymation,' having developed the special plasticine clay that is currently used by most animators today.

'He's amazing,' says Bahr of Vinton. 'That operation up there in Portland is just astonishing. His company has taken the show to places we've never dreamed of. Corky's got a wonderful style. It's just that we realized there was no way he could do 13 episodes22 minutes eachin actual clay. He uses a different kind of puppet. Bill also had an operation that was big enough to handle 13 or more episodes. Bill has 130 people working on the show.'

'Completely,' concurs Small. 'When we started Mad TV, we really wanted to be like Saturday Night Live, right down to the independent films and animated bits. We were introduced to Corky by an ejecutive [sic] at Fox and he was just raw, cheap and funny enough to work with us. We originally wanted to work with Will Vinton, but couldn't afford him.'

As for the future of the series, UPN was so impressed with the initial 13 episodes, they've already greenlit Bahr and Small to work on a second series of scripts. If that doesn't sound like confidence to you, they are also giving it a special preview on Thursday, Jan. 11 at 9:30 p.m. Eastern during WWF Smackdownthe net's #1 showto help hook an audience in.

If that time isn't good enough for you, then you can start watching it on Fridays at 8:00 p.m. Eastern.

Death Match 2000 Returns

If you can't get enough Claymation, then you better stick around UPN on Friday nights. They have also added Eric Fogel's Death Match 2000 to the mix, right after Gary & Mike.

As fans of the series know, it's been on MTV for the last three years and pits clay versions of such real-life people as Hillary Clinton against Monica Lewinsky, Mick Jagger against Steve Tyler, Fran Drescher against Roseanne Barr, and even sicker combos. The creation of Eric Fogel, I once had the privilege of sitting in on the production of an episode. That's a future column in its own right.


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