The back story to Squidbillies, an animated TV show about hillbilly squids, goes like this: Five million years ago, the Atlantic Ocean covered North America all the way to the Ohio Valley. As the ocean receded to form our present-day geography, a family of squids was stranded in a remote setting in the North Georgia mountains.
Early Cuyler (top) and his son, Rusty.
Of course, how Early and Rusty respond to each other, in certain unlikely situations, is where most of the show's comedy is mined. And the perspective of a hillbilly squid begs for weird and irreverent writing, hallmarks of nearly every show on Adult Swim, the overnight-programming block for the Cartoon Network where Squidbillies debuted in October 2005.
Like most Adult Swim programming created at the Williams Street Studios, an Atlanta-based animation-production company, the premise to Squidbillies defies simple explanationviewers are expected to accept a show about land-dwelling, white-trash cephalopods. But embedded in the show's absurdity is an esoteric perspective of the Southgenerally a standard comedic tropethat belongs to the show's co-creators, Jim Fortier and Dave Willis, both Southerners and Adult Swim veterans. Their credits include Space Ghost: Coast to Coast, The Brak Show, and Aqua Teen Hunger Force. (Matt Maiellaro also was one of the original creators but dropped off the project when it was shelved.)
Most of Fortier and Willis's squid jokes tap a vein of Southern humor that transcends the banal redneck jokes long wielded by standup comics such as Jeff Foxworthy and Larry the Cable Guy. For instance, during a job interview, Early urinates on his potential employer's laptop. "I don't care to consort with those of the robot race!" he proclaims. And when asked to describe his work ethic, he responds, "I don't think ethnics do no work. I mean, that's they problem, really. If you ain't like me, go hang from a damn tree."
"The stuff that the Williams Street people do is like nothing on TV," says Todd Hanson, who does the voice for character Dan Halen, and is also the head writer for The Onion. "Their stuff is so fast-paced, complex, and densethey start with a premise and then they're three steps removed from the premise before you even get used to the first premise they started with." Hanson worked with Willis on Space Ghost and Aqua Teen as far back as 1999.
Courtesy Mack Williams
Left to right: Daniel McDevitt (voice of Rusty Cuyler), Jim Fortier, Unknown Hinson (voice of Early Cuyler), Dave Willis, and Melissa Warrenburg (Squidbillies Production Manager).
Gelf Magazine: How did Squidbillies begin?
JIM: The whole show started off somewhere down the hall far away from Dave and me, years ago, when somebody was just having a conversation and the word "Squidbillies" popped out of someone's mouth. It was amusing as a word, but there was no show attached to it. It wasn't a title that came after a showit was just something that was talked about for a couple of years, every now and then.
And, finally, a couple of guysMatt Maiellaro and Pete Smithwent off and wrote a pilot and just wrote a script and handed it to Mike Lazzo [Head of comedy programming at Williams Street Studios] and said, "Here, check this out." They told Mike people were interested in doing something with it. For the first couple of years, it was never a project that was in anybody's hands necessarilyit was just something that was batted around. Finally, there were six or seven of us sitting in a roomDave and Matt from Aqua Teen, Pete Smith and myself from The Brak Show, and Matt Harrigan [Space Ghost executive producer] and Mike Lazzotrying to come up with what that show would be, and we wrote probably 20 pilots for the show.
There were so many people with so many slightly different sensibilities working. Mike would like something and then he'd fall out of love with it. It just turned into one of those things where if one or two guys go away with it, they could bang it out and decide what it'll be. But when you've got six or seven, someone's always got another idea that's kinda amusing to the others, so you steer it left, and back right, and someone will come in and say, "Why don't we do it this way," and so it just kinda made it a little tough.
DAVE: As opposed to having a writing staff, we were actually trying to develop a show with six different sensibilities. A show always gets developed by a couple of people where one or two people have a vision, but this was just, "Here's a cool title, now build a show around it." Everyone in the room was really talented, but it's not like there were fights that cropped up. I think everyone was just being polite to each other. It was just doomed to fail that way.
JIM: And at the time, just about everyone in that room also had shows that they were responsible to write and produce.
DAVE: Jim and I still believed in the idea [of Squidbillies] even after a year of total failure. I think at that point it was kinda left for dead.
JIM: It had been set aside. Dave was back doing Aqua Teen and they had me doing this special one-time thing, an anime talk show or something, that had Space Ghost and some other things, and after that stuff aired, Mike Lazzo came to me and said, "What do you want to do? Do you want to come up with something else, or do you want to do Squidbillies?" And I told him, "I think Dave and I want to do Squidbillies, if we can. We both believe in it." So, like Dave was saying, we said, "Let's give it a shot, let's see if we can make something out of it."
DAVE: With this, we were able to draw from a unique experience. I wouldn't say it was something no one else in the room hadLazzo's from Griffin, Ga., Maiellero's from Floridabut [Jim and I] had a sort of shared experience growing up. We could point to certain people, who should remain nameless for this
JIM: (laughs) and they fall into specific types.
DAVE: 'cause they'll hunt us down and whup our asses but we knew guysand I'm dead serious, manwe could just think about some guys we knew and ask ourselves, "What would that guy do in this situation?" Guys who would show up to school with broken arms or gauze over one of their eyes.
JIM: Some of it's just basic, universal stupidity. We knew that guy who would get a cast on his leg, and because he had a cast on, he'd think it gave him powersthat he could jump off the top of a house and not re-hurt his leg because the cast would protect him.
DAVE: It's the classic redneck joke: "What were his last words? 'Check this shit out!' " But I also think it was that year of tortured, beating-stuff-around that, near the end, it almost seemed like everyone was so exhausted that they were turning Squidbillies into something else and not embracing the basic premise, which was rednecks and that sort of humor. And I think we have more to say about it than the typical, Blue Collar TV, Hee-Haw-type stuff. Which is funny, too.
GM: Did you guys come up with the names of the "Squidbillies" characters?
JIM: Some of 'em. Dave and I came up with some. Pete and I came up with some. They changed back and forth. What was it, "Arvee and Donny?"
DAVE: Originally we had some names because my sister was embarking on a very rough divorce with her redneck ex-husband and I was trying to use their names as a total, eternal slam on their family. It didn't happen but I'll get 'em, I'll get 'em. We'll fit it into something. I love that name, "Arvee." That guy is such a redneck dwarf and we really wanted to slam him.
JIM: We changed the names because we had gone with Arvee and Donny, as Early and Rusty were Arvee and Donny. When Pete and I went back we just changed about everything, even the characters' names, just so it wouldn't feel like the same old thing that had sat in there for a year that we'd been working on.
GM: Do you think Squidbillies would be totally different without your unique, shared experience of the Southof Conyers, Ga.?
JIM: I think so. I think that was by design, too. We looked for people [for characters' voices] who had authentic accents and who grew up in the South, because they'd get it. One of the things we both hateI'm speaking for Dave here, but we've talked about it beforeare people who just put on the accent. Someone like Reese Witherspoon, who, even though I think she actually is from the South [Eds.: New Orleans], got rid of her Southern accent, and goes and does a couple of movies where she affects it. Even to that degree, it drives you nuts. It's especially so with those people who put on the accent and you can just tell. We've listened to thousands of auditions by people from all over the country, and you'd listen to some, literally, for two seconds and shut 'em off.
DAVE: And we ended up hiring our friend we grew up with because he was the one who could make up that accent on a roadtrip to Athens. Just him talking in the car was funnier than any of the thousand auditions. That's what we were really looking for: people who were original and authentic.
JIM: basically he'd be making fun of all those same people we grew up with, including him. He would have an experience where someone would corner him and go (in a deep-fried Southern accent): "Hey, boy, I heard you was talkin' shit 'bout me. I'm 'bout to whup your ass right now." He'd just make fun of that guy and there you go, there's a character for us.
GM: I would say Squidbillies is a show that defines a segment of the South in the same way that King of the Hill ably defines life in many parts of Texas.
DAVE: We're both big fans of King of the Hill. It's a great show, but I think we're carving out a different territory. I was born theremy mom's from Texasso I know that whole paving stones in the shape of Texas, clocks in the shape of Texas, and "Don't Mess With Texas."
We actually just re-wrote a script where we brought in another writer for this one episodehe's from The Daily Show, but he's from North Carolinahe brought in this whole idea about a "hog lagoon." You know what that is?
GM: No, not really.
JIM: A hog-waste lagoon.
DAVE: They're these giant lake-size, holes in the ground. Ever since they put out all the independent hog farmers, they've got these corporate hog farms, and they've got to put the pigshit somewhere. I don't think it's something we've ever experienced in Georgia, but he says they're all over in North Carolina. So it's one of these authenticity things, as opposed to that "Cletus" character on the Simpsons. I mean, the Cletus stuff is funny, but the fact that you would name a character "Cletus" is kind of I don't know I've never met a "Cletus" or seen a "Cletus" in my life, you know?
GM: Tell me about the Squidbillies theme song. Where did it come from?
DAVE: We wrote it and pitched it to Billie Joe Shaver [Wikipedia], who reminded us numerous times in the session that he never sings other people's stuff, but for some reason he decided to do this. I don't know about Jim, but I didn't really know all that much about Billie Joe.
JIM: No, I didn't either.
DAVE: I sorta boned up on him after the sessionI had heard of him and he used to play in town [Atlanta], but I never really realized what his status was in country music. He's a bit of an unsung legend. So maybe we wouldn't have been so confident in that session had I known then what I know now.
JIM: But he was a great guy. We caught him on a really good day, too, 'cause he had just gotten married the day before. He was awash in love, and he was really nice about the show. We sent him some stuff and he had watched it and, at the time at least, he was pretty amused by it, so he was willing to try just about anything we threw at him. I think we were just writing the way we thought Early would feel about things. It's just poverty and stupidity.
DAVE: I think we had talked about an old George Jones song, I can't remember what it's called, but the chorus is [sings], "Somehow I'll get by They said that the layoffs are comin' this fall " You know, just this endless world of depression, darkness, no way out.
GM: So are you two country-music fans?
DAVE: You just sorta grow up with Willie Nelson and Merle Haggardthat kind of music was always floating around my house.
JIM: Depending on where you go to school, you sometimes hear the entire collection of Hank Williams, Jr., whether you want to or not.
GM: Did you grow up together?
DAVE: We graduated together. We knew each other, but we weren't like real buddies in high school.
JIM: [joking] We were enemies in high school.
DAVE: Jim had a roommate who was a mutual friend of ours in collegethat's how we kinda got to be friends. And the mutual friend is the guy who we cast as RustyDaniel McDevitt.
GM: What about the show's dialogue? How much is scripted and how much is ad-libbed? How much do you direct Unknown Hinson (the voice of Early Cuyler)?
DAVE: We try to encourage ad-libbing as much as possible. We would have never written "womern's," which is an Unknownism. But the jokes and the structures are there, but he might come in and say there's this "oh" sound that he does that's POAT! [rhymes with "coat"]. Like he's talking about buying pot and he says, "poat." Which is totally foreign to me, but if it sounds natural to him
JIM: a lot of the words and mispronunciations are sort of him [as Early] trying to speak like he's an intelligent guy but cranking out big words that are totally screwed up. Sometimes we'll write those. Many times we'll just write the word in a way that we think is funny.
DAVE: Sometimes if [Unknown] is having trouble doing the mispronunciation that we've written, then we'd just ask him to read it as fast as he could and he'd be bound to mispronounce it. Then we'd keep that.
GM: Who does the voice of the sheriff?
JIM: The voice is done by Bobby Ellerbee.
DAVE: In comedies, there's a long history of a lawman, or specifically a Southern lawman, who's totally incompetent in his job. I mean, you can see that throughout Andy Griffith, right on into the Simpsons. But it seems to hold up for us. This guy Bobby Ellerbee is great. He's real, authentic. He's from Winder, Georgia. The last time we did a read with him, he came in with two packs of Salems in his fist, wearing a Georgia Bulldogs polo shirt tucked into his black denim. He's the real deal The sheriff goes through some identity issues this year. I think it's best to just leave it at that.
GM: You're partial to using the voices of many standup comics who are on the "alternative scene" these days, such as David Cross and Todd Barry. Are there others we can look forward to in the upcoming season?
JIM: The list of who we'd like to work with is pretty long. You try to find comedians that either aren't union or have a legitimate workaround.
The sheriff (left) and Early Cuyler.
GM: I have enough faith you could fit him in somewhere.
DAVE: Maybe he buys the whole town with his calculator, or something. I don't know.
GM: Have you ever asked someone to do a voice and have them come back at you with "What the Hell?"
JIM: Hasn't happened yet.
DAVE: Those country singers that we talk to seem to be real into it. I think John Prine said, "My son says I look just like that sheriff." I think they all thought it was funny and they got the humor of it. We had some problems in the early years with Aqua Teen. David Cross was like the first guy that was like, "Yeah, sure, I'll do it (laughs) What is it?"
GM: What is Dan Halen?
'The Dan Halen voice is nothing moreI mean, literally, nothing morethan me doing a very amateurish, very bad, impersonation of Orson Welles.'
DAVE: You mean, as a species?
JIM: (laughs) We're supposed to be evasive.
DAVE: Lawn gnome? Yeah, I don't know, it's just sorta funny that he'd be this
JIM: Chin with feet?
DAVE: highly educated, barefooted creature
JIM: with rock n' roll hair.
DAVE: Yeah, with rock hair. I don't really know what the back story on this Dan Halen character ismaybe he was just born into squalor and poverty and somehow through his one-man sheetrock business he somehow turned into a self-made, hypereducated individual, yet has not found the time to purchase shoes.
GM: Has anyone from Van Halen contacted you about the character?
JIM: (laughs) What's Van Halen?
DAVE: We hope not. We talked about him having a business nemesis named "Jeff Leppard" "Jed Zeppelin" you know, from a competing sheetrock company.
JIM: When we go through and we're trying to figure out what these characters are going to look like, sometimes these bizarre little sketches that Dave or one of the guys over at Radical Axis studio will do, we just latch onto 'em. They just make you laugh and you start to realize it doesn't have look like a human to be in a show with talking squids. So this Dan Halen guyhe looks pretty funnyhe originally had a little body and then we said, "Hey, just put the feet coming out from behind his chin," and that was the winner. He has all this bravado and this deep voice and intelligence and he's ridiculous looking, and it's just great.
GM: The voice is done by Todd Hanson, who's been a longtime supporter of Adult Swim and, specifically Aqua Teen.
JIM: Every time we talk to Todd, he wonders if he's doing what we want, and in the meantime we're laughing hysterically. And he's going, "Was that any good at all?" and we're just like, "Just keep doing it."
GM: Dave, in one of the Squidbillies episodes, you feature some footage and images of your son, Max, one of which involves a commercial for Baby Tacos. Was your wife cool with that?
Mary Kraft (voice of Krystal) holds Max Willis in an ad for 'The Baby Death Trap.'
GM: And speaking of the "Baby Tacos" ad, who is Armando Rinconia, the "Authentic Mexican" who endorses the product?
JIM: They were doing renovation of our building last year, and we needed some people so we just walked over to where they were doing the sheetrock and we asked everybody that we saw if they wanted to be on camera. This was one of the guys who said yes. We gave him a ballpoint pen or something as payment.
DAVE: An official Adult Swim ballpoint pennot just any pen.
JIM: The ones people are clamoring for.
DAVE: In order to make a comment on our society and exploitation we felt the need to exploit
JIM: so we could know what it felt like.
DAVE: yeah, there you go, before we could parody it. We were actually interviewing him about college football.
JIM: He had a Miami Hurricanes shirt on or something. We had to blot it out. He was just a guy working construction here at the building. He was nice enough to do that for us.
DAVE: He had no idea what it was for. We interviewed him about college football just so we could get his lips moving, so that we could add words later, after the fact.
JIM: [imitating Rinconia's dubbed dialogue for "Baby Tacos"] They're so delicious. I wouldn't mind dying for them.
DAVE: I think we're going to carve out new ground. I don't think we're necessarily a mirror for Southern society, but we'll touch on things that are specifically Southern, like a flag debateI don't guess you guys have those up in New York. I'm sure you don't have factions arguing about a heritage from the Civil War that they're so pissed off about they'll hire a Cessna to fly around the capitol for three days with a banner that read, "Sonny lied," referring to governor of Georgia [George Perdue] at the time. [Perdue] had said he was going to change the flag, but as soon as he got into office the NCAA, the Peach Bowl Committee and the Chamber of Commerce all met with him and said, "If you change the flag, they're going to take away the Final Four and the Peach Bowl." [For more, see Wikipedia on Perdue, an overview of the "Sonny lied" campaign, and more from the Southern Party of Georgia.]
But just stuff like thatlike Cobb County putting stickers in science books that say evolution is only a theory and that there's another theory called intelligent design. [National Center for Science Education.]
JIM: Like how you can't buy beer on Sunday, as if that's going to prevent people from drinking on Sunday, just because you turn the lights off in the beer aisles. It's like, "And, yes, God said no to this, so don't get that beer that's in your fridge, and don't go to Applebee's where they sell it."
DAVE: I do think it's about hypocrisy. We do have a reverend character [on the show] and I think we touch on abortion in one of these episodes, too. You don't have people trying to bomb abortion clinics up there, either. It's sort of a distinctly Southern thing. But I don't think we're going to paint that reverend like a hypocritical, typical clichéd man of faith. But if you don't touch on Jesus and Christianity, you're probably not doing much service in showing what the South is all about.
JIM: Bible Belt, man. Everything is governed by what the religious have to say.
GM: Do you get lots of heat from Standards and Practices?
JIM: It's not a nightmare, but it can be frustrating. It can be amusing, too. We have this whole episode, this hog-lagoon episodeyou know, these lagoons full of hog shit and piss. And, of course, our first note from Standards and Practices is that the hog shit lagoons can't contain anything that looks like fecal matter.
DAVE: please change it to flowers and rainbows.
JIM: The Snake Man eats a group of Mexicans. It can't look like he's eating and they can't be Mexicansit's that kind of thing. You either get an exception form or have somebody back you up, or you just kind of hope you can get away with it and hope that when they see it, it's not as bad as they imagined. I mean, they're doing their job and all that, but it becomes amusing when they feel that they have to every instance of the word "fuck" they'll write us an email saying, "The word 'fuck' on page two will have to be bleeped"as if we don't already know that from the last 500 times. But they're afraid if they don't say it
DAVE: that we don't know that from 36 years of watching television.
JIM: Well, it's like if they don't say [don't use profanity] on this script, then five years later they'll think, "We didn't say it then, so they'll think it's OK to leave 'fuck' in this episode." And that we would actually do it.
DAVE: They think we're trying to singlehandedly break the "fuck" barrier.
JIM: [laughs] and although we are, it's not in this way.
DAVE: [announcing] The "fuck" barrier was broken on Cartoon Network today.
GM: But then isn't there stuff that gets through that you would assume would get flagged?
DAVE: We had that with Aqua Teen. They saw a picture of Jesus on a billboard and they told us we couldn't say Jesus, so we changed "Jesus" to "Gee Whiz," even though everyone knew it was Jesus, but we also added a minute of them talking about what they could and couldn't show. And we showed this spokesperson just blow the head off of a nun with a shotgun. And then a rainbow comes out of her neck!
But that was far more violent or disturbing than anything you'd see on a billboard, but they were like, "OK, approved." It's so bizarre. We have an episode now where they say we can't say the word "rape." What's bad about the word? I know the action is bad and it's illegalbut the word? I mean, if they expect us to have a savvy, young audience but yet have to deal with all this stuff with kid glovesit's kind of ridiculous.
GM: Tell me about the voice for Rusty's mom, Krystal. It sounds eerily similar to Anna Nicole Smith.
Krystal and a much younger Early Cuyler
DAVE: She's so lazy that she doesn't want to use the full range of her jaw muscles.
JIM: It's just from knowing some of these people just like her that have big, huge T-shirts with spandex shorts and are they're kinda leaning back on a chair that can barely hold 'em and just kinda saying stuff [imitating the voice of Crystal], "Come on, bring that thing to Mama now I'ma whup your ass." And they don't do anything for themselves except for that trip to the grocery store. But they have 15 kids running around picking things up for 'em and bringing 'em Devil Dogs or whatever.
GM: Can you give some insight into how the new season is coming along?
JIM: We've got seven of the 14 episodes recorded already.
DAVE: Early gets reborn again.
JIM: He does. Finds Jesus. They tangle with the lottery. Rusty becomes a dad.
DAVE: He becomes a mom, too.
JIM: Yes, true.
DAVE: Apparently it doesn't matter what sex they arethey just spit out eggs.
DAVE: and it becomes a Right to Life drama.
JIM: (laughs) goes to therapy. Tries to cure his criminal ways.
DAVE: And I think they go down to Atlanta
JIM: to kick off their search (laughs) or to raise holy Hell.
Related on the Web
•Wikiquote on Squidbillies.
•Some of the original designs for the pilot, from Matthew I. Jenkins.