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A Lesson On The Concept of "Relatability": Bill Oakley and Josh Weinstein, Mission Hill

by Sandra Fu

Some people have a calling, and when it comes to the dynamic duo of Bill Oakley and Josh Weinstein, there can be no doubt as to what it is: comedy. Their partnership dates back to St. Albans High in D.C., where they founded the Alban Antic, a humor magazine. From there they landed writing stints at the infamous SPY Magazine (also the satirical homeland for frequent Morphizm contributor, Tom McNichol) and National Lampoon, before hitting the creative motherlode in 1992 as writers for that venerable comedic institution, The Simpsons. Their tenure at the House of Homer included gigs as story editors, supervising producers, as well as executive producers for the seventh and eighth seasons, before they moved on to Matt Groening's red-headed brainchild, Futurama, and then, of course, their own hilarious, clever, satirical and kickass show, Mission Hill.

Airing on the WB for one season before the fools cancelled it, the underrated satire's thirteen episodes were wisely resuscitated by Cartoon Network for their daring Adult Swim bloc. To date, Oakley and Weinstein have another five episodes partially completed and are hoping for a relatively modest investment from the network to keep the ball rolling. Cartoon Network has so far held off on the creation of further installments, but if you dig Mission Hill as much as Morphizm does, send them an email. But whatever you do, check out this interview with two of the nicest guys you'll probably ever meet. And remember to keep your eyes peeled. Like I said, some people have a calling.

Sandra Fu: Would you characterize your show as adult animation vs., say, cartoons?
Bill Oakley: I think that our show is the definitive adult animation. It's not appropriate for kids and has the equivalent of a TV R rating, even though it aired at 8PM when they first put it on the WB. They were insane.
Josh Weinstein: It's also unlike The Simpsons, which has kids and adults. Mission Hill has very little for young kids. For teenagers and up, yes, but nothing for the under 12 set.

Weapon of choice.
"Satire requires you to know what is being satirized. And we basically wanted to satirize all the stuff that wasn't being tackled on The Simpsons, which is mostly alternative lifestyles, youth culture, the underground, MTV, videos."

SF: Right. Like, for example, when Kevin is lying in bed listening to Gus and Wally argue over condoms. Not really for kids.
BO: Plus -- though there's some slapstick -- there's not nearly as much as there is in a show that appeals to kids. However, it also teaches us a valuable lesson about why adult animation doesn't seem to really succeed on prime-time network television.
JW: You have to get the kids involved.
BO: That's the thing. The Simpsons has a big audience. Well, first of all, The Simpsons is now an institution, so it defies all traditional things. However, I think The Simpsons attracts -- or it used to -- every kid in the universe, some of their parents and then some grown-ups too. But if kids didn't watch it, the ratings wouldn't be very good. My suspicion is if adults who didn't have children were watching The Simpsons, their audience would be miniscule. And that's the audience we had for Mission Hill, I think.

SF: So it would be mostly college-age viewers.
BO: And they don't wire colleges for Neilsen ratings. Like the way Conan O'Brien's ratings go way up when Spring Break hits and college students are home. The adult audience on primetime television never worked for adult animation shows. But that's why when Cartoon Network invented Adult Swim, it became the perfect outlet for our kind of animation.

SF: What are your thoughts on Adult Swim's offerings? Any favorites?
BO: Well, we worked on Futurama. I love Futurama, and I'm thrilled that it's on there. It's another show that I think is perfect for Adult Swim. I have only seen a little bit of Sealab and Harvey Birdman, but both are very funny.

SF: Have you had much interaction with Cartoon Network?
BO: Not really. The show was sold by Warner Brothers to Cartoon Network, who really liked it, and we were sort of on the periphery. But we're happy to be a part of the family. We like when they put our characters in the promos and things.
JW: I let my little kids watch Cartoon Network all the time. They've been so nice to us.
BO: Yeah, we're big supporters of Cartoon Network. I watch a ton of the children's stuff.
JW: We like Power Puff Girls, and my kids are obsessed with Samurai Jack, which is actually really good animation. There's very little talking, but it's a lot of action and it's really beautiful to watch. There is so much better animation now for kids then when we were growing up.

SF: So where did you get the idea for Mission Hill, and how did the finished product turn out?
BO: Well, we worked on The Simpsons for many seasons, and one of the things that we always ran into was that there were no characters between the ages of 10 and 35.
JW: Except for Otto.
BO: Except for Otto, the bus driver, and Jimbo -- who's twelve-- but that's it. Out of the two hundred characters on The Simpsons, there are no others. We always thought that there are so many stories that could be told with a smart show like The Simpsons, with characters of this age group. So we constructed a show entirely out of the types of people that were not on The Simpsons, the main characters being Andy and Kevin, twenty-four and seventeen, who are two different sides of the spectrum -- the hipster/slacker and the high school nerd.

SF: It's funny how they riff off one another.
BO: Yeah, they're a good combination, but a lot of people found Kevin very annoying. Which I felt was a problem, but it doesn't matter now. I think people don't like to be annoyed quite as much as we thought they did. So with Mission Hill we chose high school -- which was something that was never covered in The Simpsons -- crummy first jobs, romance and dating, that sort of thing. And then we added Jim, Posey, Gus and Wally, and Carlos and Natalie to, like it says on our website, "simultaneously satirize and embrace the world of youth culture." Which is what it did. A lot of the inspirations for the show were alternative comics, like 8-Ball and Hate, which we used for the design and the writing. But we learned after the show was already cancelled that there's only about five thousand people in all of America that are familiar with that stuff!

This ain't your father's Tom and Jerry.
"The WB didn't have any problems with Gus and Wally, because it was a cartoon. Although nobody knows this, we actually had network televisions first gay male kiss in the first episode. That was the first gay male kiss ever broadcast on television and nobody cares because they didn't see the show."

SF: But even if you're not familiar with those names, you can appreciate the comedy anyway. How about the setting? I immediately thought of San Francisco.
BO: Yeah, it's like the Mission District. Every big city has a neighborhood like that. But I think a lot of people didn't know what we were doing, who we were parodying or satirizing; they weren't familiar with the setting, didn't understand the comedy and didn't know what was going on. And with primetime television, where you've got to have an audience of several million people, it didn't cut it. But with Adult Swim, you don't need to worry about that.
JW: I think if you're a young, disaffected person between twenty and thirty living in a city, then you can relate to Mission Hill. But people outside of that world just didn't get it. That's what we find from our fan mail, that's always who it is.
BO: It's a big lesson on the concept of "relatability", which we didn't really believe in until Mission Hill. People like comedy that they can relate to on some level. Because most of our emails are from people who are either struggling cartoonists like Andy, have brothers like Kevin, or are stoners like Jim. And that's it. I would say that seventy percent of our several thousand cult fans fit that profile.

SF: Did you run into any problems with the WB because of Wally and Gus, a gay couple?
BO: They were really lenient in terms of censorship. They let us get away with everything. But they had a little bit of a problem with the episode three, "Porno For Pyro", because it was all about pornography and masturbation. They made us cut down the number of times we mentioned pornography and were very specific about where we had to edit the scene where Kevin was masturbating. But they were still incredibly liberal about it; it was surprising. And they didn't have any problems with Gus and Wally, because it was a cartoon. Although nobody knows this, we actually had network television's first gay male kiss in the first episode. That was the first gay male kiss ever broadcast on television and nobody cares because they didn't see the show. We did receive a lot of attention from the Gay and Lesbian Alliance Against Defamation (GLAAD). They actually helped promote the show for us, showing a clip of Gus and Wally at the GLAAD Awards that year. They were very supportive.

SF: Would you consider Mission Hill to be subversive?
BO: Well, it's all about satirizing parts of American culture. There's only about 30 percent that is goofing off and zany stuff. The whole construction of the show is about satirizing culture, from the characters to everything else.

SF: Like the Real World episode, which was excellent.
BO: The Real World episode was probably way too much for popular taste, because satire requires you to know what is being satirized. Like when Andy is reading zines in a coffeehouse or the Japanese hot pants trend. But basically we wanted to satirize all the stuff that wasn't being tackled on The Simpsons, which is mostly alternative lifestyles, youth culture, the underground, MTV, videos.
JW: We had a whole advertising thing going too, because part of the track of the series is that Andy was going to go into different jobs -- just like people in their twenties really end up doing -- before getting his job at the advertising agency.
BO: Yeah, the idea - and this has never been publicized before, so it's a scoop for you! -- was always that Andy would change jobs about every eight episodes, because that's what people are doing at that age. He would gradually have a better idea of what he wanted to do. Because the second eight episodes were about him being a grunt at the advertising agency, and some of the five episodes that were partially completed were about that. You can look at the scripts on our website -- one is all about them at the agency working together on a campaign satirizing American advertising culture. Then he was going to get fired and get a job at Tower Records, because the people there are very ripe for satire. But at a signing, he was going to meet one of the alternative cartoonists that he admired, who would convince him to pursue his art. Then he was going to start working for him and the real idea was that by the fifth season, he would actually be successful. And then if the show went on for many years he would basically become Matt Groening. Of course, that never happened; we only got to see stage one.

SF: With Mission Hill and especially Adult Swim, do you feel that you're part of a greater movement to legitimize not only animation as an art form, but television as a functional distributor of art forms, rather than a home for formulaic entertainment?
BO: I can actually answer that question. There are different types of television. Broadcast television -- in that it has to reach the largest audience possible -- will never become a functional distributor of art forms. However, cable television can, and that's what's so great about Cartoon Network, because television is becoming more like radio. Everything is so narrowly targeted. So Cartoon Network, and more specifically Adult Swim, are achieving what you said. As with regards to animation, I don't know. I think it's going to take fifty years for people to stop thinking it is just for kids. It's true to some extent because kids love cartoons; kids will watch anything animated, no matter what it is, because they like the bright colors and well -- I don't know why exactly, but that seems to be the way it is. And actually it's difficult to get them to try not to watch things like Mission Hill.

Livin' in a slacker's paradise.
"With Mission Hill we chose crummy first jobs, romance and dating, that sort of thing. A lot of the inspirations for the show were alternative comics, like 8-Ball and Hate. But we learned after the show was already cancelled that there's only about five thousand people in all of America that are familiar with that stuff."

SF: Do you let your kids watch Mission Hill?
BO: I've let my daughter watch every episode except for the masturbation one.
JW: My kids are too little to understand them.
BO: My daughter was the model for Carlos and Natalie's baby, and she did the voice in one episode.

SF: And how old is your daughter?
BO: She's four and a half. But yeah, she really likes it. She likes Jim a lot too. But, I don't know if it will ever happen. I think that probably 75 percent of people, at least in America, automatically think that cartoons are for kids, no matter what it is. And that it fries their brains. Which is why some artists -- no matter how good they are -- like Hayao Miyazaki, don't get recognition.

SF: Or like Bill Plympton, whose material is considered very adult.
BO: But overseas that's obviously not the case, because in places like France and Japan, everybody including adults seems to reading these comic books and there doesn't seem to be any stigma. But if a guy's riding a bus and reading a comic book here, people think, "Oh, there's something wrong with that guy. He's obviously immature," or whatever. There's still that prejudice about it. Adult Swim is one of the vanguards in leading the movement against that, but I think it's going to take at least 50 years.

SF: Why do you think that American culture doesn't embrace animation as other cultures do?
BO: I don't really know the history of animation and cartoons in other countries, but in America it wasn't until about 1970 that there was anything animated that wasn't for kids. They played cartoons before movies, but those were always still sort of for kids, like Tom and Jerry. Until underground comics started in like '67 -- or political cartoons -- there wasn't anything. In fact, The Simpsons is really the first mainstream animated show that wasn't just for kids. Once people who grew up watching The Simpsons are 40 then maybe this problem will be solved.

SF: So Adult Swim is working towards that moment?
JW: Yeah, and it adds this whole second level to Mission Hill. At least we know that there are a few thousand people around the world who watch it all the time, and it's their favorite show. And it speaks to them. Were it not for Cartoon Network, that would have never happened. That's the cool part.

11 March 03

Sandra Fu has published articles on everything from bulimia to pissing while standing up for Melt Magazine, Migente.com, drDrew.com, drKoop.com and more. She's currently finishing her first novel, Sycamore Circle.and rifling through a shoe collection than would turn Imelda Marcos green.