Pop culture obsessives writing for the pop culture obsessed.
Pop culture obsessives writing for the pop culture obsessed.

The creators of Wonder Showzen discuss the second season of their show The Heart, She Holler

Illustration for article titled The creators of Wonder Showzen discuss the second season of their show The Heart, She Holler

Vernon Chatman and John Lee have created three of the weirdest, most subversive, and ridiculously wonderful television shows of the last decade: Wonder Showzen twisted the idea of a children’s show into a mix of social criticism and gross-out jokes (with puppets!). Xavier: Renegade Angel paired a philosophy-spouting man-beast with deliberately bad videogame-style animation. And The Heart, She Holler—which begins airing its second season on Adult Swim September 10—is like a Southern Gothic fairytale delivered in soap-opera form (it even runs nightly, instead of once a week). Holler stars Patton Oswalt as a man-child who grew up alone in a cave, only to be released once his father—the boss of a town called Heartshe Holler—has died. The show is once again sort of deliberately repellent, with silly gore and awful people delivering some of the bluntest, weirdest satire (or is it?) ever filmed. Amy Sedaris joins the cast for season two, replacing Kristen Schaal in the role of Hurshe Heartshe, once again battling her sister—played scarily by Heather Lawless—for control of the Holler. There’s also a curse and lots of bodily fluids. Oswalt, who signed on immediately because he was a huge Wonder Showzen fan, describes The Heart, She Holler as “very Carson McCullers. Even when [Chatman and Lee] write sub-mental stuff, it’s so creative and almost literary.”


The writing/directing/producing duo (who also produced Delocated; Chatman writes for South Park and is a producer on Louie as well) has a long, odd interview history with The A.V. Club. They tend to avoid answering questions about their work, preferring instead to slide down weird rabbit holes of conversation. We’ve spoken to them every time they’ve debuted a major project, and those interviews—about Wonder Showzen, Xavier, and the first season of The Heart, She Holler—play out a bit like their shows. They may seem combative, but they’re just trying to simultaneously repel and entertain. To keep things interesting—and because they don’t really answer questions anyway—I decided to present them with pre-owned interview questions, taken from Q&As run on The A.V. Club over the last few months. This led to discussions about Michael Shannon, Ed Asner, and our mothers, among other things.

The A.V. Club: There’s a twist for our interview today. I don’t know if this is going to work—not that any of our other interviews have worked…

Vernon Chatman: You’ve invited our mothers on the phone.

John Lee: We should do that next time, have all our mothers do the interview.

AVC: I’m actually going to ask you questions that other A.V. Club interview subjects have been asked over the last few months.

JL: And see if we can beat their answers?

AVC: You don’t have to beat their answers. But I thought it would be a challenge for you to answer them seriously. And I’m not going to tell you the subject of the interview until after you’ve answered.


VC: If we guess correctly, what do we get?

AVC: You probably won’t guess any of them, because they’re not very specific. I eliminated the ones like “What was it like working with Ed Asner?”


VC: We would love to answer that! But how come we get a game-show thing? We’re trying to coldly and strategically promote our show. And get some fucking publicity.

JL: We would rather answer the questions that are so specific they’re impossible.


VC: We’ve actually written some stuff for Ed Asner before, but he turned us down!

JL: You want to know how many people have turned us down, besides Ed Asner?

AVC: I only have 54 minutes left on this memory stick.

JL: On this rejection stick?

VC: Let’s not waste away your memory stick.

AVC: The challenge here is for you guys to try and promote the show while answering other people’s questions.


JL: You keep wanting us to do the right thing, and challenging us to do the right thing. It’s just not going to happen.

VC: Why is everything a challenge?

AVC: Because you’re difficult people to interview.

JL: What do they teach you in interview school? You’re supposed to start every interview by saying you’re wonderful, easy people to deal with, and I have limitless time on my memory stick—on my “this is all I can handle of you” stick. All right, what’s your first question? Let’s just start this fucking thing. Uh-oh, Vernon got disconnected. You insulted him so much he left. You just start off with a karate chop to the yogurt… [Ding.] You okay, Vernon? I know that was really hurtful. Did you take a little time to yourself?


VC: I’m fine. I’m going to power through, and just so you know, I like you. I don’t care if it’s one-way.

AVC: I like you both!

JL: He doesn’t like us as individuals, just together.

VC: I just want to say that I don’t find you difficult at all, even though you’re a fucking asshole. Okay, first question.


AVC: Okay, here goes. “Is there something that people typically say to you?”

VC: That we’re delightful and easy to get along with, and that we’re going to make this interview as painless and unchallenging for you as we can, here at The A.V. Club. People say that to me on the street all the time. I don’t know about you, John.


JL: I’m never on the streets.

AVC: I think this question was actually in the context of fans coming up to this actor. Do you guys get recognized?


VC: No. Maybe at events where people expect to see us and have been primed for our faces—

JL: There’s nothing to recognize about us. We’re not on the screen or anything. That’s the benefit of hiding behind children or CG actors or other actors—making them do your bidding. You hide in your cave like a creep and pull the puppet strings.


VC: You get maximum creep-osity as a non-performer. But people do say, “What are you doin’ in that cave, fella, pullin’ on that puppet string?”

AVC: How do you respond to that?

VC: I usually just make the proper amount of change for the transaction that just occurred. But people who are at events for us—there are a lot of creeps, people who give us strange body-horror art. They’re sure, because of the drugs, that we’re talking to them, and that the show provides a nexus of answers, and that the clues are being slowly unveiled to them.


JL: People think we’re the explanation for their little-girl Hitler drawings. Like “Clearly, these guys are gonna get me.” And then they send it in the mail wrapped in toilet paper.

VC: We get notebooks—

JL: They shouldn’t even be called notebooks. They should be called evidence.

VC: They really are caked in filth and just scrawled with tiny writing. I don’t know what it says. But that’s what people say to us—volumes of minutiae.


AVC: What is honestly the weirdest thing you’ve ever been given by a fan?

JL: A hug.

VC: A painting of a vagina with an eyeball coming out of it.

AVC: I would think that would interest you.

JL: You are perpetuating a problem.

VC: You’re the one who did it! We make thoughtful, relevant, logical material, with jokes. Not just, “Here, rub this in your psyche.”


JL: We want you to rub something in, but there’s a punchline at the end. But like a pedophilic Hitler little girl—I don’t see the joke, nor what should I rub. I tried to rub all of it, nothing came out.

VC: The comedy we make roots around in those areas, but the creepy area isn’t the point. [Both laugh.] Don’t just rub your creepy area in our face.


AVC: Then what is the point?

JL: I would ask that question to you, my friend. You have all these assumptions about us.


VC: It’s jokes! You watch it, you laugh. It’s jokes! What’s the point? Knock knock!

JL: Usually for us its butt jokes or fart jokes.

VC: Or sometimes we’ve got to stay interested, so they’ve got a few levels to them. So slit our fucking throats! We like to put a few levels in our jokes! [Laughs.] Is that so weird?


AVC: No, that’s fantastic.

JL: I’ve read the articles that you put out about us, and you always take out the comments where you say, “Good job, that’s fantastic, I like that.” You always take that out!


AVC: We’ll leave that in this time.

VC: Just make it all that, you saying fantastic things about us.

AVC: In fairness, the intro paragraph to all of those pieces, it says you’re fantastic. You should admit that you know I’m a fan of what you do.


JL: I don’t know if that covers it. I think we need it on a regular basis. I want that creamed layer over the entire interview.

VC: I love that you’re forcing us to admit we feel loved. This is getting more like talking to my mother.


JL: And yet we keep coming back, so it is very much like talking to your mother, Vernon.

AVC: Okay, next question from another interview: “If you could give the 1983 version of you any advice, what would you say?”


JL: I was still not alive.

VC: He was frozen. That would be tough. “Change your pants!”

AVC: That question was for Rick Springfield. Does that change your answer at all?


VC: No, but Rick Springfield was also on Wonder Showzen! [This is true—ed.] Oddly enough, around 1983 I got Rick Springfield’s autograph. That’s true.

JL: But you got it on your pants.

VC: But that weird guy came to me and said, “I can tell you one thing—change your pants.” Then he disappeared. Wait a second! Is The A.V. Club some sort of a portal?


JL: Holy time-shit.

VC: I just took a time-log. Anyway, so the interviewer was insulting Rick Springfield? Implied in that question is, “You’ve done it wrong. You’re an embarrassment. I want to go on record telling you not to do what you did.”


AVC: Rick himself wrote a tell-all about the things he shouldn’t have done. He had a lot of sex, and I think he has some regrets.

VC: What, like “I regret all the tons of great sex that I had?”

JL: We don’t know, maybe it was terribly tragic sex.

VC: You will not convince me that Rick Springfield has anything less than stellar sexual encounters.


JL: We have to get out of your fantasy at this point.

VC: No. I’m going to stay here.

AVC: This next question might apply to The Heart, She Holler.

JL: Good job on your part.

AVC: I’m trying to help you out.

VC: September 10. Season two starts. Season one re-runs in September. Every weeknight in September there will be a different Heart, She Holler episode. That’s the answer. That’s what I would tell the 1983 me. “Don’t forget to check out Heart, She Holler, every weeknight in September of 2013.”


AVC: Here it is: “Unlike many contemporary comedies, which incorporate a lot of improvisation, your films are very precise.”

JL: Thank you, we appreciate that you would notice that.

VC: About us particularly, and not just stolen sentiment from some other piece of work that you respect. But yeah, most of it—it’s 98 percent scripted, but the 2 percent of stuff that we keep that’s improvised is some of the best stuff. Like Patton will improvise some of the best lines in the show. And David Cross. But yeah, for comedy it’s crazily sticking to the script.


JL: It would be a terrible mess if it were based more on improvisation. That’s always been the case with us. Especially Xavier—you can’t improvise with an animated guy.

VC: So who was that question intended for, when it was asked for love?

JL: It’s clearly a director, and it’s clearly comedy.

VC: I’m going to say Judd Apatow.

JL: I’m going to guess the guy who made Dogtooth.

AVC: It was Edgar Wright.

VC: The albino guitarist?

JL: But they write those scripts together with the actors, so the improvisation comes in the writing.


VC: Yeah, that doesn’t count. We sit in a room, huddled like a couple of creeps, and come up with schemes for other people to act out. And we force them to not cut loose and have fun.

AVC: Do you have the season-long story when you start writing The Heart, She Holler?


JL: Wait, some other interview asked about The Heart, She Holler? That’s good.

VC: We have to talk about the big picture, and we just try to have the biggest arc that we want there, in order to forget about it. We want each episode to be discrete and stand-alone, so we try to just have enough of the arc in our heads and then just serve it almost accidentally.


JL: We hope that it can’t ruin the story that we’re working on. The largest arcs are pretty easy, but if we start to go down a path that fucks the large arc, then we desperately find little nooks and crannies to avoid it or change the rules. They go hand in hand.

VC: Large arcs are tides, and the individual episodes are waves crashing on the rocks.


JL: Rocks of comedy! It sprays the laughter on your face.


AVC: Does anybody watch just one episode of The Heart, She Holler?

JL: The last guy who reviewed us for you guys only watched one.

VC: And our mothers! I’m sure people watch a lot less!

JL: The majority has never seen any episodes.

VC: By that question, do you mean that it’s a show that you can’t really get your head around until you watch a few, or are you saying that it’s just so repellent that most people can’t watch?


AVC: The former—I don’t think it’s a show you can get your head around until you’ve watched a couple.

JL: It seems fairly accessible to me, in the same vein as Wonder Showzen.

VC: Our goal is to do bigger ideas that we like, strange stories that interest us, but the goal is always to give ourselves license to do those things because we’re telling the stories in stupid one-liners that can be appreciated on the simple dumb-joke level. If you just sit there and watch, there’s a joke every couple seconds. If it doesn’t add up, I don’t know.


JL: If you can’t do the math, that’s your own problem.

VC: Honestly, I don’t have conversations with people about the show. But the person who I think we talk to most about the show is Mike Lazzo, the head of the network, and we have conversations about the show, how it makes him feel, and he likes it. He likes it because the smartest people and the dumbest people can appreciate it, but no one in the middle.


AVC: Can the dumbest people appreciate it? It’s very dense.

VC: I don’t know, why don’t you ask… your mother?

AVC: My mom is very smart.

JL: Are we going to get into a mom fight?

VC: Should we do a test of dumb people? It’s pretty easy to get a focus group of dumb people together.


JL: We’ve walked this path before.

VC: You don’t think dumb people can appreciate the show? I think that’s insulting to the dumb.


AVC: No one thinks of himself as dumb.

VC: My father is a dumb-American, and I’m sick of this prejudice. Stupid people happen to make up a majority of this country.


JL: You’re insulting most of America with your statement, Josh.

AVC: They’re not going to click on this. The headline won’t say “Miley Cyrus,” it’ll say “John and Vernon.”


JL: Maybe it should say “John and Vernon Cyrus.”

VC: Can we make the headline “Miley Cyrus Sideboob Slip Tit Vag”?

AVC: Okay, next question! “Is this the biggest press tour you’ve ever done?”

VC: You mean this conversation? Yes. We don’t go on whirlwind press tours. [Laughs.] Every time we’ve ever done any press, it is the biggest press tour we’ve ever done. Who was that question for? Probably Ed Asner.


AVC: It was for Michael Shannon, who was promoting Man Of Steel.

VC: We worked with Michael Shannon on Delocated! He’s great. I would love him to be on Heart, She Holler. We’re sitting here dealing with third-party stuff!


JL: You’re giving us scrapings, your runoff, your sweepings.

VC: You’re not even giving us the good Michael Shannon questions. These are the questions where Michael Shannon is like, “Why don’t you go ask a couple of douchebags that question? I have a career.”


AVC: Here’s another one for Michael Shannon, though, which might be good for you guys: “Do you want to do more comedy?”

JL: Was Man Of Steel a comedy?

AVC: No, but he did that Funny Or Die video.

VC: Michael Shannon should do more comedy! The problem with these guys who have all this intensity and then they do comedy, they kind of blow all their gravitas. Then you can’t take Robert De Niro seriously anymore. Even in Taxi Driver, you’re thinking about Meet The Fockers. It kind of retroactively ruins their shit, so maybe he shouldn’t do comedy unless he wants to cash in. But anyway, next question about Michael Shannon—in the greatest, most appropriate interview we’ve ever done.


JL: Yes, who else can we promote?

AVC: I’ve asked you to try and make your answers into promotion for The Heart, She Holler. I’m trying to help. I would like people to watch your shows.


JL: [Laughs.] Oh you are? Thank you!

VC: I know what you want us to say: Boardwalk Empire premieres soon and everybody should watch it. Jesus Christ. How much is this big Shannon syndicate paying you, anyway? You’re in the pocket of big Shannon, and don’t you deny it. Next question to the Shannon industrial complex.


JL: The Michael Shannon rejects. What do they call the Michael Shannon fans? Are they Shan-heads?

VC: There’s only one guy, and he’s the Shan-man.

AVC: Shannon is so intense; he probably gets creepy gifts from fans.

JL: He gets leavings, mostly.

VC: I know there’s a guy who sends him his every leaving in a Chinese-food takeout box.


JL: No, he changed it. It’s in discarded turtle shells.

VC: Step it up, Shan-man!

AVC: Okay, here’s another one that might apply: “What constraints did you feel working on a low-budget film?”


JL: People always think that we’re the dregs and we’re the trash and we’re the bottoms of the pickle barrel, but we do all right!

VC: The best pickles are down there! Our budget is actually not too bad.

JL: It’s higher than a lot of indie films.

VC: For sure. The one thing that we try not do is be campy, like, “This is bad, and isn’t that fun?” But we definitely have to incorporate that it’s kind of crappy into it. But we try to incorporate that into the actual tone of the thing rather than just making the joke about how disposable it is. We’re trying to invest in the actual stories, even though it’s just a bunch of jokes. Some of the jokes making fun of how cheap you are just de-invest you.


JL: There’s nothing that funny about failure.

VC: And when we do run out of money, all we’ve got to do is call Michael Shannon and he’ll write us a check.


AVC: Would you ever want to do a big Hollywood movie?

JL: Just like an Inception-style $100 million movie. So you could pull off those epic ideas. That’d be wonderful, who wouldn’t want to do that, if they gave you a giant sack of money and turned their back on you for a year?


VC: Wanting to do a big Hollywood movie and being allowed to do it are very different things. On TV, we have 100 percent creative control, which exists in movies of a reasonable budget for maybe three people in the world.

JL: Ed Asner, Michael Shannon… And Rick Springfield.

VC: Those are the only people who have carte blanche over their lives. We’re just sucking on their question run-off.


AVC: Here’s a statement more than a question: “A room full of TV critics is pretty tough.” Didn’t you have kind of a contentious Comic-Con panel?

JL: I feel like it’s been more contentious with your critics, at The Onion. They do not like our stuff.


VC: You keep calling it The Onion, isn’t that what the problem is? Isn’t there a giant beef between The Onion and The A.V. Club, and they hate being called each other’s name?

AVC: No, not at all. Did we give Heart, She Holler a bad review? It was a B+, I think.


JL: It doesn’t read like that. And then I think Xavier’s review was terrible. Delocated didn’t get support until the third season, and then it was like, “Well, we should’ve been paying attention to this show!” It’s terrible. So unsupportive. You, we love, of course, and we spend so much time just thinking about you and talking about you. But the critics, it’s embarrassing.

AVC: Delocated is done, right? I guess we can’t promote that.

VC: We did a finale! Of Delocated!

JL: Even in our own homes we don’t get respect—in places that we would consider welcoming. This represents so much more. I’m now starting to understand why we should never do this again.


VC: At least kiss your fist before you punch us in the face!

JL: Before you shit on our charade.

VC: Kiss the pile!

JL: There’s your pull quote. We’ve had many weird critics who just don’t know what they’re talking about. And then we have critics who are like, “Try to explain this to me, buddy!” I really see how doing those junkets is a soul-killer. Because then you start fucking around and making shit up, but they believe it. It just becomes a nonsense show. People ask the dumbest questions, and they should be called out on that, Josh.


VC: If you’re talking about panel things… Any time you’re in a Q&A, it’s the dumbest people in the room who will speak the most. But that’s not a room full of TV critics.

JL: TV critics are delightful.

AVC: Here’s a good generic one so you can plug whatever you’d like: “What do you have coming up?”


VC: The Heart, She Holler, weeknights in September, at some time that I don’t know!

JL: There’s supposed to be someone else on the call right now who pops in and says, “It’s at 12:30.” It’s every night in September at 12 or 12:30. That’s what we’ve got coming up.


AVC: Nothing else you want to pimp?

JL: We don’t pimp. We work tirelessly to make shows! We’re the abused hookers in this relationship.


VC: We provide the pleasure. We provide the laughs.

AVC: Okay, here’s another one for someone else: “Do people, presumably men, say or do more off-color things to you because they think your act invites it?”


VC: I once had a guy think I would enjoy his ass on my face. But I threatened to punch him in the nuggets and he didn’t do it. Whose question is that?

JL: It was to a woman, clearly, and in comedy.

VC: Sarah Silverman, or Amy Schumer.

JL: No, the woman who was in Bridesmaids.

AVC: It was Amy Schumer, Vernon was right.

VC: We win a prize for that.

AVC: What would you like?

VC: Respect.

JL: Just one second of respect from anyone.

VC: Let’s just have a quiet moment of respect from all the readers, for what we’ve accomplished in our lives. Do you know where we grew up? Do you know the lives we’ve lived? They’re pretty middle-class, buddy. They’re pretty who-gives-a-shit, buddy! Not very interesting, fella! How do you print a moment of silence?


AVC: Maybe a little white space between answers.

VC: Can you do, like, 10 pages of white space? What’s an Internet hectare?

AVC: Okay, one more: “From the outside, the show hit a new level of hugeness this year, with ratings records, a cast Q&A tour, and typical Comic-Con madness. Did it feel that way from the inside as well?”


VC: The fact that it changes the very shape, core, soul, and texture of America? That’s just gravy. We don’t do it for that, but that’s just what happened. That’s not why we change America.

JL: The burden we have now of the hugeness of the show… We just have to stare at each other and hold on tight so we don’t change.


VC: We just have to hold on tight for this ride and see what the next chapter brings. I’m hanging up.