The newest addition to FXX’s Thursday night Animation Domination programming block is the skateboarding duck cartoon Stone Quackers. Airing at midnight, it stars Whitmer Thomas and Clay Tatum as the main characters Whit and Clay, as well as Heather Lawless as their friend Dottie, John C. Reilly (who is also an executive producer on the show) as Officer Barry, and series creator Ben Jones as Barf. We had the pleasure to participate in a recent conference call with Reilly and Jones.
When one considers the career of an actor like John C. Reilly, who has had roles in comedies like Step Brothers and Walk Hard in addition to dramas like Gangs of New York and Boogie Nights, a logical question is how he got involved in an animated show like Stone Quackers – and with a veteran cartoon creator like Ben Jones.
“I was actually first exposed to Ben through his artwork,” Reilly said. “I saw a show … at MOCA [The Museum of Contemporary Art in Los Angeles], and his piece was my favorite piece of the whole show. And, then it turns out we had a mutual friend, Eric Wareheim [of the comedy duo Tim & Eric], and Eric just had nothing but great things to say about Ben. I went in and met with everyone, and he was a delightful chat, and Whit [Thomas] and Clay [Tatum] were also very charming, funny guys, and we quickly just started telling stories about our childhood and juvenile delinquency. It just seemed like a really inspiring, fun thing to do.”
However, Reilly also revealed that he was familiar with Ben Jones through one of his previous shows, the short-lived Adult Swim cartoon Neon Knome.
“A lot of my friends were obsessed with that for a long time,” he said. “I just thought it was this mysterious thing created by some weirdo somewhere – and that was true – but it also turned out that Ben had done a lot of other things … so I was already a big fan. When this came my way, I thought, ‘Wow, I must be a cool person to be asked by such a cool person to do such a cool project.’”
Cool indeed, as Stone Quackers is produced in a way unlike most animated shows out there, Jones explained. “There’s lots of great things about how we make this. First off, we make it with a very small team; it’s like three or four people drawing it for the designs, and then ten people animating it, and that makes it a very different creative experience. And I think the end product, you can kind of tell it’s a little bit more – maybe experimental isn’t a good word – but it’s more an artistic project than a kind of commodity or a product of a big studio. So I think that kind of makes it a little bit more crafted and a little bit more unique.”
Aside from the animated film Wreck-It Ralph, John C. Reilly doesn’t have much experience as a voice actor. (Although he’s quick to tell you that he once did an episode of The Simpsons (2008’s “Any Given Sundance”), and just got a royalty check the other day for it – in the amount of $0.01.) “I don’t have a huge awareness of the other animation on TV … but what I can say, what I think [Stone Quackers] has going for it is, I can tell from the creative process that improvisation is embraced, and used, which gives it a real kind of spark of excitement and originality.”
“In animation you have this luxury of always having time because the animators need time to draw,” Reilly continued, “so you can horse around in the studio. You don’t have to memorize all the dialogue. You can just kind of freestyle, make mistakes, go back, do it again – so it ends up being this really kind of collegial fun thing, or it has been for me for the most part. It has been all the time on this one.”
Although many shows stick closely to their scripts, Ben Jones is a director that embraces improvisation. “Having John in the booth, I don’t think we’ve ever kept anything in the script,” Jones said. “Yes, we have the script to kind of outline what’s going on, but in essence they’re writing it in real time.”
And Reilly wouldn’t have it any other way, as he’s not a fan of solo recording. “I’ve had experiences like that, and I have to say that it really stinks. You’re just going in, plugging in, doing this thing everyone told you to do, and then punching your card and getting out – not seeing any of the other actors. For better or worse, that’s not my skill set. My skill set is trying to come up with something tailor-made for the moment, so I try to avoid those situations. There’s a similar process to actually when I’ve worked with Will Ferrell [Editor’s note: name drop!] in the past, where you try to come up with a really funny script – then you do what’s written a few times until like you feel like you did it really well, and it was funny. Then you start goofing around, and you throw it out, and then you cobble together something that best fits at the end of the day.”
The animators don’t mind the changes to dialogue either, according to Ben Jones. “Not at all. We have everything in-house, and it’s a small team,” Jones said. “Other studios will take eight months to turnaround something. We can turnaround something in five minutes, so if there’s a change, we’ve developed a work flow that plays to that.”
Reilly also mentioned how he, who recently had a role in the box office smash Guardians of the Galaxy, often prefers voice acting to live-action films. “When you’re doing films, you’re always fighting either the clock or the sun,” he said. “Or you’re always desperate with this kind of scramble to get what you’re trying to get as quickly as you can. You’re trying to quickly get lightning in a bottle, and then you have to move on. But with animation, the voice recording is always moving faster than the animators can move, so you have the luxury of exploring and improvising and goofing around.”
Of course animated films are a different story; Reilly had a blast recording his starring role in Wreck-It Ralph. “I felt really lucky, and I was very careful before I agreed to do this, that it would feel similar to my experience on Wreck-It Ralph because I got really spoiled on that, by that director,” Reilly said. “He gave me a lot of freedom, and it was just fun to be together, and I quickly realized meeting Ben and these guys that this would also be a fun hang. That’s pretty much my criteria at this point for everything in my career. It has to be a fun hang or it’s really not worth it.”
“These guys” also includes the voice of Dottie. “I really liked working with Heather Lawless,” Reilly said. “She’s really, really funny, and we do a lot of ridiculous romantic interactions in the show.”
Speaking of his character in the show, John C. Reilly was aware that Officer Barry vaguely resembles himself, and questioned Ben about it. “I was like, ‘Really, you’re going to put curly hair on the duck?’”
As for the audience of the series, Reilly didn’t think the late timeslot necessarily means it’s an adult program. “I don’t think because it’s on at midnight means anything these days,” he said. “You make something, the whole world’s going to see it. I can’t tell you how many times a nine or ten-year old has come up to me and said, ‘I love Step Brothers, and that part when you say, like, ‘Fuck this shit.’’ You can try to guide your material towards a certain age group or audience, but in fact, it’s just out there, and I think the kind of anarchic fun spirit of this show really appeals to a lot of different people, but I never try to feel constrained. I don’t really try to edit myself in terms of content. What edits you is the character; like Ralph wouldn’t swear. He wouldn’t do stuff that was R-rated, because he’s not an R-rated character. He was sort of innocent, so I didn’t feel constrained, like ‘Oh, I can’t say this, I can’t say that.’ I was just honoring who he was.”
Nor does Ben Jones feel constrained by his new network, FXX. “I think the main, important, amazing, insane thing is that we’re on after The Simpsons, and that’s like telling a young David Letterman that he’s going to be on after Johnny Carson. We have this amazing opportunity. You turn on, kids are watching The Simpsons, and then all of a sudden they see a bunch of ducks. That’s what FXX is all about, and it’s an amazing opportunity.”
I asked Ben Jones if there’s anything he’s getting a chance to do on Stone Quackers that he hasn’t in the past. (To which first he said, “I think—that’s a great question. Good questions, BubbleBlabber!” Because, hey: journalists need love too.) Pausing to think for a second, Jones explained his current situation: “There’s a great documentary by Errol Morris, I think it’s called The Fog of War. [Editor’s Note: It is.] It just talks about making decisions in the heat of the moment, and I’m definitely in The Fog of War right now.” In other words, he’s just living in the present and enjoying this unique project. “I think what we’re doing now feels totally different,” Jones said. “Whit and Clay and John are just doing this, and it’s kind of a workshop on how to be, how to create these amazing stories and characters. I’ve just tried to create a world for the characters to kind of explore and inhabit. I think that’s a much different process than some other shows, and I think it’s really fun for us to kind of work in that zone. That’s what’s different about this show, and it’s just so much better for it.”
“It’s really very personal, these stories,” Reilly added. “The characters come from the real lives of Whit and Clay.”
Although John made jokes about the meaning of his executive producer title (“It means I get more money. I make money off the actual creative people involved in the show. It’s like all executive producers; it’s really just an empty title by which I can direct money towards my bank account.”) he was sincere about his creative role with the series, and Ben was quick to praise him.
“We did this one episode with the Doobie Brothers, and it was a song from the Doobie Brothers, and we choreographed this whole animation dance routine to it,” Jones said. “And then someone made a horrible decision to save money, and swap a sound-alike in for that moment,” but John talked him into using the real thing. “It’s been super helpful to have this kind of guru for our community to be in the creative process just saying like, ‘Fuck that, go for it.’”
Though they occasionally had different answers (Ben listed his favorite cartoon as The Simpsons, John said Tennessee Tuxedo and His Adventures; Ben compared some social media comments to “seeing a homeless person crap in an alley,” and John doesn’t even use it) they both have one thing in common: they seem incredibly thankful for their current jobs.
And as a special treat to fans, Ben said they’d be putting together some outtakes from the show, both footage from the recording studio, and fake animated ones. “I will tweet them out for our fans, whom I love – and our fans on social media aren’t homeless people defecating in alleys, to tag the last answer that I gave.”
It’s alright, Ben. An odd answer is better than none at all, which is what I humorously received from a half-joking John C. Reilly after I broke down and asked him about the possibility of a Step Brothers 2 during the Stone Quackers interview:
Stone Quackers airs as part of Animation Domination at 12 midnight ET on FXX.