[Interview] J.J. Villard On Resurrecting His Heightened He-Man Hedonist, King Star King, After A Decade Of Normalcy

Adult Swim has fostered some incredible creative talent since their inception, some of which have been given several opportunities to find their right project. J.J. Villard is an unpredictable and anarchic voice who’s responsible for the twisted Trap Universe pilot, J.J. Villard’s Fairy Tales, as well as the bold burst of brutal animation, King Star King. Television has entered an era where everything old is new again and no niche series is too ridiculous for a revival. That being said, an extra dose of Villard’s King Star King left audiences quite surprised. King Star King is a wild and subverted take on the standard Prince Charming and damsel in distress narrative, albeit turned up to 111. King Star King was only six episodes long, but it’s still singled out as one of Adult Swim’s most gorgeous and unique triumphs. In celebration of the surprising return to the King Star King universe, J.J. Villard gets candid on his return to the Waffle Zone, the importance of Shrek throughout his career, and why this special was designed to be just the beginning of much more King Star King.


Daniel Kurland: Did you ever think that you’d get the chance to return to this wild world again?

JJ Villard: The funny thing was that when Adult Swim hit me back up they said, “We’re sorry we canceled it.” That’s the first thing that came out of their mouths. So that was pretty cool. Then they said, we need to bring it back and let’s start things off with a special/pilot. They’re interested in making a series again. So we’ll see, dude. We’ll see how the reaction is. I know that in today’s climate it’s definitely an edgy show, but I was given a firm talking to on things that I can’t add and things that I can in the new version. I understood the state of the industry though and what I’m entering into now. 2013 is when I created King Star King and I was completely out of my mind then! I was a different person. I was partying all the time, I was out, and I was having a great time, but as you get older all of those things slow down. That’s why King Star King is now overweight, balding, and he’s got a family now–which is very similar to me. 

Daniel Kurland: Yeah, I kind of felt that this was the meta-narrative that’s going on.

JJ Villard: Absolutely.

Daniel Kurland: Did you previously have different plans for a season two for the show and did those change at all from what came together here? Obviously the middle-aged angle wouldn’t have been on your radar back in 2014. 

JJ Villard: I just have this weird thing that when I pitch a project and it gets rejected–I don’t know if it’s because I’m a Libra or what–but once a project gets rejected I just move on. I didn’t ever really think that King Star King would come back so there weren’t any different plans in place on where it could have gone. When they did say that it was coming back this time, I first thing that I did–as always–is that I start to sketch the characters in my sketchbook. It just didn’t feel right drawing him all ripped and buff. I drew him in new outfits and with new weapons. I was doing all of this sketching and just none of it felt right. Then one day I drew him fat and I was like, “That feels right!” Sometimes you’ve got to put yourself into the art and that’s what I did!

Daniel Kurland: That’s so funny because the original King Star King’s heightened animation style was one of its most distinct features. So this more revised design that fits with the look of your later series is because that original style didn’t feel authentic anymore?

JJ Villard: Again, when I created that show I was in my late-twenties. I didn’t know how to run a show or be a showrunner. I was so naive to the whole system that I didn’t even think that Adult Swim cared about ratings. I just thought that that if the show was cool then they’d keep it running. That’s not true! Everyone cares about ratings! After drawing this revised version of the character from the new version, I thought back to the late nights all of my artists spent drawing all of the little details on the characters. 

Being a more experienced showrunner, I just wanted to simplify these characters as much as possible, for me, for overseas in Korea. As time goes on, art revolutionizes. I had my eye on so many art directors that I wanted to consider for the project. Luckily, I got one of my dream choices, Greg Sharp, whose work I’ve deeply followed for a long time. So yeah, we got a whole new art director for this project. Originally, it was Bill Wray, who was also an art director for Ren & Stimpy. 

Daniel Kurland: That’s so interesting because you guys definitely have those extreme close-up splash panel displays that feel reminiscent of Ren & Stimpy

JJ Villard: Those impacted me a lot when I was a kid. It’s crazy because Pixar is starting to get a lot of younger directors to direct their things. Creators are now going to be ten years younger than me and naturally pulling from the things that they watched when they were growing up, which were different from what I watched when I was growing up. I’m friends with Pat McHale who co-created Over the Garden Wall and wrote Pinocchio on Netflix. He watched this cartoon called Ewoks, which I think just had one season, but that one season impacted his life to an insane degree. We all get inspired by different stuff.

Daniel Kurland: This special is also 22 minutes long versus the original 11-minute format. Did that prove to be a challenge at all in terms of pacing and storytelling?

JJ Villard: Well here’s a piece of advice that I can give anyone that’s in this business: I took on the task of not only doing this half-hour special, but also creating another pilot, while doing this one. If I can recommend to anyone, do not ever do that! It was seven days a week, 12-hour days. If it was just the King Star King half-hour special then I’d have been okay with it, but it’s because I set high expectations for myself. I give 110% in whatever I do. In order to do that, I had to commit to that schedule, but I’m so happy with how both turned out. When the pilot for Scaredy Cat drops–it’s a children’s show for Cartoon Network–we’ll talk about that and get into it! 

Daniel Kurland: How did the whole oppressive Jeff Bezos in Normal Zone angle come together?

JJ Villard: Holy shit, how did all of that come about? We were in the writers room and just coming up with different ideas. At the time, I think I just thought it would be cool if King Star King took on current “villains.” So if the series does get picked up then I’d be interested in like King Star King vs. Joe Rogan; King Star King vs. The Paul Brothers. Just current modern-day “villains.” They’re not actual villains, but you know what I mean. He’d take on real people. Not to say that every episode would be like that, but yeah. Bezos just seemed like an interesting target here. Married…with Children was also a big influence on this. I thought of Al Bundy and his shoe store job and I wanted King Star King to have a modern-day ordinary equivalent. I think it kind of stemmed from that; that he could work for Amazon.

I had the idea for this cartoon called “1492” where this Native American would take on all corporations in America that have taken over the land. You only get so many opportunities to make these cartoons. In a way, that idea for “1492,” which I always wanted to do, kind of found its way into King Star King !/!/!/. You just have to take your best stuff and see how you can make use of it. Taking on corporations is always a fun thing to do. 

Daniel Kurland: You mentioned the possibility that this special was treated like a pilot that could lead into more King Star King. You’re looking to continue this and keep making more then?

JJ Villard: What happened was that we just created it as a one-off thing. We handed in the first animatic and they got back to me instantly and were like, “Hey! We’re going to turn this into a pilot.” We had to re-do the ending so that it could be a continual, open-ended thing. Just the restructuring of that put us behind schedule. You can tell, because it’s supposed to be a Christmas special. The re-writing and re-boarding took three months. When you change an ending it changes everything, so that’s why we’re here, two months later on Valentine’s, talking about a Christmas special.

But oh my God, I would love to make more of this, especially with these new designs. I just love them and they’re so easy to draw. King Star King’s new look just reminds me of a bail bondsman. 

Daniel Kurland: I also feel like David Lynch must be a big influence on you to some degree…

JJ Villard: Yes. A huge influence.

Daniel Kurland: The beginning just felt very much like Twin Peaks: The Return with his whole fake family and not wanting to give up on this facade. I really saw some parallels. 

JJ Villard: Dude, the first thing that I say whenever I meet my new sound effects guy on a project is, “I want it like Lynch.” Lynch’s sound effects are minimal, but meaningful. If you look at Eraserhead, you can hear those noises in Eraserhead–the baby, the factory, the walking on the train tracks. He just limits his sound, but it’s just so impactful. Chris Trent did the sound effects for this and he did a phenomenal job. It’s a powerful thing. 

Daniel Kurland: On that note, is there any chance that some of your other works, like JJ Villard’s Fairy Tales could receive the same treatment with sporadic specials? Does that appeal to you at all?

JJ Villard: Fairy Tales was a funny situation, but I’d love to do more of that. Look, I worked on Shrek 3 and 4. There’s always been discussion of a Shrek 5 that will come out. That’s where I started out in this business, with those fairy tale stories, so they’re very close to my heart. They were my first job. In fact, the first pitch that I ever had in my professional career was on Shrek 3. They said, “Put all of the fairy tale characters in a montage of vulnerable situations…” The stuff I did was so foul that one of the executives knocked on my door and reprimanded me for the visuals that I presented in that pitch meeting. And now here we are!