The second season of Adult Swim's "China, IL" premieres Sunday, and though most would regard it as a coup to have Bryan Cranston of "Breaking Bad" in the cast, creator Brad Neely and executive producer Daniel Weidenfeld agree that not getting him turned out to be better for the show.
Spawned from a series of shorts for the now-defunct Super Deluxe website, "China, IL" is about the worst college in America. It features Neely's previous creations — the man-child Baby Cakes and the pathologically self-centered Professor Cakes — and guest stars such as Jeffrey Tambor, Hannibal Buress, James Hong, and Jason Alexander.
But it was the Dean, played by — in Neely's words — "America's dad," Hulk Hogan, who finally made the show jell. Weidenfeld agrees. "When we were casting that pilot, we started down a very academic road. Like Jeff Goldblum, Bryan Cranston. Wally Shawn [the "Inconceivable!" guy from "Princess Bride"] we had talked about." Then they were struck with a thought. "Why not just get the least academic, most testosterone-fueled alpha male?"
"Everything fell into place after that."
When they made the show's authority figure someone who was "purely insane," the expectations for the rest of the show got ratcheted up, making things like time-traveling Ronald Reagan seem almost ordinary by comparison. "I don't think we would be where we are now because we wouldn't have fully realized the potential of it," says Weidenfeld.
Now, they're able to take the concept of a school show wherever they'd like, from a "Hunger Games"-style scavenger hunt to a colony of feral hippies living in an abandoned building on campus. "We try to step out where it's so unique and plays but it's nothing you've seen before," says Weidenfeld, and Neely adds, "Chasing that freshness is our number one goal."
Neely's time writing for "South Park" is part of the reason he keeps the staff small, something that Trey Parker and Matt Stone are known for. Though they can't turn around episodes in six days like Parker and Stone, they are able to make changes on the fly. Their first scripts for the new season ran over by five or six minutes, and because the three main characters are all voiced by Neely, they were able to cut, rewrite, and record slimmer versions of the scripts in a week rather than months.
Expanding the show from 15 to 30 minutes has given it space to allow "characters be charming and funny aside from just moving forward with the plot." There's also room for more music; Neely has written more than 50 songs that pepper the 10-episode season. Everything from Baby Cakes's back-to-school rap to Ted Nugent-esque rocker Kenny Winker and his classic lyrics, "Well, the girls want sex, they want nothing but sex / And, hey, we all know that they don't want to kiss."
The number of students, teachers, townies, celebrities, and "supernatural" have exploded: 300-plus, at last count. Though Neely voices many of the characters, guests like Dave Coulier, Chelsea Peretti, and Hulk's daughter Brooke Hogan repeatedly lend their talents. They're hoping to get Susan Sarandon, although Weidenfeld says Neely's "wife will be furious, because that's his 'one.'"
If you ask Neely the perennial question "Where do you get your ideas from?" he will be able to slap down a packet full of them. It's a collection that includes everything from fully fleshed-out concepts to single lines of dialogue or even just notes about pet peeves. For example, "I don't like it when someone tells me I look like somebody," says Neely. "And we talked about that. We said, "OK, Teddy Roosevelt has that quote, 'Comparison is the thief of joy.' That's good. And we spun that into an episode for Season 2."
Which is what separates the show from everything else on TV and why there will never be any imitators: It's a look specifically into the head of its creator. "This is the only way that I feel comfortable making television," insists Neely. "It's not outsourced to committee; I write all the episodes. And I try to keep that voice — as much as Daniel is a gigantic part of 'China, IL' — I think just trying to keep as many balls in my court as possible makes 'China' feel like it's a singular voice."
Watch a "China, IL" music video:
"China, IL" Season 2 premieres Sunday, Sept. 22 at 11:30 p.m. on Adult Swim.
- Arts & Entertainment
- Bryan Cranston
- Brad Neely
- Baby Cakes