Talking with Minoriteam's Adam de la Pena
Adam de la Pena is one of the minds behind Minoriteam, the Adult Swim series about a team of super heroes whose powers are based on their stereotypes. Before that, however, you may have seen Adam as Gary Busey's pal and occasional foil on the insane Comedy Central series I'm with Busey. He's also worked behind the scenes as a writer on such programs as The Man Show and Crank Yankers.
I spoke with Adam yesterday about Minoriteam, racism, writing for puppets, and knowing when it's okay to say no to Gary Busey:
Adam F: What was the driving force behind Minoriteam? Did you want it simply to be funny or to really make a point about race?
Adam D: My thing is, I come from a background where I love TV. I watch as much TV as I can. My favorite show is Magnum PI. So, I really want [to make it] the funniest show I can in general. The point we're making with the show doesn't matter unless it's funny. I don't like preaching to people. I don't like having some sort of crazy overriding political agenda.
One, personally, it just sticks you in a hole where you're like "I believe THIS." You're going to believe that your whole life? You're eighteen, and when you're fifty you're going to believe that, too? So I think that's the most important thing. If it's not funny then it's not interesting to me and I don't really care about it. I'm really more interested in nonsense. A huge influence [of mine] would be Monty Python and Kids in the Hall. British comedy in general.
The shows have to be funny and they have to be ridiculous. That's where the heroes' flaws come into play, and The White Shadow is definitely this ridiculous organization. The guy's a complete idiot and the guys he has working for him aren't much smarter, either.
Adam F: Speaking of The White Shadow, you provide his voice on the show. Do you utilize any special vocal tricks to do the voice?
Adam D: It's important for me to make it sound like he looks, and he's got something on his head, so my friends and I were like, "How can we duplicate that sound?" There's all these tricks with Pro Tools and stuff like that, but it really has to sound like there's something on his head. So the way I record him is I stick my head in a drum, and it reverberates and the mic is in there and the mic catches that, and that's how the sound is created.
Adam F: I'm sorry, I'm trying to get a mental image of this.
Adam D: By the way, this is a whole idea on my part. Because I was like, "Oh yeah, this is how we're going to do it," then I was like, "ugh, I gotta do this for twenty episodes." And we couldn't rig the drum to fit on my head, there could be no rig that did that, so what I eventually ended up doing, and how I record every episode is I get on my knees or I sit down and have the drum in my hand and I stick my head down there and I have to sit and record like that for as long as it takes. Subsequently, my back is in spasms. The guy who records it, my friend Andy, he loves it. He's like, "yeah, this is what you wanted, dude."
Adam F: Are you the only one sticking your head in things to record your character?
Adam D: Peter [Girardi], one of the other creators who does the voice of The Standardized Test, he has it way better than I do. He sticks a trash can on his head. A plastic trash can to make the sound dull, the opposite of the drum. But I also think it's because he wants to do that.
Also, the drum we used was my friend's drum, and he was like, "dude I need that for my rehearsal. I can't keep bringing this in." So we had to go buy another drum and tune it to the same frequency as this drum, cause we used it in the first four episodes. It was a pain in the ass. Funny, though.
Adam F: Despite what you said about just wanting the show to be funny, it seems like people might find a deeper meaning anyway given the subject.
Adam D: The idea is that [the characters] use their stereotypes to fight racism, and that's the vehicle. That's interesting to me because comic books have these archetypes of Superman and "the all-American guy." Using stereotypes to replace those things is an interesting thing to me. The other half of that is that they live in this world that's run by this guy The White Shadow who's a man AND a corporation. And that idea was always funny, since that's how corporations started. They're public entities, but they're also almost another person. That's kind of what The White Shadow is. The guys running this place have these ridiculous ideas. I think for me comedy is about the little stuff that divides us, and I think that's what Minoriteam is about. From race to the shoes you wear.
You know, when you work there's always one guy who's really into the mission statement. Then there's me who's never read the mission statement and doesn't understand what the mission statement is supposed to be. And I think those things are scams, too. To me it just came about in the last ten or fifteen years where it was like everybody had to have a "goal" and a "mission statement." I'm really into the corporate jargon with The White Shadow because I think that's a way to talk to people without talking to them. "We're going to put this on your action item list, Adam. You're really going to hit it out of the park, but if you can't activate the action item list we'll have to put that idea in the parking lot for awhile. Make sure we're all on the same page."
Adam F: There's been a lot of comedy centered on race that came before you. Did that make you more careful?
Adam D: Not "careful." I just don't like things that have been done to death. If it has been done to death, the way I do it is more ridiculous, or something no one's thought of. To give you an example, the Native Americans. I've seen tons of stuff about Native Americans, but I thought it would be interesting to see [a casino] shut down because of a pilgrim burial ground [Episode 5: "Tribe and Prejudice"].
Immigration always comes up. Right now it's a big thing in LA; people are protesting it. Next week I think they're going to show this episode where The White Shadow decides he's going to get in cahoots with the aliens from Area 51, capture Minoriteam, and bring them to a planet where they'll be accused of being illegal aliens and killed by this alien leader. That's my thing on race and illegal aliens and etc. In the comic world it's really the literal "aliens" like, "you visited this planet illegally" and they're like, "but you kidnapped us." "It doesn't matter, you're still here illegally. You don't have any documentation. We're still going to kill you."
I think a lot of race jokes are to the point and hardcore. My stuff involving stereotypes is more the absurdist take on it. We have another episode called "Tax Day" where The White Shadow gets audited by the IRS. It's the only people they actually fear and they have to account for all these insane devices. One of them being a laser yacht.
Adam F: It sounds like the "race" and "corporate" aspects of the show will eventually become more of an undercurrent rather than the main thrust of each episode.
Adam D: I think even in the first twenty episodes you'll see that. There's things that have very little to do with race. There's a whole episode that's just about the internet. It's about The White Shadow and how he knows nothing about technology. He's like the boss who asks you all about computers. "Why can't we have that now? What's down? The server? What's that?" There's two minutes of Web pages loading [in that episode]. There's a scene where this Web page takes a good minute to load and another scene where it takes another minute to load. And they're getting really angry this page is taking so long to load. I'm completely into wasting people's time. I had this idea, I don't know if they're going to do it, but there's this scene where they're talking about time and a clock and I wanted to actually point the camera at a clock and let it go around a whole minute then be like, "see my point was...." I don't know if my partners thought that was such a great idea.
Adam F: How did the comic book aesthetic of the show come about?
Adam D: Peter, Todd [James], and I worked on Crank Yankers, and we're huge comic book fans. We had to figure out a way to do [Minoriteam]. My mantra was that it had to be funny. We decided it had to be done in this Marvel style. Those animatic-style cartoons in the sixties. Marvel did a series of these cartoons, and I think they were made to promote their comic books. They were the greatest thing ever because they were photocopied from the comic book pages. So a lot of our characters you'll see, like Fasto, you'll see him in another shot and he looks kind of different. In animation we'd call that "off model." That's really important to us on the show, because that's how these [Marvel cartoons] were. There would be a Thor that the famous artist Jack Kirby drew, and then a Thor someone else drew, and they would be in the same cartoon together. Sometimes Thor had a helmet on. Sometimes his helmet was completely different. Sometimes his hair was like this, sometimes it was different. They were hilarious.
Adam F: So you're making mistakes on purpose to maintain this kind of look?
Adam D: Yeah. Our most "off model" character is Dr. Wang, I think. Sometimes he looks like he's 5' 8", sometimes he looks about 5' 2" in his wheelchair.
Dr. Wang is such a great character. He's the one on Minoriteam who shows his flaws the most. He's this laundromat owner. He's very cheap and impatient as a person, and you'll see that in episodes where he kind of yells at the team.
Adam F: He definitely wears it on his sleeve more than the other characters.
Adam D: Yeah, he does, and he's voiced by Dana Snyder from Aqua Teen, Master Shake. I told Dana it had to sound so over-the-top and cartoony you understand it's a cartoon. I think if there was a hint of realism to it then it becomes a different thing. Dana's interpretation is "crazy bugs Bunny" almost. Insane. Nobody talks like that. There's stuff he says that's completely ridiculous.
Adam F: The voice actors ad-lib quite a bit on Aqua Teen, is it the same for Minoriteam?
Adam D: The two people who are allowed to do that ... Dana's one. The way he does Dr. Wang is he just starts talking. Most of the time it's the lines, the other stuff where we need stuff to fill in or I feel there needs to be a little more, he does a lot of that. He's just great at it. It's natural from Aqua Teen. He stays the longest in the booth. It's always like an hour session with him.
I improvise with The White Shadow. One, because I can't read my script in the drum all the time. I'm like, "I gotta get these lines right" and my friend is like, "you wrote them, what do you care?" I come from a theater background so I'm like, "whatever this guy wrote I have to read." Then I'm like, "Oh, it's me."
Adam F: Have you had personal experiences with racism that feed into the show?
Adam D: Not really. I would see things when I was a kid and would be like, "that's ridiculous. It's so silly." My parents were the best parents that could ever be and everyone I knew were really great people. But then you'd see things as a kid, and you wouldn't understand them and you'd be like, "that's so stupid." I remember things being explained to me like stereotypes or why this is that. As a kid you're like, "what are you talking about? It's so ridiculous." Then as you grow up you get more exposed to it.
Adam F: That seems to be any kid's reaction to that sort of thing, before they realize how dumb adults really are.
Adam D: It's so silly. Then you see stuff in comic books and things like that, things that are stereotypical, too. My thing is, El Jefe is important because he's visible. He makes people visible. He's Mexican, so he makes Mexican-Americans more visible on TV. I think that's important. I think everyone needs to be seen. For me, that's the cool thing about Adult Swim. I think they feel fringe ideas need to be seen no matter what. That's the kind of thing they hit on. It's like, "Okay, you're ignoring these people that watch TV, we're gonna talk to these people that watch TV. Every night we're going to have cards that talk directly to the audience. We're going to listen to them. We're going to take a lot of their abuse." The great thing about Aqua Teen to me is that it took awhile to hit, and Adult Swim had the patience to just put it on the air and leave it on the air.
Adam F: Is the show done in LA?
Adam D: We're out in LA. We work on this one street in LA. Half the [Adult Swim shows] are done in Atlanta. Robot Chicken is out here, they're down the street from us. Tom Goes to the Mayor is more uptown from us. Moral Orel is right down the street.
Adam F: How did you get The Man Show gig?
That was my big break in show business. I had just gotten an agent and he's like, "I got you a meeting on The Man Show. They liked your packet." You had to write this really extensive writer's packet. I didn't know what to do in a meeting or anything. Jimmy was there, and Adam was there, and executive producer Daniel Kellison. I was wearing this Hawaiian shirt that looked ridiculous and they were like, "Where did you get that shirt?" And I was like, "I made it." Then they asked me what my favorite show was, and I told them Magnum PI. Jimmy said that's why he hired me. Everyone else said The Simpsons or SNL. he's like, "you're really sincere about that Magnum PI thing. I thought even if we're going to fire you later on I need to know what the hell's going on with you." He started my career, pretty much, and he's been my friend ever since. Then I went from there to Crank Yankers, another one of their shows. I was offered a head writer position on another show (Beat the Geeks) during the second season of Crank Yankers and I turned them down because I wanted to work on Crank Yankers again. I wanted to work with Jimmy. There was no question in my mind, it was a way better place to be.
Adam F: How exactly was an episode of Crank Yankers written?
Adam D: We'd write a premise and then decide who to call. We'd write "wild lines" and lines to move the call along. So the person who made the call would read it beforehand like a script and figure out where they were going to go. They had certain things they were going to hit during the call we knew would illicit some sort of reaction. As we got better and better at it we could make crazier and crazier calls.
I remember one call I wrote was this guy calling a taxidermist because he caught a shark, but inside the shark he found a human head. And that really worked because the guy was like, "Oh man, I don't know what I'm supposed to do" and the taxidermist is like, "don't bring it in here!" It's always good to have that conflict where it's like, there's a human head in the shark, but it's a really nice shark. It's a real prize thing. He doesn't want to give it up.
I wrote a lot for Spoonie Luv, too.
Adam F: That was Tracy Morgan's character?
Adam D: Right. Tracy Morgan was crazy on the phone. He would read things straight without even thinking about it, and it would just come out crazy.
Adam F: The thing that came out only occasionaly on SNL is that he's a really goofy guy.
Adam D: He was on [Jimmy Kimmel Live] like three weeks ago and he came out, and it was crazy. He was just a goofball. He's talking about nonsense, and Air Supply is the guest and he's like, "Air Supply! I love Air Supply! I love you, man!" He's such a goofball. So great and so nice.
One Spoonie Luv call I wrote is where he's calling to place an ad for a lady. And he's like, "must have no stretch marks. Must have a bodonkadonk butt." The lady is like, "I can't write that!" and he's like, "yes you can!"
Adam F: How did people react when you called them back to get their permission to use their voice on the show?
Adam D: I could be wrong, but I don't remember having trouble with releases. People would be like, "oh, that's ridiculous." People are really good humored in the end. That's one of the nice things I learned. It's the same thing with Minoriteam, they were like, "people are gonna be pissed." I'm sure they will, but I don't think people get enough credit for being smart. A lot of the responses we'd get [for Crank Yankers] was "if this is the way you guys want to waste your time, that's fine with me. You guys think you're funny? I'll go along with it, but you're wasting your life." Which is a really nice funny thing. It's like, "yeah, we are, you're right. You're completely right, sir. I'm sure you run a company and have a wonderful family and we're sitting in a booth making prank phone calls and thinking it's the funniest thing in the in the world."
Adam F: What attracted you to Gary Busey and the idea of doing I'm with Busey?
Adam D: I had a development deal with Comedy Central and they asked me to pitch them some shows. The last show I pitched was me doing a show with Gary Busey. They were interested in that. Reality was becoming what it was, but no one had ever done a show like this. They were like, "so it's a reality show?" And I was like, "no, not really, think of it as a horrible adventure show."
Adam F: And you and Busey didn't know one another at this point?
Adam D: Oh, no, not at all. Everyone was like "why him?" I saw this movie Silver Bullet, and he played this crazy uncle in it. And I always thought he was funny.
Adam F: Is that the Stephen King movie?
Adam D: Yeah, based on his novel Cycle of the Werewolf. [Busey] was always this "crazy energy guy" and I thought he'd be so funny on a comedy show. Just like Christopher Walken would be funny, just like everyone else. And I wondered if he ever thought to do something like that. So I called and got a meeting and I pitched it to him for like twenty minutes, and he sat in silence. Then he was like [impersonating Busey]: "Uh, yeah, that'd be interesting. I'm in." It kind of went from there.
The way I describe the show is that it's two guys with differing ideas on how things should go, but they're both not good. To me a train dodge seemed completely feasible. To Gary, who was right, he's like, "that's ridiculous, where are we going to get a train?" So I was like, "what if it's a tiny train?" So we went to the [amusement park] where they have those small trains. Then we get there and he decides he's going to tackle this train while wearing a football helmet. The train conductor is like, "those weigh 800 pounds." I'm like, "Oh, so they're dangerous?" I'm like, "you gotta jump out of the way, dude." He's like "no way" and I'm like, "I'm going to push you out of the way if you don't get out of the way." He's like, "Go ahead and push me." And that's what made it onto the episode.
Adam F: Sometimes, in certain scenes, I sensed what seemed like real anger coming from you toward Busey.
Adam D: My thing is that it was like two guys pushing their own agenda. Yelling at each other when they needed to yell at each other and getting pissed when they needed to get pissed. That's what I thought was always really funny about the show.
Adam F: Did you guys have that dynamic right away?
Adam D: Oh, yeah, because I would say no. He's like, "I want you to swing on this rope over this tree over my property. I tied the rope myself." I was like, "no way. You're crazy, I'm not doing that." He's like, "Come on!" and I'm like, "No. You tied the rope? Forget it." Otherwise [the show] would just be me being tortured.
Busey is a smart guy. He'd always want to take the show to another level. In one episode he jumped on top of his railing and started balancing. He's like, "come up here, do this." I don't think the camera captures it, but down is like a forty or fifty foot drop.
There was this other thing we did where he was driving this car. Gary starts tearing around the track doing maneuvers the guy had just shown him moments ago. Full steam, just confident. I'm like, "this isn't a movie set, you're really doing this." He's like, "I know, no problem." I'm like, "I'm going to be far over here, and cameraman, I suggest you come with me."
Adam F: Did you want the show to last more than one season?
Adam D: In my mind, it was like they gave me money to do my experimental film for thirteen episodes. Let's see what happens. I think it was at a weird time in Comedy Central's programming when it didn't do badly, but they didn't know where to put it. They were shocked that when they put it on the air at one or two a.m. and it would get crazy ratings. It would get bigger ratings than when it was on primetime.
Adam F: It seems the sort of people attracted to a show like that would definitely be up during those hours.
Adam D: And that's what led me to Adult Swim. If Adult Swim did live action I think I'm with Busey could totally be on their network. The people who talk about the show run the gamut, from people who would watch Minoriteam to ... I think people who were skaters liked the show. A lot of people who were skaters were like, "dude, that show was crazy."
Adam F: Since this is a TV blog after all, I have to ask why you're so attracted to Magnum PI.
Adam D: We got the brunt of the first cable channels. I remember watching You Can't Do That On Television, and it was great because there were whole networks for kids. Before, you would only watch adult television. One of the shows my parents watched was Magnum PI, and I always thought it was really cool because the guy lived in Hawaii and didn't have much to do, and he wasn't really a detective. It's kind of a nice half-ass lifestyle. And his friends own helicopters. Then when I got older, it's like, this show's brilliant because it's such an anomaly. It's such a crazy detective show for the time because it had his voiceover, which you don't really see anymore. It had all these classic detective show elements, but it was set in Hawaii. And he drove the Ferrari for no good reason it seemed like. And it lasted forever. As a detective show I think it's so fantastic and ridiculous.
I know one time we were trying to do something with The Man Show and I was pleading with Jimmy, "we gotta get Tom Selleck to do it!" And Jimmy's like, "No. I'll try it, but that's ridiculous." I think it was something where he would have voiced a puppet. I'm like, "Tom Selleck would be the perfect choice," and he clearly wasn't the perfect choice.
Adam F: I can imagine you trying to recommend him for everything.
Adam D: Oh yeah, it's like "A girl? Tom Selleck? He plays a wonderful girl."