Interview with comedian Brendon Small
Interview date: 11/22/05
ALSO! Check out our review of the season three DVD release.
Of all the animated shows on Cartoon Network’s Adult Swim, the one that’s managed to fly almost completely under the radar – despite being one of the funniest series in recent years – is “Home Movies.” The show’s lead character is eight year old Brendon Small...who is voiced, in what can only be described as an eerie coincidence, by a very funny man who’s also named Brendon Small. “Home Movies” has, season by season, eased its way onto DVD thanks to the fine folks at Shout! Factory. Small took some time to chat with Bullz-Eye about his time at the Berklee College of Music, how the improv nature of “Home Movies” sent many an editor to an early grave, and what’s going on in his life these days.
Brendon Small: Hey, Will, how’s it going?
Bullz-Eye: Pretty good. How are you?
BS: I’m...good, thank you. I’m good.
BE: This is actually our second time talking.
BS: When did we talk the first time?
BE: We talked when Season 1 (of “Home Movies”) came out. And, in fact, I just found out the other day that we now have a mutual acquaintance. Well, she’s more a friend of one of your friends, but she works at PETA, and...
BS: Oh, right, right, right! I know her! She just moved here (to Los Angeles), right?
BE: Yeah, in fact, she’s just on temporary assignment, you might say.
BS: (Laughs) Oh, yeah? Does that mean she’s ready to move back?
BE: I think she’s just ready to make a big life change.
BS: Well, they’re doing some great work at PETA, I’ll tell you that.
BE: Yeah, they just had their big 25th anniversary gala...
BS: (Excitedly) Oh, were you there?
BE: Oh, no. I wish I’d been there. (Writer’s note: it was hosted by Fred Willard, and in attendance were Joaquin Phoenix, Jamie Lee Curtis, Pamela Anderson, Alec Baldwin, Pink, Dennis Rodman, Alyssa Milano, Andy Dick, Dave Foley, and many others.)
BS: I was there. I actually directed some spots for that thing. With Fred Willard. Actually, it was really fun for me. I got to direct Fred Willard and then edit it all myself. It was fun. Very cool.
BE: So...”Home Movies”. Season 3, on DVD.
BS: (Gravely) Season 3. On DVD.
BE: When I talked to you about Season 1, I don’t guess there was even a deal set for Season 3 yet.
BS: No, there wasn’t. Shout! Factory was very happy with the sales, and so, after Season 2...we had a deal for Seasons 1 and 2, and, depending on their sales, I think they decided to acquire licensing for Seasons 3 and 4. So (Season) 4 will be coming out soon. I don’t have a date for that. Maybe they do; I don’t know. But we’re excited. Me and Loren are really excited just to have those things out there. Loren Bouchard. (Bouchard is the co-creator of “Home Movies” and also helped write, direct, and produce the show.)
BE: I remember you said that you were fond of the first seasons, but that you almost wished you could release the later seasons first, because they were so much more realized.
BS: Yeah, I’m fond of all the seasons, just for the record, but I do feel like the show really picks up at Season 3. We did the commentary tracks for it a few weeks ago, and it was just fun. It was the first time I found myself kind of watching and enjoying, rather than seeing the mistakes and things I’d like to go back and fix. But there are a few episodes where I really felt like we knocked it out of the park, where it felt like just a well-oiled machine, y’know.
BE: What are some of your personal faves from that season?
BS: Um, I really liked... (Hesitates) The thing I liked, it wasn’t so much a story or anything, it was just how we did it. It was process. It was just making things happen faster and making stories work better, making things match up and line up and...like, we did a lot more inter-cut sequences, where several stories are coming together at certain points. And it’s always exciting and fun to watch that happen. But one of the episodes that kind of made us realize, “Hey, this is really going to the next level,” was an episode called “Shore Leave,” which was where Melissa joined this thing called the Fairy Princess organization, which was kind of like a Girl Scouts thing, except it’s more corporate driven, and then Brendon goes to have the worst weekend of his life at his friend Fenton’s house. And there’s a huge escape sequence where everyone helps each other escape from these horrible traps, and everyone just has the worst weekend ever, but we make it very big and fun and explosive and silly.
BE: Okay, I’ve got a few questions that I asked you the last time we talked, but, of course, this is for a different publication.
BS: Yeah, I went online and checked it out! So...uh, what’s this called again? I really did go online and check it out, but...
BE: It’s Bullz-Eye.com.
BS: Right! So, it’s, uh...a lot of girls in, uh, swimwear, am I right?
BE: Possibly a few.
BS: Well, anyway, I did check it out, and I totally approve of the very, very attractive swimsuit models...who I think are pretty much the “Home Movies” demographic.
BE: Excellent. You know, we may call you back to do a formal testimonial.
BS: (Uncertainly) Uh, yeah, right.
BE: So I know your background is actually in music.
BS: I went to the Berklee College of Music, yeah. In Boston. B-E-R-K-L-E-E, right? Some people spell it like I went to the smart school in San Francisco.
BE: I read an interview where you were talking about how it’s as much a matter of being able to afford to get into it as much as it is actual merit.
BS: Yeah, uh, I think...not to belittle them, because they teach amazingly there, but it’s not like you’re surrounded by a bunch of Paganinis and Mozarts. I mean, some guys are holding their guitars with the strings facing them, and you’re, like, “No, you’re doing it wrong!” Honestly, it’s amazing. At one point, I think Berklee College of Music had the highest dropout rate of any college – or pretend college – in the United States. Because I think most people think they’re going to be in Green Day or whatever, and you actually have to learn about music you don’t care for, too. I mean, I cared for a great deal of music; it’s just that I didn’t want to submerge myself into the well of fusion jazz.
BE: So few do these days.
BS: (Laughs) You’d be surprised, actually! If you look around the corner, you’re gonna see a bunch of guys playing fusion...and meaning it. Very strongly. Being very strong fusion jazz guys. But it was funny. I was really into rock; that’s what I cared about. I just knew I had to be in college ‘cause that’s what you’re supposed to do. And I didn’t know what I was going to do with a music degree, so I went there and that was right when I started getting technically adept at guitar. Like, getting good and being able to play. All I cared about was playing fast. I was into stuff that everyone at Berklee was going, “What are you DOING? That doesn’t make any SENSE!” Like, I was into Yngwie Malmsteen and metal. Paul Gilbert, Steve Morse, and all these shredders. That’s all I cared about. And I got good...right at the precise moment that it was incredibly uncool to be good at that stuff. So I became a closet shredder and would just practice for hours on end. But, then, I didn’t learn my classical songs and jazz chord solos and all that stuff.
BE: At what point did you decide that music wasn’t the direction you wanted to go?
BS: Well, it wasn’t so much that...well, it’s, like, I knew I wanted to do something with music; I just didn’t know what the fuck I was going to do! It was funny, because Emerson College – the communications school – was right next to Berklee, and I had a lot of friends who went there, and I found myself just gravitating towards this communications school and hanging out, helping people on projects, helping edit, writing music for projects, acting, and doing these fun things. At one point, I was, like, “I think I’m in the wrong school!” I was just more interested in movies and writing and stuff like that. And, you know, they had a great placement program. They would get you an internship or you’d be a production assistant on a TV show immediately after college. And, at Berklee, they had a bulletin board where it was, like, someone’s getting married or there’s a bar mitzvah and you could maybe audition to be a rhythm guitar player for some 13-year-old kid’s party. And that’s it. That was it. There was no future in that. And, also, I just didn’t want to be in post-production, either. Because I was very interested in doing film scoring stuff, and I had actually gotten some internships through some other friends – not through Berklee! – for jingle houses in Manhattan, and I did that for a summer. But, again, I was just, like, “I’m too much of a control freak to be completely in post-production!”
BE: Did you write any jingles that went on to be famous?
BS: I did not. But I worked for the guy who did the Kit-Kat theme! You know, that “gimme a break” thing...?
BS: Yeah, so I got him coffee, basically. (Laughs) And I worked for other guys that did other shit. I mean, it was great. You had these amazing writers who were just pumping out these little, quick fast-paced snippets of music that were just, like, 15 or 30 second spots, a minute occasionally.
BE: Hey, Barry Manilow did it.
BS: Yeah! But it’s really tough competition. And this was before everyone completely turned to computers; people still had reel-to-reel things. This was in 1996, before ProTools was the industry standard. And, see, I thought I’d like to do that, just because I like writing stuff fast, and short little bursts of music. And I think that ended up coming in handy with all the “Home Movies” stuff.
BE: You did all the incidental music for the series, right?
BS: I did all the music...like, all the songs, everything, every piece of music on “Home Movies” was stuff I wrote. If you watch the series, you’ll see there’s a lot of rock operas and stuff like that that come through.
BE: Like Kafka (in Season 1)...?
BS: Like Kafka! Yeah! The silly stuff. Stuff where I had to ignore my Berklee instincts of making everything sound nice and in rhythm and perfect. I’m writing for a kid who plays guitar who’s supposed to be 14 or 15 years old. Let’s make it sloppy and stupid and fun and like a garage band...which is kind of what “Home Movies” was in the first couple of seasons. The big, goofy garage band. That’s how we made stuff work. But, so, anyway, I didn’t abandon music; I just put it off to the side and tried to figure out what I could do for fun on my own terms in music.
BE: So, getting back to “Home Movies,” you first met up Loren Bouchard when he was working on “Dr. Katz, Professional Therapist,” on Comedy Central.
BS: Yeah. “Dr. Katz” was kind of wrapping up – I think everyone was kind of ready to let it go, they’d done 4 or 5 seasons, maybe 6 – and that was kind of winding down. And Loren had the opportunity to produce his own show. And I was in the right place at the right time. The odds of getting a show on the air are about a billion, jillion to one, and, luckily, we got one on the air. And that was on UPN, during what I call The Cartoon Boom of ’99, where, like, “Family Guy” came out and all that stuff...a bunch of shows that went away. But we snuck over to Adult Swim (on Cartoon Network) and kept our heads down and nobody noticed us and we got to do four seasons without anybody kind of noticing anything. And we were, like, “They keep on ordering seasons! I don’t know what we’re doing, but somebody likes it!”
BE: Was it hard to get into the mindset of playing an 8 year old...or was it, in fact, surprisingly easy?
BS: You know, it was easy because I didn’t play him as an 8 year old. I think that, in the first few episodes, it was a little bit cutesier. And I was ashamed of that. So I wanted to not play him as cutesy, because that made me sick to my stomach. But it wasn’t difficult. The hard part with me and Bill Braudis when we were writing for “Home Movies” was trying to figure out what to do with Brendon, because we would have to put the story on his back for the most part, and he was kind of a straight man for McGuirk, but we found that we could make him funny and stuff. So, basically, our M.O. was to make him a wise-ass. Always. It’ll be easy. It’ll be fun. And I’ll just play him as whatever age I am at the time, as a wise-ass. Which is kind of what I am, anyway, so it’s incredibly easy.
BE: The feel of the show...the improv feel of the show...is decidedly unique compared to other animated series. How did that come about?
BS: Those are techniques borrowed from “Dr. Katz.” So Loren, being a writer and producer on “Dr. Katz,” brought his know-how from that, and we all kind of tried to make that work for a different show, with more of an ensemble feel, a lot more action, and just trying to tighten up the screws and make it go a little bit faster than Dr. Katz. So that was the whole thing. Dr. Katz used a script, but, when given the opportunity, they would choose improv over the script...though I recall the scripts being terribly funny. Doing a 22-minute episode, we wanted to just make sure that we had a lot of funny jokes there, just in case we weren’t feeling that funny, or we were hung over and couldn’t think that quickly, so we wanted to make sure we had a solid script to work off of...but we also wanted to be able to preserve the conversationalisms that we liked about Dr. Katz during those early seasons of “Home Movies”. So I think you’ll see that come together a little bit more during Season 3. And the ratios of improv versus script are always different...sometimes 70/30, sometimes 50/50...
BE: How long did it take to edit down an episode of “Home Movies”, then...?
BS: That was a big problem! I’ve done a lot of voices on my friends’ shows on Adult Swim this past year (“Squidbillies,” “The Venture Brothers”), and it’s been a lot of fun, but I think “Home Movies” was the most fearless in that we ruined our editors’ LIVES by recording so much audio. I’ll go in and do voiceover sessions for other shows, and I’ll get, “Okay, okay, that’s enough, we got it, I’m gonna have to edit this myself and I don’t want to have to slog through this stuff and ruin my next three weeks.” But, on “Home Movies”, we’d take our editors, keep them in a dark room with a flickering computer for...about two and a half weeks, I think, where they had to edit four solid hours of audio down to about 22 minutes. But they were great, too. The thing with a show like this is that you have to be able to trust your editors a lot and make sure that they’re funny and that they understand comedy really well. Because a bad editor will fuck up something so bad and squeeze the humor right out of it. But “Home Movies” had people who were making really creative decisions constantly as far as editing. It was not a paint-by-numbers situation. We didn’t hand them a script and say, “Find where we said those lines.” We said, “I apologize, but you’re going to have to work really, really hard.”
BE: The show definitely eased into a diehard cult following over the course of time.
BS: Yeah, it was kind of funny, because, while we were in production, I don’t think anyone... (hesitates) I’ve said this before, but having a cartoon is very much like not having a cartoon; no one gives a shit when you walk down the street. No one cares. No one’s gonna give you a free Grande at Starbucks. No one cares. So it was very hard to see if the show was doing well. I guess the ratings were okay, but it was kind of sticking out like a sore thumb in the Adult Swim line-up. It wasn’t tailor-made for what the Adult Swim ended up becoming, which was kind of more tangential-driven and absurdist comedy – which I am a huge fan of – but “Home Movies” is more character-driven. It has its own pace, which you have to kind of recalibrate your meter to get. I get a lot of people telling me that they like the show a great deal, but, at first, they didn’t like it or didn’t know what to make of it...which is always sort of a crappy compliment. But it’s a compliment nonetheless. You can still walk away going, “Thanks...?”
BE: And I guess it’s still on the air at, what, 3:30 AM on Sunday mornings?
BS: (Laughs) Yeah, it’s currently airing during that time slot when serial killers usually watch television, right after they come home from killing someone. Or, you know, if you’re on an alcoholic binge, you can usually catch an episode. Actually, in fact, if you’re on an all-night, cocaine-fueled killing spree, it’s always good to come home and catch an episode of li’l ol’ “Home Movies”. Or maybe an all-night lesbian topless bimbo bash...or “Home Movies”? Hmmm. Anyway, yeah, I dunno, I guess it is still on. I’m not sure. I certainly don’t stay up that late to watch it.
BE: With the sales on DVD, do you see any chance that it’ll make a comeback, a la “Family Guy”?
BS: Um...I don’t know. There would have to be a new network to reacquire it, because I don’t think Adult Swim is going...just as far as how Adult Swim treats itself...I just don’t see it fitting into their line-up, just in a business way. It would have to be acquired and put on another network for it to work...and I would be very surprised if something like that happened.
BE: I know you’re doing stand-up now...
BS: I am. And I have two animated shows in development.
BE: One I’ve heard a little bit about, called “Deathclock”...?
BS: Yes! That’s about a death metal band. That’s for Adult Swim. It’s in a very early stage, but we’re really excited about it, so hopefully it’ll go to the next stage. And it’s all music-driven. It’s very, very heavy metal. Death metal. A whole lot of metal influences coming together. But it’s in a place where we really like it, as far as the first episode, and we’re just gonna try and see if we can get it to the next step.
BE: Are you going to be re-teaming with anyone from “Home Movies”?
BS: No, actually, I’m teaming with a friend of mine named Tommy Blacha, who is a really great writer and, like myself, a metal fanatic. He wrote for Conan O’Brien, and he also wrote for the WWF, believe it or not. He’s one of the funnier guys I know, and we’ve put a show together that we’re both incredibly excited about...but it’s not necessarily totally similar to “Home Movies,” considering it’s death metal, but I think it’s incredibly funny nonetheless. And, yes, I am still doing stand-up. I still perform regularly in Los Angeles and have a lot fun doing that. I got to do some cool stuff this past spring, where I got to play at South by Southwest. Adult Swim put us up there, and we did some secret songs from the Deathclock project.
BE: Very cool. How did those go down?
BS: (Laughs nervously) It was a lot of fun. I think they went great. But it was death metal for an indie rock crowd, so it was a lot of kids with extremely pretty hair and really tight jeans.
BE: And you said you had another animated show in the works...?
BS: Yeah, that’s a project with Worldwide Pants (David Letterman’s production company). We’ll see what happens with that. But they’re very cool to work with.
BE: Do you have any scripts in development, as they say?
BS: It’s funny, I went out to pitch this project that, as it turned out, someone else had pitched the same identical thing. It’s so grating in show business because you can’t get excited about anything you’re doing, because you’ll just get your dick handed back to you. I went out with this project that I was incredibly excited about. Kind of. Only enough excitement to try and get the people in the room excited, but not enough to actually think it was really going to happen. And I found out that every network has this show in production. Every network. This exact show. So I’m on the right track. I’m just a day late and a dollar short. So, basically, I have a window of, like, three weeks to beat the clock and come up with three more projects to sell for this season. But I’m pretty happy with the Adult Swim. I think that’s a big focus for me right now, because I think that could be a really, really great show and have a really great future.
BE: And I guess that answers the question as to whether you’re on good terms with them, even though they opted not to renew “Home Movies”.
BS: Absolutely! I don’t think there were ever any hard feelings. First off all, I think we knew Adult Swim already had its mind made up as far as what it wanted to do with its network. If “Home Movies” had been a huge hit, we would’ve been able to say, “Hey, what the fuck...?” But our ratings were, like, minimal. I think there were some evenings when the entire world wasn’t watching it. My joke about “Home Movies” is that, if you know about “Home Movies”, you accidentally TiVo’ed it or you know me personally.
BE: Do you ever have anyone say, “You know, I watched the show when it was originally on UPN”?
BS: Yeah, you know, actually, me and Loren went to the (San Diego) Comic-Con and did a signing thing with Shout! Factory, and it was really cool to see how many fans came out and had their DVDs and stuff. And many of them really had known the show all the way from UPN. So it’s kind of surprising but also kind of nice to hear that stuff.
BE: With the...
BS: Oh! Just to jump back to the Deathclock thing for a minute, I will try to involve as many people from “Home Movies” in that project. It’s just that, as far as creating the show, it’s me and Tommy Blacha. But if it goes into the next stage, I would love to get everybody who’s ever done anything on “Home Movies”, because I think they’re all great.
BE: I actually just picked up Season 2 the other day and watched the special feature where you do the retrospective with all the people who’ve guest-starred on the show over the years.
BE: Do you ever find it difficult to create new special features for the new volumes?
BS: (Enthusiastically) Absolutely! I think that, due to being busy and stuff, it’s kind of hard. You’re doing your own thing and, suddenly, “Hey, DVD deadline’s tomorrow! What can we do?” “Nuthin’.” “Okay, then, the special feature is nuthin’!” No, I had hoped this season would come with a CD of music from the show, and I know that Shout! Factory was trying to do that, but, unfortunately, I don’t think time allowed for that to happen. But I’m still praying for a CD of all the music from “Home Movies” to be released with Season 4, because I get a lot of questions about that on my website.
BE: Plus, you figure that people who’ve been buying the show all the way from Season 1 upward have earned the right to get a little bonus.
BS: I agree. I completely agree. And this music is just sitting there. It’s just complicated, trying to get it from Scholastic. It’s amazing how slow lawyers can be when they want to be.
BE: Anything else in particular you wanted to hype about the Season 3 set?
BS: Jon Benjamin has a short on it that’s really funny. I play, in real time, some of the guitar solos from the “Guitarmageddon” episode; those will probably be Easter eggs on the set. I think this is probably my favorite season, and I think there are some great episodes. You know, we won an award in Italy for one of the episodes.
BE: What was the award?
BS: It was the...Punchinello? An Italian award for...best, uh, animated...adult actors...? Something like that. Whatever. (<Laughs>) Yes, it really means a lot when you don’t know who the hell gave it to you or what it’s for! But there’s some big animation award in Italy, and they gave us an award. I have not seen the award, but they awarded us something, which is nice.
BE: You have it on good authority that you won it.
BS: I...I’m very certain that we must have won it. I’m told that we won an award somewhere.
BE: You’re just not sure what it was.
BS: Right. But whatever it was, thank you.