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Conversations with yourself #10: The Greg The Bunny edition

Written by Eric Ratcliffe on Monday, June 16 2008 and posted in Columns
Thats right hemophiliacs, after a few emails back and forth dan milano was able to free some time for an interview with yours truly.

For those not in the know Dan is the co-creator of the series Greg The bunny which started on the IFC channel, got picked up on fox for 13 episodes and was cancelled (basically because fox cancels all good programming) and returned to its routs on IFC.

Dan is also a writer for the popular adult swim show Robot Chicken and voices many characters on the show.

Read on hemophiliacs!

Eric: Greg has really gained a loyal cult following, how do you feel about this?

Dan: Truly, I couldn't be happier.   I'd love to try and organize them into one group - I try to communicate directly with fans as much as possible and to always be accessible, we're hoping to set up a web site for Greg that can finally be a hub for fans to get fresh content and communicate directly with us and the characters.    I'll be at Comic Con 08 on Saturday the 26th doing a signing of our new DVD at the SHOUT Factory DVD booth.    Honestly though, GTB is something very difficult to do in the mainstream.    It's simply not what most studios want it to be, which is one of the reasons the Fox show was very difficult to pull off.    The show started on public access and will likely end up on the internet --- it's a perfect place for us, and we're thankful to any fans who have followed us over the years.

Eric: The original pitch for the greg the bunny show that landed on fox was more about improv then scripting or as you put it "more like larry david", are you disappointed with the end product of the show?

Dan: This is a tricky area for me because first of all, I had so many amazing experiences making the GTB Fox show.   I was learning to produce, write and perform on a major production, I was working with some amazingly talented people, and the show went on to please a lot of people.   Sometimes I worry that if I complain about the end result, that I'm somehow disappointing fans who love the Fox series, or insulting the hard work of the people who helped us put it together.    That said, yes - I am disappointed, ultimately, with how the show turned out.    For better or worse, it simply wasn't the show we set out to make.    I'm proud that we pulled it off at all, and there are little triumphs here and there, but we set out to make something very different than the final product.    I felt we were watered-down.   Not in terms of adult comedy, so much as in STYLE of comedy.   We don't like sitcom jokes, punch-lines, unnatural dialogue or stories about learning heartfelt lessons.    We wanted to do what eventually became "The Office."    Realistic characters whose comedy came from vulnerable and human personality traits.   It wasn't about improv versus scripted so much as docu-dramedy versus sitcom.

Eric: Do you find that its easier to write by yourself or do you enjoy the group dynamic all pitching in ideas together?

Dan: Good question.   I find it's much easier for me to pour out ideas, dialogue, characters concepts, when I'm rambling to other people.   Whether casually or professionally.   I thrive on give-and-take.   When it comes to scripting I like to be left alone to get things on paper, but as far as really riffing, all my experience does come primarily from improvisation and thinking on my feet.   And I really relish doing that with my friends.

Eric: Your writing has always been in tune to comedy, do you ever consider branching out to drama or science fiction or action?

Dan: My friend Matthew Huffman and I sold a script to Sony Pictures a few years ago.   It's called "Me & My Monster," and it's a grim little fairy tale which is being produced by Laura (Spider-Man) Ziskin and Stan (creature FX guru) Winston.   It's the story of a young boy who meets a tiny creature who becomes his best friend.   As the boy grows into a man, the creature grows into --- a gigantic beast.    Originally it was a dark film that caught the attention of Neil Jordan as a director.   Since then we worked with McG, and now Jon Favreau (Iron-Man) has recently attached himself.    Though he is taking the film in the direction of a comedy more in line with his movie Elf, the script has always been more of a drama to us.   A coming of age story about a boy needing to let go of childhood things.   

I sold an unproduced pilot to WB a few years ago, a comedy about a family living on a space station in the year 3000, called "The Spaces," and recently I'm writing a feature which is best described as a high comedy version of "Flash Gordon."    So I really dig science fiction, and I think it can blend nicely with comedy.   "Ghostbusters," is probably my favorite movie of all time.

As for Drama, I just love character dramas.   In fact, when our GTB stuff is at its best, I honestly feel we are trying to write dramatic beats for the characters that only play as funny because they are puppets.   We're working now on a GTB movie and our goal is to go straight for drama in every scene, with the hopes that by "playing it straight," it will end up being hilarious.    I also feel like GTB is essentially science fiction, since we're operating under the concept that "Fabricated Americans" are real people, living among us in some alternate reality.

Eric: The 13 episodes of the greg the bunny series that aired on Fox seemed to be a bit constrained in what you guys could do, was the network too involved in the show? Do you wish that you guys were given more freedom to execute your ideas?

Dan: It was a tough situation.   Normally your show-runner shields you from too much network meddling.   Unfortunately, we didn't really see eye-to-eye with our show runner, so in the long run I felt we needed more shielding from him than from the network.   He was a nice man and he wanted the best for our show.   He wasn't a villain by any means.   He just didn't see the show the way we did.   It was hard.   We owed him a great debt because he was the man who basically got us on the air in the first place.   But the cost was losing so much creative control to  him.   He thought he could drop our characters into a sitcom world.   I don't think he really understood or trusted the tone we were going for, and at the time we could not point to shows like The Office as an example since they did not yet exist.     The network was actually pretty laid back, ironically.    Standards was an issue of course, but we expected as much.   They said that sexual innuendo with a puppet was bestiality, that because Greg seemed so young any sexual jokes involving him would be seen as pedophilia, they were really reaching.    The biggest problem with both the network AND the show runner, and I believe this is very obvious in the series, is that they made the terrible mistake of having us write more for the humans than the puppets.     They were so obsessed with having the father from American Pie and the son from Austin Powers, that they almost forgot about our characters and had us write lovey-dovey episode arcs about Eugene Levy and Seth Green learning to love one another.    It's the plot of at least three of our shows.   Even our actors were uncomfortable with that kind of attention.    We always wanted the show to be about puppet-human relations.   What if Warren and Sarah Silverman's character had an affair?   What if Junction Jack tried to legally adopt Tardy Turtle?    But they were more interested in a workplace sitcom that just so happened to have puppets in it.

Eric: The return to IFC, was it natural or was it difficult at first?

Dan: It was strange - we'd left them to go do the Fox series, but I don't think anyone could fault us for that.   Rather than pick us up for a series, they had us shoot a 30-minute special for them as something of a "back door pilot."    We took a little of what we'd learned from Fox - some technical tricks, such as having monitors and rolling carts for the puppeteers, plus a larger crew, but went back to a largely improvised script and a very dark story.   In retrospect, I think our jokes might have been a little TOO dark for their own sake, since we were just so happy to be back on cable and kind of abused the privilege.    IFC was not real happy with the final product, and while I think it was a pretty fun show, I must admit that the story did not gel naturally -- it was hard to try and do 22 minutes of narrative and edit it in the cutting room from a series of improvised scenes.    Anyway, rather than pick us up for a half-hour series, they asked us to do short-form movie parodies with our characters.   They paid us, we did it.   It was fun.

Eric: The movies that you've parodied on the IFC show, are they all movies that you love or did you write out a list of ideas to use?

Dan: All the stuff we've ever done for the IFC - going back to the early days back in 1999, has been based on lists given to us by the network.   They have certain movies on their schedule for the year, and obviously they want us to parody something relevant to what they're going to be showing.   So while we indeed had our favorites, such as David Lynch's Eraserhead, Woody Allen's Annie Hall and Lars Von Trier's Dogville, most of the movies came from the IFC vault.    Sometimes, we'd try to force a movie on them that they did not have the rights to.    For example, during their Francis Ford Coppola festival, they showed every one of his movies EXCEPT the Godfather.    So we begged to do a Godfather parody.    You'll notice that often we will go behind-the-scenes of the show, so that you actually see Greg and Warren shooting the parodies, or making reference to the IFC.    I think we had Warren make fun of our doing a Pulp Fiction parody.   By then it had been done so many times and we wanted to acknowledge the fact, so we had a scene of Warren complaining about it.

Eric: How did you become a staff writer on Robot Chicken?

Dan: I met Seth Green when we hired him to play Jimmy on Greg the Bunny's fox series, and he and I were just all gay for each other on day one.  I mean, we just loved all the same geek culture, our friends all got along, it was the start of a beautiful friendship.    As we were shooting GTB, Seth was working with his buddies from Toyfare magazine on "Sweet J," which was the precursor to what would become Robot Chicken.  Seth knew I did a lot of character voices (obviously I've played many GTB characters over the years) so he had me come do a lot of the voice recordings for season one.    At the top of the second season he asked me to join the writing staff.   I'd gotten friendly with a lot of the gang there, and it seemed like a natural fit.   I would have written for them even more, if I'd had the schedule free.    But as it stands, I only wrote for season two, and more recently on an upcoming special episode.    It's great working with friends - it's a safe and friendly environment.

Eric: Do you find being a voice actor on Robot Chicken is different then being the voice of greg and warren?

Dan: Well to me, character acting is the same in the sense that I try to put myself in the character's situation and really be in the moment.  To me, honesty is what makes something hopefully seem funnier.   So the approach to the performance is absolutely the same.   But, it is quite different to record for RC than to perform on GTB.   For one thing, on GTB I have to be physically wearing the puppets as I record the dialogue.    All the GTB stuff is done live-action on camera, so if you see Greg, Warren, Blah, Pal or Wumpus talking, that's my hand in there and my voice doing the acting as the scene is being shot.   It's exhausting, but I love it.    With Robot Chicken, the stuff is obviously animated in post-production, so to record the voices it's just me in a sound booth being directed by Seth and Matt while we read from the script.   So physically, it's a lot easier.    Also, on GTB I'm always reacting to another actor.   Even if it's a scene between two of my own characters, we usually have a stand-in that I'm reacting to.    On RC, someone else usually has already recorded the other dialogue for the scene, so I have to just do my part of the sketch, isolated, for reasons of getting a clean recording.    Seth can be good about trying to give me stuff to react to as part of his direction, but I really love natural dialogue and being able to interact or even over-lap with another actor.

Eric: greg, Warren and count blah all survived the return to IFC, who would you say is the favorite character to write for? And who seems to be
 the most difficult?

Dan: I think we can all agree that Warren is the best to write for, and is probably my favorite to perform, with Blah a close second.   They're just REAL guys to me.   Greg is always a bit of a character, or a persona.   But Warren and Blah - they're REAL GUYS to me.   With real issues and their dialogue just flows freely.   They're also just so fun to write for because they always get you thinking --- How would Blah interview for a bank loan?   Would he wear the cape?    Does Warren teach an acting class?   What would it be like?   We can just go all day.     The hardest character is probably Greg, because we want to make sure he doesn't get to annoying.   He has a shrill voice and a very manic personality.   We want to make sure he comes across as a vulnerable and sweet kid, who is also so desperate to succeed that he will turn into a real jerk at a moment's notice.   As we write our movie we are trying extremely hard to make Greg a complete and realistically fleshed-out (for lack of a better term) character.

Eric: Skeletor being your most infamously known character that you voice on robot chicken, how'd that come about? And do you write the dialogue for the character yourself in the sketches he appears in?

Dan: Skeletor was written into season one and I think one day Seth just casually asked me if I could do the voice, and I did an impression for him that got me hired.    I'd already been slated to do some other voices and union rules state that each actor can do up to 3 voices per episode for the same rate, so they threw Skeletor on the pile.   I love that voice.   I did not write the sketch, but the guys tell me they love Skeletor so much they keep writing more sketches for him.   I think Tom Root and Mike Fasolo write for him the most.   In fact, I just did a recording for him that will appear in season 4, and you can hear him on a commentary track on the season three DVD.     I showed up to a commentary recording one day and suddenly realized that I wasn't even IN the episode they had me commenting on --- so a the last minute, I decided to just comment as Skeletor.   I think it came out pretty good - it's an example of me just totally making crap up in one, long take - so you won't get a better example, for good or worse, of me improvising something without a net.  

Eric: Do you read any comic books and if so do you ever see yourself writing something one day? Following people like Seth who have already wrote a few comics?

Dan: Funny, I was actually part of the creative team who helped to launch THE FRESHMEN.   Hugh Sterbakov is actually the writer, based on a story by him and Seth.   Originally the were going to write it with myself and my buddy Matthew, but we had another commitment.   Hugh thanked us by giving us a nod in the first series - when the characters go to the Huffman-Milano dam.    It's a great comic and it's 100% full of Hugh's amazing writing and Seth's gleeful humor.     Growing up I read comics based on movies --- star wars, aliens, with some batman for good measure.    Watchmen was of course required reading growing up.   I'm a geek of many obsessions but a lot of comics are new to me.   Geoff Johns, who is a good friend in our circle, asked me if I'd ever like to write a comic and I certainly would - though I'm not entirely sure what I'd do.   I did once write and illustrate a comic noir about a dirty cop with a stop sign for a head.    Something tells me it won't really be a big pitch for the folks at DC.   

Eric: The robot chicken writing staff seems to come from all different aspects of pop culture ranging from comic books to television to movies do you find that this helps idea's flow better in the writing room?

Dan: I will say for sure that everyone has their strengths.   Recently we were working on some sketches based on "Star Wars," and it was interesting to see who came up with what.   Hugh Davidson is an actor with a background in the Groundlings.   He has a wicked sense of humor but absolutely no real knowledge (or tolerance) of pop culture --- so he may not know what the hell Tron is, but he'll for damn sure write some crazy stuff for it.    On the other hand you have writers like Breckin Meyer, who grew up steeped in pop culture and can tell you exactly who each of the Voltron team members are.   Some of the guys like lowbrow humor, others like more political satire and as a result you get a real mixed bag.    Like most sketch shows, some stuff works and some doesn't - but there's always something for everyone.

Eric: How would you describe your own writing style?

Dan: I've never had to do that before, but I'd say I'm pretty detail obsessed.   I really like to try and capture awkward moments, human vulnerabilities and natural speech patterns.   I love dialogue and am very verbal.   I over-write and strive to edit myself constructively.   As evidenced by this interview, I rarely say anything with one sentence.  :)

Eric: And finally whats coming up for you Dan? Please plug away.

Dan: Right now I have a really cool and stylistic adventure series that I've co-created with photographer Brian McCarty of, which we're pitching to networks like Cartoon Network and Nickelodeon.

My movie "Me & My Monster," is being directed by Jon Favreau over at Sony Pictures and will hopefully go into production before the next Iron Man movie, so cross your fingers for me on that one.

We're working on a Greg the Bunny feature film - a mockumentary that explores the lives of the main characters and their struggle as puppets in a human world, and actors in an unforgiving industry.

Finally, I'm trying to put together a GTB website that will also launch some original content by myself and some of my friends, that will hopefully be up sometime around Comic Con 2008.

There are currently 3 volumes of Greg the Bunny on dvd, the original fox series and two volumes from IFC.

Dan himself can be found on his myspace page:

Posted originally: 2008-06-16 04:38:47

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About the Author - Eric Ratcliffe

Eric Ratcliffe is the host of The Why I Love Comics podcast, as well as the writer of the long running and award winning webcomic New Comic Day! When not interviewing the biggest names in geek culture, Eric writes the occasional column about something he is enjoying or informing people about webseries, podcasts, gadgets or many other cool things. You can also find Eric on Email / twitter / facebook / youtube / steam / x-box live and many other social media avenues on the internet. 


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