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‘Wonder Showzen’ Creators Vernon Chatman and John Lee Talk ‘The Heart, She Holler’ and Making TV’s Strangest Shows

'Wonder Showzen' Creators Vernon Chatman and John Lee Talk 'The Heart, She Holler' and Making TV's Strangest Shows

Under their production company PFFR, Vernon Chatman and John Lee have made some of the most brilliantly and aggressively weird programming to ever air on television. Their children’s show parody “Wonder Showzen,” which ran on MTV2 for two seasons from 2005 to 2006, used the bright, chipper tone of a “Sesame Street”-style series to achieve dark, caustically funny moments — like an apparently instructional segment on the importance of hand-washing that becomes an ode to OCD (“The shame never seems to scrub off,” notes the child voiceover). Since then, the pair and their collaborators Alyson Levy and Jim Tozzi have found a fitting home for their work at Adult Swim, where they’ve had first the computer-animated saga “Xavier: Renegade Angel,” then “Delocated,” a fake reality series about a man in witness protection starring Jon Glaser.

PFFR’s latest series “The Heart, She Holler” may be the most singular and strange yet, a surrealist David Lynch redneck soap opera nightmare starring Patton Oswalt as Hurlan Heartshe, the secret son of town leader “Boss” Hoss Heartshe (Jonathan Hadary) who emerges from a lifetime spent in a cave to take over, as dictated in his father’s many video wills. Family matriarch “Meemaw” (Judith Anne Roberts) is apparently unable to die, while Hurlan’s devout sister Hambrosia (Heather Lawless) seems to have a touch of the “Carrie” to her. The second season of the series premieres on Tuesday, September 10 at 12:30am, and finds Amy Sedaris taking over the character of Hurlan and Hambrosia’s oversexed sibling Hershe Heartshe from Kristen Schaal in the actress’ first regular TV role since “Strangers with Candy.” Indiewire caught up with Chatman and Lee, who can be as capricious as their projects, over the phone to talk about the series and Adult Swim.

Was there anything that inspired “The Heart, She Holler”? You had children’s shows as the basis for “Wonder Showzen” and reality shows for “Delocated” — is there any source material somewhere at the heart of this one?

Vernon Chatman: This one is not parody. “Wonder Showzen” was fine, but it was rooted in a sort of parody. This show has no element of actual parody in it. There wwere a ton of inspirations for it — mostly “Twin Peaks,” and we were just talking about that show “Passions” that was on a couple years ago, that really surreal soap opera that we each saw about 12 minutes of over the years and had nightmares about.

John Lee: We saw it enough to know, we saw the perfect amount.

That had the little person, right? As the doll that came to life.

JL: Yeah, it had that little doll.

VC: And there was a witch, and a portal. That’s enough… 

JL: …supernaturalness to just garbage. And we thought, “We could make garbage.”

Where did the take on the… I guess it’s… the south? It’s more Appalachia…

VC: It’s the south, but it’s also…

JL: Appalachia is the south of the south, right? It’s the asshole, it’s the asshole of America. But it’s all Gothic America, the country where nature hasn’t totally lost and shit-kicking is still alive.

I like the way in which the world joined together — you’re be in the general store and then the bar was there as part of it.

VC: Have you ever been at a truck stop?

JL: The truck stop I went to, the only difference is that you could eat and then you could walk to the store to get sodas, and the only thing separating those two was a display case of porcelain dolls.

VC: It’s funny how it’s a surreal set in a way, but I’ve been to plenty of those places. It’s totally bizarre, where it’s like right over there is a neon light and a stench of beer and right over here is your beef jerky.

JL: And right back there you can take a shower, but only one per stall. 

VC: But they always squeeze some more in.

JL: Yeah, only one what? Only one looker? You really gotta define your signs. But also, we only put in one shot where you could actually tell they’re connected. So our production designer had to go through all of this trouble to make this giant set that made them connect in this way so that for one second, you could know they’re connected. Tthat’s the kind of stuff we like, people work really hard to build this thing, and then it’s this tiny little, “Oh, that’s weird.”

What is your approach in terms of directing people in something like this? It’s got this tone that’s so heightened, but everyone seems to be on the same page.

JL: I think most of our directing is making sure people understand what the hell we’re making them do. Usually they’re in denial about doing the stuff they’re uncomfortable with, but it tends to be just spelling out the logic — not really explaining much, just why they’re doing it. It’s not like we do abstract direction, we don’t really have to explain motivation, we just say, “We’re doing this because…”

VC: And whether they get it or not, just holding onto the emotions and don’t worry so much about the jokes. People get exhausted when they ask for an explanation.

JL: We have too many answers. That’s the problem with actors, they ask too many questions, and that’s never been our problem because they just wanna get away from our answers. There’s just like, “Can we just roll? Can you two just shut up and can we shoot it?” 

VC: Yeah, they’re screaming “Action!” while we’re going, “But don’t you understand the meta-consequences of the spiritual void within this portal?”

Can you tell me a little bit about bringing Amy Sedaris in to play Hershe? It is kind of in the grand tradition of a soap opera to re-cast a character.

VC: The grand tradition of soap opera in our show will be to be able to have better offers.

JL: And for us to find a really great talent with nothing better to do that day.

VC: Amy Sedaris was like a dream too good to be true for us to get. We were really bummed out that Kristen moved to LA. She’s just such a dominant force, and such an aggressive character on set and in the show. That’s a really big person to miss out on, and she would have to be someone pretty amazing.

JL: We tricked Amy into saying yes.

VC: We enticed her with some novelty teeth and outfits and she’s always attracted to that. She sees them across the hall and she’s like, “Oh, what’s that over there?”

JL: We dangled some false teeth over her door. We knocked on her door, had them dangled on the ground, and she followed us all the way to the set.

Like me, many people were first introduced to your work through “Wonder Showzen,” which always seemed like such an unexpected find on MTV2, like it was something that was snuck on the air. Can you tell me a little bit about moving to Adult Swim and its importance as a platform that has really embraced sensibilities like that of “The Heart, She Holler”?

JL: It’s the place on TV, for us, where you can work with the most freedom. They actually are commercially very successful and Mike Lazzo, who runs the network and is the creative voice of the network, is really smart and has stuck to this strange sensibility he has. He gets a feeling about people or a show and gives them the actual freedom that they want to make the show. He gave us the budget that we wanted and they literally gave us no notes. We gave them everything and talked to Lazzo directly and gave him viewings, and he never told us what to do, just to do what we felt was right. He gave us 100% control.

VC: A network like that, it’s all about risk. You take all of these risks with all of these oddball little shows, and he did the right thing — he gambled and trusted himself instead of tampering and going, “Oh, let’s change this a little bit…” When you wanna do something that’s so free and nutballs, you have to let it be that way. If not, it doesn’t feel true.

JL: I think it’s a bigger risk to not trust things that are tailor-made around people’s sensibilities. They’re honest and it’s what they want to make. It’s a bigger risk to try to then nudge them this way or that way and force them to do certain things — because then you’re not getting purity, you’re not getting someone’s actual intentions, you’re getting compromise. The fact that he is gutsy enough to take a risk and smart enough to just let people do their thing, it’s great. We’re just lucky we had this platform.

VC: Our careers have been where people have to discover us, like “Wonder Showzen,” but it’s really enjoyable because we get to find people who actually like the show.

JL: Luckily the first season of this show actually did well for a show that’s so idiosyncratic. 

VC: Idiot-syncratic.

JL: But you can’t necessarily count on that, so you’ve got this tough job where it would be easier for him to just show “Family Guy” re-runs all day, but he keeps pushing and letting people push.

You’ve worked with him before and he knows and trusts the way you work, but I have trouble even describing “The Heart, She Holler” — how do you go about pitching it and then marketing it to someone?

VC: No, you don’t market it. [laughs]

JL: Yeah, luckily our job isn’t pitching or marketing. We did “Wonder Showzen” and we had a wrap party, and Nick Weidenfeld, the executive who used to work at Adult Swim, came and was like, “You should be working for us. Why is this on MTV2?” We looked around, and no one from MTV was at the party.

VC: We were like, “Wow, he seemed like a nice guy.”

JL: Lazzo loved it so much he ran promos for “Wonder Showzen” on Adult Swim. That was his way of reaching out to us, on air, telling his audience to change the channel to watch our show. So I think there’s just an inherent trust and respect that we have. He likes odd things and I think he likes our odd things… which sounds very creepy.

VC: And the bizarre thing is that we are professional, we’re on time, we’re on budget, we don’t cause any trouble. And even though we’re a pain in your ass right now, we’re not a pain in his ass.

JL: Our odd things aren’t a pain in his ass, is what you’re saying.

VC: We bugger everyone else except for the wallet.

You guys have done music, you’ve done gallery work. What is it about TV as a medium that keeps you coming back?

VC: It pays the bills.

JL: Money, money, money, money. Hmm, let me think… money, money, money, money. [laughs]

VC: We don’t have the skills — or the lack of skills — in the art world, to make it there. We thought it was just fun. Basically, our art show was just these odd jokes that couldn’t make TV shows, so we were like, “That’s a great place to do that.” And in music, it was a really enjoyable exercise to meet every week to record a song.

JL: But the thing about television, in this show and every show we’ve done, is that any idea that we could have, in music or in art or whatever, we can figure out a way to put the spirit of that idea into television. Because we have full control, we can work in whatever shape we want it to take. It’s actually not true for the art world — it’s a very immature world and they’re very shallow and class-based, it’s this whole thing with rich people. You can only suck up to a very finite number of people. A couple of slurps, and you’re done. And music is just a younger game. You have to go on tour and live in a van where you don’t wash. If you’re above 30 you can’t. If you’re over 30 and you’re trying to still be in a rock band, you’re just pathetic.

VC: On TV, we get to express ourselves and wash. [laughs]

JL: And it’s the best. Really, TV and movies are the best of all the worlds, you get all of that in one. 

What do you think of the label “anti-humor”? I’ve seen it applied to Tim & Eric and to “Wonder Showzen,” with things like the “Patience” episode and the “Compelling Television” episode… which I confess I couldn’t finish because it made me too uncomfortable…

VC: You couldn’t finish it? That’s the most beautiful one.

I know, but it was hurting me. 

VC: You have to get past it. Your discomfort is with humanity, not with us. Just calmly sit there and watch someone writhe.

JL: And it’s not the show you have to get past, it’s yourself.

I accept that.

VC: “Anti-comedy” is fine, it’s just a really old-fashioned term. 

JL: Yeah, and I think “anti-comedy” has become defined in different ways. For “Wonder Showzen,” I don’t tend to think it’s anti-comedy except that it is anti-capitalism and anti-consumerism and anti-television, which is a political activism-type of “anti.” But anti-comedy in the stand-up way of dryness and telling jokes — we embrace jokes all the time.

VC: Anti-comedy is usually people who are marking comedy about comedy. And that’s fine, but I think people get sucked into a hole where they’re uptight about comedy or too precious about comedy — even people who are making comedy about comedy, and that’s truly just staring up your ass. So yes, of course we do that, but that’s just one of the ways we disappear up our own asses. We have a million paths and routes up the ol’ wazoo. “Patience” does have an aggressive thing about it.

JL: We apologize for it in the episode and then give you tons of jokes afterward.

VC: We give you more jokes in three or four minutes than most shows give you in their seasons.

What can we look forward to in the new season, especially now that you have more episodes with which to stretch out?

VC: It has deeper, more three-dimensional shades of disgusting. You see inside, outside, from within, from without, all the angles of how they’re revolting, disgusting people who, for some reason, we like. 

JL: And this season has two precedent-setting sexual acts. I think if you watch this season closely enough, mankind will evolve to its next natural state.

VC: Which is revulsion for this show.

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