Tony Millionaire must be the hardest working man in the underground comics business. When he’s not working on his weekly syndicate gag strip, Maakies, drawing his far more beautifully sublime full-length book Sock Monkey, dreaming up pilots for Cartoon Network, or helping out with his two young children, the artist somehow manages to find time in his day to leave antagonizing comments on blog interview with Johnny Ryan (See: You are a talentless buffoon, devoid of ideas, at the bottom of the second part of our interview with Mr. Ryan).
As longtime fans of Millionaire’s work, we were naturally eager to speak to him about his various projects, but above all we wanted to escalate this potential war, by opening up the comments to Ryan. Johnny R., the ball is in your court.
You must be working on material constantly.
I’m writing all of the time, because the way I write is by walking around, trying to think of something funny. Like today, I was thinking about how poor I am this month, so I though about going fishing and not being able to catch a fish, so I got the image of Uncle Gabby eating the worm off the hook, just how pathetic and horrifying it is to eat the live bait. My business is such that it really changes—next month I’m going to be rich, but this month, I’m waiting for that money, so I’m getting down really low on funds, which is dangerous since I have two kids I have to take care of.
You’re getting book royalties next month?
Yeah, I’m getting payments for two books and a payment for the pilot for The Drinky Crow Show.
There’s going to be a Drinky Crow show?
Yeah. It’s a pilot that I worked on for Adult Swim. They came to me about two-and-a-half years ago, and asked me if I wanted to do a show. I told them, “look, I’m sick and tired with these pitch meetings and dealing with people in Hollywood.” Ever since I had some cartoons on Saturday Night Live, people have been coming to me, asking if I wanted to do something for years, and nothing ever happened. I just want to concentrate on my comics, because nothing ever happened. They said, “no, no, we’re really going to do it. Let’s just start talking,” so I agreed. A year went by, and nothing happened other than a lot of phone calls. Finally, this producer, Eric Kaplan, who was a producer and writer for Futurama and a lot of other stuff, and has an animation company, based in Romania, said, “let’s do The Drinky Crow Show.” So we’ve been working on it—it took us over a year to make it, because it’s CGI, but it’s not just straight CG—it has my drawings on the models, so they look like three-dimensional models of my comic strip, rather than something like Jimmy Neutron. They look like three-dimensional paper models.
So you’re pleased with the way it’s turned out?
Oh yeah, it looks great. And we got Billy West [Futurama] to do the voice of Drinky Crow. We got Dave Herman to do the voice of Uncle Gabby—he’s a very funny actor who was on MadTV for a while and was in Office Space. My wife did the voices of the girls—Becky Thyre—she was in PCU and Mr. Show. We also got Tom Kenny, the voice of Spongebob, to do all the villains, so he does the voice of the evil alligators.
So, when do you find out whether it’s going to become an actual show?
They’re using a system that the kid’s department of Cartoon Network uses, where they take one evening and show all of the pilots, and then based on that, they determine how many episodes they’ll give you, or if they want it at all. I don’t know when we’re going to find out. I thought that we were going to find out earlier than this.
There’s traditionally been a problem translating characters into television, as far as things like what the voices will sound like. In this case it seems even more difficult, being that these aren’t really longform characters. They don’t really live outside of three-panel strips. Did you find yourself having to create new personas for them?
It was pretty easy to translate—it was difficult to get the voices down right, but the strip has been running for 14 years, so it has a lot of history and character development. The personalities are pretty much nailed down. You sometimes have Drinky Crow as the straightman, while Uncle Gabby is acting the fool, and sometimes it’s Drinky Crow who is going completely nuts, being driven insane by his own self-destructive thoughts, and the Captain Daughter is the one telling everyone to calm down. Sometimes she’s the crazy one because she’s surrounded by idiotic men, and it just drives her nuts. The characters are pretty clearly defined. The thing was getting the voices. If you’re going to do a character from a book that’s one thing. From a comic that’s totally different, because you can see what it looks like, and you already have voices in your head, when you’re reading it. We actually had to hire three different actors to come in and do the voice of Drinky Crow, which is really hard, because these were very famous, successful voice actors, and we had to say, “your voice just doesn’t work for the crow.” Then we got Billy West and he screwed around with a couple of voices, and finally got one that was this bitter, old alcoholic guy and it worked, because he had a small voice for the crow, but it’s older and angry. It worked beautifully. I laugh every time I watch that show, and I know that our chances of getting picked up are really very good.
Did you put as much thought into the ones that appeared on SNL?
Not really, because we really didn’t know what to do. We got into the studio and we had these great voice actors: Andy Richter did the voice of Drinky Crow and Adam MacKay did the voice of Uncle Gabby. They got in the studio and asked me what I wanted them to do, and then I realized that they thought I was the director. I’d never even been in a studio before! So, I was like, “I can’t direct! I don’t know what to say.” So they got all frustrated. They just assumed that because I wrote the comics that I can direct. I can’t. I didn’t direct this new thing, either. They hired a director.
Were you at all happy with the way those shorts turned out?
They were okay. They were my comic strips on TV, but they’re not nearly as good as the new one we just did. They were done on a small budget, so we couldn’t do much with them. For the amount of money that we had to work with and the lack of direction, I thought it turned out pretty good. Did you like it?
I saw it years ago when it was on SNL, before I knew your work, and I was trying to make sense of what had just happened on that cartoon short, in the context of the show. It just seemed completely out of place. Obviously, if this is an eleven minute program that people are specifically tuning in for, it will be a very different experience.
Yeah, this one tested a lot better with Adult Swim than the old one did with Saturday Night Live. They made six episodes for Saturday Night Live, but only aired two of them, because someone finally said, “this is not SNL material. What are you doing?” that’s not the kind of comedy they do, blowing-your-brains-out comedy.
Drinking and blowing your brains out are two pretty pervasive themes in Maakies. That’s the sort of comedy you find funny?
Sure. It depends on how you do it. It depends on the context. You can’t just have someone go ‘doo, doo, doo,’ blow his brains out, and that’s the end of it. There’s got to be something else.
Did you write the script for the pilot?
Eric, the producer, wrote it. I went through it, and said things like, “this isn’t really what the character would do.” I kind of directed his writing, so we could get the characters true to themselves.
Was the plot your idea, or was it all him?
It was him. He had an idea. He read all of the books, and we talked for several weeks before he started writing anything. One day I was taking a walk down by the river with him, and he said, “Oh! He drinks because he’s heartbroken!” I said, “well, Phoebe Bird leaves him.” So now we have a motive for his drinking and his craziness. So the story is that he’s drinking and he thinks he sees a mermaid, and he has to get to her, and Uncle Gabby helps him. It turned out to be very funny.
[Continued in Part Two].