The following interview with JG Quintel, the creator of Cartoon Network’s Regular Show, took place outside an East Hollywood Bar earlier this year. The interview was conducted as research for a Publisher’s Weekly article on the tremendous amount of independent comics talent working on Cartoon Network Shows like Regular Show. Animator/Cartoonist Benton Connor was hanging out with us for the duration of the chat and managed to squeeze a couple of choice sound bites and some additional levity into the conversation.
Shannon O’Leary: Calvin Wong a storyboarder and writer on Regular Show and Hellen Jo a storyboard revisionist on the show both claim you found their respective mini-comics at the Sparkplug Comic Books table at San Diego Comic Con in 2009. Sparkplug isn’t exactly a mainstream comics publisher or distributor, what brought you to their table that year?
JG Quintel: At the time I was gearing up for the (Regular) show. I was looking for new people and knew I wanted to look at independent comics because the style matched closer. A lot of mainstream comics, like Spiderman or whatever, don’t really fit what we’re looking for.
SO: How does it not fit? How does indie fit more?
JG: A lot of independent comics (are) written and drawn by the same person. It’s not done in a company kind of aspect where one person writes, one person draws, and one person inks. I wanted to find people who were the total package because we’re not a script based show. We’re a storyboard driven show – where the board artists write the dialogue and draw the drawings. Usually with comics you can tell right away what kind of sense of humor (someone) has. Are they funny? Can they draw? Do they understand perspective? You can tell a lot by a little mini-comic. And then if you see a couple of their comics, you can see (if they) are able to do different styles or if they stick to the same thing. So I was thumbing through all the Sparkplug stuff because that table had a lot of stuff that really made me laugh. And (I found) Calvin Wong’s stuff and thought it was really cool. I can’t remember the name of the comic but it had a little bird playing like guitar on it…
BC: Ramble On.
JG: Ramble On, that’s it. It felt really up the alley of Regular Show. I contacted him and asked him if he wanted to take a (storyboard) test to see if he would even like it. I gave him some links to the show, so he checked it out, took the test, and (it) was funny. He was able to draw the characters relatively well and he was able to get the style right. The tone felt in the ballpark. So (then) he (started as) a revisionist and we got to train him up. You gotta realize that comics don’t have the same rules as animation. Like, (with comics) you can break the 180 line, you can move around and you can show whatever you want and it makes sense. But with TV there’s some concrete rules we have to follow. So we trained him on all those things and that was all just the drawing side of it.
SO: So how come you didn’t just go to Cal Arts where you went (to school) and find, like, storyboard monkeys then?
JG: I do! I go to the open shows at Cal Arts they have (at the) end of the year that show students’ work. The open shows is actually eight hours straight of student animation so that’s a great place to find people. We sit there and score the films and then we’ll contact anybody that we think could fit the style. It’s the same deal – you’re watching a film that’s essentially a mini-comic but animated, so they actually understand animation and you’re seeing their story sense and you can tell like, oh, that would fit the show, we should give them a test and see if they’re into it. So we ask them and sometimes they say no, sometimes they say yes, but that’s how we find our people. (We’re) going to film festivals, the showcases at schools and comic-cons (because that’s) where there’s people who are doing this because they love it. You have to find people who are into this stuff because it’s a ton of work and if they don’t like it, they’re not going to be able to do it.
SO: So what drew you to Hellen Jo’s work?
JG: The next year at Sparkplug I saw one of her comics and bought it. Then I found out later that her and Calvin knew each other. But she was still in school and she didn’t really want to (take a test) at first, but she finally came out and we just (recently) promoted her to Board Artist!
SO: Yeah. That’s great. And she’s teamed up with Sarah Oleyksek?
JG: Yeah, Sarah was the same deal. I was at New York Comic Con (2011) to do a panel, and after that I just walked the floor and went straight to the independent booths. (Sarah) was there. I bought her comic, Ivy, and read it on the plane back. I called her and was like, do you wanna take a test? And she was like, YES! She took it, it was in the ballpark so we were like, do you wanna come out and be a storyboard artist? And now she is!
SO: So how did things go down with Toby Jones?
JG: That was hilarious. We were looking for board artists and I was getting frustrated with looking through tons of tests. We just weren’t finding anybody and so I just tweeted: looking for board artists. And Toby tweeted back and facebooked me a big long email about why he’d like to take a test for the show and added links to his work and so we sent him a test.
SO: I really like his comics.
JG: It was hilarious. His dialogue is so funny. It totally worked out but that was from a random tweet – that generated finding a person.
SO: Hey, if it started a revolution in Iran, why shouldn’t it find you a storyboarder in Burbank?
JG: Yeah, I know! But he had to be paying attention at that exact time or it wouldn’t have worked out!
SO: Another interesting thing that worked out is how Minty Lewis, an award-winning cartoonist (2007 Ignatz Winner for Best New Talent) started as a storyboarder for the show and now voices one of the recurring characters, Eileen the Mole, for the show. How did that come about?
JG: I read blogs and search for drawings. You can find a lot of talent by looking (at) someone you like, then you see links (to) their friends and usually (they) have similar sensibilities. You just follow the trail. (Although) I think Calvin had given me one of Minty’s comics. I looked at more of her stuff online and her writing was really funny – so funny that we (had to) see if she want(ed) to try it. So she came out and did a couple boards, and Minty’s voice, just her natural voice, was so perfect for that character! She (wrote) one of the very early episodes with Eileen in it and she had some really funny jokes in the way she pitched it. (It was) just the way her voice sounded – she (had) to be that character! We even tried an actor, but it just wasn’t playing funny. (So) we were like, OK, let’s see if Minty wants to do it. She said yes and it really worked out. It’s a great character and (Minty’s voice) totally fits that character’s personality. We like to pick actors that just talk. Like we don’t want them putting on crazy cartoon-y voices. We just want people who are just doing their normal voice like you talk to everybody (with). That’s why it’s Regular Show – it’s just regular people talking to each other.
SO: That kind of collaboration with people wearing multiple hats seems to be typical not just of your show but of many of the other current Cartoon Network shows as well. For example you wrote the 2010 Adventure Time episode, Ocean of Fear, what do you get as an artist out of working in that kind of collaborative environment? Was it difficult to jump between the worlds of Regular Show and Adventure Time?
JG: Pen and I worked on (The Marvelous Misadventures of) Flapjack together, along with Benton (points to Benton Connor). So I ask(ed), hey do you need any freelance help? What’s cool about working at a studio is that if you’re in a lull between projects and you’re gonna be without anything to do for a month or two – you know (people). (Pen) was like, yeah sure. So I did the board with Cole Sanchez – we just did one rotation together and it was really fun to get to work with (Pen’s) characters. I really like his stuff. What’s cool about working at a studio (is that) enough of us know each other (so) we can hop from show to show if there’s time and space. (Then) people can keep work(ing) until they get to their next project.
SO: It sounds like you and Pen pretty much came up together at Cal Arts and then honed your skills together, along with Benton, on another Cartoon Network show, The Marvelous Misadventures of Flapjack. And now that you’re the creators of two of Cartoon Network’s flagship shows, you keep getting nominated for the same awards; the 2011 Emmy Award for Outstanding Short Format and Animated Program, and, more recently, the 2011 British Film and Television Awards.
JG: That was fun. We got to go out there.
SO: Oh, did you and Pen go together?
JG: No, Pen didn’t actually go but (I) hung out and went to the ceremony. It was really fun. I got to meet the guys who work on (The Amazing World of) Gumball, (who) were all really cool. Yeah, it’s funny, every year level (at Cal Arts) has a couple of people who wanna do funny stuff and we all kinda gravitate towards one another and get to know each other. Thurop Van Orman was ahead of Pen by one year, and he made Flapjack and (had) helped to get me into Cartoon Network on a show called Camp Lazlo that he was boarding on. When he got Flapjack, he brought me up as Creative Director, (then) Benton got hired, and Pen was working on (it). (So) many people were working on Flapjack! When (it) started coming to an end, they split that show almost down the middle.
SO: They farmed your asses out.
JG: Well, we split up to the other shows – we had the Adventure Time side and the Regular Show side and now they had two shows. It was cool to see. Pen (went) to school right after Thurop and I was right after Pen, we were all next to each other year level wise. We were all going through it, seeing each other’s work, and hearing about what it’s like in the industry, and finally getting pulled in and actually getting some shows. Just getting to work with your friends is crazy fun! That we actually get to do this – to make cartoons that make us laugh and (then) actually see it on TV – it’s really, really fun.
SO: Did you meet any British celebrities?
JG: I did. I got to take a picture with Warwick Davis.
SO: I don’t know who that is.
JG: Didn’t you ever see Willow?!
BC: Oh no!
BC: Leprechaun! He’s in all the Leprechaun movies! He’s the leprechaun!
SO: Oh! (Laughs) Oh jeez. Yeah, I’ve seen one of the Leprechaun movies. Wow, that’s pretty great.
JG: But really getting to hang out with all the Gumball guys was the most fun. They showed us all around London. It was fun.
SO: So Regular Show in it’s original incarnation was your student film, 2 in the AM PM, but that short is anything but kid friendly. How did your original idea go from a drug tripped-out, swear riddled short to a kid friendly show?
JG: Excellent question.
SO: I loved it, by the way. I like seeing those characters swearing and taking drugs.
JG: Thanks. It was fun to make. I was in school finishing up my degree but I also had a job at Cartoon Network working on Flapjack and before that I was working on Camp Lazlo. I was writing for the first time at a company and seeing what it’s like to have to change the stuff that you make based on what your superiors want out of it. That’s part of the process, and totally cool, but I realized that school was my last chance to do whatever I wanted so I (took) advantage of it. I was like, I’ve already got a job, so who cares? I’m gonna make this thing about drugs and two dudes working at a gas station! It (started as) part of this game called 48-hour films where we’d spend a weekend making films. We’d put words in a hat, (pull one word) out at midnight on Friday, (then) rush back, and try to come up with a film in two days (based on that word). (Mine) was candy, so that night I came up with that idea of those two guys in the gas station, (where) one guy slips the other guy drugs in a piece of candy. (That) ended up (being) my film. I was like, this is perfect! I can have it (be) how people talk, which I’ll never get away with again. So I might as well do it now! But then it ended up working out because I found a couple characters that I ended up wanting to re-use and it didn’t need the language to be funny. I was at Cartoon Network, probably a year or two after 2 in the AM PM was finished, and they did a shorts program called the Cartoonstitute (and) were looking for new things that (were) a little bit more adult. They were like, we wanna go TV PG. I wanted to pitch something and they asked me if I had anything. I went back and started thinking, “I really want to use those characters from my short films because they were so fun.” I took them and the character from my other short film, put them together and added a couple other characters and it all just snowballed from there into a show I’d want to make and they picked it up which was really crazy!
SO: I’ve read in other interviews that the British TV shows The Office and The IT Crowd were inspirations for you. Were they specifically inspirations for Regular Show? Because Regular Show does seem to capture that same kind of workplace ennui.
JG: My roommate all four years through Cal Arts was from Hong Kong (and) British. He introduced me to all these British shows that I had never even heard of. But I really liked the tone of it – all of it was really dry and flat, it wasn’t all like, wacky (makes jazz hands). I thought it was really funny and I was like, I wanna make a cartoon like that, where it’s just real and more downplayed for the humor. I was watching shows like League of Gentlemen, Little Britain, The IT Crowd and Mighty Boosh – that was a big one – that was very influential. My sensibilities started to switch after watching them and that’s why the show feels how it feels. I kind of like that British sensibility.
SO: A lot of animation shows use technologies like Cintiq, but Regular Show is far more low fi. Calvin Wong describes “the tools of the trade as being pencils, pens, white out and occasionally light boxes and electric erasers.” Those are pretty standard old school tools for making comics. Why do you choose to use a less high tech approach for Regular Show?
JG: When I got into the business that’s what it was – paper and traditional animation. So that’s what we got trained up on. We used post-its and when the Cintiq started coming in, we were still on shows that were using paper and (when) Regular Show got picked up, I was (just) more comfortable with paper. I like the feel of it, it’s more organic and I like seeing the slight variations in expressions you get from it being drawn by different board artists. You can see who drew what in the final product. I mean, ultimately, it all gets translated in Korea but the Cintiq is like a tool. I like paper and they do the same thing but I just don’t like looking at a computer all day.
SO: So have you ever made mini comics yourself or do you make them now?
JG: I haven’t but I want to.
SO: Benton just made a really cool mini-comic.
JG: That was the one where you go in the car?
SO: It’s pretty f’in’ funny.
JG: And you go in the wrong car.
BC: It’s called Wrong Car.
JG: I love it.
SO: Yeah, I really enjoyed that comic.
JG: I actually, really enjoy printmaking. I wanna do linoleum prints. I did one actually for work as a holiday gift
BC: It’s really awesome.
JG: I made 60 of them to give out to everyone who works on the show. It’s Mordacai and Rigby in Santa suits and it says, “Happy Hollidays.” It’s like three colors, it took all weekend to do. I did them and emailed a picture of one to my wife and I was like check it out – I did it! I finished them all! She was like, awesome, what’s the joke with the spelling? Hollidays is spelled incorrectly!
BC: Art school degree right there.
JG: (Laughs) I gave ‘em out anyways and I just included the story of how I messed ‘em up and everybody thought it was cool.
SO: So who are your favorite cartoonists working today and what are your favorite comics of all time?
JG: Well, to be perfectly honestly, I don’t really read comics. I like independent comics because they’re short and sweet.
SO: Those are comics!
JG: Well, then I like Calvin’s stuff. I like Hellen’s stuff. I like Benton’s stuff – the one that you did. Uh… Minty’s stuff is really funny.
SO: She’s great. Have you seen her husband’s stuff? Damien Jay’s?
JG: Oh yeah, yeah, yeah – I have! His stuff is really cool too! Actually, out of mainstream comics, one of my favorite comics of all time, like I couldn’t put it down, was Watchmen.
SO: OMG! Me too.
JG: That is actually really awesome. And I was disappointed with the movie. I was like, why did you change the ending? Why would you do that!!??
SO: I’m totally disappointed that DC is actually going through with the Before Watchmen prequels.
JG: I didn’t even know about that.
SO: They just showed the covers for them. It gave me a sad face. It’s such a beautiful self-contained story.
JG: Yeah, totally.
BC: More money.
SO: Mo’ money.
JG: Mo’ money, mo’ problems.
SO: Well, OK thank you so much for taking time to answer my questions, lastly I have one weird niggling fan trivia type of question for you: Benton, the perpetually antagonistic gumball machine groundskeeper of the park where Rigby and Mordecai work has an eerily similar name to Benton Connor, who’s been standing right here the whole time and is a writer and storyboarder for Regular Show who also worked with you on Misadventures of Flapjack. How, if at all, are Benton and Benson similar IRL?
JG: OK, here’s the real story: we definitely mix up Benton and Benson’s names all the time. And we call Benton, Benson on accident constantly, and I feel bad about it.
SO (to Benton): Do you feel bad about it?
BC: To be honest, I’ve been called a lot worse.
JG: Everybody does it!
BC: Everyone does it and I’m used to it by now. I knew the trouble I was getting into. I was like, ARGH, you know you’re going to get called this! You know you are!
JG: BUT! It is not based on Benton! But at the same time it is funny that the names are so similar that people constantly mix them up.
BC: How’d you come up with it?
JG: Well, in the Lolliland short, his limo driver’s name was Benson. And I was like, oh, I wanna keep that name. I kept thinking of Mr. Belvedere when I was drawing him. I was like, ahhh.. this guy that’s a gumball machine, his name should be Benson. And then it just was!
BC: And then I showed up.
JG: (Laughs) and I was like, gotta hire that guy.
BC: So we can make fun of him a little more.
JG: Hilarity will ensue!
BC: To be honest, I’ve been called a lot of different names in my life, just because of those three letters – with the Ben and the “ton,” I’ve been called like Brenton, Brandon – all kinds of weird names.
BC: Yeah. Maybe.
BC: That was a nickname, actually.
SO: So no basis, but now confusion?
JG: Yeah, definitely confusion.
SO: Is there anything else you’d like to say?
JG: I don’t even know! It’s so much easier when there’s a question attached.
SO: Well, I don’t really have any more questions so thanks a lot!