What's Earp in the World of Animation These Days?
There's a lot that's actually funny ha-ha, too, about this thing that's intended to be an animated web series; but even the frequent spikes of humor can't match the strangeness I observed while attending the first of four staged readings. (Note: There are two more readings this weekend.)
The major twist of Staggs' story is that the legendary lawman Wyatt Earp is actually a total wuss and the American West through which he moves is a raucously John Kricfalusi sort of Western environment.
But that's not the peculiar part, either.
What's peculiar is how polished the goddamn thing is.
Remember: This is a reading I attended, with actors sitting in a semi-circular array and doing their parts off a script. The show hasn't been animated yet, there are no cartoon visuals they're filling in the lip-flaps of; this is an initial run of the words, the dialogue, the eventual sound effects, in front of an audience.
And it's perfectly wrought.
This is the cast: Kelli Bland, Jason Liebrecht, Jennymarie Jemison, Judd Farris, Asaf Ronen, Robert Lambert, Roger Wallace, Chris Cubas, and Michelle Keffer. Some of the voice talents were more smooth and evocative than others; some of the timing of the delivery was a little bit off. But the performance, directed by Kelli Bland, was a highly enjoyable experience. Staggs, playing the part of his title character, is a hoot and a half. And the whole production is, yeah, pretty fucking good.
But, and here's the thing: The script is perfect.
Now, you might not like hearing this sort of humor – irreverent, obscene, redolent of slapstick and sex/genital jokes – any more than you like reading it in Chaucer. But, regardless, you can witness this staged reading and be blown away by how complete it is. Eight episodes – each with an intro, an establishing action, a flashback, a closing bit – and each arranged in precise and effective narrative rhythm. With the actors working as a chorus for the audio segues; with Bland providing vocal Foley work; with various progressing narrative throughlines and call-backs to earlier bits; with character humor; with the writing crafted so well that, if you close your eyes, you can imagine you're hearing the show on The Very Best of Adult Swim or some ultimate iteration of Spike & Mike's Sick & Twisted Festival of Animation.
And, you know, when it's made into a cartoon, there won't be much need for descriptive narration at all – most of it will vanish. And yet the narrator's spiel here is wonderfully written – and wonderfully voiced by Michelle Keffer.
You see enough things around town; you hear readings or see full productions, even, that are in various stages of completion or audience-worthiness. And then you catch something like this that's so ready for prime time … and that's downright peculiar.
So what you do next is you – okay, I – sit down with the creator and ask "Where did all this come from?"
Staggs: When we were doing Big Ol' Tire Fire back in the day – Mark [Stewart] and Hilah [Johnson] and Jason [Andres] and I – we wrote a bunch of sketches and stuff like that, but we wanted to do something big. And we had this really stupid idea that was essentially like Don Adams from Get Smart ~ as a Western. I love Tombstone, and I even kind of love that Kevin Costner movie Wyatt Earp. But maybe that should be off the record, because people will make fun of me for liking that movie.
[Editor's Note: Sorry, Craig.]
Staggs: And that's how it started. We sat down and wrote a feature script, the four of us. And then there were, ah, divorces … and babies … and we kind of stopped doing it. And I went on and started an animation company. And my animation was all commercial, so I wasn't doing a lot of original stuff, and I was like, 'What can I do that's original?' And this script, it'd been just sitting there for years, and it was the funniest thing I'd ever worked on. So I started re-writing it last year – for animation, episodic animation."
Brenner: So there's been some animation of the story already?
Staggs: None. I designed the look and feel of it, and some character stuff, for this reading – just so we'd know what stuff kind of looked like. But, with animation, you have to plan a lot. So there are some screen tests, a lot of stills, but nothing really worth showing yet."
Brenner: But this project, Earp as an animated web series, it's gonna happen eventually?
Staggs: Oh yeah! It's just a matter of time. I can make it pretty much on my own, without any support – and I can make it really fast with support. So we're gonna do pitch meetings and try to raise money, stuff like that. It'll pretty much be my obsession for the next year, and it's already been that for the year before this.
Brenner: In addition to your day job, right? Which is ... ?
Staggs: I do animation for my day job. I have a small company. Me and Kevin Peake do Aphid Animation, and that's what allows me to make a thing like this: Having a functioning production company. And Steph Swope and I formed a new company just to make Earp and the things that come after it, all the original content, and that's Minnow Mountain. And this is the first thing we've done.
Brenner: Have y'all done any other episodic shows in the past?
Staggs: A couple of years ago we did a webshow called Daily Uke, and our plan was for a year of consecutive daily original ukulele songs. We got to 215 consecutive episodes before completely failing and giving up. And then we did Weatherman, of course, with Kelli Bland. And we're still doing that, but we're on a hiatus to work on Earp. And Weatherman's weekly, but it's not really an episodic narrative. So Earp is really more the mainstream, non-experimental – well, I don't know if other people would call it non-experimental, but that's how I think about it.
Brenner: How'd you get this great cast together?
Staggs: Ah, I just kind of asked them, and they said yes. I'm so surprised that they're all so good, so awesome. I don't feel like I deserve this cast, but I'm happy to have them.
Brenner: And once the whole shebang's complete, will you be seeking distribution for the series, or will you be handling that yourselves?
Staggs: That depends on what comes of the pitch meetings, the kind of funding we can get. We'd love to have somebody that's doing distribution, that would make it much easier for me. Now, I've done a bunch of webshows, put 'em up myself, so that's a possibility. And we have kind of the same schedule whether we find funding or not – which would, without funding, just cost me money and time. And I'm totally willing to starve for this, but I'd like to not starve for it. I'd like it to be my job, not my burden.
And, btw: Don't miss this other Chronicle article featuring Earp actress Jennymarie Jemison, as she and director Rafael Antonio Ruiz talk about their Quiet Girl's Guide to Violence ...