The Present Beware! The Future Beware!
Comic artist Brad Neely on beer, British children, and the 'Baby Cakes' video game
"He'll save children/but not the British children." My conversation with Brad Neely at Crown & Anchor just keeps coming back to his annoyance with iconic British kids from movies, and the more beer we consume, maybe the less we know what we're trying to get at. Between that and distractions from the jukebox, it's worth asking whether the Crown makes the worst – or maybe the best – venue for this interview.
It's an odd recurring topic, British movie kids, but not entirely surprising given that Neely's two best-known works, Wizard People, Dear Reader and animated rap "Cox + Combes' Washington," unearth all manner of subtext from, respectively, the first Harry Potter movie's real chamber of secrets and the myth of our tallest founding father ("6-foot-20" and watching with disinterest as, just a few feet away, an English moppet is devoured by one of those lions that once roamed North America before Wal-Mart wiped them out). Laughing at the fortunes and misfortunes of rug rats from across the pond earned Neely enough attention for a cease-and-desist spell from the Dementors at Warner Bros. and a million-gajillion hits for the fiendishly catchy "Washington," a viral video juggernaut that resulted in a paying gig to make more of the same in two- to three-minute bites for Turner's SuperDeluxe.com. But more of the same spun off into the demented lectures and loves of the Professor Brothers series, where academics float from deliberately pranked history lessons to Oppenheimer piñata parties and on to what they like to call "grappling school." And then there's the hilariously heartbreaking diary of Baby Cakes (of I Am Baby Cakes), a camouflage-pantsed, freestyle-rapping man-child who just wants to show "what the inside of a poem looks like" even as his dark desires make him feel like a "goblin made out of wicked genitals." All of which landed him a stint on South Park's writing team last fall.
Cartoon Network's Adult Swim commissioned a longer piece from the world of the Professor Brothers and Baby Cakes to help promote its ailing corporate sister Super Deluxe, resulting in China, IL, a one-off that ironically aired only after the company had gone belly up. But fans of Baby Cakes and the Professor Brothers need not shed many tears in their beer during Neely's Animation Showcase at the Alamo, since Super Deluxe will still pay for the remainder of this season, after which the site will remain online as an archive.
But after Baby Cakes' last diary entry and the Professor Brothers' final exam, whither Brad Neely? A TV series of China, IL? Following the success and attention of Wizard People, Neely talked about lending a similarly hallucinatory audiobook narration to Jurassic Park or Jaws, but he instead got happily lost in about 50 other projects, one of which turned into "Washington." All of which is to say that not even Neely knows, but there's little doubt that wherever it is will be hilarious.
Brad Neely: People ask me sometimes why I did the British children thing in "Washington" ... like if I have some kind of thing against British children. So then I did start looking into myself and thinking about British kids in movies that Americans get to see. And it's so strange. They get golden tickets, or dudes show up on their doorsteps and tell 'em they're the Messiah.
Austin Chronicle: That's a whole class-oriented can of worms. There's that myth of the secret rich person who's living among the lower classes and eventually gets rescued. The Oliver Twist thing. Outside looking in. It's probably fairly attractive to a lot of Americans.
BN: Yeah, not for me. I guess Baby Cakes is pretty much a child.
AC: A 30-year-old child.
BN: And there's that whole idea of how does he live? He lives with his dad. And I had this thing of the other Grandpa died and left them a lot of money. And he and his dad live off of it. And I'm always like, that just doesn't feel right to me.
AC: With a good character, I think you have to get all those things right. I think I remember telling you awhile back that I was a big Baby Cakes fan, and I found Professor Brothers really funny but a little disappointing. But they've grown on me. Baby Cakes was instant.
BN: It's difficult because you're talking about three-minute pieces, or shorter in many cases. And to build a relationship with a viewer is a really hard thing to do, especially when you're one person, and it takes you three weeks to make one of these things. It's hard to predict and decide on what kind of thing should I do next. I've got, and I always have, at least 80 laid out in front of me. ... So those early decisions about how do you get somebody to like the Professor Brothers – well, it's hard. It's hard to predict. It's not necessarily about liking, but you know, [it's about] get[ting] people to understand and to want to watch. I understand people liking Baby Cakes. He's a likable person, really naive and childlike. But I think starting out with Professor Brothers, I wanted to let the content of what they're talking about do the driving.
AC: Later I was glad to see the characters doing more than delivering these skewed historical and literary lectures, because then you've got both the content of what they're saying and a sense of character. But maybe Baby Cakes was easier in three minutes to deliver all at once.
BN: It takes some time for both – for me and for an audience to understand where we're going. It's not like I'm just following an overall game plan. And I think a big point that I keep making when people are like, "How do you make a big Internet hit?" is: I think there really has to be a distinction between doing pieces like I do for Super Deluxe consistently and the big sensational things that everybody's gonna want to pass around. That's fine; that's great. But I think that's more like news. It's either gonna happen, or it's not gonna happen. And then there's things like what I try to do which is to make – well, not like, "Kablam, kablam! I'm getting crazy hits and shocking the fuck out of everybody!" I'm trying to make something consistent. They're two different track and field events. If maybe you have something you make that a lot more people are interested in, that's luck, again. But I think a lot of people confuse those two things. Because if you're wanting to make something seriously, you have to think about standard, foundational elements to storytelling and character and creating a world. That's hard to nail both of those.
AC: Did that have anything to do with not using the characters of Cox and Combes from "Washington" and doing Professor Brothers for a similar kind of thing?
BN: I got lucky, really, because I'd accidentally sold the rights to Cox and Combes before my deal with Super Deluxe. Otherwise I could have gotten boxed in, I think. Coming up with Professor Brothers and Baby Cakes – they were really intentional creations. I wanted to talk about how people tell stories. And I thought that would survive well on the Net; just listening to someone would be fun. A first-person perspective might be more of an intimate storytelling setting. A little more intense. You know, professors retell stories all the time. Professors have to internalize very overtold stories and make them their own. ... And then when you're writing in a diary [like Baby Cakes does], you can get away with being pretty honest. You can laugh at someone trying to be honest with themselves in a diary form, and little do you know that the writer's getting to sneak in a couple of things that they really believe in. So Baby Cakes! But what I don't believe in is that weird entitled-British-kid thing in movies. Being an American, you know it's about Huckleberry Finn and guys that have gotta earn it themselves.
AC: Huck Finn's literary.
BN: Right. Who are the iconic kids in American cinema?
AC: Agent Cody Banks?
BN: That's terrible!
AC: I know that's terrible! Because he's some rich kid who gets to be a spy, which really means playing mean tricks on adults. Or Richie Rich.
BN: Awful! Your turn to get beer. [Pause.] This is the part where Spencer goes to get more beer, and I leave something to find on the recorder. ... I'm going to find a way to say "supercalifragilisticexpialidocious" and play like it's totally legit and responsible, and he won't notice until he transcribes. Oh, hey, so what did you get?
AC: Fireman's. So back on track, what's in this Alamo show?
BN: It's just a big pile of everything on a bunch of DVDs, and I circled the ones I like in case it runs longer than an hour and a half. I'm a little worried what it's going to look like on the screen, because I never learned how to do this stuff technically right, and Super Deluxe didn't care. ... But like I included "Oh Daniel" and "Space Computer" [hijackings of The Karate Kid and 2001: A Space Odyssey] and some of that stuff that not many people have seen from when I was entertaining my intellectual kleptomania about three years ago. Of course, now it's more of a commonplace. Everything on YouTube is ripped.
AC: I guess there's reason for you to worry because you've been on the radar before with Wizard People.
BN: Well, now there are these guys that took one of the songs I did. Not for Baby Cakes or Professor Brothers, but for the Fourth of July called "American Moments of Maybe," cataloging some screwed-up takes on American history. But there were these guys that took that song and rapped over it about something entirely different, just used my music. It was awesome. Not just because I feel obligated to be open to people taking my stuff. I mean, someone wanting to rap over my stuff – that's pretty much it! [Cocks his head, listens to music.] Oh, shit! It's "Jailbreak"! This is a funny song because it goes, "sometime tonight there's gonna be a jailbreak somewhere in this town." And I always wanna say, "probably at the prison." Thin Lizzy.
AC: Wizard People is all "probably at the prison."
BN: It would be great to guest-direct one of those movies. I mean, this is a fucked-up school with all these things that could just kill a kid. I love to take a pre-existing world and look at it through the eyes of an alien. And talk about it that way. I think that's the strong point of Wizard People and the strong point of Baby Cakes. I had this great idea where Baby Cakes explains every panel of the Sistine Chapel. But Baby Cakes doesn't know about religion or history or biblical history. So how does a person who has no concept of history of God or religion take those panels that are extremely narrative and try to figure out what they're saying in a story? So I could have Baby Cakes asking about the guy in the pink nightie in the middle panel, floating in a big kidney with his homies, pointing at some dude on a rock. What is that? That doesn't make any sense.
AC: But what about marketing to people who don't know the Sistine Chapel? Like when that guy who you made "Washington" for was like, "This would be better if it was about Jessica Simpson or Snoop Dogg."
BN: [laughs] Those are the folks to target for the Baby Cakes video game.
AC: So is there gonna be a Baby Cakes video game?
BN: Absolutely not.
AC: What could be the object of it?
BN: Money for somebody.
AC: No, I mean in the game?
BN: Well, literally I had this exact conversation. With a man that I totally like and respect, and he was just doing his job, trying to get alternative revenue out of pre-existing property. And he felt ashamed to bring it up to me, because he kinda knew I wouldn't be into it. I gave it fair consideration, but just couldn't. I don't know what that could be. Walk to the store. Think about things. If you're gonna just do the video game because you have content, that's just to make money, and you undermine the content, and it's not really from stuff that's supposed to be a game, so that kind of sucks, and then you also take away from future possibilities. Because you've gotta decide things. Like what's the conflict in Baby Cakes' world? What can he be fighting or up against? When you're thinking about a video game, you gotta have that.
AC: Right, and in the end, Baby Cakes discovers that he's fighting his own heart. That's the final-level boss.
BN: That's not bad. Maybe I'll use that as the actual final Baby Cakes episode. Actually, I have it already kind of written out, but [I] don't wanna ruin it. Not to sound too J.K. Rowling. But I did just kind of happen to write one where I looked at it, and I was like, "Hey, that's too end-y." So I decided I'd sit on it and just wait until a time when I'd have to put a cap on this.
AC: So now Super Deluxe is over, and –
BN: You still haven't answered my question. Because, like, in the British stuff, some lady shows up and tells them to say "supercalifragilisticexpialidocious," and then shit'll be cool. Like they're rich, but Dad's gonna lose his job, and they'll be poor, but just say "supercalifragilisticexpialidocious," and it's all cool. But who's the iconic American kid?
AC: I don't know. Tom Cruise in Risky Business?
BN: America's got too many teens. A kid. A kid. And not the Home Alone kid. I hate the Home Alone kid.
AC: Uh, Peter Billingsly in A Christmas Story?
BN: That's good. Ralphie. He's gotta work for himself, but he's also at the mercy of fate.
AC: That's the ultimate kid problem.
BN: And they really understand it, because at the end, they give you both at the same time. He does get the gun, but he also thinks he gets his eye shot out. Man, but you know that's the hottest mom of all the movie moms. Melinda Dillon. I think I get this next beer.
Brad Neely will screen a collection of his favorite shorts on Thursday, June 19; Monday, June 23; and Thursday, June 26, at the Alamo Drafthouse Downtown. Tickets for both shows may be purchased online at www.originalalamo.com. See www.creasedcomics.com for Neely's panel art and www.superdeluxe.com for some of his videos.