Brian Huskey Talks Mr. Neighbor’s Return To Insanity

We chat with the star and co-creator of Adult Swim’s glorious Mister Rogers/David Lynch mash-up about trauma and comedy.

Adult Swim has seen quite a bit of success with recent efforts in their “specials” and “infomercials” departments. The Adult Swim one-offs have allowed talented, unique performers a platform for their voices and some of the more popular installments have wound up spinning off into larger vehicles. The first installment of Mr. Neighbor’s House came out of nowhere at the end of 2016 and surprised many unsuspecting viewers. 

Brian Huskey’s oddball, LSD-dipped take on Mister Roger’s Neighborhood turned out to be a brilliantly dark satire of children’s entertainment, but it was also so much more than that. There was an incredibly layered, deep story at the bottom of all of this that demanded elaboration in further installments. 

Adult Swim has thankfully allowed a second dose of this madness to take place and Mr. Neighbor’s House 2 is even darker and more surprising than its predecessor. This sequel installment still carries the same pained tone as the original, but it explores its subject matter In a much more interesting way that doesn’t just look at children’s programming as its lens, but rather the overproduced nature of television as a whole. 

The results are different, but still quite familiar, but this new approach also gives a strong indication of what future installments of Mr. Neighbor’s House might look like. For a while it felt like nothing would fill the gap left by Brett Gelman and Jason Woliner’s annual Dinner With Friends specials, but it looks like Huskey and company have created a valid contender with Mr. Neighbor’s House. 

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This new special proves that this warped reality is more than deep enough to sustain more visits. With Mr. Neighbor’s House 2 recently hitting Adult Swim, Brian Huskey chats to us about finding the direction for the new special, learning more about who Mr. Neighbor is, and where this dark world may be heading. 

DEN OF GEEK: I really love the approach that you guys took with this second special. You use the frenetic style of television to hint at Jim’s many layers and repressed memories and it’s great. Was this always the direction that you were going to take, or were there any other ideas that you considered?

BRIAN HUSKEY:We had two things kind of going on. During the first one we had just sort of joked about—maybe it was on set—what it would be like if Mr. Neighbor went into another TV show. So we had already had that idea. Then the other thing that we wanted to play with was that in his brain–there are all sorts of repression strategies where you lock things away and put them away in a box, metaphorically, so we wanted to include this idea that inside of his head there are these multiple “escape routes” that he has that channel themselves based on where he is, which in this case is an asylum.  

It’s a little tough because I don’t want to sound too much like M. Night Shyamalan, but the special really does work a lot better when you don’t know the ending and the surprise that’s coming.

This special also digs a lot more into Mr. Neighbor the character as opposed to being so interested in the artifice of his “show.” Do you have this character fleshed out even further in your mind?

Well, there’s Mr. Neighbor and then essentially there’s Jim Neighbor who’s the man that uses these escape routes to get around certain parts of his mind. So we didn’t really have an extensive backstory for him, but our main decision making process here was that we really wanted to choose an event that would merit such a collapse. What kind of trauma would cause someone to really shut down and be in that degree of denial? 

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So that’s sort of the extent that we’ve figured out, but through this process we’ve learned that his mom wasn’t great and that his dad wasn’t very present. He hasn’t had the best upbringing. But moving forward, I can’t exactly say what we have in mind, but this idea of an unreliable narrator or protagonist gives us a lot of mileage. We don’t even really know whowe’re dealing with by the end of everything. Is he the Jim Neighbor in the asylum or has he projected himself into another form now?

You play about six different “versions” of Jim in this special. Was that a fun dimension to throw into this? Were there any other takes on Jim or other television shows that you wanted to put him into, but there just wasn’t time or you couldn’t figure out how?

There were some…We were talking about wanting to do something that wasn’t in a studio, sort of an on-location shoot, but that just came down to budgetary constraints in the end. The choices that we made sort of guided our decision making in terms of what were different studio-based shows that we could do. We talked about doing a 24-style thing, a multi-cam, a scene from a local news broadcast—that was the on-location one—but we had a big wish list.

It feels like a strong idea to center this special all around the concept of honesty and telling the truth. Was that always the grounding idea here or were there other lesson-like themes under consideration?

That was sort of the one. Something that we really learned from the first special is the simplicity of the framework of the kid’s show relies on what’s the lesson that’s going to be talked about. This time we start with Mr. Neighbor and then fly off in other directions, so honesty seemed like a theme that was applicable to all of them. It could have been “happiness” or “friendship,” but “the truth” just fit so nicely and it’s a major theme of repression. Repression is all about denying the truth.

Absolutely and it would have been too much if the theme was just straight up “repression,” but something like “honesty” actually does come up in kids’ show. They do episodes about telling the truth all the time. 

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And in the first one it was just about the teaching of it all—like what goes into a birthday—and this has less time to get that message across because it’s in the kids’ show narrative for so much less time.

On the topic of the first special, it’s such a powerful moment in it when the truth finally bleeds through and it’s revealed what’s actually going on. It’s obviously hard to recapture that moment when the audience now already knows the truth. Was that of any concern when approaching this second special?

Yeah, when we did the first one we didn’t know if we’d get to do a second one so we figured we’d roll the dice and go all out. It really worked out though because we knew we wanted something big to happen at the end and we do the same thing this time, but we also wanted to go in a route that gives us the option to go in yet a different direction if we want. It’s fun for us to keep blowing out the idea of “worlds.” What world are we actually in and which world will this take us to now. Once we figured out the idea of projection it became fun to us that we might not know who we’re actually following here.

Are we even supposed to try to make sense out of this? Is the whole idea to just needlessly complicate the plot and make the audience want more and question everything?

Yeah. I mean, I’m a big fan of question marks and shows that leave me feeling like, “What happened? What? Why?” David Lynch was a big reference point for us when we pitched this. We wanted to make use of his surreal menace. So it’s not necessarily ducking questions, but it’s more fun for us for there to be multiple answers and for fans to choose their own adventure and debate over what’s the reality of it.

Did you see the new Twin Peaks? What’d you think about that because that’s all about not giving out answers.

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didn’t. I’ve been too busy and there’s just too much television out right now. I’m not a big TV watcher but I’ve been really enjoying Legion and it has episodes where I have no idea what’s going on!

It’s the greatest. It’s my favorite thing, but yeah, it’s totally off the wall at this point. BothTwin Peaks and Legion are pretty dark shows andthis also goes to some dark places. However, I was a little shocked at just how far this second special is willing to go. Was this a concern to you at all? Was it ever any darker? Did anything have to get toned down?

No, but I’ll say that the intensity of the special was definitely teased out by Bill Benz, our director, not to mention our DP and our editor. They really cranked it up. After we finishing shooting it I took a look and I was like, “Woah, this is way too much. Is this even funny?” Thankfully there are still jokes in there, but it’s definitely counter-balanced. It’s just nice to be able to do stuff like this for Adult Swim. I don’t know if I could do something like this and explore something so dark anywhere else. This thing is very different from the rest of my work so it’s cool to have this toy box to be able to periodically return to.

Funny story, my daughter’s in elementary school and her teacher had seen the first special and was like, “Hey, I saw your comedy special…” and he couldn’t even look me in the eye. “It was a lot,” he told me. It’s definitely not for the faint of heart.

I think I’ve seen most of your work, and barring some Gelmania performances, I think this is maybe the strongest work that you’ve done. You really act the hell out of the end of this. Did you expect the role to turn into such an emotional, heavy performance?

Well thank you for that! But kind of, yeah! When I was writing it I’d do a pass and then we’d do a pass around on it and I’d always lean into that we should platy it as seriously as we can. We should totally commit. It goes back to the idea that we don’t want to make fun of the circumstances that he’s dealing with, so we just wanted to give it its full force. But every so often I would have to check with Bill and be like, “Is this funny?” And some of our guest actors would do a silly take and we’d be like, “No, no, just play it real.”

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After these two specials, it certainly feels like this could turn into a yearly tradition for Adult Swim. After returning to this universe twice now, do you see this continuing and have a better grasp on where to go with it?

I would love to do another one. If we got to do three and even if we knew that the third one was the last one then we could really go out with a bang. I currently have some ideas for where the next one could go. But the way that it sort of goes is that we begin with an idea and then it keeps on changing and growing into a new direction. That’s the glory of collaboration. I’d be curious to go back and sort of see what my initial pitch was for this second one, because it definitely changed. 

Myself, Jason Mantzoukas, and Jesse Falcon all have a good chemistry where we know how to push things far, but then understand when its time to rein them in order to make something more palatable. That was the other challenge of this one though because we had to approach it with the understanding that not everyone’s seen the first one and that some degree of introduction will be necessary. The first and second specials are not intrinsically tied together, but they do continue the same story.

Finally, I’ve also been a big X-Files fan since it first started and while its recent return was a mixed bag, your episode by Darin Morgan where you’re Reggie Something is definitely my favorite of the lot. Have you gotten a lot of response from people for that episode?

I have! That was probably the highlight of my year, work-wise. I was a little taken aback by the fandom of The X-Files, but I got a lot of love from that one. I was just so happy to do it, Darin was really cool, and I was super proud of what we came up with. While we were filming Darin warned me that it was going to be weird and that he’d have me do takes in multiple different ways and then later on he’d piece it all together as he needed. He’s a pretty brilliant guy.

Mr. Neighbor’s House 2 is now available to stream on Adult Swim.

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