Harvey Birdman, Attorney at Law was a formative program for Adult Swim back during the network’s infancy that a return to this show’s world feels poignant in a way that it wouldn’t be for a lot of other series. The animated series started as a humble, tiny production, but the bulk of the cast has gone on to find incredible success in such a way that this homecoming feels rather star-studded now. Series creators, Erik Richter and Michael Ouweleen were smart to end Harvey Birdman when it was still on the top of its game, but they’ve also found the perfect moment to bring the series back. The superhero-turned-lawyer turns his litigious powers towards a megalomaniacal President and finds himself facing his biggest case to date.
Harvey Birdman, Attorney at General presents the very best of what made the original series so much fun in the first place, but finds a deeply prescient new angle to frame these characters around. In honor of the show’s return, we spoke with Michael Ouweleen and Erik Richter about bringing back this world, Stephen Colbert’s tour de force performance, and if there could be more Birdman in the future!
DEN OF GEEK: What inspired you to return to this world? Was this something that you guys had been thinking about for a while and just looking for the right occasion?
MICHAEL OUWELEEN: We had been doing little projects together, along with Rich [Ferguson-Hull] the director, since Harvey Birdman ended, but I don’t think that we ever thought that we’d do Birdman again. So (Mike) Lazzo from Adult Swim asked us to do something like a special, but the plan was never for it to be a Birdman special. He asked to just come up with something and then we’d do it. We threw a bunch of ideas around and then weirdly my boss, Christina [Miller], who helps run Adult Swim and Cartoon Network, was like, “Harvey Birdman, Attorney General! It’s right there, you idiots.” So I texted Erik about it, but it took him a few times before he realized that I wasn’t joking.
We killed him, you know? So we felt like we’d never return to this.
ERIK RICHTER: We brought that up with the network and it seemed to only be a problem for us. Nobody else cared. “He’s dead? Yeah, just bring him back.” “No, unequivocally, we killed him.” “Yeah yeah, it’s fine. Some time has passed and now he’s fine.”
Well on that very issue, I’m glad that you guys do address Harvey’s “death” from the finale, but I wouldn’t have been surprised if you didn’t. Did you ever consider omitting it, or did you feel like it was an important inclusion?
ER: I think it was only an issue for us, and perhaps for you. I think you’re exactly right though. i think that if we hadn’t brought it up we still could have just rolled right through it. But we were like, come on, let’s have something.
MO: We never re-write when we’re doing animatics. We never rewrite at that stage. We’ll add in some more jokes, but we’ll never like rewrite the plot. This is the one time where we actually did a fair bit of rewriting there so that we could actually have our explanation make sense! Like a professional show, we actually wrote in-edit and actually changed things!
It’s kind of eerie how well all of these characters’ new jobs and roles suit their established personalities. None of this feels like a stretch.
MO: It fell into place pretty quickly, but isn’t that nuts? Ever since we heard the phrase “Harvey Birdman, Attorney General,” we just started to slot in characters and figure it out. I think it’s because Bill Hanna and Joe Barbera made these figures to be such archetypical characters. They’re like Greek Gods and they can adapt to whatever you put them in because they’re such strong types.
ER: Potamus could have had his own two-hour special, if we’re being honest.
Did you find that it was difficult to return to this show at all, or was it pretty natural?
MO: Oh God, it was instant. I mean, we had to go back and look at some old stuff because we had forgotten details, but it was instant. It just happened and it really surprised us. We were walking with pretty much all of the same cast and staff and that’s one of the reasons that Erik and I enjoyed doing the show back then. It feels like it’s a band and the band just has a sound. We can come back, plug in our instruments, and more or less the exact same sound came out!
ER: And that sound is when Stephen Colbert starts panting uncontrollably as he tries to get ready for his first line as Reducto. We heard that and were like, “Okay, we’re back.” I mean we had references for all of these characters because we knew that it had been some time, but nobody needed the help. Everybody remembered. All that Gary [Cole] needs to do is shout out, “I’ll take the case!” and he’s back in the groove.
I had kind of forgotten the relentless speed that this show operates at. There are just so many jokes that are packed into every frame. Do you guys design this with the intention that viewers will pause the episode in some cases, like on Harvey’s bookshelf?
ER: Michael has written many full chapters from those books and at some point we’ll open up those books and read them. We always appreciated the level of detail that we put into the show and we weren’t sure if people were initially catching everything. We have such talented people at every level of production. Everybody just falls into the rhythm of the show, so jokes would get added that we weren’t even aware of. We just let everybody run loose and it just gives people another reason to watch the show again.
MO: We had a lot of discussions about pace through the whole process. I was always nervous about how fast is too fast, but it just speeds out on its own. We can’t help it, but it helps it hold up.
ER: Even from the pilot we had odd timing and a long beat of silent. It’s just the rhythm of this universe.
You guys bring back a lot of expected characters, but then people like Ernie Devlin and Black Vulcan show up, too. Was there anyone else that you wanted to make the cut, but didn’t?
MO: I think anybody that Mauriuce LaMarche voiced, we wanted, but couldn’t. We love him so much and he was so critical to the show. We wanted some Blue Falcon, but other than that I think we did a pretty good job to give a little nod to everyone and our many running jokes without it just feeling like it’s a gimmick.
ER: Michael’s right, we didn’t want it to be gratuitous. Although I do think we had a scene at one point where just everyone is out with a towel around their necks and the “audience” applauds. “Hey, it’s that guy!” We wanted it to make some sense to the actual story, but still selfishly finding ways to see these characters and actors again. But in the future, perhaps more Maurice! We want to make it happen!
One of my favorite episodes—and I think it’s a favorite for a lot of people—is “Sebben & Sebben Employee Orientation” and it feels like this new episode pays reference to that a little. Did you want to try and give nods to classic episodes at all with this episode?
MO: That’s all very intentional. We love that “Orientation” episode too, which was largely designed by our director, Rich, and Jake Beuming, who’s just a brilliant character designer. So Jake did those characters in this film too because we wanted the exact same effect. We used the same voiceover from the previous episode, too. The whole episode was one big high school reunion.
You touched on Colbert’s performance, but it’s amazing to have him back in this role. He really goes for it with his performance. What was his process like here because that “inaugurpeachment sequence” is seriously insane?
MO: So this is sort of emblematic of our relationship with people. Colbert’s busy, but he’s very nicely chiseled out a small window to record for us. So he records his lines for both characters and we saved this big musical number for the end.
ER: By the way, we didn’t bother to ask him if he’s cool with singing. We just assumed that he sings because he’s Stephen and can do anything!
MO :So it’s really a miracle that the sequence worked out because it’s not really a song that’s conducive to singing, but it also came at the end of an insane two-hour recording session. His energy is still so high though because he’s happy to be back in this role, I hope, but also because we had no time!
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On that note, there’s already a lot going on in this episode, but was there ever the temptation to offer a glimpse of a new court course with a Hanna-Barbera character that you hadn’t touched on before?
ER: Towards the end of the series we kind of figured out that it’s much more about these characters than the court cases. We still need to have a compelling case every so often, but it goes up and down. In this episode, it was more like, “What if the Birdman cast was in a political thriller?” So that became the perspective more than, “What if Hanna-Barbera characters were in an episode of Law and Order?” This was about putting them in a James Patterson novel.
So sorry if it’s a bummer to some people that there’s no traditional court case here, but watch this episode and we defy you to say that you could jam one more thing into this!
Is this it for Birdman, or do you think that these one-off specials could become a semi-regular thing?
MO: I think we’d like to do something else! It’d be fun to reinvent it again somehow. Back in the day it was just such a joy, but production-wise so much more of a struggle. Now technology has caught up with the show and it’s so much easier. So we’d like to do something new with this universe again. We’re very open to it.
Since superhero movies have become one of the most lucrative genres and have really exploded since Harvey Birdman, Attorney at Law first premiered, if Harvey were to get a live-action superhero film, which existing superhero would you like to see him paired up with?
MO: Him and Deadpool would be great because Deadpool reminds of Peanut in a lot of ways…
ER: I think in that movie Harvey would spend most of the film waiting outside of office buildings in an idling car.
Him and Daredevil against each other in court has a lot of potential…
MO: Oh jeez, two lawyers! That’s good! Daredevil’s better in every way. Let’s do that!
Daniel Kurland is a published writer, comedian, and critic whose work can be read on Den of Geek, Vulture, Bloody Disgusting, and ScreenRant. Daniel knows that the owls are not what they seem, that Psycho II is better than the original, and he’s always game to discuss Space Dandy. His perma-neurotic thought process can be followed at @DanielKurlansky.