Inside Adult Swim’s Nightmare Version of Mr. Rogers
We talk with Brian Huskey about the strange world he's created, the darkness in children's programming, and the joy of puppets.
Brian Huskey has been a force in alternative comedy over the past few years. The accomplished character actor has been populating the fringes of projects like Veep, Bob’s Burgers, Childrens Hospital, and even TBS’ new series People of Earth, adding his mix of unique, unrestrained performances to the comedy.
In Adult Swim’s Mr. Neighbor’s House, Huskey is finally given a starting vehicle worthy of his talents. Created by Huskey, Jason Mantzoukas, and Jesse Falcon, and executive produced by Rob Corddry, Mr. Neighbor’s House is like a nightmare version of Mr. Rogers if Jeffrey Dahmer and Norman Bates were hired to do re-writes on the project.
Huskey stars in this brilliant, upsetting, magically repressive send-up of children’s television. It also very well might be the most disturbing thing to come out of Adult Swim this side of Brett Gelman and Jason Woliner’s Dinner Specials.
With Mr. Neighbor’s House’s premiere right around the corner, I got to talk with star and co-creator Brian Huskey about how the project evolved, the disturbing turn it goes down, and if we’ll be seeing more of this bizarre universe.
DEN OF GEEK: What attracted you to the world of children’s storytelling television as an area to deconstruct?
BRIAN HUSKEY: I want to say that it’s something intellectually lofty and impressive, but really it came out of conversations that Jason Mantzoukas, Jesse Falcon, and I had after an improv show together. Just talking about kids’ shows that we grew up with and that a lot of them had this sort of weird menace to them. Almost the same sort of creepy quality that clowns have taken on now. We just talked about that and the fine line between it all. That for a child there’s this sort of magical discovery thing and just as easily that same thing can be dark and confusing. Now I’m sounding super intellectual.
I used to be freaked out by that kids’ show Zoom. Do you remember Zoom?
To me it was this bizarre black void where kids were sent to do these Hunger Games type performances and games. Other kids around me were like, “I love Zoom! I want to be one of those kids!” and I’d be like, “No! They’re all in turtlenecks. It’s a dark vision of the future!” Another interesting thing about kids’ shows though is that you’re sort of re-framing the world or trying to speak to kids in a context or language that appeals to them. To me what’s funny is being irresponsible with that and having no objectivity on the matter.
Off of that, what was the pre-production process on this like? Was it an open pilot? Did you just start with the childrens’ show idea in place? Did you know that it would be centered around Mr. Neighbor’s birthday and his mother? What’d you begin with?
We originally did a 12-minute pilot for a series. So it was done more open-ended. Not like a pilot in that this is the beginning of some sort of narrative, because we do just sort of drop you in the middle of this thing. But we had done it with less of a reveal as to whether it was going on in his mind or not. Originally the idea that it was a kids’ show that had been on for four or five years and this was beginning to make the host sort of lose his mind and this was seeping into the content of the show. But we learned that we can’t have that sort of narrative all within just one episode, so we went with the sort of more analytical angle. Maybe this is a real show, maybe not.
I think this might be the darkest thing I’ve seen on Adult Swim. Was it always your intention to really go to those upsetting places with this, or did you slowly stumble into the direction while working on it?
I think that had been a happy discovery. There had been a lot of talk and debate regarding how much we would reveal regarding the mental institution aspect of it. Like in the opening Mr. Neighbor starts at the hospital, but in another version we have him next door to the hospital. And in various versions we had a Doctor character that would come in and play a lot of different roles, much like Miss Lady. I think the thing is with Adult Swim stuff everything has this license to be crazy so we wanted our framework to work with that and our rules to limit us. What is more specific to our story than just being able to do anything and be crazy? Let’s be crazy and specific to this one individual.
I know this is just a special, but would you be interested in expanding it into a series or maybe a yearly thing?
Oh God, yes! I’d love to!
I think there’s the potential there. This kids’ show is his framework for making sense of his life. So this kids’ show can very easily re-visit and reinterpret events from his life that he needs to work through.
Is Mr. Neighbor a character type that you had been looking to dig into for a while? Have you done anything else with him at a SketchFest or something?
No, I hadn’t done him before. The thing is, I’ve done a lot of characters that are very performative and have a super dark backstory to them. Andy Daly is really brilliant at doing that sort of stuff. That thing where you’re like putting people in a familiar context and then taking a hard left turn.
Well i think you two have a real history with playing unhinged, explosive characters. Some of my favorite stuff of yours is from “The Dusty Bubble” in Gelmania, even. What do you like about those sort of characters?
If I were to be very analytical of myself I’d say, “Wow, that’s some real stuff I’m trying to work out,” because it’s all super cathartic just to explode like that. I think I have the greatest privilege to be paid and have the permission to be insane in a public context. If you really get into it though, I know there are a lot of people that were involved in my life when I was growing up that were these unhinged people that were barely keeping it together. In growing up, it’s these unhinged ones that you need to figure out the mystery of why. When you get older you understand all of this. I think there’s also a lot in my physical packaging that when put together with that behavior is just very funny.
The miniatures used for the travelling sequences are so gorgeous, and the puppets and creatures all look so incredible. Talk a little on establishing the look of those things and building those creatures.
We borrow very heavily from Mr. Rogers, but we really didn’t want it to feel like it was a parody. There are a couple of things though, like how first, that area is very familiar territory, so Jason, Jesse, Rob Corddry who’s EP on this, and I, wanted to skew it all a little more. But beyond that, working with Justin Lieb—she is a brilliant set designer—and she did such an incredible job. She and I had a lot of conversations on things like what Mr. Neighbor’s house should look like. Whether that is actually his house or his ideal house. Just that progression of happiness to decay and if going into town is like going into that potion of his mind. A lot of deep stuff. She’s just really great at being open to those extra layers of interpretation rather than just making it look like a crappy alleyway.
Also Michelle Zamora, who designs puppets, is a puppeteer, and runs a place called Viva La Puppet, her and I discussed stuff that we should stay away from. We talked about how different materials used for puppets evoke different reactions in people. In the late ’80s or early ’90s there was this British puppeteer group that had these very fleshy looking puppets—they almost looked like they were melting or were caricatures—and we wanted to avoid puppets like that or anything that was intentionally scary. But that was so much fun getting to design everything. That part of doing the show was one of the happiest times that I’ve ever had in my life.
The relationship between Mr. Neighbor and the Miss Lady is a deep, fascinating one. Did you want to explore more between the two of them?
I like to hint at stuff. There either is a relationship or it’s just in his head–this could be something that he longs for, or he’s terrified of, or it’s some version of his mom…I’m not going to answer any of this. I’m just throwing the big questions out there for people to come to their own conclusions!
No, I love it. There’s a very creepy sort of Norman Bates and his mother vibe to their dynamic.
My kind of approach to it is that everything in the show is Mr. Neighbor. So she might be “rescuing” him, but does he want that? Is he hopeful?
A little off topic, but I’m also really enjoying you in People of Earth. It’s another show that’s using such crazy ideas to illustrate trauma and grieving. Is it nice to be filling that world and giving such a crazy group of people a voice?
Well you know, in approaching it everyone agreed that “crazy” is relative. And now, more and more people have to have that perspective because if we see the other as crazy then we can never have empathy to understand what they’re going through. So we really fought to have characters where—outside of that experience you don’t know what it’s like, but inside of it everything has a whole different look to it—with any good character you want to be able to like, empathize, or identify with in some way. I think David Jenkins and Greg Daniels did a great job casting because there is something that they were able to see in each actor that comes into the character in some way. Like I acknowledge my—I don’t know, sort of control-y demeanor. The thing I love about Richard is his level of denial and how people are able to operate within the construct of denial, which is an essential Mr. Neighbor thing, too. Basically, what do you do to get by?
Oh big time. See, we brought it together? Last question, and it’s a tough one. Fuck, Marry, Kill: Spaghetti Face, Chef Bread, Photo Joe.
All right…I would say: marry Spaghetti Face because he’s pretty laid back and easy to hang out with. And he would cook for me. He would cook for me, but it’d always be the same thing and I’d eat from out of his face. I would kill Chef Bread because it would be killing a loaf of bread. There’s no guilt or baggage with that. And I would fuck Photo Joe because I bet he’s amazing—here it comes—in the sack!
Mr. Neighbor’s House premieres December 2nd at midnight on Adult Swim.