Mike Tyson Mysteries seems to fly under the radar on Adult Swim, despite the animated program fitting in with the network’s eclectic programming.
The series depicts the Scooby Doo-esque mystery solving adventures of Mike Tyson, his adopted Asian daughter Yung Hee (Rachel Ramras), a talking Pigeon (Norm MacDonald), and oh yeah, a ghost (Jim Rash). Rather than just being a parody or throwback to old Hanna-Barbera cartoons, Mike Tyson Mysteries is an unpredictable mash-up of the supernatural and haute couture. It’s the only show where you’re going to encounter Cormac McCarthy and the Ogopogo in the same breath.
With Mike Tyson Mysteries’ third season now airing, we got to go mystery hunting with the show’s creator and showrunner, Hugh Davidson, where we discuss the series’ approach to writing, the elasticity of the show’s world, and why Norm MacDonald should always be reading devastating monologues.
DEN OF GEEK: Let’s first talk a little about the evolution of this show now that it’s in its third season. Have you noticed the series changing in any ways since its beginning?
HUGH DAVIDSON: I think we kind of hit our stride during the second season. I don’t know, but to me, I think the cast is perfect in terms of what’s funny about one character does not at all overlap or cannibalize from another character. Which feels kind of rare, at least to me. I think it’s very lucky. It’s not like we were geniuses here or anything. We were lucky that Norm MacDonald was cast and that they believed in Jim Rash—because at the time, I believe that Jim Rash was lower on the list of people that they wanted for Marquess. I knew Jim from Groundlings along with Rachel [Ramras], who plays Mike’s daughter. So I didn’t know Norm MacDonald at all, and I certainly didn’t know Mike Tyson. So I knew it would help me as a writer and producer of the show if I had some allies in there where I could be honest and go like, “Hey, this isn’t working, let’s play around with it until it does…”
But once all of those different voices were together, it was perfect. Jim provided a sort of feminine counter-energy to Norm’s straight-laced nature. This started to make me realize that we could just write more of the bullshitting around the house scenes. Those were always so funny and they could end up carrying the show. So the great thing about that is that when the show was starting and it seemed like this bullshit high-concept show that was just a riff on Hanna-Barbera cartoons while being vulgar—which is not something that I was interested in doing—it eventually became something that was just much more fun. I think it’s like a fantasy for some people to be a part of a comedy where it feels like you could just watch the characters interact all day long. There’s no scenario that you could put Mike Tyson in, no matter how banal—in fact, the more banal the better—that he wouldn’t be entertaining in. Let the vulgar jokes take a backseat and just let him be himself.
Then the whole show benefitted from Adult Swim not mandating that we turn in some sort of formulaic episodes. There was talk at first, during the earliest stages of things. Like how in a James Bond movie you always need the scene where he gets the cool gadgets. By the time the executives are saying that you need to have some sort of scene in something, you probably don’t need to have it. If everyone is saying you’ve got to have this thing, there’s going to be nothing surprising or fun about it anymore. So we quickly got away from it being any sort of Hanna-Barbera parody show. It doesn’t feel like it’s getting old at all. it’s just the most fun.
The characters are great, but one of my favorite things about this show is just how all over the place its material is, whether it’s dealing with Chupacabra, Cormac McCarthy, or even the chess rematch between Garry Kasparov and Deep Blue. How do you finalize your story ideas?
All of those things—for whatever reason—have some personal resonance with one of us. Everything we write does. One time I was reading an article in The Economist about a dam being built in Nicaragua and we put that into an episode. It’s just crazy to not put some stuff in. There are also very few shows where you have the luxury of just taking crazy stuff from real life and putting it into your show and being able to write about it. If you wrote for Modern Family you wouldn’t be able to tell the same sorts of stories that we do. Maybe you could hide it in like a B- or C-story, but you wouldn’t be touching Chupacabras. And that one was just based on the fact that I was trying to find a Cormac McCarthy interview, found this thing about him not being fond of the press, and then warped it into a story.
The way that we write, we’ll usually write a small thing that’s pretty grounded with the mystery. For instance, in the upcoming season we have a thing about a bass fisherman suspecting another bass fisherman of cheating at breaking his record. So we’ll write that and let those characters just be funny characters, but then at the end we’ll get to the ridiculous mystery answer. Or not! Being able to subvert that and genuinely surprise people is the dream. I hate watching stuff that adheres to a formula.
It’s just amazing how elastic the show is. There’s something about the fact that it’s all animated. The fact that Mike Tyson is a real person who makes you feel real things, while not being a professional performer. All of that plus the veneer of it looking child-like with the whole mystery van angle, it lets you go to other places that other shows can’t really go. They can certainly go for the same type of humor, but not in the same sense that the characters are resonating on a weird emotional level.
The show’s done some great work shading in the details of Richard the Pigeon’s life as a human, along with his history with his ex-wife Sandra. Are you interested in returning to that territory at all, like an episode set all in his pre-Pigeon days?
Yes! Maybe it’s due to the fact that because you’ve spent more time with them, you want to know more of those biographical details about them. You don’t want to hit people over the head with it all, but you do start to want to know more. So we play into that a bunch in season three. We go back in time and see Marquess in one episode. We see a lot of Pigeon in one where he may or may not return to human form. In fact, we do find out his entire story. I will say that I don’t know if it’s that funny, but Norm MacDonald has this huge monologue that seems like something from out of a James M. Cain novel. Norm’s got a great way of delivering a sort of hardboiled line. Man, it’s something else though, this three-page monologue. There are a few more references to Yung Lee’s past, although we’re careful to not solve it. Yeah, I like all of that stuff.
It’s funny how some of these shows can sort of develop a niche fanbase quickly by populating their world in a way that is very fun for some people but not going too far. Seinfeld had a very good sense of how to just do enough of that in an artful way. You’d be revealing stuff, but not in like a nerdy, overindulging way that can sometimes happen with sci-fi. I’m not into being manipulative with it all, but I do like when we can flesh out the people some more.
You guys get into the team’s first mystery too, which is pretty cool.
Yeah, we do! It’s funny because we had no plan to write that. That line just came out when we were scripting and we just went with it. That plays with the boundaries of what a mystery is, but it’s definitely a fun look back.
Lastly, what are you most excited about people seeing in this upcoming season?
I’m just very proud of this year. They’re all phenomenal. We have this great director, Jeff Siergey. The acting, the direction—it all just feels very at ease. Nothing is rushed or forced this year. There’s definitely one episode that I think is the best thing that we’ve ever done. It’s shocking. It’s about a woman who works in this shitty office, is unattractive, and she has a secret admirer at work. She’s just worried that someone is making fun of her. So Mike goes to work at this office and it’s too good. His performance is off the charts.
Mike Tyson Mysteries season 3 is now airing on Adult Swim.