There’s a surprising amount of heart in a series that goes by the name Tarantula. The new animated comedy on TBS depicts the simple, no frills lives of a handful of people from a seedy, low class hotel. Amidst these individuals is Echo Johnson, a tattoo artist who knows how to see the better side of life and operates with an odd wisdom to the world around him.
Tarantula banks on characters and small-scale storytelling and creates something deceptively beautiful in the process. This is not a show that wants to re-invent the wheel or try to get too crazy with the medium. Instead, Tarantula is more than happy to present realistic, flawed characters and shine a light on some aspects of the world that people typically turn away from. In honor of Tarantula’s debut season, which is currently airing on TBS, we got the opportunity to chat with Carson Mell, the show’s creator and the voice of Echo Johnson, about the origin of this show, these unusual characters, and the strange world of Tierra Chula.
DEN OF GEEK: First off, how did this idea and this universe of Tierra Chula come about? Was it something that you’d been thinking about in some sense for a long time?
CARSON MELL: Yeah, I had been thinking about it for a long time. Even the Tarantula web series was made all the way back in 2012 and even before that I was in love with these rundown hotels along Route 66. These hotels were beautiful when they were built, but then just become transient hotels because nobody travels Route 66 anymore. I just loved the idea of trying to figure out the lives of the characters that live in this place. I wanted to figure out a way to do something with down and out people that could still also be fun. We don’t hide the fact that they’re broke, but we focus more on the out there adventures that they have.
On that note, Tarantula is a show that is full of these bottom-of-the-barrel characters that society tries to sweep under the rug. What about these sorts of individuals is interesting to you? Why focus on these aspects of society?
Once I had the setting figured out, I knew the sorts of people that I wanted to populate it. Echo kind of just came into my head as this tattoo artist that works out of the hotel. I knew that wouldn’t be very lucrative for him, so that alone implies his class and the class of his friends. Again, with Lucas the science fiction writer, I knew that a writer and artist character is a lot more likable when they’re not successful. Basically I think it’s harder to make likable successful characters.
Similarly, a lot of the show’s storylines are these very modest, honest types of tales. What’s appealing about telling these more grounded sort of stories?
You know really, they’re just stories that came into my head. A lot of them are really pretty simple, yet others—like “Macaroni Salad” and “Seesaw”—came into mind almost more with the structure of a short story. But really, story itself is challenging so whenever you come up with one that works, you get it down. We had some really good stories ideas that we were excited about but they only filled seven minutes in the end, so we tossed them.
I know that you had written on a bunch of other shows before this point, but had never created your own series before. Now that you finally have that privilege, what are some things that you know that you wanted to do with a show of your own?
I think to an extent this connects nicely back to the last question about telling simple stories. Episodes like “Mushroom Valley” have a super simple frame, but I knew that it would give me enough room to tell these tangential stories like the hotel’s history, Spud Peterson, and things like that. It’s especially nice to get in that groove because my job for the last three years was at Silicon Valley where every single plot is like an ornate piece of origami. I just wanted to do something different than that.
On the topic of structure, why the construct of always having Echo re-telling his stories to someone rather than them just taking place in the present? It’s a great little touch to the show.
Well in a way that comes from the web series. The web series always played into that subjective storytelling and when it came time to develop this the network was just really into that form. So we went ahead with it. It’s not super noticeable, but we don’t do it in the season finale, which allows us to tell a different sort of story, which was a lot of fun for me. If and when we make season two, I think not only will we have more episodes that aren’t narrated, but we’ll also have episodes where other characters get to narrate.
Echo Johnson is this really beautiful, poetic character that’s quite unique in nature. You also voice Echo so obviously there is some degree of connection felt there. Talk a little about Echo and his role within the show.
Well on a surface level he’s an unlicensed tattoo artist in his late forties who’s especially mellow. What I really wanted to do with this character though is show someone who seems Zen and that life is very easy for them, but then at the end of the season reveal that they’ve earned that point of view. That it was even through hardship that they could arrive at this place.
That’s kind of the way that the Echo character came to me. i was deeply depressed at the time, coming off a bad break-up, and driving to Arizona for just a change of scenery. The character just popped into my head and I started talking in that voice. The philosophy that’s sort of the center of that character that helped get me through that dark period is, “If you like seriously then you’re doomed.” That’s what I took away from it and that’s sort of the story that Echo had to learn. There are details about Echo’s dark decade of self-flagellation that I haven’t had time to tell, but we’ll get there. It’s during this period of discovery that his ambitions disappear and he becomes—not necessarily resigned—but accepts that he can just live life by paying his rent and having a few beers every now and then. Outside of that, everything else is gravy.
Shifting gears a little bit here, I was a big fan of your Room 104 episode and that show in general. What was the experience of writing for that like?
That was super unusual because there wasn’t any writers’ room. I know Mark Duplass just through friends and the indie movie scene, but he called me up and pitched me an idea—it was actually an idea that was completely different, but when he told me the show’s concept about being set solely in a hotel room, I got on board. This episode was actually an idea for a short film that I was trying to make for maybe a decade, but it was just forever on the backburner. When I was told that I could write a script that just plays into that concept, I sent Mark over something, we went through a few rounds of notes that were pretty mild, and then they shot it. It was more like writing a feature than a TV gig.
Do you know if you’ll be back to pen another episode for the upcoming second season?
I didn’t write one for the second season, no.
Do you have a favorite episode from the season or something that you’re particularly proud of, whether it’s a character detail, a joke, or something else?
I really like “Mushroom Valley.” That’s one of my favorites. There’s something about its pace and the simple directness of the ending that just really clicks for me. And then the finale I really like too because I think we took some pretty wild swings there. I think we approach a level of drama there that’s pretty unusual for cartoons. I feel like it worked.
Anything with the Shit Men is also just really fun. It was very important for me when making this show to set out to tell comedy about nice people. That was always a challenge for me. When you do that for most of the show though, it can be nice to delve into the bad guys for a little bit. I think if the show was entirely about the Shit Men I’d get tired of writing it very quickly, but I think they’re fun in small bursts.
Lastly, rank the drugs: grizzle, shy boy, and blinker.
In order of dangerousness? I don’t know…The effects of blinker look pretty gnarly. Some major capillaries are getting blown out there. So stay away from blinker, then grizzle, and then shy boy. But if you’re going to do shy boy, I’d recommend handcuffing yourself to a bedframe or something.
Wise words to live by.
Tarantula’s first season is currently airing on Mondays at 10pm on TBS and the entire first season can be binged via the TBS app or TBS.com