The Secret Origin of the Harley Quinn Animated Series

The DC Universe Harley Quinn cartoon is weirder, wilder, and dirtier than you ever dreamed. How the hell did this happen?

The Harley Quinn animated series has finally arrived on the DC Universe streaming service. Boasting a rapid-fire jokes-per-minute ratio that would shame nearly any other comedy on TV, and having…no actual shame at all about anything whatsoever, Harley Quinn is unlike anything you’ve ever known to be associated with the DC brand. Sure, we all already knew that Joker is a terrible, abusive boyfriend and that Batman is a stuck-up fascist tool, but did you know that Commissioner Gordon is an overcaffeinated wreck who desperately craves Batman’s attention or that Poison Ivy keeps a foul-mouthed Venus flytrap that sounds suspiciously like J.B. Smoove or that Riddler is actually way more insufferable than you probably would have guessed he is?

Therein, amidst the blood, the occasional entrails, and all of the f-bombs (and we do mean all of them) you may find the Harley Quinn animated series. An unapologetically filthy and hilarious celebration of Gotham City’s seedy underbelly, animated in a style that wouldn’t be out of place on a traditional Batman adventure cartoon. So how the actual fuck did they manage to pull this off? We spoke with executive producers and writers Patrick Schumacker and Justin Halpern about bringing Harley Quinn to life.

Den of Geek: What was the pitch process for this? Was this always conceived as a hard “R” show?

Patrick Schumacker: Yeah. Right off the bat. We got a call from the studio back in 2016, and they were like, “What do you guys think about doing an R-rated animated comedy about Harley Quinn?” And we were like, “Yeah, that’s a no brainer.” We knew we would take it to streaming services, but DC Universe wasn’t even … I think it was a rough idea at that point.

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Because we knew we wanted it to be serialized, we did a show bible, fleshed out the first season, came up with Harley and her crew and who would be the most interesting members of that to play off of each other, looking at this through the prism of a workplace comedy with supervillains. We wrote the pitch and it was ready to go. We’re under contract with Warner Brothers Television, working on multiple projects at once, and one of the other broadcast shows ended up taking precedent over that because of timing. And so we ran a show for NBC, a very short lived show called Powerless. It was also set in the DC Universe as a live action workplace comedy. That ran its course. And then fortunately, Harley was still available for us to do when Powerless ended in 2017.

We wrote the pilot during the early days of our writers room in November 2017. So there were 10 writers in the room and they all had their hands in the pilot, even though Justin and I and Dean Lorey are credited as the writers of the pilot, everybody had their fingerprints on it. It was a real team effort. We broke out 13 episodes. We got picked up for 26 [at DC Universe]. Harley’s a massive character in terms of importance in the DC Universe. So it made all the sense in the world to bring it to DC Universe. So yeah, November of 2017 is when the Writers Room started. We broke out the first 13. We always knew that we wanted to write the 26 episodes as two discrete 13-episode arcs and treat it like a cable show.

Can we talk about that show bible for a minute? You have a wonderful playground with all those characters. When you were breaking out what your Joker is like or what your Penguin is like, what were these meetings like and what were the breakdowns like on these characters?

Justin Halpern: So our feeling was two things. Everything’s seen through Harley’s eyes, right? Part of our pitch was that these guys are all villains. They murder people, they dismember people. They probably say “fuck” and drink too much liquor and party and do things that people who don’t really have any care in the world would do. 

So I think through Harley’s POV, Joker is probably kind of like a petulant man-child, you know? He’s a shitty ex-boyfriend at his core. That’s what he is. And Bane probably is a big lumbering idiot who doesn’t feel that threatening to Harley, because she’s not seeing him in the context that everybody else is seeing him. Our way was like, “All right, how do villains see each other, and let’s work from that.”

Patrick Schumacker: And what sort of mundane aspects of the villain’s life do we want to portray in this comedy? We see the Legion of Doom. It’s a corporate office. They have a break room, they have a Keurig machine that Bane can’t figure out how to get to work. It’s frustrating. There’s gossip amongst them. Post-breakup, Scarecrow and Bane are in the break room, talking about what Harley did to the Joker. And the Joker’s trying to play it off, like, “I don’t fucking care. That’s no big deal.” And he brings his coffee mug up, he’s shaking. It’s clearly getting under his skin.

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It was an evolution, as all television is. When we pitched the show, I don’t think that we necessarily had fully formed versions of these characters, or if we did, they shifted over time, just by virtue of having a lot of time to figure it out and then hiring writers and hiring actors. Alan [Tudyk, the voice of the Joker] can do petulant man-child like nobody else. He did it on Powerless in a wonderful way of playing this distant cousin of Bruce Wayne who runs this R&D division of WayneTech, and wants everyone to be subservient to him and doesn’t get any respect. In many ways, we applied those colors to Joker as well. He’s not the big swinging dick, necessarily, at the Legion of Doom. And when Harley manages to infiltrate the Legion of Doom … infiltrate meaning being hired by them, she becomes actual competition for the Joker. She’s commanding way more respect than he is used to seeing and it really rankles him.

One of the things that strikes me is that if this were just a straight Batman series, this would still look really cool. This would work perfectly well as a Young Justice spinoff or whatever. Was that always the intention? How did those character designs come about? 

Justin Halpern: We wanted to be able to pay homage to Batman: The Animated Series, and have it have some of that Bruce Timm feel, and Jennifer Coyle, who heads up innovation for us, she is a humongous BTAS fan. Shane Glines, who designed our characters, designed Justice League Action.

Patrick Schumacker: Bruce [Timm] was his mentor. He worked under Bruce for a really long time, so he knows how to honor the classic style while bringing something new to it.

Justin Halpern: So we needed them to work for comedy, and a good example of that is…when Shane was designing Bane…he thought about it and he was like, “Bane seems like the kind of guy who works out his upper body a lot but not his legs at the gym.” So he drew this Bane who’s got kind of skinny legs and a huge upper body because that’s what Shane pictured him doing. No leg day. So those subtle differences are how we took what’s so great about Bruce’s work and made it work for us as a comedy. We wanted it to play like, “Hey, what are these people? What would it look like if you saw cut scenes from Batman: The Animated Series and they were just saying “fuck” and “shit” and doing whatever they wanted.

Patrick Schumacker:  We come from a live action broadcast comedy background. Our priority is making sure the jokes land with the performances. This is our first time working in animation, but as we learned quickly, the normal vetting process is … you do a blind test where you get submissions from 15 different studios anywhere in the world, right? Korea, France, Italy, Canada, wherever. They string them out when they all come in. You write a 45-second scene. We just took this bantery thing from the pilot with the Jokergram. The Joker gun explodes, Ivy and Harley banter. We watched 15 different samples, all blind, just like “Studio A,” “Studio B.” And it was very clear that we were looking for studios that understood comedy, first and foremost. So that was a priority for us. But for us, mostly when we watch that first footage coming back, we’re just scribbling down notes for every single shot to see “Oh, we could sell that joke a little bit better here” or “push this expression to really underscore that punchline.” That kind of thing. That’s our priority, for better or worse.

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So, you mentioned cut scenes before. Were there any jokes that WB was like, “Nah, you’re not doing this.” Was there stuff that you guys actually had to cut from this? 

Justin Halpern: There’s a joke in the pilot that we had a discussion about. There’s a part where Harley says to Batman, she basically says that he got his name because he fucks bats. I think when DC first saw that they were like, “Whoa, you can’t say that to Batman.” Then we were like, “Yeah, but that’s what Harley would say to Batman.” Harley would constantly be trying to poke Batman and get him to react. And when we explained it to them like that, they were like, “Yeah, okay. That makes sense. Let’s try it.” I think that when they saw it finally, within the animatic, they knew it made sense and they were OK with it. But… is there anything they said we couldn’t do?

Patrick Schumacker: There was one thing. So, we have this character The Queen of Fables, voiced by Wanda Sykes. She’s from the comics, kind of an obscure character. She has Gumby like powers, that she can pull things from story books. Then we had a gingerbread man talking about sucking dick. That was over the line. 

Justin Halpern: It was somebody she pulled out from a storybook. Then once she was done needing him, he had to live the rest of his life in Gotham City. But as a gingerbread man. Which it’s hard to get work as and he ends up getting a job at H&R Block. But he was thankful he got that job, because it was “better than sucking dick underneath the bridge,” is what he says. DC was like, “Yeah, we don’t want him to say he sucks dick.” No gingerbread sex. 

Harley Quinn, guaranteed 100% gingerbread sex free, airs new episodes every Friday on DC Universe. Check out a review of the first episode here.

Mike Cecchini is the Editor in Chief of Den of Geek. You can read more of his work here. Follow him on Twitter @wayoutstuff.

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