The Shivering Truth: Unraveling Adult Swim’s Uncanny, Twisted Series with Vernon Chatman

We chat with ‘The Shivering Truth’s’ Vernon Chatman about his surreal, brilliant new anthology series on Adult Swim.

Few shows grab your attention as hard as The Shivering Truth. It’s a twisted anthology series from the likes of Vernon Chatman, Cat Solen, and PFFR (Xavier: Renegade AngelThe Heart, She Holler) that is one of the most unusual, unnerving programs to ever air on Adult Swim. The show gracefully navigates between ridiculous stories that serve a common theme, but it’s incredible to see the many tangents and directions that this quarter-hour program will visit. It’s a startling hybrid of comedy and horror that impressively taps into existential dread while still making you laugh. It’s a series where anything is possible and we fortunately got the opportunity to talk with the show’s writer, director, and co-creator, Vernon Chatman, about how a show like this comes together.

DEN OF GEEK: How do you write a show like this? Do you find a common theme first and write the stories from one episode all together? Or do you approach them as solo things and then connect them after?

VERNON CHATMAN: It’s been a combination of all of that. I most just have ideas and then I chase those ideas and play them out and either they attach to some other parallel idea organically. So I’ll look for ways for these stories to organically latch together in some way or find a connection. It’s very instinctive. It’s developing a certain flow and rhythm and then when certain stories get slammed up against each other they begin to speak to each other and then bend and morph around and into each other. Or you have two stories that you really like and feel like they could connect together, so you create a new story to bridge those two, but then you like that story better than the other ones and throw the first two out. I go through every combination and feel out what seems right. It’s the difficult task of staying honestly irrational.

Each episode continues a few separate stories that serve a common theme. Was this always your approach, or was there a point when you played with just having a singular story?

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I’m definitely open to everything, it’s just that I’m a little reckless and like doing many different things. Part of the show grew out of having all of these disparate ideas. When I watch something, the thing that always tickles me the most is just when cool ideas pop up and I’m always chasing those. The reason that I love sketch shows and Monty Pythonis just that they throw so many ideas at you, and this is just another way to do that. That said, what I like about this show is that there isone episode that’s basically one story and I’d love to do more that are like that. I’d like to do an episode where every story is like eight seconds long. You’re kind of required to take advantage of that freedom if you’re not setting a consistent format with how many stories are in each episode. You’ve got to do everything.

The series also looks beautiful. Was this always the style that you had in mind for the show? 

Yeah, for sure. I sort of started with the novelty of what if we cared a lot about beauty and tone. Things are just more interesting when you operate from that place of heightened emotion and things are bittersweet or melancholy. To me, my drive is always, what’s funny? But things become funnier if they have a deeper emotional complexity to them because that’s just a more fucked up laugh. It’s a stranger laugh that taps into such a weird place. So we were always driving for this degree of beauty with the show’s look, but that also just costs a lot of money to do things right.

How long does it take to put something like this together because it just looks so ornate and detailed?

The whole season of six probably took ten months. We did a pilot, which was very instructive. I had done tiny stop-motion things before, but never on this level. And Cat Solen was instrumental in all of this stuff and she has all of the practical skills in putting something like this together. So I wrote the pilot and then learned what worked for the format and then was able to later write for that format and what we could afford in that format. It’s stop-motion so we always try to keep it at movie-level quality, but we also only get one take. 

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I love the sort of fringes and scrappy edges that stop-motion provides and a lot of stop-motion now is so smooth that you can’t even tell where the computer ends and stop-motion begins! I like that little level of awareness because when you’re aware that these objects are in a real physical space and are subconsciously aware that these things are being moved frame by frame, you stay interested. It engages a part of your brain is very exciting and it makes something like blood coming out of someone’s eyeball a lot more visceral. CG can be great for kids’ stuff, but it doesn’t penetrate your brain and really get to you like this.

Do you see this show as more nihilistic or optimistic because I think for the most part things tend to go sour in these stories, but I’m curious of your take on the show’s point of view?

It’s really just comedy. It’s certainly not like, “Hey, this is my way to tell the world to fuck off and that life is a grinding place.” No, it’s just what’s the most exciting idea and what’s the most exciting place for it to go. One of the things about this show was to notmake it all incredibly dark or negative. The point is that it’s varied with where the comedy takes it.

Are you a big fan of anthology series in general? Is there any that really stand out to you?

I do love that format. One of the unfortunate things about working in television is that even in this “golden age of television” with all of these great shows, I can’t help but be a little cynical because all that I see is everyone just trying to keep their premise alive, and their characters, and stories, and sets alive. My favorite shows are ones where I truly don’t know what’s going to happen. A perfect show to me is this last season of Twin Peakswhere it still keeps a world alive, but literally anything can happen at any time, to anyone, in any dimension. But I still love anthologies, like Black Mirror, and Twilight Zone, and Monty Pythonis literally my Holy Grail.

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You obviously have such a lock on this material and the show’s tone, but with the anthology format making it much easier to have guest writers and directors come in, would you be curious to see what other people could perhaps do with this framework?

For right now, I like what we’ve got going on because it’s tailor made for how my brain works. Any idea that I have can come to life somehow in the show. Due to the nature of the show and the price, I don’t think that we could take on too many episodes at a time, but if we were doing like a season of twenty episodes then maybe. I love the challenge of trying to figure out something that we haven’t done before and compete with what we’ve done in the past. I don’t imagine that challenge would ever get old. 

Xavier: Renegade Angelhas found a real popularity online in recent years. With a lot of older Adult Swim shows like Harvey Birdmancoming back for one-off specials, would you be interested in doing some kind of similar return with Xavier?

Yeah, it’d be really fun. I don’t think that we’ve really thought about it. A long time ago after the show ended we considered doing a movie of it, but with so much of the stuff that we do, you can only take so much at a time. They’re always a real dare for audiences. But it’s such a thing with animation because you get all of this stuff together and get a team together, so there’s not much pay-off for a one-time special. We’d probably be more likely to do another season, but then that takes even more time and gets into other stuff…

Do you have a favorite story from out of all of the installments in the first season?

Probably not a specific one. I do like them all for different reasons and there certain parts that make me particularly happy or whimsy, but a lot of that has to do with the circumstances around how they came together like, “Oh, that’s that idea that this editor had!”. I’m honestly the last person to judge. Do you have a favorite?

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They’ve all really resonated with me, but the bee and the butterfly story from the pilot really blew me away.

I really like that one. The challenge for me is to always try to end the story in a nice way and go out with a strong finish. 

And the whole “injecting chicken blood into human heads to keep them alive after death” story just really stood out as a strong premise, too. That’s a good idea.

That’s just a good idea for your life and you’re going to try it? I’ll make a documentary of that. We’ll get chickens and inject their blood into your head. I’ll definitely fund that.

Lastly, just six episodes is far too little for this show, please tell me you’re already working on a second season.

There are bubblings and rumblings, but can’t say anything else. I would for sure love to do more though.

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Adult Swim’s ‘The Shivering Truth’ will begin to assault your senses when it premieres December 9at midnight (ET) with back-to-back episodes 

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.