Face to Face with BRAD NEELY
Highlights from Issue 32: Hollywood Lost & Found
Artwork by BRAD NEELY
Wednesday, August 01, 2007
By Alex Abramovich
According to his byline on the animation website Super Deluxe, Brad Neely is a “terrible idiot,” a “fake man,” “a lie lover” and “a gosling.” Maybe so, but he's also one of the most talented cartoonists to appear on our 21st century scene. A 30-year-old Arkansan who lives in Austin, Neely is the author of Baby Cakes and The Professor Brothers, two outrageously freewheeling cartoons that do for the Internet what South Park and The Simpsons did for prime-time TV — which is to say, explode the form, and make the rest of us gaze in wonder. Plug his name into Google and you'll see what I mean. I promise, you won't be disappointed.
Alex Abramovich: Do you have an academic or arts background?
Brad Neely: I went to college here and there but never graduated. I mostly studied fine art, painting and drawing. My father-in-law teaches painting and drawing in Arkansas — he taught me, too — my brother-in-law teaches painting in Philadelphia, my sister is a professor of Middle Eastern studies and my mom is a college counselor. Lots of my friends are still hacking it out, making the grade. So I'm around academia, but I've never really found a home there.
AA: I ask because The Prof. Bros and Baby Cakes both take place in and around the academy. What was the inspiration for these characters? And a related question: Do you script the episodes before animating them, or do the words flow out of the pictures?
BN: Most of my ideas are about people telling stories and how people talk. I love the contrast between how people think and how they choose to speak. A school is a perfect place for me. People are talking a lot. Plus there are all sorts of do's and don'ts that people have to obey. People dealing with rules and expectations — it's funny. I have to fight the urge to mimic my friends and family. I've always done half-assed impressions. I love thinking about how people talk, pause and breathe and how all of that relates to what's really going on in their noodles.
So in creating the main characters I used some basic mannerisms and tones of friends' voices. Then I put those voices into different bodies and lives. The voices for The Prof. Bros. come from guys that look and behave nothing like them. The Baby Cakes voice is a deeper, more affected version of an old co-worker. She probably wouldn't recognize herself in him.
I don't want to talk too much about what the characters mean to me — where their personalities come from and so on. I don't want to ugly them up for anybody. I think I broke my own rule just a few sentences back.
I write the script first. Then I record it. Then I draw it. Then I put the two together. It's never that straightforward, however. Rewrites and edits and ad-libs are constant. Once an idea starts getting legs it runs differently than I imagined, and most of the time I try to adapt around it. I'm always afraid of repeating myself, and following the lead of the accidents seems to be a good way of avoiding it.
AA: How much rewriting do you do?
BN: Everything I make is from bits and scraps of failed work, abandoned work or work that went in unexpected ways. Often I will set out to work on a cartoon with a stack of notes and a clear idea of the overall pace, structure and mood, but once I start to hear the words in the character's voice I end up following his lead. Most of the final pieces are the result of the character leading me. They digress and it makes me laugh more than what I had planned, so the old plan gets put into something else. It sounds pretty silly to say I'm “following” something that I'm clearly making up myself, but I'm sure this is the case for everyone making up people.
I have lines, words, bits, situations, nicknames, everything just accumulating without subjects to attach them to. I go through these notes every time I'm making something, looking to see if this or that idea will get its moment to shine. And it often happens that an idea is plucked from its moment in a later stage of revision. I am drunk with revisional power.
AA: How do you recharge the batteries? What sort of stuff do you read/watch/listen to or otherwise consume? Is there anyone you feel you're working alongside of or share certain affinities with?
BN: I feel like I would answer every question differently depending on the day. I have a rotating soul, and there is something obscene about listing your likes and interests. I am really drawn to obscenity. So! I love Monty Python, South Park, The Simpsons — standard stuff.
I don't think I add up to the people I respect, yet. It would take a lot for me to say I was working alongside anyone out there. South Park is great. And greatly above me. The core molecules of funny to me are death, sex, guilt, bodily functions and the everyday coexistence with people dealing differently with that same stuff.
And I read a lot. I love classics. The funniest book in the universe is Gargantua and Pantagruel. If I want to run the risk of sounding like “that guy,” I'll say that I really love Pynchon, Brando, Woody Allen, Lucian Freud, the Beatles and just about everything else in the world of people. Today people have to play their interests down — not mention anything that might make them sound “pretentious.” I love Candide. Yeah, I said it, fuckers. I think Candide would be the perfect summer blockbuster. Asses get eaten in Candide. Not like anal-lingus. Masticated. Digested.
AA: Do you see your stuff as critical of our culture? It strikes me as unspeakably sad, sometimes, but it's also celebratory at times. Your last response made me think you see it, mostly, as celebratory? I mean, insofar as ass-eating, in the most literal sense, is celebratory.
BN: The funny work is often the horrible stuff put in the right light, distance or time. No one knows what's going on. No one knows what the right moves are. We still haven't worked out whether killing is bad. Everyone is freaked out about sex. No one wants to grow up. We are a bunch of kids. Of course, I'm just talking about America here. I've never been anywhere else.
We have to talk about what is here. We have to talk about us in all the ways that we are. I love and hate everything about us. We're contradictory, each of us. I think the primary problem is that we start off thinking there is some order outside of us, that something better than us is maintaining a brilliant and invisible order. We think that some reward for the abiders of rules exists after death. The absolute worst kind of chaos is the illusion of order. Dependency on a false order gets us all started on the wrong foot. Language is imperfect, gods are dead, trust is impossible and truth is impossible.
But there is, in spite of all the horrible living in life, the urge to laugh, and the desire to catalog what we see. The urge to try and make sense or to create sense is very strange. But we have it. I think it's fun to laugh at that urge.