Adventure Time arrived on television like the monolith in 2001: A Space Odyssey, and forcibly evolved the concept of what quality animated children's shows could be. Thanks to Adventure Time, good animated shows are now storyboarded by the writers and artists instead of just being scripted, and are able to engage both children and adults.
One of those good animated shows is Clarence, whose creators cut their teeth storyboarding on Adventure Time. I think it's one of the best and most underrated things on TV right now. While the rest of the immature adults I know are busy jerking off to the cynical, ugly awfulness of Game of Thrones, I'm over here watching a show about an optimistic eight-year-old butterball with a lisp who lives in a poor fictional town in Arizona.
All the kids in Clarence come from poor families, but it doesn't seem to bother them. In many ways, Clarence is like an upbeat animated show based on the movie Gummo. Unlike Adventure Time's Finn, Clarence is aggressively uncool. He's chubby, missing his two front teeth, fairly naïve, and uncoordinated. He says things like, "OK bye, I love you!" when getting off the phone with his friends. His unrelenting warmth, positivity, and excitement make him incredibly lovable.
If you haven't seen it, please go watch Clarence. You will like it unless you thrive on shittiness. I interviewed Spencer Rothbell, the current head of story and also the guy who performs Clarence's voice.
VICE: Clarence is a very special, optimistic show.
Spencer Rothbell: Thanks! Some of the episodes are less optimistic than others, but it's generally a pretty upbeat show. I think the key to the show is trying to remember what being a kid was like and representing it as honestly as possible. Being a kid is so strange: The world is this new, confusing, exciting place that you blindly barrel through. Clarence himself is a really naïve weirdo, but he's not self-aware. I was a really awkward kid, too.
How would you describe the show to people who haven't seen it?
I would describe Clarence as having a little something for everyone—we put in a ton of film/pop-culture references for people who like that stuff and we satirize a lot of ideas and social concepts. If you like grounded, down-to-earth stories, we have that. If you like weird, experimental narrative, we have that, too. There's lots of different animation styles, lots of comedy, and hopefully unexpected storytelling. People who like the character development in other shows will notice that we do it as well but in subtle ways—it rewards you for watching the show in order like Arrested Development. Clarence has lots of Easter eggs and callbacks to earlier episodes, and lots of running gags. Hopefully people will give Clarence a chance and see it's more than a "dumb chubby kid show."
In a lot of ways Clarence feels like the opposite of Adventure Time. Talk about that.
I suppose the main difference is our show is more in a grounded reality—like King of the Hill—as opposed to a magical fantasy world. But we still have lapses into fantasy. I always loved characters who seemed like antiheroes—Jerri Blank [in Strangers with Candy], Dawn Wiener [in Welcome to the Dollhouse]. Clarence fits in that category for me. Finn seems pretty slick and heroic sometimes. Clarence is probably less self-aware. He also doesn't have any catchphrases. We want him to feel like a real kid—flawed and awkward and weird.
Tell me the process of making an episode of Clarence from start to finish.
The basic run-down is: First we write an episode premise (which is submitted to Cartoon Network for notes/approval). Then we break the story beats and think of jokes. Then a writer will write an outline. I do an edit pass of the outline and submit it for notes. We do a storyboard handout, which is a mix of a table read and describing ideas to the board artists, then the board artists do a thumbnail pass (after that two more passes with notes), after that we do casting and record an episode (with the storyboard onscreen), then an animatic is built, which is a roughly timed-out version of the board with audio, then come all the designs (characters, props, backgrounds, color, FX) and original music, then this is all shipped off to be animated by Saerom Animation in Korea. Eventually we get a work print, which is altered and edited, and that's what ends up on TV! Whew. I'm exhausted now. Luckily we have an awesome showrunner Stephen Neary who's helped make our crew into a really functional, productive, happy one.
Tell me about this all-improv episode you've got coming up.
This idea is still in development, but the basic premise is we'd like to do an episode that's primarily improvised dialogue (which we do a bit of already). All I can say at this point is that it will probably take place in a video store and we'd like to involve some improv comedians. I really love Home Movies and Rick and Morty, so those are definitely two influences on the idea.
Is it hard to do Clarence's voice? Is there a trick to it?
Whenever I pitch jokes, I usually improv the dialogue in character. Skyler and I would do the Clarence voice back and forth a lot, so it came naturally to me. Mine's really just an impression of his Clarence voice. Hopefully it's close enough. If you stick your tongue to the roof of your mouth, it helps.
How many characters have you voiced on this show?
Besides Clarence, I do the voice of Camden, the saggy-cheeked kid who I think of as a mix of Droopy Dog, BooBoo Bear, and LeFou from Beauty and the Beast. I also do Mavis the red-haired girl who only grunts—she's kind of like our Groot or Scooby-Doo, but also treated like a real human girl. And I also do lots of weird extras and one–off characters, like Balance (the evil anti-Clarence), and another grumpy guy coming up named Gary Mooch.
What was it like working with John Waters? Was the part written with him in mind?
John Waters was amazing. We kind of went out on a limb and said, "Let's see what he says." He was so funny and it came to him naturally. We patched him over the phone from a studio in Baltimore, so sadly never met in person, but it was great talking to him. We told him we all loved him and he said he "felt like a filth elder," which was pretty great.
I really like that the majority of the kids seem to come from lower-class households, and how that isn't treated as shameful or tragic.
We want to represent all kinds of families. The only really wealthy kid in our show is Belson, who's a total spoiled brat. There's nothing shameful about being poor. When I was a young kid, our family was on food stamps for a while. You kind of make your own fun, which is what Clarence is all about. In the intro he turns off the TV and goes outside to play.
Can I submit a sample script? Can anyone submit a sample script?
I don't think I'm legally allowed to take unsolicited scripts. People are constantly sending me writing, though. It's funny how cocky some people are about it, they'll send me a huge long Futurama spec script or something, and then follow up with an email about how they're angry I haven't sent them my notes yet! It's like on Curb Your Enthusiasm, when he asks the doctor to look at his rash for free.
My sister, Penelope Gazin, claims that Kimby, the girl who is always petting her hair, is based on her. Will she be showing up more in the show?
She's told me that too, but I have no idea if it's true. I think Kimby was designed by Colin Howard. She shows up a lot in the show, nervously reacting to things. There are a lot of characters with anxieties on the show—maybe to balance out Clarence's confident optimism.
Are you going to have an episode where Clarence dies? It'll get big ratings.
We actually pitched a premise where Clarence died when we were pitching "Puddle Eyes." We thought they wouldn't let us make "Puddle Eyes," so we pitched a fake worse premise as a distraction called "Clarence the Friendly Ghost," where he falls out of a treehouse and hits his head on a big rock. He would then die and become Casper the rest of the episode. They approved it in a weird The Producers moment, and we decided not to make it.
If you want to watch Clarence you can see it on Cartoon Network or buy the episodes in iTunes. Follow Nick Gazin on Instagram.