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Adult Swim’s ‘The Heart, She Holler’ returns for S3 (screening at BAM); creator John Lee discusses Broad City, his old bands, casting an ex-president, weirdness & more in BV interview

by Bill Pearis

Meemaw visits ‘Wake Up, White People’ host David Cross on ‘The Heart, She Holler’ S3
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John Lee and Vernon Chatman have been weirding out late night television viewers for 10 years as the primary creative forces behind PFFR: first with not-for-kids kids show Wonder Showzen, then with the hallucinogenic, hard-to-look-at Xavier: Renegade Angel and, most recently, on the Southern Gothic soap opera The Heart, She Holler. (They were also writers and producers on Jon Glazer‘s awesome Delocated.) The thread running through them all: Lee and Chatman’s gleeful dismantling of American culture, labyrinthine and pun-filled dialogue, and a desire to see viewers’ jaws drop.

Season three of The Heart She, Holler debuts on December 1 on Adult Swim, starring folks like Patton Oswalt, David Cross, Amy Sedaris, Scott Adsit (30 Rock), Steve Little (East Bound and Down) and other familiar comedy faces. You can watch the trailer below. There’s a Season Three preview screening on Tuesday (11/18) at BAM at 7:30 with a Q&A with Q&A with Adsit (who just joined the cast) and John Lee. It’s free and you can RSVP to attend, though entry is based on capacity. We’re also giving away a pair of guaranteed passes as well, and details on that are below.

PFFR’s John Lee
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In addition to working on his own shows, John Lee has directed episodes of Broad City and a few music videos, and he used to be in a couple bands: jokey late-’90s indie rockers Muckafurgason, and a pre-TV PFFR who put out records in the early ’00s. Full disclosure: I’ve known John for almost 20 years, and he took a few minutes away from scarring Middle America’s eyeballs to talk about The Heart She Holler, food courts, unprecedented sexual positions, Morrissey, David Lynch and the difficulties of wrangling an ex-President for a cameo. PFFR are infamous for their non-interview interviews, but there’s at least a little directness here.

BrooklynVegan: So what are you working on now? Season 3 of The Heart She Holler is in the can, right?

John Lee: Yeah, it’s in the trash can as we say. The trash can of America. Any of your local mall food courts, that’s what we call the trash can. We call the South “Food Court America” up here in the North.

BV: How much time have you and Vernon spent in the South?

JL: (Laughs) Together or separately? Well, together it was all in sin. It felt like forever but it was only six minutes. Um, separately? Through touring… it would add up to a handful of peanuts. A bag of boiled peanuts, that’s how long I’ve spent in the South. But the thing is you don’t even need to spend time in the South to understand American culture, like American hillbilly ideals. All you have to do is go 40 minutes outside of any city and you’re there. America, it’s all that. It’s everywhere you go. The South is just the place everyone says “Oh, it’s that.” But it’s not, it’s everywhere.

Did you think you’d be doing a third season of The Heart, She Holler when you guys came up with the idea?

We, as in PFFR, all our shows that are self-created have never gotten past a second season. This is the first time we’ve broken the curse. Wonder Showzen was only two seasons, Xavier was only two seasons. Delocated made it longer, but that wasn’t just our show. It was a thrill, but we were also scared because when you break a curse you never know what sort of demon’s going to show up. The undead will rise? Your nightmares will become reality? We’ll see.

Continued below…

What do you think was different with Heart She that was different than the other two?

You mean why the hell would anyone give us money to make this? We’re in the fortunate position at Adult Swim somehow, Mike Lazzo who runs it just has a little sack of money waiting for us every year. He challenges us to get him fired. We try and try and try. We create new sexual positions that are precedent-setting for television. The standards lawyers have actually said “This has never been done before on TV.” We are upset that no other show has copied us, used our positions, or has tried to beat us. Everyone else is just skating along with what we’ve seen before, enjoying their ice cream socials and whatnot.

I was wondering if Adult Swim actually had a Standards & Practices department.

(Laughs) That is an insult! An insult to television! You just spat on your television. No there actually are, and there are things that we can’t do. Or at least do again. We can’t combine sexuality AND the church, because that’s just…too true? Too on the nose. In the first season we did an episode where a Bible had a “glory hole” — we fucking nailed that pun, no one had ever made that pun before — but that joke we couldn’t do again. They said that’s too much. It is a Southern Network and they care about Jesus. What else, we can’t actually show sex or “parts,” unlike say HBO where almost every show takes place in a strip club. “HBO is great” but look how fuckin’ sexist they are for most of their shows. They’re not progressive!

I’ve tapped into some anger here.

No, just truth. There is no anger, there is just enlightenment.

For those who’ve never seen The Heart She Holler, it’s fair to say at this point it’s exactly like Too Many Cooks, right?

That’s the thing, many people have said to us, “Clearly you guys made ‘Too Many Cooks'” and of course I say, “No way.” That guy who made Too Many Cooks is a huge PFFR fan but that thing, it’s not even close to weird, Too Many Cooks. It’s “small w” weird. PFFR are all-caps weird. We might be the reining Kings of Weird on television.

And this isn’t even your weirdest show.

Oh no, but it’s tough to say. Xavier is such a barrage, it’s an assault. The Heart She Holler is like a slow walk into your death. What’s weirder? To be killed or to be beat up verbally? [FYI: nothing is ever likely to top PFFR’s film ‘Final Flesh‘ on the weird-o-meter. – Bill]

Seriously though, how would you describe The Heart She Holler for folks new to the show?

I describe it to laypeople as “If Twin Peaks was weird.” That joke usually lands pretty well. It’s a southern gothic Twin Peaks if it were weird, and it’s really not that weird anymore. It used to be weird.

How do you take the news of Lynch doing more Twin Peaks?

I don’t know how to describe my feelings. I’m worried. I assume it’s going to be great. He’s kind of the Kubrick of creepiness. So you have to trust his wants and interests. So it’s hard to question him, except I didn’t really love Inland Empire. I assume it’ll be great. That TV series was so influential on modern television. It’s hard to imagine what he’ll be able to get away with this round to have the same impact.

Amy Sedaris, Scott Adsit and Heather Lawless on ‘The Heart She Holler’
Heart She

Season 3 has some new recognizable faces, you’ve pulled a Darren Stephens with the Sheriff.

Yeah, Scott Adsit (of 30 Rock) has taken over the role of Sheriff. And we did a similar thing after the first season, Kristen Schaal played Hurshe, then Amy Sedaris took over in Season 2. We’re fine with that. The characters are the characters. The actors fill in the vessel of that. But Scott Adsit and Amy Sedaris, they’re like prizes for us, both amazingly funny, skilled comedians. Scott does this thing, we shot this bit backwards, and Scott had to figure out how to do his eyes backwards so when we played it forwards it would look normal. It took him like two or three minutes to really focus concentration and then he did it, it’s amazing. We’ve shown it to people and they’re all like “how did you do that?” The eyes is often a “tell” when you shoot stuff backwards, how they blink or the way people look. But it’s quite special, he’s just a gifted, talented person.

You mentioned that some of your time in the South was spent touring. And some folks might not know that you used to be in a couple indie rock bands — Muckafurgason and then PFFR used to be a band too.

Yeah. I would say that PFFR was more successful as a band than Muckafurgason. We were on a more legitimate label, but were Muckafurgason indie rock? How can you combine the words “novelty” and “indie rock”? PFFR was more of an art collective than anything, we had gallery shows and then a CD on Birdman Records which is a super great label. Before that it was Muckafurgason…what was our claim to fame? We opened for They Might Be Giants.

Well you did play Showtime at the Apollo.

Oh yeah, that’s a highlight of my life. We got booed off. It was a Phil Spector Wall of Boos. Once that happened, I was so happy that we did it.

Vernon made a film about your trip to The Apollo. I wish that was online.

The performance is, but not the whole thing. I should probably upload that. I’m so unsavvy with modern technology and social media.

Muckafurgason on ‘Showtime at the Apollo’

Do you still break out the guitar?

Oh yeah. I tried to start an all-comedian Smiths cover band but that sort of fell apart, we’re all unreliable with our time.

Who else was going to be in the band?

David Wain (The State, Stella) was our drummer, me as Morrissey, my friend Tim who’s not a comedian but makes comedy, and Dave Hill was going to play guitar. And Chris Anderson, who was in Muckafurgason and does music for our shows, was going to play bass.

That would’ve been amazing. Dave Hill actually reviewed Morrissey’s Radio City show for us.

Dave got busy, and then Tim had another baby, but I think we’ll get back to it. We were called The Belligerent Ghouls. Our goal was to play once or twice a year and small venues. Like a bathroom, so only two people could see us at a time. And you have to be going to the bathroom while you’re watching. Once you’re done you have to let the next person in line in.

I’m guessing you read Autobiography.

Yeah of course I did. I read the British one, too, even though there’s only like eight lines different, and it’s just a story about a person that clearly needed to be taken out because that person lives in America. Otherwise, I thought it was lovely. He’s a hero of mine so its hard not to enjoy it. He rants and complains, and that’s fine. When it comes down to it, though, he’s a really funny, great writer. Which he’s always been. That skill’s never going away. His songwriting skills may lack a little bit of luster, but his abilities are still charming. Did you read it?

I did, I liked the first half a lot.

Yes, exactly…

The part where he refutes, line-by-line, the royalties lawsuit with Mike Joyce, was tedious.

When I saw those paragraphs coming, I just sort of scanned them. But the end was great — he’s happy! Isn’t that crazy? No one talked about that. Mr. Morose has a happy ending. There’s hope.

So in addition to The Heart She Holler, you’re starting to be an in-demand comedy director.

I’ve finally taken a step to becoming an actual director. For the longest time we were busy doing our shows, and then Delocated. We’d do two shows a year as a company and that was enough for us because we get very involved. I directed half the Delocateds and we helped Jon Glaser write and we were the production company. That took up five to seven years of our time, between Xavier, The Heart She Holler and Delocated. Jon’s show ended and I started to have some free time and I thought “I guess I should really become a professional.” I shot the pilot for Inside Amy Schumer, and I’ve done a few Broad City episodes, and there’s things on the horizon.

Broad City is great.

That’s a really fun show, Abby and Alana are really smart and funny. And also goofballs, which is great, I love when people are comedy-forward.

There is a lot of pot humor in Broad City and you are maybe the straightest person I know when it comes to that kind of thing. How do you tap into the stoner brain?

I get this a lot, and especially Xavier which people say is like being on acid or mushrooms. I think mushrooms, that’s what people really compare it to. It’s just being open minded. I can’t tell you, I’m not a stoner. Vernon has dabbled in what-have-yous and illegals, so he might have a better sense of it.

But specifically, Broad City is super pot-based at times.

Oh yeah, well I had to find out some of their references that I didn’t understand. And I still don’t, but I understand the psychology. Directing Broad City is like what I imagine it’s like to direct a foreign film and not know the language. I can just tell that’s a good take. There are discussions of certain types of weed and technology that I’m just like “what is this?” And they’re “oh that’s a social site that if you have weed and someone needs weed, you can hook up” or whatever. All these little things, and I’m like “Ok, I get the joke now.” You don’t really have to do that stuff to get how to make fun of it.

Just like you don’t have to have lived in the South to make fun…

Hey man, we’re not making fun of them. We’re just revealing a certain truth and if you choose to laugh that’s on you. Don’t put you’re judgement on us! We’re trying to honor these people, these great rednecks of our country. Basically what it is now after these midterm elections.

So it’s not a comedy, it’s a mirror.

Yes. Which is the greatest comedy of all time.

There’s a lot of talk about “The Comining” this season, at least in the two episodes I got to see. Can you tell us a little about that?

Well, The Comining is coming. That’s all there is. It’s a fucking nightmare, The Comining.

Is there anything you’d like to say to convince people to watch?

Yes there is. There’s a lot of stunt casting in television these days. You know like “Jon Hamm” is playing this tiny little roll. Well, we have I think the biggest stunt casting coup of the last two years if not all of television history. We have an ex-President that will be on The Heart She Holler this season. Of the United States of America, not some other country. For real. I don’t think anyone can beat it.

A live ex-President? How did that happen?

As opposed to a dead ex-President? Yeah, it’s Nixon’s nose dust. No a real live ex-President will be on the show. There’s only a few of them that are alive. So that’s the tease. It was a process, let me tell you. If Too Many Cooks is exciting to people because it’s so strange and crazy, this might be the craziest episode we’ve ever made, including “Patience” from Wonder Showzen or the doppelgänger episode in Xavier. It might be the strangest episode of television we’ve ever made.

Well that’s a reason to watch.

Or to run away.

HEART SHE

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For a chance at winning a pair of tickets to attend THE HEART SHE HOLLER PREMIERE AT BAM: either tweet something that includes both @BrooklynVegan AND a link to this interview. We’ll choose a winner randomly and contact them. Good luck!
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