J.J. Villard’s debut animation series for Adult Swim may have won the network its first ever Emmy for animation, in 2015, but the creator wasn’t given free reign for his follow-up show, JJ Villard’s Fairy Tales, which he produced and directed. “After King Star King, they just told me, ‘This show is way too perverted,'” he recalls. “‘You went way too far.'” Before creating the six 11-minute episodes of his latest series, Villard was told: no sexual jokes, no religious jokes and no fart and throw-up jokes. “So I was like, ‘Okay, cool.’ And then I told my writers and they’re like, ‘Well, do you want me to quit today? Because what else, what the f**k are we going to do?'”
Somehow Villard and writers James Merrill and Johnny Ryan managed to stay just within the parameters set out for them in creating JJ Villard’s Fairy Tales—a twisted remix of familiar Brothers Grimm fairy tales, like Cinderella and Snow White. Having been on the animation scene for 20-odd years, Villard had his run-ins with the fairy tale genre before, working on DreamWorks’ Shrek the Third and Shrek Forever After. But for his take on common stories that have been heard many times before, he let his weirdly dark sense of humor lead the way—even if it had to be a little short on the kind of jokes he’s most known for.
DEADLINE: You had a pre-existing relationship with Adult Swim, but how did the idea for re-constructed fairy tales get onto Adult Swim? I believe your sketchbooks played a part?
J.J. VILLARD: Yeah. That’s exactly how it happened. I gave a zine of mine to Mike Lazzo, the creator of Adult Swim. And he looked through this zine, and it was just pages and pages of my sketchbook. And he saw this one page that had like a robot, it had a rabbit and it had “Snow White” written in this kind of Disney-like font. And he just said, “I want to base a cartoon off of this.” And so he got his executives together and they hit me up. And Mike Lazzo and I spoke and I just said, “How about we just call it J.J. Villard’s Fairy Tales?” And he’s like, “That sounds great. We’re going straight to the top kid, let’s do it.”
DEADLINE: You’d done King Star King in 2015 for them—and won them their first Emmy. Were there any sort of parameters that they gave you, in terms of how far to go with it? What kind of limitations were there?
VILLARD: The good thing is after King Star King, they just told me, “We’re going to cancel this, but we love working with you so we’ll continue working with you.” And I was like, “Okay.”
So they canceled it. And then King Star King went ahead and won the Emmy, which was the first Emmy that they ever won for an animated show. And they’re like, “Oh f***k. All right. We definitely got to go work with J.J.” And so then they said, “Let’s go ahead and do another show,” which was Fairy Tales. And they gave me very strict guidelines. So I was like, “Okay, cool.” And then I told my writers and they’re like, “Well, do you want me to quit today?” And I’m like, “No, no, no, no. We can work around this, restrictions are a good thing.” And I like restrictions. If you look back, way back at Ren & Stimpy, Season 1 and 2, John Kricfalusi was given so many restrictions and I think it made that cartoon great. Because look at what happened when you didn’t have restrictions, on Spike when they brought back Ren & Stimpy. It just didn’t have that same strength. You don’t feel like a kid in elementary school, when you’re drawing during class when you shouldn’t be. You feel a little naughty, I guess, when you’re given restrictions and you’re trying to push those restrictions.
DEADLINE: So then, on the other side of it, in terms of the storylines, what guides you in how loose to play those? How much to change, for example, in the story of Snow White?
VILLARD: So what happened again was we handed in our first three outlines to them, Adult Swim, and I don’t know if you’ve seen that movie Tropic Thunder?
VILLARD: We went full retard. Yeah. And we just went all the way back, like as naughty as we could and Adult Swim countered and just was like, “Yo, this is way too far. You’ve got to be true to at least one or two thirds of the f**king original fairy tale. So be real with that, at least one third. And then the other two thirds, you can go crazy.” So that was it. And it sucked because I was the f**king guy in the writers’ room who’s usually the most insane one, but I had to keep on pulling my writers back and just be like, “No, no, no. We’re going too far.” I mean I hate arguing in the writers’ room, but yeah, some arguing went down. And regardless, we were all happy with the end result, my writers and I, and we were surprised with how far we got to go.
DEADLINE: What was it like collaborating with your writers and how did you decide who to work with?
VILLARD: What happened was, in the past I, foolishly, with all the studios that I’ve worked with, I always let them pick their writers for me. And then in this situation, I was kind of naive back then. I was just like, “Look, they know what writers work with their company.” Whether it was Dreamworks or f**king Disney or f**king other places I’ve worked. And so I just said, “Let them pick.” But then for this, I was like, “You know what, screw this. It’s taken me five years to get another goddamn TV show, I’m going to pick my f**king writer.” And then that’s what I did. I just picked my friends. You know what a big part is, you get to skip that getting-to-know-each-other thing, because we know each other so well. And it’s just like we went right into action. We watched some very weird s**t to help motivate us for these fairy tales. Because these fairy tales have been done a gazillion times and it’s just like, “How are we going to make this any different? How are we going to make them better and funny?” And so I think we pulled it off.
DEADLINE: So what did you watch?
VILLARD: On YouTube they have just a library of fairy tale visuals that you can’t even believe. I mean, what’s her name from The Shining?
DEADLINE: Shelley Duvall?
VILLARD: Yeah, yeah. Shelley Duvall, in the ’70s, did a series of her own fairy tales. And they’re f**king bizarre. She got only A-list actors to be in them. And it’s just like, “What the f**k?” And they’re very weird. Not only that, you’re getting these people that, I guess, they live in a basement and they do their version of a CG fairy tale show. And the animation is so weird, but you’re just like, you’re not blinking. You’re just watching this s**t. And just being like, “What the f**k?” It’s inspirational, right, to say the least, because it’s so weird. And, yeah. Like I said, it’s been done so many times by so many people. A Bulgarian will do it or a South African will do their version [of a fairy tale], a Korean will do theirs. So you’re seeing all these different versions of them and yeah, the end result was kind of like you saw.
DEADLINE: Is there a particular fairy tale you have a close affinity for? One that you like more than the others?
VILLARD: I notice, with everyone now that they’ve all aired, everyone has their own. My favorite though was “Boypunzel” with Finn Wolfhard, Sheryl Lee, Doug Bradley, Ashley Laurence, Milly Shapiro. Everybody thought we were going to be like the grossed-out perverted guys, and I hate people typecasting me to King Star King. It’s just like, dude, if you look at my f**king resume, I have done so many styles of cartoons. And this ‘Boypunzel’ being the first one they aired was just like a f**k you to everyone. Just like, “Look, I can do a sentimental, gross cartoon where you actually, really have empathy for the characters and care about them.” F**king Boypunzel getting out of that goddamn town.
DEADLINE: How do you balance that though? How do you balance the grossness of it with the character themselves?
VILLARD: In the writer’s room, we realized we can’t just have disgusting joke after disgusting joke. It’s got to be… It’s like a boxing match. If you’re a fighter and you keep throwing the jab, the other fighter is going to know that jab is coming. So if you throw in a left hook or an uppercut, you’ve got to mix it up. So we really realized like, “Let’s have these characters fall in love, and we’ve got to make the audience believe it.” And so that’s what we did.
And it’s an interesting relationship. A young princess in a wheelchair with a boy whose hair is super long…And then Sheryl Lee as the witch, she’s from Twin Peaks and she plays Laura Palmer. They did such a good job. And Finn, as Boypunzel, who got to sing. People were writing down the lyrics. I didn’t expect any of this, but in the comments section, people were singing the songs that he was singing. We did those songs for fun, we didn’t think people would actually memorize the songs.
DEADLINE: You also have a great cast of voice actors. You mentioned Finn and the others. How was it assembling that team? Was everybody pretty much on board? Did you get everyone you wanted?
VILLARD: So what happened was it’s just like, I always had this deep philosophical belief that animation should only use animation voice actors. And I did that. My whole career, I did that. But in 2017, I did a pilot and it got rejected. It was called Trap Universe. And I worked three years on a f**king pilot and I was like, “God damn, what did I not do?” And I was just like, “Look, I didn’t use celebrities.” Star power is a thing. It’s a natural thing that executives do love. And so I was like, “Okay, what actors do I want to work with?” I realized my favorite genre is horror films. So I just said, “F**k it. I’m going to just start asking all my favorite horror film actors, starting from my favorite film, which is The Exorcist.” We called up Linda, from Cartoon Network, Linda Blair. And she completely flipped the interview where she interviewed me for the job, I didn’t interview her. And I was so nervous during that interview with her. And she just said, “Why do you want to work with me?” And I just said, “Linda, this might sound cliché, but you are the greatest living actor in my world. And it would just be a complete honor to be working with you on this cartoon. And I just have so many ways that I think your voice and my animation can just sync up perfectly.” And she said, “You just made me cry. I’ll see you next week.” And I was like, “Holy s**t.” So Linda was one of the first actors that signed on. And then the following week Robert Englund, Freddy Krueger, said he’d love to do it too. And then I was like, “Great, I’m on to something.” But yeah. I just asked all horror genre people. And we did get a lot of rejections and we did get a lot of yeses, so that was good. Some people rejected us after they said yes. And the morning of the record, I guess they read the script and was like, “F**k no. I don’t want to be a part of this.” What is meant to be was meant to be. Que sera, sera.
DEADLINE: The voice cast is a treat for audiences, but you also put in some hidden messages for viewers as well. All those messages, which you have to be very fast at clicking the pause button to catch— that became an added bonus?
VILLARD: Yeah, that was just from my student films. I draw so much in my sketchbook and my sketchbook is just a daily planner as well. And it’s also, if I hear something interesting on Sirius XM, that’s not a plug by the way, I listen to Sirius a lot. And if I listen to anything, if I read a book, I usually write down quotes or things I think are interesting in my sketchbook. So I apply that sketchbook look to my cartoon, which was, I just add those messages in there.
They’re just like little things that I’ve taken from my sketchbook and put into the cartoons. And I was doing that back in college. If you watch my student film Son of Satan—it’s on YouTube—you can see I was doing it then. And then people are like, “Oh my God, he’s adding subliminal messages and stuff.” That really wasn’t the thing, it was just like little messages. I did also a bit of a competition for all the viewers: if anyone could find every one of those subliminal messages or whatever you want to call them, I will draw you a drawing. And people came close. There were a lot of people that tried. No one did it. I was surprised. No one did all of them, but people did come close. So I’m talking to Adult Swim and I’m just like, “Look, they put in a good effort. Should we just give a free drawing to those people anyways?” Because the drawings are done and we can just mail them off.
DEADLINE: I saw you were doing that, and I was wondering if someone would get them all because people seemed really dedicated.
VILLARD: Yeah. It’s a painstaking process because they’re only up for exactly one frame and there’s 24 frames a second, so it’s hard.