Even Brad Neely's biggest fans would have trouble identifying him in a police lineup. A talented comedian, writer, illustrator, and musician, the 38-year-old creator of Adult Swim's hit animated series China, IL is hardwired for show business. But he doesn't care much for the spotlight. Born and raised in small town Arkansas, Neely achieved cult-celebrity status in a remarkably unassuming way. He dropped out of college after his first semester, got a cozy part-time job at a toy store in Austin, Texas, and spent the better part of a decade moonlighting as a cartoonist until eventually landing on the Adult Swim roster by way of the tragically short lived humor website SuperDeluxe.com.
Now a reluctant citizen of L.A., Neely doesn't seem to harbor any dreams of ever going mainstream. He's comfortable in the niche he has carved out for himself with his otherworldly animations - good news for the throngs of comedy nerds who relish their esoteric strangeness. Set on the campus of the "worst school in America," China, IL is a hilarious lampoon of academic life, as well as a showcase for Neely's many talents: along with Hulk Hogan and a revolving cast of celebrity cameos, Neely provides a lot of the voices for the show's characters, who often deliver their lines in Broadway-esque musical numbers and catchy rap ballads.
With season three of China, IL premiering this Sunday, April 5th, on Adult Swim, Maxim spoke with Neely and the show's executive producer Daniel Weidenfeld about coming to the defense of young mothers, "rat" music, why Southern California sucks, and the death of Steve Jobs. Here's a preview of the show's next season:
The city of Austin seems to be dear to your heart. Why did you decide to move there in the first place?
Neely: It was really just for the margaritas. I didn’t go to college when I went there, but I had cartoons in the college newspaper because I just went and stuck a stack of comics into a slot at the newspaper’s offices that said “Comics” on it and no one called me to make sure I was a student or anything - and they just started running them. I'm actually thinking about moving back to Austin.
What was your job like at the toy store where you worked?
N: Yeah, you know - cashier, stocking, helping people pick out toys for babies - stuff like that. I ended up really just fending off bums. That was the thing that I was really good at. I was a young, hungover 20-something and these visions of my future were hanging out in the parking lot. My ghosts of Christmas potential were out there harassing these young mothers who were coming into my store and I would always have to go out with a broom and try to stick them in the hardened liver, like, "Get the fuck out of here! Go find a creek!"
When did you start to think that you could make a living with your cartoons?
N: Well I did this alternate audio thing for the first Harry Potter movie back in 2003, when the internet was so young and new and fresh. I did that just for my friends and I knew small bands like Everyone Must in Austin, and I did a lot of music there. When I did that audio, it kind of took off and got big everywhere so I started thinking maybe these things could be put in one container - the drawings, the music, and this sort of comedy writing. That’s when I made the George Washington video, and put that out on this new thing called YouTube. After Washington was successful, I was able to do the shorts for Super Deluxe - Baby Cakes and Professor Brothers, which evolved into this show.
Super Deluxe was the perfect outlet for that kind of stuff...
N: Daniel here, that’s where we met. He was the head programmer there looking for guys like me to make content. He and I met right there when Super Deluxe was brand new, looking for a bunch of folks.
Weidenfeld: The first person that Super Deluxe even had a deal with before I got there was Brad. I was 24-years-old. The day I started the first two videos of his came in and it was just one of those “holy shit” moments. I was like, "this is so good." I love a lot of the stuff we had on there. But Super Deluxe shut down, and at the end of the day it was really just a promotional tool for Brad.
[To Neely] Do you think you would've ever been able to break into this business had Super Deluxe never existed?
N: That was never my goal in life. To work in television is something that just fell into my lap and on a daily basis I question whether or not it’s right for me. I didn’t really have plans beyond that. I was comfortable in Austin. I was like, “I’ll live here forever. I’ll be a cashier and a bum-kicker-outter and make things that I like.” I guess the litmus test for me was just, "will I still be able to like these things if I do this television show?" I’m not sure what would’ve happened. I might’ve written a book. I might’ve finally figured out how to make music that people would listen to outside that wasn't funny. But I would've just kept pushing.
Do you think you would've benefited in any way from a college education?
N: I'm not sure. There might have been a future there. My sister is a professor. I have friends who stayed in academia their whole life. My father-in-law is a professor. I'm around it a lot. I was a good student, but I was never really a happy one. I'm a pretty rebellious person. And when I was college-age, I was a very poor person, and college takes a lot of money. That was really the deciding factor. I just couldn't afford it.
Are you guys always looking for young talent?
N: Oh, yeah. You got to. We put together writers rooms for our seasons and our other projects, and we like to have young people in there, as well as people who are seasoned and been around the block. We like to have that sort of mix. So it's important to not lose sight of our audience and that age-range. Daniel has been working on some things himself that are dear to a younger audience and, therefore, seem like the craziest thing in the world to me. But I can tell it's right.
W: Brad is always showing me new artists - on Instagram in particular - who have an interesting voice or style. It's always about knowing what's out there, especially for yourself. You can stay on top of your game because you know what competition is out there. You want to know what people are responding to. I listen to a lot of rap music, and a lot of it is me just trying to stay in touch with what young people are doing. I sound like an old loser now. It's good to be aware.
N: You know what sounds even older? I thought you said, "rat music." If you want to know what's current, you need to start listening to rat again!
If you guys were going to give one piece of key advice to a young cartoonist trying to achieve success in this business, what would it be?
W: Don't take criticism personally. Get notes, take notes - network notes are good because somebody is just trying to make it just a little bit more accessible to your audience. I guess that goes hand-in-hand with the thing that we remind ourselves on a daily basis, which is to respect your audience. Remember that it's for them, and not for you. But at the end of the day, the things that are going to be successful are the things that come from a very personal, honest place. Some people have it, some people don't.
N: If we're talking about advice to a "young artist" - if you call yourself an "artist" you better feel 100% about the stuff you make. The stuff you talk about or do, you better be 100% about, and that's when other people will pay attention.
Do you think it's necessary to move to a place like L.A. or New York?
N: It's difficult, because a lot of people would say, "Not anymore! The internet!" But with the internet there's shrinking commerce from artistic products outside of a successful Etsy account. I'm not sure how to do it without going somewhere like New York or L.A., despite these towns being soul-crushingly ugly. I'm from the South, and I love weather changes. The unchanging weather patterns out here in Southern California make me so freaked out. I just realized that two years passed and I didn't notice. I only knew because more of my teeth have cracked, because there's no water out here. "Oh, another tooth has cracked! I must have made another lap around the sun!"
Is moving back to Austin a real possibility?
N: I just think about it all the time. I miss the creature comforts. I watch a home renovation show on TV called Fixer Upper - it's like a family in Waco, Texas making peoples' homes look pretty. I just want to be their friends and eat their barbecue.
Have any adjunct professors ever told you any sob stories after watching China, IL?
N: Wait, job or sob? Sob? No, not yet. I don't talk to people. Outside of this room, I don't really have that many people in my life. And they're not adjunct professors.
W: That's a whole genre of people we need to start hanging out with. We need to get to the bottom of this!
N: But "job" stories: Man, this one time me and Steve Jobs were at this picnic and he started saying, "this fucking lobster roll is going to make me sick." And I said, "no, eat the whole thing!" Two days later he died, and now Apple sucks.
W: That's a sob-job story!