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The giant blue seeker of justice is back! Fifteen years after the cult fave live-action superhero comedy The Tick lived out its all too brief stint on Fox, creator Ben Edlund’s spoof returns as a new Amazon pilot in which The Tick and his sidekick Arthur become actual superheroes.
“This thing was different enough in tone, when we finished it, for us to be partly afraid that we had failed, meaning it felt that different,” Edlund tells Yahoo TV. “It doesn’t have the sitcom rhythm of jokes. It doesn’t have the dyed-in-the-wool seriousness of a true hero fiction. It is somewhere in between. [Supervillain] The Terror flies in a giant T. It’s like a bad episode of Sesame Street when he attacks you. ‘Your destruction was brought to you by the letter T.’ That’s stupid, but we play it as if we didn’t know it was dumb, which is a weird tone.”
And one that will likely be a hit with longtime fans of The Tick, who’ve read the comic books, watched the 1994-97 Fox Saturday morning cartoon, and still quote lines from the nine-episode 2001-02 live-action series in which Seinfeld breakout Patrick Warburton became the face of the super strong, super sincere, but somewhat mysterious antennae-ed superhero.
As for new fans, the newest incarnation of The Tick shouldn’t have trouble drawing those either. The pilot — which Amazon.com visitors can watch and comment on for the next month, as part of Amazon Studio’s consideration of ordering a whole season of the series — successfully retains the, well, yeah, weird humor and spirit of the previous Ticks, but grounds it with what Edlund — who’s also been a producer and writer on Gotham, Supernatural, Angel, and Firefly — calls more stakes-driven drama.
There are new stars, too, with British actor Peter Serafinowicz as The Tick, newbie Griffin Newman as Arthur, and an unrecognizable, but brilliant Jackie Earle Haley as The Terror. Edlund and The Tick executive producer Barry Josephson talked to Yahoo TV about why this new cast works, how The Tick’s comeback began, the long process of getting the series’ new tone just right, and how Warburton is still very much involved.
For those who may not know The Tick’s origins… he began as a mascot for a newsletter?
Ben Edlund: Yes, he did. I had a role-playing game group. Yeah, that classic upbringing of a high school, somewhat socially stunted, role-playing group. In that culture, I developed a gag character called The Tick. It was about that time that a nearby comic book publisher was coming into being. This is like 1986, basically, when I started to use the character in a short series of newsletter comic pages. He was the superhero mascot for New England Comics. Within about a year and a half, 1988, he got his own book. The first issue of The Tick came out.
Were you adding new characters all that time, or had you always had some sidekicks and friends and foes in mind for him when you first created him?
Edlund: On the back of the very first issue is this big splash illustration of all these crazy characters that I was convinced I was going to put into this universe, and a lot of them have shown up, either in the comic book or in the cartoon. It’s funny, because some of the strongest superhero overtones at that time were Daredevil and Batman and the Watchmen. We’re really in a place right now where Daredevil is one of the strongest superhero elements in our culture. The things that The Tick started making fun of grew up and became big parts of our [pop] culture. It’s like The Tick has come again now to target those things, in loving, good humor.
How did the idea for this new Tick series come about?
Barry Josephson: I went back to Ben because I realized, at the time, we weren’t at the right network at the right time [with the 2001 live-action series]. That network is great now, but then, I don’t think we were the show that they really wanted. I also think that we didn’t make the best version of the show at that time. I loved it. I loved Patrick Warburton’s performance. I loved what all the actors did. I just think we never had the right shot. It didn’t fall together properly, and that happens often with shows. So I went to Ben and said, “Let’s make the version that you want to make, and let me do everything I can as a producer to support you so that you can do it your way.” He embraced that. It’s always an interesting transition when you take something from comics or animation form to live action. The execution has to be right. I can see him now in a world where there are so many great Marvel movies. I really love Iron Man, and I really liked Guardians of the Galaxy — I loved the humor in those pieces. I felt like the timing was right. Also, Ben has evolved so much as a writer in television that it really was the right time for him to do this.
This is an original version of The Tick, and it’s very much, I think, what Ben wanted to do. In theory, Ben’s laid out for all of us — myself, Sony, and Amazon — a path that I think will be really interesting and very different from the other show, and actually more closely aligned with what Ben did in animation.
How is this Tick different from the cartoon and the previous live action or even maybe the comic book?
Edlund: I think the most important difference is that this is both the great fun you can have with superheroes — and that’s always been the tradition of The Tick, to really just enjoy how wonderfully inventive and crazy superheroes and their world can be — but at the same time, this is the first time that a real story has been built into the material. [The Tick and Arthur] have always had character and they’ve always had a dynamic that they shared with each other, but it’s been a vehicle for looking at superhero culture. It needed more in order to be a freestanding object of its own and to be a story. Arthur’s story is taken very seriously. The Tick’s mystery is taken very seriously. The funniest thing you could do with The Tick at this point was take it seriously. In a weird way, we have done that. It’s still funny. It’s supposed to be more funny, because I think humor that comes from caring about stuff, nervous tension, creates fuller laughs.
Josephson: Family Guy is an original voice of a creator. SpongeBob is an original voice of the creator. Christopher Nolan’s Batman is an original voice of somebody who created that franchise. I think here, this is Ben’s opportunity, with his original voice, to make this as funny and interesting as it’s ever been. Nobody writes exactly as Ben Edlund, if it’s his original voice, unfiltered. I think that’s what makes this special. It is a special tone, this is the creator’s original voice, and we all backed that, including his relationship with Wally Pfister on the pilot. Wally, who is the cinematographer on Christopher Nolan’s movies, was the perfect compliment in helping Ben visually, as director, get the concept across that Ben wanted. Again, when it’s somebody’s original voice, they need a really great collaborator, and that’s where Wally came in so strong. He collaborated really well to integrate what Ben wanted from each of these scenes in the pilot.
The pilot is visually gorgeous.
Edlund: Oh, yeah. That’s Wally.
What did you focus on to make this a version of The Tick that is its own real superhero story?
Edlund: Well, that was a three-year process of batting drafts back and forth between Amazon and Sony and Barry and myself, and really measuring out these different quantities of things. There were periods where it was much more whimsical and had a lot more of what would have functioned as maybe the cartoon humor, more puns, more throw-away superhero-based gags. Again and again, that tone rang in a problematic way, because it was not grounded enough to really withstand the attention — a bingewatcher wants to have a substantial universe to take part in. It was a strange balance, because I cannot use the same puns that I would use in the cartoon. There needed to be stakes The Tick universe has never had. Maybe the most stakes The Tick universe has ever had was in the comic books, really. From that point forward, the only blood that’s been shed in the universe of The Tick was shed in the comic book, and everything else was extremely light.
Now, in order for a story to take place, we incorporate a hero’s quest and actual dramatic stakes: life and death. Without those elements, this would not be able to pass from comment-on to participating in superhero culture. In a way, this is also risky, because it’s like going swimming in the deep end, and The Tick has to keep his head above water and be not just another expression of what’s become a saturation, but it has to wear the skin of the thing it [comments on]. Amazon was instrumental in us arriving at the Arthur that we have, an Arthur who has a real character plate. He has, basically, a psychological superhero origin story that’s uneasy. He is a real superhero mythos main character. Certainly in the cartoon and in the live-action series, he is someone who is just vaguely interested in superherodom because he wants to be adjacent to it so he can make fun of that world, and that’s not really a legitimate psychological truth for a main character.
Griffin Newman (Search Party and Vinyl) is fantastic as Arthur. When you settled on what you wanted Arthur to be and what you wanted his story to convey, what were you looking for when you were casting Arthur? What was it that Griffin brought to the role that cemented him as the right person to play the character?
Edlund: He was, very early on, my frontrunner. There’s a signal that comes off of him, intelligence and a little bit of indignation, and he cares. There’s something about the way he works as an entity on camera that really does a lot for this guy. Previous iterations of this character have always focused mainly on this teddy bear harmlessness. Arthur’s always been a sort of nebbish, and that’s perfectly reasonable. It is his basic DNA. But that’s been left in the past now, because I feel like when Griffin meets the role that we’re developing here, Arthur just becomes a real person with real issues. Arthur in this version has been misdiagnosed since youth as a schizophrenic. He had some hard knocks, and he’s not just a simple pair of shoes for the viewer to step into and walk around in. He’s got his own story. For me, I think it’s actually a very universal story, because it’s just about a person who feels like the world’s gone mad around him, and I think we all have that experience. In his world, it’s expressed in superheroes. In our world, it’s expressed in ISIS and Donald Trump.
For The Tick, too, you must have had very specific things you were looking for in casting. What were they, and what made Peter Serafinowicz (Spy, Guardians of the Galaxy) the right choice to play the character?
Edlund: That was the most pivotal process, and it made this terrifying. Patrick Warburton was a big part of, and is a big part of, why this exists again. We all went together and pitched this. He’s a producer on it. He’s going to appear in it, and I’m already trying to think of a role for him. We want all of that, but ultimately, over the course of the three years of making this, we realized, “Wow, we really are doing this entirely over.” It’s a whole new re-conception of it, and it would be strange and almost disingenuous to have Patrick as The Tick in this completely new version.
Then we looked out and said, “Who is The Tick?” It was terrifying because, man, what a weird thing to cast. It was such a heightist’s process, because he has to be tall and Arthur has to be short, so we couldn’t cast a 6-foot Arthur. We’d need a 7-foot Tick. We couldn’t cast a 5’10” Tick, because we’d need a 5-foot Arthur in order to play that difference, because they’re going to always be demonstrating the size differential with each other. We just had great possible leads on people, and they’d just be too short, too tall, too whatever. We would be balancing these things. Griffin had the great advantage, although it was really hard to walk him in because he’s a relative newcomer and there’s a certain star quality quota that you’re trying to satisfy for all the people involved. It was a touch-and-go process. All I wanted was Griffin for Arthur, and it just put more pressure on every element of what The Tick needed to be in order to satisfy this equation.
Peter Serafinowicz’s name passed through the halls early on, but we were on a different, less comedy forward, more muscled type that we were pursuing at the outset, which proved to be a dead end, in terms of the comedic agility necessary to not make The Tick look like an idiot, but make him look like something much more dangerous. It really requires something, and I had seen Peter’s work, but I had not seen the breadth of his work. I didn’t realize how comedically inventive, how brilliant, and how many different things he’s capable of.
Towards the end of the process of trying to find who’s going to be The Tick and getting into a crunch with, “We won’t physically have time to make the costume, if we don’t get somebody soon,” because they have to grow it in a vat full of computers and, I don’t know, polymer. It takes time now, like a chicken egg. You have to grow it. There were all these factors, and we really were so fortunate, ultimately, that Peter came up. He absolutely hit what Amazon was hoping for, which is he’s known, but not so well-known as to overshadow the thing he’s playing, and there’s the opportunity, I think, of he and this character building something that can be one of those things that people really remember. Patrick did it, and the way that Patrick fused with that suit and fused with the character has carried it 15 years further and made it possible for us to do it again. I feel like with Peter, we’ve landed another person who is fusing with this creature, and if we can get all our jets going, which means enough people watch this thing, enough people say yes and want more of the show, I think we can actually get a really remarkable thing up and going.
Jackie Earle Haley, as The Terror, is also incredible. I didn’t even recognize him in the costume, but he is truly scary in his scene with young Arthur. The Terror is one of the few characters who has been in the comics and the animated series and the live-action series. Is that why you chose him to be the first big supervillain of the series?
Edlund: I think so. In a way, there was no greater villain introduced in the comic book, as far as more dangerous or menacing or powerful. From that point on, The Terror’s just been this image of the evergreen human evil that gets old but does not die. It felt right. When I did just the basic averaging out of things that were always companions, The Terror had always been there. It was easy to assume there was a reason for that. When I started to expand the larger mythology for this new series — I’ve got four-and-a-half seasons, probably, [plotted]; I know where I want to go, and I know a lot about all of it — The Terror fits in in a way that will help me have fun with all the superhero universes that we are, right now, subjects of. When we view a Marvel universe or a DC universe, they have their own distinguishing marks that have been with us for sometimes 50 to 80 years. Those marks have colonized in our brains. They’re like swing sets and merry-go-rounds I get to play with in other people’s heads, because they’ve been built by other dynasties. I get to go in now and, if I do it right, The Terror will ring all the bells that Dr. Doom and Lex Luthor and the great criminal masterminds, even The Joker, especially as expressed by Heath Ledger, did. All those figures can be evoked mythologically in The Terror.
Was Jackie someone you always had in mind to play The Terror?
Edlund: Yes. I’ve loved him since Bad News Bears and Breaking Away. Moocher in Breaking Away is incredibly real. He did what he does, and he did it for us. There’s this moment where he’s done messing with this kid, Arthur. You’ll see it in the pilot, readers of this, but his eyes go dead like a shark when he’s looking at this kid, where he’s just like, “Yeah, that’s enough. He’s f–ked up now.” It’s as cold as space ice, and that’s why we got him, in addition to him just looking badass.
The Tick has always had such a devoted, enthusiastic fan base, spanning its now 30-year existence. It feels appropriate that it’s in this place at Amazon where fans are going to get to help decide its future.
Edlund: I think that’s wonderful. This is a pretty geek-forward show, and the process of voting is a very geek-forward process. The cultures that speak quickly and transmit information about these kind of things the fastest, I would say, are the geek culture, and we’re in a potential position of advantage because of that. Poetically it feels nice. I just hope that fans like it. It was done in tremendous earnest, but it’s not the cartoon. It’s not the comic book. It’s not the previous live-action series, and for people who need it to be some previous version of itself, I hope there’s enough of a bridge in it for them to come around. I know what that’s like. I know very much that there’s a spectrum of people out there, and that what they want is very personal. I hope enough people feel the love, because if we’re able to proceed, I feel like in 10 episodes, with a whole season, the visual effects, we could do such fun stuff. We could really get absurd. No other show can do that, because they’re supposed to be dignified. They’re trying desperately not to look stupid, where I’m just finding every possible way we can to get the right stupidity on screen.
You’ve mentioned a few things about The Tick’s future: you have several seasons in mind. You’re thinking about a role for Patrick. Which other friends and foes of Tick’s might pop up if it does get a full season order?
Edlund: Let’s see… an extremely violent vigilante will show up. I won’t name him yet, but he’ll be the worst friend they’ve ever had. Ultimately, The Tick and Arthur, their story is about rags to riches. They’re going to start at the very bottom of the hero heap and work their way to actually saving the world. It’s not an easy thing to do, especially these guys. At a certain point, they’ll have problems with aliens… some time travel…
Would we eventually see other characters we already know from The Tick universe?
Edlund: Yes, you will. That will always be the case, as many as I can translate. For people who are real longtime Tick fans, I know it would be fun to watch characters from the old canon get introduced into the new system. That’s its own source of reward. That’ll be one of the things that we have fun with.
If someone asks you, “Is this a dramedy? Is it leaning more towards comedy, or more towards drama,” what would you say?
Edlund: I think dramedy is probably, first of all, a strange word… Maybe this requires a slightly different explanation… It’s almost like an opera. They take the sweeps of tragedy seriously in an opera, but it’s still a heightened form. Instead of using music, we’re using humor to heighten that relationship to the sweeps of tragedy.
Josephson: Let’s give it a new term. I like “wicked comedy opera.”
Edlund: It’s like a wicked comedy opera. That’s cool. It’s got a little Massachusetts in it. The New Englanders will like that.
That’s very appropriate, too, considering The Tick’s origins.
Edlund: It’s either “wicked comedy opera” or “pisser comedy opera.” I think wicked is better.
Wicked pisser comedy opera?
Edlund: Wicked pisser comedy opera.
The Tick pilot is available to stream now at Amazon.