Pokemon Detective Pikachu is one of my all-time favorite movies of recent memory. So getting to meet Dan Hernandez and Benji Samit, admittedly, was a screenwriting dream of mine come true. Hearing the partners talk about their process, along with seeing just what went into the writing Koala Man, has me convinced that it’s likely the series will be a decent hit. Especially, given all the news of its extended voice acting crew.
For those not in the know, Koala Man is the story of a middle-aged dad that’s a stickler for the rules. When evil forces seek out to harm the small town of Dapto, Australia, it’s up to Koala Man who takes a stand! Often, by dragging his family along for the adventure.
As a special treat for NYCC, we got to talk with screenwriters and EPs of Koala Man, Dan Hernandez and Benji Samit in this interview.
How did you get involved with the project?
Benji: “So we have an overall deal with 20th Animation. They were looking for things to do and they found Michael, and his Koala Man shorts that he had made in Australia. They just loved the character and they thought that it would fit with us. So, they sent us the scripts, we loved it, and we met with Michael and clicked instantly. Within 5 minutes of the meeting we decided we were all doing this show together and helped him develop his character.”
Dan: “Michael is an amazing creator. Smiling Friends and Yolo:Crystal Fantasy are awesomely hilarious shows. The challenge of this is not losing that sensibility of the Adult Swim style, when you extend it out to double its length. I think that was something that we were able to help with having done many shows and crafted seasons. The three of us were able to take what was amazing about what Michael does and apply it to a streaming 22 minute show. Finding that balance was a challenge, but ultimately, we were really pleased with how it turned out.”
What kind of superhero tropes did you want to bring to your show?
Dan: “All of them, quite frankly. Each of them, as you will see, is pretty directly analogous to a trope or genre that excites us. You have your Mad Max, They Live/Body Snatchers, time travel, and all kinds of insanity.
One of the goals for us was to explore all of those tropes. The superhero has become such a part of the pop culture lexicon, but for me, growing up, it was not that. It was really digging into the comics and studying them obsessively. I can’t ride a bike but I can tell you about the first 10 issues of X-Men, straight.
It was so important to get to the root because anything presented super seriously, when you deconstruct it, is quite funny. Batman running off at the end of Dark Knight with the ‘hero we need’ speech. Or, I think of Gravity, as she’s howling around the Earth in a vacuum. It’s hilarious when you think about it, but contextually, quite serious.
We try to decouple it from the seriousness. We always play the threat serious as much as possible and pack all the episodes with tropes they’re familiar with that fans will recognize.”
Was there ever a fear that this show was becoming too Australian?
Benji: “A little bit but we wanted it to feel authentic, for Australians, and have it not be just a show to entertain Americans. Several of our writers are Australian. They brought an authenticity to it. As a group, so often, specificity is universal in itself, where it’s like, people really do appreciate seeing the peculiarities of other cultures. The differences help bring us together.”
Dan: “It was a discussion. Ultimately, we decided that what sets us apart was that it’s Australian. It was one of the things when breaking story, that we were able to avoid a little bit of ‘The Simpsons did it‘ tropes because these Australian setups.”
Benji: “There’ve been thousands of American based adult animation episodes over the years where, it’s just like, we’ve seen this plot again-and-again. We’re in the writers room talking about tall poppy syndrome. And we’ve never seen that before. It’s just so many things the Australian writers bring up that’s a classic episode that no one’s ever made that makes the show feel fresher.”
We’re in a renaissance with superhero films and adult animation. What do you personally think audiences will resonate with most?
Dan: “I think it’s a deeply positive show. Koala Man loves his town, wife, and family. He doesn’t always do things in the right way. It’s not even clear he’s even good at being a super hero. But his heart is always in the right place. He always has an optimism that even surprised us when writing it.”
Benji: “There’s so much media these days with so much cynicism and this show isn’t that at all. it sort of developed that way and the heart of this character is just so pure, and so when we leaned into it, it just made the show better. We’ve embraced it.”
Dan: “I think by the end of the day, people will be surprised that the stakes of the show combined with what’s happening makes it feel like a good superhero movie. There is a great superhero story being told. And while you can watch any of the episodes individually and enjoy it, elements of single episodes contribute to the finale of the show.
There is a reward in watching the show and being like: Oh, they set something in motion in episode one that didn’t pay dividends until the end. It’s a light serialization. I think it’s a rewarding watch where by the end, I get very emotional watching it because the stakes become very high and invested in the emotional journey of these characters. That what sets it apart. Suddenly, you find yourself caring in a way you didn’t expect.”
Who’s more adorable Koala Man or Detective Pikachu?
Dan: “Oh, it’s hard to beat detective, Pikachu. In a purely adorable way…”
Benji: “Though Koala Man is pretty cuddly too. Fuzzy in the right places.”
Dan: “He is but Pikachu is such an iconic cute design so I have to give it the nod.”
How do you build a supporting cast that’s interesting but doesn’t overshadow your main character?
Benji: “That’s when we all look to the Simpsons as a guiding light. One of the first things we asked is how do we create Australian Springfield? Let’s populate this town with fun characters we’d like to see pop up.”
Dan: “I think that one of the fun thing about The Simpsons, and especially South Park I find is, is that you can start to anticipate how different denizens are going to react to the situation. You know Randy is going to overreact on South Park, and sort of, stand-in for the American man. I think that there’s a certain joy to that. That as the audience, the second we cut-to Randy, we know he’s going to take it too far.
Or on The Simpsons, you know, Springfield is going to turn into a mob at some point. They’re going to be an angry mob and Reverend Lovejoy and his wife are gonna scream about the children and the ethics of the town. Barney is not gonna know what’s going on. There’s a familiarity with the side characters of this world that weirdly makes it feel more realistic, I think. It feels like a lived-in place.
In fact, Michael is actually from Dapto. I think it’s applying his lived experience that makes the show kind of set in a surreal version of ‘Australia’. Like in Twin Peaks, you recognize it as American topics. These are Australian issues and types, but we can recognize, some grain of truth to them. Even if the stakes become surreal and supernatural.”
When working in adult animation, how often do you fear repeating The Simpsons?
Dan: “You know, I just look at classic shows as tools in the utility belt. As you become a showrunner, you can become better at identifying what is necessary for the story. Like, what we need is a scene to invoke the same feeling as Wayne and Garth on the roof of their car. I don’t mean we need to copy it, exactly, we just need to evoke that same feeling as those guys who want what they have. It’s out there, but they can’t get it.
I feel like The Simpsons is similar in that way where it’s like, we need a scene, reminiscent of Homer and Mr. Burns getting caught in the cabin. The madness and the suspicion and we’re gonna do it our own way. It’s a shorthand of things that we know work. Once you have a vocabulary of those types of things, they’re almost modular in a way that you can slot them in and say, what you really need is something that has the same impact as that moment. Figure out how to do it your own way. I see it as a helper in some ways.
On the other hand… you’ll sometimes find yourself going the other way. Like, oh no! Rick and Morty did that last week!
It can be a double-edged sword.
In general, I think if you use it as a guiding light it actually is helpful.”
Look at these Koala Kuties! @MichaelRCusack @BenjiSamit @DemiLardner pic.twitter.com/xhJbK1aPzL
— Dan Hernandez (@CubanMissileDH) October 10, 2022