This Sunday, following a “preview episode” earlier this month, Son of Zorn’s titular animated barbarian will rejoin his estranged live-action family for the FOX show’s series premiere. Zorn stars Jason Sudeikis as a divorced He-Man leaving his home of Zephyria to reconnect with his son in Orange County. Its first episode—directed and executive produced by Eric Appel, who’s directed everything from Garfunkel and Oates music videos (“Handjob, Bland Job, I Don’t Understand Job”) to Silicon Valley—is deceptively lowkey, with plenty of nuanced delivery and impressive technical flourish. It’s also got something called the Brain Gouger.
This mix of low- and highbrow is a perfect fit for Appel; it’s already clear that he and his team are deliviering one of the most ambitious network comedies in recent memory. In the following conversation with Playboy.com, the writer/director/producer discusses manhood, Who Killed Roger Rabbit? and how Zorn’s world has a much kinder stance towards immigration than much of ours.
Son of Zorn doesn’t really look like your typical sitcom.
No, no, it looks like two different types of sitcoms. Very different.
Does this come from your experience? You’ve directed a lot of weirder stuff on Funny or Die and Adult Swim, but also a lot of more traditional comedies.
I think that’s part of what got me hired on the show. I actually went to school for animation years ago, but I ended up going into comedy, which led to me directing at Funny or Die and Adult Swim, where they take risks on young directors. It was so exciting when I read that Zorn script; it was the perfect marriage of what I’m really passionate about and my field of expertise.
It still has that rebellious tone, though it’s working within a standard sitcom framework.
I love that they’re letting us do something so ambitious, which is thanks in large part to [executive producers Phil] Lord and [Chris] Miller, who have proven time and again they can take an idea that most people scoff at and say, “There’s no way that’s gonna work,” and those guys make it work. I had a lot riding on my shoulders in directing this thing. I couldn’t be the first skidmark for Phil and Chris.
I think it works, mostly because you get a lot of offbeat, late-night elements you might not expect.
If Zorn was just a regular dad, or just a guy in a barbarian costume, you wouldn’t be able to do some of the weirder things we do as the season goes on. You’re working with a character from this weird cartoon/action genre that you marry with live-action to create this world. There’s an awareness that this [animated/live-action combination] exists on our Earth, so it’s almost as if it’s a regular dad doing regular dad things. The characters’ reactions keep it grounded in our own weird reality.
You’ve got three very different representations of masculinity in Craig (Tim Meadows), Alan (Johnny Pemberton) and Zorn.
Craig is a little more of a quirky oddball than in the first episode. He’s like Zorn in a way in that he says what he’s thinking at all times; it’s just always the opposite of Zorn.
How do you strike a balance between parody and reality?
It’s a thing you definitely have to coach the actors on. This started as a 13-minute presentation before it was picked up to series. As crazy as the concept is, you need there to be these real emotional arcs, and as crazy as Zorn is, you have to believe he’s just a bad dad who’s really trying. Who Framed Roger Rabbit is a big thing I looked at in prepping for this. I mean, it’s one of my favorite movies so I looked at it in my brain because I have it memorized. They created this world where humans coexist with cartoon characters and you buy into the fact that yes, Toontown is right next to Hollywood. The cartoons do big cartoony things and it’s accepted by the live-action cast. They’re not doing double takes when Roger Rabbit busts through the wall; they’re thinking “Great, now we have to fix this wall.”
It’s all practical concerns.
Yeah, so now it’s Zorn doing insane things, and what are the repercussions? Like him killing the bird in the driveway in the pilot. It’s not about “Oh, look at this horrific thing.” It’s about “Ugh, c’mon Zorn, now we have to clean this bird up.”
We have to hose off the driveway for 10 minutes.
We have to hose the driveway, chop it up somehow because we’re not going to call 1-800-GOT-JUNK to get rid of it. So it was about seeing what we could get away with and what real world repercussions would happen. How people would react.
Zorn has more intense reactions to this world than most of the human cast.
He’s the real fish out of water; he has to accept Orange County. People see him and they know where he’s from, what people from that place behave like and what their culture is. They give him a pass on a lot of things. If he pulls a sword out, they’re not going to call the cops immediately. They just have to tell him—very sternly—to put it away or he’s going to get thrown out.
So really, it’s a very tolerant immigrant story.
Sort of the opposite of our actual political climate.