Hey, you got your cartoon in my live-action comedy! No, you got your live-action comedy in my cartoon! However you argue this one, you will see something different (and striking, like with a sword) on TV this Sunday with the debut of Son of Zorn.
Executive-produced by The Lego Movie overlords Chris Miller and Phil Lord, the hybrid comedy merges two worlds, Who Framed Roger Rabbit-style: A He-Man-like cartoon warrior from Zephyria named Zorn (voiced by Jason Sudeikis) returns to live-action Orange County, Calif. to re-bond with his high school-aged son, Alan (Johnny Pemberton), and ex-wife, Edie (Cheryl Hines), who has (mostly) moved on: She’s now engaged to an online psychology professor, Craig (Tim Meadows). After vanquishing many foes, Zorn is having a mountain of difficulty readjusting to life in the suburbs, such as when he tries to use a severed bejeweled hand in a change machine. Before you tune into the series premiere on Sunday night at 8 p.m. ET (following Fox’s NFL doubleheader), read what several cast members and producers had to say about this comedy of colliding universes.
On their first reaction to the project:
CHERYL HINES: My first thought is, “I’m not sure what you’re talking about.” It was a hard concept to visualize, and really until I saw the trailer, it was hard to understand what this show was going to look like. So it was kind of blind faith… At the same time I was thinking, “I’m married to an animated barbarian… What?”
JOHNNY PEMBERTON: I thought it was interesting and there were some really cool nouns in there. I like weird proper nouns — like Glombeast and Zephyria — and all the specifics were funny. I really thought it wasn’t going to happen — it was just too interesting.
On the challenges of shooting opposite a CGI giant who is added in post-production:
PEMBERTON: It was super difficult. After the first day, I left feeling like I was just terrible… You know how you get a headache when you learn a foreign language? It’s like that. It took me a couple weeks. It was really difficult… It’s like playing Pin the Tail on the Donkey in the dark or something — sometimes you do something and you’re just not sure: “Well, I guess we got it?” And then you see what they do with it afterwards and you’re like, “Wow, it was good!”
HINES: It’s a huge adjustment. It’s kind of the opposite of Curb Your Enthusiasm because on Curb it’s all improvised. In every scene you’re really listening to your scene partner and watching what’s going on. On Zorn it’s all in your head. So you’re talking to nobody and then imagining how that character would be responding, and then responding to what you think their response would be... Sometimes we’re doing a scene and there’s a guy on the floor with a long green glove on, holding a cup. So you are talking to nobody and trying not to be distracted by the guy on the ground with the long green glove.
CHRIS MILLER: We are attracted to difficult ambitious ideas that seem hard to execute. Maybe we’re masochists or maybe we just enjoy the challenge.
SALLY BRADFORD McKENNA [executive producer/showrunner]: We will think of something and it will seem really easy to pull off and then [the animation supervisor] will have to come to us and be like, “You guys…” Any kind of eating or drinking or interaction with any prop is difficult. It’s so technically difficult to have Zorn pick up a live-action cup and see the liquid going into him, that all has to be thought through… What we found is, an easy production episode ends up being a much harder animation episode, and conversely the harder production episodes are easier for animation. So at what point do you want to be stressed — now or later?
On Zorn as a fish-out-of-water story:
McKENNA: It’s him putting cream cheese on a bagel using his sword to spread the cream cheese. It’s a bull in a china shop. It’s seeing this giant warrior who was regarded as a hero in his homeland and now he’s trying to get through a day at the office.
REED AGNEW [co-creator and original co-showrunner who serves as executive producer now that McKenna has joined the show and taken over as showrunner]: We take something extraordinary and then keep it very ordinary. When Zorn is like, “I AM ZORN!!!,” everyone’s like, “You need to be quiet. Okay, sir, you can’t act like that.”
On the residual romantic sparks between Zorn and Edie:
McKENNA: It’s not a “Will they or won’t they?” between Zorn and Edie. We want to know that Edie and Craig are together and they’re happy and they love each other and they’re going to be with each other. But we play with it more on Zorn’s side in terms of him having to let go of the fact that they’re no longer together; she’s moved on, and he can move on as well.
HINES: The writers are really smart and gifted and they’re good at painting an intricate picture, because anybody who has an ex-husband or an ex-wife, especially if you have kids together, it’s a complicated relationship. If you were together and you’re not together now, there’s a reason, and that’s part of life. So yes, Zorn and I have at times a complicated relationship, but most of the times it’s pretty simple. And then, once is a while, it’s complicated [Laughs].
AGNEW: She’s like, “Zorn, I’m different now!” But she still has that in her. She’s [engaged] to the opposite of Zorn. She used to do cocaine and have fivesomes with mountain trolls, and every now and then it comes out and Craig’s like, “What? You did that?”
RELATED: Hear what TV shows to watch and avoid this fall
On the strained relationship between Zorn and Alan:
PEMBERTON: It’s a pretty classic tale of dad getting his s— together late in life, so it’s a little bit too little too late. But [for] Zorn to come back into everyone’s life like he was never gone, there’s this resentment that they all have, especially Edie and Alan. They are like, “Look, you’ve been gone all this time and you can’t just jump back in and act like it was nothing.” But at the same time it’s also Zorn; we know Zorn, so we have to give him a little bit of the benefit of the doubt, like, “Okay, this guy doesn’t understand a lot of basic things.” I think Alan feels bad for Zorn, but at the same time it’s complicated.
HINES: It’s part of what everybody goes through, and I like that. But it’s also harder for [Alan] because he’s got a dad who is a barbarian and doesn’t wear a shirt and shows up at the prom.
NEXT: If Alan’s dad is animated, then what does that mean for him? [pagebreak]
On the reveal that Alan (whose full name is Alangulon) is half-cartoon:
PEMBERTON: There’s the innate thing where he is literally half-Zephyrian from waist down. As much as he likes to think that he’s not like his dad because there’s this deep-seated resentment, and as much as he doesn’t like him, every time he goes to the bathroom or does anything, he can’t ignore this. He’s equal parts Edie and Zorn biologically, but Alan really takes after Edie because that’s the nature-versus-nurture kind of thing. She raised him. He also takes after Edie because Edie has the same attitude toward Zorn: There’s this resentment. Alan follows Edie’s lead on that.
On using a cartoon warrior in the real live-action world to put a fresh spin on a traditional comedy story:
LORD: We came at it with the idea of, “Let’s talk about something real with this very crazy concept. How could we use a hybrid animated show to say something about regular people?” It’s really hard to write a show about a family with a divorce at the center of it — because normally it’s such a bummer — and because this is such a weird concept, it actually lent itself to talking about a family that’s still together after divorce. It made it something really interesting.
McKENNA: He’s starting to feel like he’s the one person who’s alone — Alan has a girlfriend, Edie has moved on to Craig, even his boss is scoring with people at the bar — and he revisits an old flame and he drunk-dials his ex-girlfriend [named Radiana] voiced by Olivia Wilde. Everyone is saying, “She was bad for you. She literally was radioactive.” And then we see Zorn getting back into a toxic relationship and it’s foolish: She literally is toxic. So he starts deteriorating because he’s dating a radioactive woman. It’s a premise that you’ve seen on a lot of sitcoms, but it’s just told in a very fresh, very strange, kind of ridiculous way.
AGNEW: We have the luxury of [reinventing] any old trope that you’ve seen a million times. The idea that a dad who’s been a s—ty dad is going to buy his kid a new car to try to fix things — it’s an unhealthy way to fix things; it’s like throwing money at the problem, “Look what I got you!” — instead, it’s a giant bird you can fly on. You’ve seen that trope, but it’s funny because it’s a bird: “That’s going back right where it came from! You’re not buying our kid a car! You need to be a dad!”
On what kind of growth to expect from the strong-headed Zorn over the season:
LORD: He’s sort of an optimist. He doesn’t realize what a misfit he is, so he’s kind of blissfully unaware, kind of like Borat. Borat is really a buoyant guy; he’s a pretty positive dude, and this guy tries to make the best of his new life and apply the skills of the battlefield to selling industrial soap dispensers.
McKENNA: He comes into the pilot not wanting to change; he comes in expecting his kid and his family to accept him back and not thinking he needs to do anything. So, the arc of the first season is him slowly realizing that he does need to make these small changes.
[SPOILER ALERT: Skip the following question if you want to avoid a plot detail from the first episode.]
On how the show — and Alan — uses his cartoon legs to tell stories about identity:
PEMBERTON: It’s definitely a secret because he’s really embarrassed about it. At that age, you just don’t feel like the things that would be accepted will be accepted; you just think that everyone is going to hate you. I was really sick growing up and I hid that from even my closest friends because I thought, “If they find out this they are going to make fun of me.” It would probably be the opposite. So we explore that a lot with Alan, where he’s trying to hide it. There’s also the gift of it, the power of having those legs — we explore that a lot. It is like a superpower. The football coach finds out about his legs because Alan becomes confident enough to debut them at school. In the end it’s a thing where he’s like, “I’m going to wear shorts to school and be proud of who I am instead of hiding it.”
McKENNA: It’s the perfect message, the perfect kind of symbol of the blended family — these two people coming together who’ve made this kid — and it’s Alan adjusting to both the shame about where he comes from and shame about his father, but also learning to be proud of him and proud of his heritage… That’s a lot of Alan’s arc for the first season: hiding that and coming to terms with that. He gets into a relationship with a girl, and not wanting her to know about it is a big hurdle for him to get over. You’d see that on any other sitcom — it’s the kid that is nervous about being short or wearing glasses — and this is just a different way of telling that story, which is: He has cartoon legs.
On a dream scene the actors would love to film:
PEMBERTON: “I think it would be cool to be in Zephyria. But at the same time I also know shooting that would just be me looking around at things that aren’t there. So it would be great to see it afterwards, but in the moment it would be, “Oh, well that was cool. We did that. Okay, you want to do that again? I guess it doesn’t matter, right? Because I’m the least interesting thing in this room.”
HINES: It would be amazing to have Edie go to Zephyria and visit her old house because it is really hard to imagine, even though I talk about it in some of the episode, the pit that we had, the skulls and spikes… In the past, my character was much wilder; we use to have fivesomes with the trolls under the bridges… Maybe we see Edie go off the rails and take a vacation in Zephyria. Get back to her wild days.
Son of Zorn premieres Sunday at 8 p.m. ET, following an NFL doubleheader on Fox. Preview a clip from the series premiere, below.