“A Tug Of War Between Story & Jokes” John Harvatine IV & Tom Root Discuss Their Animated Comedy ‘Crossing Swords’
The world of adult animation has forged a reputation on our television screens. Animated TV shows like Robot Chicken, Archer, and South Park have entertained adult, and not so adult, audiences for decades and show no signs of slowing down. Robot Chicken alumni John Harvatine IV and Tom Root spoke with Creative Screenwriting Magazine about their newest adult offering on Hulu called Crossing Swords – a tale about young peasant boy named Patrick (Nicholas Hoult) who’s desire to become a squire comes true.
New TV series ideas take many years to form and gestate. (It was around nine years in the case of Crossing Swords). Root and Harvatine were working on season 5 of Robot Chicken, but they had no further plans beyond season 6. The duo formed Stoopid Buddies Pictures Stoodios and the time was ripe for them to “Cross Their Swords.” They thought long and hard about what their next TV show might look and feel like.
“The idea of using really simple pre-school toys and insert them into a very R-rated adventure story appealed to both of us,” confessed Tom Root. Their adult animation took many forms over many years until the TV series gained traction. It contains war, murder, and full-frontal nudity.
A Process Of Iteration
Crossing Swords underwent some major shifts until Root and Harvatine settled on its current format. “Earlier drafts were about the king’s treasury, the royal jewel vaults (à la Scrooge McDuck). Blarney had two kids who lived with their mother at the castle and he wasn’t allowed to see them anymore because he was way behind on child support,” continued Tom Root. In order to see his kids, Blarney dressed up as a nanny and took a job at the castle. “The title of the original pilot was Mrs. Douchefire,” a nod to Mrs. Doubtfire.
Root and Harvatine recall how vastly different the show looked in the early days before they settled on a form. “The siblings were robbing castles. It was our first stab,” said Root. After considerable reworking and external feedback, the animation duo did some soul-searching and asked themselves, “What the show meant and what was the purpose of the story.”
Crossing Swords didn’t feel right for many years until Tom Root and John Harvatine decided that it was going to be Patrick’s story. Patrick is a kind-hearted peasant who aspired to enter the castle in order to help people, but encountered corruption and numerous obstacles. “This is what the show was really about. Anything that didn’t serve Patrick’s journey was discarded,” said Root. They could still have fun with Blarney, the nanny, and pots of gold so long as Patrick maintained the spine of the show.
If a scene didn’t serve Patrick’s story it didn’t belong in the show
Interestingly, the animation team reshaped the concept over many years before they even wrote the first script. “It all started with the aesthetic of the show. We wanted the characters to look like peg people,” said Root. Then they drew inspiration from Game Of Thrones and constructed a map of the Crossing Swords world. Then they created a show bible of all the characters to guide them through the narrative process.
Tom Root and John Harvatine have worked on many animated TV series including creating some opening sequences for The Simpsons. This allowed for external visual and story influences to flow into Crossing Swords. Harvatine worked on an animated TV show about Fisher-Price little people which permeated into the look of Swords. Equally, there were aspects of working on other TV shows they did not want to bring forward into their current show.
“When I first starting animating I was working on a peg people little person show. When I got bored of this, I wanted to maintain the simple and cute, peg people look, but flesh out the characters to give them more depth and grown-up ambitions,” said Harvatine. This gave rise to Crossing Swords. Simple look, complex characters.
By definition, adult comedy contains adult humor. Crossing Swords is a cocktail of raunchy jokes and political satire. In the TV writers’ room, “The funniest joke stands. There isn’t any other agenda,” confessed the writers.
An ideal script would be page to page jokes. This format would work for standup comedy, but not for television. “It’s a constant tug of war between humor and story. It works best when they overlap when the story is integral to the jokes and vice versa.”
All jokes are fair game. The only thing that Root and Harvatine prohibit is preaching. “The last thing we want is assuming our point of view is right and we’re going to sell you that point of view.” The point of Crossing Swords is to present Patrick with a problem and watch him struggle with it. The creators don’t want the audience to feel lectured, but rather think about Patrick’s conflicts and travel with him.
Crossing Swords could have been told from a variety of perspectives such as King Merriman (Luke Evans) or Queen Tulip (Alannah Ubach). Despite neither Root nor Harvatine never having achieved royal squirehood status, they decided to make Patrick the main character of the TV show. “We wanted to tell a story of a character experiencing a new world for the first time, rather than the king who’s been prepared. In this version, the viewer gets to learn with Patrick” This was the emotional foundation the show was built on.
They were also attracted to the idea of having a protagonist who’s also an underdog – an experience both Root and Harvatine are familiar with.
Patrick’s journey involves being in a position of power and forced to make a bad choice from a crop of bad options. “When you’re a kid, you’re told the difference between right and wrong. When you’re an adult, you realize there isn’t always a clear distinction between the two. So you pick the lesser of two evils, or try to” said Root. If you continue along this path of bad choices, you become so far removed from your initial goal, you eventually lose yourself.
This is an integral part of Patrick’s adventures that solidifies Crossing Swords. “Even when he thinks he’s doing the right thing, there’s fall out suggesting there was never a good choice to begin with,” declared Root.
“There are thematic elements of the nature of power, coming of age, fish out of water, and being careful what you wish for in Crossing Swords,” added Root. Patrick is driven by one main question, “How do you stay true to yourself when you are mired in an environment that’s exactly the opposite of who you are?” he added. The TV series also explores themes of fitting in. In Patrick’s case, the issue is one of him trying to fit in when the people around you are doing what you know isn’t right. “It takes a lot of fortitude to avoid being corrupted by power and doing what’s right. It’s interesting to take a character who’s so pure and naïve and watch him struggle with this conflict.”
In conclusion, the pair were asked what makes a successful animated adult comedy. “It all comes down to characters you can identify with immediately and the fallout resulting from their actions.”
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