There’s Mike Rowe the Dirty Jobs host and there’s Mike Rowe the animation writer/producer who cartoon fans may recognize from his tenures on Family Guy and Futurama (the latter of which earned him an Emmy Award). The latter Mike Rowe began his show business career on the New York City stand-up scene before landing gigs writing jokes for Saturday Night Live‘s “Weekend Update” segments and sketches for shows that aired on MTV, A&E, and Comedy Central. In addition to his credits on Family Guy and Futurama, he’s earned writer and producer credits for Brickleberry and Chozen, as well as multiple credits writing for Comedy Central roasts.
Mike Rowe’s latest project is The Paranormal Action Squad, where he earned a producer credit as well as multiple writing credits. The new series airs on YouTube Red, YouTube’s premium service, with three of eight episodes available now, with the rest rolling out through November and December. We were able to talk with Mike Rowe over the phone about his work on the new series and how it differed from his experiences with network TV animation.
TOONZONE NEWS: How did you get attached to Paranormal Action Squad?
MIKE ROWE: It was actually SeaNanners, the gamer, who had the germ of this idea based a little bit on his dad and his dad’s relationship with his buddies. He and his friend Hank Stepleton — Hank is the producer of the show — they started talking about it, and they just started making each other laugh thinking, “Wouldn’t it be funny if these guys were these low-tech, low-rent ghost-chaser guys?” They’re the ones who pitched the idea to YouTube Red, and I came in after they sold it. My job was to come in and shape it, build out the world, develop the characters, and start figuring out how to do stories with these guys.
TOONZONE NEWS: The show’s all up on YouTube Red now, right? How long ago was it from when you signed on?
MIKE ROWE: This show went incredibly fast, especially for animated shows. When I was on Family Guy, sometimes from page to air date would be two years. Here, we built 8 episodes…I think we started in June, and then we’re done and airing now. So it was fun. It was a crazy challenge because I really didn’t have a full-time writing staff. This is not a network budget — they were healthy budgets, but there was a lot of different ways that people were creative with less. I had to get scripts done and get enough back to start the recordings and the animatics. But it was a cool challenge and it was fun. I liked it. I liked being put on the spot. I’m not sure how it would be if we got an order of a hundred of them (laughs), how much fun that would be. We should have such a problem.
TOONZONE NEWS: How did the choice of the platform affect the production process, especially in comparison to other shows you worked on? You mentioned you had to work a lot faster, but what other things did you have to change or make adjustments for?
MIKE ROWE: Typically you have a writing staff with you at least five days a week, helping you create stories. I’m used to 6 to 10 people helping sometimes. I had a couple of writers helping me for the total run of this for a total of 8 days, so there was a lot on my own, and I just had to step up, you know? For 8 episodes, that was manageable, but that was a huge adjustment. Obviously, shows would be a little sharper with a bigger staff and with people keeping me in check, but I think they turned out great. It’s just a different world, a little bit now, with all these streaming channels.
What was also different but a lot better was that YouTube does not interfere a lot. They’ll help with all the pilots, but they kind of leave you alone and play with the toy. In my experience on a network show, you have to deal with a whole string of people giving you notes, and waiting for them to collect their notes, and then doing another draft, so that’s another reason why we were able to get things done fast. I have a show in development right now with a network, and I had a phone meeting just to do notes on the outline, and there were 12 people on the phone. It’s like old TV, I think. We’re in a pioneer stage now where there are a lot of these places that are just letting the writers put their own words out there. I think in most places, it’s working, and we’re getting a lot of cool and interesting shows.
TOONZONE NEWS: Do you feel like that creative freedom is changing the networks at all? Are they paying attention to those kinds of trends? Are they giving you a little more freedom now, because they know that you can go off and do something else?
MIKE ROWE: I don’t know if it’s really set in yet, in a lot of cases. The last time I was at a network was when I worked on 2 Broke Girls about…two years ago, I think? And it’s a whole different machine. It just seemed…I got there, and I guess I’ve been spoiled because it was so high stress and high pressure. I did not have fun, at all. It just seemed like the weight of the world was on every page of the script, you know? And it’s just not fun for me. If I wanted a high-stress job, I would have stayed in Connecticut and worked in a factory (laughs). I’m trying desperately to find places where I can have fun and feel like I fit in and it’s the right sensibility.
TOONZONE NEWS: I think a lot of creativity can come out of having boundaries, and I know a lot of shows will establish their own set of internal rules, and how things will work, like how Chuck Jones had about a dozen rules for a Coyote/Road Runner cartoon.
MIKE ROWE: Yeah, yeah. I did the same for this, too. For example, part of the show was grounded when we’re spending time with these guys before any sort of paranormal activity happens or any sort of monster attacks. Everything has to be grounded and things that happen can only happen in real life. These guys travel around in a souped-up garbage truck. One of the animatics I got back showed the truck popping a wheelie and screeching off, and that was exactly where I said, “No, if it can’t happen in real life, we can’t have it do that.” UNTIL a monster attacks or until we go into some parallel universe or some underworld. Then all bets are off and you can go crazy.
I also tried to set up a format for the episodes, which is simply that in the beginning, we get to know the guys for one or two jokes in the real world. Then some emergency happens, they have to get there and stop it. Whatever they do they make it worse and get into bigger trouble. By the end they have to get out of the trouble. Hopefully each will have a little emotional thread. And it’s 11 minutes. I’m trying to squeeze in a lot of story but I think it’s important. What I learned on Futurama is if you can make the little emotional moments work, the fans really start to get attached to the show. It makes them relatable. So hopefully they’ll at some point catch on to that, you know?
TOONZONE NEWS: Did you always know your first season would be 8 episodes?
MIKE ROWE: Yeah, the order was 8 episodes.
TOONZONE NEWS: Did you have plans for running plot threads or larger story arcs that would cover all 8 of them? Or are these all independent episodes?
MIKE ROWE: They will all play independently, but we have running threads going throughout the show. Like Paul and Eddie are the two main characters. Paul is the softer, gentler guy, and they’re both kind of sci-fi misfits. They make up and invent their own tools and don’t do a very good job of it, but Paul’s goal is to get the attention of the Nobel Prize people. He wants the Nobel Peace Prize. So when he conducts these experiments, he’ll say, “We gotta take a picture and send it to the Nobel people.” Eddie’s runner is that he’s been doing this since his wife passed away, and we learn that his wife was killed by the Sasquatch. And the Sasquatch keeps re-appearing just to mess with him. It’s like, “You killed my wife, that’s not enough, now you gotta come and mess with me?” And Sasquatch keeps showing up throughout the thing.
TOONZONE NEWS: Looking back on the experience, knowing what you know now, is there anything you would have done differently?
MIKE ROWE: I don’t know that I’d have done anything differently. What I did do was learn a ton of stuff with what I had to work with, so if they want to do more, I can see ways to do things more efficiently. Things to help step up the quality of the show, all that kind of stuff, because every new show is just going to get better and better every episode. Hopefully the fans will give us a shot, stick with it, and watch it grow, and even have some ownership to it. That’s kind of the goal. Like with Futurama, I really love that world where fans get dedicated to a show and they know everything about it and they invest in the characters. We hopefully create a world that they want to go to all the time. With Futurama, fans knew more about what we were writing at the time than what we knew. At times, on Futurama, we would go to the fan sites and get some backstory and information that we forgot about, you know? So I would love it if we could build to that at some point. It’s a long way away, but let’s see if some momentum happens.
MIKE ROWE: I have a cool thing in development at Fox but I can’t talk about it yet. I usually surface when they do the Comedy Central roast. I don’t know what people are saying about it, but everyone should know that in YouTube Red, they get original programming and original movies, but they also get Google Music, which is worth the price of admission there, and they get all of YouTube without commercials and banners and stuff. I just want to make sure people know what they’re paying for.
TOONZONE NEWS: Last question I have is how much mail do you end up getting for the Dirty Jobs guy or the guy who plays Deadshot on Arrow?
MIKE ROWE: Oh, I don’t know about the Arrow guy. Is there another Mike Rowe?
TOONZONE NEWS: Yeah, he goes by “Michael.” When I first started doing the research for this and I searched for Mike Rowe or Michael Rowe, I had to take out Dirty Jobs first and then I found you and the Deadshot actor.
MIKE ROWE: Well, the Dirty Jobs Mike Rowe is kind of vocal politically and which is not quite my political view. Since the election, a lot of people on my Facebook page thought I was that Mike Rowe and they started sending me memes and things that I really didn’t want to see, thinking I would be happy to see them. But I did get a residual check of his, and I cashed it in because it was a dollar and six cents. I figured it was easier than trying to track him down. It was easier to cash it. And I know he’s aware of me. We have mutual friends, and my name’s come up and he knows who I am, but we’ve never connected.
Toonzone News would like to thank Mike Rowe for taking the time to talk with us, and to the crew at YouTube Red PR and MPRM Communications for setting it up. The Paranormal Action Squad is available for streaming now on YouTube Red, with the first episode available for free. You can follow Mike Rowe on Facebook or via his Twitter feed.