For Episode 2, go to Cartoon Network
Sunday 10:30 PM on Cartoon Network Adult Swim
TRANSPLANTING A TWISTED PARODY
by Mike Hale NYT.com
BY Rob Corddry’s own count, he did a hundred interviews when his Web series “Childrens Hospital” appeared in 2008 in which he said that it was “in no way a television idea,” and that a television version “will never happen.”
So, of course, it happened. “Childrens Hospital” begins its new life as a television series Sunday night, part of Cartoon Network’s Adult Swim programming, making Mr. Corddry either a liar or a very bad prognosticator. As he did postproduction work recently at a North Hollywood editing studio, he chose to plead ignorance when asked why his show, among hundreds of online series, should be one of the few to make the jump to the slightly bigger screen.
“We have a very good relationship with the people over at Warner Brothers,” he said, referring to the company that owns thewb.com, where his show first lived, and is a corporate sibling of Adult Swim. “Beyond that I have no idea.”
He’s more definitive about the inspiration for “Childrens Hospital,” which was born out of the enforced idleness caused by the 2007-8 Writers Guild strike. (The strike was the seedbed for other high-profile Web projects like “Dr. Horrible’s Sing-Along Blog,” with Neil Patrick Harris, and the Lisa Kudrow show “Web Therapy,” which will be seen on Showtime later this year.)
“The idea was born of child abuse, essentially,” Mr. Corddry said. At a hospital with his daughter, who had injured her arm, he was taken by the comic possibilities of the terrifying scene: “scared parents, crying mothers, tiny bodies on tiny gurneys.”
A result was an unsparing parody and, in its twisted way, a celebration of mainstream hospital shows, packed into 10 episodes of about five minutes each. The primary target was “Grey’s Anatomy,” with nods to “ER” and “Scrubs” and a subtext of deep affection for “M*A*S*H.”
Doctors committed darkly humorous varieties of malpractice when they weren’t breaking up or making out, sometimes with their young patients. Mr. Corddry wore slasher-movie clown makeup as Dr. Blake Downs, who refused to operate, believing instead in the healing power of laughter.
Getting the online show made wasn’t necessarily a huge challenge. “Studios were green-lighting tons of Web shows and treating it as near-free development,” Mr. Corddry said. But what made “Childrens Hospital” stand out from the start was its cast, an unusually accomplished group in the anonymous and poorly paid world of Web series.
In addition to Mr. Corddry, with his “Daily Show” and film credentials, it included Megan Mullally (“Will and Grace”), Lake Bell (“Boston Legal”), Erinn Hayes (“Parenthood”), Ken Marino (“Reaper,” “Party Down”), Nick Offerman (“Parks and Recreation”), Ed Helms (“The Office”) and Jason Sudeikis (“Saturday Night Live,” “30 Rock”).
“I don’t know what to say,” Mr. Corddry said. “We got everybody we wanted. We went up to our friends and, uh …. ”
Jonathan Stern, an executive producer and writer on the show along with Mr. Corddry, leaped in. “It was faith in Rob and his abilities and what he’d bring to it,” he said. “And knowing that they’d have a good time on it with their friends, and knowing, what’s the worst that will happen? We’ll have two days of doing so-so material.”
After the Web series was posted, both Adult Swim and Comedy Central approached Warner Brothers with the idea of adapting it for television; Adult Swim won what Mr. Corddry called “a very low-stakes bidding war.” He, Mr. Stern and their fellow executive producer David Wain managed to keep most of the cast together for the television show (Ms. Bell, committed to the HBO series “How to Make It in America,” will appear in only four episodes) while adding new regulars like Malin Akerman, Henry Winkler and Kurtwood Smith.
The quality and familiarity of the ensemble is a large part of the answer to the earlier question Mr. Corddry left hanging, regarding why “Childrens Hospital” has been able to follow the path to television blazed by Web series like “quarterlife” and “Sanctuary.”
“Megan Mullally, herself, green-lights a show,” he acknowledged. “I think that’s our main strength.”
Ms. Mullally plays the Chief, an oversexed chief surgeon who flails about on crutches and is an obvious take-off on Dr. Kerry Weaver, the character Laura Innes played for 15 seasons on “E.R.” She said she called Ms. Innes, a fellow Northwestern alumna, before shooting the Web series: “I was like, mmm, just in case. Just in case. But she thought it was great.”
The actors and writers have more room to breathe now that “Childrens Hospital” is a television series, but not much. The episodes for Adult Swim are 15 minutes long (11 ½ minutes after commercials); they will be shown in a half-hour slot at 10:30 p.m. with another 15-minute show, “Delocated.” The original Web episodes have been combined, two at a time, into television episodes that will be shown beginning Sunday. The new episodes will begin on Aug. 22.
The difference between making 5-minute and 11.5-minute shows was substantial. “Essentially the Web series was a series of sketches,” Mr. Corddry said. “The TV series, there has to be some semblance of a story. Unfortunately, because I have no idea how to write that.”
Mr. Winkler and Mr. Smith help carry the expanded story lines, as a wacky administrator and a villain intent on suppressing a cure for cancer. Mr. Stern cautioned against putting too much stock in the plot, however.
“Eleven and a half minutes made us create the veneer of actual story lines and character growth without requiring that we be committed to that,” he said. “We hit all the beats as if the characters were developing and important things were happening and as if there were a beginning, middle and end to the story, but we don’t really have to get too emotionally invested in any of that.”
One change you might expect would be some toning down of the show’s humor, an alternately surreal and raunchy mélange of situations and jokes involving sex, body parts, sex, children, Sept. 11, Puerto Rican midgets and sex. But Mr. Corddry said that editing the original Web episodes for television had just meant bleeping “about a handful of words.”
“It’s sort of the same tone,” he added, speaking of the new episodes. “We get away with a lot on Adult Swim.”
That freedom is part of the attraction for the actors, who find time for “Childrens Hospital” between or during their better-paying gigs. “This show is like any other show we do except the words on the page were much wackier,” said Mr. Marino, who plays the yarmulke-wearing Dr. Glenn Richie and who has also directed an episode.
He was one of several cast members who had gathered at the studio to do audio looping, talk with me and trade jokes. Rob Huebel, who plays the spectacularly clueless Dr. Owen Maestro, had his own reason for sticking with the show: “It’s opened up a lot of doors for me sexually. I can literally have sex with anyone in this room. Anyone. If I wanted to.”
Mr. Corddry’s hopes were more prosaic, if equally unrealistic in the arena of Web series and 15-minute television shows. “I have no ambitions besides keep doing more seasons, as many as they give us,” he said. “And then eventually we’ll just sit back and make money. Right?”