Between the “The Fantabulous Evolution of One Harley Quinn Gallery” immersive pop-up installation at the DC Universe Headquarters and surprise appearance of the Birds of Prey cast including Margot Robbie, it’s safe to say that Harley Quinn pretty much owned NYCC this year. It’s somewhat ironic but rather fitting that Harley who began life as the Joker’s moll overshadowed the Clown Prince of Crime the opening weekend of his solo movie. It’s definitely a theme explored in the upcoming Harley Quinn cartoon DC Universe that’s set to premiere November 29, 2019 on the DC Universe streaming platform.
During NYCC, I had the chance to sit down with executive producers Patrick Schumacker and Justin Halpern and discuss the metaphor of women in the entertainment industry as well as comedy and comic book influences including but not limited to Kite Man—Hell, Yeah! Plus, they also revealed some of the stellar actors voicing their unique interpretations of iconic DC characters.
Taimur Dar: After watching the Harley Quinn animated pilot again after seeing it for the first time in July at SDCC, one of the things that jumped out at me was the plot of Harley trying to make a name for herself as a villain and join the Legion of Doom as a meta-narrative for women in the entertainment industry. It’s especially true in the comedy field best exemplified by Joker’s line of dialogue from the episode when he claims, “Women aren’t funny.” Was this something you were consciously going for when writing the series?
Justin Halpern: That was definitely conscious. Our feeling was breaking into being a super villain is probably similar to the way the entertainment industry is a boys club as well. Our third episode actually leans into that.
Patrick Schumacker: The entertainment industry is only slightly more woke than the super villain industry.
Halpern: Yeah, the entertainment industry pretends to be more woke than the super villain industry. They’re probably more probably a little more upfront about their “non-wokeness.”
Dar: One of the things viewers will notice is the snappy almost “Mamet Speak” dialogue. It’s incredibly difficult to achieve for animation when most of the time actors have to record their parts separately. So I’m curious if the actors recorded together and if not how you overcame that challenge to get that conversational style of dialogue?
Schumacker: With the pilot we actually had the luxury of having a lot of the actors in the booth together. And then never, ever again. Then in series, it just became increasingly difficult to get people in. Dean Lorey, who’s another executive producer on the show, and I ended up directing a lot of the episodes and working with the actors. And you basically read along with them. As a non-actor, I acted to the best of my abilities against wonderful and very talented actors. You try to keep the spirit of that banter alive. We also do a lot of improvisation and ADR stuff where we may come in later with a piece of dialogue that may hook up to a setup for a joke. So it becomes an organic process of constructing that off the cuff bantery feel. I think we were able to preserve what we did in the pilot in the series even though the actors weren’t together.
Halpern: We wanted it to sound like it was something more akin to Arrested Development or The Office. You’re correct, it’s hard to make things like conversational in an animated show. But our feeling was we wanted to treat the violence as real in terms of the consequences of it and we want the sound of the show to sound as real as it possibly can.
Dar: I saw that the incredibly talented Charlie Adler is also a voice director on the show. When I was a kid, he was on so many of my favorite cartoons like Cow and Chicken. He actually worked with Kaley Cuoco on a Disney cartoon they starred in together years ago.
Halpern: You did your homework!
Schumacker: Charlie’s awesome and voices Harley’s dad in episode 10. He’s amazing.
Halpern: He’s so good. The average person probably doesn’t know who he is but they know his voice because he’s probably voiced something that they loved.
Dar: I love that there is no “sacred cow” on the show and you don’t take the established DC characters as seriously as they have been portrayed in the past. People I spoke with at SDCC who saw the pilot loved the Jim Gordon on the show. Are there any characters or depictions that are off limits or is anything fair game?
Schumacker: I think as long we didn’t compromise your Superman, your Batman, your linchpin heroes of the DCU—as long as we don’t go bastardizing them in some horrible way, I think we’re in a safe spot. We were given carte blanche with the villains to just run wild. Our interpretation of Bane is very different than any prior interpretation. The actor who voices him, James Adomian, is doing a little bit of a Tom Hardy homage. Bane for a jacked physically intimidating force of nature, he is the one who is the butt of jokes within the Legion of Doom community. There hasn’t been a real “sacred cow” in the process.
Gordon is an interesting case. Our take on him is that he’s the less than perfect version of a police commissioner. He is fallible. He’s got a drinking problem. He has PTSD and he has a bit of a hero worship thing going on with Batman. That was a process of where we didn’t completely sell out the character for the sake of comedy. He actually goes through an interesting arc in the first and second seasons where he picks himself up and hopefully becomes the hero he’s meant to be.
Halpern: DC was crazy supportive of us taking it, running with it, and making it our own. Ames Kirshen, who is basically the head of TV there, he was like, “Look, I’ll tell you when you’ve gone too far, but we want you to make your version of it. You hear so many stories of creators working with Marvel or DC and running up against obstacles. I can tell you from our experience working with DC, they were so supportive of the show. It was really gratifying.
Dar: Since Amanda Conner is involved in the series and some of the characters she co-created with her husband Jimmy Palmiotti are featured, I think it’s safe to assume their acclaimed run is an influence. What were some of your other comic book sources?
Schumacker: Speaking to the aesthetic portion of it, we looked at Batman: The Animated Series as a jumping off point. Jennifer Coyle, who is our producer in charge of all the animation in the show, worked under Bruce Timm for awhile at Warner Bros. Animation. She has a special place in her heart for Batman: The Animated Series as do we. We use that as a starting spot and then Shane Glines is our character designer. He did Justice League Action and also worked under Bruce for awhile. There’s that kind of DNA built in there, and then we tried to modernize it in terms of the costumes. Harley in the pilot, goes through a physical metamorphosis from her original costume into the Rebirth Harley, or at least close to it. That was the idea that we would modernize it while also paying homage to Harley in the past.
In terms of the comic runs, the new 52 stuff that takes place in Coney Island we didn’t want to step on. We have Sy Borgman as a character voiced by Jason Alexander. That’s something we took from Jimmy and Amanda’s run.
Halpern: It’s funny because one of the things we had heard that Bruce Timm had said about Harley is that she is Bugs Bunny. That was his inspiration for Harley. That’s such a good analogue. Bugs Bunny won’t fuck with you until you fuck with Bugs Bunny. That’s kind of how we treat Harley too. Harley has things she wants to do and she’ll generally let you go about our business until you screw with her. And then she is going to fucking destroy you. That’s one of the inspirations of the show.
Dar: Gotta ask, current Batman writer Tom King is famous for his fondness for D-List villain Kite Man who as we’ve glimpsed from the trailer is in the show. Was King’s resurrection of the character inspiration to include him in the show?
Schumacker: I had the chance to meet him in San Diego. I came up to him, introduced myself, and he goes, “Kite Man is in the show, isn’t he?” So I think people have been alerting him to that. Love Tom King. Love his run. “The War of Jokes and Riddles” and the whole interlude story of Kite Man’s backstory. And one point we fully embraced that and were like, “This is too dark for a comedy,” with the deceased son. We did preserve his, “Hell yeah!” catchphrase. Kite Man plays a major role in the series.
Dar: Besides some of the voice actors already announced at SDCC, any other voice actors you can reveal like Aquaman?
Schumacker: Aquaman is voiced by Chris Diamantopoulos. Sanaa Lathan is Catwoman. She shows up much later. Alfred Molina is Mister Freeze.
Halpern: Phil LaMarr is a million things! Phil LaMarr and James Adomian probably voice 40 characters.
Schumacker: There are people coming in the second season that I’m like, “Let’s not talk about them!”
Halpern: Natalie Morales is Lois Lane.
Schumacker: Jacob Tremblay is Robin/Damian Wayne.
Dar: The kid from Room, right?
Halpern: Yup, we got an Oscar winner, or rather Oscar nominated actor.
Schumacker: And Jim Rash, nominated for writing. He won the Oscar. He voices the Riddler.
Dar: You also have Diedrich Bader as Batman who’s no stranger to the character having played him in the Batman: The Brave and the Bold cartoon. Did you gravitate towards him immediately?
Halpern: We looked at a lot of Batman voices and ultimately he was the best one.
Schumacker: Diedrich is a highly, highly skilled comic actor. Batman is the straight man, but to be the straight you have to have the comedic chops. And Diedrich has them in spades.
Halpern: That role is really hard in our show, because he is the straight man but he has a lot of laugh lines just by virtue of being the straight man. It’s one of the hardest things to play in comedy. I wish people could fully understand how skilled Diedrich Bader is at comedy. The guy is amazing. It’s such a hard role to pull of and he is brilliant.
Dar: Alan Tudyk is somebody I wouldn’t have immediately considered as the Joker, but it makes complete sense. Having worked with him on the show Powerless, another DC comedy show, was Tudyk a no-brainer casting choice as the Clown Prince of Crime?
Schumacker: That was almost immediate. What we wanted to do with the casting of show, with the exception of Diedrich, we ended up finding new voices. We wanted to do a clean slate. What Alan brought was something that sampled a bit of Mark Hamill in there but brings his own thing. He plays it as just this petulant man child, which Alan is very good at playing. He’s not like that in real life! The tears the hell out of his voice to get that rasp.
Halpern: Alan is probably one of the best voice actors in the world.
Dar: As we end this delightful and informative interview, I guess it seems appropriate to tell viewers why they should catch Harley Quinn on the DC Universe when it premieres in November?
Halpern: Hopefully, I think they’ve never seen anything like it. If you like comedy and you love comic books, there’s just nothing else that will give you this. For me as a viewer I’m always interested in watching things that are different and challenging and I don’t know where and when the jokes are coming. And that’s what we attempt to do here.
Schumacker: This is the first R-rated comedy that DC has ever done. For that reason alone, you should give it a shot.
Harley Quinn has finally broken things off once and for all with the Joker and attempts to make it on her own as the criminal Queenpin of Gotham City in this half-hour adult animated action-comedy series. The series features Harley Quinn, Poison Ivy and a whole cast of heroes and villains, old and new, from the DC Universe.