Mark Hentemann knows comedy.
A writer for the long-running animated series Family Guy (who later became an executive producer and showrunner) from its first season, he has also helped pen jokes for talk-show host David Letterman.
Now, he’s branched out on his own with a new animated comedy set on the US-Mexican border. Bordertown tells the tale of two neighbouring “Mexifornia” families – the Buckwalds and the Gonzalezs.
The show struck a chord with audiences in just its second episode when it joked about building a giant border wall, something that seemingly inspired a certain “radical” real-life US Presidential candidate.
READ MORE: One Direction land Family Guy cameo
Where did the idea for Bordertown come from?
I wanted to create something that went back to a show I admired growing up – All in the Family. It became apparent to me that if you were to do it in this day and age, the place to set it would be on the border, given all the cultural changes happening in this country. All the controversy around immigration and the predictions that the white population will become a minority in the next couple of years – that just seemed like a fun topic to mine for humour. It could be an absurd show that was also kind of relevant.
Of course, a certain Mr Trump helped make the show even more relevant, didn’t he?
We finished making the show literally a week before Trump announced his presidency bid and, with his first speech he declared he was going to build a giant border wall and make Mexico pay for it. Uncannily, we had written an episode about a border wall and it suddenly made our show really relevant. It also made it apparent that we didn’t make it absurd enough, because his reality was going much further into absurdity.
Tell me a bit about how the show gets written. How do you divide up the work between the team and how does the process compare to something like Family Guy?
On Family Guy, pretty much everyone kind of collaborates on the stories they’re going to tell. Then, you go down the road on the scripts by breaking up, dividing up the work. On Bordertown, because it was a first-season show, I kind of went in with a lot of the story ideas and I kind of knew what the series-defining episodes would be. The aim was to get shows that are very joke-driven and you try to keep everything as high-quality as you can – you don’t want mediocre. Part of that is because I remember watching The Simpsons as a kid and I remember I only watched it for the comedy – I cared slightly less about the storylines. We divide up into gag rooms of around four writers and they work on their specific area and then come back and do a little performance to pitch their gags.
So how long does an average episode take – from first draft to finished product?
On both Family Guy and Bordertown – about a year, maybe 10 to 11 months. It takes a long time because we use traditional animation that’s created by an overseas studio. A lot of ours is done in Seoul, Korea and it usually takes them about five-and-a-half months. It’s slow and that makes it hard to do a show that’s relevant and topical, but the upside is you get to kind of forget about your episodes for a while and then when they do come back you get to see them with fresh eyes and potentially do rewrites. I think that helps on these dense, comedic shows if you get to have a couple of cracks at it.
So how much of a rewrite would you do on a typical episode?
We don’t have the budget to do huge changes. Hopefully, the story is tracking the way we want it to, so we can just focus on specific areas we can make funnier or more visual. We have to pick our spots.
Did you have much say in the show’s look or animation style?
Yes, we had a lot of back and forth with Korea. I designed a lot of the characters. I wanted it to have a garage feel, I didn’t want it to look too professional. I worked as a greeting-card illustrator back in the day and I had no artistic training whatsoever so all my drawings were really rough.
Do you think this is a show of its time, or one that could have been made earlier?
The truth is, I though it could have been made as far back as 2007, when I first pitched it. But, I think, in reality, maybe it wasn’t the time for it. Definitely the border was an issue then and immigration was a controversial topic, but not many people talked about it. Using the All in the Family template seemed the right way to make a comedy about it.
Now that it has finally made it to air, are you pleased with the viewer reaction to it?
I am pleased it is being embraced. I’m particularly glad that people don’t find it racist. When we were approaching the airdate, I wondered if people would misinterpret what the show was all about, but I think, on the whole, the feedback I’ve got suggests people realise it’s all serving a purpose. Yes, maybe it’s politically incorrect and the characters say inappropriate things, but it’s all serving a greater commentary on what’s happening in our country.
Finally Mark, what is the status of the show and, most importantly, does it exist in the same “universe” as Family Guy?
We hope to make a pitch to the network in the next month about a second series. We know people are liking the show and we’ve got a lot more stories to tell. As for the other question, we had one joke in the current season where a Family Guy character makes a brief appearance. When I created this world, I didn’t intentionally say it was the same universe, but, you know, my sense of humour has been influenced a large amount by that show. I’m sure people can see similar sensibilities between them.
Bordertown 8.30pm, Tuesdays, Duke
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