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Inside Shin Chan's Massive Head

Inside Shin Chan's Massive Head

The bridge between the comedy and anime halves of the [adult swim] line-up, "Shin Chan" blends an anime look with very American comedy to create a unique series for the nighttime TV destination, which is saying something for a channel-ette that hosts shows like "Frisky Dingo." Jared Hedges, Joel Bergen and Alex Muniz, veterans of American anime importer Funimation, are the twisted minds who put phrases like "To be a man you must have honor, honor and a penis," into the oddly-shaped mouth of Shin, an unusual six-year-old with an unusual family. With a second season of the series starting on [adult swim] and new DVDs hitting stores in May, the guys made an appearance at the New York ComicCon in April to promote the series, and spent a moment with Francis Rizzo III to talk about butchering, lip flap and lots and lots of drugs...as well as how they make a "Shin Chan" episode.

DVDTalk: How'd you guys get involved with Shin Chan?

Jared Hedges: Joel [Bergen] and I had been working for Funimation for about eight years, doing more faithful anime dubs, like "Full Metal Alchemist," Samurai Seven," "YuYuHakusho," etc.etc. So this just came up and we started writing for it.

Joel Bergen: Really, our background is more in comedy writing and more original type writing, so it was really cool that we got to do something like this, more utilizing our talents than the faithful dubs did, so we just love working on "Shin Chan."

Alex Muniz: Yeah, actually a long time ago Jared, Joel and I used to talk about "It would be so cool if we could take a Japanese show, an anime show and remake it, re-purpose it, chop it up, do the whole...

Bergen: Butchering.

Muniz: Yeah, butchering and everything. And then "Shin Chan" came along and it actually kinda happened, and it was one of those things where, "Here we are." The dream is alive and it seems to be a success.

Hedges: With an "ass."

DVDTalk: Is What's Up Tiger Lily? an inspiration of yours?

Bergen: I sort of use it as a reference point, when people ask what I do, I kind of reference that, since there haven't been too many things like that. But I don't think we necessarily looked at it, because that's more like an absurd kind of story, where there's almost not even like a story there, it's just confusing for the sake of being confusing. We try to make it a good show, where, if you didn't know better, you might think it was originally written the way we write it. So it's not exactly like "What's Up Tiger Lily?"

DVDTalk: What's the process of making a "Shin Chan" episode?

Hedges: Well, we get the video and we get the direct translation from Japanese into English, and then we watch the episode with the translation to see what was originally there and intended, and just kind of get the gist of the plot, and then, we sort of put aside the translation and start fresh from the beginning and just start filling in whatever we can think of that would be funny for them to be talking about in that situation. Sometimes we'll stay close to the original plot, sometimes we go completely to Mars on it, it just depends. And then one of us, will write the main draft and another person will punch it up.

Muniz: More and more, too, with the second season, we did a lot more team writing on things, because we sort of created our own continuity for the whole American Shin-everse. We were constantly talking about how "I want to take the character in this direction," and Jared's pretty much the walking bible for the show, so ultimately, as head writer, Jared had final say on what changes we could and couldn't make as per the new continuity. Yeah, it was a very collaborative process for the second season.

Bergen: I have nothing to add to that. [laughs]

DVDTalk: Do you hand-pick the episodes you translate, or do you go right down the line?

Hedges: No, we definitely pick them. We had about 150 episodes to choose from, which have 3 vignettes per episode, so it's around 450 vignettes. From that we'd pick and choose. We might take one vignette from episode 350, and then in the same, our episode, would be from the original 430. It's pick and choose and then stitch together a new timeline for episodes that we thought had the best potential for the type of comedy we want to do. Faster-paced episodes, we love the episodes with dream sequences, like the one with the Star Wars parody, the Lupin parody.

Bergen: There are certain characters we're really looking for, that we discovered we really liked, like Principal Ench, and we really search for episodes with them...Penny's mom we enjoy.

DVDTalk: Are there elements in the show you just can't make work because they're too Japanese?

Hedges: We'll...we always find some way around it. Hopefully successfully. Yeah, there are times when you're just looking at what's going on and you're like "What...the...hell am I going to do here?" and you just pound your head.

Bergen: Like there's one episode where I sat for a week trying to figure out what I was going to do with this one pun that was the basis for an entire episode. It was about, I guess there's a term for a block of hay in Japanese, and so Shin is imagining it's a box you stand on. So you see this thought bubble of what he's picturing, and it took me like a week to figure out what pun I could possibly fit in there that would work in English. So you do kind of rack your brain. But we do find a way to make it work. We've never not done something.

Hedges: And actually you went with "Box for Hire," I believe. Being a prostitute.

Bergen: Yeah...it won't make sense ever.

Muniz: I think too, the fans are very understanding, because a lot of the fans come from an anime-watching background, but then since it's an [adult swim] comedy, they come from a comedy background, and I think the fans from a comedy background are very understanding of some of the anime shorthand that we cannot take out of the shows, such as the teardrop thought bubbles or the fact that people are always falling over whenever Shin does something ridiculous, which is very much a pure anime convention that we can't write around. I'm happy that the fans never get frustrated.

Hedges: And also, we're able to make fun of it, and point out when there's an anger mark over somebody's head or whatever, we can make that part of the joke.

DVDTalk: If I was fluent in Japanese and Japanese culture, how different would "Shin Chan" be in Japanese versus the show in English?

Hedges: Very, very, very different.

Muniz: Substantially different.

Hedges: We try to keep the basic spirit of the show, from the Japanese, but we basically throw out...we look at the story from the translations we get, but we really don't take any lines from the translation, like we totally re-write the jokes, and ours is much more adult. It's weird, because it's a kids or family show in Japan, even though there's child nudity in the show, but here in America there could never be a kids show with child nudity, so we just write it for an adult audience and put in a lot more sexual innuendo and very very dirty offensive... I think our show's also a little darker than their show. We've gone a bit more into taboo subjects like suicide and abortion and tried to make them funny.

Bergen: Yeah, all the funny stuff. Until you can have a stretching penis on "Kim Possible," "Shin Chan" has to go on [adult swim.]

DVDTalk: What's the hardest part of making a "Shin Chan" episode?

Muniz: Well...

Bergen: Writing.

Hedges: It is a challenge, in that you have to make it fit the right amount of syllables to fit the pre-existing lip movements. So you are kind of tied down sometimes, where you have a joke that you really like, but you know, phrasing a joke is important, and if you have a 20 syllable joke and you only have 15 syllables, then it can be tough.

Bergen: It's even worse when you have a really good joke that's 20 syllables, and there's only 15 syllables of lip flap, and you don't want to kill your good joke, but it doesn't fit.

Muniz: I'd say for me... well, Joel and I were walking around Manhattan the other day, talking about how we're kind of running out of...certain wells are running dry of comedy that the show has used...a little bit as a crutch lately, whether it's toilet humor or sexual humor, and you know, we are aware of that, and we do read the message boards when fans complain, so you know we're trying to come up with, trying to drill some new wells of comedy for the new season.

Hedges: After we had that conversation walking the streets of Manhattan, we went to an underground sex club, and found at least 20 new areas for us to explore. There's this thing called "shrimping" that we haven't done yet.

Muniz: Yeah, the thigh harness is just the beginning.

DVDTalk: Have you had any interaction with the original creators?

Hedges: Last summer, at San Diego [Comic Con], we got to meet with representatives from both [network] TV Asahi and [publisher] Futabasha, and so we were able for a couple of days to talk with them, and they told us the things that were important to them, and it was good for both us and them, to understand why we were making the changes we were, to appeal and make sense to an American audience. And they told us some things. The most important thing they told us was they wanted the core family to clearly be a loving family, so we've tried to make sure that stays in tact, despite them frequently calling each other friggin' fat or cheap or flat or whatever.

DVDTalk: Did they have an opinion about your show or did they even understand it?

Hedges: Yeah. [laughs] I don't know if anyone understands it.

Muniz: I think they were diplomatic at first, then they went around to other panels of indigenous American comedy shows like "American Dad!" and "Family Guy" and, to their credit, the Japanese end of "Shin Chan" really got a feel for American comedy pacing, and just how we do things over here, and I think they went from diplomatic to more understanding, and now that I think it's a relative success, I think they're supportive of what we do.

Bergen: Yeah, they tried two times before to do an American dub of the show, and it didn't quite work, because one time they made it a kids show...I don't know what the other problem was. So I think they realized, for it to work in America, it can't be 100 percent faithful to the Japanese, because the humor just doesn't translate and the pacing isn't the same in Japan. So they understand we had to make changes to it that will make it more successful in America.

DVDTalk: "Shin Chan" has an unusual credit on it for "punch-up" writers. What would you categorize their role as?

Hedges: Well, are you talking about Sarah Dyer and Evan Dworkin? Well that was for the first episodes one through six, and episode eight. At the beginning of the process, this was the first time Funimation had ever tackled this kind of show, basically, a Japanese animated sitcom, and so the dubbing process was completely different. It was also different, because [adult swim] was actually kind of involved, in trying to go out and acquire this from Japan with Funimation. [adult swim] told Funimation from the beginning that they were interested in it, so that first trial run, where no one was sure exactly how the show was going to be, and the direction we were going to take, we had Sarah and Evan, who were the punch-up writers, so that we would write the scripts, write two or three drafts between ourselves, and then our team would send it off to them, and then they would do a fourth draft, and that would be sent to the booth. The booth would have our draft and Sarah and Evan's draft, and then sort of combine them together with whatever worked best, and that was sort of the hodgepodge that was the beginning.

DVDTalk: Do you have a favorite character you write for?

Hedges: Yeah, I've always liked Penny's mom, I think the whole domestic violence darkness is hilarious to me. We love Principal Ench, because Jason Liebrecht , who does his voice, has the whole mysterious accent, half gypsy, half Peruvian. I think it's great.

Bergen: I really like writing for Georgie alot, because you get to do political humor and all that stuff, and that's always really fun to do...vent some frustrations at the world through him.

Muniz: I like writing Shin and Hiro. I just like the father/son combo, and I can switch them on and off, as to who's going to be the goofy guy and who's going to play straight man, so I just like writing them as a team together. I think some of the better bread-and-butter vignettes, where they're just hanging around the house, always seem to involve Hiro and Shin. Those are my favorites.

DVDTalk: The tone of the comedy on the show is very extreme, some would say filthy in some ways. Do you write anything that doesn't make it to the screen?

[All three laugh]

Hedges: Joel writes a lot of things that don't make it to the screen.

Bergen: Yeah, every once in a while, Jared will censor me, which feels like a stab in the back, because, it's like, if anyone would appreciate some things... But I've written a few things he doesn't even send on to be rejected by the network. He doesn't think they should even see it.

DVDTalk: Let me guess...involving the sister?

Bergen: Not that bad, actually.

Hedges: Involving fetuses...and dripping.

Bergen: It was more graphic than it had to be. I think, the other thing is, they actually did let us get away with content...thematic ideas that are very dark and good. We're always impressed when they let those things fly. Sometimes they'll bleep individual words and we can't understand why they are bleeping certain words, but we got away with pretty much everything. We'll write whatever we want, and if they think it's really dirty, they'll bleep it. We put a lot of really horrible things in them.

Hedges: And also, per line, we'll write three to four to six different, alternate jokes, so then, the script is pretty huge when it goes in the booth, because there's basically six different alternate scripts. The director and actor, as they're working through the lines, they can see which jokes work the best. So there's a lot that doesn't make it into the final show.

DVDTalk: You kind of straddle the line on [adult swim], half comedy, half anime, or all comedy and all anime, if you want to look at it that way, actually. Do you think the art style on "Shin Chan" helps keep the anime-allergic in the show, because it's not like your average anime.

Hedges: Yeah...I mean, a lot of people, when they look at it, they wouldn't think it was an anime, they would think it was like Charlie Brown on crack, or something. But I think a lot of people, because it is a show that's been around for 15 years, they see the animation is an older style, and so it can be sort of a turn-off, because it's not in the style of current [adult swim] shows.

DVDTalk: Technically, with "Squidbillies" and "12 oz. Mouse..."

Hedges: Right, but a lot of them are Flash-based animation, and that sort of modern, computer look...they're just different.

Bergen: The character designs are very different. We'll go to the message boards and see people say "Oh, I didn't watch because the character designs are too ugly looking or something."

Hedges: So we hear a lot of people who say, "Well, I saw it at first, and I turned off, but then I left the audio on, while I was waiting for another show to come on, or I was doing something else, and I just started hearing the jokes. Oh, this is actually kind of funny."

Muniz: Some of the initial frustration over the look of the show may have stemmed from the fact that so many of the vignettes were taken from different episodes. We cracked open all the raw episodes they gave us, and put them together into new American episodes, and because of that, there is a change from vignette to vignette, in art style, where there's one season of the Japanese series that has a very angular design, and the characters look much more Japanese. Another season, they're rounder and cuter, and I think that flies better in America, that sort of look. I think by the second season now, I don't see that angular design as much, where Mitsy barely looks like a woman.

DVDTalk: Did you guys have any involvement with the upcoming DVDs?

Hedges: You mean with the special features?

Bergen: We had attempted involvement.

Hedges: At once point we sat down and we recorded our own commentary for a few of the episodes, but they ended up...I don't know if they were too offensive...

Bergen: We went off...I think it's because we were the only ones in the room...we went off on a tangent of saying horrible things that should never be recorded, so that was part of the problem. We're also based in different cities, where Alex and I are in Los Angeles, and Jared's in Austin, Texas, we haven't been able to sit in a room and record anything officially for the DVD. We're hoping to be more involved with the second volume, when that comes out.

There are some good special features on the first DVD of "Shin Chan." There's a commentary with Laura Bailey, the voice of Shin, and Zach [Bolton], the director. Peter, the sound engineer, is on there too. Also, there's some of the alternate lines Jared was talking about earlier. There's one script where we just wrote two completely different ideas for the second half of the episode, and I think they put both versions on the DVD, so that should be really cool.

DVDTalk: Now is there a chance we'll hear those commentaries, that they'll be released somewhere, maybe online?

Bergen: At our trials, maybe.

Hedges: Maybe, we would like to have somebody hear them. Not my grandmother, but somebody.

Muniz: I think they could be edited down. My god, they're raw. But we did three of them, so you might be able to edit them down to one thing that could be released, maybe on the MySpace page, at some point.

DVDTalk: Now, unfortunately, every show has its end at some point, so what do you picture yourselves doing next?

Hedges: Well...

Bergen: Lots and lots of drugs.

Hedges: Lots and lots of drugs...hookers... I don't know. We're waiting to see about a third season, and if that gets picked up. We just finished writing the second season last month, and so we're waiting to see how the DVD sells and how the ratings are for the second season. In the meanwhile, we're looking for other work, and we've got a pilot we're working on ourselves. That's just all kind of way down the line. But we'll see.

Muniz: Joel and I were a writing team on other stuff, and currently unemployed, so after "Shin Chan," we'll be looking for work.

Bergen: If you've got a job, give us a call.

Muniz: We clean windows very well. People don't realize TV is a seasonal job actually. So, now that "Shin"'s done, it's back to the bread line.

Hedges: It's like being a teacher, without getting paid during the summer.

Bergen: And you can't molest kids. It's terrible.

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