Earlier this summer James Kleinmann visited the set of The Tick in New York City for HeyUGuys to speak to creator Ben Edlund, Executive Producers David Fury and Barry Josephson, plus stars Peter Serafinaowicz, Griffin Newman and Scott Speiser.
Ben Edlund’s much-loved superhero parody was introduced to the world with a twelve issue comic book series back in 1988. The hero in blue is back on our screens in a new live-action Amazon series, with the first six episodes streaming from 25th August. The latest adaption follows an animated version in the 1990s and a live-action show in 2001, starring Patrick Warburton which ran for just one season.
Set in a world where superheroes are part of every day life, Arthur (Griffin Newman) an accountant with mental health issues begins to suspect that a supervillain long thought dead, The Terror (Jackie Earle Haley), secretly controls the city he lives in. As Arthur struggles to uncover this conspiracy he is befriended by a strange but good natured superhero The Tick (Peter Searfinowicz).
Sixteen years since the last live action series ended, what was The Tick creator Ben Edlund’s reaction to bringing his character back to the small screen? “My initial response was that it was a crazy notion! I was extremely daunted by the idea and I had to be convinced that everyone was on board for stepping up to the plate. I was really pleased and surprised to find that Sony and ultimately Amazon wanted to make as much of a commitment to it as I felt was needed for it to be worth doing. I’m kind of amazed that it’s happened. It becomes another chapter in a relatively interesting pop culture story. The Tick’s been around for three decades and the idea that it can now take part in this massive superhero saturation and kind of step in when it’s time to start commenting on it, it’s cool.”
Executive Producer Barry Josephson reveals, “when I went to Ben, I said ‘wouldn’t you like to do a live action version that felt like the animated show or the original comic books that you created?’ That’s been the idea. The tone is less jokey, less stagey than the first live action version. It sort of feels like The Tick grown up a little bit.”
Edlund’s fellow showrunner, Emmy winner David Fury, whose previous producing credits include Lost, 24, Angel and Buffy expands on this: “Patrick Warburton’s Tick was brilliant in its own right, but this is something very different. For the first time The Tick is put into a very real world. A world where there are high stakes for the characters; there’s death, there’s bloodshed, there’s loss, there’s emotional weight, in addition to all the comedy that one would expect from The Tick. Until now it’s always been presented in a comic book world, whether it’s the animated or even the last live action series and this one is going to be more grounded, much deeper.”
“The Tick is going through his own little identity crisis,” Fury continues, “not knowing his origin, because he doesn’t really have one, so the Tick is going to become aware of that and be concerned about it and that’s going to be an on-going mystery throughout the series. Until we resolve it in season five or so! This is a more complex series in which Arthur is really the main character. It’s the hero’s journey, set through Arthur’s point of view. And the Tick is his mentor, his Obi Wan Kenobi, but with brain damage. Yeah, he’s like a brain damaged Obi Wan Kenobi!”
“He’s a lunatic,” Fury continues, “and there’s something about this Tick that’s more dangerous because he doesn’t really understand the stakes for Arthur and other people. He’ll be training Arthur and throwing him into a barrage of bullets and saying ‘head towards the danger Arthur, that’s what heroes do!’ But this Arthur could easily get killed, whereas as in prior incarnations of course he wouldn’t have been. We’re doing a balancing act. We’re trying to bring a weightier ‘Tick’ to the public without diminishing any of the surreal, funny qualities that people expect.”
Griffin Newman who plays Arthur admits to being “a lifelong superhero fanatic. It was the number one item on my career bucket list that I thought I’d never check off, getting to play a superhero. There’s a real dearth of neurotic five foot six Jewish superheroes! I didn’t think it was going to happen. I said four years ago on twitter that Michael Keaton’s hair in ‘Batman’ gives me daily hope that I might be able to play a superhero some day. He was such an atypical choice to play a superhero at that time and since then there’s become this very cookie cutter physical mould of what a superhero looks like and what kind of acting style it demands. I had this small impossible dream that some day a part like that would come along and weirdly enough it did!”
“I love ‘The Tick’ so much and I love Arthur as a character, but people I know who didn’t know The Tick when they heard I got this job said ‘oh, so it’s another superhero show.’ They didn’t understand that The Tick functions in a different way historically. Back when it was a comic book and when it was a cartoon show it’s always been in conversation with whatever the superhero status quo is at the time and works to distort that.”
Given the 2017 superhero status quo there’s a wealth of material out there to distort. “It’s more timely now than ever,” adds David Fury. “The Tick and the sensibilities of it and the humour playing in those tropes resonate so much more because of the proliferation of superhero shows and superhero movies. We’re able to land those things that were done before but had nothing really to bounce off because there wasn’t this abundance of Marvel and DC universe characters. Now when we land a joke it works so much more because we’ve been seeing them constantly everywhere. I think The Tick has always been ahead of its time, the character always worked, but now more than ever it feels like this is the right time to be doing a real superhero send up.”
Ben Edlund reveals one of his concerns about revisiting The Tick: “I felt as though live action superhero comedy was a very difficult space to try and inhabit in a way that felt worth doing. I think Deadpool did a humour drenched superhero universe that gave you enough story to give a crap about and I think we’re in that sort of world, but doing something that’s a little different because that was an adjunct of the Marvel superhero reality, it was part of that. We’re doing a reflected, warped, fun-house mirror of the entirety of our collective superhero cultural experience and kind of land it in humour terms and make the hero quest really land as well. I call it a Joseph Campbell soup! With spaghetti! And they’re shaped like letters, little alphabets!”
“It has a wedding cake of different levels of commentary”, Edlund continues “on things like hero fiction in the most general sense, what narration does in hero fiction, or what the heroic mind-set is and how it doesn’t fit into a real universe. In a classic hero fiction piece we’re supposed to see the hero and the hero’s point of view as ultimately the right way to be in the universe. In our world, everybody’s looking for their keys and their wallet and their change! It’s a different expression of all of that.”
“In a way, I feel like the cartoon version was the closest The Tick ever came to a MAD magazine kind of grapple of parodying the elements of superhero culture specifically,” Edlund adds. “The zeitgeist is educated now, and I would say that this version, in some ways, it’s not dissimilar to the way that Stranger Things plays with the sci-fi tropes of the Eighties. None of those are freestanding original ideas, they’re all completely, many, many times tested ideas in Stranger Things, they’re all handled in a beautiful collective way that’s both nostalgic and respectful and inventive. That’s what we’re attempting to do. Big britches!”
As a superhero fan, it’s no surprise that Griffin Newman was already aware of The Tick when he was approached about playing Arthur. “My entry point was through the Warburton show. I was around 12 or 13 and it was one of those shows that seemed to come out of nowhere and speak to what I wanted TV to be. I always loved anything that had a self-referential edge, mocking its own genre. That was during this weird dry spell for superhero stuff, before it became dominant, omnipotent in our culture. So I watched that show obsessively. And after that ended I was desperate for more and went back to watch the cartoon series.”
Unlike his co-star, British comedy favourite Peter Serafinowicz who plays the Tick admits he wasn’t familiar with Ben Edlund’s creation. “It’s really something that I ought to have known about because it’s so exactly my sense of humour. I love video games and the other day Griffin recommended this game called Broforce. It’s this pixel graphics kind of multi-player shoot ‘em up, a bit like Metal Slug in which all the characters are based on Eighties and Nineties film heroes like Conan and Judge Dredd and Rambo and The Terminator and Robocop and it’s so much fun this game and it was released a couple of years ago and I don’t know how I missed it. I feel the same way about The Tick. I really should have bought these comics and seen the TV shows, but somehow it just escaped me. I don’t know maybe it wasn’t the right time.”
Serafinowicz continues, “When I got sent the script I found out a little bit about it. I don’t think I’d realised how sophisticated and beautiful it was, and that might sound a bit over the top, but I do think Ben’s writing and his drawing, his imagination is like some kind of surrealist museum! It’s just beautiful and when I read the script I loved it and then once we’d done the pilot we read the next four scripts all at once. I thought ‘oh wow, this great,’ I was so relieved that it was not only up to the standard of the first one but surpassed it. It knew what it was. It had a confidence in its madness and it really is like nothing I’ve seen, like nothing that’s on TV. It’s really got its own flavour.”
Serafinowicz was reluctant to watch the first live action series, “I saw one clip of that show on YouTube and I thought it was really funny, but I also thought ‘I don’t want to see any more of this, because I don’t want to be influenced by Patrick Warburton’s performance’. I mean it looked great, but I wanted to be as fresh to it as I could and just go off how Ben described the character to me. It’s my version, it’s my take on this character, but maybe one day when we’ve got this season in the can, or on the card, I’ll go back and watch those. I think that would be fun, especially thinking about him in this suit, which was apparently a lot more uncomfortable than the one I was in.”
Serafinowicz has only just got out of the Tick costume he’s been wearing all day on set when we speak. When I ask what it’s like to wear he’s diplomatic “well, how can I put it? The suit is a little bit difficult to move around in sometimes…but it looks great! Let’s leave it at that OK, it looks great!”
The Tick’s suit is one aspect that has changed since the pilot, partly as a result of feedback from Amazon subscribers as Barry Josephson reveals: “they loved the conceit, they loved Peter playing the Tick, but a lot of the fans were not pleased with how the Tick looked and most importantly Bed Edlund wasn’t happy. So when we were ordered to series Ben sort of re-conceived the Tick’s look and we had this new costume. And he also figured that the Tick is a creature and he kind of morphed a bit from episode one to episode two and that’s exactly what happens and there is a comment on it by Arthur in the second episode so it’ll be addressed.”
There have also been some alterations to the pilot itself, David Fury divulges, “I think one of the things that people said about the pilot was ‘it’s not as funny as I wanted The Tick to be’. I think people will find the revised one more enjoyable. It hasn’t changed dramatically, we just made it better. It’s funnier, it’s sharper and it sets up our season in a much more specific way.”
Ben Edlund adds, “I think it also shows the world a little bit more and gives us a bit more of a feeling for Arthur. It will certainly be worth the viewer’s time to watch the new pilot because it contains new scenes, new relationships between information that has been established and more Tick. We’ve got added Tick moments! It’s just deepened and got better. That beginning of the world has a lot of little secrets and riddles inside it that get answered as we move through.”
Going back to how the new series contrasts with previous incarnations of The Tick Griffin Newman recalls “the Warburton live action show kind of made a running joke out of the fact that you would always see them run off into a fight and then come back out of a fight, but you wouldn’t see the actual fight! Which was partly due to budget, but it was also just the style of the time. On our show we get to do these big, weird action set pieces. The fight sequences are odd and they’re comedic, but we get to do a level of comic book action that I don’t see in a lot of other movies or TV shows that I think are a lot more concerned with trying to be cool and badass and epic! We have freedom in that it’s a comedy, a satire, to depict certain things that I’ve never seen in live action before in terms of the absurdity of the scale of the fights.”
Newman continues, “the previous live action show was much more of a traditional sitcom where the characters returned to their status quo at the end of every episode, they weren’t dealing with big emotional arcs. Since the last live action show Ben Edlund’s worked on Supernatural and Gotham and Firefly and Angel where they do this long form storytelling that builds and for him I think it was exciting to see if he could marry that storytelling style to The Tick which hasn’t really been done before.”
David Fury agrees, “we’re doing a saga and we’re dropping little seedlings here and there that payoff later. Sometimes people are going to be thinking ‘why is that in there?’ and you’ll find out when you watch the whole thing. We’re doing an on-going story. The episodes don’t wrap up in a nice little bow. We are getting a sense of that right from the beginning. The look that Wally Pfister who directed the pilot gave it means we’re basically living in The Dark Knight’s awful crime corrupted Gotham City but with The Tick’s arrival it starts to take on a healthier glow. A brighter aspect. It starts to change the dynamic of the people and the city. He’s still a figure of great optimism and enthusiasm and has a belief in destiny and justice and all of that stays true. The look you’ll find is one that has much more scope than what you saw before on the earlier series and it’s often cinematic and that’s something we’re very proud of.
Ben Edlund: “we experimented in the world of the very heightened, almost garish superhero universe with the live action version before in the early 2000’s. This has its elements that are heightened and fantastical, but we’re really trying to set it in a world that feels real, on a block that you begin to learn the geography of, meeting people in the city that are human people, not just superheroes.”
Griffin Newman expands on this, “you see a lot more of the civilian world on this show than you do in something like The Avengers. If you’re in a Marvel movie you’re focusing on the superheroes, and if you see a civilian it’s kind of just their girlfriend or their boyfriend or it’s someone they save for a scene, but this show really is going back and forth between the two worlds that exist. In the other version of The Tick the superheroes have been omnipresent, it’s almost like superheroes are like firemen, you can’t walk two steps without walking into a superhero or super villain, it’s a world that really feels defined by that and I think what’s cool about this version is that superheroes almost exists as reality TV stars. There are like a million of them of varying importance and when people see one on the street they’re a little bit star struck by them, but’s it’s also not that out of the usual and some of them are kind of washed up. We have super villains who were really big in the Nineties and now have kind of fallen on hard times, you can tell that their fashions which are still attached to their golden age. They’ve had to downsize their lifestyle, which I think is a really funny way of approaching it and there’s also a sense that superheroes aren’t as big as they used to be. They still exist, but it’s kind of a fringe thing.”
“My character is going through this reluctant arc of admitting that’s he’s always wanted to be a superhero and then becoming a superhero. They were these aspirational figures who were around all the time him growing up, but also very different from what he could ever be just in terms of his ability, his lack of strength. Which I think is a cool take.”
“It’s kind of a coming out story to a degree because he’s been living this sheltered life based entirely on people’s expectations and pressures of what he wants to be. From a very young age after this traumatic incident he was told he was a paranoid schizophrenic. He’s been medicated, he’s been hospitalised, he’s been told that he’s a danger. And when the pilot starts he’s living a normal life. He’s finally got his life together in the sense that he has an apartment, he has a job, he’s on his meds, but he’s miserable because he’s been suppressing this thing his entire life. He’s been looking for answers, some kind of justification for his father’s death, a meaning. But also the telling thing was to me in the pilot, right before his father gets killed, he’s playing with a spaceship saying to his dad ‘I’m going to be a superhero when I grow up’ and in that moment that dream dies. He sees a superhero land on his father in a spaceship and kill him. It’s the traumatic incident that kills his dreams. So when The Tick comes to him with this suit and says this is what you’re supposed to be, my sidekick, he resists because it brings back all these negative memories, but hopefully over the course of the season, it’s Arthur realising that he’s not only capable but he’s kind of destined to be this.”
Unlike many other superhero properties currently on our screens The Tick is unusual in having its own self-contained universe. “Yes we’re the freest!” Edmund enthuses, “I think we’re very fortunate because we are more licensed than any other group of superhero manufacturers on the planet so far to be stupid! So we’re allowed to take visual risks, to be inventive, to take flights of fancy that are all over the place in comic books and all over the place in some of the representations of superhero stuff. If you look at some of the more mainstream, certainly TV or streaming successes of superhero culture, such as the Netflix world, it’s extremely camped down and they’re trying to maintain their dignity in a way that I applaud in a sense, but we get to have more fun than that. I think not being tied to a giant house and their seven decades of continuity is great for us.”
David Fury adds, “we also get to take some of our cues from them. We have various institutions that are all our own takes on parts of the Marvel universe or parts of the DC universe and we can exploit them in any way that we want to. And that’s extraordinarily freeing.”
When it came to casting the show, Griffin Newman landed the role of Arthur before Serafinowicz was brought on board. “It was very nerve-racking” Newman admits, “because so much of the show relies on our chemistry and the banter and that was the thing that I felt like if we got it wrong fans were going to shoot us out. So I was nervous for a month after I was cast thinking ‘who are they going to get to play the Tick?’ And then they cast Peter and I’m a huge fan of his so I was relieved, but then I was like ‘but are we going to hit it off? Is it going to fit?’ From the moment I met him we got along really well, he’s a great guy and we kind of very quickly found how to make our Tick and Arthur different and unique to the show, but also hopefully for any viewer who is attached to previous versions of ‘The Tick’, recognisable as how these characters should be together.”
“A lot of this season feels like a romantic comedy. It’s something like Romancing The Stone where you have these two characters who are polar opposites and clash a lot and you’re slowly telling the story of them falling in love with one another. Not literally, not romantically, but I think The Tick and Arthur really do love each other. This show’s investigating how that relationship would actually form to a point where they have this level of trust and care for each other and reliance on each other because they really are kind of co-dependant. Both broken people in very different ways. Arthur is nothing but awareness of his surroundings and that awareness usually immediately goes to anxiety and paranoia, but it’s rooted in something real in that he’s perceiving the actual dangers around him and he understands what’s going on. Whereas the Tick is the exact opposite, he has no awareness of what’s going on but complete power, ability and complete confidence that he can take care of any situation. So it’s this push and pull of Arthur being able to direct him almost like a homing beacon in the right direction.”
“I’m pretty obsessed with the idea of how sad comedy can get while still being funny,” Newman continues. “That’s always the stuff that’s really spoken to me and it’s what I’ve always strived for in my work sometimes more successfully than others. Ben is definitely interested in having a show that can balance those two things. When we did the pilot he said the idea was that it should be like a Sundance drama until the Tick enters. We didn’t approach the scenes thinking ‘well this is a superhero show so we should play it bigger’ or ‘this is a comedy so we should play this lighter’ when there’s an emotional thing happening in the show we try to take it seriously and invest it with some proper weight which hopefully makes the following scene where someone’s fist fighting a dog even funnier!”
On the day I was on set a “dogfight” was being shot involving a talking dog (played by two stunt dogs and a realistic looking model) and actor Scott Speiser who plays Overkill a new character in the world of The Tick. “I get into a fight with a dog” Speiser reveals, “he and I have a history that goes back decades. He has since become a famous and well-respected author, but he’s a former superhero. We’re trying to get him on board to help us find Superian.”
“At first sight Overkill might not look like a good guy, but he and The Tick and Arthur have the same ultimate goal” Speiser continues, “he just has a different way of going about it. So whereas The Tick might punch the bad guy and drop him off at the police station, Overkill is probably going to stab them in the head. I don’t think this version of ‘The Tick’ would work on network television with some of the violence and language, but it still finds a way to be funny on top of that darkness. In my opinion it is first and foremost a comedy and the more superhero shows you have, the more you need something like this to balance that out, to have just a slightly skewed perspective of that whole universe.”
Serafinowicz concurs “There are so many superhero movies and TV shows out there and they all have a bit of a sense of humour about them in the main. In many ways the superhero aspect of this is secondary. I would say it’s not really the main thrust of the show. The comedy is this pure surrealism that I really love and it’s got a real warmth to it as well. It’s quite sentimental which I like.”
On finding the his voice for The Tick Searfinowicz reveals, “I think Ben’s initial direction was that he wanted me to sound like an old-fashioned radio announcer so that was my starting point. And the Tick has got this big chin you know…that’s where the voice comes from. I love doing it and what Ben writes is quite poetic sometimes and it’s silly. He’ll write a line that’s silly, has three puns in it of different types and is also incredibly profound and he’ll do that in three lines of dialogue. Three little short little bursts and it’s like ‘wow, man, how do you get to be such a good writer?!’”
Serafinowicz supplied his voice for Darth Maul in Star Wars Episode I: The Phantom Menace which led to him meeting one of his heroes Mark Hamill. “That’s one great thing with the Star Wars connection, I got to know Mark Hamill, became friends with him and I still can’t quite believe that I know him. I was with him when he recorded one of those Joker Trumps. I think it’s amazing, I wish he’d do more of them. Oh my God. That’s another thing about my little blind spots. I was playing the Batman Arkham Asylum video game, the first one and it had the Joker in it. It had these cut scenes at the beginning with the Joker and I don’t usually like those cut scenes, but these were pretty cool and the Joker’s voice…I was like ‘wow, who’s that guy doing the Joker?! That’s an amazing job! That’s fantastic!’ For me it’s like the definitive Joker, it’s like my best Joker. And then I found out that it was Mark Hamill. Really, I had no idea he was so skilled. Watching him do it was just mesmerising. He’s so talented. He’s the nicest guy as well. He’s amazing. I want to get him in this. He should be in The Tick! I think he was a voice in the cartoon series actually, but yeah he’d be great. He’s so funny as well. Obviously he’s so funny. So if you haven’t heard those Mark Hamill Joker Trumps, they’re all on SoundCloud. They’re fantastic.”
Searfinowicz has been recording his own ‘Sassy Trump’ YouTube videos “I overdub him with this camp bitchy voice which matches what he says and what his body is doing and what his face and his little pinky finger is doing. He’s so ridiculous. It was probably summer 2016 and I was talking to a friend who knows a lot about American politics and I said ‘what is going to happen, do you think he has a chance of getting in?’ And I was hoping for him to say ‘no, don’t be silly of course he doesn’t.’ But he just looked really worried and said ‘I don’t know, maybe he does. I’ve just got no idea and nobody does. But I can tell you one thing, from now until November 8th, he is going to do one crazy thing every single day’ and that has been proven to be true. Every day. And this quickly becomes normal. It is normal. This is our lives. He’s the President and he’s still doing these ridiculous things every day and saying these ridiculous things. And so I suppose the effect that my videos have is just to remind people this is what he is actually saying. This is what the President of the United States is saying. This is what is on his mind today. This is what he wants the American public to hear. This is what he’s telling a crowd of four thousand people in Texas. This is your President talking about the quality of hairspray and how they don’t make it like they used to, for instance! It’s just to remind people this is not normal. This is not a normal thing. And for me I don’t have much of a life outside of ‘The Tick’ at the moment, I don’t really socialise. It’s quite a wearing job and that is just how I relax. I think everyone can relate to that. You know, you go home have a cup of tea and then have a shower and then sit in front of the computer downloading a Donald Trump speech and then redubbing it and editing and then mixing it and putting it out on YouTube. I think it’s what everybody does to relax.”
Season 1 of The Tick is available on Amazon Prime 25th August 2017.