The third season premiere of “Childrens Hospital” last week marked the return of the weirdest short-form television production on air. Like most of Adult Swim’s comedy offerings, the show is chock-full of frequent non-sequiturs, irreverent pop-culture jabs, and tongue-in-cheek references to events that never actually happened. Each episode is 15-minutes of rapid-fire comedy. There’s no plot, no carry-over between episodes, and no story-arcs to speak of. The only consistent element is the character lineup: A group of absurd, self-involved doctors with problems.
I sat down with the actors during the show’s last week of filming. In many ways, they’re just as quirky as the characters they portray.
Name: Henry Winkler
Character: Sy Mittleman, the hospital administrator
Screen Junkies: How’s your character looking this season?
Henry Winkler: I love Sy. He is misguided. He is a little goofball who tries to run this hospital, and he doesn’t know what the hell he’s doing.
SJ: Where do you pull the inspiration for your character from?
HW: That’s just it: He is so weird. I just listen to John [Stern], David [Wain], and Rob [Corddry]. I sometimes don’t know what’s happening and I’ll go to Rob or John and say “Just tell me, what are you thinking?” And then I try to get close. For instance, a couple of days ago we filmed a scene where my character shot a pornographic movie in the hospital. He’s the hospital administrator, but he rented out a room to a film company that shoots X-rated films, and then he joined in as a cameraman. So it’s just wacky.
SJ: Do you have any experience playing such a weird character? Your role on “Arrested Development” could be pretty out there at times.
HW: On “Arrested Development” he was just sexually unsure of himself. My character on “Arrested Development” wore chiffon underwear. Sy wears BVDs.
SJ: How does that difference in briefs translate to a difference in character?
HW: Well, you’re always aware of the feeling of the brief that you’re in, and that is where I have my character start. Sir Lawrence Olivier used nose putty, and he would create a nose for his character. Once he got the nose right, he knew the character. True story. For me, it’s the underwear.
SJ: Is this something you’ve been doing for most of your career?
HW: No, I kind of grew into it. No pun intended. And you know what? In a lot of ways, the Fonz really was the foundation of Sy. If you watch Sy very carefully, you can see the underpinnings of the Fonz in him. The cool guy in this nerd.
SJ: How do you like working with the rest of the cast?
HW: Honestly, this is an extraordinary cast. Each one of these human beings is a home run hitter. Each one of these people could be the head of their own show. They are funny, the very definition of funny. What doesn’t get on screen is a shame, what’s left on the cutting room floor.
Name: Rob Huebel
Character: Dr. Owen Maestro
Screen Junkies: What’s coming up in season three?
Rob Huebel: There’s a lot of cool stuff. There’s a ’70s episode, there’s another documentary episode where we find out what happens to us in the future, post Childrens’ Hospital, we all get really cool spinoff shows. Also, we see what we all do when we’re not at the hospital. I’m an airline pilot, of course. There’s an old-timey 40s episode, more of a play really. So there’s a few special episodes. Not where anyone gets molested or someone’s retarded or anything like that. Those are really special episodes. These are just special episodes. I find my father, I find my foreskin from when I was circumcised, I get it reattached. All of those things happen in the same episode. I die, I come back to life, there’s porn stars, there’s a goat. There’s a lot. It’s hard to keep track of. There’s also a lot of sex. Lots of cross-pollination on the show. But that’s something all hospital shows do, so we make fun of it.
SJ: Any notable guest appearances to look forward to?
RH: Yeah. In the comedy world, there’s a lot. Sarah Silverman, Nick Kroll, Rob Riggle, Seth Morris, Brian Huskey, Nick Offerman. Stephen Root from Office Space plays my dad. Yeah, there’s a lot. Oh, and there’s a black doctor this season.
SJ: Are you guys going outside of the hospital at all?
RH: We’re going to Brazil to shoot for real. You know, the show is a Brazilian-based television show, which is a joke that was made in season one and no one cares about it at all or knows. Like, you would be confused if someone mentioned that. But it is. The hospital is in Brazil, and we have to go to Brazil to shoot. There’s actually a fair amount of stuff that happens outside the hospital. There’s an episode at the beginning where you see what we’re all doing in our off hours. That’s all outside of the hospital. Everyone has different side jobs. There’s also an episode that just follows around the ambulance driver, documentary style.
SJ: Do you think the show could work the same way if it was a full half hour?
RH: No. We would never do that. If you do that, you have to have stories and you have to develop characters and there has to be continuity. You have to be consistent, and that seems boring. That’s a bad idea. We like to just have no consistence or continuity and just jump around and make it funny.
Name: Erin Hayes
Character: Dr. Lola Spratt
Screen Junkies: How’s shooting going?
Erin Hayes: It’s good. We’re doing a really different kind of episode right now. We get to do whatever we want, so we don’t even have to reference what we’ve done in past episodes.
SJ: Every episode is standalone.
EH: Every episode is totally standalone. It’s going to probably frustrate some people because we mess with the storyline so much. It’s just the freedom to do anything. We kind of pride ourselves on having no character development and no storyline arcs apart from what happens in each episode.
SJ: Is this your first experience with a show like this?
EH: Yeah. Mostly I’ve done traditional network sitcom type stuff. Most shows are like that. There are very few shows that do things differently, especially now with all those shows where people get very into the mythology and the back-story and the whole world. We really don’t need to bother with any of that. It’s very free.
SJ: How much of the show is improvised?
EH: It’s fully scripted, but improv does play a role. I think that’s really nice because there are so many amazing people in this cast who are very good at it. So you do a take, you certainly get what’s in the script, but if in rehearsal somebody just throws something in, a lot of times the producers standing around will say “That’s great, keep that” or “Let’s change that around.” It’s not set in stone, so if there’s a funnier joke that comes out, that’s what ends up in there. There’s very much a do the take then do whatever you want aspect to it.
SJ: Are there any big developments in store for your character this season?
EH: There’s one that’s really weird. The characters get put on night shift at the hospital and Nick Kroll comes back as a completely different character that’s completely hilarious. I stumble on a porno shoot that’s happening in the hospital and my character’s response is just to cry. I just start crying. It sends me to a deep, dark place. I really have very few lines in the episode, but I’m crying a lot. I feel like it almost deserves a prequel episode, because there are questions in Lola’s childhood about what the fuck happened to this person. But there’s no explanation.
SJ: How long is a typical day on set?
EH: Around 12 hours, but days have been going longer than that. We pack so much in. We do an episode every two days, so it’s a lot to get that much. They also write very ambitious scripts, so we’ve been able to get it done but it has meant some long days. But they’re also very fun days, so you don’t mind being here. Then again, I forget what my children look like for about a month every year so there’s that.
Name: Ken Marino
Character: Dr. Glenn Richie
Screen Junkies: What’s it like to be a part of “Childrens Hospital“?
Ken Marino: It’s great. Anytime I come to work I feel lucky and blessed to be working with these people. When we did the web series, we just did it because it would be fun and because Rob’s awesome and Dave’s awesome, so I said sure. The fact that it got turned into a 15-minute show, which is kind of the perfect amount of time for an episode, was a pleasant surprise. I’m just happy to be along for the ride.
SJ: How would the show change if episodes were 30 minutes?
KM: The show is built on just a barrage of jokes, and the characters can kind of go anywhere, and the show can go anywhere. If you’ve got a half hour it needs to be grounded a little more, and there needs to be more heart on screen. Right now there’s a lot of heart in the making of this. The people involved in making it love it and are passionate about it. But the characters are kind of despicable, and it’s hard to put an emotional throughline in it. When you have a 30-minute episode you kind of need that, because you start to tire of just joke, joke, joke, joke. I think 15 minutes of it is kind of perfect, because you can just enjoy the jokes and the silliness of it.
Name: Malin Akerman
Character: Dr. Valerie Flame
Screen Junkies: Who is Valerie hooking up with this season?
Malin Akerman: It’s more like who isn’t she hooking up with. She’s a very interesting character, and everything is so discombobulated that I can’t even remember who she hooks up with. I know she grabs Rob Corddry’s balls to keep him scared of her. She has a little crush on Lake Bell’s character and gets her to get naked, which is great.
SJ: It seems like there are no boundaries to who or what gets made fun of in the show.
MA: As crazy and out there as the whole show seems, I know that the creators put a lot of thought into how far we can actually push it. They want to push it to a point where everyone kind of cringes and goes “oh my god, we can really do that?” but not the point where we lose our viewers. So there is so me thought that goes into how far we push it, but Adult Swim has been so lenient with us and given us so much creative space to play with. Shooting is like summer camp with your best friends where everyone is a part of the creative process. It feels like everyone is there to make everyone better.
Catch “Children’s Hospital” every Thursday at midnight on Adult Swim.