For the last seven months or so, many of us have come to define the term "couch potato" as we stay indoors, snack away on salty foodstuffs, and consume as much digital entertainment as humanly possible. After all, there's not much else to do during this pandemic, since going outside and socializing with other people is dangerous. It can certainly feel like the end times every now and again, but the folks behind TZGZ's Hell Den were determined to transform the constant doom and gloom into a brief comedic respite for SYFY viewers.
"This is a sad time and this show, coincidentally, has lined up with what people joke as the apocalypse," showrunner Neil Garguilo tells SYFY WIRE ahead of the Season 2 premiere this weekend. "We think that there’s a very fun way to look at that and we think that there is a lot of social commentary to be had about the world that we’re living in. This is a really fun way to experience it; it kind of takes the piss out of our reality a little bit."
Hell Den blends the tried and true formats of Robot Chicken and Mystery Science Theater 3000 for a sketch-based comedy program that over-dubs old cartoons and stock footage from years gone by. The series takes place in the post-apocalypse, where 12-year-old Andrew (voiced by Garguilo) watches endless amounts of television alongside horrific demonic creatures.
"We liked the tale of the last boy on Earth and the idea of a group of creatures seeing what the world was like prior to the destruction of Earth [told] through old media. And then [them] having to piece together their narrative of what they think this world used to be," Garguilo explains. "We found that very funny, the idea of if aliens just had our media and that’s all they had from the last hundred years to define what Earth was, that would be a very silly thing for them."
In addition to the televised sketches, each episode is then tied together with an overarching storyline, whether it's Andrew and his abominable cohorts trying to lose weight or the group meeting clearly-possessed sister. The scenario of what the characters are experiencing then dictates the kind of segments that are chosen for them to watch.
"It’s picking the theme versus just trying to push a narrative. Everything kind of starts at theme, something that we want to discuss, something that we’re finding within our sketches," Garguilo says. "We were saying, ‘Oh, there are a lot of things that might fit in the world of cardiovascular endurance' or ‘losing weight and what that looks like and reflecting on how society pushes that concept on us.' We look at the larger social touchpoint and we work from there."
To acquire all of its old footage, Hell Den relies on Shout! Factory, which has been licensing retro content to Mystery Science Theater for decades. "They have a beat on where all of this comes from, so we work with them to find libraries that have been collecting films for the better part of 40 years," Garguilo says.
For Season 2, however, the show also turned to the Prelinger Archives for a greater variety of content.
"In Season 1, we were using animation almost exclusively from the 1920s and '30s and '40s to re-dub. This season, we’re working with longer pieces that come from a variety of different places," the showrunner continues. "So we have old educational films, old PSAs, and vacation films from rich people in the 1930s. We have a whole new library that we’re working from, so we have been able to expand our thought process as to what the source material is and how we can attack it for longer periods of time... There’s a lot more 30-second, 1-minute, minute-and-a-half sketches in Season 2, while in Season 1, there were a lot of 5-12 second sketches. I think we’ve really cracked the code on how to live in the sketches a little bit longer and do so in a satisfying way."
The process of finding videos requires everyone involved to watch "hundreds of hours of videos," Garguilo reveals. "And as we’re scrolling through our hundreds of hours of videos, we find a 30-second nugget and go, ‘Oh yeah! We could write a sketch on that.’ It really is time-consuming and it’s all hands on [deck] because it’s the writers going through and researching."
In recent years, pop culture has seen a resurgence of the old rubber hose animation style of the '30s and '40s, thanks to pieces of media like Studio MDHR's Cuphead game that spawned both comics and a Netflix series. "Look, old cartoons are crazy. They’re absolutely insane," Garguilo says. "If you can provide some type of modern perspective to something that existed in the 1920s, '30s, and '40s — where I am convinced every animator was on LSD 24 hours a day — you really get some new life out of these sketches, out of the old cartoons that we admire and love so much."
According to Garguilo, our love and fascination of old cartoons (the ones in which all the characters wear white gloves for some reason) is a nostalgic reflex that crosses all generational boundaries:
"It’s grandma’s house, man. It really is. You hit it right on the head with nostalgia. I think all of those films that my grandmother would play for me on videotapes when I was a child and I think a lot of people have that shared experience. As people, we look for shared experiences from childhood and I think that’s one that a lot of people can connect to, regardless of the generation. I have a first cousin that is about 20 years younger than me and she and I can connect on Betty Boop because grandma played both of us Betty Boop. It really breaches generational gaps and people can come together on that."
As for the live-action segments, those clips hail from the era of the Great Depression, World War II, and the Cold War — times with cultural norms and viewpoints that have not aged very well. For example, a PSA produced in a time when America was deathly afraid of Communism is inherently comedic to a 2020 audience. By its very nature, it is already somewhat ludicrous and just needs a tiny push to make it a Hell Den sketch.
"Of course, very much so," Garguilo admits. "There are so many incorrect messages that happened at that time and I think lending comedy to them is a very fun place to play. Just how women were treated and spoken to; how people viewed certain science that is not accurate... There’s a lot in there that is interesting to play with."
Like most entertainment productions this year, Hell Den was directly impacted by the coronavirus pandemic, which began to take shape in mid-to-late March. Fortunately, the show is comprised of animation and pre-filmed clips, which meant the product could be assembled 100 percent remotely.
"Our writers’ room [for Season 2] started a week before quarantine or pre-quarantine when people were recommending staying in. We had our first week of writers’ room and then we transitioned immediately," Garguilo remembers. "We moved to Zoom and we started having our writers’ room in Zoom. In doing so, we had to change how we were going to approach production, recording, we worked with NBCUniversal — who was incredibly helpful — to figure out how we were gonna make this thing happen."
Another great aspect of Neil's job is that he literally gets to work with his friends on a daily basis. The project was created by his improv comedy troupe: Dr. God, which boasts Sean Cowhig, Brian James O’Connell, David Park, and Justin Ware among its ranks. All five members executive produce the series.
"We’ve been doing that together for the better part of 15 years," Garguilo adds. "To basically be able to make a sketch comedy show that has been influenced by Mystery Science Theater 3000 has been a real dream for us."
In terms of the over-dubbed recordings, he states that everything is fully scripted prior to recording, but "25 percent of it changes in the booth. Once you get in there, it’s so fun. You’ve worked for months and months on perfecting this script and then you get in the booth and you say, ‘Well, let me try some things.’ And you make up ten lines in a row, and it turns out the thing that you’ve said in the moment is superior comedically to the thing that you’ve been hemming and hawing over for months."
While watching Season 2, keep your ears pricked for special guest stars like Maria Bamford, Matthew Lillard, Kevin Heffernan, Katie Leclerc, Jillian Rose Reed, and others. Garguilo says they really "stepped up to the plate and made this work in a time that was very difficult. [They were doing] home recordings — making incredibly funny things happen with basically direction on the page and doing so in a way that was so satisfying."
The showrunner concludes: "I love the people that I work with. I’m a very fortunate person because I work with a whole lot of friends and that’s a very special experience. This season, a lot of friends rallied together and went the extra mile because it required that in a time that was very difficult. [We] banded together to make something that we’re really proud of in an unprecedented time, but there are a million creative reasons I could give you, but for me, I love that group mind and that group mentality and it was as present as it has ever been in my entire life."
Season 2 of Hell Den premieres on SYFY this Saturday (Nov. 7) at midnight EST.
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