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Interview with “Uncle Grandpa” Creator Pete Browngardt

Uncle Grandpa premieres this evening at 8 p.m. (ET, PT) on Cartoon Network. The show was created by Peter Browngardt, 34, who also voices the handlebar-mustachioed star of the show. Uncle Grandpa has been gestating since 2008 when it was part of Cartoon Network’s Cartoonstitute program. The original pilot gained a following online after it was posted on YouTube in 2010, the same year in which the pilot was nominated for an Emmy.

The show revolves around Uncle Grandpa, a fanny pack-adorned, propeller beanie-bedecked gentleman of uncertain origin who travels in a magical RV dispensing ‘Good mornins’ while helping children achieve their dreams. If it sounds like an unconventional setup for a children’s cartoon, the show’s style of humor is even more unique.

Surrealist visual humor, the type of which was practiced by cartooning giants like VIP Partch, Tex Avery, and Don Martin, went out of fashion sometime in the late-Eighties. Uncle Grandpa rejuvenates this strand of comedy with gusto: bodies disassemble and reassemble on command, conceited slices of pizza drive motorbikes, and parallel worlds exist in fanny packs (or belly bags, per the show’s lingo). Browngardt’s new show dispenses with the polite verbal banter of other animated TV series; it is visually vulgar and aesthetically abrasive, and because of its sheer audacity, it’s laugh-out-loud funny.

Cartoon Brew spoke to Browngardt about the show. We accompany the chat with a gallery of production and pre-production artwork from the series.

Cartoon Brew: Did you have an Uncle Grandpa-like figure when you were growing up or is it something that you wish you had?

Pete Browngardt: Actually, I think it’s sort of a combination. Growing up, I had uncles, but the funny thing is that neither one of them were actually blood-relatives. They were just my father’s really good friends. I think a lot of people have that, where you just call them Uncle Bob or Uncle Dan or whatever. And these guys were larger-than-life characters. Whenever they came to hang out, it was a nutty time. They let me drive when I was seven years old just to see me drive. We’d build potato cannons and all kinds of stuff that you probably shouldn’t be doing with kids. They were kids at heart as well and they had crazy stories of their life. Like, one of them fought in World War II and hid in a cave, and then got captured and escaped from a POW camp. It was always something adventurous or a good time when they showed up. And then also, I did have a lot of imaginary friends as a kid and I’d go out in the woods and play out scenarios, wishing I could get away.

Cartoon Brew: How many ideas had you pitched before you pitched Uncle Grandpa to Cartoon Network?

Pete Browngardt: It was my first time ever pitching to a studio. A friend, Stephen DeStefano, had a connection to pitch at the studio. I was living in New York at the time. We flew out, and said, ‘Let’s pitch three ideas each.’ I just did quick pitch bible things for three ideas, and pitched to Craig McCracken and Rob Renzetti. Craig and Rob really responded to Uncle Grandpa. And while I was out there, Carl Greenblatt from Chowder had seen my work and he hired me to board on that. I actually moved out to LA to work on that, and through that time period, Cartoonstitute started.

Cartoon Brew: This might be a good moment to talk about your background. I heard you started in animation when you were 19?

Pete Browngardt: I started making animated films when I was seven years old. My older brothers were into making films, they used to make Super 8 horror movies, so I was basically born into a household that liked filmmaking, acting and drawing and all these arts…it was odd to me that other families didn’t do it.

My brothers explained to me at an early age how animation works, and I was like, ‘Wow, you can actually do this.’ My dad and my brother helped me build a lighttable from the back of the Preston Blair animation book, and one of the first things I ever animated was a character swallowing a bee. I animated dog food falling on a dog. I always drew, and I started making animated films all through elementary school. In high school I made stop motion films and some live-action films, and also took a lot of drawing classes.

Got into CalArts and then made films there. After my second year at CalArts, they had that job fair and Producers’ Show, and one of the directors at Futurama saw my second-year film and offered me a job. Basically it was a summer job, and they wanted me to stay, but my parents and myself, I wanted to finish school and get a degree. I ended up going back to school. But yes, when I was 19 I did that. The following summer I got picked for an apprenticeship at Industrial Light and Magic, and I tried doing CG animation which wasn’t a good fit for me. Really missed drawing, but it was a great experience and it was amazing to be in an environment like that. Then, after that I moved back to New York, which is where I’m from, and worked at Augenblick Studios, MTV, World Leaders when they were doing Venture Bros. Then, when I was there, I ended up coming back and pitching to Cartoon Network.

Cartoon Brew: The original Uncle Grandpa pilot was one of the funniest and most original pilots I’d seen. But then you made the series Secret Mountain Fort Awesome, which was based on a gag in the pilot. Was that another one of the pitches? How did it work out that you made a pilot for one thing and got a show for something else.

Pete Browngardt: Well, it was kind of a thing where they weren’t sure about Uncle Grandpa for filling out a whole show. So they asked me to come up with some other things that spun off of it and Secret Mountain was one of those. It was an amazing learning experience for the whole process—of pitching something and then seeing how it can manipulate and change while you’re working on it.

Cartoon Brew: You used a lot of metal and thrash music in Secret Mountain. Can we expect Uncle Grandpa to contain the same?

Pete Browngardt: That music was really for that show. I love that music and when we were doing the animatics for Secret Mountain, I would throw in that music in the temp scores, and it blended really well with the imagery and what I was going for with the design. Now with Uncle Grandpa, there are aspects of that in the music, but we’ve tried to lighten the tone. This new Uncle Grandpa has evolved to be more light-hearted in the sense of a broad kids show, which I’m really excited about. It’s more like Pee-wee’s Playhouse with an expanded cast and expanded world, and I wanted to have more variety in the music and be able to go sort of a happier place, though it does go dark and heavy at times.

We’re actually breaking format on the shows, where within the eleven-minute episodes, we have two stories plus bumpers. We have a seven-to-eight minute story and a two-to-three minute story. Ren and Stimpy used to do that, and even Dexter’s Lab did it, and I really love it because we’re able to experiment. One of the shorts we’re doing is “Uncle Grandpa Sings the Classics,” and it’s Uncle Grandpa singing all the different genres of music. One of them is black metal, and it’s amazing. I was, like, they’re never going to let us put black metal into a kids’ cartoon, but they did.

Cartoon Brew: This is one of the few shows Cartoon Network has ever done, if not the only one, where the lead character is over the age of thirty. Usually, the stars of their shows are either kids or teens or in early-20s, but here you’ve got some older dude. I’m curious, within the studio, was that ever a point of contention or awareness that the show was different from everything else they’re doing?

He’s a magical guy who shows up and takes kids on adventures, so we always say he’s like Santa Claus with a GED.

Pete Browngardt: It definitely was talked about. The way I approached writing him, and we all do on the show, is that he may look like an old man but he’s basically a man-child. Once you see what he does, how he acts and talks, you’ll be like, ‘Oh he’s kind of a child.’ It never was a major concern. The [network would] want to veer us towards writing him like a kid because it is a kids’ cartoon and that’s what I wanted to do the whole time so it never was in contention.

Cartoon Brew: It’s funny that you say man-child because I looked at some of the YouTube comments and the most common adjective use d to describe him is ‘retarded.’ That’s not what he is, but that’s kind of another way of saying man-child.

Pete Browngardt: He’s a magical guy who shows up and takes kids on adventures, so we always say he’s like Santa Claus with a GED. And also, there’s this running theme that when he helps kids and stuff, we tell the story in a way where at the end, you don’t know if he’s an idiot or a genius. And I think that busts that whole thinking that he’s just an idiot because you’re wondering, ‘Did he have all this figured out from the beginning or is it all by chance?’

Uncle Grandpa Art Gallery

Cartoon Brew: I want to talk a little bit about the visual style of the show. I read MAD when I was a kid, and I see a lot of Don Martin influence in the show. Was that an influence at all, and what are your other visual influences?

Pete Browngardt: Definitely MAD magazine. I had older brothers and they had Seventies and early-Eighties MAD magazines around the house. I used to draw from them constantly when I was a kid. At a certain age, my mom was like, ‘I don’t know if you should be looking at these things,’ so I’d sneak in and check them out. But definitely MAD magazine overall, and Don Martin, and then I got into [Harvey] Kurtzman later when I discovered who he was and how he’s the genius behind the whole thing.

Loved Gary Larson’s Far Side as a kid. Really big influence. I had certain breakthroughs as an artist when I was a kid. Like, MAD was one of them. And then in junior high, the Crumb documentary came out. I’d never heard of R. Crumb and when I saw that and got into his work, he was a huge influence. Garbage Pail Kids was huge with me too, John Pound and all those guys. And then, I got exposed to Tex Avery at a really early age. I had a Screwball Classics VHS that I memorized every cartoon on, and old Warner Bros. too. I would say it’s a blending of all of that stuff. I’m also influenced by contemporaries around me, other artists like Pen [Ward] and Aaron Springer, Carl Greenblatt, lot of people. We all sort of feed off each other.

Cartoon Brew: It’s funny because we have a very similar set of influences because we’re so close in age. When I see your show,, I can understand a lot more where the influences are coming from as opposed to a show created by someone who’s in their mid-to-late 20s. That person will have a completely different set of influences that they’re using, not better or worse, but different.

Pete Browngardt: Absolutely. When I see some of the other creators at the studio and just in animation in general, I’m like, wow. It might not be that huge of a span of years, but it is what you grew up on. I don’t even know if I realized it at the time, but a lot of our crew were all around the same age, and it’s funny because it’s like a second language. You go, ‘Make that look like this or that,’ and everybody knows because we’re all around the same age. We do have some young people starting out, and some people that might be a little older, but especially around the board artists and writers, we’re all around the same age. We all watched the same stuff and we’re influenced by pop culture the same way.

  • SarahJesness

    MAD magazine? Ah, I knew the style looked somewhat familiar!

    • Roberto Severino

      The Crumb influence is also quite apparent!

  • Roberto Severino

    Fascinating interview. I’m glad Pete Browngardt has learned a lot over the years. I’m hoping this new cartoon of his will develop that kind of broad appeal that he seems to be looking for.

  • kkakuoku

    It kind of feels sad to know that the public doesn’t respond well to this kind of humor when just 15 years ago, Ren and Stimpy or Cow and Chicken were welcomed with open arms. Youth is now pacified by dry wit, and it’s slowly killing them.

    • Roberto Severino

      I also think it’s because Cartoon Network already has a few shows similar to Uncle Grandpa in terms of surrealistic humor, so it’s gonna be a bit harder for the show to stand out and the drawing style itself may not appeal to everyone in the general public, even though to guys like Amid, the MAD Magazine and Robert Crumb influences are much more obvious. Street appeal, as Eddie Fitzgerald told me in one of his comments, is really important.

    • People complained about Ren and Stimpy and Cow and Chicken back in the day. Mostly older people. I bet you the kids in the target audience and those adults who aren’t spending their life wallowing in nostalgia will dig Uncle Grandpa.

      I kind of hate my generation and their whole “’90s kid” mentality that results in rejecting everything new even if it’s very similar to the old stuff they’re nostalgic for.

      • Jason Cezar Duncan

        THANK YOU! I know exactly what you’re talking about. Hey, I’m all for good memories, but when people start getting unreasonably cynical about every modern thing because their head is so stuck somewhere else, I’m off. I think Browngardt is a great artist and giving him his original show is another step in the right direction for CN. TBH, I don’t think there’s ever been a better time for animation overall than now.

        • Robbie Walker

          Here here! For what I think, Uncle Grandpa is actually interesting. I think it’s better than “Teen Titans GO!”, since for some reason, “Teen Titans GO!” had no connection to the original “Teen Titans” show.

      • Les

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    • jonando rose

      those were actually funny every joke in ug falls flat to people with a brain

    • Nothing But Butts

      That would be a good point except… today’s cartoons go FAR BEYOND the limits of Ren & Stimpy. Spongebob did a number on people. I’m glad that people are getting fed up, if that is the case. However, it looks like… no one cares anyways. Look how far the borders are pushed with South Park and Family Guy? You don’t find it at all alarming that… every cartoon today has some type of focus on displaying a bare butt? Whether smacking it, or bouncing it around, or just trying to find any way to get the character to do something with their butts? WTF is the matter with these animators and producers? It’s sad.

  • Mike

    I’m really mixed on UG so far. The animation is good and the visual gags make me laugh, but I find the overall tone of the show and the titular Uncle Grandpa himself tremendously insufferable and grating. It will be interesting to see how it develops over time.

  • Both the Yonder/Wander character and Uncle Grandpa seem to beat the villains by being ignorant/immune to their powers and always keep an annoyingly friendly attitude (Spongebob VS X). Will be interesting to see how they develop into different characters over time.

  • Lord Sk8er

    While alot of the character designs and bright colors do interest me, It seems as if too many shows are following the same path. Obscure animation, ‘ugly characters’, cheesy or gross out(light shock humor), (etc.) I understnad that this style of animating is becoming more popular nowadays but. (????) While I am glad that CARTOON NETWORK is putting more CARTOONS on its’ channel, (ANYTHING is better than those awful live action sitcoms) can it atleast be something with some minute sliver of quality? I mean come on. Maybe it’s just me but, it seems as if animated shows nowadays are getting progressively worse as we go on. Please let some great cartoon miracle occur or something.

  • Animator606432

    Yeah he sames like a nice guy, but the design just really aren’t appealing to me at all. Why does animation have to be so ugly?

  • Norma Martin

    9/11/2013 The heavy handed uses of “surrealism” in this animated feature is in no way a reflection of Don Martin’s zany, way out style. I do see Dr. Seuss in some of the art. And some of it seems a direct copy/tracing of Seuss. A little surrealism goes a long way. I am guessing Don’s name is being used as a way to promote a new TW product. And Don was NEVER an underground cartoonist. That is the dumbest comment (WIKI) ever… Mrs. Don Martin VISIT:donmartinwebsite.com and donmartinspreadshirt.com

  • mick

    reminds me of The Beano comic style or Whizzer and Chips.

  • kkakuoku

    And, if I may tie this to the comment you made about the 12 Nickelodeon pilots that didn’t make it, Mr. Duncan, you can easily tell that this is something organically funny. Pete Browngardt isn’t doing this to make a buck or take anything away from Adventure Time or Regular Show, he and his crew just doing their thing.

    It’s easy to write this off as a trying-hard-to-be-silly program, but that’s mainly because the shockwave left by both AT and RS is so heavy that anything that even tries to do that type of humor on their own terms is doomed to receive negative critique. People hate when the status quo is challenged.

  • lexxy

    even though it’s a mash-up of older animation styles (many of them inherently vulgar and aimed at the older crowd) and re-tooled to appeal to the oft-times peculiar imaginations of children, Uncle Grandpa has potential. i had no idea what Uncle Grandpa was about until i saw the pilot. from the ads on CN, it just looked like hair-brained nonsense. remind yourselves that Adventure Time and Regular Show had some of the worst and misleading ad campaigns ever before it aired. i still can’t fathom how a real life kid running around in a Finn costume grabbing everyone he can find and shouting “what time is it !?” is a positive formula for advertisement. but now, Jake & Finn are the greatest thing since popcorn in most circles, even with the 20s and 30s crowd. Uncle Grandpa himself is enigmatic, magical and silly; there is a lot that can be done with a character like that. unlike Adventure Time (which picked up an overall story arc involving Jake, the Ice King and Marceline) or Regular Show (which focused in on The Park and the 80s referenced-interactions between the staff), the Uncle Grandpa writers will have a hard time drawing themselves into a corner. it may get bizarre at times but that’s the charm of it. you don’t sit down with the show and expect anything in particular. if it’s explained just enough for you to follow along, hilarity can easily take over. i look forward to more of it.

  • jeff

    Wasn’t “Uncle Grandpa” first mentioned in “Perfect Hair Forever”?

  • Wu Hsin

    Uncle Grandpa is the best show to hit TV in a decade. I’m a 90’s kid, I grew up watching the best of the best of the best of cartoons. Sure, Adventure Time and Regular Show are great compared to the other drivel on CN now, and I watch every episode of them soon as they come out, but Uncle G is way better. GOOD MORNING UNCLE G!

  • Volker Stieber

    My 6-year old absolutely loves it! It’s a happy, happy show with a lot of goof-appeal. I’d call that a success. Good morning !

  • Sophia Jo

    this could be a good show. I love lots of silly cartoons on cartoon network but this seems to just be grasping at straws. trying to reach to veiwers of gumball and adventure time. the concept is cool, I think it wasnt too thought through though..

  • cartoon freak

    uncle grandpa is one boring cartoon, has no concept no sense just stupid can not follow the story sorry pal do not like it

  • gabriel314

    I don’t understand all the negative comments, I have a kid and watch cartoons with her–Uncle Grandpa is, by far, the best I’ve found. It’s subtly funny, sweet, silly and while I can recognize the references, it’s quite original. My kid loves it, and trust me, she ain’t going to get fat because he made an overweight kid feel okay about himself. I guess some would rather than he shamed the child.

  • notoallkingz

    I love my uncle grandpa.