Off-Topic With Double Fine’s Tim Schafer

March 16, 2012 -

Before this month Tim Schafer was famous for making a long line of beloved, humor-driven video games. Now he's also the guy who raised over $3 million to make an old-school adventure game. 

In the midst of that historic fundraising drive Gus Mastrapa called Tim Schafer and spoke to him about none of those things. Please enjoy this off-topic conversation about cartoons, A Clockwork Orange and the Iron Maiden poster that Schafer's parents couldn't stand.

Gus Mastrapa: So you got a root canal.

Tim Schafer: It was pretty painless. I fell asleep during it.

GM: Was that the reason why you had that insane headache on the airplane. 

TS: I hope so. Because otherwise I'm having a stroke. It was so painful. It was the most painful thing. I was almost screaming. It was really like an icepick in my eye. And it was sudden too. I was like, “Ow. Ow. Ow.” And of course I Googled it – “Intense pain on descent” – and the first thing I see is “It turned out I had a brain tumor!” I was like. Oh, great. I got a brain tumor.

GM: That's not the kind of news you want to hear. But you did just get two million dollars.

TS: That's how the universe works. You get something and you get something taken away. Like your life.

GM: You wanted to talk about The Heart She Holler.

TS: I did. That was one of my favorite things I saw on Adult Swim. I did see it on Adult Swim, right?

GM: You did. What's the appeal of it to you?

TS: It was like seeing a raunchier version of Twin Peaks again. I love Patton Oswalt and I love whatshername from Flight of the Conchords.

GM: Kristin Schall.

TS: I love all the people on that show. And also, maybe, because I would always watch it late at night when everyone was asleep – and you're sleepy enough where you're trying to figure out if you're dreaming or actually watching TV. Which is the Lynchian quality of it.

GM: You're games seem pretty wholesome. Even the one about heavy metal and satan – there's a niceness to them. The Heart, She Holler is kind of a mean, jerky show.

TS: I don't know, you think it was jerky? It is base behavior – very poor behavior of people.

GM: The show doesn't seem to think very highly of humanity.

TS: I don't know. Humanity can take a joke. I'm usually pretty sensitive to that – entertainment where there seems to be just a sort of creepy loathing for life and humanity and hatefulness. I usually just really recoil at that and don't like it at all. For some reason I just wasn't perceiving that in that show at all. It is affirming. It's all about life. They got pregnant in that one episode.

GM: True, but the show seems to view life as something that is fairly disgusting.

TS: Life is pretty disgusting.

GM: One the other end of the spectrum you mentioned an affection for Adventure Time.

TS: I love Adventure Time. I watch it with my daughter and I watch it when she's not around.

GM: Do you think Adventure Time is appropriate for kids?

TS: I used to worry about that. Did you see The Jiggler episode?

GM: No.

TS: There's this little creature that looks like a barbell and he jiggles. At one point he just emits what looks like blood. It's really gross. But I've finally gotten over that with my daughter because she's inadvertently been exposed to all sorts of crazy things. She loves monsters and she loves scary things. She's only three and a half but she loves all that stuff. She came out when I was playing Enslaved once. I don't play crazy violent video games in front of her, but she popped out of her room unexpectedly at night. And I couldn't pause the game during this one part for some reason. So I was like, “Welp, I guess she's just going to see me kill all these robots.” She was like “What's this?” “Papa's fighting robots.” And she goes, “Get 'em! Get 'em!” and started swinging and punching in the air.

GM: I had described Adventure Time as Spongebob for stoners.

TS: Wait! You're saying Spongebob's not for stoners? No, Spongebob is for stoners. Adventure Time is for everybody. It’s funny because I remember liking it as soon as I saw that pilot that was on Nickelodeon...oh, another network... and mostly on YouTube. And then I went back and watched that pilot recently and the show has just gotten better and better as it has been on. It is really sound. Great tone. The show has all these little moments. Just the way that Jake will bite a sandwich or a character will step in the screen by stretching their leg out in a weird way. I asked Pen about that, because I've hung out with Pen a few times, “Are those just something crazy the animators just come up with on the fly? And he goes, “No, all of those are in the story boards. We plan all those.” Which I think is crazy – I'm just fascinated with how that show gets put together. Usually little ideas often don't survive a collaborative environment.

GM: You seem to have a lot of animators working for you.

TS: I do like animators. For some reason they're a lot of fun. They're really, really funny people. If you choose to go into that profession it's often a choice you make, not necessarily for money, but for this crazy attraction to funny things you saw when you were a kid.

GM: Was there ever the thought, “Let's just make a Double Fine cartoon.”

TS: When I first started the company I was like, “We're going to be an IP creation company – we'll work in games, primarily, but we might do all kinds of things. But it’s a lot of work just to make games. It kind of fell by the wayside. We animated an almost complete rock video for Cabbage Boy near the end of Brutal Legend. We never finished it because we had to work really hard on getting Costume Quest and all those other games signed and into production. We were going to make a short, little animated video for Cabbage Boy. Which, of course, would have launched Cabbage Boy's career into the stratosphere.

GM: That would have been a disservice to culture at large.

TS: I think it would be the lightning rod that finally attracted God's wrath and would get rid of those bands forever.

GM: Are there cartoons that you daughter isn't allowed to watch?

TS: No. I try to steer her towards Adventure Time because I like to watch it. If I'm going to sit on the couch, and there's nothing wrong with that show Caillou, but she loves Caillou. There's not a lot for me in that show. In fact it is kind of hard to watch. It would be hard to watch Barney. Those are the kind of things I've steered her away from – which is pretty selfish of me. She shouldn't be watching TV anyway.

GM: Caillou is like Larry David for toddlers.

TS: Because Caillou gets in really awkward situations?

GM: It's all his worst impulses – he's a big whiner.

TS: I don't want to share! Maybe I'll enjoy it more now that I think of it as Curb Your Enthusiasm.

GM: When you were a kid were there things you weren't supposed to watch?

TS: I was the youngest of five. I was like a bonus child so they didn't really pay too much attention. I got away with a lot of stuff. They didn't really watch what I was watching. I would come down on Saturday morning and I would watch every single thing that was on Saturday morning before anyone else got up. The only time my parents ever censored anything that I listened to or watched was the time I came home with an Iron Maiden poster, which was the cover for Killers, and Eddie is standing there holding a bloody hatchet and his victim's hands are pulling at his t-shirt. My dad was just like, “I don't think I can have that in this house.” They had never raised any sort of objection to anything else. And they made me take the poster back to the store and exchange it. I remember it to this day. Maybe I should go buy that poster to prove that I'm an adult and I can have what I want.

GM: Did that mean that found yourself stumbling onto stuff that was wildly inappropriate.

TS: That wasn't available to us. We didn't have cable. My cousins lived across the street and their parents wouldn't let them watch That Girl because it was unclear if That Girl's boyfriend went home at night. Or weather he was staying over.

GM: What period of Saturday morning were you watching?

TS: It was the '70s. I was born in '67. I remember there was a Plasticman show. And a lot of Scooby Doo. Near the end of it there was a show that had, of all things, Fred and Barney from The Flintstones, but it wasn't the Flintstones. It was Fred and Barney as policemen driving around with The Schmoo from Lil’ Abner – the weirdest show ever. I grew up in the height of Sid and Marty Kroft stoner puppet shows. A lot of Uncle Kroft's Block and the Sid and Marty Kroft Power Hour.

It's hard to imagine that kids will never imagine the magic of the fall preview show that was on. The night before the fall season started, and including the fall season of Saturday morning shows, there would be a prime time special where the guy from Gilligan's Island and a couple other people would give sneak peeks of all the new shows. It was amazing. Oh my God, these are incredible! And then you'd watch them and it would be Far Out Space Nuts and Sigmund the Sea Monster.

GM: Probably the first time I was aware of Kiss was when Peter Chriss played that Kroft show – it was sort of a variety show with all kinds of other Kroft show mixed in.

TS: It is coming back to me. Bigfoot and Wonderboy. Electrawoman and Dynagirl. And that dune buggy show.

GM: Speed buggy.

TS: That show – the Kroft Power Hour or whatever – had some dancers or something that were associated with it. Like live action people who would introduce the power hour. There was a character named Flatbush. What's a flat bush?

GM: Maybe he was from New York.

TS: The other thing I remember is getting up too early because I was so excited and having to watch the Big Blue Marble. Ugh.

GM: For me it was always the Farm Report – like what the weather was and how much corn cost.

TS: The shows started at eight and if you got up an hour too early you'd watch The Big Blue Marble which was, essentially, a national geographic show for kids. It was probably a great show. But to me it was just some kid from some faraway country and learning how he farms. When is Plasticman going to start?

GM: There are 24 hours of cartoons for kids now. Do you have get off my lawn feelings about that?

TS: I appreciate the convenience because you use cartoons strategically now. I need to fold laundry, here turn on this cartoon. Or you choose when it is the right time of day. You've just been outside all day so you feel justified in letting her watch Angelina Ballerina for a half an hour. You're choosing the time because we have Tivo and stuff like that. It feels like you're a little more in control. It's like that with all culture. Because of the Internet and all that stuff you are missing this big moments like Monday Night Football – everybody used to gather for some event on television. They're missing out on those kind of events except, I guess, for the Oscars.

GM: Does Yo Gabba Gabba seem calculated to you? 

TS: It is hip because hip people are making it. Like Biz Markie and The Aquabats. They're just different people from cool backgrounds making it. I don't think the people making H.R. Puffinstuff were the hipsters of their day.

GM: All the executives were just hire a hippie and let them make a show for the rest of the hippies and it'll just work out.

TS: Maybe it was a subversive thing. Look at the bright colors. It's a happy show.

GM: Sesame Street had a lot of psychedelic stuff in it – a lot of people gloss over that – but those Jim Henson animations were pretty nuts.

TS: We often reference this one trippy animated one that was all about The Land of Eeeeeee. And the Eagle flew. And it was all this Sitar music. Crazy, crazy psychedelic stuff for kids. With psychedelic stuff you always get this association of being crazy because of LSD, but if you watch them themselves they are somewhat childlike in that they're just these random, stream-of-consciousness things that make sense to kids.

GM: Kids experience the world like a trip.

TS: Psychedelics are constantly trying to return to a period where your brain was capable of wonder, right? That's what being a kid is all about – non-stop wonder all the time. Especially when you're terrified.

We were expected to deal with certain stuff – to see stuff and process stuff and deal with it. With modern parents there's a lot more urge to protect kids from things. I think of the metaphor as allergies. If you feed your kid strawberries too early they will develop an allergy to strawberries that will last them the rest of their lives. So there is definitely a time when it is appropriate to protect them from things they aren't ready to process – like strawberries or first-person shooters.

At a certain age they can handle it like an adult can. They can process it. They can realize it is make-believe. And they can enjoy it in the same way that you do. I don't think that if your child sees the wrong thing at the wrong time they're going to become a mass murderer. Or maybe that's true. Maybe that's where mass murderers come from. We just all lucked out.

GM: Can you think of any inappropriate thing you consumed?

TS: I went to this fort that my older brothers made in our attic and I found this box that had all these great Mad magazines in it. I didn't get any of the jokes. They were all about Nixon and Watergate. I was like, Whatever! And tear out the pages and put them up on the wall and use all the stickers and do all the fold-ins.

But one of them that I always remember had the cover with Alfred E. Neuman as the main character from A Clockwork Orange. He's peeling an orange and clockwork parts are flying out. I always thought that was really cool. I was like, “What is that? I want to see that!” A Clockwork Orange got rereleased as an R-Rated film in the '80s – because it was an X-rated film when it was first released. I was like “Oh! I want to see that!” My mom was like, “What is that?”

One day we were trying to figure out what to do with our very, very shy Japanese exchange student that we had living at our house. So it was me, Keomi and I was like, “Let's go see A Clockwork Orange like on the Mad Magazine cover!” Okay. So we're standing in line and there's old hippie guy behind us who was like, “Whoa. Is that your mom? You're kind of young to see this movie. Your mom is really cool for taking you.”

So we go in. And by the time the second rape scene happened – the weird thing is my mom just left. She was, “I'm going to go wait in the lobby.” Keomi and I – the shy exchange student who never said that much – just looked at each other and said, “Should we watch this?” I think that guy is cutting that lady's sweater. I don't think he's singing Singing in The Rain for the right reasons. I don't know if it scarred me for life but when I was just getting my root canal I had to use the restroom before the procedure and I was in one stall and next to me one of the doctors came, using the stall next to me, and he was whistling Singing in the Rain.” It was the most malicious, scary-sounding thing I ever heard.

GM: I don't think there's many songs a dentist can sing that wouldn't sound malicious.

TS: I always hear the kicks to the guy with every line of the song. But it all worked out fine.

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