“Harvey Birdman” Co-Creator Erik Richter on Cartoon Network, Atlanta, Adult Swim, and More | Under The Radar Magazine Under the Radar | Music Blog for the Indie Music Magazine
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“Harvey Birdman” Co-Creator Erik Richter on Cartoon Network, Atlanta, Adult Swim, and More

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Dec 18, 2020 Web Exclusive
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For those tuning in to the Adult Swim O.G. cartoon show, Harvey Birdman, Attorney at Law, you may hear a familiar voice. No, you’re not hearing things—that is late night show host, Stephen Colbert, voicing villains with ray guns or judges with gavels. Colbert, who took part in myriad comedic gigs before landing his major hosting job on CBS, was one of many standout voice actors on Birdman in the show’s history. Birdman, which was perhaps Adult Swim’s most highly produced and slickest of the original block of four, featured the winged former superhero defending his cartoon peers in a court of law. The show led to classic episodes like “The Dabba Don,” in which Fred Flintstone stands trial as a mob boss might. Other episodes feature Scooby-Doo and crew and more 1960s Hanna-Barbera superheroes. We caught up with Birdman co-creator, Erik Richter, to ask him about the show’s early days, how he found himself at Adult Swim, and what he remembers most about Adult Swim founder, Mike Lazzo.

This is the fifth in a running series on Under the Radar celebrating Adult Swim and the airing of its first original block of cartoons: Aqua Teen Hunger Force, Sealab 2021, The Brak Show, and Harvey Birdman, Attorney at Law. Watch Adult Swim on HBO Max.

Jake Uitti (Under the Radar): When did you first find animation and how did you fall in love with it?

Erik Richter: I’m hoping that happens sometime next week. No, I’m kidding! I was working at Cartoon Network. I took a job out of college as production assistant in what I would later find out was the on-air department. I knew nothing about television. So, I moved from the Bay Area in California all the way to Atlanta because I’d always loved television. But I had no idea how to get into it. Thankfully, I moved to Atlanta instead of doing the normal thing and going to Los Angeles. So, I fell in with this group of people in Atlanta. It was a small-ish group then. I think Cartoon Network was probably still under 100 people, which is insane now to think of. And one of those people along the way was Mike Lazzo. Again, there was so few people and if you smoked in those days, you’d run into Mike. And I did and he did.

He had this long interest in doing an adult block. So, my partner and I pitched Harvey Birdman and the development process at that point was make Mike laugh. He was a super interesting, interested person. And he was like, “Yeah, let’s give it a shot.” So, that’s how it all happened. I was doing interstitials for the on-air department and was just in proximity to Adult Swim when it launched. And that was that! Yeah, it was kind of great. Mike also—Space Ghost Coast to Coast was kind of a beacon that brought a lot of people to Atlanta because it was such a weird thing that was unlike anything else that was going on television. So, it’s funny. It’s like the Devil’s Tower in Close Encounters, where it’s like all these people across the country are watching Space Ghost and ended up coming to Atlanta because of Mike making Space Ghost. So, it was an interesting touchstone.

So you weren’t, say, a “cartoon-head” to start, you weren’t filling up notebooks all day with animation at the time?

No, I watched cartoons and I loved cartoons but I was not and am not now, nor will I ever be, anything more than a horrible drawer.

Me too.

Yeah, I loved the art form and the medium but I wasn’t an animator and I didn’t quite know that there were writers for animation. The amount I knew about it, I thought it was the old, you know, gag guys at Warner Brothers with Looney Tunes where it’s like there are people who both draw and write at the same time. But I think The Simpsons remade that where it was like, “Oh, there’s a script! And there are writers and they work in conjunction with animators!” And together they make this amazing thing. That I learned after I got to Atlanta.

What was your relationship to Space Ghost Coast to Coast prior to working on Harvey Birdman? And I ask that knowing the character of Birdman was first considered to host the first Coast to Coast.

That is super weird. It’s like literally one of those, speaking of Devil’s Tower, we discovered that after we pitched Birdman. I mean, it was in the same family—like, Birdman and Space Ghost and Galaxy Trio were all elements in the same family that would air at the same time in the ’60s, right? But we just took another superhero from that group and were like, oh, Birdman’s funny. So, I think at some point it was like Lenny Birdman or whatever, just running names. And we found out after the fact that he was to be the first Space Ghost. It was totally incidental but I guess it was also not. [Laughs] It’s probably not all that surprising given that there were about five of those characters to choose from and two of them were Space Ghost and Birdman. But I think we can all agree that Space Ghost was far and away the best choice for Space Ghost! There is no other Space Ghost.

Were you familiar with Space Ghost when you came to Atlanta and Cartoon Network?

Like I said—I don’t know, I’ve compared notes with a few people who—well, my partner and I both found out after we got there that, “Oh my god, Space Ghost is essentially the reason we’re both here.” Because Mike and Andy Merrill and Khaki Jones, who used to work there, had put this crazy show on the air and, again, it was something unlike anything else. I think it was over everybody’s head, man. [Laughs] Intentionally. It was so fantastic and abstract. It was a bunch of things that television—I think that David Letterman kind of hinted at in his personality—but they took it to this Dada extreme. Letterman kind of broke the format in a bunch of ways, including, to me, he was the first person who could be openly dismissive of a guest, you know, and that was really brand new in those days. So, Mike and those guys took it to an insane, exponential degree. And then got a bunch of guests who didn’t know [laughs] the show initially and only later learned.

How did Birdman come together? What was the genesis of the show, why did you choose litigation and how did the cast come together?

The show came together really, really simply and organically. I think it helped that neither of us had ever pitched a show before. So, we didn’t quite know how that went and so there’s actually value to that. We came up with the idea of an attorney—the simplest thing was what about an attorney who reps other cartoons in lawsuits—ha-ha-ha. So, we started to explore that and then Harvey—this idea of a superhero who had moved onto another life and didn’t really acknowledge the old one, you know? It’s just, like, “This is my second career after the first one didn’t quite take off.” Because, as I said, there were elements—probably Space Ghost was the star in the ’60s and the Galaxy Trio had a little niche and Birdman was probably the guy, you know, from the sidelines who’s like, “Hey what about me!”

So, yeah, he went through the years of, probably, depression and bleak thoughts and decided to make something of himself and go to law school and then came out of the other end and got this job. Now he has his own niche. He’s representing other cartoon characters. But that was why we thought about an attorney. And then we had worked with some of these people—we’d never worked with Stephen Colbert. We knew he had done the Ambiguously Gay Duo, which was one of the SNL Robert Smigel shorts, and he was really funny. We were huge Strangers with Candy fans. So, we contacted him and he was in New York. I believe he was sharing an office with Amy Sedaris and Paul Dinello. And he was known from The Daily Show, obviously. But Stephen was so nice and amendable and funny from moment-one that he—and then Gary Cole, who we kind of searched around for, like, “Who should Harvey be?” And Gary had—he was doing, I think, a stage show in Chicago. And he put something on CD and sent it to us. He actually auditioned for Harvey and as soon as we heard him—we’d sent him the first couple of pages of the script—it was like, “Okay, this is Birdman.”

Those two were the two fulcrums of the show and I think kind of begat where we would go with everybody else, which we kind of cast based on their brain. It was people who either did have an improv background or who were just so fast on their feet that we could get what we needed when we’d record something and then we’d just throw something out and we’d laugh and then they’d record that. Then they’d say something, you know, off the top of their head, which was normally the funniest thing and we’d use that. So, it kind of became—that was how the family of performers expanded. It’s an incredible group that we never had in the same room at the same time. Colbert never recorded with John Michael Higgins who never recorded with Gary.

It’s cool looking back and hearing the voices and seeing what the cast has done since.

Well, yeah. I think Michael ran into Stephen several years ago and said, “So, what have you been doing with yourself?” [Laughs] And then joked about, “Hey man, too bad Harvey Birdman was the high point. It all went downhill from there!” No, I think everybody—I think that’s why the show was successful. Not only was everybody funny, but everybody brought this feeling of putting on a show. Like, “I’ve got a barn! You’ve got a funny brain! Let’s put on a show!” It kind of brought that mood and people just kept coming back, you know? They were really fun to create with. And as hard as this process is in so many ways to produce something that isn’t disastrous—that’s why I did it. Like, “Oh my god, I’m so lucky to be working with people who are so funny and creative.”

Why do you think the re-appropriated Hanna-Barbera footage worked so well late night with adults?

Do you mean other than the legalization of pot? [Laughs] I think it’s funny when you’ve seen all these kind of—there’s a nostalgia. Even if it was way before your time, there’s an awareness of these characters, right? I mean, the most famous ones are, you know, still in spots. Fred Flintstone and Scooby-Doo. But even the Huck Hounds and Adam Ants. There’s an awareness of them. They’re so earnest. There’s something really great about the earnestness of all entertainment back in those days. And I think it was, we were taking those characters and not taking pot-shots at them. We were giving them a less earnest—allowing them to have a less earnest side to their personalities that was also part of their personalities, if that makes sense. We weren’t laughing at them. We were actually allowing them to expand a little bit, you know? Letting Adam Ant be pissed off, you know? You’d never see that in the original cartoons. Instead, it was like, he’s a very happy go lucky character! So, there’s that thing, too, where you’re just kind of expanding them a little bit and allowing them to be themselves a little bit more.

And also there was just stuff that made total sense. Well, of course, if this person had an off-stage life, they would think this about that, you know? There was just always an “of course” that would be how Huck Hound would feel about that. There was just an inherent—I think why it worked on Cartoon Network was that the network was and continues to be a crazy patchwork quilt of things, where it’s like there are some really dissimilar things but they all feel like they’re part of the same quilt, you know? That’s because of the development and the curatorial quality of it where it feels like, oh, this is a crazy art show but it all belongs in the same building, you know?

It’s crazy to come across shows randomly and see how many in the world have a connection to Adult Swim.

Yeah, it all feels like it’s from the same fountain. And I think that was part of the show. It was kind of what Adult Swim did with the viewer, with the bumps and talking to the viewer through the bumps. Like, we’re sitting here with you. The shows were kind of like that, too. It wasn’t talking down to you, it wasn’t always successful but we’re trying. We’re the person next to you on the couch trying to make you laugh and you’re making us laugh, you know? I think that’s kind of the secret of a lot of that programming, you know?

What did that initial block of four cartoons mean to you, which I believe all aired on or around Dec 20, 2000?

I believe—I don’t remember—but I believe that it was in the middle of the night, which was perfectly Adult Swim. I think it was, like, at three in the morning. [Laughs] Which, I swear to god, I don’t know if this is true or not, but I think Mike Lazzo at some point had pitched the idea of airing the whole block for an hour—it was like TiVo. Like, it was a TiVo Network where it’s like—and I could be totally wrong. Maybe this is a fever dream of mine, but it was like you air it at, like, 3:11 in the morning. From 3:11 to 4:11 and in order to see it, you’ve got to TiVo it unless you’re up. So, I do know it aired before it aired [in September 2001].

But they’re just—it’s crazy that it was 20 years ago. I will say, I know everybody who launched a show in that block. And I loved every single one of those people. It’s indicative of Matt Thompson and Adam Reed—Matt was a mentor to me when I showed up. He already had a job at Cartoon Network and he was a mentor to me the first week I got to Cartoon Network. It was like, “I don’t know what I’m doing!” So, they were Sealab. Andy Merrill and Pete Smith were Brak. And they were both—Andy is insane and amazingly funny and performative always. And Pete same. And Matt Maiellaro and Dave Willis [from Aqua Teen], I know all those people and they all were working in Atlanta. There is a special strand of people who showed up there, I think, at around that time where that was just—it felt natural at the time but now looking back on it, it’s kind of insane that there was that much successful creativity showing up! With no money. None of the shows cost any money, there was no development money. There was no staff, per se. And above all of it, it was Mike going, “Sure, do that show! I like that idea. That makes me laugh.”

So, I have fondness—it’s more than fondness. It’s kind of like a blown-away-gob-smacked-ness that it happened. What Adult Swim has meant since then to entertainment, I think it’s had a huge imprint and that was the beginning of it. But, again, I know it didn’t feel forced. It felt very organic and natural. It was also Mike. And that’s why the thing succeeded, I think.

It’s funny to see the influence of the shows years later. As you were talking about Birdman, I thought about the Pixar movie, The Incredibles, which is also about superheroes in their post-careers.

We hear it all the time and I am continually shocked and flattered. It’s like, “Oh, such and such is a fan.” I can’t even believe they’ve seen it! That’s great! Animation is, to go back to your first question, I didn’t imagine a career in it and now I can’t imagine any other career. It’s really been a lot of fun for all of the reasons enumerated. Really creative people are still dying to be involved with it for all of those reasons, too.

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www.adultswim.com/videos/harvey-birdman-attorney-at-law

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