“It’s All About Catharsis” According to Mr. Neighbors Himself Brian Huskey
Brian Huskey has been a familiar face for almost two decades appearing in countless TV series, films, and improv stages (not to mention those iconic Sonic ads that played everywhere). Fans of animation will know his recent works as a recurring character as Regular Sized Rudy on Bob’s Burgers, had a recurring role in the last season of New Girl, and he’s one of the stars of Another Period (and has a role in this summer’s Ant-Man and the Wasp). His friendly, everyman persona has been a career asset in comedy. But as with fellow comics like Rob Corddry and Andy Daly, that average persona can also create an element of disbelief when he goes to darker, weird psychological places in his work, from his comedic work in Children’s Hospital and People of Earth to recent dramatic turns as unhinged men in series like The X-Files and Preacher. And with his Adult Swim specials Mr. Neighbor’s House, Huskey is finally given a chance to take the lead and show what he’s capable of creating on screen.
Tonight’s Mr. Neighbor’s House is actually the second special, the first aired on Adult Swim in 2016 (and is still available to watch for free). Huskey created the concept after an improv show with friends (and co-writers) Jason Mantzoukas and Jesse Falcon which detoured into stories of watching children’s television and the inherent creepiness, explaining “that is the absolute genesis, the unintentional creepiness of these programs aimed at kids, that we all watched as kids.” A new character emerged from Huskey, Mr. Neighbor, and the project was soon being pitched to Adult Swim, a channel more than happy to let comics “get away with anything.” The pitch, in fact, was relatively simple. Huskey says they described it as “a kid show host who could barely contain his issues while trying to pass on life lessons to his young viewers.”
Mr. Neighbor’s House might sound like a parody of Mr. Roger’s Neighborhood (and there are esthetic elements). But the show is less parody and instead uses the premise to explore deep psychological trauma in a darkly comic way. Huskey describes it as “if David Lynch directed children’s television” (a terrifying thought for all). In reality, Bill Benz (Portlandia, The Kroll Show) directed both specials and is more than happy to go to darkly comic extremes with Huskey. From puppets to psychotic breaks, the specials are hard to describe (and it would be a shame to ruin the twists the show has in store for audiences). In the first special Mr. Neighbor’s birthday should provide an opportunity for education AND fun but ends up bringing back painful memories of childhood abandonment. In the new special a door that can only be opened when you tell the truth results in a painful repressed memory resurfacing for Mr. Neighbor.
While the comic elements are broad, the creators made a choice to use psychological realism to root the show and give it structure. Because of Adult Swim’s anything-goes attitude with creators, Huskey and his collaborators had to give themselves restrictions, leading the writers to look for ways to “justify and explain why he’s acting this way. So that’s why we thought ‘the TV show doesn’t actually exist but is playing in his mind.’ So then the show evolved into a person’s way of dealing with his issues, with them filtering out through the show.” That fact is made clear when the audience is made aware that the sound stage he’s on exists as just a camera and dark void of nothing. The cinematic choice is a key piece of visual storytelling which immediately establishes the program’s tone. As Huskey explains “in the script we wrote that there would be a reverse shot of an empty studio, and we called that the void, essentially everything beyond this self-contained world he’s creating in his mind. But then Bill had a great idea and said what if there’s just a camera, and that added this very David Lynch quality. There’s instantly a sense of surveillance about what my character’s doing.”
In a spoiler, the ending of the first special reveals that the show we’ve been watching is in reality, inside the mind of a catatonic mental patient whose only entertainment is a children’s program on his television. The premise which is revealed in the last minute was the inspiration for the existential comedy they created. “What I really wanted to make,” Huskey said “was to explore the fact that if this exists in someone’s mind, they can create an infinite number of worlds and opportunities for themself. Because we loved the idea of playing with the unreliable protagonist, never quite sure whose point of view you’re watching.” And as the new special essentially starts where it ended, the show extends on that idea by showing how Huskey’s characters would interpret any television he’s exposed to (gameshows, cop shows, even a take on Antiques Roadshow).
But through it all, Huskey’s focus was on exploring the character’ emotional turmoil, rather than mocking him. If the idea of Mr. Neighbor hosting a children’s show is unsettling to audiences, Huskey also feels the character deserves, and receives, a great amount of sympathy from the audience. “If anything disturbs the narrative he’s created in his mind, he snaps” explains Huskey “he’s a person keeping a false smile on, telling people things are okay but inside everything’s not okay. But I really don’t think of him as creepy. Everything that happens is against him, he’s not against the other characters. We never wanted to turn it against people on the show or the audience. That’s the horror show aspect in both specials, you are witnessing this man’s suffering.” It’s the difference between cruel and dark comedy, something Huskey understands well explaining “cruel comedy is where the troubled person is being the abuser. And in dark comedy, the audience is experiencing that person going through something and the audience has to see thing through their eyes the pain they’re experiencing. Hopefully the audience is thinking, what it would be like to lose your mind and had to try to keep things together. This is one version of how to show that fear, just with a little humor.”
The audience may be uncomfortable with the show’s emotional whiplash, an intentional choice made by the creators early on, which includes some moments of genuine sadness sold brilliantly by Huskey’s performance. “If we’re going to spend all this time focusing on the guilt he’s feeling, especially telling audiences that he’s been locked up for seven years, of course that breakthrough’s going to be impactful. I think to undersell that would be an injustice to everyone. And when we screened it in a theater, the laughs that came after that were actually bigger because it was a big relief after the dramatic stuff. Doing interviews we’ve been talking a lot about how this compares to horror movies and it is a similar structure. In horror audiences want to be on the edge of danger, but they also want to be given some kind of release. It’s just all about catharsis, that’s going to be my slogan going forward.”
In the first special the big emotional moment came in a scene when he had to act opposite a floating, talking purse. Although the biggest scene in the show, they had to speed through it while filming, explain “we ran out of time and had to shoot it in 20 minutes. That’s the secret, whenever you’re making something be super-rushed so you don’t have time to think about what you’re doing.” All the more impressive is the fact that Huskey’s acting partner in the second special during that dramatic moment is his marionette friend Buddy. “It’s interesting” says Huskey “because I told our puppeteer Adrian Rose Leonard that she does such a great job as Buddy that it’s easy for me to kind of slip into really relating to him as my friend. And our puppet designer Michelle Zamora, there’s that weird uncanny valley where you know it’s not real, and yet it has all these human like features so you start to go along with it.”
With Mr. Neighbor and his starring role on People of Earth, Huskey is starting to notice a pattern in his work. “I did an episode of the X-Files where I played an unhinged conspiracy nut who created this whole false reality about being a member of the X-Files. And with that and People of Earth and these two specials I’m starting to think to myself, I might be getting typecast. I’m playing a lot of crazy people and people who believe in aliens. I think I’m just interested in it so when I get the chance to play it or create it, I jump at the chance. I’m drawn to characters who are wrestling with big issues and are trying to deal with things in a way no one will be able to see. But that’s a lot of comedy characters, playing people who are falsely over-confident or trying to pretend they have everything put together…even if everyone can see it’s a lie.”
While it would be hard to imagine how the initial world of Mr. Neighbor’s House could return in another special, Brian would like to see more specials come out, and was very intentional when writing this special to leave the door open for follow-ups. “That’s called give us another shot at a third one please” jokes Huskey “We stumbled upon the idea early on that we can keep expanding this world and creating new ones because of the premise we established. You can just keep asking, who’s reality is this, whose reality are we in. And even when we were making the first one we talked about there being other kids show hosts, where it turns out they are other patients in the hospital. But at this point, I think we can go in so many different directions. But I think Mr. Neighbor’s House will always be an element of anything we do. I already have ideas for the next one.”