F E A T U R E S    Issue 1.02 - June 1995


By Rogier van Bakel

This is no ordinary private duck. 'Scuse me - dick.

You may have seen him romping around late on BBC2 on Fridays and Sky One on Sundays. He's not the superhero type, not at all the gallant gent whose suave smile sweeps women off their feet and makes his enemies' skin crawl. In fact, this cranky li'l critter often takes offence at the merest glance an innocent stranger casts his way - "What the hell you starin' at?!" being his signature line. Honest, this is one weird sonofabitch. Skinny, with eyebrows that hover restlessly over the rims of his glasses. Anybody looking to hire a two-bit gumshoe who thinks he's the centre of the universe, look no further. Duckman fits the bill.

Speaking of beaks, Duckman agonizes over the size of his ornithological protuberance the way most men are said to be anxious about - well, you get the idea. More importantly, the feathered fella continually frets about a changing culture that no longer lets him do what he does best: be a male chauvinist duck with a chip the size of Alaska on his shoulder. He's a red-steak-and-two-fingers-of-gin kind of guy with a deep love of theatre and the cinema - as long as the stage production is "The Busty Bikini Babefest" and the movie is Hannah Does Her Sisters. To his credit, Duckman loves his three sons (two of whom share one body); and he dearly misses his dead wife (he has forgiven her for willing the kids to her sister Bernice, a shrewish Thigh-Master addict who attempts to run Duckman's household like a boot camp). When all is said and done, Duckman genuinely wants to make the world a better place. No, really. But before he can express his genetic affections, or act on his confused idealism, he invariably gets sidetracked by the dark forces that rule his universe.

More often than not, these forces wear skimpy dresses and high heels.

And yet, for all his shortcomings, Duckman generally evokes a weary kind of compassion. He is Everyduck and Falling Down's D-FENS rolled into one, attacking life's trepidations with a mixture of defiance and despair. He is imperfect - not to say positively insane - but his attempts at valour and heroism are touching in their inadequacy. His lack of true courage is outstripped only by his maniacal drive to prove himself worthy of self-respect and the world's admiration. "One of the things we immediately liked about Duckman was his Sisyphean quality," says Ron Osborn, who, with Jeff Reno, is the head writer and executive producer of the show. "No matter what, he gets up every morning and pushes the rock up the hill, and the rock rolls back down. But he never quits. He just keeps pushing that damn rock."

Duckman was born nine years ago, when San Diego illustrator Everett Peck looked at a piece of paper on which he had been doodling, and found he had given birth to a ranting duck with large teeth and a mop of tomato-red hair. But it took several more years for Duckman to come to life, at least in any public sense. In the fall of 1990, Dark Horse Comics published the first Duckman comic book. The cover contained a faux warning sticker that read "NOTE: This ain't no comic for you fantasy slobs with pointed ears. This comic is for the hard workin' joe that takes it in the butt from the IRS every year - like clockwork."

Inside were the embryonic forms of Peck humour. There's the drawing of Duckman in his car, having just backed over his sons, Charles and Mambo, whose heads protrude from under the rear fender. Yells Dad: "How many times have I told you two fartballs not to play in the driveway?! Now I'm gonna be late for work!" There's also the scene where the mad mallard sits in a coffee shop, smoking a cigarette. A polite, bucktoothed little hare approaches him, murmuring: "Scuse me ... Thanks for not smoking." Whereupon Duckman delivers a nasty uppercut to his gadfly's chin, replying coldly: "Thanks for being unconscious." All this executed in black ink, in a rough 'n' dirty style that few would have recognized as network TV material.

Enter Gabor Csupo. The Hungarian-born animator, who has the slightly unkempt, handsome look of a storybook revolutionary and a heavy Slavic accent to boot, was disappointed by the quality of American animation. After he left his country in 1979 with little more than a change of clothes and 500 albums, he found work in Sweden, then in Hollywood. Tinseltown intrigued and puzzled him. He couldn't understand why "mostly everyone was imitating the already successful style of Disney and Warner Bros."

Csupo (pronounced chew-poh) envisioned a community of animation artists bent on pushing the envelope, a company of pioneers who would forego "cookie-cutter art, the stuff with the big noses and the round eyes". After a successful period of freelancing, he and his wife, American graphic artist Arlene Klasky, started their own animation studio in 1982. Klasky/Csupo Productions soon began recruiting artists from the US and Europe. "The stranger they draw and the more bizarre, the more we love them," Csupo grins. No surprise, then, he and Peck were a match made in heaven. "To me, it was easy; I saw the humour of Duckman, the charm, the craziness," Csupo says happily, somehow managing to avoid any sign of arrogance. "I knew immediately that it would make a great cartoon."

Perhaps partly on the strength of other animation shows that Klasky/Csupo had worked on or were developing (among them Rugrats, The Simpsons, and Aaahh!!! Real Monsters), Fox TV responded favourably to the studio's sales pitch, and commissioned a Duckman pilot. But USA Network, a relatively obscure cable station co-owned by Paramount Universal, went one better. In need of a strong signature show, USA gave Peck and Klasky/Csupo the go-ahead for 13 episodes. The second season - another 13 weekly Saturday night shows - started in March. Thirteen more original shows are to follow next year.

Duckman is the boldest piece of social satire to hit the tube in years, matched lovingly with delightful music fragments from the work of the late Frank Zappa. Though the show is strong in the 18-to-30 age group, baby boomers Reno and Osborn see no reason why people their own age wouldn't tune in to Duckman. Robert Goldberg, the TV critic for The Wall Street Journal - not exactly a Gen-X rag - apparently agrees. He proclaimed Duckman one of 1994's best shows: "Duckman is a fuzzy yellow angst-machine with hip, wry humour to spare. A very adult, prime-time cartoon that blows away competitors like The Simpsons."

The adventures of His Webfootedness have also been sold to TV stations in the Netherlands, Belgium, Germany, Spain, France and Greece. Now, millions of viewers in North America and Europe have fallen in love with Duckman (the voice of Jason Alexander, best known as George on Seinfeld) and his fellow misfits. Adding to the show's international cult status is an Internet newsgroup (alt.tv.duckman); and a World Wide Web site with news, plot summaries, sound files, and cast lists.(bluejay.creighton.edu/~jduche/duckman.html).

Many participants in the newsgroup are fond of Duckman's dimwitted son Ajax (the voice of Dweezil Zappa), who is 15 but hasn't mastered the four-slice toaster and occasionally forgets that he doesn't have to knock on the door of his own bedroom before entering. Others appreciate Cornfed, Duckman's loyal sidekick, a Pig Friday whose deep, monotonous baritone (a stellar performance by Gregg Berger) vibrates with the sexiest timbre this side of Barry White. Many are annoyed with Fluffy and Uranus (Pat Musick), two obscenely sweet stuffed bears. These politically hypercorrect office assistants always spring back to life after "Mr Duckman", their lord and master, routinely impales them on coat hooks or feeds them through a paper shredder.

The producers insisted on hiring "real actors" to bring the show's characters to life, "instead of people with funny voices". (The cast also includes Nancy Travis as Bernice, Dana Hill as Charles, and E G Daily as Mambo). "Duckman is an extremely angry character, but he is also very vulnerable," explains writer/producer Jeff Reno, who, like Ron Osborn and all the other top creative people working on the show, sports jeans and a beard. "He gets shat on left and right. He shits on others, too, but he definitely gets it back worse than he gives it out. You need an actor who can play both sides pretty well."

There's a delicate balance, Reno believes, between Duckman the victim and Duckman the ranting cynic. "We talked about that for a long time before we started writing the first scripts. You can't have a main character who's too unlikable." For instance, the joke about Duckman running over his offspring with his car, and then complaining that this will make him late for work, wouldn't work well on TV. On the show, Duckman would at least apologise or feel remorse afterwards.

"We had to ask ourselves, 'how bad a father can he be before he becomes so bad that it's not funny anymore?'" says Osborn. "At the same time, we remain serious about doing an animated underground show that captures the rawness of the original comic. We wanted to steer away from the stuff that gives you the warm fuzzies, the stuff with the obligatory family group hug at the end. Which is why I'm pretty sure we will never win an Emmy or a Cable ACE Award, even though we've been nominated for both. We make fun of the warm fuzzies. That's probably a little too disquieting for most network-think."

That's testicles to you, scumbag

Not that Reno and Osborn are strangers to more traditional shows: they've worked on such palatable fare as Mork and Mindy and Moonlighting. But Duckman is their first foray into adult animation, and they cherish the artistic freedom that comes with it. Says Osborn: "If this were a live-action show, I think the jokes would take on a tragic quality. The dysfunctional elements in the family would be at too high a pitch to watch comfortably. Animation gives you this patina, this other-worldliness, that distances you a little bit from the darkness, but still allows you to be dark."

Nonetheless, the staff of six writers has frequently fought with Paramount's standards-and-practices people. "On the whole, they've been good about letting us do what we want to do, but in the beginning, we were less than comfortable with one another," says Osborn of the studio's censors. Initially, the writers got notes suggesting that the studio wanted more upbeat family scenes and more happy endings.

Then they were asked to wash out their pens with soap and water. "The worst thing they ever did was lift a word from the soundtrack of the first show without telling us," says Reno, still a little incredulous. "We didn't discover it until the premiere party. They didn't even bleep it, which could have been funny in itself. You just see this character moving his lips and for a moment, there's no sound." What was the offending word? "Scumbag. We weren't aware of any connotation beyond lowlife or jerk. But the standards-and-practices people insisted that it meant used condom."

A little while later, a tiff ensued over the word scrotum. "I thought it was the clinical term, the acceptable way of saying balls," muses Reno. "On The Wonder Years, one brother calls the other "scrote" all the time. You hear worse words than that on NYPD Blue and Hill Street Blues. We were a little dumbfounded at the vehemence that scrotum elicited at Paramount. In the end, we got it in. We're fans of the old Lenny Bruce philosophy that words are a good thing to be exposed to."

Even so, Osborn says the writing team is mindful of children who may watch the show despite the late hour. "Animation by its nature will attract a younger audience," he believes. He and Reno have decided not to show blood, and they have occasionally altered words or situations that could be considered inappropriate for kids. "One of the things we changed about Duckman was his chain-smoking," says Osborn. "I originally thought he should chain-smoke - it fits. But children cannot necessarily process the notion that it's an unhealthy thing. They may think it's cool. To see an animated character smoke might be viewed as a tacit acceptance."

But Reno is not so sure. "Of course, the contradiction there is that we also want kids to process that things like anger and sexism are wrong, even though Duckman has a lot of that. So there are a few inherent problems with deciding that you're going to send one message, but not another."

Avery, Disney, Groening

 Everett Peck has a shy smile and soft brown eyes that seem strangely at odds with his almost Mansonesque features. There is an unusual boyishness about him for a man in his mid-40s. It's easy to mentally peel off the years, to picture Peck as the underachiever he was in high school, exasperating his teachers by dreamily doodling in school books, his head too full of Tex Avery and Walt Disney to leave much room for maths or conjugating verbs. Not until he went to art school did Peck realise that the distraction that had kept him from a satisfying academic performance was perhaps a blessing in disguise. Maybe he had more than just an inconvenient urge to draw; perhaps he had talent. "It was like: wait, I can get credit for this? Cool!" he remembers with a grin.

For more than 20 years, Peck has been a freelance illustrator, with credits that include Rolling Stone, Esquire, Playboy and The New York Times Magazine. He has never before worked on a major cartoon show, let alone one that he created, and he admits to getting a little starry-eyed when he drives past the huge Duckman billboard on San Vicente and Wilshir, in downtown LA. "He's up there, larger than life, as well as on millions of TV screens. That's pretty unbelievable," says Peck. "And the most gratifying thing is, it's still close to me. Duckman is still intact after the whole process."

He'll allow that the roughness of the original comic book has been substituted for a more sophisticated, streamlined look. "Yeah, we made him more refined, but simpler. Still, that's inconsequential. It doesn't change his character. The goal was to make him more user-friendly, I guess, so the 300 animators in Korea, where the animation cells are made, would have an easier time drawing him."

Choosing a duck as his antihero, explains Peck, was a tip o' the hat to "all the great ducks that came before him, from Donald to Daffy to Howard. Plus, ducks are pretty funny, because of their profile."

Peck believes it would never have come to a Duckman TV series, had it not been for two things that changed the stature of animation in the '80s and '90s: Who Framed Roger Rabbit and The Simpsons. "They opened the door for Ren & Stimpy and Beavis and Butt-head and Duckman. There's tremendous potential for new shows and new directions in animation right now, although I'm afraid that we could lose the opportunity if a lot of bland shows were to hit the air and fail, like The Fish Police and Capital Critters. The reason that Ren & Stimpy and Duckman have succeeded is that these shows are based on an individual artist's vision. Something like The Fish Police seemed more of a group decision by a studio, not really propelled by one person's imagination."

Reno and Osborn are equally quick to acknowledge their debt to The Simpsons and its creator, Matt Groening. "That show, to us, is still as well written as anyone could hope for. It's kind of a beacon. I don't know if we would have seen Duckman's potential if The Simpsons didn't exist; if we hadn't known that it was possible get to that level."

Another - less obvious - influence on Duckman is Monty Python's Flying Circus -"because they liked to mix the silly with the intellectual," explains Osborn. "Monty Python could go from discussing Byron to hitting someone over the head with a rubber chicken. That juxtaposition appealed to both of us. We do everything from fart jokes to take-offs on Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf."

But so do the people who write The Simpsons. "Yeah. But we're different," maintains Osborn. "I hesitate to say that The Simpsons has a sweeter voice, because that show is so acerbic. But what fuels Homer is that he chooses to travel the path of least resistance, while Duckman tends to forge ahead blindly, creating accidents all around him as he goes."

Perhaps Peck sums up the distinction best. "The Simpsons could almost be live-action. I want to be able to take Duckman further and stretch the boundaries of animation. Be extreme." He pauses, then smiles sweetly. "Like, maybe, one day, I could blow up his head or something."

Anagram lovers will find that Rogier Van Bakel has Brave Ink Galore. His personal opinion about the Big Bad Bird: "Dutchman loves Duckman".