Client: Simon Racioppa - Executive Producer, Head Writer
If you’re waiting for The Boys to return, you’ve still got a few more months to go. (Season three of the show arrives in June.) But for those looking for an entertaining appetizer to tide them over, Amazon has an unusual offer—fitting, for such an unusual show. The Boys Presents: Diabolical is a series of eight animated shorts set in the universe of The Boys. A couple installments aside, Diabolical features characters living on the margins of the battle between superpowered sociopaths and the vigilantes led by Billy Butcher (Karl Urban)—people you might not expect to see in the central story.
Each short is roughly a dozen minutes long, and even more notably, is done in a wholly unique style of animation, from old-school Warner Bros. cartoons to contemporary anime. That’s in part because they each have a completely separate creator, with writers including Seth Rogen and Evan Goldberg, Awkwafina, and Justin Roiland bringing their own distinctive sensibilities to the material.
The A.V. Club asked showrunner Simon Racioppa to choose his three favorite Diabolical shorts, delving deeper into what made those picks stand out to him—from the unexpected emotional core of each, to the over-the-top violence for which The Boys is known. Racioppa opened up about the challenges of making each short work, supporting the vision of the various creators, and being incredibly proud of helping bring to the screen the heartwarming story of a teenage girl and her sentient turd.
Episode 7: “Jon And Sun-Hee”
Writer: Andy Samberg Director: Steve Ahn
Simon Racioppa: I mean, one of the real standout episodes was Andy Samberg’s, which is “Jon And Sun-Hee.” The way that episode grew and changed as it went through production was so interesting and satisfying at the end. So, Andy wrote this amazing script, which is very similar to the finished product, but his script wasn’t based on a Korean couple. It was the same story—a couple going through this terrible challenge, with cancer in the wife and then the husband having to deal with that. And the husband ultimately is unable to let go of her. I think the piece is a very short treatise on letting go in life, and that that’s okay, that there was a natural flow to things in life. And sometimes that is death, and letting go. And then if you try to stop it, that causes problems, and that’s the unnatural thing—actually trying to resist that.
And then we brought on Steve Ahn, who’s the director. And he’s Korean, and he reacted to it really positively. I don’t want to speak for him, but he had a family experience that was similar to what the characters go through in the short film—he wanted to bring a Korean angle to it. And so we were like, “That sounds really interesting and really amazing.” I’m not Korean. That’s not something I can bring to a piece. And neither is Andy Samberg. But Steve Ahn is, so we started to support that. We talked to Andy and he’s like, “That sounds amazing. Let’s do it.” And then we really looked to Steve to lead that and try to support it as best we can.
So we found a Korean studio to do the animation, Korean actors in the roles of John and Sun-Hee, Korean composer Hyesu Wiedmann, whose work just blew us away. Like, that episode is one of the only ones that—and I promise you, I’m not making this up—on a number of the times when we heard the composition, we had people in the crew crying, listening to her music and watching the picture early on. It brought a tear to [the eyes of] a number of people, myself included. So we just tried to support Steve and make those changes. And I hope it brings a different angle to things that maybe we didn’t have, and it’s something that Andy and I could not bring to it.
The A.V. Club: It feels like it almost inverts the structure of a lot of the other episodes—a lot of them have some pathos limning the edges of the more central outrageous stuff, whereas that one feels like you’re jumping into this gut-wrenching story, with the outrageousness flowing out from there.
SR: Yeah, that was the plan working on it early with Andy, we talked about that kind of thing. Andy, obviously, he’s known for comedies, but he actually does short films, he does a lot of writing. And I think he wanted to tell a really touching dramatic story, and it came across that way. Even on the early pages of the script, this contained short film is about loss ultimately. It still is a The Boys story—it’s kinetic, but that comes at the end of it. It doesn’t start with a bang. It’s just a slow build and burn and character-based kind of piece that comes together into, I hope, a very beautiful piece of film.
AVC: Yeah. And also some slow burn that ends, then some literal burning.
SR: Yeah. So clearly we’re still there in the world of The Boys, even if we start a little slower than you might expect. It’s also a totally different perspective on the world of The Boys. Vought is a huge corporation. There are lots of other people who would work there, and that’s something that [Samberg] explores, that people who don’t normally get the camera time you would see on the mothership show.
Episode 1: “Laser Baby’s Day Out”
Directors: Crystal Chesney-Thompson, Derek Lee Thompson Writers: Seth Rogen, Evan Goldberg
SR: That was an homage to all the cartoons we watched growing up. Early on, working with Seth [Rogen] and Evan [Goldberg] on that, we decided to actually take out all the dialogue. There’s one word of dialogue in the whole piece, when she says “Dada” at the end; everything else is all just sounds and visuals. So part of the fun of that was just being like, “OK, if that’s what we’re going to do, how hard can we go? Let’s go as far as we can.” So we found Crystal Chesney-Thompson and Derek Thompson, the two directors on that piece, who actually do Looney Tunes-style animation. That’s their thing. They’re old school like that. And we found a studio who did animation on Animaniacs and Tom And Jerry and stuff like that, who do that kind of animation. So Crystal and Derek then found the designers they knew who do those kinds of designs and those kind of old Disney and Hanna-Barbera and Warner Bros. cartoons.
And then we did the same thing for the composers we found: the two composers of that, Steve and Julie Bernstein, just wrapped the new Animaniacs series, and they do that style where everything is like, punctuated—you know, the flute trills for when someone’s tiptoeing and stuff like that. We worked with them and ultimately recorded a 29-piece orchestra for that episode. Here’s one of the fun things when they do that kind of composition: the working version they do on set, I remember sharing some of the synth version with people and them saying, “This is amazing. This is great. We love it, it’s going to go into some of the other EPs,” and stuff like that. And then I was like, “You know, this isn’t the final version. It’s going to get even better.” And people were like, “What are you talking about?” And then we recorded the orchestra and it just pops it into a whole new level.
So the fun thing about that was getting to work with all these experts in that field. I don’t want to pigeonhole them, but they all had expertise in that style of animation. So it’s kind of a love letter to that. And we tried to do that with all the episodes. We try to just go as hard as we could into what the script and what the idea of the episode was, and just try to bring in the right people for that.
AVC: At the same time, because of what it is and the nature of it, there’s this very almost Itchy & Scratchy-like vibe to it, because the violence is so over-the-top. Was that also the intent? What can you get away with because you’re playing in this sort of cuddly medium of old-school animation?
SR: Yeah, I mean, that was something Eric [Kripke, exec producer] always brought in. “Let’s make it bloodier. Let’s go more violent.” I mean, those old cartoons are hyper-violent in a lot of ways: Tom and Jerry, there’s characters getting hit on the head with hammers, getting accordioned, steamrolled, and it’s all for the fun. We were just like, “What if we take that and just add the blood?” Like, just make it go that one step further to bring it into the world of The Boys, you know? So yeah, that was something we discussed early on and we wanted to push as far as we could, but not push it so far that it takes you out of the world of the episode. So it’s hyper violence, but Looney Tunes-style hyper violence, cartoon hyper violence. So even as characters get chewed up or thrown up or their heads explode, it’s still a little cute. A horse gets skeletonized, but it’s still kind of funny because there’s a xylophone coming with it.
AVC: Was the plan always to have each individual episode creator put as distinctive a spin as possible on it? They all look and feel very different.
SR: Yeah. One of the big things early on we talked about is that, obviously on a regular TV series, The Boys or any other show, you’ve got this idea or vision, and the showrunner’s role is to bring everybody into that, all the scripts into the vision and line. Everyone’s bringing creativity, but you’re the funnel that’s trying to make everything follow this one line on this series.
Here, we were trying to go out to everybody—you know, Awkwafina when she wrote our episode, we’re like, “We want to make the most Awkwafina episode we can.” We don’t want to change her voice to bring it into the tent. We want to go out to her. And it was the same with Ahn. And the same with Seth and Evan and all of our creators. So I didn’t want to rewrite things too much because I didn’t want to make them sound like me. I wanted them to sound like their script. So we were trying to basically just help and guide and see what we can add to this equation.
And then obviously, Eric played a big role in coming in, obviously giving notes to everything, but also making sure that it felt like it still existed in the boys world. So those were the guide rails: Vought had to be Vought, Compound V has to work like Compound V does, any of the mothership characters that come in have to be true to their characters. But other than that, it was like, what’s your story and how can we help you tell that as strongly as possible?
Episode 6: “BFFs”
Writer: Awkwafina Director: Madeleine Flores
SR: I mean, Awkwafina is one of my favorites. Nobody could write a script like that. When that first draft came, I was like, “Oh my god, this is the craziest thing I’ve ever read.” It approaches the episode like, what if you didn’t inject Compound V? What if you drank it? What would that do? She came up with that story. And then Madeline Flores, who’s the director of that, just channeled everything she watched growing up—like early Pokémon cartoons and things like that—into this crazy, bizarre, but super-cute episode that is one of the ones I’m happiest with because it is exactly the distillation of what it was meant to be.
And the same thing again with the composers—Zach [Robinson] and Leo [Birenberg], who compose for that, they wrote and recorded an original J-pop song just for that episode. And it’s great. We use it for the trailer, too. And then Awkwafina playing two roles, both Sky and Ariela in the episode. I don’t know anywhere else you would get the chance to make that. And it may not be for everyone; not everyone loves talking pieces of poop, but it makes me so happy that it exists, every time I watch it, that we got to bring people together and make this thing.
AVC: And it’s one that feels so distinctive to her voice: It brings in this weirdly heartwarming element that will occasionally pop up on the flagship series, but it shines through like a beacon in this one.
SR: Oh, good. Yeah, that’s the thing: we treat every episode like its own short film, living in its own, you know, ecosystem. But I hope that all of them have at least a core emotion, because otherwise you just get gratuitous animation, gratuitous violence. And some of them, it’s super clear, like Andy Samberg’s, or Awkwafina, but I hope it comes across every episode, that we really concentrate on core emotional story for the characters.
AVC: Speaking of gratuitous violence moments, is there is there a particular moment or moments for you that are just so gruesome that you’re like, This is great? Like, look at what we can get away with.
SR: Amazon was great. They let us do almost everything we wanted. There’s very little pushback—and pushback was, again, just staying true to character more than anything.
You know, we’re talking about Awkwafina’s episode, I think one of my favorite sections is that episode, when the drug dealer gets eaten by the shark. And this is Madeline Flores—this was her idea, she put it in—it was, the camera pans away, and you think you’re going to be saved from seeing that. You’re like, “Oh, no, he’s going to get eaten off camera.” And then we come back and we show it. [Laughs.] And I feel like that’s something you can only do on The Boys, you know?