Interview by Sean Boelman
Working closely with series creator Michael Cusack, Koala Man showrunners Dan Hernandez and Benji Samit helped to craft an immersive alternate version of the Australian suburb Dapto. We at disappointment media got the opportunity to talk with Hernandez and Samit about the writing of the show, balancing its tone, and staying true to the real-life Dapto. Check out the full interview below!
On Creating a Show That Is Silly Yet Grounded
disappointment media: So Koala Man is full of episodes that have these silly, absurd premises, but you also kind of approach them with a straight face. How did you find this balance between the goofiness and absurdity with something a bit more grounded?
Benji Samit: Yeah, that was an important guiding principle for us in crafting this show and these episodes — that we never want it to go crazy just for the sake of being crazy. Yes, we go to zany, insane places on the show. But every time it's based out of a real grounded, character thing or story thing. There’s emotion at its core. We find that, as long as you can hold on to that through-line of emotion and story, then you can go as big as you want and you can still feel connected to what you’re watching.
Dan Hernandez: And I think that also combines with, when we were developing the show, there was a question of, “Well, how crazy should it go?” There's a version of this show that could be King of the Hill that is really, very grounded and it's not supernatural. But as we developed Kevin as a character, we realized what was funny about him was the fact that he doesn't have powers or that he's not in shape, but he does have this ethos that demands that he interferes with things. It became funnier and funnier to us to put him up against real threats that he should have no business going up against, like an alien, like cannibals, like Manimals. Every time it was like, we're sending this out of shape guy with no powers against something that should kill him in a second. And that was funny to us. And so the comedic element was the more you believe Kevin as a character, in his mind, like cutting the grass one centimeter and fighting an emu that has a machine gun are basically equivalent, just a problem to be dealt with, in his mind. And that makes him endearing and sort of difficult but also hilarious in his misbehavior and shit like that.
disappointment: I think one of those emotional through-lines that you talked about that was really powerful to me was the theme of family. How did this theme really resonate with you guys in the show?
Hernandez: Benji and I both have young kids. I think that becoming a father over the process of working on this show was actually extremely useful to the writing of the show. Because you start to think about things in a slightly different way. You're not really just focused on yourself. All of a sudden, you start to think about, “What is the legacy that I'm leaving for my kids? What are the things that I dislike about myself that I don't want to pass on to my kids? How are my bad behaviors going to affect them in the future? How did my own parents' behaviors affect me?” And when you really started to delve into that, that was a very fertile territory for emotional stories. At the same time, we wanted the show to be optimistic. We made a decision early on that this was not a cynical show, that this was kind of positive in a way, life-affirming.
Samit: We wanted the family to really love each other, you know. Kevin — Koala Man — he loves his town, and he loves his family. That’s his guiding principle. But then within the whole family, Kevin and Vicky love each other, even though they have their issues with each other, and the kids have their issues, everyone in the family has their issues, like we all do. But at the end of the day, they are 100% there for each other.
Hernandez: Even Alison, on her quest, she’s almost embarrassed that she loves her dad in that episode, and that that felt real to me on some level about being a teenager and being trapped in that idea of popularity. But you’ve got this person who’s on your side no matter what: your dad. And that was very moving to me. So that’s how we approached the family element. And we realized, if we grounded the family element in real human emotion, real stakes, that let us be as crazy as we want it to be on all the other stuff, because the stakes for them were very real.
disappointment: One of my favorite things about Koala Man is that everybody could walk away from the show with a different favorite character because the subplots are so developed and lived in. Do each of you have a character that you would call your favorite?
Samit: It’s a tough one, because they're all our babies, you know. But in terms of just fun to write, Spider, he can just get the punchline. So that’s always a fun type of character to write. I think Vicky is the emotional heart of the show. So she’s obviously a favorite of ours.
Hernandez: It's so hard to pick. I really enjoyed writing the kids, honestly, because I think it was fun to go back into that teenage place and try to project down through the years of what it felt like to be an awkward teen or to be wanting people to notice you. And so I think Demi Lardner is the secret weapon of the show. I think she gives an absolutely remarkable performance. Her voice is incredible. She's so funny. And she's someone that the world, that we in America we're not as familiar with. And I think that after this, I hope that people will be because she's awesome. So Allison was a real favorite of mine to write just because to be able to be a mean girl for a minute — that was a fun thing to do.
On the World-Building of Koala Man
disappointment: Something else that really stood out to me about this show is that there are a lot of jokes and elements in the series that are very specific to Australian culture and neither of you is Australian. So I'm assuming that writing the show just as much as it will be for the viewers is this learning, immersive experience in the culture. What do you think is one of your favorite things that you got to discover about Australian culture through the show?
Samit: I mean, there's so many little quirks. It was really fun seeing the similarities to America, but also the differences. Finding out about the emu war, finding out about showbags, the tradies. Skilled laborers being at the top of the social food chain was such a foreign concept to all of the American writers, but to the Australian’s they’re just like, “Oh yeah, no. An electrician is just the coolest guy in Australia.”
Hernandez: I thought what was very interesting was sort of the directness of Australian culture. Like tall poppy syndrome is the idea that anyone that gets too big for their britches, we don't like that, you kind of do your job, you kind of plug ahead, and you keep your head down, and you live a good and fulfilling life. And that’s what you do. And it was interesting to juxtapose that with a character like Liam, who actually does have a little bit more of an artistic impulse, who is interested in things like nerdy or geeky things, and his feeling of, “Do I even belong here? Should I be in Australia?” Which, ultimately, one of the reasons he runs away to Hollywood Island and in the finale is that he's in search of something more. And there are some people that really thrive within that culture, then there are some people that feel not understood. That really does come down to sort of cultural values and what is privileged there and how it's quite different from what's privileged here, even though it seems like it should be very similar. The nuance of it is totally, totally different.
disappointment: So I want to compliment you guys on the world building of Koala Man. I really love that aspect of the show. You balance the mundane suburbia with these fantastic events. How do you kind of go about juxtaposing this world in that way?
Hernandez: I think because Dapto is a real place and it really is Michael's hometown, that there's a feeling of reality underlying all of the show that yes, we're blowing it out into the most surrealistic, crazy, over-the-top version of it. But really, it's a real thing and a real place. And these are people and places identifiable to Michael in his own life and the streets that he grew up with. We've been fortunate enough now to talk to other people who grew up in Illawarra and Dapto. And they’re like, “Yeah, that’s what it’s like.” Even though there isn't literally a plant monster rampage in the city, the other stuff is just real. That's just what it is. And so we felt like that reality wedded to some of the classic world building that shows like Simpsons, South Park, Family Guy, where you have the town as a character, and you know the denizens of the town, and how they’re going to react. You know that Randy is gonna overreact on South Park, you know that Reverend Lovejoy is gonna be sanctimonious on The Simpsons. And once you start to get to know the geography and the interpersonal geography of the people and places of the town, it's fun to start to anticipate how they're going to react. What are they going to do? What is Spider going to feel about this? What is Louise going to feel about this? And that was really important to us because it made it feel very lived in. It made it feel like this is a place that functions, whether we as a viewer are watching it or not, and we really tried to cultivate that throughout the entire process of running the show.
Koala Man is now streaming on Hulu.