Interview by Sean Boelman
Australian animator Michael Cusack is best known for creating the series Smiling Friends and YOLO: Crystal Fantasy. His newest series, Koala Man, is now streaming on Hulu and goes all-in on the Australian humor while still delivering a story that is universally enjoyable and approachable.
We got to sit down with Cusack to discuss having sex with planets (you’ll get it when you watch the show), Australian culture, and his inspirations and challenges working on the show. Check out the full interview below!
On the Show’s Specific Humor
disappointment media: If you could have sex with any planet in our solar system, which one would it be and why?
Michael Cusack: Ooh, that’s hard. That’s a good one. Uranus is too obvious. I'm gonna go Jupiter. Because it's a gassy planet. I feel like it would be nice and sensual.
disappointment: Would you right swipe or left swipe on earth?
Cusack: Whatever the bad one is. I’ve had enough of Earth. Let's move from Earth for now. I've had 32 years of Earth.
disappointment: So this show, as an American, introduced me to the wonderful world of showbags. Why don't we have showbags in America?
Cusack: I don't know. That was something that we said in the writers room, assuming that Americans knew about it, too. And then when Americans didn't, it was a shock to us. Like, that was a staple of our childhood, going to the Easter Show and more than anything, looking forward to getting like the showbag of whatever it was — the Pokemon show bag, the Dragonball Z one, or like the Mars Bar showbag. Like everything that you love had its own show bag full of the treats and goodies and toys of that same brand. And it was the best, but super expensive and overpriced. Yeah, I think hopefully, if anything, the main goal is this show introduces showbags to America and ruins your economy with them and makes kids’ parents absolutely broke.
disappointment: So do you think that, you know, one day we could get a Koala Man themed showbag?
Cusack: That would be the dream. I’d sell them myself. We should have done that as a promotion for this season, I just realized.
disappointment: And there was the prawn-themed showbag. Is that a real thing or is that a complete fabrication?
Cusack: That's fake too. But again, something I'm going to push after this call. I'll be making some calls and some emails, because the world needs a prawn showbag.
disappointment: I noticed that in your shows you’ve made several prawn themed jokes. Where does your interest in prawns come from?
Cusack: That's an Aussie thing, because at Christmas time, we don't have turkey or chicken. It's not the same as America in that aspect. It literally is just a bowl of prawns and a little ball of water to wash your hands with after you've broken the prawns. That's Christmas dinner. I had it a few days ago for Christmas at my mom’s house. It's just kind of a staple of Australia, prawns… they feel Aussie. So yeah, I had to stuff as many prawns in there as possible.
Crafting an Aussie Show for American Audiences
disappointment: The series has a voice cast full of all of these Australian and New Zealand A-listers. What was it like assembling this cast for the show?
Cusack: Really great. Really incredible. I really didn't think we'd be able to get anyone because I've got low expectations. But the showrunners on this show, Dan and Benji, and a lot of our American staff were extremely keen on aiming for the stars. And I was like, “What, we're not going to get the likes of Hugh Jackman?” But apparently we did and we could. So I am truly just still shocked. I think it was maybe because we had an Aussie show for American TV and it felt fresh. And hopefully it's a good concept that they liked and it seemed like they did and they came on board. Sarah Snook, Hugh Jackman, Hugo Weaving, Jemaine Clement, Rachel House, all these amazing actors, I can't believe it, they were just incredible. And they were a joy to direct. And they really, really elevated the whole project to something so much better than I ever would have imagined. It was great.
disappointment: And as you kind of mentioned, there are these very specific jokes and elements that are related to Australian culture, but the show also feels very universal. How do you strike this balance between the two?
Cusack: My thing is that it’s Aussie, but it’s not stereotypically Aussie. So when I say that, I mean it's not like, “Chuck another shrimp on the barbie,” kind of Aussie. Hopefully, it's not cliche. The show, at its core, our aim is still to make it character driven and plot driven. At the end of the day, there's a human kind of conflict. So ideally, it would be relatable and the Australiana is more of a garnish on top of something that is more about really the character and the story.
disappointment: One of my favorite things about the show is that I feel like anyone could watch the show and walk away with a different favorite character. I know it's kind of hard to pick, but if you had to pick one of your favorite characters, which would it be?
Cusack: I think it'd be Big Greg. I don't know. It's maybe 50% because it's always by Hugh Jackman. And also just the character I like. He's just so confident in his skin, and he has life figured out. He's a good role model to look up to. And I really like the dynamic between him and Kevin, it’s a funny back-and-forth. Because Kevin would dream to be Big Greg, and Big Greg would just kinda look down upon Kevin. That's funny. And Damo and Darren. I love Damo and Darren. And they come from the heart. They've been with me since about 2014 when I made a cartoon called Ciggy Butt Brain.
disappointment: And what was the inspiration to integrate these two characters into Koala Man?
Cusack: I always liked how Kevin Smith put Jay and Silent Bob in everything he did. I just thought that was nice glue that pulled things like Mallrats and Clerks and Chasing Amy all together. And they kind of are a bit Jay and Silent Bob-ish. And I made shorts called Damo and Darren years ago on YouTube, and that was set in Dapto. So I just thought if Koala Man is in Dapto, then Damo and Darren would be. So it’s just kind of the same world, I guess.
The Challenges of Koala Man
disappointment: So the episodes of Koala Man are longer than the episodes of Smiling Friends and YOLO. Did you find that the longer format was exciting? Scary? Challenging?
Cusack: It was scary and challenging, for sure. But I was lucky enough to have a lot of help. Dan and Benji as the showrunners, they're extremely talented and experienced in the world of TV. So they brought a lot of experience in that arena and we had a great writers room too. But yeah, it was definitely a challenge for me. It's a new learning curve to write for that length of time because, as you say, I'm used to the 11-minute format. But we did alright, I reckon.
disappointment: Obviously, this is kind-of a superhero show, but Koala Man doesn’t have any powers. Where did this more grounded superhero approach come from?
Cusack: I just thought that Australian humor is a lot based in reality — I guess, the depressing reality of natural things happening. So I just thought if there was an Australian superhero, it would make sense if it just was this middle aged guy in the suburbs that had no powers. Because that generation of men are very passionate about cleaning up the town and saying that the police aren't doing anything about it, and the government's not doing anything about it. There's just a reality to that archetype that's funny to me and fits in with the superhero mold. And what makes it even funnier to me is it's grounded and everything, and you know, he has no powers, but in this world, we do realize, he's got a nemesis and there are actual, real threats and supervillains and creatures with powers, but you have to dig a bit deeper to find them. It’s a fun world to play in.
disappointment: And the show blends those grounded elements with absurdist humor. How did you balance the two tones?
Cusack: It's really hard. Probably the hardest part about it actually was balancing those two tones because it was a little bit of having your cake and eating it too. There's a world where this show could have been like a King of the Hill, where it just was completely Koala Man with no superpowers and no one else with any powers and it was just 100% grounded. But I just felt like that was gonna get a little bit old. So offsetting that with that, it actually could have a supervillain from space just emerging felt like it could shake it up. And the way to kind of balance that is really just staying true to what the characters wants and needs are at the end of the day. If the characters have strong goals and strong motivations, then you can really get away with a lot when it comes to having fun with changing the tone. That was the big thing we kind of learned and stuck to.
Koala Man is now streaming on Hulu.