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The Tick exclusive: Ben Edlund on the new Amazon pilot

Image for The Tick exclusive: Ben Edlund on the new Amazon pilot

The Tick is back! Seriously. The big blue guy with antenna is ready for a full-blown return to television, and whether or not he makes it is up to you. Amazon will unveil the pilot for a new version of the character beginning August 19th and, as with all their pilots, viewer response will determine whether or not it spawns a series.

“In a world where superheroes have been real for decades,” offers Amazon, “an underdog accountant with zero powers comes to realize his city is owned by a global super villain long-thought dead. As he struggles to uncover the conspiracy, he falls in league with a strange blue superhero.” That hero (previously voiced by Townsend Coleman in a 1994-96 animated series, and played by Patrick Warburton in the 2001 live action version) is portrayed by Peter Serafinowicz. Griffin Newman is the aforementioned accountant, Arthur Everest; Jackie Earle Haley is The Terror, the also afored super villain; Valorie Curry is Arthur’s sister, Dot; Yara Martinez is superheroine Ms. Lint; and Brendan Hines is the troubled hero Superian.

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Ben Edlund, who created the character 30 years ago as a sort of mascot for comic book stores New England Comics, and who has overseen all previous incarnations of the character, is back guiding this version. He has written (and repeatedly rewritten) the pilot to give it a modern sensibility and a hoped-for built-in longevity by making this take far different from anything that’s come before. In this exclusive interview with Empire, Edlund reflects on the evolution of this version of The Tick.

Let’s start with the 200lb big blue guy in the room: obviously when people heard that there was going to be a new version of The Tick, they assumed Patrick Warburton would be back in the role. Why was the decision made for that not to be the case?

It was a desire to try and do a complete reboot and have some new face be the Tick. I love Patrick and he loves me. Ultimately, we were seeking a new expression of that character to try and sort of set ourselves apart from every other iteration that took place. I basically had been in an ongoing battle with them going through many drafts of The Tick script. We got to a place where they were finally ready to green light it and then we started to talk about the real nuts and bolts of what they wanted to see as an expression of the pilot. That's where we came to find their dedication to do a new incarnation of this thing. It's at that point that Patrick graciously stepped aside, kept his producer role, and went into this together with me.

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Are you worried about fan backlash? People love the 2001 show, though presumably as far as Amazon is concerned that's, relatively speaking, a very small number of people.

Yeah, I think there will be some. But there's always fan backlash. If we took Patrick again, we'd get some kind of fan backlash from somebody. Maybe Dwayne Johnson's fans would be mad at us for some reason. There are always very dedicated, very passionate people who find themselves in love with whatever cultural object they choose to fall in love with. Tick's now a 30-year-old cultural object. There are fans of every kind stretching backward, and we are looking to scoop them all up and embrace them and keep them in a warm hug [laughs]. What I really want is for this this new expression to be the best it can be. We have to kind of build a bridge and embrace all of it.

Has the Tick changed since the last incarnation?

He’s changed in every one of these iterations or these various expressions. In the [New England Comics] newsletter, he was extremely dangerous and spoke French, was mean to people and beat up a bunch of Muppets. In the comic book, he was a different version of this kind of character, still on the edge of danger. But then he started to warm up a little bit in the cartoon; it was about the most robust he's ever been in any of the versions and had a certain kind of air about him that was changed when we came to live action. Patrick embodied him in a way that embraced the earlier versions, but made it his own. This new version is, I think, in some ways closer to the comic book and that world. Not as “funny” in terms of making jokes about superheroes that were very pun based or very far away galaxy, that sort of come from a lighter world. It was a requirement of this piece to somehow bridge the world of legitimate superheroes that are really having battles between good and evil and having dramatic stakes.

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One of the ways of looking at it for me is Robert Altman's MASH. There’s very sharp, very funny humor in that movie, but it also happens to be one of the earliest movies that applied dirt to Army movies and really made everything grubby, worn out and spent. Anyway, we're looking to make a very funny comedy that also treats heroes with as much reality as we can possibly treat them. That applies to the Tick to some degree as well, which means to me that he can't really be as sort of full on verbose and scene-stoppingly wordplayish as he has been in the cartoon and the prior live-action. The prior live action existed a little bit in the world of, let's say, Police Squad, or something with a similar run.

Police Squad was a series that had six episodes and was done. It was also a kind of humor that couldn’t really sustain itself due to the repetition of the jokes.

Because there's no real arc. There's no sense of an investment in the mission or an investment in the hero’s quest that's being established. You keep coming back to square one, which is, let's have fun with superheroes. That cannot be the operating philosophy of an ongoing series that gets renewed and builds on it's own arc and is our first TV offering in fifteen years. I've gotten to a place where I want to do a real continuity and really have the viewer feel like they're being cradled in a variety of storytelling, where things happen for a reason and when things happen they're not forgotten. That's where you bring the reality that the characters exist in. The continuity is tight and you don’t feel like you’re watching a free improvisation. I want there to be a feeling that as much as we're laughing, it's because we're in kind of a weirdly real world of superheroes that just happens to be told with a skewed voice — and not mugging for laughs. That's affects how the Tick is characterized to a degree, but still with that funny element inside that world. Then everybody else will probably be, in lighter ways, reacting to him while maintaining character traits.

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It's a difference between being a joke machine and being an actual character-driven storyline?

Yeah, exactly. It's going to be interesting, because either way we are going to take superhero comedy more seriously than people generally take superheroes. Watchmen is a good example of not what we're doing, but it is kind of funny. Like, shake your head and squint and there's a lot of funny, dark shit going on. I consider that to be kind of a superhero parody. Alan Moore took a bunch of characters that were preexisting, sort of, and kind of rejiggered them and instead of applying humor, he applied relentless reality and let the chips fall where they may. But with excruciatingly meticulous attention to detail and continuity, and when something happened it was taken very seriously.

There's something funny about Rorschach. As daring and horrifying as his psychology is, he just lifts up his mask and it's cool beans. I don't know, I was laughing [laughs]. And then something like the apocalypse comes and the kid reading comics and the guy selling comics, he finishes his pastry, they hug and then there's fountains of blood. You don't think that's funny?

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Obviously there's a need to go back and look at it again.

Give it a second try. Put a laugh track in your head when you're reading it. “This comic book was filmed inside of a live studio audience” [laughs].

So what is it you think Peter Serafinowicz is bringing to this new take on the character?

I would call him more dangerous, in a way. You feel his warmth and you feel his love for Arthur, but you're also not 100% sure if he's going to eat him. Maybe he'll just eat him [laughs].

That would be an interesting take.

Oddly more alive in the comic book and in the cartoon was this feeling that there was a parasitic relationship between the Tick and Arthur, where he needed Arthur to be around and go through the hero’s journey with him and all this stuff, but the danger that Arthur underwent was not really the Tick’s concern in a way that an empathetic person would be concerned. He never quite got that lesson down, he just kept rolling with it. But there’s something about Peter’s way of putting forward stuff that’s his own. Patrick had a certain power of unassailable righteousness that was the kind of ego that doesn't even know it exists.

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So this Tick, as we’ve kind of alluded to, is going to be on a journey of awareness and evolution.

We'll have to do that. For example, the Tick has to learn his own strength in this universe, which he did not have to learn in the other one, because we barely had any conflict. We never showed a lot of fighting, and there was never a fight that was going to be a dramatic issue. You know what I mean? Like, "Are they going to win this fight or be ravaged for the moment, or whatever?", because everyone was joking too much. It wouldn't really matter in the previous live action. In this version, because we do take the violence seriously enough to have a threat exist, this is like the minimum ante for anything that would be a sustained hero-based drama of any kind. That puts us into a place where the Tick has to realize to some degree that his actions have consequences, and adjust, because he can't keep punching people as hard as he punches people in pilot. We're going to show that one of them is in the hospital and doesn't have the same spine anymore. So what is the tone of this thing? There’s all kinds of violence right next to crazy humor in an attempt to create a new tone. We'll just see what that's all about.

Is the change in approach to The Tick something exciting for you as a writer? To sort of embrace this new version of the character?

Yeah, exciting like hanging off a cliff. I had to go through, like, seven very different drafts. Each one, I was ready to burn at a certain point, and then I forgave it for existing. Each became like a step — the seven footprints of Satan— on the way to the thing that we have now, that I think is relatively justifiable as a piece. I got the structure down. In a way, it's something that could've or almost should've been done by somebody else. Like I'm the old guy and then some young buck is supposed to come in and go, "Oh fuck all that shit, here's what I want to do with this." I had to be that person for my own satisfaction and not try to do anything that's been done before. Really try to find the voice of today and the voice of a TV form that is stretching away from its broadcast history and finding a different way of expressing this story, making it the most important story ever told.

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What's intriguing about your approach is that if you look at the history of Star Trek, Star Wars or even The X-Files, sometimes the creators get so close to their respective babies that they’re almost detrimental to their growth. George Lucas had that problem with the prequels, Gene Roddenberry did with Star Trek over the years and to some degree that was true with Chris Carter on The X-Files.

That's a danger. Definitely. You know who did it great? George Miller with the new Mad Max. That was amazing. He hit that like a person who has not been rolling that around in his head and falling into ruts over these past decades. That thing was on form. It was strong. It had vibrant vision. He had new things to say about that apocalyptic wasteland, new things to show. It was as simple as it was powerful. That felt like what my mandate was to me, which was not clinging to things that might have limited it in the past.

One example is that this version puts a great deal of the focus on the Arthur character, actually. Arthur is, of the two of them, the classical main character. He's the one going through the real arc. The Tick is more like Moby Dick. He's a big blue whale, he's swimming around in the water and he's messing with your boat.

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Just doing what he does.

He's doing what he does, but then we have an Ishmael who has to learn shit and figure out whaling and his own sort of take on God, life, obsession, and all that crap. Anyway, a lot of this has to do with the fact that there was a lot of growing I had to do as a writer. Spend ten to thirteen years in what I call structure mode, which is TV, where you just keep mining structure until it works and, whoa, that's a good feeling. Learn how to create character arcs that result in a story that makes you want to know what’s going to happen next, and not just wait for the next joke or next funny thing, because you’re emotionally involved. To learn that, I had to go to the school of TV. That was my school, anyway. You could do it in life, but I chose to do it in dreams.

The pilot for The Tick will be available on Amazon Prime for one month beginning August 19th. Vote for it going to series by watching it, and spreading the word. The more views it gets, the more likely it is to continue. And look for much more on The Tick — past, present and future — here at Empireonline.

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