10:30 pm EDT, September 1, 2017

Ben Edlund and Griffin Newman on doing the emotional math for ‘The Tick’

The Tick creator Ben Edlund and star Griffin Newman spoke with Hypable about the new Amazon Studios-backed adaptation of this classic superhero.

The Tick is back, and he’s bigger, bluer and better than ever. Bursting onto Amazon Prime Video last week, this first six-episode installment is a charming and shockingly grounded take on a cult classic — utterly bingeable.

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Simply put, The Tick is a superhero satire. Or is it? Superheroes currently dominate the cultural landscape of popular media in an unprecedented way. However, onscreen — comic books have been doing it for decades — we’ve only just begun to scratch the surface in terms of what happens down on the ground in a universe where civilians deal with very publicly existing superheroes and supervillains as the norm of their day-to-day lives. Any corner of any of these worlds provides the opportunity to tell a character-driven story about humanity and society, and this, rather than outright spoofing, is where The Tick succeeds.

The Tick stars Griffin Newman as Arthur Everest, a mentally ill young man with a variety of diagnosed depressive and psychotic disorders. Superheroes have been active in Arthur’s world for the past century, and we learn that he’s been obsessively researching a conspiracy theory — that a proclaimed-dead supervillain, The Terror, is actually alive.

After he’s arrested for trespassing and surveillance, the cause of Arthur’s damage unfolds: 15 years earlier, in his childhood, he witnessed an incident in which America’s foremost superhero team, the Flag 5, were murdered in the street by The Terror. His own father was also accidentally killed in the fray, and a newspaper photo of The Terror menacing Arthur has become an infamous moment of journalism in recent history.

During Arthur’s first unsuccessful stakeout, he meets The Tick, a bizarre yet indestructible superhero in a blue insect suit, who saves the day — kind of. The Tick, played by Peter Serafinowicz, has no subtlety, no ability to parse, no powers of deduction, and, as it unfolds, no memory of who or what he is, or where he came from before he met Arthur. The Tick is supremely unbothered by this, happy to simply exist as six and a half feet of good-natured brawn, but Arthur — perhaps understandably — initially believes that The Tick is a figment of his imagination.

Spoiler alert: he’s actually not. He’s very real, though a strong case could be raised for the theory that Arthur did manifest him into reality. The absurdity of Serafinowicz’s performance, the fact that The Tick himself is a surreal and comedic figure, only heightens Newman’s empathetic and very real portrayal of Arthur’s trauma.

All Arthur — an accountant, a thinker, not quite a do-er — wanted was to hand over his information about The Terror and his henchmen to the relevant authorities and be believed, but when The Tick (a self-proclaimed agent of destiny who constantly lampshades Arthur’s traditional Hero’s Journey to him in his booming, pre-war radio-host voice) won’t leave his life, he accidentally becomes a superhero himself when a piece of tech imprints on him.

In a quest to save their unnamed city — it’s a very undisguised Harlem, but not officially — Arthur and Tick end up mixed up in a plot involving the Terror’s electricity-wielding right-hand woman, a fake Egyptian pharaoh mob boss whose organized crime syndicate runs the town, an antihero vigilante who’s a bit too murdery for Ticks’s liking, and the world’s first superhero, the golden-boy Superian. Arthur’s sister and primary caregiver Dot, a doctor-in-training who’s secretly pressured into giving dodgy back-room post-fight care to the mob, also ends up heavily involved.

Eminently quotable, with a good mix of one-liners and long-running gags, The Tick is most certainly a comedy, but it’s also more than that. It’s a demonstration of what can be done when some of the rules and confines of traditional genres and traditional broadcast structures are thrown out the window. It’s an example of the chances that streaming services are willing to take, the value of fan loyalty, and the proof that remakes work best when they’re a deeply mined expansion of the original material by the original creator. If only every rebooted franchise could be so lucky.

The Tick has quite a history: Tick himself was created as a comic-book chain store mascot in 1986 by a then-teenaged Ben Edlund. The Tick was developed into an independent comic, and a successful animated TV series projected the big blue guy into the early-’90s public consciousness. An initial live-action version starring Patrick Warburton was attempted in 2001 and was swiftly cancelled by Fox, who did not particularly understand the property. Edlund remained extremely hands-on in all iterations of The Tick, but later became a prolific television writer and executive producer for genre shows such as Firefly, Angel, Gotham, and perhaps most notably Supernatural, for which he holds not only a couple of dozen solo writing credits for some of the show’s best episodes, but also the dubious honor of having his name lent to that universe’s God.

Edlund left the brothers Winchester in 2013 and followed Supernatural creator Eric Kripke to his new post-apocalyptic drama Revolution. However, along the way, his old creation kept burrowing in deeper and between himself, former Tick collaborator Barry Josephson (who’d just finished up Bones), and later David Fury (of Buffy, Angel, 24, Lost and Fringe fame), a new vision for what the story could be was developed. The Tick found a home via Amazon Studios’s unique fan-dictated pilot season — in 2016, a pilot was ordered, produced and released on Prime Video alongside two other new hopefuls, and viewer ratings and feedback put The Tick as the clear front-runner for a full season order.

It promptly received one, and a year later, after a huge presence at San Diego Comic-Con 2017 the first six episodes went up for streaming on Amazon Prime Video on August 25, with the back half of the first season to drop in 2018. Rounding off a lengthy press tour, Edlund and Newman found themselves in Sydney, Australia on The Tick’s actual day of release, where I met with them for an exclusive interview in which we discussed the series’ emotional depth, the freedom of the streaming platform, and even a little bit about how Supernatural is holding up. Following are excerpts from that conversation, interspersed with our videos from The Tick’s Comic-Con press room a few weeks prior.

The first thing that struck me very early on in watching The Tick was the… I hesitate to say ‘realism,’ though it is probably a good word for it. It was actually the reaction, Arthur’s reaction, to trauma. That was the moment where I got really startled by the tone of the series. You portray that experience of mental illness due to post-traumatic stress and anxiety, and it is acted out as deeply and realistically as I’ve seen in any genre of show. Coming into making a show like this, a project that has gone through many iterations and maybe was not aimed tonally to be as deep as that when it was initially created — what made that necessary for you in this version, Ben? And what was approaching that like for you, Griffin?

Ben Edlund: Chronologically speaking, I should go first.

Griffin Newman: You certainly should go first.

Edlund: This show, it represents for me a transition from broadcast television to streaming, to this new world of television. It’s a new culture of television. I had to learn a lot of stuff while translating the oldest thing I’ve ever done into the newest form I’ve confronted. So it was a very interesting place to be. One of the things that I realized — this form, it’s a long-form, deep investment form. Binge-watching. You want to have a long relationship with what you’re engaged with, and the only way to do that with superhero comedy was to find some other layer, level of depth in it.

The key here to me was never before had the psychological truth of Arthur been figured out. The Tick is a sort of amnesiac, or sort of a baseless figure in all of the forms, and he doesn’t really arc very much and has his own sort of thing, but the psychological truth of Arthur as a character had never been established. I wanted, in this show, for this to be a character who didn’t just want to be a superhero because he wanted to be a superhero, because he had that puppy-like desire to just be this thing.

Newman: Which had always been the full explanation before. “I’ve just always wanted to do it, and now I’m doing it.”

Edlund: Really, that’s all it was. “I’m doing it, I’m gonna do it.” He even sort of starts to do it before The Tick shows up, so it’s not like The Tick even unlocks or is a catalyst for anything. It’s just what happens, and there’s a sort of slice-of-life quality to that. In the case of this, the truth was, this is actually a hero’s journey, he actually doesn’t know he’s supposed to be a hero, doesn’t realize the universe is conspiring to put him over the fire and temper him into a hero. The first part of that is trauma, is the trial and the dismemberment of your psyche. So that had to happen and it just actually lent itself to this… The dumbest and funniest thing to do, I keep saying, with this sort of fluffy piece of fun with superheroes is to take it seriously at its core. While you never give away the [original humor], you keep going and make these dumb jokes.

Newman: And don’t wink at the audience about it.

Edlund: No. You just take the wounding and the pain — that ultimately, we’re all heir to some version of it. Some kind of sense that we had something and it got chopped in half — “Where did the rest of that go?!” That’s what you’re [Newman’s Arthur] cycling through as a character, but you’ve been diagnosed as well as having a bunch of disorders, and the stigma of being an outsider has turned into a career of recuperation for you.

Newman: It’s a credit to Ben, but as he said, investing that whole sort of backstory into him fits weirdly perfectly with all the behavioral things we’ve known this character to be in the previous incarnations — a sort of worrywart, overwhelmed, driven by some sense of moralities, by the fact that he’s very unqualified and over-matched by his surroundings, and all of that — it just lines up very well. I was a very big fan of the property…

Yes, yes I heard this.

Newman: “Everyone on the street is talking about that nerd Newman, he won’t stop…”

Edlund: It’s like that movie Rock Star.

Newman: “Begging them, sleeping outside their door like a dog…” but, you know, I get the audition, I get an email that says, “Pending interest to put yourself on tape for…” – -the form email that my agency sends out when there’s a project. But I see that it’s The Tick in the subject heading and I’d heard rumblings that maybe they were going to do a new version but it wasn’t confirmed, so I’m getting this email which is, “Oh wow, this is actually happening. Okay, let me open up the email — what character is it? Oh wow, it’s Arthur!”

And in that initial moment, I went, “Arthur, I think I would have an idea of how to play Arthur. I think I could sort of… that’s in my wheelhouse.” And then I clicked the file and I opened up the script and nothing that I read from that point on negated any of my original ideas of how I would play Arthur — it just deepened them, it just added more dimension onto them, you know? I feel like a lot of times people re-invent pieces of pop culture, try to update it — they go, “Oh, but this time the twist is — it’s this instead!”, you know? They wanna throw it off the hump, do the opposite of what it’s been before, and this just felt like an expansion.

What you’re talking about is reminding me of a few other circumstances that I’ve witnessed as a viewer and as a writer where either I want [the creators] to, or where it has actually been done… Where there are traits about a character that have always existed, but people haven’t put the two and two and two and two and two together and have them make ten.

Newman: You take them as a given and you don’t do the math.

And you don’t always say, “Oh, that means he’s repressed about this, or that means he’s got post-traumatic stress disorder…” They followed through on it in the Archie comics relatively recently with Jughead becoming asexual.

Newman: Yeah! Why is he so interested in hamburgers above all else when all these other kids are hooking up with each other, right?

All of these things, all of these phrases — they went, “Oh, okay — in our language today, with our exploration of self, that is maybe what we would call that.” And that’s kind of what I get from what you guys are talking about.

Newman: Yeah, and I’ve invoked him too many times today in the multitude of interviews we’ve done…

Edlund: Jughead?

Newman: Not Jughead, but my favorite living actor Michael Keaton and his performance as Batman, I feel like is a very good example of that. And it’s not in the script that much, it really is in how he chose to play it and I think they re-wrote it around that a little bit. By all accounts, Tim Burton reached out to him and said, “I’d like you to play Batman,” and he said, “I would have no idea how to play Batman,” assuming that he wanted a conventional kinda square-jawed version, and Burton said, “Just sit down with me, please.”

And Keaton, as the legend goes, said, “Look, I mean, you’re not gonna like it, but here’s my take on the guy. He’s clearly completely broken inside, right? He’s so lonely, he’s got all the resources in the world at his fingertips, and yet the only thing he wants to do is dress up as a bat and punch random criminals on the street.”

“Like, there’s something wrong with that!”

Newman: Right, this is clearly a lonely, broken guy who’s using this as a coping mechanism to not actually face the trauma he’s still reeling from at the death of his parents. And Burton went, “Yeah, that’s what I wanna do too!” And I think that’s such a fascinating performance in those movies, because he is so iconic when he’s in the Batsuit and he’s playing a very traditional matinee idol hero. Every time he’s Bruce Wayne, it’s like this completely broken, weird guy.

Edlund: Yeah, it’s a very interesting dramatic lens into that suit or through which you pass into the suit. With Arthur…

Newman: Well, I was just about to say I think he [Keaton] had to fill in a lot of those blanks that weren’t explicit in that screenplay. But Ben did all that work, so I read this and I went, “Oh, this is like adding up the math to all these — of course that’s who Arthur is. Of course these are the circumstances that make sense to him.” So it’s that simultaneously exciting and terrifying thing where you’re like, “I know exactly how to play this guy and oh my God it’s going to be so difficult.”

There’s not any searching in the dark to try to make sense of it. I did a job recently where I couldn’t figure out why my character had the job he did, you know? I was just like, “I can’t reconcile this personality trait with that.” I never could totally connect the two and this, there were no traffic bumps, it was just sort of like, “Okay, I’ve just got to roll up my sleeves and figure out how to play this as respectfully as I can.”

Edlund: I did do that, in a sense, the math that you’re talking about, of going through, and discovered things I did not realize. I mean, I understood they were there but hadn’t [thought about what it meant]. I mean, Arthur in the comic book — for the entire run of the 12 issues that the comic book takes up, that I did initially, that created the characters, it’s revealed Arthur is on a two week psychiatric leave from his job because of this superhero problem.

Newman: And Tick had just left an insane asylum himself.

Edlund: There’s a lot of the math of those sort of things that fed into everything that becomes the discussion going on 30 years later. It does make it seem like it was always intended — I have no idea.

Speaking on that concept of doing the math, how has your relationship with the property changed over the years, particularly with The Tick himself? Obviously he is a very farcical character that needs an element of depth in this series. For me, it hit the moment when Arthur realizes that The Tick doesn’t know who he is — where there was something clicking for him, his empathy for his new friend… Is that story actually going to be told? Do you know where he comes from? Has that changed for you over time, in terms of how deeply you see him or what is wrong with him, I guess? Or not wrong with him, exactly, but why he is the way that he is?

Edlund: Sure. I mean, this is bordering on Hucksterism but this is my favorite part: there is a plan, and I actually feel like I know where this dude came from and that this [new series] is the story of that, in a sense.

Newman: That’s the larger story of the series we hope to tell.

Edlund: There’s a reason for this guy, there’s a reason why he’s got a partialness to his brain, and to his identity, if that makes sense? To me, that was part of wanting… It fuels wanting to do this again, because it had been worked out, like there wasn’t really much more to investigate with those characters as they stood.

Newman: Purely on a comedic level.

Edlund: Right, or more fun with superheroes — I think that’s going to be fun to have for a long time and the culture is generating more and more stuff, to translate into humor. But making sense for all time of this iconic pair… If we continue and we manage to make this story complete, by that point, that’ll be a pretty iconic situation, we’ll have been on the air for some time. That’s a daydream, thanks, we’re having a daydream now, this is fun!

But it’s possible that it could be, and then we are talking about characters who’ve really carved out a certain real bit of territory in the public headspace, and we will have invested some psychological truth in both of them. And that’s kind of a weird miracle given the nuttiness and nonsensical nature of The Tick himself, and just the idea of making a funny superhero show that has that level of — well, that’s certainly our attempt, to give it that amount of substance.

Newman: That scene you spotlight — that was a really big one for me because I feel there’s a fundamental dynamic shift that happens after that point in how Arthur processes that, because up until that point The Tick has been at best a bodyguard and at worst a very substantial weight around his neck. And it’s for the first time that he’s realizing that The Tick needs something from others.

Edlund: It’s also the first time Arthur gives the time of day to anything but his obsession and that’s a moment where you unlock the truth that Arthur’s actually doing this because he cares about the universe around him, even if he seems sort of just so myopic.

What you mentioned earlier, the difference between broadcast and streaming — Ben, obviously you’ve worked on shows that are very much broadcast week to week, the pacing of an episode would be different. What was the biggest challenge or biggest freedom about doing something paced in this way?

Edlund: First of all, there’s been a revolution in the last 10 years where it used to be almost a crime to create a serialized drama inside the context of episodes of something. It would be done despite the corporate desire to create standalone episodes.

Yeah, because they want drop-in/drop-out, don’t they?

Edlund: They would love that.

Newman: Yeah, if the viewer has dinner one week and they miss an episode, they’re never gonna be able to watch ever again!

Edlund: This sort of thing was anathema and it’s just turned around completely because of this new model of watching things and people now really want to engage with something that’s got that kind of serialized depth, continuity… That put us in the position of just… It suits this long-form story that suddenly I wanted to tell about The Tick. It’s the weirdest thing. Like, we’re trying to write a live-action novel about The Tick and Arthur…

Newman: Yeah, it’s very bizarre.

Edlund: Wow! We’re just so pretentious. I love us. I’m on our side. I’m behind us.

Newman: We have to spend so much time taking these things so seriously in order for it to be funny.

But that’s why it’s important — genre television is inherently the best example of human behavior because no other aspect of human behavior has to be heightened for the viewer. In a “real” comedy, in a sitcom, the dialogue, the humor has to be heightened beyond realism because that’s your unrealistic element. In genre, the world is unrealistic therefore the people get to be people better than anywhere else.

Edlund: That’s a good point.

Newman: Yeah, that’s very smart.

Well, that is why I love genre television. Supernatural, the show you worked the longest on, broadcasts week to week on network television. If you’d had the chance to do that show with this shifting mindset about broadcasting, what do you think would have been changed or improved? I know a little of how the sausage gets made over there and a little in general with some other shows about what doesn’t necessarily make it to air because of pacing, network, stuff like that. I’m curious about what you think that show could’ve been — not that I don’t like it how it is — but what would have been different, if you approached it with the industry’s new attitude about engagement and content?

Edlund: I think that in the case of that show, it’s a weird argument, a weird tension, because it tends to have some very interesting stand-alone energy. So, one of the things that gets difficult when you kind of… It would’ve benefited from not having… That’s the kind of show that would be great if it could have 16 episodes a season. You know what I mean?

And each one was tighter, and more put into it?

Edlund: So you could boil off anything that felt like it didn’t need to be there or wasn’t a very important digression away from the force of the story. When I had the option of choosing how I would pitch and go for what The Tick could be, I very consciously wanted it not to be broadcast, wanted it not to be associated with a 22 episode dynamic — that is just too many chapters, very few stories want that many chapters in a volume of an ongoing series.

Newman: Also, in terms of just very basic storytelling, if you’re on any sort of broadcast, commercial, ad-break-structured platform like that, it dictates the shape of the episode and there are good things that come out of that shape, but the length has to be so specific to the second, that even — I’ll just say, from my aspect, from my perspective as an actor, if you ad lib a line — and it’s really funny, even if everyone loves it and they go, “That’s great!” then someone has to go, “Fuck, then what line do we cut out of here?” There’s no wiggle room to put anything in there because it’s down to the millisecond, we have to fit a commercial there in each act break, all of that.

Edlund: It’s extremely strict in terms of structure and I discovered in the process of moving away from it how formulaic [it really was]. Invisibly, the way that say, stage drama — we forget, there are some requirements in a stage drama that are just about the practical necessities of form, you have to project, or there are certain elements that are limited, and you realize, “Okay, things are ruled out, they just don’t get to happen,” and the same is true in broadcast. Certain things just — you need to have these strange graphs of events that end with a commercial-worthy break and this rhythm that is just not the way that anything happens, it’s just like a regular heartbeat of content that is ritualized and a little bit… It’s nice that we’re in a place where people are looking for more inventive, exploratory and sophisticated forms, and I’m happy to work there.

Newman: And as actors, what you’re saying about the difference between how human psychology and behavior is presented in comedy verses drama, it’s also that being freed of those shackles allows you to try far more behavioral things in your performance because it’s not, “Okay come on, don’t — okay we gotta get to the table faster!”

Edlund: “Streamline it, streamline it!”

Newman: You can find moments, and you can throw things off and you can add a little onto the end of the scene if you feel you’re in the pocket with something, even if you don’t use it, you know? Otherwise it feels very constrained, you’re trying to squeeze everything you’ve got into this very, very narrow opening, versus, “Let’s do everything we can and then figure out what we want, what we need.”

Edlund: Yeah, this is a really interesting time to play in this form.

I think it is the right fit, obviously, for a show like this, but even I was very surprised at the tone when I started watching it, I was like oh, this is like… this?

Newman: Yeah! Yeah.

I didn’t know — I still wasn’t quite prepared for how sensitive the tone was going to be.

Newman: That’s how I felt when I read the script. I was just like, “Oh jeez, he’s actually doing this? For another page? He’s still following this path?”

Ben, The Tick is unquestionably your creation, your canon, and I don’t know how attached you still are mentally and emotionally to Supernatural, but I think that a lot of your work with the characters shaped what is still most important and truthful about that show as well. But in terms of what we were talking about, of what is required in broadcast and what is allowed outside of it, is there anything that still sticks out in your mind that should’ve happened, that would be true about a character or would be true about an episode that you didn’t get to put in because of the structure or the confines of the show, or just because of how it fell out? Things that in your mind are true, but that we never got to see?

Edlund: I got very involved in the cosmological building blocks and mapping out the cosmology of that thing, and I feel like there’s still room to land certain things, but to me there’s a whole story that is the underpinning of why those events started and why the archangels did what they did, and why all these things fell into place, why Chuck is where Chuck was — all of those things fit into a large mechanism that makes sense and I’m not certain necessarily that’s where they’re gonna go. It’s something that I was fairly vocal about. Hopefully they’ll get there, I don’t know. But really to me there is something that… there’s a thing and it’s actually not about the shape or the confines, because this thing is what it is because of all of those sorts of shapes, right?


Ben Edlund, 2nd from right, atop the WB booth at San Diego Comic-Con with Supernatural cast Misha Collins, Mark Sheppard, Jim Beaver, Jared Padalecki, Jensen Ackles and former showrunner Jeremy Carver.

But I do think that there’s a point where really, this is the story of Sam and Dean becoming demigods in a way. That to me is really… Like, you look at it as what happened in ancient times. I’m sure Gilgamesh and Enkidu were probably normal guys for a while but shit just kept happening, and then they got heartened by the forces of myth to the point where they transcended the definition of human. How many times do you have to go to hell before that happens? But I think those are things that feel as though by now they would be a little more triggered in the continuity. But then also, I think probably left to my devices, I would’ve done about 10 years and then maybe too soon ended a story that seems to have more longevity than I even understood. I don’t claim to have the answers. That would be wrong.

The Tick is available for streaming now on Amazon Prime Video.

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