Interview with Jay Howell, Artist and Illustrator

From New York Times / Bay Citizen

January 19, 2011
By Justine Sharrock


Artist Jay Howell has been a strong presence in the Bay Area for the past few years, sharpening his cartoon-style drawings of skinny guys with erections with his zine Punks Git Cut and producing an animated series called “The Forest City Rockers.” But, thanks to a day job at a Mission District cafe, he’s taken his work to a much wider audience, on the small screen.

Howell, who recently moved to Los Angeles, developed the characters for Fox’s latest Sunday night animated sitcom, “Bob’s Burgers.” Produced by another San Franciscan, Loren Bouchard, best known for creating Comedy Central’s “Dr. Katz Professional Therapist” and Adult Swim’s “Home Movies,” “Bob’s Burgers” is about a family that runs a fumbling burger joint next door to a crematorium.

There’s Bob, his wife Linda (voiced by a man), teenage daughter Tina (also voiced by a man), pre-teen son Gene, and perhaps the star of the show, the young precocious daughter Louise. The cast of voices features Eugene Mirman, Kristen Schaal and H. Jon Benjamin, with upcoming cameos by Kevin Kline, Amy Sedaris and others. It’s set in an Eastern Seaboard town, but Bouchard brought in a San Francisco look by having local artist Sirron Norris fill the background with Victorian houses and what Bouchard calls “San Francisco’s cartoon colors.”

Jay Howell’s punk-rock style might seem an odd choice for Fox, but the show, brought on to replace “King of the Hill,” has a refreshingly dry, dark and inappropriate sense of humor. In just the first episode, we get an itchy teenage crotch, child molester-themed burgers and cannibalism. The Bay Citizen caught up with Howell (pictured below in a photo taken by Meighan O’Toole) by phone in Los Angeles after the first episode aired, to talk about cartooning, butt jokes and what he’s up to now.

How did you get involved working with Loren Bouchard on the show?

I was working at Atlas Cafe, which was like the best job I have had in San Francisco — I met more people through that than I have in my entire life. Loren lived around the corner. He would come in and was kind of like acquaintances with a couple dudes I knew and they told me that he worked on cartoons. I was doing a lot of zines at the time so I started literally handing him zines over the counter in the morning. We would just talk a little bit and he started coming to my art shows. After one show he was like, if you’d you consider working on a project with me, give me your e-mail. And we started working on “Bob’s Burgers.”

Last Sunday, when you saw the premier of “Bob’s Burgers,” what did you think?

I was super impressed with what Loren did and how it turned out. I’ve read a lot of scripts, and it is just going to get funnier and funnier throughout this whole season. I just hope people are smart enough to enjoy it. I hope it lasts.

What was the original vision for the show?

It was written originally around a family of cannibals living secretly in a restaurant. [That’s the theme of the first episode. -Ed.] The first couple of drawings that we did were all about that, but then he proposed the show to Fox and they said it’s just about the restaurant now. Fox had confidence enough that he would make a funny show no matter what.

I recently saw the cast of the show at SF Sketchfest. They talked about how a lot of the story is driven by their improv. Did that start before you even developed what the characters would look like?

[Bouchard] had his voice actors ready to go before he even had the show. He is like the master of getting all these funny people together to make a story. He did “Dr. Katz” for years, so he knows, like, everybody. He is really into letting the comedians go off the cuff and not follow the script.

Once you were involved, what was the creative process in figuring out what the characters would look like?

Every character took a month to develop. He would send me two- or three-paragraph e-mails about what he thought they would be like, like describing someone you know. He was living at 16th and Harrison, so I’d just ride my bike down the street and show him new drawings and he’d be like, “I like this, I don’t like that,” and I’d go back and back forth until we landed on the right person, for like a year a year and a half.

Loren Bouchard said that the first version of your work is shockingly like the final product.

No, it was shockingly way different. As the character development progressed, I would draw accordingly to the changes. So at the beginning I was drawing it as my personal artwork but then toward the end I was drawing it more as a job.

What changed about the characters from your original?

They were way taller and skinnier, like they are in my personal art. I’m tall and skinny with a big nose and that’s how I draw all my characters. I basically tried to make the dad like me as much as possible. We just kept shrinking them down, making their eyes bigger, shortening their noses, making them fatter and making them more and more palatable for network TV, but not in a bad way.

Fox took my final my drawing and put their spin on it again and made it more like Simspon-y. I truly feel like my final characters were better than Fox’s. I feel like I went a little more original with the characters. But I’m still psyched about it. I feel like you can see my handiwork in there.

I would’ve appreciated a little bit more of my personal art getting into the show. But being a character developer, it’s not my show.

How did you feel about taking your work more mainstream?

It helped me develop as a character designer and be a better cartoonist. It helped me as an artist by opening me up to more ideas, but it was awesome to work with a giant network like that. It was a good resume builder. I worked for the company that wanted a certain aesthetic. That’s fine. I was involved in the show like it was a job way more than as a creator type, but still it was a cool project and awesome to be a part of it.

One of my favorite things in the show is the youngest daughter’s pink bunny hat. How did that come about?

I wanted to set her apart, character-wise. There are so many rules in cartooning about how you should know everyone based on their silhouette. You have to really tell them all apart.

The bunny hat reminds me of the wolf hat in your other work.

Yeah, that’s totally a “Forest City Rocker” reference. If you watch “Gimme Shelter” where the Hell’s Angels did the security at Altamont, and there’s one dude with a wolf hat on stage beating people with a cue. So yeah, I guess I carried that over sort of subconsciously or something.

Are you still working on the show?

I haven’t worked on it in over a year. I developed the characters, everything went into the can and then they took over. I drew everyone you see, like the old lady and the child molester, but not the peripheral characters like in the schoolroom. After that I gave them like one hundred other drawings and they take what I’ve done and change it and do what they want with it.

What are you working on now?

Right now I’m concentrating on my Nickelodeon show that comes out next July or so.

My next cartoon on Nickelodeon is, like, all me. Andreas Trolf does the writing for it. Jim Dirschberger from “Forest City Rockers” does animation. It’s all us, completely 100 percent.

Did you have to tone down the sex, drugs and rock-and-roll stuff from your usual work?

Yeah, like crazy. Nickelodeon asked us to do the show based on “The Forest City Rockers.” They liked the Rockers a whole bunch and they were like, “We wish we could do this but there’s no way this shit will fly over here. Try to make something for children that has the same sense of humor.” It’s still fun and funny but we try to keep it on the butt jokes as much as possible. If you can’t show people fucking and smoking weed then you have to show a lot of butts and do a lot of bathroom humor. That’s the only logical conclusion that I am able to come up with.

I know you can’t give too much away, but what’s the premise?

It’s about an Indian boy with a pet, talking snake. They act like Beavis and Butthead but a lot sweeter. They go around thrashing and fucking people’s lives up kinda by accident. He’s sort of like a Bart Simpson character. We are going to try to bring that “Yo Gabba Gabba!” kind of flavor to it also. Make it cool for kids to like good stuff. I’m getting John Dwyer to do the music and score the theme song. It’s going to be fucking wicked.

I’ve heard you say that you have art A.D.D. Is it hard to work for so long on one project?

No, there is so much fun stuff, script writing, casting the voices, so it’s constantly different shit happening. It’s almost like playing a video game where you do five steps, reaching some level or something, and then they reward you and you do five more.

It takes two months to do one episode for the script, then it’s let’s go back to the characters and test the animation. You’re continually jamming and scrambling.

You have an exhibition coming up at Needles and Pens Gallery on Feb. 5. What should we expect?

It’s 20 new pieces and possibly a new zine. It’s not related to the [TV] show whatsoever. Totally separate personal artwork, fun people, drawings and stuff I’ve been working on lately. It will awesome and I will there and we will get drunk, I promise.

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