A Q&A with 'DeFlocked' Creator Jeff Corriveauby Stephen Roth
DeFlocked was added as a new GoComics feature earlier this year, but creator Jeff Corriveau has been writing the hilarious comic strip about three farm animals and their human friend for 12 years.
We recently chatted with Corriveau about DeFlocked, including his hot takes on Greek philosophy, TV sitcoms, and how Larry David and Thomas Kinkade became fans of his strip.
GoComics: You've stated that DeFlocked is based loosely on Hippocrates' Four Humors. Can you explain to those of us who aren't Greek scholars what that means, and how you came up with the idea?
Yeah, it’s this really classic biochemical taxonomy of human emotions and behavior. Holy cow, I think I just lost half the audience there. That’s some really awesome opener. “Hey, nice one, comic dude – I needed a nap."
Anyway, I mean the Greeks actually had a lot of influence on our entire culture, despite their recent meddling in our elections.
So basically, Hippocrates – he’s the father of Western medicine - believed that our temperament could be split into four categories, or humors, based on what your levels of certain body fluids were. If you had, like, these high levels of certain fluids, it supposedly made your personality a certain way.
Basically, your four main fluid/temperament traits break down like this:
Blood (sanguine) - sociable, optimistic, happy-go-lucky
Phlegm (phlegmatic) - relaxed, stable, rational
Yellow bile (choleric) - overbearing, strong-willed, quick tempered
Black bile (melancholic) - thoughtful, introspective, sensitive
As a writer, I was really fascinated by these personality archetypes. And then I started to notice something. I discovered that there were so many examples of Western literature and entertainment that had these main characters who fit into these four humors types. But the other cool thing was - WAKE UP!!! Sorry, class, this is a non-credited course - But the other cool thing was that I noticed a lot of comedy, especially hit sitcoms, had a conflict of these four personality types at their core.
Think of some of the more popular TV comedies in our time and you'll see how perfectly this four humors model matches up.
All in the Family, The Jeffersons, Seinfeld, Frasier, How I Met Your Mother. Seriously, just thinking of Norman Lear – he’s basically a Greek philosopher. With better-tailored togas.
And it’s cool because you can find traces of this model in all forms of comedic pop culture. Even comic strips. I mean, just take the four main characters of Peanuts - Charlie Brown, Linus, Lucy and Snoopy. That right there is the epitome of a brilliantly-executed four humors model.
So I started to create my own characters based solely on these personality archetypes. And then I placed them all together in a situation where they can't escape. That's another sitcom trick. I wanted this strip to be both familiar to fans of comedy but also dynamic at the same time. When we first brought DeFlocked out to newspapers, we sold it as a modern American sitcomic.
GoComics: So, which of the four temperaments go with which DeFlocked characters? We're guessing that Mamet would not be described as "phlegmatic?"
Ha! Yeah, no, Mamet is not at all phlegmy, not in the least. He's yellow bile all the way. If you've read the strip for any length of time, you can peg the characters to their humors pretty easily.
Mamet is choleric, Cobb is phlegmatic, Rupert is sanguine, and Tucker is melancholic.
The thing that's great about Mamet is that he can take his “humor” - the Greek kind - to extreme ends of the spectrum. He can be as strong-willed with his ignorance as he can with his arrogance.
Once you place these four different personality types in the same room, the comedic interactions almost write themselves.
GoComics: A family of characters composed of two dog brothers, a sheep and a boy being raised by the two dog brothers is interesting, to say the least. How did you arrive at that scenario, and should we contact the Department of Family Services about Tucker's situation?
Funny you say that, because, you know, in today's world, Tucker would probably get a stamp of approval from Social Services. "Okay, he scoots across the rug a little bit, but at least he's nourished."
I definitely wanted animals to be the main part of the strip for a couple reasons. One was that I can’t draw humans. And the other was the obvious reason that animals can get away with edgier dialogue. I hate the word "edgy" by the way - it's overused so much in this industry that it's lost all its original meaning. It's like when HGTV killed the word "pop." "Hey, that Moroccan leather rain barrel really makes the dining room pop!"
The thing is, in comics and animation in general, things you could never have coming out of a person's mouth sound perfectly okay coming from an animal. Part of the reason for this is that we feel detached from animals because they're a foreign species. So it's perfectly fine, safe, whatever, to laugh at whatever they say. I mean, picture a cute little turtle standing next to his friend who’s lying in bed, about to commit assisted suicide. And the turtle says “Get you another blanket? What – you want me to do everything?” Hilarious, right?
But along with this, I also wanted a human character to be in the strip for the exact same reason. I wanted to explore some deeper, more introspective themes with DeFlocked, and I needed the "Christ-child" type of character to be able to do that. When you have doofy slapstick animals suddenly trying to be deep and soulful, it just falls flat.
So I put them all together in this weird Modern Family-esque situation, and it just seemed to work for me. The reason you kind of get past the quirky relationships is because these guys are all outcasts. Outcasts who really need each other to make a family. It’s something many of us can relate to.
GoComics: Your background as a comedy writer includes shows like Talk Soup, Saturday Night Live and The Tonight Show – how has that experience influenced your writing for DeFlocked? Is it a challenge balancing writing for television with writing for a comic strip?
No lie, I am wholly indebted to this amazing experience I had in television. TV writing was the best preparation for doing something like this. Talk Soup (now "the Soup") especially was like comedy writing boot camp. You had to be relevant, super on-target, and quick. And you needed to be hitting these unyielding daily deadlines. There was no "I'mma do me today" or handing off cash flow spreadsheets to an intern. You're "on" for, like, 12 hours, pounding out a wicked 30-minute set of new comedy every single day.
I don't write for TV anymore, but I'm still writing beyond the strip - more in the digital copywriting space. There aren't a lot of Hollywood gigs out where I live, unfortunately. Once I left Los Angeles for New England, I had to accept a lot of changes. One, you can't just get a Friday touch-up at the Botox kiosk in your local grocery store. And, two, people out here actually think Botox is poison. I might as well be living on Mars.
GoComics: Are there any classic or current TV comedies that have influenced the humor of DeFlocked?
Oh gosh, yeah. By far All in the Family was my biggest influence. It's my all-time favorite show. But also many of the "Must-See-TV comedies" from the '90's. Seinfeld, of course. Everybody Loves Raymond. The Office. Mamet is basically an amalgam of Archie Bunker, George Costanza, George Jefferson, Louie DePalma, Frank Barone and Michael Scott.
Honestly, I'm much less into current comedies these days. It's like someone puts a gun to these show writers' heads, forcing them to come up with 37 sex jokes for every half-hour show. Wow, I think I just sprouted some gray hairs out of my ears with that statement. Hold on a second -- "Hey you damn kids - get off my lawn!!" So, for real, though - I'm more into these slice-of-human-portrait kinds of shows these days. I love Story Trek on BYU TV – a brilliant show that nobody knows about - and podcasts like Invisibilia and Masters of Scale.
I used to write my strip much more in the traditional sitcom format. But I was told that newspapers prefer more of the "one-off"-type humor over longer storylines. This was back when we were trying to boost our newspaper client base. So you'll see that writing style change in DeFlocked starting from like four or five years in. I really enjoy doing more of the character-driven humor, though, and I'll still sneak in some of my more popular storylines each year. Fans seem to really love the annual maple sugaring series. And Mamet's battle with the neighborhood girl scout trying to sell him cookies is an annual classic. That's one thing I learned from Schulz. Fans get real attached to set pieces, and they expect to see them every year.
What made you decide to launch a comic strip 12 years ago? Was it something you had been working toward for many years, or was it an entirely new creative endeavor?
That's the thing. I wasn't one of those guys saying "I'm going to be a cartoonist" on every Career Day, as the teacher smiles at you while mentally picturing you serving her fries in 10 years.
But I loved to draw. Even though I wasn’t terribly great at it. And my childhood hero was Charles Schulz. I would devour Peanuts books every chance I could. I would get these big treasuries out of the library week after week. They were these cool double-sided hardcover Peanuts books - I never found out what they were called. But they were large and they had one Peanuts collection on one side and then you'd flip the book over and there would be another collection on the other side. I adored those books. I still wish I could find some old copies of them today.
Peanuts led me to the comics pages and then to other classic strips like Heathcliff, Garfield, Andy Capp, Wizard of Id, Fred Bassett. And then came Calvin & Hobbes and The Far Side. I didn’t know it at the time, but comic strips were a strong influence on the way I was navigating the world, and on my developing sense of humor. I think this kind of exposure to comics in my youth really stuck with me as I got older. I now believe it became one of those invisible forces that can change the course of a life.
I can vividly remember the day. I was sitting at my desk, late at night in the E! Network studios In Hollywood. By this time I was writing those multi-part "Top 100" specials for E!. These were the kind of countdown specials that people devoured with the same kind of fervor that they used to avoid meaningful relationships with other humans.
And I just put my keyboard down, looked up at the ceiling and said "I can't do it. I can't write another idiotic Paris Hilton joke."
Of course I wrote plenty more Paris Hilton jokes. I mean, a guy knows which side his bread is buttered on. But it was the start of a sea change for me. I wanted to do something more. I wanted to do something I always had inside of me since I was a kid. "What if I could have my own comic strip?"
So I did it. At the time I didn't know how stacked the odds were against something like this actually being successful. Which, looking back, was probably better I didn't know. But I sent my first submission out and was contacted by each of the major syndicates. I signed DeFlocked within a month.
It was a real life-defining moment for me in a way I couldn't have realized up until that point.
GoComics: How do you come up with ideas for the strip? What is the most challenging part of the process for you?
Let me just say something. For all the advances in technology our culture enjoys, how none of us has come up with a way to automate comic strip writing is beyond me. I mean, besides [name of strip removed], of course.
Honestly, as I mentioned earlier, I was very fortunate to have worked in television before creating DeFlocked. A lot of my TV work was monologue-y current events-type writing which requires a lot of intense deadline-driven content creation. I freelanced for Leno for a while. His process for the full-time monologue writers was legendary. You'd come in in the morning, and in your office was a stack of all the major daily newspapers, along with Newsweek, U.S. News and World Report, etc. They'd then lock you in the room until you had written 100 jokes for Jay to choose from before taping the show (at 5:00 pm). This was for every writer, every single day. It's like Geneva Convention-type stuff. But with better residuals.
My first five or six years writing DeFlocked was much less excruciating than I heard it could be. Luckily, I was able to pop out ideas fairly effortlessly, without any real knock-down battles with writer's block.
Then I had kids, and my brain took a nosedive. I was at home doing the strip, while also helping to raise my kids. I loved being able to have that opportunity as a father. it's something I will cherish forever and it's helped to create some of the strong bonds I have today with my children. But I was also getting about three hours of sleep a night for those six years. I was chronically sleep-deprived and literally felt like I could check out at any moment. That was a really tough time to be producing the daily comic. On the other hand, these were some of my most fruitful years of the strip's run.
I’m now up to four hours of sleep a night.
The writing, while far from being a "given," is still the easiest part for me. Or should I say, the least agonizing. The artwork, while I liked doing it in principle, was always the most mundane and time-sucking part of the process. I could see exactly how I wanted the strips to look on the paper. And I’d get excited about that. But then your soul gets crushed because you mentally calculate the arduous amount of hours it's going to take to finish penciling, and then inking an entire week's worth of strips - all because of the sheer inability to streamline the drawing process.
Hold on, let me go get you a tiny violin while I cry.
GoComics: We understand Larry David is a DeFlocked fan? Do you know Larry? How did you find out about that?
Yeah, that was a crazy, out-of-left-field thing. I saw a letter in my mailbox from his production company one day, and he had written me a quote in support of DeFlocked. Apparently he liked the strip. I don't know him personally, although years earlier I did work as a background actor on his first feature film, Sour Grapes (you can catch me if you have a decent freeze-frame on your digital device). It’s obviously what killed the film at the box office. I think Larry is one of the funniest and most creatively brilliant minds in comedy.
Since I heard from Larry, I also discovered that Kevin Nealon is a fan of DeFlocked. So was Thomas Kinkade (the "Painter of Light"). Random, I know. That was a crazy thing. I had made a joke about Thomas in one of my strips. And then one day I see an email in my inbox from his people. Apparently, at the time, my strip appeared in his hometown newspaper and someone showed that strip to him. I thought I was done for. I mean, he was like the most famous painter in the country at the time. Obviously he could reach out to the art mafia and have me squashed. Or gouached, I guess you'd say.
But he was actually really honored by my strip. He asked for the original and he hung it on his wall. I now have a beautifully signed Kinkade painting with a really sweet, personal inscription from him. He was a really genuine guy, and very supportive of my work. It’s too bad about all the struggles he dealt with at the end, there.
That's one of the things that I most love about doing my strip and what initially inspired me to go for this ridiculous endeavor in the first place. I wanted to make my art personal to people, to be able to connect to my readers in a way I never could as a faceless TV writer.
What I'm finding more and more is that it's those tiny moments of connection that really lie at the heart of DeFlocked.
Plus some yellow bile.