Austin Film Festival
Chances are, if you live in Texas and have ever mentioned it to someone outside the Lone Star State, you’ve been asked: “So, is it really like King of the Hill?” The answer, of course, is yes—and not because living here is a propane-fueled football and alley-beer party, but because the show’s writers created relatable, lovable characters who represent everything we love (and love to hate) about our state.
Jim Dauterive had more than a little to do with making King of the Hill such a massive hit. Coming on board as a writer, Dauterive eventually became a producer and story editor as well, bringing both his Texan childhood and his knack for witty, intelligent comedy writing to the table. Thirteen seasons later, KOTH lives on in syndication, and Dauterive has moved on to another rising animated series, Bob’s Burgers. Starring comic heavyweights Jon Benjamin, Eugene Mirman and Kristen Schaal, the show is about to enter its second season—and Austin Film Festival is bringing Dauterive to town to give us a special sneak peek at the premiere episode this Saturday, October 22.
To get ready for the new season, we spoke with Dauterive about writing specs, getting into animation and which surprising A-list actor is a closet Eugene Mirman fan.
Did you move from Texas to Los Angeles to pursue writing?
Actually, I grew up in Texas, went to UT Austin, but then I lived in Philadelphia for about 10 years before I moved out to LA.
How did you get involved with King of the Hill? You were with them from the very beginning, right?
Yes, I was. Really, I was in the right place at the right time, the way it often is in Hollywood. I had come out, I moved to LA from Philadelphia—I did what every aspiring writer does, which is I had written some spec scripts. I was lucky enough to have some doors opened for me, lucky enough to get an agent. I was running out of money right around the time King of the Hill was starting up, and what great luck for a show created by Mike Judge, set in Texas, about Texans, to be happening when I was looking for work. So it was just the right place at the right time. He liked my writing and, because I was just starting out, I was cheap, so it worked perfectly.
So your Texan roots were an asset.
Absolutely. Basically, I just got to relive my childhood professionally for about 13 years.
How many of your storylines were influenced by your real experiences?
A lot. The episodes that I wrote, I would always draw in people I knew growing up. I worked a lot of my dad into the show. Buck Strickland was just named Mr. Strickland, in the first episode that I wrote at the time, and he needed a first name. So I named him Buck, after my dad—my son is also named Buck. Things like that. There’s a lot of names of people in my past, in episodes that I wrote. Me and Johnny Hardwick were the Texan writers on the staff, so we would always put in as much of that as we could.
And then every year, with the writers who weren’t from Texas, we would come down, every year on research trips, for the first few years of the show. We’d hang around usually in Austin, cause it was more fun, and get story ideas and meet people and just sort of soak up the atmosphere.
And how did you get involved with your current show, Bob’s Burgers?
When King of the Hill was coming to an end, back in 2009, I was coming off of a development deal that I had with Fox. I still had six months or so on it, and they were looking to put me to work on something else and they had an animation project in development with Loren Bouchard, which turned out to be Bob’s Burgers. Loren had done Home Movies, Lucy: Daughter of the Devil, and had started on Dr. Katz in the 90s; he’s just a great comic animator, and he had this show they were very high on at Fox. They asked me to collaborate with him, since I had experience working on Fox animation for so many years with King of the Hill. That’s kind of the way they like to approach their animated projects that they develop, that’s kind of their formula: to take someone experienced in showrunning and Fox animation and pair them with talented, new animators. So it was sort of an arranged marriage that worked out.
There seem to be some parallels between the two shows; Bob and Hank, for example, are both similarly well-intentioned, confident father figures.
They’re both strong men—they’re not weak, bumbling guys, both Bob and Hank, but they are sort of frustrated by the events and things that happen around them. Hank, by Bobby not living up to his expectations of what a Texas male son should be, and Bob by his very creative, quirky, strange family, his wife and his kids, and then the pressures of trying to make a living. They’re both just getting by in their way.
And also, Loren and I talked about it a lot, in terms of the storytelling, and the attitude was, despite all, that no one ever succumbs to cynicism. They love their families and they love what they do. So there’s a very positive sort of feeling at the end of the day, despite what both Hank and Bob have to do to get there.
Both shows also seem timeless; I imagine that King of the Hill, produced today, wouldn’t feel very different.
It’s kind of a dangerous game to do topical humor in animation because it takes so long to do it; it takes seven, eight, nine months to produce a show, so things are dated by the time they actually air. They certainly become dated over time in syndication. So, unless a show like South Park—which ,I still don’t know how they do it, but it’s created almost overnight, so they can address any issue that’s in the news that week—but that’s not the way we are able to do things, so we just kind of avoid that. And you’re aided by the fact that animated characters don’t age, they’re always the same.
Bob’s Burgers has a very strong cast, with lots of established stand up and improv comics and a growing roster of guest stars (including Andy Kindler and Laura and Sarah Silverman). Are you getting lots of interest from comics who want to be involved?
We haven’t been on the air long enough and haven’t established our successful track record enough that people are crawling out of the woodwork to be on the show; we hope that will come eventually as we are more well-known. And that happened on King of the Hill, and The Simpsons, too, when a show takes off and is established people actually seek it out and want to do it. But we seek it out; it comes from Loren’s background, he’s worked with stand up comedians and improv comedians his entire career, particularly H. Jon Benjamin, so there’s a stable of them. And Benjamin has told Loren, I like Eugene Mirman or I like Dan Mintz, and so they’ve sort of been brought into the fold. And we learn about new people, we’re always trying to discover new people. Our writers are very plugged into the stand up world, so it sort of builds upon itself, but that’s very much the style of the show, with lots of comedians and people who are very good at improv.
One of the exceptions, though, who was specifically a fan of Eugene Mirman—who plays Gene—and who did want to be on the show was Kevin Kline, and we are exceedingly fortunate to have him want to do the show. He’s a semi-regular, as Bob’s landlord Mr. Fischoeder, a very eccentric rich guy who owns half the town and is very hilarious.
With so many comics on board, do they contribute to the writing process? Is a lot of the final dialogue improvised?
Well of course, every improvisation is writing—it’s writing with your mouth. Every episode is heavily improvised. We have really great writers and they write very funny, wonderful, well-crafted scripts, but those are kind of the starting point. When we go into the studio and record, we’ll record the script and just let the cast take off and improvise and see what we get. Then there’s this laborious editing process Loren does every week where he sifts through all the raw materials. Most shows have script supervisors and they’ll cut between takes and start up, but we just leave the tape rolling the whole session, we never stop so we can capture it all.
Back when you were writing specs, were they for animated series specifically?
It’s just the way it worked out, it was the opportunity that presented itself at the time. When I originally came out to LA, I’d intended to try to write feature scripts, and I’d written a spec feature script first. Then I realized that I shouldn’t be too picky, that I should take advantage of whatever door might open for me, so I wrote some television scripts. But they were live action spec scripts that I wrote at the time; I think I wrote a Larry Sanders and a Newsradio, which were popular spec scripts to write at the time.
Do you find there’s more freedom in the process of writing for an animated show?
Good stories are good stories and good characters are good characters, and they have to be funny and all that, but you have a lot more latitude. You don’t worry about having to shoot on location or building sets, you just write what you want, and it’s much easier to draw it. Although the animator might not necessarily agree with that. But you do have a lot more latitude.
Hear more about Jim Dauterive’s experiences on King of the Hill and Bob’s Burgers on Saturday, October 22, courtesy of Austin Film Festival. Jim will be presenting a special screening of Bob’s Burgers at 3:15 pm at the Austin Convention Center.