Former Daily Show correspondent Rob Corddry started the web series Childrens Hospital back in 2008 as a labor of love. With the Writers Guild of America on strike, he gathered a bunch of his friends and set about making bite-sized episodes about a group of doctors at the children’s hospital Childrens Hospital (named for founder Arthur Childrens). Adult Swim soon picked up the show.
Bursting with bizarro comic brilliance, Childrens Hospital kicks off its fourth season tonight at midnight. Helmed by Corddry and co-producers Jonathan Stern and David Wain, the show has become a rapid-fire joke machine with air-tight storytelling, pointed pop culture homages and a stellar ensemble cast featuring Corddry (as the clown Dr. Blake Downs), Malin Akerman, Megan Mullalley, Ken Marino, Erinn Hayes, Rob Huebel, Lake Bell and Henry Winkler.
With its growing scope and fifth wall-shattering universe (we’re talking shows within shows), Childrens Hospital laughs in the face of each episode’s meager 12-minute run time. It also remains a passion project for all involved: “Nobody has to do it. They’re not making any money,” Corddry told Rolling Stone in a recent chat. “Everybody’s doing it because they wanna do it – and I think that informs absolutely everything, down to jokes.” Corddry also spoke about tightening punchlines through storytelling and character development, throwing continuity out the window, and which of the show’s characters may or may not be a monster.
What was the most challenging part of making this season?
The show has evolved to the point where we don’t really know what a normal Childrens Hospital episode is. I don’t know if it was so hard as it was just a lot of brainpower was spent, a lot of discussion time was spent on that. I just kept finding myself steering us away from the nuts and bolts of that conversation and just kind of letting it happen. And maybe we go too far in one area this season, or maybe we’re just even closer to finding what the show really is. Although with an absurd show [laughs] you have a lot of leeway, because it’s inherently meaningless.
Did you figure out what a normal Childrens Hospital is, or is that kind of impossible?
I was gonna say I get as much satisfaction out of the kind of simpler, normal-ish episodes that we’ve been doing for years, but I enjoy writing the more conceptual ones, and we have a lot those this season. The show’s become less of a parody of anything on TV and more of just a place to experiment with the absurd genre and what you can and can’t get away with.
What do you think it is about the show that best allows you to do that?
I used to think that story and character weren’t necessary in the absurd genre, because we’re a joke-based show. So my M.O. was get to the funniest joke in the shortest amount of time. But I discovered over the last season or two that there’s no better joke engine than character development and story! [laughs] So we’ve been packing a lot of that into this season. The stories are very tight and the characters, we’re definitely finding dimensions to them. Specifically Malin Akerman’s – she’s a character that’s sort of exploding for me right now. We know that she’s actually Jon Hamm in drag, and she may even be an evil monster [laughs]. She may not be human.
That’s amazing. Does Jon Hamm return this season?
Yeah. He plays everyone in the Childrens family that we need. In this episode, he plays Arthur Childrens, the founder of the hospital, in flashbacks. It’s an episode where we’re searching for Michael Cera’s character, because no one’s seen him.
With more focus on story and character, has continuity become more of a thing this season?
That is purposefully not a focus anymore. As a matter of fact, it’s a direct move away from it. At the same time that I was discovering story and character development mattered, I was freed from any thought of having to keep a storyline going. First of all, logistically, people don’t watch TV like that anymore. It’s stressful for me when I want to watch the next episode of Mad Men, but I gotta get through this one that doesn’t seem that interesting to me. That said, there is a lot of little things pampered throughout that will be satisfying for people who watch the show in that way. But most of our continuity is mythology-based.
You mean the fictional universe of Childrens Hospital and its fake cast?
Yeah, exactly. That’s all continuity. I’m so obsessed with that.
Why that over the show itself?
It reminds me of a comic book, in a way. I’m a big comic book fan, and there is a certain base mythology that they follow that is very satisfying, but they’re also allowed to do whatever they want. If they mess up, they just move to another universe. I like the freedom that comes with that.
When you started working on season four, was there anything you were looking to improve or focus on?
There were just a few episodes in season three that I thought, “Ah, we could’ve done better, and here’s where we could’ve done better.” And I don’t feel that way about any of our episodes this season. So it might be just subconscious, but I think I’ve really learned from those stupid little derailing mistakes that we made in the past. We’re just getting better at it as a whole, making [the show]. It’s not as stressful for me. The second season was extremely stressful, the third season got a little bit easier, and last season, still stressful – the shooting of it – but it was a lot more fun and satisfying for some reason. I haven’t really thought them out, they’re just feelings that I have. And also I’m really looking forward to starting season five – I kind of want to start now, whereas before it was kind of like, “Oh God, well, I gotta do this again!”
That’s got to be the best feeling, to be excited to go back to work.
There’s no better feeling, no. And of course the Emmy nomination [for Outstanding Special Class – Short-Format Live-Action Entertainment Program] doesn’t hurt at all.
Oh, of course. Is that a new category that they created?
Yeah! Which is almost as exciting as getting nominated, you know? Like they’re starting to recognize this short format thing, which is what all comedians, especially young comedians, are doing right now. It’s definitely the future. I’m glad they respect it.