It’s been many years since Axl Rose released a note of new music or agreed to an in-depth interview, but the elusive Guns N’ Roses frontman has shown a surprising willingness to lend his voice to cartoons. Two years ago, he appeared on Boomerang’s New Looney Tunes where he saved the world from an asteroid by singing “Rock the Rock” with Bugs Bunny on guitar. And tonight he’ll be guesting on the network’s Scooby-Doo and Guess Who? where he’ll get to interact with Shaggy, Fred, Velma, and Scooby-Doo himself.
The singer is the latest in a long line of celebrities to guest on the show during the past two years, including Morgan Freeman, Whoopi Goldberg, Halsey, Ricky Gervais, Christian Slater, and George Takei. We phoned up showrunner Chris Bailey to hear about this newest version of Scooby-Doo and what it was like working with Axl Rose.
I want to start broadly here. What’s the basic concept of Scooby-Doo and Guess Who? There have been so many incarnations of the show over the years that I think some people don’t know where the franchise stands right now.
It started when I was working with Jay [Bastian] in development, he’s our executive at Warner Bros., and he asked me what I thought about Scooby-Doo. I said, “I watched it as a kid, of course.” It’s entry-level science fiction and horror, for kids. I said, “What do you want to do?” He said, “The only thing we want to do is go retro with the costumes, the original costumes.” I said, “OK, let me think about it.”
I literally had not thought about Scooby-Doo since I moved on to more adult science fiction and action. And so I watched some episodes and I was like, “I know these guys!” I came back with a pitch that said, “If you want to go retro, let’s go totally retro. It’ll be modern because I’m modern, and it’ll have a sense of modern timing, but let’s do a new version of the Scooby-Doo movies and have a mix of cartoon and celebrity guest stars that meet the gang.” They liked it and we just moved forward with that premise.
I watched the old show as a kid and you’d see Phyllis Diller, Don Knotts, and all these random celebrities on it.
Yeah. There’d be the Harlem Globetrotters and then cartoon characters like the Addams Family. The weirdest one had to be Laurel and Hardy because they were dead.
Are you aiming the show at children, their parents, or is the point that this is a show they can watch together?
It’s a show they can watch together. Scooby is a kids’ show. There’s no question about it. I love doing an action-horror show for little kids. But by using guest stars that parents know, they’ll watch it with their kids. It gives them a little something else to be interested in. We do make the gang ever-so-slightly aware that they’ve been around for 50 years doing the same thing. I think that makes it smarter to any adult that happens to tune in.
Why do you think that Scooby-Doo has been so enduring? Most cartoons from that era are long gone. You don’t see anyone making more Grape Ape or Hong Kong Phooey episodes, but Scooby-Doo has come back so many times.
It’s kind of amazing. The only thing I can go back to, and it’s just my opinion, is it’s really just about friends hanging out and doing the right thing and hanging out with their dog. And monsters aren’t real, but Shaggy and Scooby are the scaredy cats and just because they’ve never been real in the past, doesn’t mean they aren’t real this time. The adults, Velma, Daphne, and Fred, are not scared off and there’s something kind of cool about that.
What do you look for in a guest star?
The number one thing is that they have a personality that can hold up with the gang. The Scooby gang is so broad. The formula I go back to is Abbott and Costello Meet Frankenstein. It’s genius. Abbott and Costello are like Shaggy and Scooby. They’re just these idiots. But what’s genius about that movie is that the Wolfman, Dracula, and Frankenstein’s monster are the real Wolfman, Dracula and Frankenstein’s monster. They aren’t goofy or silly, and there’s some juxtaposition against those real monsters and the silly characters that just works.
That’s the tone for Scooby. It’s very broad and very big, so we definitely need a guest star that is interesting to us. We all have these meetings and raise our hands and say who we want to see on the show. But then the next question is, “How would they sound next to the gang? Are they larger than life? Will they be overshadowed by a really boisterous Shaggy and Scooby, or will they hold their own?” We just kind of go from there.
You obviously can’t expect kids to know about Steve Urkel or Malcolm McDowell, but it doesn’t matter because they are big personalities and a lot of fun, and their parents will know.
That’s right. But you get Urkel and he’s goofy and cartoony on the face of it. And that turned out to be one of our best episodes, though at the beginning I was like, “Do people know who Urkel is? I know he was a phenomenon when it was on.” And I was totally wrong. He came in and jumped into the character and the cartoon turned out great.
How does this work logistically? Do the guest stars go into the studio, or do they work from home because of Covid?
Luckily, when we did Axl, he actually came into the studio, which is always ideal. Most of our guest stars record by themselves. The gang usually gets together and we love to record guest stars with the gang, but it rarely works out scheduling-wise for us. Since Covid, I did do a few recording sessions last year when we were finishing up Season Two. It was mostly over the phone.
What sparked the idea to bring in Axl Rose?
Well, I was having a meeting with my directors and Mike Ryan, my story editor. It was one of our semi-regular meetings where we go, “Who should we have on the show?” People would just raise their hands. And Mike Milo, the director of the episode, he just said, “How about Axl Rose?”
He’s a huge Axl Rose fan. We were like, “Yeah, that would be great. Would he do it?” He was like, “I don’t know. He did that Bugs Bunny thing. Maybe he’ll do this.” Our executives said, “Great,” and most importantly, Axl said yes. It was literally that simple.
It didn’t take long to get him to agree?
No. I think it came pretty quickly, as I recall. Some people take a little while to get back to us and we don’t know if they aren’t sure or if their agent is hedging, but I don’t recall any of that with him, so it must have gone pretty smoothly.
What was so fun about it is that I’m a morning person. I just do my best work before noon. We booked a recording studio and were told, “He likes to work at 1 a.m.” I was like, “What?” And there was indeed a request that he do it at midnight or 11 p.m. I was like, “I’m going to be wrecked by then.” We compromised and did it at 9 p.m.
Mike Ryan, the story editor who wrote the premise, we just went to dinner and hung out at the recording studio. When Axl showed up, he was so cool and, like, “Hey, hi.” It was like, “Wait, you’re Axl Rose. …” It was wonderful.
Did he want art approval or story approval? How did that work?
We always let the stars sign off on their likeness. But there’s no real approval of story or anything like that. What Mike Ryan does is look into the personal lives of some of the guests we have on. That hooks our story up with an interest or something to make it more personal. We just read that Axl was into archeology and motorcycles. And so it was like, “Alright, let’s have some ancient Mayan ruins in the middle of the desert and some big Mudmen Scooby-Doo monsters in there that are trying to steal the gold.”
What was it like being with Axl?
It’s funny because he was so professional and easy-going. He was just like, “Yeah, however you want to do it, man.” That’s great because I like working with people and connecting with people. But in the back of your mind you’re like, “Wow, it’s Axl Rose.”
What’s funny is usually when I work with actors for the first time, I’ll ask them if they want me to read the voices with them. Usually, the next question is, “Do you want me to do the voices or not do the voices?” Some actors are distracted by it.
And so Axl read his passage and then I jumped in with my best Shaggy and Scooby, and he busted up laughing. He must have laughed for 30 seconds. He was like, “Man, I was not expecting that.” I was like, “Should I not do that?” He was like, “No, no. It’s great. I just did not know that was coming.”
I imagine he grew up on Scooby-Doo as a kid in the Seventies.
Yeah. He totally got it. He got all the jokes. He knew who they were. Somehow, it made sense to him that he was acquainted with Shaggy and Scooby and they bonded over their love of diner pie. Shaggy and Scooby were the only ones that could keep up with him. And in the episode, Axl carries around these tiny, little tasting forks and he has them for Shaggy and Scooby. It’s very silly, but they played together very nicely.
Oh, one more thing happened. At the end of the recording, we ask people to make a bunch of silly noises for the episodes. A simple one might be like, “Give me five seconds of walking a tightrope and you’re afraid to fall.” Or I’ll go, ” … the sound you make when you’re punched in the stomach or picking up a heavy object and throwing it.”
Some people are like, “You’re kidding me, right?” But he was like, “I’m in!” Whatever we asked for, he was like, “Great!” But it’s funny. A bunch of people get self-conscious about making silly noises, but not him.
Does he sing at any point?
No. That would have been our holy grail, but no. He doesn’t sing. We would love to have had a song or original piece, but it wasn’t something that was worked out, for whatever reason. It was on our wish list and it didn’t happen, but I can’t speak to why.
The mere fact he was on was a real coup. He doesn’t say yes to a lot.
I know. It’s funny. He came in under the radar and was like, “Hey.” I remember walking to my car at the end and he was driving away in his truck. He came in like the wind, did his job, was magnanimous with everybody, and then he was gone. It was like Batman. You turn around and it’s like, “Hey, where did he go?”
Are you thinking about having more rock stars on in the future?
We finished Season Two and that’s all we’ve done for now. We did have a few other musicians. We had “Weird Al,” Kacey Musgraves, Sia, and Cher. They were all great episodes, but much different than Axl.
If you landed Axl Rose, you should go for someone even harder next time, like Bob Dylan or Zack de la Rocha.
I know, right? We had a few people that normally say no and we were like, “Wait, they said yes?” But I’d love to do more. It would be awesome. What’s fun is you get people you don’t expect would do Scooby-Doo, like Morgan Freeman and Jessica Biel and Terry Bradshaw. I got to talk Star Trek with Whoopi Goldberg, which was great fun.
It was like, “Really? Morgan Freeman said yes to Scooby-Doo? What?” And this episode comes out as this really smart, off-center episode.
I imagine someone like him wants to show his grandchildren.
I think so. Maybe it has a little of the Wheaties-box appeal. Depending on their age group, some may have watched it as kids and now are like, “Yeah, that sounds like fun. I’d like to do that.”
What’s funny is you get people like Axl or Morgan Freeman, they’re so extreme in their own way that it scares Scooby into a slightly new lane for everybody. Scooby clearly has a formula that we embrace with the rubber masks and the never-ending backgrounds where you see the same plant over and over. I think that’s comforting to a lot of people. But having these stars makes it seem fresh.