'China, IL': Maybe The Most Bonkers 'Adult Swim' Show Ever
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If you ever find yourself playing Six Degrees of Kevin Bacon and need to link Macho Man Randy Savage and Timothée Chalamet, boy do I have a gift for you. From 2011 to 2015, WWF Superstar Hulk Hogan and sensitive indie film director Greta Gerwig co-starred in China, IL, an animated Adult Swim show about the self-dubbed “worst college in America” (that wasn't Rutgers) and it was bananas.
Based on a series of animated shorts by Brad Neely, China, IL is one of Adult Swim’s most underrated masterpieces, combining the chaos of Superjail, the engaging character comedy of Aqua Teen Hunger Force, and the high-concept sci-fi rigmarole of Rick and Morty. Though it ran for just three seasons and thirty episodes, China, IL wove threads of pure gold out of its simplistic animation and its devotion to wild, stupid, unfiltered fun.
Let’s do a deep dive into Brad Neely and the surrealist sitcom that brought together Hulk Hogan, Greta Gerwig, Donald Glover, Hannibal Burress, Chelsea Peretti, Jeffrey Tambor, and more. That list alone feels like the beginning of a joke.
Is this that Hamilton thing people keep talking about?
Brad Neely briefly attended the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts and is not a trained animator. How, then, did he go from humble beginnings growing up in a religious household in Fort Smith, Arkansas, to writing and creating an animated show about the college experience?
Neely started working with roughly drawn humor in 1996 with his comic series “Creased Comics”, a collection of crude, irreverent, single-panel comic strips that slowly disseminated his bizarre comedic sensibilities around Arkansas before developing a cult following online. He described the art style as “self-consciously junky,” but something about his depictions of homoerotic superheros, a petulant Jesus, and plainfaced tableaus of bigfoot with his “superbaby” captivated his growing audience, which later led to him being described by the Arkansas Times as “our generation’s answer to Gary Larson.” (And that's far better that than your generation's Scott Adams.)
A few years later, Neely and his friends found themselves in an Arkansas dive bar watching a lone man wearing headphones and sunglasses play pool with no opponent. That man was not Shia LaBeouf. They postulated possible soundtracks for the man in the headphones who was not Shia LaBeouf, and eventually decided that the funniest option was that he was listening to a Harry Potter book on tape.
Neely began to ad-lib Harry Potter scenes while his friends doubled over in laughter, and an idea sprung forth. He said about the scene, “I had this semi-resolution to take any kind of ‘wouldn’t it be funny…’ that really killed the room, but usually died there, and go ahead and do .”
Boy did he do it. In 2003, he took the riff to the extreme and replaced the entire audio track to the film Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone. The result, presented as a 35-chapter audiobook, was Wizard People, Dear Reader. It's a bizarro, very unauthorized alternate telling in which Harry is a belligerent alcoholic and a self-described “destroyer of worlds.” Using only a four track tape recorder and his penchant for chaos, Neely created an entirely new world for the film with more creativity and skill than JK Rowling had while writing Harry Potter and the Cursed Child.
Harry is one mean drunk
Neeley burned Wizard People, Dear Reader onto CD’s and passed them around to friends and local video rental stores. From there, he eventually sent it to the New York Underground Film Festival where it played along with the film to a delighted, doubtlessly stoned audience, prompting writeups in the New York Times and Salon. Neely went on to perform the piece live for several sold-out live shows in Austin, Texas, all for free so as to TRY and avoid the wrath of the protective and litigious Warner Bros.
Unfortunately, as Neely prepared to launch an east coast leg of the project, all participating theaters received warnings from Warner Bros. telling them that any involvement with the production would result in never being allowed to run a Warner Bros. film again. You know, just the kind of thing you'd expect from Warner Bros.
They also misspelled Brad Neely’s name in the warning letters, accidentally threatening theater owners not to work with one Brad “Heely.” Said the man named Brad Neely about the typo, “I kept imagining this guy really named Heely, you know, in some kind of dark room with a lamp shining on him surrounded by Warner Bros. guys, saying, ‘I don’t know what you’re talking about! I hate Harry Potter!’"
With all his talent and imagination, it was only a matter of time before Neely would be discovered by the movers and shakers of the entertainment industry!
Yeah, right, that's how it always works.
However, a friend of a friend of Neely’s was looking for a creative type to make a cartoon promo for MTV, and he “heard was funny.” They got in touch and Neely agreed to try his hand at animation, creating the previously-linked video titled simply “George Washington.”
In the hand-drawn slideshow animation created under the same moniker of Creased Comics, Neely raps about our 12-story tall founding father eating opponent’s brains and inventing cocaine. Predictably, MTV didn’t find it grabby enough, and asked him to write something dumber: a new video about Jessica Simpson or Snoop Dogg. Neely said of the experience, “I figured out pretty quickly, we weren’t going to be able to work together.”
But that didn’t discourage Brad Neely from seeding around his first animation venture the same way he did for Wizard People, Dear Reader, and it worked. After going semi-viral online, the video caught the eye of SuperDeluxe.com, a now-defunct comedy site that was absorbed into the Adult Swim catalog. It was on Super Deluxe that Neely began to build the world of China IL, in two separate series of shorts entitled “The Professor Brothers” and “I Am Baby Cakes.”
Shortly before Super Deluxe was absorbed into Adult Swim, executive producer Daniel Weidenfeld talked to executives there about combining Neely’s webseries into a four-part, eleven minute special titled China, IL: The Funeral. The special aired on May 25, 2008, and the rough cut of Neely’s first attempt at bringing together all the elements of the China, IL universe was enough of a creative success to motivate Neely to work with Weidenfeld on developing a full pilot to pitch to Adult Swim.
On the air
With full approval from Adult Swim, Neely and Weidenfeld started work on season one, with the two of them writing all ten episodes. Said Neely, “We made a conscious effort to create China by way of Seinfeld meets The Simpsons.” The cast was haphazardly assembled from some of the pair’s close friends, including Hannibal Burress and Chelsea Peretti. Hulk Hogan, Greta Gerwig, and Jeffrey Tambor were also all hooked by the scripts and so the pieces were in place for things to get weird.
Ever wondered what it would be like if Hulk Hogan coached a math team?
The plot loosely follows five main characters – Steve and Frank Smith, both voiced by Brad Neely, are brothers and teachers in the University of China, IL’s history department. Steve is a suave, womanizing narcissist, while Frank is an insecure, mercurial mess of a man. They are aided by their teaching assistant Pony, voiced by Greta Gerwig, a student struggling to make ends meet and often the voice of reason. The University of China, IL is run by The Dean (Hulk Hogan), who is basically just Hulk Hogan if Hulk Hogan ruled a cartoon world without the petty limitations of physics or morality. Rounding out the five is Baby Cakes, an intellectually complicated behemoth of a student played by Neely.
The series starts on a tame note. In the first episode, Steve Smith sets out to capture former President and time-traveling criminal Ronald Reagan, voiced by Dave Coulier, aka Uncle Joey from Full House. Steve is eventually successful, and 40th President Ronald Reagan is sent to a maximum security prison. Reagan becomes a recurring character, appearing in six episodes over the show’s three seasons, just like he did on The Cosby Show.
Here’s a collection of moments from China, IL without context in case time traveling Reagan didn’t fully establish the tone and content of the show:
China, IL follows its own sitcom formula, with the storylines driven by the lives of the characters while wildly careening between full on genre parodies to sci fi adventures to normal life at a crappy college, a la Community. The music is written and recorded mostly by Neely himself, which makes the soundtrack as entertaining and chaotic as the show.
Part of what makes China, IL so delightful is that much of it is born from pure ignorance. The basis for the University of China, IL is an outsider’s perspective on what college is, with Neely admitting, “My information is broken and that's what makes China wonky and interesting, because it's what's so f—--- wrong about college.”
Multiple episodes are based on elements of pop culture of which Neely only has a passing knowledge, including a full episode 'parody' of “The Other Woman,” a critically acclaimed episode of Mad Men. The China, IL take on the episode, titled “The Diamond Castle,” follows Frank on his quest to discover the hidden Diamond Castle of Thomas Jefferson. Frank breaks Ronald Reagan out of prison to help him on a National Treasure style caper that culminates in the underground Diamond Castle crumbling into dust while Ronald Reagan finds Thomas Jefferson’s Fountain of Eternal Presidency and becomes ruler of America in perpetuity. While this occurs, Steve is tasked with appeasing a university inspector, whose demands of him become increasingly hairy as she forces him to act out her bizarre cat-related fantasies.
So, you know, like the innerworkings of a 1950's ad agency.
If that sounds nothing like an episode of Mad Men, it’s because Brad Neely does not watch Mad Men. He just heard an episode described to him and went nuts. "We do that often where we'll just take my ignorance and run with it," he said.
The show ran for three seasons and thirty episodes, which included visits from Donald Glover, Jason Alexander, God himself, evil doppelgangers, an unidentified child of Donald Trump who is just a single giant testicle, vicious wild hogs, feral hippies, satyrs, a cyclops, and a talking anus who becomes a standup comedian. The series culminated in an hour-long musical goodbye episode to all the heroes, villains, and freaks who made the show the wonderful fever dream that it was.
Neely has worked on various projects since the conclusion of China, IL, including The Harper House on Paramount+, which was sadly canceled this past November. But nothing captured his spirit of madness quite like China, IL.
What Neely lacked in formal training, education, or pop culture knowledge, he made up for with enthusiasm, talent, and an undying dedication to his own weird, anarchic, and sickly beautiful point of view. That is what makes us fall in love with the China IL’s, the Rick and Morty’s, the Venture Bros of the world. The devotion to originality and the freedom to experiment makes these Adult Swim shows so engaging.
Hopefully someone reading this develops a manically-hilarious animation about the life and creative spirit of Brad Neely. Only don't cast Hulk Hogan, that joke's been done.
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Top Image: AdultSwim.com