An Oral History of ‘Mission Hill,’ the Animated Cult Classic That Adult Swim Saved

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An Oral History of ‘Mission Hill,’ the Animated Cult Classic That Adult Swim Saved

On September 21, 1999 the adult cartoon Mission Hill debuted on the WB, right after a new episode of Buffy the Vampire Slayer. The show focused on a 24-year-old slacker named Andy French, his uptight 17-year-old brother Kevin, his twenty-something friends Jim and Posey and their beer-slurping dog Stogie, all of whom shared an apartment in Mission Hill, a neighborhood in the fictional city of Cosmopolis. The show featured sharp writing from former Simpsons writers Bill Oakley and Josh Weinstein, a stellar voice cast and a bold, vibrant art style. 

There was only one problem: Almost nobody watched it, at least by the much higher standards of 1999. 

With an audience of 2.28 million viewers, Mission Hill’s premiere held less than half of Buffy’s audience, and when the second episode aired two weeks later, almost a million fewer people tuned in. That was enough for the WB to pull the show, though in the summer of 2000, the network would end up burning off four more of the 13 episodes it had originally ordered. 

Mission Hill likely never would have been heard from again if not for the launch of Adult Swim a year later. Because when Mission Hill re-debuted on Adult Swim in 2002, it finally found its audience — those same original 13 episodes playing over and over and over again for the next few years. A die-hard cult fandom became deeply enamored with the show and hasn’t let go since. 

This fall, the series turns 25, and to celebrate the cult classic, we assembled its creators and the cast to take one more trip back to the neighborhood that is Mission Hill.

The Road to ‘Mission Hill’

Bill Oakley, co-creator of Mission HillWhile we were working on The Simpsons, Josh and I realized that there were no characters at all between the ages of 12 and 35  except for Otto, and Otto isn’t that fun to write for. The same thing was true of King of the Hill and South Park, the other two big adult cartoons at the time. This seemed like a crazy omission. So, after we left The Simpsons, the first thing Josh and I wanted to do was focus on characters in this age gap.

Josh Weinstein, co-creator of Mission Hill: It was this whole world that animation wasn’t exploring, going through that age when you’re first going into the world as an adult. It was something really close to us because we were still pretty young when we left The Simpsons

Oakley: This was in the waning days of the slacker-type thing, and there were a number of things in the ether that amused us that fell into that category. There was Austin Stories on MTV and the films of Kevin Smith. But the biggest inspiration was the alternative comic books of the time like Optic Nerve by Adrian TomineJoe Matt’s Peepshow and, most notably, Hate by Peter Bagge.

Weinstein: A lot of these comics told very realistic stories from the cartoonist’s life, and we liked that. 

Oakley: Those were our inspirations, and we were like, “Let’s do a Simpsons-like show with a composition of people in their 20s and in high school.” We decided that it was going to be about two brothers, one in each of those age groups. Then we populated it with characters based on people that we really knew.

We wrote the pilot in a couple of weeks while working at Castle Rock, and they let us hire our friend Lauren MacMullan to do some designs. We said, “We don’t want it to look too much like Peter Bagge because that’s a little too stylized for TV, but somewhere in a Harvey Kutzman vein.” That’s why the show has those colors that are mis-registered, because it looks like a cheaply-printed comic book. 

Weinstein: For the characters, we gave them three different options for the designs — one was sort of a 1930s-looking one and the other two were more realistic and more like Lauren’s natural style. 

Development art for Mission Hill by Lauren MacMullan

Oakley: Then came the pitches. At the time, all the networks were looking to do animated stuff. There had been a first wave of The Simpsons imitators — like Fish Police and Capital Critters — but they didn’t understand what made The Simpsons great. Then came a second wave where things were a little more grown-up, like God, the Devil and BobSammy with David Spade and Stressed Eric. We were part of that wave.

We pitched to Fox — but nothing. NBC was considering it, but Warren Littlefield felt that Andy was too much of a loser to be on “Must See TV.” We pitched to the WB when the WB was still a new thing. This was before they discovered they were going to be the teenage girl network. It was sort of a hodgepodge of stuff including The Steve Harvey Show and The Jamie Foxx Show and a whole bunch of other sitcoms and dramas. They didn’t have a brand yet.

The WB was interested, and we turned in the script and the designs. There was a period of waiting around for a couple of months, but then we got the call that they were going to order 13 episodes. We hired a great staff of writers while Lauren began hiring animators. 

When the show was announced, it was called The Downtowners. We liked it because it had an early 1960s jet-set kind of thing to it. But six months into the process, MTV came out with an animated show called MTV Downtown. The network was super concerned people might confuse the two, so they made us change it. We went through lots of names and finally settled on Mission Hill, which was already the name of the neighborhood in the show. We weren’t in love with it, but it was okay. We’d come up with “Mission Hill” from the Mission District in San Francisco. We didn’t realize until years later that Mission Hill was a real place in Boston.

The Citizens of ‘Mission Hill’

Oakley: Andy was assembled from bits and pieces of two Kevin Smith characters: Dante in Clerks and the Ben Affleck character in Chasing Amy. Also, Buddy Bradley from Hate, and parts of both me and Josh. 

Wallace Langham, Andy French: I’d never done a cartoon before Mission Hill, but I love cartoons and was so curious about it. 

Oakley: The little brother was from people that we knew from high school, as well as the little brother from the movie Welcome to the Dollhouse — he was the design inspiration for Kevin.

Scott Menville, Kevin French/C-Dog: I was thrilled about being cast on the show. Just from the sides, before I even saw the script, I knew it was great. The sides were hilarious.

Oakley: The character of Jim was, literally, 100 percent Josh’s college roommate Jim Suhre. 

Weinstein: That’s 100 percent him. We didn’t even change the name or the look or what he did. 

Posey, though, was a tough character to pull off. She’s this weird, flighty person who also has an edge to her. She’s based on someone we know as well, but we don’t want to say who.

Vicki Lewis, Posey Tyler/Natalie Leibowitz-Hernandez: When I did the Posey audition, I’d just had dental work so my mouth was hurting. Instead of trying to talk through it, I decided to lean into it, and I found this unique cadence to her where my teeth didn’t touch when I talked. 

Weinstein: All the writers loved writing Gus and Wally. From the beginning, we wanted to portray them like a realistic couple and the fact that they were gay was just a side thing. That had never really been done before. 

Oakley: We had worked with Lawrence Tierney on The Simpsons, and he was the perfect model for one of the guys, Gus. They were also inspired by the “Shut Up Little Man” tapes.

Tom Kenny, Wally Langford/Fechstein/Sasha: The “Shut Up Little Man” tapes were these underground cassette tapes that circulated back in the 1980s of these two guys who would have really loud arguments through the paper-thin walls of their apartment. That being said, they didn’t seem to have any of the tenderness that Oakley and Weinstein gave to Gus and Wally. I was very excited about the Gus and Wally thing because, at the time, it was pretty unprecedented to see an old married couple on TV — kind of like the parents on Everybody Loves Raymond or something — but where they both happen to be male. 

Nick Jameson, Gus Duncz/Ron/Stogie: I loved Gus’ attitude and how he was pissed off about everything. I loved the relationship between him and Wally, and we weren’t in any way stereotypical. We won a GLAAD award because of that.

Oakley: Finally, like the rest of the characters, Stogie was based on a real dog. Josh and I had a friend in high school named Ted, and he had a dog named Stoli after Stolichnaya vodka. Like in the cartoon, Stoli did drink and get drunk occasionally. He would also go wakeboarding and other things like that — he really lived a Spuds MacKenzie lifestyle. In the script, the dog’s name was Stoli until the lawyers made us change it.

The real Stoli the Dog. Photo courtesy of Bill Oakley

An Impossible Hill to Climb: ‘Mission Hill’ on the WB

Oakley: It was pretty smooth sailing when the show was being developed. We didn’t get any notes until after the first table read, and even those were fairly light. With the pilot, we wanted to do the standard thing all pilots want to do, which is to show the characters, show the dynamics between the characters and give each character at least a moment or two to shine. We also wanted to establish the essential dynamic of the show, which is Andy having to be a substitute father for Kevin when Kevin moves in with him.  

The whole show was a pretty well-oiled machine because we were using the exact same techniques we’d learned on The Simpsons. After the table reads, we’d take the entire writing staff out to dinner, and sometimes some of the actors would come too.

Weinstein: We loved it when we first saw the episodes being completed. The animation looked fantastic and beautiful. There was nothing else like it. 

Oakley: When the first animation came back, things were looking good. They were looking so good that the WB ordered five more episodes. 

The full episodes were coming back nicely too. My favorite was “Unemployment: Part 2 (Or Theory of the Leisure Ass)” where Andy finds out Jim works at the advertising agency. What I love about it is the revelation on Andy’s behalf that he’s been trying to hold up this whole slacker thing and he hadn’t realized that everyone else had already moved past it. That was very germane to that era.

Brian Posehn, Jim Kuback: Back then, this seemed like one of those shows that could have been on for 20 years. The characters seemed real, and it got even better as it went on. Our best episodes were the ones at the end of the run. Specifically, there was that episode about Gus and Wally — it was so good. 

Weinstein: The Gus and Wally episode, “Plan 9 from Mission Hill (Or I Married a Gay Man from Outer Space)” was where everybody — from the artists to the actors to the animators — hit their stride. It showed the most promise for Mission Hill, but ironically, it was the last episode produced. 

Oakley: There are also a few episodes I like from the lost episodes, which were those additional five that were ordered, but not completely finished. Like, “To Grandmother’s House We Go (Or Freaky Weekend in the Crappy Crudwagon),” which you can see one act of on YouTube. 

Lewis: I really liked the show. I never understood why it was canceled. It wasn’t because of me, was it?

Oakley: Early on, we were on a great track, but then there was the not-so-great track that began in May 1999 when the WB announced Mission Hill. This is the sad part of the story. It took us almost two years from when we wrote the script to when it was time for the show to go on the air. During that time, the WB discovered that it was the teenage girl network. Buffy had become a huge hit, and they were launching shows like PopularRoswellCharmed and Angel — all these shows like that.

Weinstein: In addition to the teenage girl thing, with shows like Smallville, there was a superhero, supernatural, soapy kind of thing. Mission Hill had no crossover with any of it. 

Oakley: Then came the upfronts, which is where networks show the clips of their new shows to advertisers. We had two minutes from the pilot animated for the upfronts. Josh and I flew to the upfronts, and we got to stay in fancy hotels. The WB was showing off five new shows, four of them were dramas and the fifth was Mission Hill. There’s this big ballroom of advertisers, and they cheered on all these dramas that were so hip and of-the-moment. Then they played the two minutes of Mission Hill to complete silence. 

It was a complete demographic mismatch, not only because we were the only comedy and the only cartoon, but the kinds of people who would be advertising buyers and the kinds of people who would end up enjoying Mission Hill weren’t compatible in the least. It was clear from that point on that we were going to be the proverbial redheaded stepchild of this network. 

Weinstein: That was such a traumatic experience, and that’s what started the worry with us.

Oakley: We thought there might be some crossover between Buffy’s audience and ours. So, mostly at our urging, the show aired after an episode of Buffy, but all the Buffy viewers tuned out. They aired the next episode during their comedy block. We led off the night, and our ratings were so bad that we were murdering Jamie Foxx and Steve Harvey

As for the reviews, Variety called Mission Hill the best comedy script of the year, and a couple of others stuck up for us, too, but the rest sucked. Entertainment Weekly said it was “awful” — I still want to strangle the critic who wrote that. Then, one of my friends showed me this thing in The Weekly World News or one of those supermarket tabloids. It was an article where death-row inmates ranked the new TV season. Mission Hill was the most hated show by death-row inmates. Yet another demographic mismatch.

Next, there was an article in The Washington Post about Mission Hill, where we’d told The Washington Post about the hard time we’d been having with the WB since the upfronts. The WB got very mad at us. At least two separate executives called us to say, “If your show doesn’t hit it out of the park, it’s dead!” 

Later, two of the people we worked with day-to-day at the network called up Josh and I. They had us on speaker phone. We exchanged some pleasantries, then we heard a door open and somebody said, “Hey, are we canceling Mission Hill?” 

They dangled some hope that they would re-air the show in the summer of 2000 in a better time slot. They did that with some of the episodes, and I remember naively thinking, “We’re doing really well in New Orleans and Tampa!” and thinking it’d make a difference, but it didn’t.

Weinstein: It hit us really hard. It was our first outing on our own, and we’d poured our lives into this show. It was a labor of love and to have it yanked away felt terrible.

Langham: It felt like we were all at a start-up where we were all excited about this new thing, then it was like we suddenly lost funding and had to pack it up.

Posehn: I’ve been a part of a few shows like that, where we only got to do one season, but this one has always stood out the most because it seemed like it had the most potential. Mission Hill really made me laugh, which isn’t always the case for stuff I’ve done.

Kenny: This, like a lot of stuff I like, got canned immediately. My crystal ball is amongst the worst in the universe. They had so little faith in us that they didn’t even finish up the order. They put up the money to make it and then got rid of it immediately. All of show business is like the running of the bulls, but with Mission Hill, it was like we were let out of the gate and gored immediately.

Mission Accomplished: ‘Mission Hill’ on Adult Swim

Oakley: The story has a somewhat happier ending though, because, about four years later, Cartoon Network invented this thing called Adult Swim. And because Cartoon Network was owned by Time Warner, they bought a whole package of canceled Time Warner animated shows. One of them was Mission Hill. They broadcast the same 13 episodes over and over again for like three years or more. Meanwhile, the same thing was happening in Canada on Teletoon.

The funny thing is, we never heard a word from Adult Swim. We had no idea it was happening until somebody had told us they’d seen it on there. They even had a billboard with Andy on it when Adult Swim was still headquartered in Atlanta. 

So, over four years of relentlessly broadcasting the same 13 episodes, Mission Hill finally built up an audience. It’s a story typical of the days of broadcast television, where a show might be a perfectly good show, but it wasn’t the right show for that network and that time slot. Mission Hill was a show that was clearly meant for cable. It was never going to get a big audience because it dealt with a very specific type of person. 

Weinstein: It was such a nice feeling of validation. It was like, “We were right, this is a good show!” It just needed to find the right audience. 

Oakley: Even with Adult Swim and the DVD release, we didn’t really know that Mission Hill had such a dedicated fan base until last year. For a couple of years, the Clinton Street Theater — which is near me in Portland, Oregon — and I had been talking about doing an event together. I thought maybe it would be something with food, but then the conversation turned to Mission Hill. In November 2022, we held an event that was very, very successful. Both Josh and I posted about it on Twitter and Instagram; then other theaters all over the country began contacting us about doing the same thing. Before long, it became a tour. 

To watch it with an audience has been thrilling — the complete opposite of watching it with all those advertising buyers. People are laughing and appreciating it. And at every show, there are at least a couple of people who come up and tell us the show had some sort of special meaning to them. Several people have told us that, before Mission Hill, they’d never seen a gay couple on TV represented like that. We’ve also had several artists and cartoonists who were inspired by Andy’s struggle as an aspiring cartoonist. 

This year we’re doing a formal tour for the 25th anniversary, which culminates in the fall with a show in Los Angeles where, hopefully, we’ll have all the original cast members reunite for an event, or maybe a table reading of one of the scripts that was never produced. It’ll be a really nice bookend to this whole thing.

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