Arts & Culture News

The Homegrown Insanity of Cyanide and Happiness Gets Its Third Season on SeeSo

The state of Colorado has South Park; Springfield, Oregon is the spiritual home of The Simpsons, according to the show's creator Matt Groening; and Richardson, Texas, has its own claim to an animated series called Cyanide and Happiness. 

The web comic, which uses big-headed stick figures as pawns in its twisted comedy experiments, has ballooned into a mini-media empire. It has spawned a line of toys, a party game funded through Kickstarter, and an animated series that will soon release its third season on streaming comedy network SeeSo

"I'm still consistently amazed we get to do this for our jobs, to get up in the morning and make funny jokes and turn those jokes into cartoons," says series creator Dave McElfatrick.

The series created by McElfatrick, Rob DenBleyker and Kris Wilson combines the sensibilities of The Far Side, Calvin & Hobbes and The Onion, exploring the absurdities of modern life while touching on art, history and politics.

"I think we've pushed the line naturally by writing what's funny to us," DenBleyker says. "We never try to offend. We just try to do what we think is funny."

According to the comic's official bio, it first came to life in Wilson's notebook when he was 15 and found himself bedridden due to a case of strep throat. Wilson continued the strip after his health improved and tried sending it to traditional print publishers but it was rejected for being too dark.

Wilson started sharing it on internet forums where it caught the eye of artists like McElfatrick and DenBleyker. Both identified with the comic's sense of humor and formed an alliance with Wilson.
"I grew up with The Far Side everyday and I think I formed my sense of humor at a young age," DenBleyker says. "It's the same with Cyanide and Happiness and The Simpsons. These weren't edgy comics or animations but they pushed boundaries by being cynical." 

McElfatrick, a native of Coleraine, Ireland, credits comedy shows like the BBC sketch series Big Train, starring a pre-Spaced Simon Pegg and Veep creator Armando Iannucci, for molding his "absurdist" sensibilities. 

"We've created our own line," McElfatrick says. "We know what we think is funny to us." 

The series made the jump to animation on YouTube, first as short films that they were able to stretch into an entire season of shows through crowdfunding.

"We were barely able to finish it under budget because with Kickstarter, it's not just production money," DenBleyker says. "It's also going to T-shirts and other trinkets that you promise to people. So we decided that instead of doing all that again, we thought we'd find a new home for it." 

SeeSo, a streaming comedy channel backed by NBCUniversal, became the most logical choice for a series that works best when network executives aren't giving notes on how to maximize the show's reach to the Midwestern market. 

"SeeSo will only give us one or two notes all the way through," DenBleyker says.

"We're not really being censored at all," McElfatrick says. "So it's basically us." 

They've also been able to expand and streamline their operations. Their new animation studio can churn out quality cartoons much more quickly than when it was just three of them, plus the occasional freelancer. DenBleyker likens their operation to South Park Studios', where the entire series is written, drawn, voiced and animated by a staff of 30-something people. DenBleyker calls his team "the life and blood of what we're doing."

"We tried to do it out of house and rely entirely on freelancers but building our own team was much more fun and the quality gets better because we're learning from each other," DenBleyker says. "It's built a team atmosphere for our animation." 

"Our team has the freedom to throw in their own ideas and if they've got something funny, they can show it to us," McElfatrick says. "It's a big melting pot. It's come full circle in a way." 

They've also expanded their art into a game under development called Joking Hazard, a fresh take on the Cards Against Humanity card game format. "It began with our random comic generator in 2014 and within a few weeks of laughing at it so hard, it started getting in the way of work," DenBleyker says. "We just one day decided to print out these cards and play with them on the table and started to see the potential of a party game emerge." 

Fans funded the game's base production budget within a half-hour of its launch on Kickstarter and raised a total of $3 million in 30 days. As of today, Joking Hazard is the sixth highest funded tabletop game project on Kickstarter. 

"Our expectations were standard," McElfatrick says of the Kickstarter fundraiser, "but they were blown out of the water."

DenBleyker and McElfatrick say they have other projects in the works that could expand the Cyanide and Happiness brand even further. They couldn't confirm any of them but when asked if a Cyanide and Happiness video game might be on the horizon, DenBleyker said they were "talking about it."

"Our business strategy is to make funny things and make them well and often," DenBleyker says. "We have a great team and infrastructure to turn our ideas into crazy things, whether it's a game, an animation or a book." 

Is there anything else in store for DenBleyker and McElfatrick and their comedy cartoon empire? 

"Rob's pregnant," McElfatrick says.