Like the long-lost twins in a Gen-Y remake of “The Corsican Brothers,” Phil Lord and Chris Miller, the 26-year-old co-creators of MTV’s animated series “Clone High USA,” were destined to find each other. They play off each other’s thoughts and finish each other’s sentences with a barely contained energy that recalls their caffeine-fueled days at Dartmouth College.
Lord and Miller look less like industry “show runners” than students at their fictional school (yes, it’s called Clone High), where the cloned descendants of such historical figures as Abraham Lincoln, Joan of Arc and John F. Kennedy work through angst, acne and alienation.
Like their characters, the two men dress in jeans and T-shirts that emphasize their almost adolescent thinness. Lord has exuberantly curly hair and glasses; shorter hair and a cleft chin give Miller a marginally more respectable look.
They speak with a class clown’s rapid-fire pace, and listening to them discuss their work can leave a visitor feeling like a spectator at a high-speed pingpong match.
During their freshman year at Dartmouth, Miller convinced Lord they should take the introductory animation course together. As the film department had only minimal equipment, the artists were forced to invent and improvise. The two self-described control freaks found the grueling process curiously satisfying. That desire for control and “self-hatred, clear and simple,” led them to continue making films and change their majors to animation. Miller recalls, “Staying up 50 nights in a row, having hand cramps and dropping in a corner in a fetal position when we’d finally finished shooting was so much fun, we thought, ‘Why don’t we do this professionally?’ ”
After graduating in 1997, Lord and Miller signed a development deal with Walt Disney Co. When their ideas for Saturday morning programs were deemed “too hot,” they moved to Disney’s Touchstone television division, where they wrote for the sitcoms “Zoe” (WB) and “Go Fish” (NBC). They came up with the idea for “Clone High” at Touchstone.
“Inspiration can strike at any moment -- in the car, in the shower, whatever,” says Lord. “The idea for this show struck us while we were in our offices, trying to think of ideas for television shows.” Miller continues: “Touchstone was making this ABC sketch comedy that never happened, and they wanted us to do little animated spots for it. We were supposed to come up with sketch ideas, and ‘Clone High’ was one of the ideas. We realized it was much more than a sketch idea, that it had a lot of depth to it.”
The teen comedy centers on the youthful clones of five famous figures; these present-day versions, with one notable exception, embody some aspect of the originals’ personalities. Kennedy (Miller) is a randy jock; Lincoln (Will Forte), a well-intentioned, somewhat oblivious straight shooter. School goth Joan of Arc (Nicole Sullivan) nurtures a crush on Lincoln -- who’s smitten with the manipulative Cleopatra (Christa Miller-Lawrence). The one character who seems to bear no resemblance to his historical originator is Mohandas Gandhi (Michael McDonald), an eager but unsuccessful party dude. Principal Cinnamon J. Scudworth (Lord) rides herd on his unruly charges.
“We chose these characters because they’re sort of mythic figures,” Miller explains. “Even people with a very limited knowledge of history have some preconceived ideas about them, which is part of the fun.” Lord adds, “The point of the whole show is that these people are not living up to their genetic forebears.”
The flat designs of the characters and the limited, staccato animation recall “Samurai Jack,” a show Lord and Miller praise. “We like the snappy pose-to-pose animation, more for reasons of comic timing than anything else,” explains Miller. “Things that aren’t expected are funnier: If an anvil’s going to fall on your head, it had better not take more than three seconds. That’s why we like the quick pose-to-pose stuff. For scenes with more emotional content, the characters move a little slower and more fluidly.”
“But we never want the viewer to be paying attention to the animation, because it’s there to serve the jokes and the story,” adds Lord. “We strip out extraneous movements, because we don’t want to draw your eye to anything that’s not part of a joke.”
Although “Clone High” is reportedly budgeted at a relatively lavish $750,000 per half-hour (about three times the price of a half-hour Saturday morning cartoon), the limited animation and often outrageous humor demand strong vocal performances. Will Forte’s ingenuous Abraham Lincoln and Nicole Sullivan’s resigned Joan of Arc steal the show. Forte, who recently joined the cast of “Saturday Night Live,” is a newcomer to animation; Sullivan is a well-respected voice actor.
“Will’s voice has a lot of character, and he has great comic timing. He brings a lot of heart to the character of Lincoln, and Lincoln cares deeply about a lot of things that don’t really matter -- like a lot of teenagers,” says Miller. “We gave Nicole a character with a dark personality, but with a crush on Abe. She brings a lot of emotion to every line and people really relate to her: ‘Oh, she’s just like me!’ ”
“The character we wrote was very dark and didn’t necessarily have the heart that Nicole brings to the role,” adds Lord. “She’s made Joan the emotional center of the whole show.”
“Clone High” debuted Jan. 20 to considerable media fanfare. The show has already generated international attention: MTV apologized in response to complaints from a group of Indian lawyers about the depiction of Gandhi. Miller and Lord are enjoying much of the attention, but the need for control remains unsatisfied.
Lord complains, “You can’t control anything: That’s the weird paradox of animation. You’re trying to control everything, but there are 200 people working on the show and you have no control, really.”
“Even though you look over every design for a coffee mug and attach Post-its saying, ‘No, the handle shouldn’t look like that,’ at the end of the day, it gets redrawn 100 times and gets colored incorrectly,” agrees Miller.
Lord concludes with a sigh, “You can’t overestimate how many things can go wrong in television animation production, and how much of a challenge it is for two really obsessive people to rein them all in and make things turn out OK.”
‘Clone High USA’
When: 10:30 p.m. Mondays
Rating: The network has rated it TV-14 (may be unsuitable for children under the age of 14).