Phil Lord and Chris Miller: TV Is Finally "Weird Enough" for Fox's 'Son of Zorn'

"In general, our philosophy about TV is that the marketplace is ready for stuff that is unique and specific and somewhat weird."
FOX; Ben A. Pruchnie/Getty Images
'Son of Zorn'; inset: Chris Miller (left), Phil Lord

Phil Lord and Chris Miller have multiple Lego films in the works, another 21 Jump Street sequel and, as they prepare for the Star Wars Han Solo stand-alone film, they are busy making their mark with a few more shows on broadcast television. 

The prolific producing duo has plans to send Adam Pally back in time for Fox's midseason comedy Making History, but first up is Son of Zorn, a hybrid live-action/animated family comedy starring Jason Sudeikis set to bow Sunday with a special preview on Fox. 

Sudeikis voices Zorn in Son of Zorn, which follows a fish-out-of-water father who returns home after years away to reconnect with his ex-wife (Cheryl Hines) and son (Johnny Pemberton). Zorn is the Defender of Zephyria, an island in the Pacific Ocean where everything is animated (Lord and Miller compare it to Darfur: People "don’t really know anything about it but they act like they do"). Zorn finds himself adapting to suburban life in Orange County, Calif., settling down in an apartment, holding down a cubicle job for a no-nonsense boss (Artemis Pebdani) and even trying to get along with his ex-wife’s new fiance (Tim Meadows).

The hybrid comedy, which has been a long time in the making for Lord and Miller, joins an animated lineup on Fox that also includes The Simpsons, Bob’s Burgers and Family Guy. Wilfred’s Reed Agnew and Eli Jorne co-created the show and co-wrote the pilot, which was directed by Eric Appel, and Sally Bradford McKenna (The Grinder) serves as showrunner.

The Hollywood Reporter caught up with Lord and Miller — who have an overall deal at Zorn producers 20th Century Fox TV — to discuss the origins of the show, when the animated character is at his best (“It’s really funny to watch him just try to open up a bag of Doritos”) and the show’s all-star comedy lineup (“Tim Meadows can say the phonebook and I’m scream-laughing for some reason”).

After your experience in both live action and animation, what inspired you to combine them for a show like Son of Zorn

Lord: On the first few months of this Fox deal, the guys [at the studio] there were really excited about doing a hybrid show. I think somebody there liked the idea of making a version of Ted but a TV show. So we thought about a hybrid-ized family and what it would be like if you were the son of somebody who was animated and what that might feel like, and then it started to feel like something worth doing. We started thinking about the worst possible dad you could have. How could he be as big a misfit as possible? So that was it, and we had great partners to make our crummy ideas actually decent.

You previously created the animated comedy Clone High. What lessons did you take from shows like that, but also The Last Man on Earth and The Lego Movie in creating Son of Zorn

Miller: It is sort of Clone High meets Last Man on Earth in a weird way. In general, our philosophy about TV is that the marketplace is ready for stuff that is unique and specific and somewhat weird. And I feel like there are so many TV shows that have existed throughout time that you can access now, to make something that feels like it hasn’t been done before is exciting. There was a time where doing a generic sitcom was the plan, but now, the marketplace is weird enough for our personal taste.

How do you see Son of Zorn fitting into the world of family comedies? Are there any family comedies you’re fans of that you take inspiration from? 

Lord: It’s well-trod territory where much smarter guys than us have done a great job. For us it was a neat way to talk about divorced families, because it’s hard to make that funny. This seemed like a way to do it and have it not be a drag. The ironic thing is this very crazy show seems to work best when it’s as grounded as possible. It’s really funny to watch him just try to open up a bag of Doritos. When the stories are about real, observable family behavior and relationships, it just seems to be a lot better. When it’s at its best, the animated stuff is really heightening something we recognize.

Miller: The dynamic of the outrageousness of his world and the things that happen in his world and the down-to-earth reality of our world, that’s what provides the tension of the show. He has a lot of weird magical implements and odd barbarian traditions that work their way into the story, so it’s always trying to balance a sort of ridiculousness with observable minutiae.

What about the other animated comedies Son of Zorn is joining on the Fox lineup (The Simpsons, Family Guy, etc.)? 

Miller: We really love all those shows in the Fox animated world. Growing up on The Simpsons, I learned how to write comedy from finding a voice that was even a quarter as funny as that show. That’s the foundation of everything we believe in, so it’s pretty great to be connected with that. I think it fits in pretty well.

What is the relationship between the live-action world and Zorn’s animated home world? Do you envision the show moving into his animated world for any period of time?  

Chris Miller: He’s often Facetiming throughout, and other characters from Zephyria come to visit. The idea is basically that it’s an island nation that is just really weird, but you can fly there in an airplane. People treat it as though it were a war-torn nation like Darfur — they don’t really know anything about it but they act like they do.

How did Jason Sudeikis (who also appears on The Last Man on Earth) get involved with the show?

Lord: We begged him. It’s not a very sexy story, but we basically listened to a whole lot of voices and looked at the drawing of Zorn, and tried to figure out which one sounded the best, and if we could find a great voice that also embodied the positive outlook of the guy, then it’s a home run. And Jason is a really funny person. He’s got a really interesting voice for animation, and he’s really likeable even when he’s playing characters that are horrible people. We needed a guy where you thought to yourself, "Oh, he doesn’t mean it," or "He’s just not understanding the situation and if he did he would do the right thing." There’s a way to play that character really mean or really arch, but he’s able to make everything feel real and down to earth. He’s a Midwestern guy, he’s got this 'Aw shucks' way of saying things, which is really critical. 

You have a busy few years coming up with the Han Solo Star Wars film, not to mention the Lego Movie follow-ups. How does that affect the scheduling of Last Man on Earth and Son of Zorn? How hands-on are you with all of these projects? 

Lord: The fantasy is that we are completely obsolete and don’t have to do anything. We try to be really involved in the early goings because that’s where you discover what the show is. You can’t figure it all out on the pilot — you’re building a machine to continuously crank out creativity and there’s a lot of tweaking that has to happen and we try to be as supportive as we can as early as we can. With Last Man, at this point it is what it is, and those guys run with it. We thankfully are mostly spectators at this point and it’s great. That show has figured itself out. Zorn was a bit of elbow grease, just discovering what the show needed and wanted to be.

Miller: For Making History, we’re a little more hands-on because it’s the first season, but because we’re far away it really comes down to these great voices behind the shows. The joy of producing, if there is any joy in producing, is that you get to watch people that you admire work and you get to reflect back to them what is inspiring to you about their work. And then hopefully just enjoy the spoils.

Son of Zorn previews its first episode on Sunday at 8 p.m. ET/PT on Fox, and premieres on Sept. 25. 

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