Weekly Wire
Austin Chronicle Over Hill and Dale

By J.C. Shakespeare

July 21, 1997:  We're sitting in Mike Judge's office on MLK, waiting for the phone to ring. I'm hanging with Johnny Hardwick, the former Austin comic who plays Dale, the conspiracy nut, on Fox's wildly popular animated show, King of the Hill. Hardwick, who now resides in Venice Beach, California, is taking a few days off from the frantic pace of network television and kicking back in Austin. Today, however, he's scheduled to do a "table-read," which is a final rehearsal before a script is actually recorded. The read is scheduled for noon, but comedian Paul Rodriguez (a guest voice on this episode) is running late. Judge, who created King of the Hill with Greg Daniels, is waiting in Fox's L.A. studio with the rest of the KOTH cast.

While Hardwick thumbs through his script, laughing out loud every few seconds, I peruse the inner sanctum of the man who first breathed life into Beavis and Butt-head. The walls are lined with color animation stills of teen-aged America's favorite role models, their hyperactive hijinks frozen in time. Piles of folders litter the floor. The top folder on one stack reads, "New skin color variations and close-up head samples for color xeroxes." Uh, huh-huh, like, cool! Finally, the phone rings and everyone greets Johnny. Toby Huss, who plays Hank's Asian neighbor Khan, announces that he's in Iowa. "My sister's getting married."

A voice on the line pipes up, "Who's she marrying, your brother?"

A huge swell of laughter erupts over the phone. There must be 20 people in the studio. Hardwick later explains that the network sends a bunch of people to the table-reads to act as joke barometers. If certain parts of the script fail to get laughs, they are usually reworked before the final version is recorded.

Things settle down and the read begins. This particular episode focuses on a Hill family vacation in Mexico. Much of the humor is based on typical American misconceptions about foreign countries. "How are you supposed to relax," moans Hank, "when you don't know how much anything costs or weighs?"

Hank Hill (played by Judge) is a sort of Everydad, obtuse but lovable, anal-retentive about the most inconsequential details. He measures his grass when he's finished mowing it to make sure it's perfectly symmetrical; after all, neighborhood competition in the lawn department is fierce and unforgiving. Every tool has its proper place, and Hank suffers greatly whenever his orderly world is disrupted. His simple family and quirky neighbors present constant challenges to his intricate organization, and therein lie the conflicts and foibles that make up life in the little town of Arlen, Texas.

photograph by Minh

Part of the ironic genius of the show is the accuracy and truth of the writing, which renders the cartoon characters more life-like and real than most of the actors on regular sitcoms. We laugh at the familiar, and everyone knows family members or neighbors like the citizens of Arlen. But what really makes this sharp-edged suburban satire work is the empathy one feels for the characters. Even when you're laughing at Hank Hill, somehow you're laughing with him as well.

Johnny and I take a late lunch after the table-read. I'm delighted to observe that Hollywood hasn't changed Hardwick at all. Dressed in jeans, T-shirt, and faded Chuck Taylors, he's the same old Austin slacker I met when I first started doing comedy at the Velveeta. Johnny's a soft-spoken guy, quick to smile, with a mischievous gleam in his eyes and crow's feet wrinkles that permanently mark a man who spends his life laughing.

"Thank god I work on King of the Hill," he says, "because everybody on the show is pretty well grounded in reality. Out in L.A. everybody's ego-driven; all they talk about is show biz. It's great working with Mike and Greg because they aren't your typical ego-driven, maniacal, grotesque Hollywood monsters." (I found proof of this statement in Mike Judge's bathroom; his platinum album for The Beavis and Butt-head Experience is ceremoniously hung above the crapper!)

Hardwick's laid-back attitude and ability to keep an even keel are a large part of his success. Though it's been less than 10 years since he told his first joke on stage at the Dallas Improv, Hardwick has accomplished more than most comics dream of in a lifetime. Along with local comics Laura House, Howard Kremer, and Chip, Hardwick was tapped by MTV to star in Austin Stories. That was three years ago, and when the show seemed to falter and die, Hardwick kept rolling without looking back. (Incidentally, MTV's Austin Stories is in full swing production here in town. Look for the first episode to air in September.)

A showcase at the Velveeta landed Hardwick a berth at the prestigious Montreal comedy festival in 1995. Brandon Tartikoff of NBC saw Hardwick there and absolutely loved his stuff. Tartikoff offered him a development deal and, once again, it appeared that Hardwick's ship had come in.

"We had like one meeting, and Tartikoff says, `We're so excited; we're going to build a sitcom around you. What kind of show do you see, what do you like?' And I said, `Green Acres and Get A Life, the Chris Elliott show.' And that was the only meeting they ever had with me. I'm not sure they were impressed with my choices!"

Though Hardwick's NBC sitcom never happened, he did sign with the high-profile Strauss-McGarr agency, the same agency that represented the legendary Bill Hicks in the latter part of his career. Duncan Strauss and Colleen McGarr kept Hardwick busy after Montreal, and he shuttled back and forth between Austin and Los Angeles. The constant standup showcases eventually paid off.

"I was doing a set at the Laff Factory in L.A. and Greg Daniels saw me. I was talking about my dad yelling about the air conditioning, `Shut the door! You're air conditioning the entire state of Texas!' Apparently that reminded him of Hank Hill.

"I remember he showed me his diary from when he saw me. It said, `Johnny Hardwick,' and scribbled next to it, `Obviously not his real name.' I guess he thought I was trying to be a porn star or something."

"So they asked you to be on the show?"

"Well, they hired me as a writer. I was [in L.A.] interviewing with Greg and he said, `Okay, you've got the job. When can you be out here?' and I said, `When do you want me out here?' `Five days?' So I drove my truck back here, which was a two-day process, and packed up everything I could fit in my truck and gave the rest away, and drove back out there. I literally started work there the day my development deal with Brandon Tartikoff ended. I had had a nine-month development deal which, if they had picked up the option, would have prevented me from doing King of the Hill."

Hardwick is a firm believer in the notion that everything happens for a reason. Not content to merely write for the show, he decided to try for an acting role. "Mike had written a pilot and I really liked the character Dale, because I had, like, a UFO Web page and everything. I thought, hey, that guy's pretty cool. It was a rather grueling audition process. It took about three weeks and they looked at 53 people. The first time I didn't really have it. I told the casting director, Julie Mossberg, `Ah, that wasn't quite it.' So I went home and got the picture of Dale and just started staring at it. He sort of reminded me of William S. Burroughs, actually. So I listened to some William S. Burroughs. One thing that's good is that I'm really lousy at impressions so I can just do my impression of someone and it sounds like a completely made-up character. They called me back a few times and I ended up getting the part."

Because he plays a dual role of writer and actor, Hardwick rarely gets a break from the show. The complexities of animation require eight or nine months of preparation for each episode, so the cast and crew must work at a feverish pace to fulfill their 24 shows-per-season contract. Just getting a script written and recorded is an epic journey. Story ideas are formulated and pitched to Judge or Daniels, who must then pitch the ideas to the network. Once an idea is approved, the team of 12-15 writers goes to work. Round after round of writing, editing, revising, and jokes, jokes, jokes, go into each script. The table-read is the final test for a script. After the table-read, the team has only a couple of days for last-minute revisions before recording begins.

"The way we record the show is like an old radio show. It's in the basement of the Zanuck theater and they put seven or eight mikes in a semicircle and we record the show scene by scene. There's a lot of back and forth between the actors, almost like a radio play. That part is really fun. Everyone in the cast is just great, real fun to work with."

But the recording, as Hardwick explains, is just the beginning. "Once it's recorded and edited together, they send it to Film Roman where they put together an `animatic,' which is a kind of line drawing version of the episode. It's real crude, but it's done according to the soundtrack. Then they send the animatic off to Korea where they turn it into a color movie."

"Korea!" I blurt. "What, they have little
12-year-old kids in sweatshops coloring in frames?"

Hardwick laughs and screams into the tape recorder, "No! No! Nothing like that! Of course not! This is not a Kathie Lee Gifford situation here!

"Actually, it's some place they found for The Simpsons. They're just very skilled at the process. But they're not always perfect when they come back. Sometimes there are communication problems where the wrong character is saying lines or something."

When that happens, last-minute edits and things can be taken care of in L.A. But the length of time between a finished script and a finished product presents problems for the writers. "Like three weeks ago we recorded the Valentine's Day show," Hardwick says. "You can't do really juicy, topical humor because it will be old by the time the show airs."

King of the Hill fans can look for a killer season in the fall. Hardwick penned an episode in which the members of Green Day will be playing a garage band that moves into a house near the Hills; an all-out paintball war ensues. Other episodes will feature guest stars like Burt Reynolds, John Ritter, and Olympic hero Kerri Strug. And be sure not to miss Chris Rock's appearance as a "def" defensive driving instructor: "His name was supposed to be Busta Nut, but we ended up having to call him Booty Sack. The network censors said that `Busta Nut' was an `urban term for ejaculation.'" Censors never sleep.

Hardwick says he misses the Austin lifestyle, but the success of King of the Hill will probably keep him in California for quite some time. When you combine the talents of Judge and Daniels, a stellar cast and writing team, and a time slot between The Simpsons and The X-Files, there's not a lot that can push you off the top of the hill. Besides, Hardwick has noticed nefarious elements creeping into Austin.

"When I moved here I could rollerblade down Sixth Street with a beer in my hand that I had bought out of a window for a dollar, smoking a joint, it was great. Now all of those things are illegal! And the bike helmet law is total fascism! I mean, a $50 fine for riding without a helmet? That's more than a helmet costs. The punishment doesn't fit the crime."

No, Dale, it doesn't. In fact, it sounds like a damn conspiracy!

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