interview by insane wayne chinsang


Wayne: I know Homestar Runner started off with a book you guys put together for a few friends, titled Homestar Runner Enters The Strongest Man In The World Contest. How did it progress from there to get where it is now?

Mike: Well, the original story was from 1996. Matt was in school in Tallahassee, and I was in school in Athens. And for the next three-and-a-half years, nothing happened. It would pop up here and there; we’d write a little story or come up with an idea. Then we did that Mario Paint theme song video that’s on the site.

Matt: We did that for our older brother for Christmas one year.

Mike: We did that in ‘97 or ‘98. But, for the most part, nothing happened. We were busy in school, making movies and art and crap like that. We moved back to Atlanta at about the same time, in late 1999, and we wanted to create a project to work on together. So we chose Homestar Runner. We discovered Flash, and we were blown away by how easily you could make good-looking cartoons.

Matt: What we thought were good-looking at the time.

Mike: (laughs) Right. So that started in January of 2000. And you can find the progression from there on the site.

W: So, you both did other stuff before. Mike, you used to take photography?

Mike: Right.

W: And, Matt, you went to LSU for film?

Matt: FSU.

W: FSU. Sorry.

Mike: I went to LSU for one year.

W: Cool. That shows how good I am at researching shit.

Mike: (laughs)

W: So, do you guys still do photography and film at all, or do you just not have time for it, since Homestar Runner has totally taken over?

Matt: We don’t do it on the side. We try and incorporate the skills we learned in our schooling onto the site. But I don’t have film projects I’m working on, and Mike’s not working in a darkroom.

W: What type of photography did you used to do, Mike?

Mike: I did color stuff. The program I was in at the University of Georgia was primarily fine art oriented, as opposed to commercial--

Matt: Olan Mills studio portrait-style.

W: (laughs)

Mike: My degree was for to be an artist, not to be a professional photographer. And that’s when I dropped out of grad school. I didn’t have the desire or the skills to be a commercial photographer. I did all natural ambient light settings, used 35mm, and had 30-second exposures. So my style was not applicable to earning very much money, unless a lot of people were going to be buying my art.

W: Did you stick mainly to 35mm? I ask because my degree is in photography as well.

Mike: Oh, nice. We had to take a medium and large-format class. But the only camera I have is a 35mm. And then in graduate school I started using a lot of disposable cameras and Polaroid.

W: Yeah. Getting away from what people think photography is.

Mike: Exactly.

W: I hear ya. So did all the schooling and training prepare you for the world you’re in now? Because I went to art school, too, and then I started the paper. But I knew nothing about the business aspect of it, which I think is equally as important as the creative aspect.

Mike: Right.

W: So do you feel that what you guys got out of school prepared you for where you are now? Or did you have to learn a lot on the way?

Mike: We didn’t learn a lot of the business crap. But I definitely feel that what I learned in art school is applicable, whether or not it’s just the actual visuals: composition, colors, and crap like that. Just in making stuff that looks pretty and appealing to the eye.

Matt: Yeah. But in terms of the preparedness, we’ve just been winging it for the last three years, for the most part. Just taking stuff as it comes. We’re prepared for doing the creative stuff, sure. But in terms of the business, we’re just making it up as we go. We didn’t set out to,.. you know. It’s not like we were like, “We’re going to make a cartoon on the web so that TV people will come to us, and then we’ll pitch a cartoon.” We weren’t trying to make it something that we were going to support ourselves on either. We were just making it as a hobby. But then it was like, “Oh crap. A lot of people are buying t-shirts, so I can quit my job.” We’re definitely learning as we go. And as far as business goes, we’ve got a business dude. So we learned a lot of it peripherally. We like big, broad strokes of it, instead of the boring, meeting-type crap. Don’t give me any hand-outs. (laughs)

W: (laughs)

Matt: Our dad and our business guy both are very good at making lots and lots of spreadsheets,.. which they’ll show you.

W: (laughs) So, you guys just started off doing it for fun and just to do it, but was there any one day or time in particular when you just stopped and realized how huge it had become?

Mike: It was more of a gradual rise. I think the biggest spike came in September 2002.

Matt: Yeah. That was right when I quit my job, and it was just in time. Kids had just gotten back in school, like college and stuff, and I don’t know if it had been brewing over the summer or what, but we definitely saw a huge spike in terms of traffic to the site and selling shirts. We started getting more emails, and Strong Bad started getting more emails. So that was the biggest in terms of there being a jump. But everything else has been gradual. We just learned last month that Beck links to us on his website. So that was really fucking cool.

W: Awesome. Yeah, we interviewed Marilyn Manson last October--

Matt: (laughs) Awesome.

W: --and we were trying to do this whole Manson issue, because I had interviewed Charles Manson, which was the easier of the two interviews to get, if you can fucking believe that.

Matt: (laughs)

Mike: Of course.

W: So, thanks to a friend of mine, Cyril, we ended up doing this interview with Marilyn Manson. And he ended up putting a link to our site on his site. So I was checking the web stats everyday, and we were averaging, at the time, somewhere around 2,000 hits a day. But one day I go to check the stats and we had jumped to 40,000 in one day.

Mike: (laughs)

W: Yeah. It was crazy. So, you guys have somewhat of a pseudo-celebrity status right now, but you don’t have recognizable faces, because the characters are what’s put out there. Do you like the privacy of that? Do you like being these guys that a lot of people know about, but yet remaining faceless?

Mike: I think it’s nice, to a degree. But one of the drawbacks of it is that, up until recently, we hadn’t really met any fans face-to-face. We get emails from people, but it’s nice to meet people. Like, if you’re in a band, you’re playing in front of people, so you get to see the people and talk to them. You get to interact with them in a more real way than just email. But I don’t think if people knew what we looked like we’d have to worry about people recognizing us or anything like that. But it is nice to meet people. I don’t want to continue to be faceless and not let people know what we look like.

W: So, kind of in line with that, kind of the way (Mike) Judge is to Beavis and Butt-head, John K. is to Ren and Stimpy, or Trey and Matt are to South Park, the Brothers Chaps are to Homestar Runner. Does it bother you guys that, with anything you do after this, you’ll be referred to as the “Homestar Runner guys”?

Mike: (laughs)

Matt: At this point, no. I’m still proud of it. Actually, you know, I’ll be surprised if they call us the “Homestar Runner guys” and not the “Strong Bad guys”.

W: Yeah. That’s true.

Mike: (laughs)

Matt: I’ll welcome it if they call us the “Homestar Runner guys”. Or they might call us the “Trogdor guys”, which would be more accurate at this point. But that’s what’s cool about doing it ourselves. It’s not like it’s going to sell-out; it’s not going to be like,... A few weeks ago, me and Mike went to Target and we were in the pool toys section. And there was an entire wall of Spongebob pool toys. They had every kind of thing you could think of, and it didn’t even look like Spongebob; it just had pants and was yellow. And that’s just disgusting. And if that was out there, and people kept calling me the “Spongebob guy”, I’d probably be pissed off.

W: Exactly.

Matt: We’re always going to maintain this level of integrity. I think it is something that we’ll always be proud of, so if that’s all they remember me for, that’s cool. And, hopefully, we’ll end up doing other stuff, too. But at this point, I stand by it.

W: With that being said, you guys have made a lot of conscious decisions with the site, like no ad banners, and it doesn’t resort to swearing to get a joke across. What are the reasons behind the decisions? I mean, no one wants to say, “I want to sell-out and have my shit all over Target.” No one is going to say that, although a lot of people will do it.

Mike: (laughs)

W: But what are the reasons behind keeping the site ad-free and making it clean enough for kids to view?

Mike: The ad thing was something we decided early on. The site is a window within this black screen, so it already separates itself from your browser. And we did this to make it in its own world, and not relate it to anything else. We didn’t want any distractions, whether it was a banner ad or pop-up crap or swirling things all over the place. Once you’re there, you’re there. And you know that everything you see there, you’re supposed to be seeing.

Matt: Yeah. We don’t even link to other sites. People will come to us and say, “Oh, we linked to your site. Will you link to us on yours?” And that’s really cool, and we’re not trying to be dicks about it, but we’re just trying to keep the site as a whole experience. Once you get to Homestar land, you’re in there. And, plus, it really goes back to the state of the web, which is actually worse now, in terms of ads and crap like that. But when we first started doing it, we were looking around at other Flash cartoons back in late ‘99, and there were ads everywhere. And you couldn’t even tell what was the cartoon and what wasn’t. So we decided that if we were going to do it, we were going to do it like that. And then, in terms of the wholesomeness of it all, at the time we started, everything on the web was South Park rip-offs and gross-out shock humor.

Mike: “Look at this little cute cartoon character! It says swear words!”

Matt: Yeah. “He says ‘fuck’, and looks like a country boy!”

W: (laughs)

Matt: So we were just kind of sick of it. It’s like, South Park did it the best without ripping it off. So it was just more of a personal challenge.

Mike: It’s really just more of our style, too. It wasn’t a super hard decision to make. We probably would have been doing it like this anyway. We’ve always leaned toward the more subtle type of humor, as opposed to over-the-top.

Matt: But when we get our sketch comedy show, dude, there’s going to be so many swears!

W: (laughs) It will be so horrific. You’re going to have to make people order it on Pay-Per-View.

Matt: (laughs) Yeah. But, you know, we don’t want to upset somebody one day because they think we’re these pillars of moral,.. whatever. It’s just more challenging, personally, and a little more gratifying if you can be funny and somewhat subversive. Sort of in that Ren and Stimpy way. It’s funny, because we get emails from parents that say they love it and watch it with their kids. But we’re just as offensive; we’re just not saying those words that you can’t say on TV.

W: Do you ever get tempted to throw parents a curveball? Where they go to the site on Monday to see the new Strong Bad email, and it just happens to be “Strong Bad’s Naked Fuck-a-thon!”

Matt and Mike: (laughs)

W: “Watch as Strong Bad fucks Marzipan!”

Matt: Yeah. It’s funny because when we’re dicking around recording stuff, it’s hard to not make Strong Sad swear all the time. I’d do a little of it for you, but I have a sore throat right now. He’s the only voice I can’t do right now. So, the temptation is definitely there, but we probably wouldn’t do anything with it.

W: Yeah. You’d lose a lot of people the first day; but I guarantee that your second day would be your biggest day ever.

Matt and Mike: (laughs)

Matt: Once word got out, it would be like a big publicity stunt.

W: Yeah. People would email their friends: “This was funny before, but now he says the ‘f-word’!”

Matt: (laughs)

W: Along the lines of that, you once said in an interview that everything being created was a Star Wars parody or a South Park rip-off, and that you wanted to do the exact opposite of that. And you also said that if you could avoid putting it on TV that would be great. What are your opinions of that, and why avoid it? Because it seems like it would be perfect for television, because the humor is clean and it looks better than most of the shit that’s on TV anyway. So why the angle against television?

Mike: I think part of it, initially, is the way we write. The way we create right now, doesn’t lend itself to having it be on the air six months later. The Strong Bad emails are written and made on Sunday nights, starting at about 6PM. And then we have a marathon, 16 hour, no sleeping, drinking five Red Bulls, type of thing. So, obviously, I think the writing would change because of that. You probably wouldn’t get the spontaneity that we get.

Matt: Yeah. Like if someone said, “Okay. I need you to write a season of Homestar Runner! I need 22 episodes!” I’d just be like, “Ah,.. okay.” I’d be up shit creek. I wouldn’t know what to do.

Mike: I think we could do it.

Matt: Yeah.

Mike: I just don’t know if it would remain true to what we’ve done so far.

W: Sure.

Mike: So, there’s that. And then, it’s cool to try and do something new, too; to be involved in the Internet, which is still in its infancy. With this distribution, we can be seen by millions of people, and do it out of our two-bedroom apartment and not have to answer to anyone but ourselves. So, just to be doing something new is a big reason. I mean, I watch plenty of TV. But most of the shows that I like end up getting cancelled after one or two seasons. So I don’t really trust whatever is deciding what’s good and what’s bad on TV. I don’t trust that just because we do a good TV show, that it would survive, because of all the other crap that obviously makes a TV show successful.

Matt: Yeah. On the web, all we’ve got going for us is our content. Whereas on TV there is ad space, product placement, and all this other crap that could, potentially, make a TV show a hit. But if people are coming to the site, it’s just because we’re doing good stuff. So you’re just much more in control of it. Also, we’re making a living off of it, so why rock that boat? You know, go in development for however long, and maybe get a show, maybe not. And you have to deal with a lot of other writers coming in to dilute it. It’s just such a gross system that is set up, that no one is willing to think outside of. Or, at least, from what we’ve heard in talking to people. So why bother? We’re our own TV show. It’s so funny when fans are like, “Oh, I love it. I can’t wait for you guys to get on TV.”

Mike: Yeah. “You guys should make a real cartoon.” (laughs)

W: (laughs)

Matt: (laughs) Yeah. Okay, it’s on a smaller screen, yes. And we’re working on that. We’re trying to make a DVD of all of the stuff; so, if it’s your preference to watch it on a television screen, then we’ll provide that. But it’s just like, why? So you can watch it with a bunch of commercials and interruptions? So you have to wait all day through a bunch of crap that you don’t like just to see it?

W: Exactly.

Matt: Instead, you can get online right now, whenever you want, and watch it over and over again. It’s no contest.

W: Right. I saw this thing on 60 Minutes last night, and they brought up a good point. They were talking about how television has changed over the decades, and how an average show, an average script, in the Fifties was around 26 minutes long. And that now the average is 22 minutes, and that in the next ten years it will be somewhere around 15 minutes of content for every 15 minutes worth of ads.

Mike: Good grief.

Matt: Well, what would be even worse is if they go for the full 30 minutes of content, but every network can digitally place whatever ads they want in the background, the way they’re doing with televised baseball games right now.

W: One of the reasons I was happy to hear that you guys felt that way about putting it on television was that, what you guys do is self-contained and it’s a short thing. Whereas almost everything on TV suffers from what I call the Saturday Night Live Syndrome.

Matt and Mike: (laugh)

W: You’ve got 15 minute skits, with one joke repeated 18 times.

Mike: Right.

W: So it’s almost like it wouldn’t work as a 20 minute thing.

Mike: Yeah. If we get the joke done in 50 seconds, then it’s like, “Okay. This one is 50 seconds.” We don’t need to stretch it out into a four minute thing.

W: Right. One of the main things we’ve learned with the paper is brevity. We keep the jokes as short as possible, because that’s usually the funnier stuff.

Mike: Yeah.

W: Okay. So Strong Bad emails usually start on Sunday night, and they take around 8 hours to do the actual technical work?

Mike: They’re a lot longer, actually.

Matt: Yeah. Like 12 to 15 hours.

W: Have you guys been getting faster as you do more of them, and have you ever considering hiring someone else to help out?

Mike: We’ve got the system down pretty well now. But the Strong Bad emails have gotten longer, in terms of length and in terms of what we do with them.

Matt: The hidden stuff is more complex.

Mike: So even though we have the system down a little better, we keep adding to it. No matter when we start the email, we’re going to be working on it until about 7AM on Monday morning. Regardless of how much we got done up until Sunday night. We’ve just come to realize that we’re never going to finish the Strong Bad email on Friday afternoon, and have a nice, carefree weekend.

Matt: There have even been times when we were way ahead. Like on a Thursday evening we’d have 75% of the Strong Bad email done. But then we start adding more stuff in. We’re like, “Well, we’re usually up until 6AM on Monday morning, so why not keep working up until that point.” But if we did hire someone else it would definitely be to help us out with the animation. They’d get to make Strong Bad’s head move when he’s reading his emails, which is the most tedious, boring, banal part of designing the site.

W: So, if I forget to ask you guys any questions, I’m going to call you guys at 7:30AM on Monday.

Mike: We’re just getting into bed. (laughs)

W: (laughs) So, Matt, you handle all the voices, and, Mike, you handle the animation--

Mike: Matt does animation, too. Generally, he’ll be doing voices and I’ll be on graphics, but he does graphics, also.

Matt: Mike is a stronger fine artist. (laughs)

W: (laughs) Physically?

Mike: Yes.

Matt: (laughs)

W: He’s ripped?

Mike: I bench 210.

W: Oh! That’s hot.

Matt: I have TiVo. (laughs)

W: (laughs)

Mike: And I don’t bench 210. (laughs)

W: (laughs) Have you ever done any voices, Mike?

Mike: I have done some, yes. In the last Strong Bad email, where The Cheat makes a crazy cartoon, I did the voices for The Cheat’s crazy cartoon.

Matt: Whenever The Cheat makes cartoons, Mike does the cheap, bad impressions of my voices.

W: I read somewhere, Matt, that you said that you’ve done other voice work before, but if someone wants to hire you to do the voice of Male #1, you’re not the one to go to.

Matt: Yeah. I can’t do normal voices at all.

W: But you also said that if someone was looking for someone to do the voice of Pretend Robot Pants, you’d be the guy to go to. So I was wondering, what would Pretend Robot Pants sound like?

Mike: (laughs)

Matt: Oh geez. Ah,.. (pauses) oh, come on.

Mike: (laughs) He’s been put on the spot.

W: (laughs)

Pretend Robot Pants: Ah,.. MALFUNCTION. MALFUNCTION. PDYDPDQ. (laughs)

W: (laughs)

Matt: (TO MIKE) What was that thing?

Mike: XYZPDQ. Examine your zipper pretty darn quick.

Matt: There it is. Sorry.

W: That’s alright. Don’t worry about it. It will transcribe great.

Mike: Just put “really funny voice” in parenthesis. (laughs)

W: I won’t even put “Matt”. I’ll just have it coming from “Pretend Robot Pants”. So what other work do you guys do? I saw you did a Lou Barlow video.

Mike: Yeah.

W: Didn’t you guys just do that for fun, initially? Or was it commissioned?

Mike: We were contacted to do it.

Matt: Yeah. It was awesome. It was weird, because we had just been talking about how cool it would be if our favorite rock star would email us. And then, later that night, we got an email from The Folk Implosion’s manager. She was like, “Hi. I’m the manager for the band The Folk Implosion, and the lead singer, Lou, loves your stuff.” And then we started freaking out. So, that was awesome. They just came to us. Lou loved the “Everybody to the Limit” video; the fhqwhgads thing.

W: Yeah.

Matt: I guess he had seen that last summer and thought it was funny. So he just started emailing us drawings, and sending us CDs of his drawings, and we started animating them.

W: That’s cool. Do you guys have anything else lined up?

Matt: Not yet.

Mike: Not right now, no. But we like to do some non-Homestar stuff every once in awhile.

W: Sure. We interviewed Shepard Fairey, of Obey Giant fame, and it’s kind of cool to see how Shepard’s stuff leaks over into commercial stuff. Like, him and Dave Kinsey are responsible for the new Mountain Dew logo.

Mike: He did that? Really?

W: Yeah.

Mike: Wow. That’s great. I had no idea.

W: Yeah. So is something like that,.. I mean, of course it’s a shitload of money so of course you’d be interested in it,.. but if Coca-Cola came to you guys to animate a commercial for them, would that be something you would be interested in? Does that blur the lines between creating something and pushing a product?

Matt: With something like that, with the integrity thing, it would just come down to if it was a cool project or not.

Mike: If it was like, “Hey, for the new Harry Potter movie they’re going to be drinking Coke. And we need this little cartoon where Harry Potter and the kids are swimming in a pool of Coke, and then this dragon comes up.”

W: (laughs) Trogdor.

Mike: (laughs) Yeah. But I don’t know if that would be cool.

Matt: Right. It would be awesome if every other non-Homestar related thing would be as cool as your high school rock heroes coming to you and asking you to do a video for them. But I’d just have to take each thing as it comes. We’re not so opposed to the commercial world that we wouldn’t do stuff. It would just have to be cool.

Mike: Like if it was for Waffle House or whiffle balls.

W: So, Homestar Runner is becoming a part of the culture. Like, you guys were obviously influenced by video games, television, and movies. But your website is now becoming a part of the culture; it’s transcending, in a way. And that’s not only a sign that you guys have made an impact on society, but that you’re also influencing other art that is being created around you. Like, two nights ago I went to a show in town here. I was sitting at a table, and some guy that I don’t even know sitting at the table next to me said, “Arrowed!”

Mike: (laughs)

W: It’s just bizarre that I’m sitting in a bar, someone says, “Arrowed!”, and I know exactly what they’re talking about. Is that level of influence surprising to you guys, or did you always have a feeling that it would click?

Matt: No. It was extremely surprising.

Mike: Yeah. But it’s cool.

Matt: Like, there was this thing called Sweet Pickles--

Mike: It was a series of children’s books.

W: Yeah! And there was like a hippo and a stork, or something.

Mike: Yeah, yeah.

Matt: At the end of their commercials there was this little girl with a lisp that would say, “Sweet Pickles is gweat!” And our brother was somewhere and he heard somebody say that, and he freaked out. So, to be that kind of a thing is really, really cool. Not that you measure somebody just because they know some weird, obscure Eighties reference. But it’s always cool when someone remembers that one line from that one terrible t-and-a movie from the Eighties. So, to already be that kind of thing is cool. And I guess it helps that we have this underground feel. It’s not like a TV show, where everyone expects everyone else to know what Bart said this week.

W: Right. Okay, last question: do dogs have lips.

Mike: I say yes.

W: Why?

Mike: (laughs) Um,...

W: There’s no right answer here, so you could totally say anything.

Mike: Well, what else would you call that thing that flaps in the wind when they put their head out the window?

W: That’s what I say, too.

Mike: That’s their lips.

W: Matt, what do you think?

Matt: I think I’m going with no lips. Because they can stick out their tongues, but they can’t go flphhhhtt! I think that’s an important thing to do. I think that’s an important way to express that you have lips.

W: (laughs)

Matt: I mean, monkeys can do it. Monkeys can definitely make fart noises. But dogs can’t make fart noises.

W: Someone said they couldn’t sip a drink through a straw, so that’s why they don’t have lips.

Mike: But that just might mean that the muscles around their lips are,.. you know.

W: Well, someone said that they don’t think they even have muscles in their lips. And I think that person is full of shit. (laughs)

Matt: (laughs)

W: So, what does Strong Bad think about dogs having lips?

Matt: Um,.. hang on a second. (pauses)

Mike: He has to get into costume.

W: He’s got to put on a mask?

Mike: Yeah. (laughs)

W: (laughs)

Matt: (long pause, quietly) Bhaa,...

Strong Bad: Dogs have lips, huh?

W: Yeah. Do they?

Strong Bad: Um,.. what,.. I don’t know, man. Does The Cheat have lips?

W: I wouldn’t think so. But is The Cheat a dog?

Strong Bad: Ah,.. he’s half,.. I don’t know.

W: (laughing) What is The Cheat?

Strong Bad: He’s The Cheat, man. He’s got,.. that’s all he’s got going for him. He’s The Cheat.

W: So, the question then is, does The Cheat have lips?

Strong Bad: I’ve turned the question into my own question, at this point. And the answer is, The Cheat has a gold toof.

W: (laughs)

Mike: (laughs)

W: Well, thank you very much for answering that.

Strong Bad: Thanks for your time.

W: Hey, no problem. Now give the phone back to Matt.

Strong Bad: Okay.

W: (laughs) Well, that’s about it. Thanks a lot guys.

Mike: Thank you.

W: Keep up the good work. Everybody here loves it.

Matt: You guys, too.

W: Hey, thanks a lot.

Mike: I felt good about this interview. I usually don’t.

W: Really?

Matt: Yeah. And Mike is usually like--

Mike: I’m usually like, “God, I wish I,...” But we had an actual conversation, as opposed to just answering boring questions.

Matt: “Where do you guys get your inspiration?”

Mike: Right. “Where does all your stuff come from?”

W: “What’s in your CD player right now?”

Matt: (laughs) We got one of those in an interview, and we just told them that our upstairs neighbor had been cranking the new Flaming Lips, so we’ve just been listening to it through the ceiling.

W: (laughs)

Mike: And all we can hear is the bass.

W: (laughs) You know, I downloaded the Satanic Ritual that Anton LaVey did, which is, basically, him chanting for a half-hour. So, I burned it to a CD and like to play it really loud to freak out my neighbors. If I were ever asked that question, I think that’s what I’d say.

Matt: There ya go. A little Anton LaVey.