Hell is an empty blue room in a large warehouse somewhere on the outskirts of Atlanta. At least it is after the movie magic’s had its way with it. I’m on the set of Your Pretty Face is Going to Hell, the absurd Grand Guignol of a sitcom from Dave Willis and Chris “Casper” Kelly that begins its latest season on Adult Swim this Sunday, to see how the show comes together. Set in the corporate offices of Hell, Your Pretty Face uses copious amounts of CGI to create its fire and blood filled world, and without this blue-screen room that would never be possible. There’s a good chance that the backdrop of almost every scene this season will exist entirely in a computer, grafted onto the blue-covered walls and floors that currently surround me.
On the eve of its third season, Your Pretty Face is Going to Hell stands as a prototypical Adult Swim show. It’s short. It’s surreal. It uses a strongly defined concept and setting as a vehicle for broad, often shocking humor. It’s a cult show on a network built on cult shows, a basic cable powerhouse whose brand and identity are, like HBO, MTV and the broadcast networks, more valuable and significant than any of its actual programs. For its cast and creators, its nightmarish world is basically a dream—despite working in this industry for years (decades, in some cases) they all seem surprised that they get paid to make a show that’s equal parts Mad Magazine, heavy metal album cover, and Hieronymous Bosch.
I visited the set in the summer, arriving right as actor Craig Rowin was settling in for his daily makeup application. The process takes about 40 minutes, with Rowin sitting still in a chair as Shane Morton, Your Pretty Face’s head makeup and special effects artist and the owner of Silver Scream FX Lab in Atlanta, and his assistant Kyle Yaklin spray a red, oil-based paint over Rowin’s arms, face and neck. Rowin can’t eat, can’t really read, can’t diddle with his phone while it’s happening: he just sits there and gets painted.
“The worst thing is taking it off,” says Rowin, who plays the demon intern Claude Vernon. “By far. These guys are great at… putting it on is not a problem, I’m totally fine with it. But then at the end of the day when you just want to go home after 10 or 12 hours of shooting and then you have to slather yourself with shaving cream…”
“And alcohol,” Morton interjects.
“And alcohol, and get in the shower, that’s not the fun thing,” Rowin continues. “That takes about 45 minutes to an hour too. About the same amount of time.”
If you wear anything long enough you get used to it. That’s as true for heavy amounts of red make-up and rubber horns as it is the Statue of Liberty dress worn by roadside sign-dancers at tax season. “Once you’re in a scene you don’t even think about it,” Rowin explains. “All I do is make sure the horns aren’t slipping right before the cameras start rolling. I’m used to it. Just when you’re off set and you want to take a nap, that’s when it gets… when you’re like ‘I can’t scratch my face’, it’s unnatural. When they [spray] you in the ear, that’s when you start to shiver.”
Morton’s been working in makeup and practical effects for years. He’s seen every possible reaction. “Some people can’t stand it,” he says, as he applies a small lattice of veins on top of Rowin’s paint job. “Some people are pretty good with it. Some people really fight it. We’ve got this one guy on the show who the whole time is trying to get away while we’re doing his makeup.”
As I’m talking to Rowin about Your Pretty Face, Morton and Yaklin have a conversation in the background about a recent guest star who ran into some trouble with the TSA on his way home.
Shane Morton: So Dustin got flagged at the airport.
Kyle Yaklin: Why?
Morton: For the monsters that live in his suitcase.
Yaklin: The monsters…?
Morton: Yeah, I gave him a monster puppet that he liked when he came to the shop, and one of the Necronomicons.
Yaklin: Aw, man.
Morton: Nah, it was alright.
Yaklin: He got through fine?
Morton: Yeah he was alright. He thinks they recognized him too.
The Dustin in question is Dustin Diamond. “Dustin Diamond is our number one fan,” Rowin says with no discernible emotion.
Morton also designs the horns and other prosthetics used to turn normal-looking human actors into slightly less human-looking actors with horns and prosthetics on. You can’t just slap some rubber horns on a forehead and call it a day. You have to consider the character and their nature and what they represent for the show, and come up with something that contributes to that overall effect. For Rowin’s character, Morton says, “I wanted these sharp, antelope-style kind of speedy antlers ‘cuz he’s skinny and the sharp go-getter. I wanted him to be sleek, like a gazelle. And Henry [Zebrowski, who plays the show’s lead character, Gary], he’s got this kind of sloppy thing going on.”
Henry Zebrowski, who entered the room in full makeup and wardrobe a few minutes earlier, pipes in, and the two start to banter back and forth.
Henry Zebrowski: “The silly one.”
Shane Morton: “He’s silly.”
Zebrowski : [adopting something that sounds like a Mrs. Doubtfire voice] “The naughty one.”
Morton: “So yeah, every person’s horns go with their personality. Even the background guys. We spent probably too much time thinking about it.”
Zebrowski: “They wanted to do a lot of glue and ridges on our foreheads. It was warped.”
Morton: “It was over the top.”
Craig Rowin: “This is just simple. It’s funnier this way.”
Zebrowski: “We can talk now.”
Morton: “There’s something elegant about this.”
Zebrowski takes the floor, recounting the moment he realized he wouldn’t just be throwing on different clothes and hopping in front of a camera for this show. “When I got the job, I was like, awesome, this is great, I’ve always wanted to work with [Your Pretty Face in Hell and Aqua Teen Hunger Force co-creator] Dave Willis,” Zebrowksi says. “I look up to him. Aqua Teen is what made me a comedian, I can’t wait. And I show up to Atlanta and he’s like ‘okay, you’re going to need to shave your chest and we’ll paint you red’ and I was like ‘what?!?’ Because it was an office comedy. I just thought I was going to dress up in suits and shit. And then before I met anybody else I met Shane and [makeup artist] Chris [Brown], and like literally they just started gluing stuff to me.”
“They were not very clear with what we were getting into,” Rowin concurs.
“What I find interesting is this is the first time I learned the show business lesson that you don’t tell people stuff until it’s too late,” Zebrowski says. “That’s how you get things done. This was the first time I experienced that and then you learn that’s just how it’s always done.”
Zebrowski had a handful of minor TV and movie roles before getting cast in Your Pretty Face, and was known in the New York comedy scene for his work with the sketch group Murderfist. Your Pretty Face was his first starring role in a series, and it came through right before an eclectic variety of roles were offered to him. If you think you recognize him, it might be from the short-lived NBC sitcom A to Z, or the miniseries Heroes Reborn: Dark Matters, or from playing the Jack Warden role in Inside Amy Schumer’s 12 Angry Men parody. Or maybe it’s from his role in a little movie called The Wolf of Wall Street, where he was one of Jordan Belfort’s gaggle of stock brokers who looked like sitcom character actors.
“It’s been real weird,” Zebrowski says, while walking towards the set for his next scene. “A lot of stuff happened that I never expected to happen, and then I found out that’s all acting careers.”
Zebrowski’s first love was sketch comedy. He co-founded Murderfirst at Florida State University in Tallahassee before moving to New York in 2006. They did live shows and made some videos for various websites, including College Humor. All along Zebrowski hoped to make it on Saturday Night Live.”I tested for SNL, did all of that stuff,” he says, “and when it didn’t happen, essentially all of my agents and managers were like ‘We don’t know what you’re going to do. With your life.’ Yeah, I don’t have any skills.”
If you’ve read anything about the auditioning process for Saturday Night Live, you probably know it’s maybe the least conducive atmosphere for comedy ever designed by man. “It is purposefully a psychological torture,” Zebrowski says. “It’s made to break you. Because Lorne Michaels has a thing about people handling pressure. It’s late at night, you wait for hours, I was stuck in a tiny green room waiting to go on, and as I was walking on stage to do my audition they said ‘Stop! Lorne wants to take a break.’ And I just sat for an hour, literally on deck. I thought I was going to throw up. That was 2010. I was green. Too green for it.”
That’s probably for the best, Zebrowski thinks today. If he had impressed Lorne Michaels enough to get a job, he would have missed out on what he calls “the two things that ended up being the key to who I am.”
“I got this show and Wolf of Wall Street in the same month and it changed my life,” he says. “Your Pretty Face is pretty much all I can ask for as a comedic outlet. I ended up meeting Dave Willis and Chris Kelly who wound up becoming like mentors to me. It’s just the show I’ve always wanted to be doing. If I was doing Saturday Night Live and I saw this show I’d be like ‘I want to do that show.’”
By all accounts it was a perfect marriage from the start. Zebrowski’s sketch troupe Murderfist was known for its gleeful celebration of bad taste—watch Zebrowski’s episode of the Netflix anthology The Characters, which is basically a Murderfirst show, for proof. Much of Your Pretty Face’s humor comes from the violence and torture inflicted upon poor souls in Hell. Think jokes about pain, dissection, genital mutilation, the occasional bit of shit-eating, etc. Last year, during a tour of Your Pretty Face shooting locations around Atlanta, I was basically forced to watch an extended montage of Zebrowski’s character Gary happily eating realistic-looking shit that was being constantly dropped into a toilet bowl he was trapped in. Zebrowski gobbled up every piece (they were actually brownies), delivering a different ad libbed comment after each bite. That enthusiasm shines through in almost every scene he’s in.
“I’m sort of in-between a sadomasochist and exhibitionist so I will do a lot of stuff for laughs,” Zebrowski admits. “I always have. They accidentally hired a guy who’s been doing this kind of stuff for years. My sketch group, Murderfirst, was kind of an extreme sketch group. We did shows inside of a U-Haul truck. I’ve been covered with blood countless times. I’ve done nude comedy. I’ve done a lot of different stuff. The more you torture Gary [his character] the funnier it gets. The more physical discomfort I’m in, technically, makes it easier for me to play the torture.”
“Also you like eating shit,” Morton adds.
“That’s the long answer,” Rowin says. “The short answer is Henry eats shit.”
“It’s fun to have these challenges,” Zebrowski says. “As an actor—a quote-unquote ‘actor’ (you can put that in quotes)—as a performer, if I saw somebody else doing this role on television I’d be incredibly jealous. I’d kill them in their sleep and take this part from them.”
During our conversation Zebrowski mentions more than once how much he loves working with Willis and Kelly, and how much Willis’s earlier shows at Adult Swim meant to his own development as a comedian. That love isn’t a one-way street: Willis and Kelly both agree that Zebrowski was a perfect fit for their show from the very first time they saw him.
“When we got the auditions I just clicked on Henry’s name first because he’s got such a Mad Magazine name, Henry Zebrowski,” Willis says. “And I was like, ‘Oh my god, this audition is so good, I hope they’re all this good.’ And they weren’t! His was the only one that was that good.”
“Henry loves improv so much,” Kelly says. “Even when it’s a close-up of the other person and he’s just there for a sightline or for them to act to, he’ll just improv like crazy when he’s not even on camera.”
“It’s great that he puts us just above Martin Scorsese as somebody who’s done something for his career,” Willis says. “We almost lost him to Scorsese when we first cast him. He got cast in Wolf of Wall Street. Our casting agent was like ‘you’re going to lose him to who? Martin Scorsese? Henry!?!’”
When visiting its set and interviewing its major players, it becomes clear that almost everybody involved with Your Pretty Face is, if not on exactly the same page, at least just a page or two away from each other. Willis, Kelly and their writers have presented a consistent, uniform and unique comedic vision from the very first episode. Zebrowski and Rowin, who’s mostly a comedy writer and not an actor, regularly improvise lines that fit what the writers are aiming for. Matt Servitto, the former Sopranos and Banshee star who plays Satan, is able to embrace the show’s edgy absurdity without sacrificing his thespian gravitas. Shane Morton and Chris Brown’s makeup and latex creations add a Creature Feature vibe that helps reinforce the show’s slightly seedy aesthetic. It’s a job for all of them, but none of them make it seem like work. Maybe that shouldn’t be a surprise from the cast and crew of a show that directly equates office jobs with the eternal damnation of Hell.
Several feet away from the blue room that plays Hell on TV stands half of a respectable suburban house. It’s mostly a facade—it’s missing walls, and the staircase to the nonexistent second story stops dead about halfway up. Apparently the house might look familiar if you’ve seen any number of family sitcoms shot in Atlanta. Inside that shell Willis is directing an episode from the upcoming season, where a dining room has been converted into the waiting room for a doctor’s office. An actress’s face takes up the entire screen on one of Willis’s monitors as he talks her through smiling at another patient, a little more coyly this time, now maybe a little bit more nervously, before twisting her face into shock and disgust when an unseen figure approaches from her left. She’s glaring at Gary, the hapless recruiter for Hell played by Zebrowski in red make-up, prosthetic horns, khakis and a yellow collared shirt, who stands off-screen
Zebrowski ad libs a line, then another. Willis keeps the camera rolling as his actor spits out a half-dozen or more different one-liners and come-ons to the actress, each one a funny, cringe-inducing look into the mind of his awkward, embarrassing character. Willis cuts, and suggests a few lines and ideas to Zebrowski. They shoot a half-dozen or so more, compiling a backlog of jokes that Willis, Kelly and their editors will whittle down to one or two when the episode is being edited together. Writers are advised to “kill” their “darlings,” mercilessly editing their work down no matter how dear it is to them; the cutting-room floor of Your Pretty Face must be covered in so many dead darlings that it looks like one of the show’s bloody hellscapes. Willis calls action, Zebrowski lights up like the “quote-unquote ‘actor’” he sheepishly admits being, and outside the house’s fake window that large, blue room waits to be digitally plastered with blood and fire.
Garrett Martin edits Paste’s games and comedy sections. He’s on Twitter @grmartin.