Earlier this year Rob Corddry announced that Childrens Hospital was ending its phenomenally hilarious seven year run. When asked why now, Corddry said “there’s a lot of elements of this decision, but Childrens Hospital is as close as it can get to a cartoon, so there’s no end to the ideas, there’s an only an end to the energy. And I realized I was experiencing that.” But also Corddry and his main collaborators David Wain and Jonathan Stern were quick to point out that they’re going out in the midst of the season that they are most proud of. “This is my favorite season,” said Corddry, “it just has every flavor of great Childrens Hospital in it.”
So let’s not eulogize the show just yet. Instead let’s take a look at how this final season was put together, and what has made Childrens Hospital a show worth fawning over for the better part of the last decade.
Childrens Hospital has experimented with a bunch of different styles through the years, but this year’s episode “The Show You Watch” stands out as both one of the most unusual episodes of Childrens Hospital and one of the best.
“When it comes to the off-format episodes, it’s gotten harder and harder every year to come up with something we haven’t done before, or a show like Community hasn’t done,” explained Jon Stern, “but we’re always thinking about the timeline of the show.”
In the fiction of Childrens Hospital, depending on the canon you choose to accept, the show is either in its 17th, 23rd or 40th season, but answering the question of where it started created new territory to go over in a form breaking episode.
“We were struggling for an off-format concept,” said Stern, “and I remember asking what was the true genesis of Childrens Hospital. What was the pilot? Well, like The Simpsons started off as a short on a longer episode, what if there was a larger show Childrens Hospital started on?”
“There was a magical moment in the room coming up with it,” Corddry explained, “because you can’t just dictate how you are going to expand the dimensions of the show.”
Written by Megan Amram, the episode, a riff on Your Show of Shows style variety shows, completely deconstructs the form of an episode, breaking out potentially interlocking stories into a sketch, a song and dance number, and a dramatic piece that are connected by actor Toby Huss channeling Sid Caesar.
What makes the episode work so well is that it feels from another era. Regular Childrens Hospital DP Marco Fargnoli directed this episode, which Corddry cites as a major factor in its success. “He just loves to add to whatever genre or theme we’ve written; he always has great tool on how to expand it.”
The crew pulled out every trick they could to get the feel right. “We shot it in color of course,” said Corddry, “but we set the monitors in black and white. The lighting was very precise. It was pretty much three fixed cameras like it would have been.” The team considered shooting on film to mirror the look of the era, but in the end settled on shooting on video with a host of filters to nail the kinesthetic halo look they were going for.
Beyond the look, the tonal shift that happens in the second half of the episode stands out. Rather than a third comedic sketch, the Childrens Hospital show within a show (within the actual show) is meant to be taken seriously. “The concept is that this is the first version of Childrens Hospital,” said Corddry, “and while we couldn’t find specific examples, it’s believable that something dramatic like this could be on one of these variety shows when television was trying to find out what it was.”
The sincerity with which the Childrens Hospital segment of the episode is written and performed, especially coming on the heels of two particularly silly sketches, tethers this episode to the series as a whole: the premise of the show remains that it’s a drama set in a hospital. As executive producer David Wain says, “It’s a hospital drama. Now I’ve never even seen any of those hospital shows. It’s just a blank slate. It’s a bunch of people in a building, the question is what we do with them.”
A great Childrens Hospital season isn’t defined by the stand-out formula-breaking episodes, but by the all-encompassing silliness that comes in the more traditional episodes. “We’ve always tried to keep a good balance between the hospital drama episodes and the off the rails episodes” said Stern, “and this season was the right mix of both. Often audience members gravitate to the off-format ones because they’re different or weird. But this season I think our hospital drama episodes are strong enough to hold their own with the most unusual off-format.”
When asked what really makes Childrens Hospital, after a little bit of reticence, each of the three co-EPs on the show cited the idea of reverse lampshading. Whereas other shows endeavor to cover up the structure to which they’re adhering, a great episode of Childrens Hospital calls out the structure. This is both often hilarious, but it also fits the show’s 11 minute run time.
A great example of this type of move comes late in the fourth episode of season seven, “Doctor Beth.” In this episode, directed by David Wain and written by Krister Johnson, secondary character Nurse Beth gets promoted to doctor, rankling her co-worker Nurse Dori, who maniacally sabotages now Doctor Beth. In the final moments of the episode another Nurse Flossie, played by Marla Gibbs, dies, and Nurse Dori tells Nurse Beth, “she always saw the best in people, and now I do too.” Dori and Beth hug, and the show resets.
There is no context or justification provided, the show just hits a well-worn sitcom reset story beat, plays it sincerely in a single line, and lets the convention do the work. The effect is jarringly comedic, and perfectly Childrens Hospital. “Many people think that’s literally what makes our show so horrible,” said Wain, “but it’s what I love about it.”
When I asked Corddry about what his ambition for Childrens Hospital was, he cited his desire for the show to be as fun to watch as it was to make. “The idea came first, but the next thing was to cast the show with people who I know and love and want to spend time with.”
It may be premature to eulogize the show, what with a few episodes yet to air, and the potential for revisiting Brazil (that’s where the show is set) in the form of specials still in the cards. But it’s worth highlighting that it’s the rare American sitcom that remains both utterly unique and firing on all cylinders seven seasons in.
How did Childrens Hospital manage this feat? By being both singular and adaptive. “The voice of the show is Corddry,” said Stern, “but to Corddry’s great credit he was constantly thinking of how to have the show grow and evolve to include all the voices. Childrens Hospital is the sum total. Of all the people involved, Corddry was able to utilize all that talent to make the show grow, rather than keep it limited.”
Childrens Hospital airs on Adult Swim Fridays at 11 PM ET.
Spike Friedman is a writer based out of Los Angeles. His work has been featured at Grantland, Deadspin, The Stranger, Daily Dot and others.