Children's Hospital: Packing Laughs in 15 Minutes

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“Dogs don’t like me, and babies fuckin’ hate me,” says Rob Corddry, creator of the wonderfully twisted Comedy Central series Children’s Hospital. In addition to writing and producing the show, he also plays clown Dr. Blake Downs (with makeup based on John Wayne Gacy), and scaring children and animals just comes with the territory.

The live-action show began as a five-minute, web-only series back in December 2008, and expanded to 11 minutes when it was picked by the usually animated cable channel two years later to fit in a 15-minute Adult Swim slot. The brevity fits the tone of the darkly funny series, which seems much more concerned with packing in laughs than it does extraneous elements like plot or narrative consistency.

“It’s an absurd show, so absurdity is joke-based by nature,” says Corddry. “It’s really like—the shortest road to the quickest, funniest joke, anyway. Absurd comedy is conducive to that. The real answer to that is editing, and keeping your page count low. Don’t turn in a 20-page draft. We do pack in a lot. But my theory is that 22-minute shows don’t pack in enough. They’re spending too much time doing the same amount of material we do.”

The show was inspired by Corddry’s trip to an actual children’s hospital after his daughter dislocated her shoulder. It began as a parody of prime-time doctor soaps like ER and Grey’s Anatomy—The Chief, played by Megan Mullally, is a pretty direct takeoff of ER‘s Kerry Weaver—but the third season goes well beyond just poking fun at medical procedurals.

“The show has evolved into something that’s definitely not a parody of hospital shows anymore,” he says. “That was gone after Season Two. Now I think we’re just our own thing. So we definitely, this season, nail that. There are a lot of really cool, interesting, conceptual episodes that are the same jokes, just a different way to tell them.”

One episode is based on an outbreak that causes amnesia throughout the staff. And one is a fake making-of doc for the TV show. “You have Children’s Hospital scenes going on,” says Erinn Hayes, who plays Lola, “and then we yell ‘Cut!’ Then you see the whole production of Children’s Hospital, and that’s in black and white. So it’s all the behind-the-scenes drama of our characters who play our characters. That was very cool and very confusing to do. My character’s this really self-important, mannish, into the craft, has a unibrow. Hubel’s character, every time he goes off stage, has a mustache—in-between takes, too. And Ken Marino’s character, the actor who plays Dr. Ken Richie, has a full beard and is very Joaquin Phoenix crazy. So that was fun.”

“There’s one episode that none of us are in,” says Rob Huebel, who plays Dr. Owen Maestro. “It’s all British people. The premise is that the show became so popular, it was spun off to England. So we actually farmed it all out to British actors. I’m played by Dominic Monaghan from Lost. We all have our British counterparts that play us. There’s a mime instead of a clown. But we didn’t have anything to do with it. It wasn’t written by us. They had a British writer and a British director. It was all handled by these British people. They were shooting on our set. They were shooting on a different floor, so we would come to work like, ‘What are the British people doing?’”

It’s an impressive feat for a show that operates on a basic-cable budget, shooting a full season in a little over a month. And none of it would be possible without the friendships Corddry has formed throughout the comedy world after stints on The Daily Show, Upright Citizens Brigade and countless appearances on TV and in movies.

“Everybody, as far as I know, enjoys doing the show,” says Corddry, “and that’s why they were cast. Because I knew they would. We’re all friends. Everybody looks forward to it. They don’t get paid a lot. They’ll never get paid as much as they deserve anywhere. Unfortunately, we can’t be, and I never expect them to make us, a priority. Like, go do your thing. We’ve lost people for a whole season. Lake [Bell] was gone for a whole season. But we’ll use it. We killed her. And then we brought her back. It’s great.”

“I believe in this 100 percent,” says Hayes. “It’s my favorite job I’ve ever done. I wish we filmed for longer than six weeks, because it goes by so quickly. We do an episode every two days, we’re filming two episodes at a time—they all blend together. But it’s so fun, and everybody’s so good. It’s nice being on set. Everybody’s wonderful, genuinely kind, funny people and also incredibly talented. We get amazing guest stars to come on. Just good people.”

“Everybody has families and kids, and nobody’s fucking,” adds Lake Bell, who plays Dr. Cat Black. “It’s wonderful. It’s very healthy. I hope it goes on for the rest of my life.”

Ratings for Season 3 have jumped significantly to prior years, pulling in over 1 million viewers per episode—impressive for a show that airs at midnight. With a cast that also includes Henry Winkler and Ken Marino, non-sequiturs over the intercom each episode by Michael Cera and an impressive list of guest stars, it’s no wonder that more people are getting in on the secret.

“We have Jon Hamm, Philip Baker Hall, Dave Krumholtz, Eddie Mekka from Laverne & Shirley—he may or may not kiss Henry Winkler,” says Corddry. “Dominic Monaghan, Francis Fisher, Kayla Watkins, Nate Corddry, the black cop from Die Hard, Kathryn Hahn, David Wain…Man, I’d watch the show.”

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