Between 1994 and 1997 basic cable was haunted by an irritable, potty-mouthed water fowl who really only got away with neglecting / abusing his family, friends, and co-workers because he was animated. Yet “Duckman” wasn’t just another zany post-“Ren & Stimpy” squiggle fest—razor sharp wit and touching pathos were expertly sewn into this outlandish world for nearly every one of the show’s half hour installments (and it was all brought to life by the amazing voice talents of Jason Alexander, Nancy Travis, and Gregg Berger, et al). Today “Duckman” is firmly enshrined in tv’s cult canon, a forbearer to the “Family Guys” and “American Dads” of the world, albeit far smarter and more roundly satisfying.
Duckman and his brood were all the creation of artist Everett Peck, a Californian if not by birth than at least by heart (he called me from a beach-side bar for this interview). Here now for JG2Land Peck looks back at his CableACE Award-winning series, the struggles within, and what if any shadow Howard the Duck cast on his beloved Erick Duckman.
JG2: Was there concern on your end with transforming Duckman from a comic book to a television series? Were you afraid of your vision becoming corrupted?
EVERETT PECK: Well, the funny thing is the comic and the show were developed simultaneously. The comic wasn’t published yet, and I was doing some unrelated freelance work for [the production company] Klasky Csupo. Gábor Csupo asked me, “Hey, do you have any ideas for shows?” And I said, “Well, I’ve been working on this comic…” They saw Duckman and liked it, so we entered into agreement to develop it. But yeah, there’s always a concern like that, though I kinda set the tone with the comic—all the basic relationships were already there, and all the characters, like Cornfeld and King Chicken, Bernice, et cetera. And I felt confident in Gábor. So we started pitching it to networks.
JG2: Whom besides USA did you pitch?
EP: We went to FOX—well, first we went to Paramount, and they really got on board with it. So with Paramount we went to USA, who were looking for an animated adult series, and we went to FOX, and at that time “The Simpsons”…was in like its second season. Everything was kinda up in the air in terms of prime time animation on television. No one was sure it would work. So we pitched to FOX and USA simultaneously. FOX offered us a two script deal; USA offered thirteen episodes on air, basically a full season. So we went for the sure thing. And I have to say, USA were very open to what we were doing or trying to do. We always intended “Duckman” to be an adult show. Y’know, “The Simpsons” has something for adults and it had something for kids, but we strictly wanted to be for adults. I’m not sure FOX would have let us do that.
JG2: Did you have any issues with Jason Alexander, the voice of Duckman, being on “Seinfeld” at the same time, or did the scheduling just always work out?
EP: Well, at that time even “Seinfeld” had only been going for a couple seasons. It wasn’t the mega hit it would become. So Jason Alexander was still basically an unknown guy. As “Seinfeld” became so popular, yeah, it got a little weird [laughs], but the thing about Jason is he has such great comic timing, he can land all your jokes, he can talk a mile a minute if that’s what you need—he worked out perfectly even when things were weird.
JG2: Were there any other “names” in the running for Duckman? I know you auditioned seventy-ish people.
EP: We did, but I intentionally sort of went for obscure people, like Matt [Groening] did for “The Simpsons.” I don’t think there were any other standouts.
JG2: Earlier you said USA didn’t really note your show very much, but I have to wonder, were they behind that bit in the third season where you had the cast of “Weird Science,” the show “Duckman” immediately followed or preceded, appear as King Chicken’s hostages?
EP: [Laughs] Yeah, that was a USA thing. That was one of the instances were they did meddle. We really—we being myself, Jeff Reno, and Ron Osborne, the two main “Duckman” writers—we were really resistant to that, although I should say we weren’t opposed to doing topical things. I didn’t want to make the show too topical. [That can] really date the show. I wanted to deal with more universal issues, like love, sex, competition.
JG2: What would you say was the hardest aspect of the entire “Duckman” production?
EP: I think one thing was, there was just a constant struggle keep the scripts short enough. We tried to do forty pages or under. Doing that made the animation production much easier. Sometimes we’d have finished animation we had to cut—the show had to be 22 minutes, and to accommodate that we’d have to cut out ten minutes sometimes. Most of the scenes cut dealt with visuals—dialogue always had priority above visuals. That said, I wanted “Duckman” to maintain a quality in terms of the look of the thing. And the animators, they did an awesome job, some of the visuals were fantastic.
JG2: Can you remember any specific tussles about cutting a visual?
EP: I remember a shot in one episode where Ajax is picking a flower on a hill, and it’s a complete 360 rotation where he screams, “NO!!” at the end; that was gonna be cut, but we fought and fought and they kept it in. That was early on in the show, though. By the last season everything went smoother, we really got the feel of it.
JG2: That’s interesting, because it seems like the later “Duckman” seasons would have been harder to handle, what with [Duckman’s long lost sister-in-law] Beverly showing up and other secondary characters like Ben Stein being fleshed out a little more. Doing those kinds of things didn’t upset the balance?
EP: No, I mean, what we always wanted to do was have kind of a world, a neighborhood where there were several characters that were reoccurring. The harder thing was a lot of times we’d have Duckman and his family go on locations, to Vietnam or whatever, so the animators would have to draw all new background scenes. I was in favor of the location stuff because it made for interesting shows, but the animators were angry, like, “We have to design 108 more backgrounds?” [laughs]
JG2: Weren’t there also some budgetary issues with USA?
EP: Sure, and that’s ultimately that’s why we were canceled. “Duckman” never got really high ratings. We got maybe a two share—that’s two million people. That was a good audience, but we were always sort of an underground show, and we were on an odd network. FOX, a lot of their programming supported “The Simpsons.” We didn’t really have that, and there wasn’t a culture at USA at the executive level that supported “Duckman” beyond three of four seasons.
JG2: Also, if I recall, “Duckman” was on at a weird time, like late Saturday nights.
EP: Yeah, and our lead in was, uh, wrestling or something, a sporting event, and sometimes the show didn’t start at the exact time. You know, all that stuff. USA did hire a publicity firm at one time who made some pretty cool posters and ads for us, but “Duckman” was just never was a show that had huge ratings, and our budgets reflected that. Our budgets were around $600,000 an episode. At that same time, “The Simpsons” were doing $1 million an episode. So we were already stretching to make “Duckman” look good. That was what I cared about—I wanted to make the show look as good as possible. And this was back when we were still doing animation on cells! That technology goes back to the 1920s!
JG2: So say “Duckman” doesn’t get canceled after season four. How much further could you have gone?
EP: I don’t know. I think when we were cancelled we were hitting our stride. Would we have had legs like “The Simpsons?” I don’t know that anyone else could go like that. I think we could have done another hundred episodes and kept it fresh. At its heart, “Duckman” was about a private detective, and you can go anywhere with that. And there was also his family, the family portion is pretty rich as well.
JG2: Well, you have to be proud as it stands—the show remains one of the best thing to come out of the 1990s.
EP: Oh yes, I am. I thought we did an amazing job with the thing. I still think it was the only story-oriented adult animated show ever. I mean, you see kinda weird things on Adult Swim, but we were really character driven.
JG2: That’s true. “Duckman” never relied on the fact it was a cartoon to find an out. The characters all dealt with their problems like real people, in between the zany jokes and sight gags.
EP: Yeah, I think we had a realistic emotional base for the characters. They had ups and downs, we would play them against themselves sometimes. I’m very proud of all that.
JG2: So how do you feel about Duckman’s forefather Howard the Duck? He’s really the only competition or measuring stuck that’s ever been in your field.
EP: You know, I don’t know that much about him. I never really followed him closely. I know the movie, and, uh, the technology at the time, there was more than what they could get across. [laughs] If they could have done it digitally…I don’t know. I thnk he’s an interesting character.
JG2: So Howard was never an albatross around Duckman’s neck?
EP: No. Duckman, you know, he’s a duck, but he’s really just a guy, a guy with a bill. Sure, he doesn’t wear clothes, but that’s just the cartoon convention. Daffy Duck never wore clothes.
JG2: I always thought Duckman didn’t wear clothes because he represented the show’s raw nerve, the “naked” emotion.
EP: Yes, exactly. [laughs]