Dave The Barbarian Creator On Studio Notes About Evolution Jokes And The Upside To Narration [Exclusive Interview]

(Welcome to My Most Ridiculous Note, a series of interviews in which animators talk about the weirdest and funniest notes they received from studio executives.)

The early to mid-'00s was not a good time for Walt Disney Animation, with the failures of "Treasure Planet" and "Home on the Range" all but killing traditional animation on the big screen. On the TV side of things, however, it was an exciting time. The studio was producing a slate of cool high-concept cartoons as it began producing animation for the Disney Channel, with shows like "American Dragon: Jake Long," "Brandy & Mr. Whiskers," and "The Replacements" offering a good blend of family sitcom and genre hijinks.

In this period, there was arguably no show as consistently weird and funny as "Dave the Barbarian," a cartoon perhaps best remembered for its anachronistic jokes and fourth wall breaks (like the construction of a medieval megaphone). With tons of fantasy plots and hilarious gags, this is Robert E. Howard by way of Hanna-Barbera.

The show was created by Doug Langdale, who's been around in the industry for three decades, writing for some of the best cartoons of the time, from "Darkwing Duck" to "El Tigre," and creating shows with impressive genre variety.

/Film spoke with Langdale about being unafraid to use voiceover narration in his cartoons, using fourth wall breaks to get around limited budgets, and some of the ridiculous notes studios gave him. Plus, he tells the story of how one studio note led to him meeting his wife.

Meta jokes, narrators, and Metallica

"Dave the Barbarian" follows, well ... Dave, a strong yet rather cowardly barbarian who lives with his older sister Candy, the fashionable princess left in charge of a medieval kingdom because their parents went off to war. Also living with them is Fang, their feisty sister who is definitely not a monkey.

Because the show didn't have the biggest of budgets, it wasn't exactly filled with action scenes or lots of movements, so they had to work around that. As the animator tells it, "Rocky and Bullwinkle" served as an inspiration, because that series was essentially "a radio show with pictures." One solution was to focus on designs and poses that would be funny without much movement. "What winds up happening a lot of times is the characters are just moving for the sake of moving and it's not really doing anything and it's weakening that pose," Langdale explained. But that wasn't the case with "Dave."

Like "The Flintstones," the show thrives in anachronisms. Though the series features dragons, sword fights, and magic, there are also shopping malls and even video games. Additionally, a lot of the humor comes from the narrator, who often interacts with the characters and breaks the fourth wall. Even this served a dual purpose: Not only was the narrator funny, but it allowed the show to avoid having to animate every scenario. "You can tell a little bit bigger story because you can just be like 'and then...'" Langdale said. "When you know you're not going to be able to do a sequence budget-wise, you can just have the narrator say what happened. It gives you a lot more fluidity."

Perhaps no joke from the show is as well remembered as the megaphone joke, in which Dave constructs a homemade megaphone using nothing but string, a squirrel, and a megaphone. When asking Langdale about it, he dismissed it as some grand stroke of genius, instead explaining that, "I didn't even think about it, it was just what came out." Even the gag at the end of that episode, in which Dave jokes about explaining the megaphone joke, felt just like any other joke to the animator. "Well, obviously he should come out to explain that bit and then not explain it at all," he said.

"Dave the Barbarian" may not have had the level of popularity of some of the biggest Disney Channel cartoons, but it is the only one that had members of Metallica as guest stars. As Langdale tells it, James Hetfield and Lars Ulrich were looking to guest star in an animated show, and they thought this one sounded funny. "So we wrote an episode around that and wrote these characters for them and had them come and do it," Langdale explained. "And James was great ... James could definitely have a second career as a voice actor if he wanted to. It was really fun."

Lord of Evolution

"Dave the Barbarian" may have had absurdity as its bread and butter, but few things on the show were as weird and over-the-top as some of the studio notes Langdale and his team received.

In the fourth episode, titled "Beef!", Princess Candy seeks to become more muscular, but the magic she uses to achieve it also makes her dumber, until she devolves into a cavewoman. "They were very uncomfortable with all the mentions of evolution because they felt like they had a lot of very conservative viewers for the Disney Channel," Langdale explained. The biggest note was regarding one character in the episode called Lord of Evolution, who appears at the end and helps evolve Candy back to her normal self. 

According to Langdale, Disney wasn't very enthused about putting the words "Lord" and "Evolution" together in a name, so they changed it to Master of Evolution since it's essentially the same. That worked, until the studio came with another note and Langdale was told not to say the word evolution at all. "And I was like, 'No, I'll tell you what, you guys can come to the recording, and whenever we get through a line where we say evolution, you can press the talk button and tell the voice actor not to say that word, but I am not taking out of the script.'" Thankfully, Disney caved in and the word was kept. As Langdale recalls, "We're not presenting a nuanced explanation of Darwinian theory here. It's just she's a person and then she was a monkey and that's it. That's all we're doing. It's just jokes."

Another note came in for an episode where Fang gets monkey flu. The studio seemed to have a problem with the plot; at first they said, "only monkeys get that," but evidently there was a case of a monkey flu affecting humans that broke out around that time, and they cracked down on the use of the term, forcing the show to replace it with an allergy similar to the one monkeys got. As Langdale tells it, he tried to argue that no one would care after a year, but he was overruled. A few months later, the executives came back and asked why that change got made. Langdale responded, "You guys! You were like 'The monkey flu, it's all in the news,'" he said. "Nobody remembered."

Later days!

Before "Dave the Barbarian," there was "The Weekenders," Langdale's animated sitcom about a group of kids hanging out during the weekends. "You never see them in school, because who wants to get out of school and come home and watch a show that's in school?" 

The episodes were based on real experiences Langdale and his writers had, and dealt with storylines like the group getting into a fight, trying to go to a concert or an amusement park, and avoiding procrastination. It was a grounded show like "Recess" or "Fillmore!" devoid of crazy plots, but relatable and earnest.

Of course, being relatable and earnest doesn't guarantee a lack of notes, and for Langdale, the worst note was being told an episode wasn't funny so you should add something dumb to it — like a monkey. "I thought it was the dumbest note I'd ever gotten," the animator said. "And they thought it was the dumbest note they'd ever given, but they still wanted to do it." But Langdale didn't just add a monkey, he turned that note into a whole joke, taking inspiration from the infamous note given to "The Brady Bunch" that forced them to add a kid to the aging cast. Langdale had worked with Robbie Rist, who played Cousin Oliver in "The Brady Bunch," and decided to add a layer of meta commentary on the monkey note by hiring Rist to play the monkey. "[He] was just like, 'So do you literally just want me to go ooh, ooh, ahh, ahh?' And I was like, 'Yep.' 'And the whole joke is, because I did this thing when I was a kid?' And I was like, 'Yeah, sorry.'"

A good note

As we've covered in this interview series before, not all notes are bad, and sometimes they can lead to better stories and jokes. As Langdale tells it, one particular note led to a big positive in his personal life.

Originally, before the show went into production, the team made a pilot animatic, which only included Dave and Fang. Disney was skeptical, and they had a little suggestion: Add a princess. As Langdale tells it, the studio did a focus test, and they asked young girls if they would like the show better if it had a princess. "And they said yes, because you could have asked them if they thought their smoothie would be better with a princess in it, and they would've said yes," Langdale said. "I mean, no young girl is going to say no to a princess."

So the character of Princess Candy was created. Langdale originally resented the studio for forcing him to create the character, but not only did it end up being one of the best parts of the show, it led to personal betterment for the animator. "Years later, I went on a blind date with this woman who was named Candie and had been a huge fan of 'Dave the Barbarian,'" the animator recalled. The two have been married for 13 years. "Somehow, forcing me to add that princess character was the best thing that ever happened in my life because I met Candie, my wife."

Today, Doug and Candie Langdale are creative partners, and the two are developing several shows for Netflix. Unfortunately, neither "The Weekenders" nor "Dave the Barbarian" are available for streaming, so get to fixing it, Disney+!